Fantasy Mystery Dying Earth Cascor Raffalon Matthew Hughes

The Vindicator

By Matthew Hughes
Mar 6, 2020 · 14,187 words · 52 minutes


From the author: This is a tale of Raffalon, a thief of the Dying Earth. But it also features his sometime associate, Cascor, a former provostman become freelance discriminator (ex-cop, private eye). I'm about to start a new series of stories featuring Cascor and a couple of other characters who come into this story. So I thought it was a good time to bring him back into view.


The Vindicator

by Matthew Hughes

Raffalon was seated at a small table just inside the entrance to the headquarters of the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors in the city of Wal, when the two Grand Masters came down from the fourth floor, on their way to a luncheon meeting of the city’s governing fuglemen in the sprawling and baroquely ornamented Communal Hall across the square. 

The thief was doing his half-yearly, unremunerated stint as duty officer of the Guild, dealing with members of the public who had business with the organization.  When the Grand Masters swept by, accompanied by their common secretary, the odious Borgio, Raffalon offered them the gesture of respect entitled them by their high office, but he did not stand.

It ought to have been beneath the dignity of the Grand Masters to notice the slight, but Raffalon’s history within the Guild had not made him one of its leading members and his career had several times brought him to the notice of the Grand Master of the Purloiners, Ollivant,  None of those intersections had been pleasant for either of them.

Now all three came to a halt and Ollivant said something to Borgio.  The secretary’s  sallow, greasy-complexioned face framed a glare of outrage.  “Is this,” he demanded, “how you honor your betters, journeyman?”

“I am occupied with affairs of the Guild,” Raffalon said, indicating the papers in his in-tray and the stamps and seals arrayed beside it.  “I gave the salute that decorum requires.”

Grand Master Ollivant’s eyeballs seemed determined to force their way out of their sockets, and his intake of breath was audible.  Borgio’s  almost lipless mouth turned down at the corners and his porcine eyes seemed to shrink within twin nests of wrinkles.  “What is your name and year?” he said.

“Raffalon,” the thief said, and named the year in which he had completed his Guild apprenticeship.  He saw Borgio take note but did not care; there was little the secretary or the Grand Master could legitimately do to him that would make his life any meaner than it had become.

But he also knew that the Guild’s reach was not confined to legitimate measures.  Ollivant had recruited a squad of bruisers who guarded the Guild’s treasury and put Borgio in charge of them.  Rumor was that the secretary occasionally hired the thugs out to collect debts and settle scores.  It was a contravention of Guild rules, of course, but no one had yet been brave enough to lodge a complaint with the masters.  Raffalon resolved to keep an eye out for large bodies loitering in doorways as he went to and fro.

He shrugged and turned his attention back to the document.  Grand Master Ollivant gave him a final hard stare then said,  “Come along, Borgio!  The Fuglemen of Wal await!”

He tucked his arm through that of the Purveyors Grand Master, Benevuto, and set off across the square toward the Communal Hall.  The secretary delayed only long enough to fix Raffalon with a look that said the incident would not be forgotten then he hurried off to catch up with his employers.

In his wake, Raffalon uttered, just loud enough to be heard by Borgio but not by the Grand Masters, a compound word that suggested that the secretary’s tongue was available for unsavory purposes.  The departing man returned over his shoulder a look of cold fury that only intensified when he saw that the duty officer was now blandly studying a piece of paper from his in-tray.

The morning had been slow but after lunch three items of business came in: two merchants and a nondescript, each arriving separately, and each wishing to regain possession of items that had been abstracted from their ownership -- such was the technical term used within the Guild -- by paying a portion of their value.

Raffalon took the particulars of each case, provided the applicants with the appropriate forms, and stamped their documents after they had been filled in.  He concluded by telling them that, within a week or two, an evaluation of the purloined goods would be made and that a Guild apprentice would bring the number to them, along with the percentage payable for restoration.

The two merchants went away with sour faces; neither was experiencing his first encounter with the recovery process.  The nondescript was a neophyte; after reviewing the receipt for his application, he said, “Will I be expected to haggle over the valuation?”

“You may certainly try,” the thief said.  “In Wal, every transaction is eligible for the drama and wonder of negotiation. “

“They were of personal worth to me; perhaps not so much to anyone else.”

“A good ploy,” said the duty officer, “but you see that I am not writing down your remarks.  The valuator must approach his responsibilities with an unblinkered gaze.”

A look of sad resignation came over the man.  “I see,” he said.  “And would it be possible to meet the person who . . . ?”

“Abstracted them?” said the thief.  “Not possible.  Guild rules.”

“He must be a remarkable fellow.  I would like to get to know him.  And his ancestry.”

Raffalon’s smile expressed his appreciation of the refreshing novelty of the fellow’s innocence.  When the man stood there looking as if he did not know whether to settle on hope or surrender, the thief said, “I see you wear no badge or sigil declaring your occupation.  You’re what Walis call a nondescript.  May I take it you’re not from these parts?”

“No,” the man said, “nor am I wealthy.  Just a poor scholar.”  He offered no further enlightenment.  Instead, he took the paper Raffalon handed him and, seeing the date the thief indicated at the bottom of the page, said he would return then. 

“One more question: the valuator will be careful with them?  He will not jostle them together?”

“Our people are professionals,” Raffalon said.  “They do nothing that might lower the value of the goods.”

The words did nothing to reassure the outlander.  He left, shoulders slumped, a mobile icon of melancholy.

The only other distraction that day was a woman who came in to inquire how she might hire the services of a Guild member.  “It varies,” Raffalon told her, “depending on the rank of the practitioner and the assessed difficulty of the lift,” he said.

“The ‘lift?,”

She being a civilian, he translated from the Guild’s argot to ordinary speech.  “The theft.”

“Can you give me an idea of the range of fees?”

He opened a drawer in his desk and brought out a rate sheet and drew her attention to its matrix.  “Here, you see, if you want a grand master of the Guild to acquire the prize jewel of a wizard’s paraphernalia collection, the cost is thus.  If you want a second-year apprentice to lift a pie from your neighbor’s windowsill, the fee is as shown.”

The woman studied the sheet.  “I did not realize it could be such a complex business.”

“The Guild has been in existence for millennia.  During that time, experience has piled upon experience.  Subtlety and nuance reveal themselves over the centuries.  Contingencies, even remote contingencies, are accounted for.”

“I suppose,” she said, still studying the pattern of squares, each with its number.

“Why don’t you take it home and give it some concentrated thought,” Raffalon suggested.  “We are about to close for the day, anyway.”

This last was not strictly true -- the great clock on the Communal Hall said he still had to spend time at the duty desk -- but for all he was willing to recognize the existence of subtlety and nuance, he was not in the mood for either today.

Several days later, Raffalon was returning to the unfashionable quarter where he had his lodgings, having spent the afternoon studying the premises of a gem merchant to assess vulnerabilities and potentials.  The day was hot and he had fixed his mind on the ice-chilled stout ale served at a tavern he regularly frequented.  He had to cross a small plaza where five roads met and as he emerged from the shade of the surrounding buildings, the late-afternoon sun fell full upon his bare head and exerted a palpable heat.

Raffalon diverted toward the fountain in the middle of the plaza, bent and drew up water in his cupped hands, splashing it over his face and rubbing its coolness into the back of his neck.  He allowed himself a second drenching, threw back his head to dispel the water, saying, “Right, chilled ale it is.”

At that moment, however, two things caught his attention: he heard a small clink of metal striking stone; at the same time, a brief motion registered in his peripheral vision.  He turned his head in its direction and saw what appeared to be a small bird floating face down in the fountain’s pool.

A closer inspection revealed the thing to be not a bird, though it was definitely feathered.  Carefully, Raffalon took hold of the tuft of plumage that stood above the surface of the water and lifted it out.  He discovered that the feathers occupied only one end of the object; the other consisted of a thin sliver of steel, needle-pointed and with a groove down its middle.  In the groove was a dark, gummy substance.

Raffalon spun and looked about. He saw nothing to alarm him, no lurkers, no sinister figures.  But then you wouldn’t, would you? he asked himself, looking again at the poisoned dart in his hand and now seeing  something that chilled him more intensely than cold ale ever could: on the wooden shaft that connected steel to feathers was the sigil of another Guild: the Terrible and Tenacious Guild of Vindicators.

