A Gala to Remembala!
A Gala to Remembala!
By Geoff Bottone
Today we dive into the finale of our tale from the Undercity. The plan has been set, will our heroes foil it in time? This is Chapter 5 of an ongoing story. Follow this link if you missed Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 or Chapter 4.
Petra didn’t look back, or look at the box she now carried tucked under one arm. Instead, she kept right on running until she had reached Greyport street level. Then, slowing just a bit so as not to be stupidly obvious, she jogged a zig-zag track through alleys and down side streets, moving ever closer to her destination.
The courier had impressed her. He was quick, defiant, and quite the showman. Petra didn’t like to admit it, not even to herself, but she felt a little badly about leaving him a scant few inches from the surface of one of the wizards’ wild magical slurry pits. Maybe she should…
She shook her head, causing the air to whistle around her horns. No. Based on his recent performance, the courier was tough enough to handle himself, and probably angry enough to still be chasing after her. There was no time to double back and check on him, and no time for remorse. She had a complicated scheme to implement on behalf of her superiors, and by the gods, she was going to implement it!
Petra slowed to a brisk walk once the gates of the Thieves’ Guild were in sight. As she approached, she tried to slow her breathing and quietly thanked the quirks of her unusual biology for the fact that she didn’t sweat. She had been trying to thread a very narrow needle for the past few days, but showing up soaking wet, red-cheeked, and out of breath would draw more attention than even she was planning on.
As she passed through the gates, box under her arm, the guild bruisers standing guard stepped out of their hiding places and saluted her with grim nods.
“Gentlemen,” she responded. Then, after a moment, she said, “I’d like to inspect the grounds and make sure the site is secure. You’re with me.”
The guards grunted at her in surprise, but still fell into line behind her.
That there were no guards in this part of the courtyard was, to Jett, a minor miracle. He sent a quiet thanks to kobold Shalni, dashed over to the building, and clambered up the rough stonework of the façade. It was a suspiciously easy climb, and he wondered why, of all the surface buildings he had encountered, the Thieves’ Guild was the easiest to scale.
Maybe it doubles as a practice course for their second-story work, he thought, as he climbed.
Jett was halfway up the wall before he even considered the idea that this might be an elaborate trap. The horned woman, Petra, was very good. Not as good as Jett, of course, but certainly very skilled and in possession of intelligence and underhanded cunning. What if the little pixie in the cage far above him was in on Petra’s scheme? Maybe he wasn’t trapped in the cage at all, and was just luring him close enough to the building for the thieves inside to grab.
Jett shook his head and kept climbing. The pixie’s call for help sounded real enough. Even if it wasn’t and this was all some kind of incredibly overelaborate ruse, the thieves in the building would actually have to lay their hands on Jett to take him into custody.
Jett snickered at the thought. Better people than guild-trained thieves had tried to get their hands on him and failed. This would be no different.
He reached the window a short time later, to find the small, bearded, mushroom-capped pixie practically vibrating himself apart inside of the battered bird cage. Jett reached up with one arm and tried the little door on the side.
“No good,” said the pixie. “She fused it shut.”
“All right,” said Jett, bracing his feet firmly against the wall so that he could use both of his hands. “Let’s try Plan B.”
Plan B involved Jett grabbing two slender, adjacent bars and pulling them as far apart as he could. The pixie squeezed himself out of the now much larger gap and was soon zipping in tight circles around Jett’s head.
“Call me Jett,” said Jett, “and you’re welcome. Now, which way did she go?”
The pixie stopped abruptly in midair and pointed. “She went thataway. Followed by a bunch of big folk with sticks. And socks with rocks in them.”
“Why did they put rocks in their socks?” said Jett, peering off in the indicated direction. He didn’t see anything. “Wouldn’t that be uncomfortable?”
“They’re not wearing ‘em,” said the pixie. “They’re…whaddya call them? Saps? Blackjacks. The kind that’d knock you into next week if they hit you with one of them.”
“Oh,” said Jett, as his mental picture of “the big folk” went from buffoonish and limping to looking rather more dangerous. “Okay, running after her right now seems like not a great idea, then.”
“That’s as may be,” said the pixie, hooking his thumbs in the waistband of his mud-streaked pants, “but somebody’s gotta do sumthin’ about her, and soon. She just got her hands on some very poisonous mushrooms, and I think she’s got a mind to poison somebody with ‘em.”
“That’s…not great,” said Jett, furrowing his brows. “Because she just stole an invisibility belt from me. I mean, not from me, personally. It’s actually the Collegium’s. I was just delivering it.”
“That isn’t great,” said the pixie, his cheeks flushing in anger. “We gotta do something.”
Jett looked down at the courtyard below. “I don’t think you’re wrong, friend, but I think the first thing we need to do is get away from here before we get caught. Then I think we need to tell each other everything we know about this Petra lady and go from there.”
The pixie glanced back at the still swinging birdcage. “You don’t have to tell me twice! Let’s go!”
Ygella rolled up onto the tips of her toes and peered over the bushes, studying the front of the Thieves’ Guild. The gates were open, and there was quite a bit of activity in the courtyard. People in non-descript dark clothing and face-concealing hoods and scarves were hanging colored lanterns and decorating the façade with streamers, bunting, and other decorations. Ygella watched as a pair of the figures went from statue to statue, decorating the granite visages with silly hats and scarves.
“You see?” said Terci, pointing at the parchment while indicating the building on the other side of the bushes with a determined jiggle of their head. “It’s the same, I’m sure of it.”
Ygella glanced back at the floorplan that the doctor had brought with them and nodded. “I do see.”
She rolled off her now tingling toes and paced around the little grassy strip behind the hedges.
“Thank goodness,” said Terci, parchment dangling in their hand. The doctor’s eyes, despite being ringed with dark circles, were bright and triumphant. “I mean, I was fairly certain of it myself, but it is nice to have independent verification from a secondary source. These sorts of things don’t usually happen to me, and I was beginning to worry that I was imagining things. I…don’t sleep very much, so my imagining things that aren’t there is something that isn’t…you know…beyond the pale.”
“I understand,” said Ygella, motioning for Terci to crouch back down. The bushes were tall enough to obscure an adult dwarf, but not quite tall enough to completely hide Terci when they were standing upright.
As the doctor obligingly knelt in the grass, Ygella went on. “I’d hoped that Petra was just fool enough to think that owning an exotic pet was a fine idea. But, considering that map she dropped, and what it’s a map of, makes me think she’s up to something a bit more sinister.”
“Do you think,” asked Terci, in a conspiratorial whisper, “that she’s going to use the groundhog to dig up into the basement of the guild?”
“She might, at that,” said Ygella, “but that may not go as well for her as she thinks. If the guild has a dirt floor, which I doubt, she could tunnel through that easily enough. If the stone is thick enough, her trip’s going to come to a stop real quick.”
Terci hummed and hermed to themselves for a moment. “Good point. I’d imagine that the cobblestone courtyard surrounding the Thieves’ Guild would serve a similar function.”
“A bit. It’d be easier for the groundhog to push through something like that, but it wouldn’t be at all pleasant for it.”
“All right then,” said Terci. “But then why go to all the trouble of stealing it? Unless there’s somewhere on the grounds of the guild that isn’t protected by a layer of stone. Hm. If only we could get in there and have a look.”