Someone wanted vengeance on Raffalon and had hired professionals.  He looked around again, but vindicators were masters of disguise and dissemblage.  The assailant could be anyone.  Suddenly, chilled ale was no longer what he needed.  Raffalon crossed the square at a good rate of speed, continued on down a long avenue, met and traversed another plaza, then turned a corner and ascended the steps of the vindicators’ Guild hall. 

A thin-shanked man in red and ocher clothing was in the act of locking the door.  Raffalon accosted him and said, “Someone has just shot this at me.”

The man took the proffered dart, examined it briefly, and said, “Blown it, actually.  It’s a puff dart.”  He considered it a moment more then said, “Of course, at very close range it can be thrown from the hand, or even just poked into the recipient’s flesh.”

“Recipient?” Raffalon said.

“A Guild term,” said the man.  “You would probably say, ‘victim.’”

“What I would say is that I want to know who is trying to kill me.”

The man pulled a long and thoughtful nose and handed back the dart.  “Difficult,” he said.  “Depends upon the nature of the contract.  But I can tell you that confidentiality is usually a standard clause.”

“How do I make inquiries?”

“Begin by speaking with the duty officer.”

“I will do that now,” Raffalon said.  “Open the door.”

The man signaled that such was beyond his power.  “Until moments ago, the duty officer was me.  But my term has ended.  Tomorrow a new vindicator will occupy the position, filled with a desire to serve.  Come back and make your inquiries then.”

“But one of your people is trying to kill me!  By tomorrow morning I may be stretched on a cold slab!”

The vindicator agreed that such might well be the case.  Indeed, it was unusual for a Guild member to miss.  “But, if it is any comfort, all I could do for you now would be to take an application for redress.  The paperwork would then have to go to the Committee of Examiners, and they meet only on alternate Murthledays.”

Raffalon’s face expressed his shock.  “This is a matter of life or death!  I expect action, prompt if not immediate!”

The vindicator’s smile, though Raffalon did not know it, was an exact duplicate of the one he had so recently bestowed upon the nondescript whose goods had been lifted.  “Your naiveté is refreshing,” he said.  “I wonder that you have lived so long and retained such a large portion of it.”

The thief saw that there was no point in pursuing the issue.  “So what can I do?” he said.

The man’s narrow shoulders climbed and fell.  “Not much, I suppose.  We are not called terrible and tenacious for nothing.  Set your affairs in order.  Prepare for a new experience.”  He descended the steps, casting a look back at the thief and saying, “Or an old, familiar one, if the reincarnationists are correct.”

Cascor the discriminator looked up from the piece of obscure magical paraphernalia whose use he was attempting to fathom.  He had acquired it from a now deceased thaumaturge named Vaudelaire but had so far been unable to find a reference to it in the several books he had obtained from the same source.

The simplest solution to his problem would have been to ask an actual sorcerer what the thing was and what it did, but that would have meant informing a member of the wizards Guild that someone outside their fraternity was presuming to practice the thaumaturgical arts.  Such news was never warmly received by the Guild.  Retribution would be swift and probably of a character that would express a wizardly sense of humor -- that is, Cascor would suffer a fate that only a wizard would find amusing.

He gave up -- not for the first time, nor for the last -- on the mystifying apparatus and watched it collapse once again into a meaningless assemblage of curved metal rods and circles of green glass marked with strange glyphs which refused to assume a definite structure.

“All right,” he said to the prospective client who had just related his troubles.  “Someone has hired a vindicator to kill you.  That is, at least, the most reasonable explanation.”

Raffalon made remarks that conveyed his view that things were heading in the direction of complete unreasonableness, but the discriminator stopped him, first with a gesture and then, when that proved insufficient, by demonstrating that he commanded a louder voice.  “Have you given someone grievous offense?”

“Never!” said the thief.

“Never?”  Cascor’s heavy brows rose to their utmost elevation.  “You steal people’s belongings, sometimes their most prized possessions.  Do you not think some might take that amiss?”

Raffalon digested this, his expression showing that it was a new item on life’s menu.  “I suppose it’s possible,” he said after some thought.  “People can be peculiar.”

“Has anyone excoriated you, cursed your name, damned your eyes and hoped that your liver might fall out to flop, dripping, at your feet?”

“You mean recently?”

Cascor weighed the qualification.  “Perhaps not.  Aren’t vindicators always saying that revenge is a meal best consumed at room temperature?”

“They may do,” Raffalon said, “but who listens to the opinions of poisoners and garrote-twisters?”

“Someone appears to have done so, at least to the extent of hiring their expertise.”

“I will have to think about it,” the thief said.  “It will be difficult.  Early in our apprenticeships, we are encouraged to let the past dissolve out of memory.”

“Is that a practical philosophy?” Cascor said.

“A thief must live in the moment.  Some moments can be crucial, and when one such arrives, usually unannounced, full attention must be paid.”  He offered an explanatory finger, drawn across his throat.  “Otherwise there might not be any more moments for the thief to be in.”

“The moment has now arrived,” Cascor said, “to discuss my fee.”

A lengthy colloquy ensued, in which numbers figured slightly compared to the expostulations of outrage and astonishment, the gestures and postures of rejection and sudden departure, the striking of foreheads and clutching at bosoms -- all of which constituted a normal negotiation among residents of the city of Wal.  Finally, agreement was reached at the figure both Raffalon and Cascor had each estimated would be the appropriate outcome.

“Go to your lodgings, secure the doors and windows, and remain there until I send word,” the discriminator said, specifying a spoken phrase and a hand signal that would guarantee the message came from him.

“While you do what?” the thief said.

“My job.  I will make inquiries and seek to identify the players and the circumstances of the vindication.”

Raffalon’s gaze took in the heap of wire and glass on the work table.  “Will your inquiries involve magic?”

Cascor stirred the apparatus with one finger and frowned.  “Not this time.”

“Good.”

Raffalon remained in his lodgings on Breechclout Wynd, a narrow, twisting street near the gate that led to the Bandimee Road.  His was a small room, scantily and indifferently furnished, as befit a lodger who preferred to pass his leisure time in taverns and places of even lower repute.  By the afternoon of the second day, his patience, which was always in plentiful supply when he was engaged in his profession, had reached its lowest ebb.  He threw on a coped mantle and went out.

His inspection of the street revealed no worrisome loiterers -- or at least none that were unfamiliar.  Raffalon tugged the mantle’s cope forward to shadow his face and set off at a brisk pace toward his favorite tavern.  His route meant that he would have to turn a sharp corner onto Bog Lane, cross that narrow thoroughfare, then take Breechclout where it continued after making a dog leg.

But he didn’t.  As soon as he turned into Bog Lane he dashed forward and placed himself in the deeply recessed doorway of a minor merchant who bought and sold used household goods.  There Raffalon paused and waited to see if anyone came hurrying along from Breechclout to cross Bog then peer up the continuation of the wynd to see where he had gone.

But no one did.  Raffalon thief waited, deep in shadow.  Time passed, then passed again, but no thief-tracker appeared.  After a little while longer, a voice spoke in his ear.

“If you do not intend to enter and purchase my wares, do not block the entrance!”  Raffalon jumped and turned to find the owner of the business regarding him with a disfavoring eye. 

“Either buy or move along,” said the merchant, a wizened little fellow who made up for his lack of natural presence by the nail-studded club he flourished under the thief’s prominent nose.  “Don’t bar the way to my customers.”

“There are no customers,” Raffalon pointed out.

“How can there be,” said the small man, “with you blocking the way?”  He augmented this triumph of reasoning by lowering the cudgel only to tap it in a meaningful way against Raffalon’s knee.

“I’m going,” said the thief, and let action suit the words.  He went away chagrined by the realization that he could not exact revenge by returning in the night to use his skills against the merchant: the premises contained nothing worth stealing.

A quick glance along Bog Lane showed nothing to raise concern, nor did a subsequent view up Breechclout Wynd reveal any apparent threats .  Raffalon continued on his way but strode straight past the door to his preferred haunt, turning instead into a nameless alley and opening a stained and battered door that led into an even less salubrious dive.

He crossed the small, noisome room, crowded with local denizens -- he recognized them all by sight and some by name, and saw that none were of the category of low-lifes who  earned a coin by selling out their neighbors.  Raffalon took a seat at a little round table that let him put his back to the wall.  He unobtrusively drew a throwing knife out of his boot and laid it on his thigh and signaled for ale without taking his eye off the door.  He did not have to watch the windows because there were none.

The barman, a hulking type with eyes that looked in two directions at once, brought him a tankard.  But as the man placed it on the table, Raffalon contrived to jar the single pedestal that supported the board so that the mug, of rough pottery, struck hard and cracked.  Sour ale ran across the table top while the thief cursed the barman’s clumsiness and demanded another.

He watched the fellow draw the second mug and bring it to him, seeing nothing out of the ordinary.  Even if a vindicator had deduced that he would come into this place and had prepared a toxic draft -- or even a poison-smeared mug to adulterate good ale -- Raffalon had foiled the attempt.  He slipped the brown liquid and felt no untoward effect.

With his eye on the door and his knife on his thigh, he settled himself.  An hour later, with three mugs of ale inside him, nothing had changed.  One of the locals had gone out to urinate against the wall of the alley and returned to refill the drained reservoir.  No new drinkers had come in.

Raffalon resheathed his knife, rose, and left, stopping briefly at the bar to leave coins that the barman made disappear with practiced speed.  Out in the alley, he saw still nothing to disturb him -- although, when targeted by a vindicator, the apparent absence of cause for alarm can be a very bad sign indeed.

He had a choice of several routes back to his lodgings, one direct, the others of varying complexity.  He chose a middlingly roundabout course and set off at a brisk pace, turning corners, speeding up here and slowing down there, stopping to look at sights along the way and once to talk with a beggar -- actually, to listen to the ragbag whisper and mutter in his permanent soliloquy about the evils fate had visited upon him.

Through all of this, Raffalon descried no followers, no lurkers, no head-and-shoulders silhouettes above the rooftops.  By the time he turned onto Victory Avenue -- no one remembered the triumph for which it was named -- he was feeling confident that his vindicator had taken the day off.

Victory started off wide but farther along it narrowed into a winding, twisting lane, in places so narrow Raffalon could almost have stretched out his arms and brushed his fingertips against the walls.  It was while he was passing through one of these constricted spaces that he heard from not far behind him a sudden clatter of iron-shod hooves and a rumble of iron-clad wheels, accompanied by a panicked shout of, “Runaway!”

The thief did not pause to look back.  A few paces ahead another alley intersected Victory from the left.  He threw himself forward and pelted toward safety, the rumble and clatter growing louder.  But he could see that he was not fast enough, though he frantically increased his speed.  Then his heel skidded on something foul on the pavement and he felt himself flying feet-first through the air, to land with a bone-jarring thud on his back that drove the air from his lungs.

His situation desperate, he rolled onto his belly, as tight as he could make it against one wall and, clasping his hands over the back of his neck, sought to make himself as close to mouse-sized as possible.  He waited for whatever fate would bring.

Which was . . . nothing.  The sounds of a runaway horse and cart had ceased.  He looked up and saw the alley empty, save for a brief flutter of cloth as someone fled around a corner far up the way he had come.

Raffalon levered himself up until he was kneeling.  After the tumult of noise that had driven him to his pell-mell dash, the silence in the narrow street was profound.  He got to his feet, shifting his shoulders and hoping not to feel the grate of bone on bone, but his fall had only bruised his back.

Someone had played a prank on him.  Ordinarily, he would be incensed, insulted -- but compared to being stalked by a vindicator, being stampeded was a small thing.  He stretched again and now from the corner of his eye he caught a sheen of light: a thin streak of brilliance, like a thread of spider’s gossamer reflecting sunlight.

Looked at directly, it could not be seen.  Approached obliquely, the strand of almost invisible thread turned out to have been strung across the narrow way at Raffalon’s neck height.  It was drawn taut and anchored to either wall by toggles of hard wood.

A shudder went through the thief.  Not a prank, he told himself, but an attempt to slice off my head.  He reached down and picked up a twig dropped from some wood-seller’s load then pressed it against the hidden wire.  The wood was precisely severed.  Raffalon looked at the neatly sliced end of the truncated twig he now held and his ale-filled stomach offered to give back all he had poured into it.

“I have heard of it,” said Cascor.  “It is not a common technique and it is more usually employed against a group of targets.”

He gently lifted the coil of thin wire by its wooden toggles and held it so the sun coming into the window of his work room caused the gossamer to shine.  “Which makes it all the more strange,” he said.

“How so, strange?” Raffalon said.

The discriminator tucked the garroting wire into a leather pouch and tied it shut.  “I have been making inquiries through some old associates,” he said.

Raffalon knew that Cascor had been a provostman until departmental politics ended his career.  “Do the provos have connections to the vindicators?” he asked.

“Unofficial ones.  It can save time on investigations if we know that the Guild is involved.”

“And what have you learned?”

Cascor went to the window and looked out, then drew the shutters against the heat of the sun.  He turned to the thief and said, “Something strange.  Although the dart that missed you was genuine Guild, and there’s no question about the attempt to take your head, no one has registered a contract against you.”

Raffalon blinked, taking in the information and letting it settle.  But it would not settle.  “Your old associates are wrong,” he said.  “The Guild is after me.  The evidence is conclusive.”

“So it would seem,” the discriminator said, “except for the fact that I also inquired directly of the Guild, again through an old contact, and received the same information.  Indeed, the vindicator who verified the provenance of the dart was professionally offended at the prospect of ‘some civilian’ masquerading as one of his fraternity.”

The thief could understand that.  His own Guild took a dim view of amateurs trespassing upon its purviews.  The least punishment it handed out was a solid all-round beating.  Repeat offenders were handed over to the provos with all the evidence necessary for a conviction.

“Could it be a vindicator gone rogue?” he wondered.

“Very rare,” said Cascor.  “Vengeance requires discipline.  Besides, any member of the Guild can undertake a vindication on his or her own say-so, and no one would quibble.”

“So,” Raffalon said, thinking it through, “someone not of the Guild but with access to Guild equipment is pursuing a private vendetta against me.”

“Which would explain the two failures,” Cascor said.  “If a genuine vindicator was after you, one slip-up might happen.  Two would be out of the question.”

“It seems to me that this knowledge does not help.  One can negotiate with a Guild.  Who knows what an amateur wants?”

“I think we can assume this amateur wants you dead,” Cascor said.

“But why?”

“That will be the first thing we’ll ask him,” said the discriminator, “as soon as we catch him.”

The Terrible and Tenacious Guild of Vindicators played a necessary role in the City of Wal.  When citizens disputed with each other or transgressed the Retributive Code, the Provostmen and the courts had their parts to play.  But standards in both organizations were pliable; the outcomes they delivered might appear to be just and fair when viewed from a distance; close up, they more often resembled a bag of rat-gnawed bones.

But anyone who had the requisite fee could lay an information before the Guild’s intake panel.  Its adjudicators, all senior practitioners aided by energetic young apprentices, would conduct an exhaustive investigation of the circumstances and the principals involved.  If the case was found worthy of action, action would ensue -- swift and irrevocable.

Sometimes, the adjudicators would suggest to the complainant that non-lethal vengeance was appropriate, in which case the Guild would undertake to negotiate an agreement under which the malefactor gave up a portion of his wealth or a specified part of the body.  Sometimes the recommended punishment was exile.  But, if the offense was grave and the complainant intransigent, the wrongdoer would soon be “visiting a distant uncle,” as the Guild delicately put it.

Vindicators could not be bribed and it would be a brave soul indeed who attempted to intimidate a Guild practitioner.  It would be an even braver one, Raffalon thought, who sought to imitate one.

He mused upon these matters as he made his way through the open-air market in Furtherance Square, stopping at an occasional booth to inspect leather wares from Urzhendi or amulets made of scorpions preserved in amber, as worn by the nomads of Khoram-in-the-Waste.

He dawdled and loitered, turning over this or that item to inspect hallmarks and sigils, asking idle questions of the merchants and listening to their lies and exaggerations with uncharacteristic patience.  He fought constantly against the urge to look around and, especially, behind himself.

He was lingering over some damascened finger-splints when he heard a sudden gasp and a scuffle of feet on pavement, not far distant.  He spun, shaking his folding knife out of his sleeve so that it finished, blade out, in his hand, to see Cascor in the final stages of a brief struggle with a small person clad in a coped cloak of shimmercloth.