“We can’t,” said Ygella, before turning to whistle up toward the eaves of the building behind them, “but I know a good girl who can.”
A drowsy Viv cocked her head at the familiar call, unfurled her wings, and took flight. At Ygella’s command, the dire bat took off through the darkening sky, making as slow and nonchalant a flight above the grounds of the Thieves’ Guild as she could manage. Ygella and the doctor waited and watched as distance shrank Viv to a black dot before gradually enlarging again.
“That was fast,” said Terci.
“It was. She must’ve spotted someth…Look!”
Ygella pointed a blunt finger up at the much smaller speck that zigged and zagged in a desperate escape vector away from Viv. At this distance, it was hard for Ygella to make out what Viv had targeted, but the dire bat was smart enough to avoid chasing after birds and insects while on the job.
The two flyers dove toward the line of bushes, and Ygella was at last able to make out the frantically beating wings of the smaller creature in the lead. Next to her, Terci peered up at the sky, their face screwed up in a surprised and quizzical expression.
“Is it just me,” they ventured, “or is the little one wearing a ha-“
At that moment, the smaller flyer dipped sharply downward in a trajectory that carried it down behind the bushes and straight into Terci’s breastbone. The doctor let out a sudden gust of air as they crashed down onto the grass, hat sailing merrily one-way, wrinkled parchment unfurling another.
The tiny figure, who was in the process of shoving his mushroom cap hat back on his head, looked up at Terci. “Get outta here! Save yourselves! It’s gonna eat me, and then it’s gonna eat you!”
“Calm down. Viv’s not going to eat anybody,” said Ygella, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice as the dire bat landed lightly on her shoulder.
“That thing has a name?” said the very small, very flushed, and very shaky pixie.
“Yup. Same as you. Speaking of, what is it? And what are you doing flying around the Thieves’ Guild?”
The pixie took off his mushroom hat, revealing a bright shock of hair that rivaled his mutton chops in both color and size. He took out a diminutive pocket square from somewhere inside his plaid shirt, daubed his forehead, and glanced around nervously, not making eye contact.
“Name’s Dale. I’m a mushroom farmer from the Undercity. And I was just flying around up there when your bat friend decided I’d make a tasty little snack.”
“Oh, she wouldn’t,” said Terci, wheezing and trying to sit up without displacing the pixie. “She’s actually a terribly nice bat, though I, too, was intimidated by her initially. First impressions and all.”
For the first time, Dale seemed to realize that he had crash landed onto someone. He swung around, his face more or less level with Terci’s. “Ahh! Oh! Doc! Uh. Sorry for crashing into you. Uh. How are you?”
“Not too bad,” said Terci, propping themselves up on their elbows. “A touch of sternal tenderness caused by sudden blunt force impact, but I don’t imagine that it’s anything serious. How are you?”
“Wait,” said Ygella. “You two know one another?”
“Only professionally,” said Terci. “He’s one of my patients.”
“But not for anything serious,” shouted Dale as he turned crimson. “As to why I’m here, well, I don’t know that you’d believe me if I told—” he stopped abruptly, staring at the diagram on the parchment. For the first time, he lifted his head to look at Ygella, a growing expression of bewilderment on his face. “Or maybe you would.”
“What do you mean?” said Ygella.
“I know Terci runs an independent outfit,” Dale said, flapping his wings until they became blurs. He pushed gently off of Terci’s chest and was soon hovering two feet off the ground. “And you don’t look much like a member of the Thieves’ Guild to me. In spite of that, I find the two of you hiding behind a hedge with what look to be blueprints of the guild. And don’t you try to tell me they’re not, because I’ve seen the building’s footprint from the air.”
Ygella narrowed her eyes as Dale flew up to her face. Any fear the pixie had previously shown toward Viv, who was still perched on Ygella’s shoulder, had disappeared behind a mask of suspicion and determination.
“So, that leads me to believe you’re casing the joint,” said Dale, adjusting his altitude so he could look Ygella in the eye.
Ygella glared back. “Seems like we’re not the only ones.”
Terci, who by now had gotten their breath back, stood up, and dusted off their clothes, said, “The blueprints aren’t ours, Dale—”
“Oh, I know this one,” said Dale, rolling his eyes. “You’re just holding onto them ‘for a friend’.”
“Not a friend, actually,” grumbled Ygella. “Not by a long shot. Her name is Petra, and she’s—”
Dale’s shout was almost loud enough to send Ygella tumbling to the grass.
Jett had been in the alley long enough to make a list of pros and cons about the apartment building on the left hand side. A quick list of the pros included cheap rent, a quiet neighborhood, and a balcony view. The corresponding cons, however, were that it was located in one of Greyport’s “less affluent” districts, that it was across the alleyway from a mortuary, and that the balcony overlooked the alley and the aforementioned mortuary.
This last con was actually a pro, as far as Jet was concerned, because he was able to reach the balcony by scaling the building’s outer wall, hide himself up there, and watch both the alley and the street beyond for suspicious traffic. His position was screened from anyone who stood beneath him by a large, earthenware pot filled with dry earth and dead plants, and from anyone inside the building by a boarded-up window. He assumed that the resident—if the apartment had any—didn’t get out here much.
Jett was very glad that he had taken the opportunity to climb up here and hide himself, because when Dale finally came back, he didn’t come back alone. The pixie was accompanied by two other people—a dwarf and a human—who waited at the mouth of the alley while Dale slowly flew on ahead.
“He’s supposed to be here,” said Dale, over his shoulder. “I swear. Jett? Hello?”
The two strangers followed Dale into the alley. The dwarf happened to stop just under the outer edge of the balcony. Jett pressed his scaled hands against the side of the pot, took in a quiet breath, and hoped that the dwarf didn’t move in the next few seconds.
“I don’t see him,” said the human, who somehow looked straight at the balcony without seeing Jett. “Maybe he left.”
Something heavy thumped down onto the lip of the pot, demonic wings spread wide in a horrifying embrace. Jett was too startled, too terrified, to even scream. He just crouched there, staring into the monster’s luminous eyes, his hands seemingly glued to the side of the pot.
“Oh,” said the dwarf. “There he is.”
“Hey, Jett,” said Dale, his voice friendly. “Come down. These two are friends. They’ve got information about Petra. They can help us.”
Jett could not look away from the monster’s luminous eyes. It blinked slowly, once.
For response, Jett made a high-pitched noise reminiscent of a dying teakettle.
Petra stood on the thick rug in Magister Jeofrides’ office, her hands clasped behind her back. She was glad that she had made it a habit of wearing her tinted spectacles at almost all hours—their dimming of the room’s already fitful illumination softened Jeofrides’ unpleasant facial features and made him almost bearable to look upon. She stared at him as he laboriously dipped quill into ink, painstakingly blotted it, and carefully inscribed the number nine in one of the boxes of a large grid inscribed onto a sheet of parchment.
“No,” he said at last. “There’s already a nine… Shalni take it.”
Petra, very deliberately, cleared her throat. Magister Jeofrides looked up.
“You wanted to see me?” she said, feeling the heat rising in her clasped hands.
“I did.” He set the quill aside. “The gala is about to get underway. Is everything in readiness?”
She nodded. “It is.”