A moment later, the conflict was decided.  Applying an arm-lock, the discriminator briskly searched his prisoner then pinioned the captive’s wrists in a holdtight.  To the onlookers he said, in a voice that recalled his years as a provostman, “All over now.  Nothing to see here.  Go about your business.”

Then he motioned with his head for Raffalon to follow him between a couple of stalls and on into a shaded alley.  There he found a recessed doorway and pressed the prisoner’s face against the portal while he displayed to Raffalon the result of his search.

“A slapper,” Cascor said, holding up a palm-sized sack of waterproof material.  On its back it had an elastic strap to hold it against the user’s hand; on the front was a short, sharp tube of steel, honed to a needle point.

Careful not to bring it in contact with his flesh, Cascor sniffed at the implement.  “Adocaine,” he said.  “You would have been well dead by now.”

“That’s a vindicator’s weapon,” Raffalon said.

“But this,” said Cascor, “is not a vindicator.”  He had been holding the prisoner’s head face-first against the door with one hand.  Now he said, “You’re going to turn around and we’re going to have a little talk.  If you do anything to annoy me, the vindicator’s Guild hall is a few minutes walk from here.  I will take you there and show them what you had and tell them what you were trying to do.  Are we clear?”

There was a muffled sound from the mouth pressed into the door.  It sounded enough like an assent for the discriminator to ease up on the pressure.  Raffalon’s would-be assassin turned and faced them.

“Well,” said Raffalon after a moment’s recovery, “there’s a surprise.”  As far as he was concerned the surprise was not of the happy kind.

“You’d better come with us,” said Cascor.

“No,” said his prisoner.

Raffalon cocked a fist.  “Let me handle this,” he said.

But Cascor used his free hand to push down the thief’s.  “Raffalon, she’s just a child.”

The small chin jutted out.  “I am not a child.”

“Fine.  You’re all grown up.  It’s still either us or the vindicators.”

A sigh followed by the slump of slim shoulders.  “If I must,” she said.

Cascor had chosen a market not far from his work room.  They were there in a few minutes.  He left the holdtight on her, though even at its smallest setting she might have slipped her hands free.  He pushed her down into an armchair, though not too roughly.

She looked at them, small chin stuck out, mouth in a down-turned bow.  “You’d better not try anything,” she said.

“Or what?” said Raffalon.  “You’ll kill me?”

Cascor had removed his mantle and was taking off the armor he wore underneath.  He examined a scratch on a shoulder pad where the slapper had grazed him before he won the struggle.

“Name,” the discriminator said.

The chin protruded further, the mouth remained shut.  Raffalon cracked his knuckles then said, “Leave it to me.”

But Cascor stopped him with a hand on his chest.  “Again, she’s just a child.”

The thief indicated the top of the discriminator’s work table where the slapper, dart, and coil in its leather pouch offered mute testimony.  “Some child,” he said.  “Where’d she get the vindicator gear?”

“Good question.”  Cascor picked up the slapper and gave it a closer inspection.  “Look, the leather strap is old and cracked.  And now that I take a good look, the dart’s got a tiny spot of rust.”

“So?”

“So do you neglect your tools?”

Reflexive pride in his professionalism overpowered Raffalon’s anger at the girl.  “Never!”

“Exactly.  These are not a vindicator’s tools.  They are a legacy.”  He turned to the prisoner.  “From a parent?” he asked her, then after seeing her reaction, “Grandparent?”

She looked away but not soon enough.  “So,” the discriminator said, nodding.  “But ancestry won’t do you any good with the Guild.  They are notoriously unsentimental.”

He pulled out a chair and sat on it, facing her.  “You can talk to us or to the Guild. I can send a message.  Someone will be here to collect you within an hour.  After that, we can’t help you.”

Help her?” said the thief, at exactly the same time as his would-be assassin said, “Help me?”

“Yes,” said Cascor, “though that will depend on the story.”

“I don’t care about the story,” Raffalon said.  “Except for the ending.”  In case his meaning was too subtle to be grasped, he drew a finger across his throat. 

“I have a feeling,” said Cascor, “better yet, call it an old provostman’s instinct, that this is all going to turn out to have been a mistake.”

And he was right.  But also he was wrong.

Her name was Ioveana.  Her grandmother had been a vindicatrix and had retired with emeritus status, which entitled her to an enhanced pension from the Guild.  Like most vindicators of either sex, she had not married.  She had, however, produced a child, the product of an informal liaison with a senior officer of the provost corps.

“Hold there,” Cascor said.  “Was your grandmother Videstra?   The one they called ‘The Hush?’”

A nod from Ioveana.

The discriminator was rummaging in his memory, fingers raised to snap.  And now the sound came, as he said, “There was some old gossip about her and Subcommander Gharsh.  Before my time, but . . . you’re descended from some formidable ancestors.  There was something about a daughter?”

Unbidden, tears filled the girl’s eyes.  She tried to lift a shoulder to wipe them away but the holdtight restricted her movement.  Cascor’s face softened and he produced a handkerchief and dried her cheeks, then held it while she blew her nose.

“Your mother,” he said, gently.  “She is . . . no longer with us?”

The child’s determination blazed in her face again.  “No, she isn’t!” she said and the gaze she turned on Raffalon was sharp enough to have gashed flesh.  “Because he killed her!”

As far as the thief knew, he had never killed anyone.  He had thumped a few pates and once caused a pursuer to tumble down a long flight of stone steps.  But concussions and broken bones were the worst of his offenses, as befit a competent journeyman.  So he had no qualms about responding to the accusation with, “I never did!”

“Perhaps,” said Cascor, “it would serve us all best if Ioveana just told us the facts as she knows then.  Then, if there are errors or inconsistencies, we can deal with them afterwards.”  He took up a pen and paper from his work table.  “I will make notes.”

He gave the girl a few moments to compose herself and used the time to signal to Raffalon that he should move off to one side, out of Ioveana’s sight lines.  As an encouragement, he also reached behind her and removed the holdtight.

Ioveana’s mother -- the girl did not yet name her -- had taken the examination and been accepted at about the same age as her daughter was now into the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors, in the County of Gestirion.  At the sound of that name, Raffalon voiced a grunt -- whether of surprise or disbelief was hard to tell -- but Cascor waved him to silence.

She had apprenticed as a thief, not as a receiver and retailer of stolen goods.  She worked hard at her lessons and practicums and was one of the top three apprentices of her intake year.

“She would have been -- should have been --  the top apprentice,” Ioveana said, “but . . . she was a girl and the Masters are conservative in their views.”

Raffalon made another noise.  He had finished his first year in the bottom quintile of apprentices, his gender notwithstanding.  Cascor threw him a warning look.

After seven years, her mother became a journeyman, and not just any journeyman of the thieves Guild: she was that rare practitioner who specialized in “creeping” -- a thief who enters premises while their normal occupants are on the scene, even while they are wide awake, and departs with the proceeds without her presence ever being detected.

As Ioveana related these facts, Raffalon began to experience a troublesome sensation.  In his entry year, there had been a girl apprentice who had been marked as a high-flyer.  He heard later that she had graduated as a creeper and had relocated to Wal; thieves were never apprenticed in their communities of origin, and rarely stayed where they were trained.

He wanted to ask a question now -- indeed, perhaps several, depending upon how the first was answered -- but Cascor saw his wish and silently discouraged it.

After she returned to Wal, Ioveana said, the Guild housed the newly fledged creeper and the Masters organized assignments that would further hone her skills.  One of the services offered by the Guild was the theft, not of goods, but of information -- especially information someone wished kept out of circulation.  A truly fine creeper might go into places where even a wizard’s scrying powers were blocked and come out not only having acquired the desired knowledge but without its owners ever knowing that their secrecy had been broached.

“My mother was the best.  That’s why she was chosen for a very special assignment.”

Cascor leaned forward.  “And what was that?”

Frustration showed in the girl’s face, overlying an old heartbreak.  “I do not know.  I have searched the Guild chronicles--”

At that point, Raffalon made to break in, outrage storming up his gullet until he thought he might vomit.  “The Chronicles of the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors are open only to--”

“Yes, I know,” said Ioveana with a sidelong glare of contempt.  “Open only to members of good standing in the Guild.”

“So how did a sniveling snippet like you--”

Now it was Cascor’s turn to interrupt.  “I believe they are also open to your Guild’s sworn apprentices?”