He smiled, revealing a mouth of slightly yellowed and pleated teeth. “Very good. I suspect tonight’s event will be both entertaining and enriching. For me, especially. For you, also a bit, I think.“
Petra nodded again. “I know we’ve both been waiting for this night for a very long time.”
“Indeed,” said Magister Jeofrides. “I shall leave you to your preparations, then.”
She inclined her head in a little bow. “Thank you.”
Petra stepped out of the magister’s office and headed down hallways and up staircases to her own tower room. The start of the gala was only a few minutes away, and she had a very ornate costume—with a nice, new belt—to change into.
About an hour later, after coaxing Jett down from the balcony and sharing all of the shreds of information that they had collected, the now quartet once again reconvened behind the hedges across the street from the Thieves’ Guild. Terci peered through a gap in the greenery and saw that the gala was already underway. Guests in fancy hats, capes, and masks were queuing up in the courtyard, chatting amiably with one another and waiting to be admitted. Various vendors walked up and down the queue, selling little snacks, guild memorabilia, and other odds and ends.
“All right,” they said, turning back to their companions. “Petra not only has knowledge of the layout of the Thieves’ Guild, but she apparently lives there, as well. She has acquired, through various means, extremely lethal fungi, an invisibility belt, and a dire groundhog. Based on these suppositions, we hypothesize that she plans to poison someone—or several someones—in the Thieves’ Guild and escape unseen, at great speed, likely via the previously mentioned groundhog. Yes?”
Dale, Ygella, and Jett all nodded, more or less in unison.
“Good,” Terci took a deep breath. “So, what’s the plan?”
“We stop her, obviously,” said Dale, rolling his tiny eyes. “I’d have thought we’d all be in agreement on that!”
“We are,” said Ygella. “I think what they’re saying is, ‘how do we get into the Thieves’ Guild to stop Petra?’”
“I think Dale could just fly in,” said Jett. “He’s small—no offense, buddy—and it’s dark enough now that he wouldn’t be noticed.”
“Viv, too,” said Ygella.
“Yeah,” said Jett, with a wry smile, “her, too. I could probably climb to one of the upper windows and get in that way, but I’d probably be noticed. Heck, it’s fair to say that I usually try to be noticed, and it’s a really hard habit to break.”
“All valid points,” said Terci, “but I was rather hoping we could find some method of ingress that admitted all of us, ideally in a group. If that weren’t possible, however, I wouldn’t mind going in separately if we could all do so safely. I think having all four of us in the building will help our chances immensely.”
Terci flexed their fingers and happened to brush them against the doctor’s mask that they had clipped to their belt.
“Oh!” they said, their mind now awash with new possibilities. “What about a frontal approach? We could go as guests.”
“We don’t got costumes,” said Dale. “That’s a problem.”
Terci unhooked their mask and held it up. “I do! Sort of!”
“And I don’t think we were invited,” said Jett.
“I was,” said Ygella. “Sort of. I was asked to attend by my superior as a representative from the rangers. I didn’t get an official invite, or anything, but I could maybe ask at the door.”
“I don’t suppose this invite’d be a plus three,” groused Dale.
“Well, no,” said Ygella. “And there’s still a problem with the costumes.”
At that moment, a person pushing a cart came up the street on the other side of the hedges. Terci heard the squeaking of the wheels first and motioned to everyone else for silence. They glanced at their new companions’ pinched faces as the cart slowly squeaked by.
“Masks and costumes!” shouted the pushcart pusher. “Costumes and masks! Ten percent discount for gala participants! Be the talk of the gala with my masks and—”
Terci pushed themselves through the bushes and into the path of the cart.
“—aaah!” shouted the pushcart pusher, an older-looking gnome gentleman with a tiny domino mask and a most impressive handlebar mustache.
“Hello!” said Terci.
Moments after the pushcart pusher—whose name was Poligi—recovered, and the rest of Terci’s companions also pushed themselves through the hedges, wares were inspected, gold was handed over, and purchases were made. Terci decided on a purple velvet capelet and cap that went reasonably well with their mask. Ygella dressed in a gown of glittering fabric and an expressionless, white wooden mask that made her look extremely creepy.
After a lot of hemming and hawing and the offer of a few more coins, Poligi used his scissors to alter a fabric bat hand puppet so that Dale could wear it as a costume and still use his wings.
Jett took the longest to find a costume that suited him, and spent the better part of five minutes digging through wadded and poorly folded clothes. In the end, he settled on two very wild pieces that matched only in that they were equally ostentatious. The first was a scintillating golden kilt covered with large, lavender and vermillion feathers. The second was a red velvet cape encrusted with cut glass gemstones that twinkled and sparkled in the streetlamps. After Jett had donned both kilt and cape, he dove back into the costume cart and came up with a bright silver eye mask with dragon wings on either side. Smiling broadly, obviously incredibly satisfied with himself, he settled the mask upon his snout.
The quartet said goodbye to a still somewhat wary, but very grateful, Poligi as he pushed his creaking cart up the street. Terci tossed on their capelet, snapped on their mask, and gently placed the new hat on their head at what, they hoped, was a properly jaunty angle.
“Well, that was convenient!” they said, their voice muffled by their doctor’s mask.
“That was pretty lucky,” said Jett, winking at them through his shiny mask, “but that still doesn’t solve the problem of the invitations.”
Ygella thoughtfully pet Viv, who rested on her shoulder and seemed to be averting her eyes from the blank-faced mask Ygella wore.
“I figure I could still try to brazen us in through the frontway. The masters of the guild do love to ingratiate themselves in the Undercity community, and they might sooner let us in than risk souring the relationship.”
“I was thinking about that, too,” said Dale, who was now more red-faced from the effort of keeping both and himself and his costume aloft than he was from determination. “I had to make a couple of trips up here to the kitchens, once upon a time. Delivery of rare mushrooms for a big feast the masters were having and suchlike. I could maybe talk to them, see if they remember me, finagle my way in. Might be able to get one or another of you in, too, if you don’t mind grabbing a crate we can use as a prop on the way.”
Terci tapped their fingers together in rising excitement. “This may just actually work! All right, we can try both! Jett, why don’t you go with Ygella through the front. You might even be able to flash your courier’s badge and make any potential faux pas just that much more unpleasant for them. Dale, I’ll go with you. I may not look it, but I have quite the upper body strength due to the special exercise regimen that I’ve been developing.”
“Great,” said Dale. “I’ll ride on your shoulder. My wings are killing me.”
The back entrance to the Thieves’ Guild kitchens was like the back entrance to kitchens everywhere. It emitted bright light, heat, and smoke into the narrow alleyway behind the guild. Dale could hear the shouting, the swearing—both good-natured and not so good-natured—and the cacophonic rattle of pots, pans, and utensils well before Terci had brought them both all the way to the door.
Terci had also found something that might once have been a picnic basket, but was now too badly rotten and warped on the inside to risk using it to carrying anything of importance. Dale had suggested that Terci fill it with some of the day-old veggies he had spotted in a bin out in back of a downscale health food store. Terci had wrapped the veggies in one of their doctoring cloths, hiding the wilty bits and making it look like a proper delivery.
“Ready?” said Terci.
From his perch on their shoulder, Dale could feel Terci vibrating with excitement.
“As I’ll ever be. Give that door a knock, but let me do the talking.”
“You got it,” they replied, both quietly and conspiratorially.
Terci knocked. After a moment, they knocked much harder, so that they could be heard over the din of the busy kitchen.
An elf with greasy hair, a long clay pipe clenched in her teeth, a splattered apron, and a shoulder tattoo of a tree that bore the elf-script for “Beloved Maternal Figure,” came to the doorway. The tattoo, Dale noted, was the most elegant thing about her.
“Hey there, chef,” said Dale, gesturing at the basket. He hoped that both it, and its contents, would look all right in the semi-darkness of the alley. “Got a last-minute delivery here for you. Mind if we come in?”
The elf smiled a little, “Ain’t a chef. But sure. Come in. Leave it on the prep table, then get out. Big bash going on out front, and we’ve got lotsa work to do.”
Terci nodded in understanding before slipping past the elf and into the kitchen. It was even noisier, hotter, wetter, and more obscenity-laden than standing out at the threshold implied. Dale tugged at the collar of his makeshift costume. Its fabric was a thick, suffocating weave, and he was roasting already. As perspiration rolled down the slope of his nose, he grumbled that not even beating his wings would do anything to cool himself off.
“Prep table’s over there,” said Dale. “Good news is that it’s right near the door, so we might be able to get into the guild that way, if we’re lucky.”
“All right,” said Terci . “You’ll have to be my guide, though. The ambient temperature is rather high, and I’m afraid my lenses are all fogged up.”
Dale sighed, mopped his face, and squinted at the narrow pathways running alongside hearths and between cooking stations.
“Go straight for a bit. Stop. Turn left. Other left. Now…”
“Behind you!” said a human wearing fake fairy wings and a chef’s hat.
“In front!” grunted a troll, carrying a tray of fresh garden salads.
Terci was struck almost simultaneously in the back and the front. They let out a grunt that was only barely muffled by their mask before listing dangerously to one side, the scavenged basket swinging loose in their hand. Dale cycled up his wings to takeoff speed as his perch almost collapsed beneath him. He would have flown straight up, trying to spare himself from the crush and press of big folk bodies, had Terci not grabbed the support railing on one of the prep stations to steady themselves.
“Oh great,” shouted one of the line cooks. “Now that’ll have to be sanitized! Again!”
Terci let out a whimper as they righted themselves and scurried to safety. “This is too much! I think I prefer the Undercity.”
“You and me both, Terci. Okay, straight ahead. Once you’re past this hearth, table’s on your right.”
“Get outta the way!”
A goblin blundered into them, almost taking Terci out at the knees. The goblin let out a string of curses before carrying on at breakneck speed out through a pair of bat-winged doors.
Terci crossed the last little bit of space to the table, set the basket down, and removed their mask. Underneath, their face was flushed, and sweat beaded on their eyelashes. Dale paced around nervously on Terci’s shoulder as they quickly polished the lenses inside their mask.
“How are we doing?” they asked.
Dale glanced around. It was the rush, and it looked like salads and soups were on their way out the door. “Good so far, but if we stand here for too much longer, they’re going to notice—”
“Dale?” said Terci, though their voice sounded far away. “Should we go now? Do you think…”
But Dale wasn’t listening, because he was looking at the earthenware bowl that sat next to his and Terci’s decoy basket on the prep table. It was accompanied by a note, written in a girly hand, that said, “Delicacy for the head table! Serve with the main course! XOXO! -P”
The bowl was filled to the brim with large, incredibly poisonous, yellow-white mushrooms.
“I have to say,” said Ygella, who was in the process of adjusting her expressionless mask, “you certainly know how to make an entrance.”
“Thanks.” Jett twirled, letting his cape and kilt of feathers fan out in flowing circles around him. An approaching waiter stepped back to avoid being caught up in the fabric. “It’s what I do.”
It had by no means been his best entrance ever, but it had been spectacular enough given the circumstances. The line of people still waiting to get into the gala oohed and aahed at his outfit, and seemed quite entranced with how the cheap glass gemstones flickered in the lantern light. Jett knew that the plan called for speed and for stealth, but he also knew that, in some cases, making a spectacle was worth more than both put together.
Having already captured the attention of the crowd, he capitalized on it by promenading around the courtyard, doing graceful flips and arabesques, letting his costume float airily all around him. The assembled, who he guessed had been quite bored up until that point, cheered and applauded.
He would have considered finishing his routine by once again scaling the walls of the guild and doing a kickflip somersault off of it, but the sight of a guard with a demon mask and a very large, loaded crossbow put him off that idea. Instead, he did a series of acrobatic jump kicks. Nothing fancy, but enough to completely win the crowd over.
By the time he had finished, Ygella had already given her information to the bouncers at the door. Her clout as a member of the Runoff Rangers, plus his showboating, got them let into the party ahead of just about everyone else. Some of the crowd had booed at this, but the rest seemed excited that someone capable of such a lively performance awaited them inside.
“Yes, well, I think now’s the time to be a touch more discreet and meet up with the others,” said Ygella, before turning to scratch at Viv’s chin and whisper into her ear. “Up girl, up. Be my eyes.”
Viv took flight, quickly losing herself in the shadows and eaves far above the audience hall. Jett followed her aerial acrobatics as best as he could, while also trying to pick out the best route to get up into the rafters himself. He had just about worked out how he could jump from the long row of banquet tables, over the in-floor fire pit, off the high table at the far end of the room, onto the wall sconce, and up onto the tops of one of the hanging tapestries when Ygella tapped him on his shoulder.
“Sorry, friend, force of habit” he replied, as he shook off his trance. “What’s the plan?”
Ygella indicated a large doorway at the far side of the room. “Lots of waitstaff coming in and out through there. Seems to me like that’s where we’ll find the kitchen and our friends. We should have a wander over there and find them, and also keep our eyes peeled.”
“Got it,” said Jett, as he grabbed a slender glass of sparkling, pinkish liquid off of a rapidly passing tray.
Despite the mask covering Ygella’s face, he still sensed the subtle wavelets of reproach pouring off of her.
“What? Doing kickflips is thirsty work.” He took a long swig as they continued walking. “Besides, it’s a party. I’m just trying to blend in.”
They were halfway to the doorway when Viv alighted with a gentle thump on Ygella’s shoulder. Her sudden arrival startled nearby guests and waitstaff, and gave Jett a chance to snag a couple of toothpicks jam-packed with delicious meats and cheeses.
Ygella cocked her head as Viv trilled and chirped. Ygella angled her head up to look through the crowd, her eyes narrowing behind her mask.
“Over there,” she said.
Jett looked. A tall woman, dressed in a sumptuous ball gown of red and black metallic leather scales, was casually sashaying her way to a side door in the great hall. In the unlikely event that her dress did not attract Jett’s interest—which, of course it did, the dress was amazing—the two horns atop her head definitely did.
He nodded to Ygella, and the two of them threaded their way through the crowd as best as they could. They followed Petra through the smaller door just as someone in the great hall behind them clinked a glass with a fork before letting the attendees know that dinner was about to be served.
The noise of the party quickly faded after that, in part because most of the partygoers had ended their various conversations and were going to their seats, in part because Jett and Ygella had passed into a narrow hallway whose hanging tapestries dampened outside sounds. Jett took a slight lead as they crept down the hallway, drawing to a stop when he heard sounds of conversation. He recognized Petra’s arch and subtly sarcastic tones, but the voice of the other speaker was unknown to him.