The child’s chin came up again.  “They are.”

“Better show him and get it over with,” the discriminator said.

With an expression that said it would have been beneath her to accommodate such a demand from the other man in the room, the girl turned the collar of her shirt to show, sewn inside, the blue and white badge of a duly sworn, first-year apprentice of Raffalon’s Guild.

The thief made a sound that might have been a word in some harsh, barbaric tongue.  No one would ever know, because he followed it with a stream of words and phrases in the common speech, though none of them were recommended to be used to assault the hearing of children.

Cascor put up a hand to stop him.  It was not enough.  Finally, as the spate of profanity continued, he gestured with one hand and spoke his own string of syllables.  Abruptly, Raffalon’s coarse tirade ceased.  His mouth opened and his lips and tongue moved, but no sound came out.

“If you promise to be quiet,” Cascor said, “I will release the stricture.”

Raffalon’s eyes bulged but after a moment he nodded.  The discriminator made a different gesture and spoke the cantrip’s syllables backwards.  Then he turned to the girl and said, “Now, what did the Chronicles say?”

The girl had shown delighted surprise at the thief’s silencing.  Now her brows drew down as she turned back to the discriminator.  “That was magic.  But you’re not a member of--”

“The Venerable and Worthy Council of Wizards and Thaumaturges?” said Cascor.  “No, and I would be grateful if you would keep what you saw to yourself.”

Now her brows flew upward.  “You trust me?”

“I’m beginning to.”

“Well, I’m not,” said Raffalon.  And now a new thought struck and he pointed a finger at Ioveana.  “If you’re a first-year apprentice of the Guild, you have to do whatever I tell you.”

“I think,” said Cascor, “that requirement of apprenticeship went out the window when she resolved to kill you.  At least as it applies to you.  Now be quiet or I will reinstate Omeront’s Cessation.  I want to hear what she has to say.”

“Why are you so interested?” Ioveana said.

“I may have heard something about this business before,” Cascor said.  “It was a long time ago and details were few.  But it was a matter in which I took a professional interest.”

“As a discriminator?”

“As a provostman.”

“What,” said Raffalon, “has this got to do with her trying to kill me?”

“That is what we are going to find out.”  Cascor turned back to the girl.  “What did you learn from the Chronicles?”

Ioveana gathered her thoughts.  “Her Guild was approached to do some information gathering.  She was assigned to the task and” -- she cast another venomous look at Raffalon -- “this one was to be her helper.”

The thief opened his mouth to speak but Cascor’s raised hand, fingers formed to relaunch Omeront’s Cessation, forbade it.  “What happened?”

“She went in.  It was an evening meeting.  He was supposed to remain outside and whistle like a nightbird if anything went amiss.  But he had been drinking and fell asleep.  Probably, his snores alerted a guard.  When my mother came out, they were waiting for her.”

“Who?” said Cascor.  “Where was this?  Who was meeting whom?”

“I don’t know.  I could only access the summaries of operations.  The detailed files are sealed and hidden in the archives.  All I know is that my mother tried to fight her way clear and was killed.  Instead of helping, this one must have scuttled off into the darkness.”

Raffalon was bursting, but the discriminator’s hand remained raised.  Now Cascor told him, “You may speak now, but you will remain civil.”

The thief swallowed the first thing he had intended to say, took a breath, then another, and finally said, “When was this supposed to have taken place?”

Ioveana named a date.

“Here?  In Wal?”

It took an effort for her to speak to him.  She managed only by looking at Cascor.  “Yes.”

“I was not here.  I spent three years after my apprenticeship in the County of Keraph.”

“Liar!”

Raffalon turned to Cascor.  “Guild records will show--”

“Then produce them!” said the girl.

“I can’t!”

Cascor broke in.  “Wait.  I can resolve this.”

He rose and went to a cupboard, took out a folio-sized book bound in scaly yellow leather.  He flipped through a few pages then ran a finger down to isolate a chosen passage.  Raffalon saw him concentrate, his lips moving silently.  Then the discriminator set down the book, came back to where Raffalon was sitting, and placed two fingers of each hand on the thief’s temples. 

The fingertips felt cold against Raffalon’s skin until Cascor spoke four syllables, at the last of which the thief felt as if a jet of incandescent molten metal had burrowed its way from one side of his skull to another, creating a sudden vast pressure that caused him to fear that his forehead was about to detach itself and fly across the room.  A moment later, the sensation was gone, leaving the thief trembling.

“How do you feel?” Cascor said.

“Horrible,” said Raffalon.  “Frightened, like a lost child in a thunderstorm.”  He was horrified to hear himself speak the pure truth, instead of affecting the stoic fortitude a Guild member was supposed to display.

“Good,” said the discriminator.

“No, it is not,” said Raffalon.  “It is very bad.  Awful.”

“I meant that the spell has worked.  For the next few minutes, you can speak only the truth.  You cannot dissemble even by silence.

“I hate it.”

“Of course.  Now, is what you said about being in Keraph true?”

“Yes,” said Raffalon.  “I was one of a gang working the warehouses on the docks at Alathe.  I was the junior member.  They called me ‘Futzup.’  I wish I hadn’t just said that!”

“And you never were part of an operation involving a creeper in Wal?”

“Never.  They would never have chosen me as support for a delicate operation.  In those days, I was judged to be a duffer.”

Ioveana, listening to this, was regarding Raffalon as if he were an unpleasant but incontrovertible fact.  She looked to Cascor.  “And that must be the truth?”

The long, lean head nodded.  “I’m afraid it must.”

The girl’s gaze turned inward.  Her face became bleak.  “Then, all of this . . .” -- she gestured toward the vindicator’s gear on the work table -- “all this was for nothing.”

“Perhaps not,” said Cascor.  He turned to Raffalon.  “Can you get into the archives?”

The thief struggled to resist revealing Guild secrets, but his barrier collapsed in two heartbeats.  “Yes.”

“Good.”

“But I won’t do it.  You’ll need a better spell than the ones you’ve so far mastered.”

Cascor said to Ioveana, “What is the oath you take, the part about defending the honor of the Ancient and Honorable Guild?”

She quoted: “Without fear or favor I will perform no act nor permit any act to be performed that traduces the sacred honor of the Guild.”

To Raffalon Cascor said, “The Chronicles have been doctored.  How does your Guild’s honor stand now?”

Again the thief tried to resist but could not.  “It cannot be permitted.”

“It must have been the work of someone highly placed?”

“It must.”

  “What can you do about it?”

Raffalon said, “I could lay an information before the Masters Council.”

“But you won’t,” Cascor said, “because?”

The thief sighed.  “Because in doing so I might be alerting the very official who committed the offense that the perfidy has been discovered.”

Ioveana said, “So what can we do?”

Raffalon was still forced to answer.  “Go around them.  Get the incontrovertible facts then confront them before the Masters Council.”

“To get those facts,” Cascor said, “we will break into the offices of the thieves Guild.”

“And when you say, ‘we,’” Raffalon said, “You mean me.”

“And me,” said the girl.  “I’ll go with you.”

“What a relief!”

Again Ioveana showed surprise.  “You really mean that?”

“No,” said Raffalon, “that was sarcasm.  His truth spell has worn off.”

The hall of Wal’s chapter of the Ancient and Honorable Guild of Purloiners and Purveyors was not tightly secured.  For one thing, the city’s lock-ticklers and ward-winklers were all members.  And the thieves’ and fences’ longstanding mutual-aid protocol with the vindicators Guild discouraged trespassers. 

So that evening, after the duty officer locked up and after a two-hour wait in case some purloiner was staying late to assay the day’s intake and tally the accounts, the three conspirators approached a back door that was used for the delivery of goods it would have been bad form to bring in through the front entrance.

“May I?” said Ioveana, reaching for her folding wallet of picks.

Raffalon noted that the style of her tools showed them to be of the same vintage as his own.  “Another legacy?” he said.

“My mother’s.”

“Be my guest.”

He watched and saw that she went through the procedure with a sure and speedy competence.  He could not have defeated the lock much more deftly himself.  Her easy facility did nothing to endear her to him.

He eased her aside and went in first, igniting his thief’s light as he did so.  They entered a small foyer furnished only by a table and chair.  Above the table, mounted on the wall, was a wooden grid of pigeon holes from some of which bits of paper poked out.  On the table top lay a log book and pen and ink.