The conversation took place in a room just off the hallway, its door closed only halfway. Jett gathered his feathered and gem-encrusted kilt about him and crouched low next to the doorway, as Ygella came up behind. Viv once again took to the air, flying without a sound down the corridor.
“…switched out the mushrooms,” Petra was saying. “The others are going to have a lethal last meal.”
“Very good,” said the other voice. “And the antidote?”
“There isn’t one,” said Petra. “You’ll either need to excuse yourself or ‘accidentally’ knock over your plate. Otherwise, you’ll die too.”
“I admire your thoroughness and your ruthlessness in this regard.”
“Thank you, Master Jeofrides. It helps that my heart is a hard, black cinder.” Jett could almost hear the smile in Petra’s voice. “I have to go. They’ll be announcing dinner soon, if they haven’t already, and it wouldn’t do to be late.”
Jett motioned for Ygella to get back as he heard the clack-clack sound of Petra’s heels on the floor of the room beyond. A brief moment of panic, darting eyes, and wildly gesticulating hands ensued before Ygella and Jett hid themselves behind one of the dusty, floor-length tapestries. Jett waited quietly, his muscles quaking as the adrenaline surged through his limbs. It made him feel alive, but it also gave him the nigh-uncontrollable urge to move, and moving was a really terrible idea at the moment.
Petra’s footsteps faded down the hallway. A moment later, the door to the nearby room was firmly shut, and another person with a much heavier tread followed after her. Jett vibrated against the cool hallway wall, his slender tongue flicking between his pointed teeth. Just a little while longer.
A low snore broke from beside him, causing him to jerk around. He glared at Ygella, who simply shook her head and pointed.
Nearby, asleep and leaning up against the wall, was one of the countless apprentice thieves of the guild. She was dressed in rumpled waiter’s attire, and, despite the likely discomfort of her position, she was dead to the world. It was clear to Jett that, whether she was supposed to be spying for someone else or whether she was just on a break, she wasn’t going to give them any trouble.
It was but the work of a few moments to deposit the entire contents of the basket of mushrooms, and the basket itself, into one of the waste receptacles near the door. Terci unwrapped her bundle of wilted greenery and dropped it on top of the poisonous mushrooms. They hoped not only to camouflage them from any harried kitchen worker who might be looking for them, but also to dissuade anyone from thinking the mushrooms were “still good” and being tempted to take them out of the bin.
“Well, that’s that,” said Terci, dusting off their hands. “A poisoning averted, and a job well done, I’d say.”
“Ayup,” said Dale, into their ear. “Now all we gotta do is get our hands on the perpetrator before she takes off.”
Terci took a deep breath and strapped their plague doctor’s mask over their face. They had rubbed some spit onto the lenses to keep them clear, but the edges still fogged up almost immediately.
“Indeed,” they said, their small victory with the mushrooms buoying up their confidence. “But first, let’s find our compatriots.”
With Dale riding on their shoulder, Terci pushed through the kitchen’s batwing doors and entered a significantly cooler hallway. They recognized it immediately from Petra’s blueprints, which they had, by now, practically memorized. They knew that the doorway at the end of the hallway would open out onto the large room that was the end destination of the dotted line on the blueprints. They also suspected, based on the noise and the convoy of waitstaff, that it was some kind of reception room.
Terci stepped into the room and behind a tall, leafy plant in a stone planter. They took a moment to survey the room beyond. Several long tables were all arranged in neat rows before a raised platform that held a high table. Guests clad in fantastic costumes of every type and design continued murmured conversations as they approached their seats. On the raised platform, six individuals all dressed roughly identically in copper masks, brocaded robes, and tall, brimless hats, sat down at the far side of the table, overseeing the room.
“Um, Terci,” said Dale. “You mind if I sit?”
Terci turned their head to the side, so that she could see Dale standing on their shoulder. “Not at all. Is it your bunions again?”
Dale’s face flushed crimson. “Not so loud, Terci!”
“Oh, sorry, sorry.”
“If word got out how much walking I do, why, the other pixies’d never let me live it down.”
Terci reassured Dale with a gentle, two finger pat on his mushroom cap. “Whatever you need to do to make yourself comfortable.”
Dale sat down, still grumbling. “Nothing wrong with a pixie wantin’ to go for a ramble on his own two legs. It’s nobody’s business if he does or not, and no one oughta tell him it’s improper.”
“I quite agree,” said Terci, trying to lift Dale’s spirits. “Now, once you’re settled, we’ll go out and find the—”
“Hey, friend! There you are!”
“Woah! Sorry, friend!”
Terci was unclear as to how they could have missed Jett, but somehow the garishly dressed kobold had been able to sneak up and join them behind the potted plant. Terci, still startled, looked past Jett’s shoulder, and saw that Ygella and Viv were a short distance away, partially obscured by a cabinet that displayed, “Thieves’ Tools Throughout the Ages.”
“That’s all right,” said Terci, smiling beneath their mask and motioning for Ygella and Viv to join them. “ What did you find out?”
“A bunch.” Jett pushed his mask off of his eyes onto his forehead and leaned closer. “Petra’s working with somebody named Master Jeofrides, one of the heads of the guild.”
Ygella turned and pointed at one of the identically dressed people at the head table. “That’s him. I think. Viv will be able to tell you better, though. She’s already got his scent.”
Jett nodded. “Yeah, and based on what we overheard, it sounds like Dale’s theory that Petra’s plan is to poison people is spot on.”
“Told ya,” said Dale, grumbling in agreement. “And that’s not even taking into account what we found.”
Jett looked up at them and blinked.
“Petra left the poisoned mushrooms on one of the prep tables,” Terci said. “They were supposed to be served to the head table as part of the main course, but we got rid of them.”
At this point, Ygella lifted up her own mask. Her face glistened in the candlelight, and moisture beaded in the well-groomed tufts of her muttonchops. “Good on you both, but that doesn’t solve the problem. Not by a long shot. There’s still the matter of the stolen dire groundhog. Not to mention the whole, conspiring to commit murder.”
“I quite agree,” said Terci. “That leaves us with only one option. To catch them in the act!”
Terci stretched out their arms, drawing their companions into a huddle behind the plant. “We know that the head table is supposed to get poisoned soon, but they don’t know that we know that the mushrooms have been taken care of, meaning that the poisoning isn’t going to happen.”
Buoyed up by their compatriot’s tentative nods, Terci went on. “Here’s the plan. We split up and cover all the exits out of this room. We also keep a lookout for Master Jeofrides and Petra as best as we can, Viv would you mind being our eyes and ears from above?”
Viv squeaked quietly, seemingly delighted to be included.
“Excellent! Now, when the poisoning doesn’t happen, I suspect that both Petra and Master Jeofries are going to try and make a move. That’s when we strike!”
“Agreed,” said Ygella.
“I’m game,” said Jett.
“Right,” grunted Dale.
“Okay then,” said Terci. “Let’s do this. Go team us!”
They stepped forth from behind the potted plant, only to be immediately spotted by one of the apprentice thieves on waitstaff. The apprentice thief seemed unsurprised that there were people lurking in the corners of the room, regarded them with a curt, but pleasant nod, and continued about his business.
Ygella shifted from foot to foot, trying to remain alert as the speech droned on.
The master, which Ygella was fairly certain was not Jeofrides, but another one, rose creakily from his seat after the soup and salad course, tapped his fork against the side of his goblet, and launched into a speech before the assemblage had a chance to quiet down. The guests nearest Ygella seemed to have shared her hopes that the speech would be short and sweet—just long enough to give them all time to digest and ready themselves for the main course. Unfortunately, the master proved to be quite long-winded and that, plus the droning baritone of his voice, caused everyone to slowly lapse into hungry trances.
“—and ever since the Day of Red Fire, we thieves found ourselves rising to the occasion to aid the common people of the City of Greyport. For it was we that fed and clothed them from our stores, and it was we also who invited them down to live in the safety of the Undercity with us. In the dark years that followed, the people looked to us for guidance, and we—we proud but larcenous few—reluctantly took up the mantle of leadership in order to preserve what remained of our great city.
“As we grew into our new role, we left our old one behind. Instead of taking from the people of the city, we chose to give back, becoming patrons, benefactors, advisors, mentors—a source of stability and purpose in those troubled times. The guild’s generosity continues to this very day, and both Under and Overcity flourish thanks to our philanthropy and our public works. And yet, there are still those who—”
Ygella, who had just about fallen asleep on her feet, tipped backward and cracked her head against the wall. The blow wasn’t hard enough to cause damage, but it was just enough to bring her fully alert.
Petra was still in her seat near the platform where the high table stood. None of the other masters, including Jeofrides, had moved other than to perhaps slump slightly in their seats. Ygella wondered if their full face, copper masks were used both to obscure their identities and to hide the fact that they were taking the opportunity for a nap mid-speech.
Across the room, the serving staff had all gathered at the doorway that led to the kitchen, waiting for the speech to end so that they could bring out the main course. Jett, impossible to miss, loitered nearby, keeping a watch on the room.
“—and, with all that being said,” intoned the master, with a slight uplift in his voice that caused hope to spring in Ygella’s chest. “I say to you all, masters, journeyfolk, apprentices, guests, and spies from other syndicates, be welcome! Let us eat and be merry!”
With that, he lifted his goblet for a toast, spent a few moments wrangling with his mask so that he could take a sip, and then, blessedly, sat. Everyone, including Ygella, applauded most enthusiastically as the waitstaff brought out the main course.
Using this flurry of activity as a screen, Ygella cautiously approached the head table and crouched down beside the dais. She flexed her fingers, trying to keep calm and focused as plates were placed in front of grateful diners. This was just like countless trap and release hunts in the Undercity. The trap was set and baited. The prey was on their way. All that she needed to do now was to be careful, be quiet, and wait.
Beneath her mask, her eyes narrowed, her irises expanded. She watched as the masters at the head table pushed their masks up just enough to uncover their mouths. She watched them sip wine, engage in small talk, cut up their still-steaming dinners into bite-sized pieces.
One of them abruptly started coughing, the sight of which drove a lance of panic into Ygella’s chest. The coughing master spat his mouthful into his napkin before turning to one of the waiters. A brief conversation. The master coughed again, pounded on his chest. The waiter stepped over to a side table, returned with a glass of water. The master coughed one last time, took the glass, sipped.
Ygella watched all this and realized that this was all a performance put on by Master Jeofrides. If he swallowed the wrong way, he couldn’t eat. If he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t be poisoned. How fortunate for him.
The other masters exchanged conciliatory words with Master Jeofrides, who continued to sip his water. He responded only briefly, carefully peppering his replies with strategic coughs. Then, as his table companions returned to their dinners, he turned his head from one side to the other. Like Ygella, he was watching, waiting.
It was when he shot a pointed glance down at Petra, who looked up at him and shook her head, that Ygella knew the trap was almost sprung. She signaled up to Viv to be ready and stalked forward, moving quietly past waitstaff and between long tables to the platform at the front. Across the room, Jett also began to make his move, tightening the net.
Ygella was now close enough that she could see that Jeofrides’ mouth had twisted into a snarl. His head snapped left and right, taking in the sight of his fellow masters. They ate their food, drank their wine, and talked quite amiably with one another.
“Petra,” said Master Jeofrides, setting his water glass aside and peering down over the edge of the high table. “Would you come up here, please?”
The other masters and Petra’s fellow diners all looked quizzically at one another. Ygella made note of what seemed to be a slight breach of Thieves’ Guild protocol, but kept most of her focus on Jeofrides and Petra. This quickly became much easier to do as Petra gracefully rose, mounted the platform, and moved around the back of the table to stand at Jeofrides’ left shoulder.
Jeofrides gestured with his right arm, attempting to encompass the entire head table with the motion.
“What is the meaning of this?!”
“Your cough?” said Petra, and Ygella could hear the little smirk in her voice. “I think it means you’ve forgotten how to swallow.”
“You know what I mean,” Jeofrides replied.
“He’s asking you about the poison,” said Terci, who stood in the next aisle over, arms crossed over their chest. Despite the fact that the doctor was still wearing their bird-like mask, their voice carried unsettlingly far. “But I’m sure you know that.”
“Poison?” said the sonorous-voiced master thief, who had just recently finished the longest speech ever. “What poison?”
“You’ve failed me, Petra,” hissed Master Jeofrides, his voice cold enough to form icicles on his chin.
“Ah,” said Petra, standing upright and looking around at all the suddenly attentive diners. “It seems that I have.”
“Stand down, Petra,” said Terci. “We have you surrounded, and we have evidence of your crimes. I suspect you’re going to prison for a very long—”
“Anyone for seconds?” asked Petra, her voice disturbingly casual, as she kicked a large bowl of half-eaten salad into Terci’s face.
As the doctor stumbled backward and tried to wipe agrodolce dressing off of their mask’s protective lenses, Petra vaulted over the table, twitched a little control knob on her metal belt, and vanished from sight.
Up in the rafters, hovering next to Viv, Dale saw Petra make her move.
“Now!” he said, into one of Viv’s tall, pointed ears. “You’re the only one who can see her!”
Viv let out a shrill cry. Her ears twitched as her call went out into the room, bounced off of the tables, chairs, food, and diners far below them both, and returned. Dale wasn’t quite sure how Viv managed to sort out all the literal and figurative noise from the now outraged and shouting guests below them, but she did. She dropped from her perch, unfurled her wings, and zoomed after a curiously empty space in the crowd that seemed to be moving toward a side door.
Dale followed afterward, struggling to keep up. His bat puppet costume had been handy for getting into the gala, but aerodynamic it was not. Realizing that keeping pace with Viv was a lost cause, he dropped closer to the floor and flew toward Jett, shouting and pointing.
When Jett didn’t seem to register his hails above the din, Dale stuck two fingers in his mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle.
Jett jerked around. Dale stabbed a finger at the empty space that Viv was still tracking.
Jett pushed past a tangle of guests that were moving toward the high table—some in an attempt to apprehend a baffled and enraged Master Jeofrides, the rest to ensure the safety of the other masters of the guild. It soon became apparent that the mob of people was too angry and too thick for him to get through on the ground, so Jett bounded up on one of the long tables and ran down it, kicking aside goblets, silverware, and the occasional candelabra.
As he grew closer to Viv and the empty space, Jett deftly bent almost double, seized a gravy boat, and hurled it. Dale watched as the boat somersaulted through the air before colliding with something invisible. Even among all the noise, he heard a woman’s voice say a very unladylike string of words.