They closed the outer door and stood in silence, listening for any whisper of sound that would tell them they were not alone in the building.  After a long while, Raffalon went to one of the two doors that led inward from the foyer.  He opened it to reveal an upward flight of stone steps, unlit.

He turned to the others and made the thief’s hand signal that meant from here on in, all communication would be by gesture.  Ioveana nodded and Cascor shrugged acceptance, then up they went.

They came out into the central area of the Hall’s ground floor, housing the offices where the Guild dealt with the public as well as the large rooms used for ceremonies and occasions when the Guild gathered en masse to discuss its business.  Another staircase took them to the second floor, where the Undermasters and other officials had their offices, then on to the third, where the Senior Masters had their suites.

The corridors of these floors were all in darkness, but as they reached each level, Raffalon paused at the top of the stairs to listen before signaling the advance.  On the fourth floor he did so again then indicated a door a short way down a corridor that the staircase had delivered them to.  A sign above the door said, Reading Room.

The door was unlocked and they went in.  It had been years since Raffalon the apprentice had come to this book-lined chamber to take down one of the volumes and sit on one of the hard chairs, chosen book propped up against others stacked on one of the long wooden tables.  Some of the texts were manuals on the skills a purloiner must master -- not just the art of opening locks and walking on sloping roofs -- but techniques for stilling the pounding of the pulse in the ears and calming the body’s natural tremors.  In a separate bookcase were also Guild-published autobiographies of thieves and fences who had advanced the professions, each volume marked For Guild Eyes Only and Not to Leave This Room.

But the shelf to which Raffalon went, lighting his way by the thin beam of his thief’s light, contained volume upon volume in bindings of blue leather whose spines were lettered in blue ink: Chronicles of the Guild: The Summaries.

Each had a span of years marked under the title.  Raffalon ran a finger along the shelf, found the book he wanted, and carried it to a table.  Here he opened it, sought through the pages by reading the dates above the text, until he found the entry he wanted.

Ioveana, at his elbow, lit her own thief’s light and added its beam to his, using it to illuminate a short passage written in calligraphy halfway down a page.  Raffalon silently read the text:

On Suphulday, month of Lesser Rains, Charaste (J) was assigned to live surveillance of a meeting of [redacted] at [redacted].  In the course of her duties, Charaste (J) was apprehended and suffered severe sanction.  No retribution ordered. Raffalon (J) was deemed to have failed in his duty of support through sleep arising from inebriation.

Despite himself, the thief drew in an audible breath as he read the last lines.  He looked at Ioveana and shook his head, raised his hands in a gesture of denial.  She looked from him to the text, and the hand signal she showed him was the one thieves used when a situation had descended into madness.

Then Cascor placed his hand between them and gently moved them aside.  He bent to study the passage, read it slowly, then used a magnifying lens to study the lettering.  Like all items in the Chronicles, the several lines had been hand-written by someone trained to a clerkly style.  But even among practitioners with the same training, there are always individual differences.  And now Cascor drew the attention of the two thieves to the last couple of lines, offering them the lens.

Raffalon looked through the glass at where the discriminator’s lean finger pointed.  Then Ioveana took the lens and did the same.  Now Cascor silently indicated the first lines of the text and motioned writing with one hand.  Then he pointed to the last several words and mimed writing with the other.

Raffalon looked again at the text and nodded.  The calligraphy was similar -- one would have to be looking for differences to spot them -- but whoever had written the part about his failure in his duty of support had not written the rest.  The calumny had been added after the entry in the Chronicles had been made.

The thief’s jaw set in a grim line.  He closed the book and returned it to its shelf.  Then he turned to the others and made a single gesture: an index finger pointed upward.  Ioveana’s face was a mix of anxiety and determination, but she nodded.  Cascor mouthed a silent inquiry: “Archives?”

Raffalon signaled in the affirmative and led them out into the corridor then on to another door.  But this portal was strongly made and triple-secured.  The two thieves went to work on the locks, Ioveana taking the bottom and Raffalon the top, and the thief was surprised to find that she equaled him in speed.  He let her open the middle one, but when the staircase beyond was revealed, he led the way up.

The top floor held two office suites: those of the Grand Master of the Purloiners and the Grand Master of the Purveyors.  Each had a corner of the Hall, with windows overlooking the square outside.  But the back half of the floor was given over to two strongrooms: one containing the treasury of the Guild, the other housing the archives.

Raffalon examined the lock on the latter room then stood back in surprise.  He had never seen its like.  When he used a pick to poke its insides he realized that its operation must involve principles of mechanical motion that were entirely beyond his experience.  As well, it required two keys, turned simultaneously.

He turned to Cascor and Ioveana and made the signal that denoted a dead end.  The discriminator frowned and silently mouthed the word, “Magic?” while his face showed it was meant as a question.

Raffalon’s hands quickly dissuaded him from the notion.  But Ioveana laid a small hand on his arm and made a series of motions of her own.  A silent debate ensued with the girl putting forward a proposition and Raffalon arguing against it, while an increasingly frustrated Cascor tried to make sense of the flurry of hand and finger signs.

Finally, the apprentice made an unmistakable gesture, recognizable to anyone who had ever expressed contempt.  She turned on her heel and walked down the corridor to a tall window that let in light from the torches in the square below.  She threw up the sash and climbed out then disappeared as she crabbed her way sideways on a ledge.

Raffalon made no attempt to follow. Cascor pulled him around and showed that he wanted to know what was going on.  The thief gave a dismissive flick of a hand and a disbelieving shake of his head.  They stood in silence for a long moment, until they heard the sound of a lock being turned.

The door to the Grand Master of the Guild’s fences opened and Ioveana stepped out.  She handed a large and complex key to Raffalon then went back into the office, leaving the door open.  More time passed, with Raffalon showing great displeasure.  Then the door to the thieves’ Grand Master’s office opened and the girl appeared again, holding another great key.  She inclined her head toward the archives door and her expression said, “Shall we?”

Several unpleasant emotions competed for control of Raffalon’s features, but disgust won out.  Still, he had no choice but to do as the girl bade him; together they put the keys into the lock and turned them as one.  The mechanism silently shifted and the door came open.

They closed it behind them and went to the serried rows of metal cabinets that held the complete records of the Guild’s activities, comprising every item ever stolen by a Guild member, down to the smallest brass thimble, and its final disposition -- either by a fence or by its return to the owner upon payment of an evaluator’s fee.  A separate cabinet housed the sealed records, and it was to this that Ioveana went.  Its lock was no wonderment; she had it open in six heartbeats and just as quickly began to sort through the files. 

In a short time, she drew out a folder sealed with tape and wax.  There was a table at the back of the room.  She carried her find there and laid it flat then played her light on it.  Masters Eyes Only was stamped onto the cardboard and beneath it, Not to be opened without explicit authority.

Ioveana obviously considered her authority to be sufficient to the task.  She produced a small knife -- “How did you miss that?” was Raffalon’s mime to Cascor -- and slit the confining ribbon.

The discriminator ignored the thief’s indignant inquiry and pushed forward to see what the girl had revealed.  The folder lay open to reveal several sheets of paper and Ioveana was already reading the first.  Raffalon crowded in at the girl’s other elbow and saw a dense block of handwritten text.  As he added the illumination of his own light and began to read, he heard a peculiar noise; it took him a moment to realize he was hearing Cascor growl.

The text, dated more than twelve years earlier, was a summary of a request received by the Guild from a senior officer of the Provost Corps -- that was unusual, the thief thought.  Even more unusual, he recognized the provostman’s name and rank: Subcommander Gharsh, whom Cascor had identified as the lover of Ioveana’s grandmother, Videstra the Hush.

Gharsh had contracted with the Guild to send a creeper into a meeting of the city’s governing fuglemen.  That would have been an inappropriate act for a provostman, except that the meeting’s attendees numbered only two members of the actual council -- the others were senior staff officers -- and the session could not have been more unofficial.

The subject of the clandestine get-together arose from a major civic project then in the process of construction: the then-new Communal Hall with its massive clock tower.  Subcommander Gharsh’s request was for someone to listen in on the meeting and gather any documentation that accompanied it.  Specifically, he had wanted to know if city funds were being diverted from the project’s budget -- which had swelled markedly beyond original estimates -- and into the purses of those being spied upon.