Much of the spilled gravy splashed a sloppy trail along the floor, but the rest of it partially coated a tall, lean figure that was otherwise completely invisible. The dark drippings revealed someone in a billowing coat or cloak, who had at least one gravy-streaked horn.
“I see her!” said Dale, zooming in to intercept.
“Be careful!” shouted Jett.
A flying gobbet of wet, savory gravy slapped Dale out of the air. He tried to right himself, but his costume proved to be too much of an impediment, and he wound up landing with a loud blorp into a tureen of chicken soup. Gasping and sputtering, he sloughed off the costume and paddled over to the side of the tureen. There, he saw a maskless Ygella running by. She glanced at him as she ran past.
“She’s escaping. Do try to keep up, my lad!”
Dale scowled, wrung out his wings, and flew after them.
Jett followed Petra through the hallways of the Thieves’ Guild, occasionally wiping a droplet of gravy out of his eye. It was sometimes difficult to see Petra in the dim corridors and she kept triggering hidden traps to slow his pursuit. Despite the panoply of poisoned pits, spiked pits, and poisoned spiked pits that yawned open beneath his scaled feet, Jett managed to avoid them all while he poured on the speed.
He was able to keep pace with Petra despite a couple of switchbacks and fake outs, almost catching up to her as she reached the top of a wide staircase. Petra hopped up onto the polished railing and slid down it, gaining a narrow lead as she zipped toward the bottom. Jett, in a desperate attempt to keep up, threw himself off the top step, grabbed the metal rim of a chandelier that hung over the staircase, swung, flipped, and landed on the lower floor just beyond the last step.
“Gotcha!” he said, grinning, only to watch in slightly envious awe as Petra vaulted off the bottom of the railing, flew over his head and landed in the hallway behind him.
Jett wheeled around and ran after her, following her down a short hallway, through a door, and into a storage room. As Jett entered the room, he saw that several of the paving stones in one corner had been carefully pried up and laid aside, revealing a large, dark square of packed earth. Resting on its haunches near this bit of impromptu renovation was a dire groundhog, who blinked in surprise as an ambulatory splash of gravy and a garishly dressed kobold rushed into the room.
“Hi, baby!” shouted Petra as she raced between the shelves. “How’s momma’s good baby? Are you ready to go?”
The dire groundhog stood up, stretched, and shook its fuzzy butt in response to Petra’s calls. Jett let out a strained cry as Petra reached the groundhog and swung up onto its back.
“You’re losing your touch, my friend,” laughed Petra, as the groundhog made ready to dig. “What is this, two and ooooooooooo—”
Jett leaped, grabbing the partially invisible Petra around the waist, and pulled her off of the back of the groundhog. He grunted in pain as he hit the paving stones hard. A horrible shock arced all the way up his left arm, and the fingers on his left hand immediately went numb.
Petra, aided by the slippery gravy that still clung to her, wriggled around in his grip, and jammed something that felt like a sharp elbow into his chest. Jett let out a ragged wheeze as the breath was forced from his lungs. As spots filled his vision, he tried to kick out at Petra, only to strike empty air.
Jett tried to get up, only to find himself temporarily blinded by a sudden tsunami of freshly dug earth. Gasping and squinting against the deluge of dirt, he watched as the dire groundhog burrowed into the exposed patch of dirt beneath the floor. Despite its great size, it vanished in mere seconds.
Petra stood before him, a strange living statue of congealed gravy and mud. She let out a low chuckle and backed toward the tunnel that had just been dug by her erstwhile mount.
“That didn’t go quite according to plan,” she said,” but I think this is good enough. Maybe we can race again someti—”
With a groan and a crash, one of the nearby shelving units toppled forward, landing squarely on the hole. Petra turned, too late, and saw that a huge, heavy ruin of shelving, packing cases, broken jugs, and other detritus now completely blocked her escape route.
Ygella strode into view, maskless, costume askew, and with a triumphant Dale riding on her shoulder.
“Well, you’ve given us all quite a good run,” said Ygella, brushing off her hands as she approached. “But I’m thinking that’s over now. By the authority vested in me by the Eternal Resplendent Order of the Runoff Rangers, and on behalf of the citizens of the Undercity of Greyport, you are under arrest.”
The masters of the Thieves Guild, their underlings, and their guests all crowded around Terci, looking both concerned and restive. Several had laid hands on Master Jeofrides and had pushed him down roughly into his seat. Others stood by, flexing their fingers, or arming themselves with eating implements, ready to perpetrate some rather rough justice. It was only Terci’s repeated insistence that they hold off until Petra could be captured that kept the crowd from descending into chaos.
“Look,” said one of the other master thieves, her voice a rather luxurious-sounding contralto. “I understand proper protocol as much as the next person, but we’d really like to get on with punishing Jeofrides. How about you give us your erudite summation now, we dispose of Master Jeofrides, and then we deal with Petra when your friends bring her back here.”
Terci was about to say something back when a shout of triumph echoed up from a distant doorway. The crowd all turned to see Dale, Ygella, and Jett dragging a very filthy and quite visible Petra into the grand ballroom.
“All right then,” said the master thief with the lovely voice, “let’s have it.”
And so Terci told them everything, in painstaking detail. They started with their own part of the story before detailing Dale’s, Jett’s and Ygella’s in turn. They explained Petra’s actions, the evidence she left at each of the scenes, and what they meant.
By the time Terci had gotten to the part of the story where they and their companions had to infiltrate the party, the entire crowd had become rapt and wide-eyed. Encouraged by their captive audience, Terci—with a little help from Ygella—mounted the platform and strode along it until they stood in front of the high table. They punctuated their points with little jabs of an oyster fork they had acquired in the confusion.
“Well,” said the sonorous-voiced master, when Terci had at last finished. “What do you have to say for yourselves?”
Petra threw herself to her knees—a feat made more impressive by the fact that she was now restrained by several apprentices of the guild.
“Please, your eminences,” Petra said, her voice thick with tears, “let me speak. I have been a dedicated and loyal member of the guild for many, many years. My service record should speak for itself.”
“Your service record also says that you have spent the last five years as lieutenant to Master Jeofrides,” said the contralto-voiced master.
“Yes, but.” Petra paused, sniffed. “When he ordered me to help him poison you all…well, I balked.”
“You did not!” roared Master Jeofrides.
“I told him I wouldn’t—I couldn’t do it—and then he told that if I refused to help him, he would have my entire family murdered before my eyes.”
The masked masters of the guild glared at Jeofrides.
“I didn’t!” responded Jeofrides. “She helped me willingly. And besides, threatening a subordinate with familicide is standard operating procedure. You know this.”
“I’m glad I got caught,” Petra went on. “I’m glad this horrible plan failed. Now you’re all safe, my family gets to live, and justice will at last be done!”
The masters of the Thieves’ Guild all drew together in a tight cluster and murmured at one another for a moment. Then, the contralto-voiced one stepped forward.
“Master Jeofrides,” she said. “You have heard the charges against you. What do you say to them?”
As if recognizing that this was part of Thieves’ Guild protocol, the hands that held Master Jeofrides in his seat relented. Jeofrides stood up and removed his mask. Terci was struck at just how fascinatingly ugly the man was. They suspected that his appearance was due, in large part, to the unique structural properties of his skull.