An accompanying docket noted that a recently made-up journeyman, Charaste, had been assigned the task.  The next paper in the file recorded the expiry of the creeper, she having been discovered hiding in the ceiling of the meeting room.  There was no mention of Raffalon.

There was only one more item in the file: a request from the Provost Corps that the inquiry be canceled.  It was not signed by Subcommander Gharsh, however, but by a different officer, one Abazrik, with the rank of Post-Major.

Cascor growled again.  Both Raffalon and Ioveana turned to him, fingers to lips in the universal signal for silence.  But at that moment the issue became merely theoretical, as the door opened to reveal two large men aiming bolt throwers at the three intruders.

Raffalon recognized the pair immediately: they were part of the guard force assigned to watch over the Guild’s treasury.  He also recognized the pallid visage of the smaller man who hung back behind the bruisers.

“Borgio!” he said.  “I might have known!”

“You might have,” said the Guild Grand Masters’ secretary, “and indeed now you do.  But be assured: no one else will ever know.”

One of the guards had been regarding Cascor with particular interest.  Now he said, “I recognize this one.  Used to be a provostman, now he’s a discriminator.  They say he uses magic.”

Borgio’s sallow face went even paler.  “Watch them closely,” he said.  “If that one so much as moves his fingers or opens his mouth, kill him.”  He thought for a moment then said, “We’ll put them in the treasury.  It’s spell-protected.  And I’ll go to the wizards Guild and get someone to deal with our discriminator.  They don’t take kindly to amateur spellslingers.”

“I blame her,” Raffalon said, indicating the girl who sat with her back against the wall and her knees up to her chin surrounded by two clasping arms.  She was looking at something only she could see.

“She’s but a child,” Cascor said, but his tone said his mind was elsewhere.  He sat against another wall, wearing, as did Raffalon, manacles and ankle-fetters.

“Even so.”

Ioveana looked the thief’s way.  “We might just as readily blame you,” she said.  “If you hadn’t so offended Borgio, he would not have added that line to the summary Chronicles and left the book where I was sure to see it.”

Raffalon disputed her assertion.  “Your enmity would have done me no harm if you had not kept souvenirs of your grandmother’s profession.”

“They were all she left me,” the girl said and the thief was pleased to hear the words followed by a sniffle.

“This is pointless,” Cascor said, “and I’m trying to think.”

“Of what?” Raffalon said.

“I’ve solved the case,” the discriminator said.  “It all has to do with the building of the new Commune Hall.  Borgio and some others fiddled the accounts to fill their purses.  Subcommander Gharsh got wind of it and arranged for a creeper to get the goods on the conspirators.  But Borgio must have had a source within the Provost’s Corps – Abazrik. I’ll bet; he was always a snake’s turd.  They laid a trap, then hushed up the details.  The failure of the operations was used against Gharsh.  He was forced to resign.  Now I know what broke him: it was his own daughter who was killed.”

Cascor sighed.  “It was all covered over.  They thought they’d got away with it.   But then Ioveana here became an apprentice, and a brilliant one at that--”

“Yes, I know,” said Raffalon, “a genius.”

“Shut up,” the girl said, “I want to hear this.”

“Well,” Cascor spoke to her directly, “Borgio arranged to let you discover that Raffalon was responsible for your mother’s death--”

“But I wasn’t!”

“Yes, yes, we’re past that now,” said Ioveana.  “I see it.  I would have killed Raffalon and Borgio would have had me prosecuted for anti-Guild behavior.  I would never have got near the archives.  Borgio is the villain.”

“One of them, perhaps even the prime mover,” said Cascor.

“But why implicate me?” said Raffalon.

“Because Borgio didn’t like you,” said the girl, “and nobody would have been motivated to investigate your death.”

“Wonderful,” said the thief.  “Now how about you two apply a discriminator’s wiles and a lauded apprentice’s genius to the matter of getting us out of here?”

“Not much chance of that,” Cascor said, lifting his arms so that his bonds clinked.

Ioveana sighed the sigh of a child who abandons introspection and resigns herself to dealing with the phenomenal world again.  The Guild’s restraints had been too large for her wrists and ankles, so the guards had bound her with ropes.  She slid her bound hands down to her half-boot and produced a sliver of sharp metal and began to cut her ankles free.  Then she put one end of the blade between her teeth and freed her wrists.

“I saw you searched!” Raffalon said, surprise contending with outrage.  “Twice!”

“You need to acquire better observational skills,” the girl said.  Her hand flickered and the little knife disappeared, then appeared again.  “It’s a vindicator’s technique, called the juggle: you let them find something and while they’re examining it you slip something else into the place where they’ve just looked.  My grandmother taught me.”

Raffalon did not enjoy being schooled by a first-year apprentice.  He lifted his chains and said, “What have you got for these?”

Ioveana made the knife disappear again then reached into her mouth and extracted two short pieces of steel, precisely bent.  She ignored Raffalon’s squawk and went over to Cascor.  Shortly after, the discriminator’s restraints were on the floor.  He stood and examined their surroundings.

They were in the treasury strongroom, the most secure place in the Guild hall and, probably, in all of Wal.  One small torch burned in a sconce high up, giving scant light.  Ioveana told him the walls were of steel-reinforced stone, further reinforced by overlapping defensive spells renewed every spring and autumn by the city’s most powerful thaumaturges.  Set into the walls were a series of vaults, each containing a category of the Guild’s wealth: coins, bullion, gems, works of art, rarities from far-off lands.

None of that was of any help.  But in one corner of the dimly lit space stood a utilitarian desk on top of which were a scattering of objects and a pad and stylus.

“What have we here?” Cascor said.

“An evaluation,” said the girl, “to determine the fee for return of the goods to the supplier.”  As appropriate to an apprentice, she used the Guild term for victim.

“What about me?” Raffalon said, clinking his chains again for emphasis.

“Do I have to?” she asked the discriminator.

“He did not kill your mother.”

“But he’s such a . . . mutton-thumper.”  Again, she used a Guild term for a clumsy bumbler.

Cascor spoke over Raffalon’s protest: “That is not the kind of language to use in the presence of a child!”  When the thief’s tirade subsided to dire mutterings, the lean man said, “Set him loose.  We may need him.”

Ioveana’s brief fricativation of air across her lips expressed her doubt as to Raffalon’s usefulness, but she did as the discriminator said.  Raffalon rose without a thank-you and came to look at what was on the table.

“I remember these,” he said.  “I took them from a nondescript, an outlander, who left his room at the inn unsecured.”  He nudged one of the items with a knuckle.  “He seemed to value them highly.”  He nudged another. “What are they?”

“I don’t know,” said Cascor, “but they’re our only hope.”

There were almost two dozen of the things, all pale yellow in color but each of a different size, though none was smaller than the nail on Raffalon’s smallest finger nor much large than that of his thumb.  Each was also an individual shape, ranging from roughly cubical to more less round, but with projecting bumps and shallow indentations on the sides.

The evaluator had left notes, indicating that she had been trying to group the items into categories -- without success -- and also had attempted to see if this or that piece’s protrusions would fit into another’s cavity.  No success, read her penultimate note, followed by a word underlined twice: Magic?

“Is there any possibility,” Raffalon said, “if we threw them at the door, they’d explode and blow it open?”

The other two looked at him with varying expressions.  “Very little,” said Cascor.

“I think,” Ioveana said, “this one fits into that one, if you twist them just so.”  As she spoke she was picking up the two she’d identified.  “I can see it in my mind.  Very clear.”  She brought them together.  Instantly, there was a tiny click and the two pieces fused into one.

“Like two magnets,” she said.  “There was an attractive force.”

Cascor took it off her, examined it, but could find no seam.  “The evaluator spent all day trying to do that,” he said.  “And you did it on your first try.”

“Well,” said Raffalon, “she is a genius.”

“Journeymen,” said the discriminator, “are not supposed to be jealous of apprentices.”  He held out the fused object to the girl and said, “Can you fit another one onto this?”

She took it back and studied it then said, “I don’t think so, but . . .” -- she put it down and picked up two others -- “I bet these two go together.”

So they did.  She examined the new piece then reexamined the first one.  “They’ve not only joined together, but they’ve changed shape while doing so.”

“You’re right,” said Cascor.  “It’s some kind of mutable puzzle.”