“I cannot believe I have been done in by such incompetence,” he said, practically spitting the last word at Petra. “A lifetime of specialized training, years of loyal service, only to bungle it all on this, the most important of all your missions. You were seen. You were followed. You left behind evidence and witnesses. By the gods, had I known you would have failed me so spectacularly, I would have gone with Jankin Eight-Fingers.”
A smallish apprentice shrank back as several eyes turned toward him.
“I didn’t know nuthin’ ‘bout it. I swears to ya.”
The master with the contralto voice raised her hand in a dismissive gesture and drew the attention of the crowd back onto herself. “So you admit it. But I think what we all want to know, Jeofrides, is why.”
“You want to know?” said Jeofrides, as a very strange expression crossed his face. It was halfway between a sneer and a smile, and it did nothing to alleviate the unfortunate arrangement of his features. “You really want to know? Fine!”
Jeofrides stepped forward. “I hate this guild. I hate what it has become. Most of you are too young to remember the bad old days. Hell, I’m too young to remember the bad old days. But my father was old enough to remember, and I learned all about them at his knee.
“Do you know what we used to be? I’ll give you a hint—it’s right there in the name. Thieves. That’s right, we used to be thieves. Lurking in alleyways. Cutting purses. Threatening merchants. Burning down businesses. Why, there were even some of the old guard brave enough to sneak into the Collegium Vault and make off with magical artifacts. I bet none of you would dare to even consider doing that now.
“And you know why? Because this city finally broke us. We were independent. Free. Ruthless. We did whatever we wanted. But then that damned dragon came and burned the city down to the ground. And all those spineless nobles and bureaucrats left, leaving us with the ashes to sift through, and with survivors whining about how they couldn’t find food, or their families, or places to live.”
“We know,” the contralto-voiced master said. “This is part of our storied history. We aided Greyport in its hour of greatest need, and we—”
“Gave up what made us who we are, Susan,” shouted Jeofrides. He went on, ignoring the shocked gasps at his breach of Thieves’ Guild protocol. “We stopped being thieves and scoundrels and roustabouts. We became civic-minded and pillars of the community and philanthropists. Don’t you see how terrible, how awful that is? Don’t any of you long for the days where you and your mates could rob the treasury with naught but some crossbows and poisoned bolts? Don’t you want to just cosh some out-of-towner in a back alley and make off with their shoes? Don’t any of you want to go back to our old, old war with the City Guard, where a good day meant sticking a knife in one of their ribs without anyone seeing you do it?
“By the gods!” Jeofrides went on. “I would even settle for a bit of embezzlement. Even that would be better than what we do right now. It’s disgusting. It’s shameful. It’s—”
“I think we’ve heard enough,” said Susan. “Apprentices, take him away.”
Despite his mighty shouts and struggles, Master Jeofrides was dragged from the ballroom.
“And, Petra,” said Susan. “You will be dealt with later. Confine her to her quarters.”
Petra went off much more quietly than her former boss, though Terci noticed that she still seemed quite aloof and proud, despite her obvious defeat.
Once Petra had been taken away, Master Susan turned her expressionless mask to Terci.
“The Thieves’ Guild thanks you for exposing this plot to murder us all. Know that we do not forget such deeds, and we will hold your names in relatively high esteem.”
“Thanks,” said Terci. “We’re happy we could help.”
“However,” said Susan, “since by your own admission, you are not on the guest list…”
Terci flinched as several apprentices surrounded them and grabbed them by their arms.
“No no,” said Terci, spreading out their arms so that they could be more easily seized and dragged off the premises. “We did crash the party. I think that’s more than fair!”
Dale flittered around in the cool, Greyport night, trying to burn off his anger.
“Lousy pack of ingrates,” he said, to no one in particular. “Why, we oughta…”
Ygella just smiled up at him. “We ought to congratulate ourselves on a job very well done. Who knows what would have happened if Jeofrides had succeeded and gotten control of the Thieves’ Guild?“
Terci nodded in agreement. “I don’t like to think what would have become of the Undercity if they went from civil servants to criminal syndicates. That would have hurt a lot of people.”
“Yeah, well,” said Dale, still fuming. “A little more gratitude would’ve been nice, you know?”
Jett took a long moment to stretch before replying.
“Don’t know about you all,” the courier said, “but I’m grateful that I got to meet all three of you. And Viv! I know this was sort of a by happenstance, last ditch effort sort of thing, but considering that we got thrown into this mess, I think we did a pretty good job. I know we’ve all got stuff going on in the Undercity, but I wouldn’t mind working together again to unmask a criminal mastermind.”
“Very technically, he unmasked himself,” said Terci.
“Oh sure,” said Jett. “I’m just saying that I’m up for whatever, you know? Just so long as there’s running involved in it somewhere.”
“I feel like you’re going to make it about running, even if it’s not,” said Dale. “Also, that reminds me. I gotta talk to you at some point about a certain shortcut through a certain mushroom farm.”
Jett opened and closed his mouth a few times before slowly smiling an apologetic smile. “Ah. Yeah, that’s fair.”
“How’s about we discuss that, and other things, over a few pints,” said Ygella, getting up and dusting off her shirt.
Terci nodded vigorously in agreement. “I am quite thirsty, and it seems like a few shared libations would be appropriate in celebrating our victory. How about the Red Dragon Inn?”
Dale clucked his tongue against his teeth. “Bah! No. Too dang expensive and too many folk carousing in there for my taste. How’s about we leave the surface to the surfacers and head down to the old Star Mole Drinking Hole? Buddy of mine down there brews up a nice mushroom pale ale.”
“I like where your head’s at, friend,” said Jett. “Let’s do this!”
Master Susan, who had long since divested herself of her costume, knocked on Petra’s door as she entered the tower room. She nodded at Petra, who was sitting by the window, before seating herself in the room’s only other unoccupied chair. “We are not at all pleased with your involvement in Master Jeofrides’ machinations.”
When Petra only nodded in response, Master Susan went on.
“However, we all know of your great skill and intelligence, and we all agree that it is likely you sabotaged yourself on purpose in order to reveal his plot. While this was not the most, shall we say, useful approach, and while this aired some of our dirty laundry to outsiders, we are all still quite pleased that your plans were foiled.”
“I’m sure,” said Petra, who had made her face intentionally blank.
“As we believe you have shown loyalty to the guild as a whole, rather than to your mutinous superior, we have decided to give you one chance to make amends. It has no doubt occurred to you that Master Jeofrides’ position is currently vacant. Since you were his adjutant and were privy to all of his meetings, contacts, and duties, it only makes sense that you be promoted to his position on a trial basis.”
Master Susan stood, making eye contact with Petra while asserting her dominance over the room. “The trial basis will continue for as long as we, the other masters, will it. You will not be treated as an equal to us until you prove yourself. You will be watched constantly, night and day, for signs of duplicity or betrayal. If you slip up even once, you will be punished. I don’t suppose I need to tell someone as smart as you what that means.”
Petra shook her head. “No, Master Susan.”
“Very good. Now, get some sleep. You will meet with me and the other masters first thing in the morning to discuss transitioning into your new role in the guild. For now, good night.”
Master Susan left the tower room without a backward glance. It’s a pity that she didn’t. If she had, she would have seen Petra’s face split into a truly devious, triumphant smile.