“Not a puzzle,” the apprentice said, sorting through the unattached pieces.  “At least not a game or a toy.  Something tells me someone separated the pieces with the intention that they remain apart.”

“Hmm,” said the discriminator.  “Therefore dangerous?”

“Not as dangerous as Borgio,” said Raffalon, “who, I will wager, is right now arranging for us to be permanently separated from existence.”

“He’s right,” said the girl.  She poked through several objects and chose another pair, held them up before her eyes, rotated one a few degrees, and brought them together.  Another click and another subtle alteration of shape.  “And look,” she said, “the ones I’ve already put together are changing shape again.  And they’re growing larger.”

“I see a curve,” Cascor said.  He laid the two earlier pieces on the desk, a little distance apart.  Both briefly shimmered. 

“Not too close,” said the girl, moving them apart and putting the third joined pair in alignment with them.  The curve was obvious now.  “I think this thing has to be done in just the right order.”

Raffalon’s tone was mocking again.  “And you have the recipe?”

She answered him seriously, bottom lip between her teeth as she studied the scatter of objects.  “I have a feeling, but the feeling says . . .”  She picked up another two, and then there was a fourth fused pair.

“If we get out of here,” Cascor said, “there is an item of wizard’s gear I’d like you to take a look at.”

“Sure,” she said, choosing two more of the things and holding them up for examination.  Almost, she brought them together, but stopped and said, “Ooh, tricky.”

She indicated a small cubical specimen on the desk and asked Cascor to pick it up.  “Now hold it . . . no the other way around . . . that’s it.  Keep still.”

She brought the two items she was holding into alignment with the one held between the discriminator’s fingers, coming at it simultaneously from both sides, and a moment later the three became a single unit.

“I felt something,” Cascor said, looking at his fingertips as she took the item away.  “As if it were alive.”

“Not so difficult now,” Ioeveana said, quickly sorting the remaining objects into pairs and one more triple.  As each set was fused, she laid them on the desktop in the general shape Cascor had begun.  She swapped one pair for another, studied the result and said, “I think that’s it.”

“Whatever ‘it’ is,” Raffalon said, looking at the broken oval that the separated pieces made.  “It could be an interplanar conduit that will suck us all into the Second Plane.”

Cascor’s brows rose.  “What do you know of interplanar conduits?”

“More,” said the thief, “than I ever wished to.”

Ioveana was studying the layout.  “I think now we just push them together in the right order and then . . .” -- she shrugged -- “and then everything will be fine.”

“You don’t know that,” Raffalon said.

“Actually,” she said, “I do.”

“How could you?”

Her mouth formed an odd little smile.  “That’s the part I don’t know.”

“I’m going to trust her,” Cascor told the thief.  “If you’ve got a better plan, let’s hear it.”

The noise that came out of Raffalon was half strangled then his shoulders slumped in resignation.

“Right,” Ioveana said.  She frowned down at the desktop then told Raffalon to put his hands here, and Cascor to put his hands there, the latter doing so briskly, the former with a face that said he did not like being told what to do by children.

Then she spread her hands, setting her fingertips to three pieces, and said, “When I say so, gently move them all together.”  She took in a breath, let it out, and said, “Now!”

They pushed, moving the separated segments of the oval gradually closer.  And then the pieces were moving themselves, slowly at first, then faster, and now they were clicking together to become one perfect shape about the size of a human face.

But it didn’t remain such for long.  The pale yellow ran through a spectrum of colors, finally settling on a deep purple flecked with tiny motes of gold.  At the same time, the oval grew larger until it was three times its original size.  It floated up from the desk to hang in the air at head-height.  And now the space within the frame began to fill with a shimmering pearlescence, silver tinged with violet, like a mirror reflecting light-filled fog.

A flicker ran through its surface, as if it were quicksilver pooled in a bowl whose rim someone had flicked with a finger.  A soft chime sounded and when the ripples stopped the three prisoners were looking at an image -- a moving, living image -- of a man seated at a small table, reading a book by lamplight, his finger flicking over a page.

He, too, must have heard the chime, because now he looked up, bemused, and turned his gaze their way.  His face first froze with surprise then lit up with pleasure.

“How delightful!” he said.  “I expected it would take me years!”  He closed the book and stood up, saying, “Wait right there.  I’ll be with you in a moment.”

And he was.

He had a dozen questions, especially for Ioveana once he had established it was she who had put the antique instrument back together.  But Cascor intervened.

“We are,” he said, “prisoners of a man who finds our continued existence problematical.  He has left us here while he arranges our demise and disposal.  He will be back, perhaps soon, accompanied by brutal men with weapons.  And an angry wizard.”

“Ah,” said the nondescript.  “We should leave.”

“Can we?”

“It shouldn’t be a problem.”  He approached the shimmering oval and gingerly touched a spot on its purple rim.  When nothing untoward happened, he turned and smiled at the others.  “It lets me,” he said.  “How wonderful.”

He stood silently for several moments, his fingertip maintaining contact with the object.  Then he said, “Here we go.”

There was no sense of transition.  One moment they were standing in the Guild’s treasury; the next they were in the chamber of the inn they had seen in the oval.  The object itself hung in the air before them, now showing the room they had just come from. 

The outlander turned to the three former prisoners, again with a look of delight on his bland face, and said, “I sense that it appreciates my role in bringing it back into completion on this Plane.”  Then he looked at Ioveana and said, “But it really likes you.  How did it feel when you made contact?”

Again, Cascor changed the direction of the encounter.  “I am sure the young lady will be happy to satisfy your curiosity, but first you had better satisfy ours.”

The man’s expression was that of an enthusiast who has let passion overcome good manners.  “Yes, of course.  What do you want to know?”

“Start with who,” the discriminator said, “then move on to what, how, and why.  Add in where and when as needed.”

His name was Ifigenio.  He was an academic from the Institute at Gephrire, and his specialty was the collection and study of magical apparatuses from bygone ages, particularly the Eighteenth Aeon.

That was the time from which the oval originated.  It had been created as a scryer and transmitter by a grand thaumaturge named Scarion-Marabo.  “Or it may have been Marabo-Scarion,” he said.  “The old scripts can be read in both directions.”

The oval had been part of the thaumaturge’s establishment for several centuries, until he finally translated himself to a higher plane.  The device had elected to continue to work with Scarion-Marabo’s successor, Ulphahan the Insidious -- Ifigenio explained that such devices acquired considerable will and personality over time -- and remained in service for several more centuries.

But then had dawned an age of iconoclasm.  Wizards were thrown down, their powers vitiated, and many of their instruments destroyed.  The scryer-transmitter suffered that fate.  Its manifestation on this, the Third Plane, was broken apart and the components scattered far and wide.  Aeons passed, the world changed, and magic resumed its place in the social order.  And along came scholars like Ifigenio, eager to recover the knowledge that had been lost.

“I have spent years traveling through a dozen lands, seeking the separated parts.  I found the last of them in Gyorshon -- a cult had installed the fragment in the forehead of their idol -- and spirited it away.  My aim was to return to the Institute and see if I could make it whole again.”

“But then some thief stole them from this room,” Cascor said.  He glanced at Raffalon, who was examining the room’s ceiling as if it offered cause for fascination.

Ifigenio looked at the oval and smiled.  “It is becoming clear to me that little of what happened has been mere happenstance.  A magical device that spends more than a millennium in the company of powerful wizards acquires powers and predilections of its own.”

He studied Ioveana for a moment then said, “Are there any witches or wizards among your ancestors?”

She did not know, she said.  “But my grandmother was exceptionally talented in a demanding profession.”

“Hmm,” said the academic.  “I can tell you: I had not intended to stay in Wal on my way home.  I had passage on a riverboat that stopped to take on cargo and passengers.  I was standing on the deck, watching the stevedores at work when I suddenly felt a strong impulse to gather up my goods and go ashore.  Now I think I know where that impulse originated.”

“From the device?” Ioveana said.

“Yes.  Its nature requires it to exist on several Planes.  Though it was broken up on this Plane, it remained whole on the others and was able to exert some influence.  Sadly, when its parts were stolen I thought it had decided to abandon me and seek a new protector – perhaps even a descendant of Scarion-Marabo or Ulphahan.”  He studied her features.  “And I may have been right.”

The chime sounded again and all looked to where the oval now hung in the air.  It’s shimmering screen showed the door to the Guild treasury flung open, the two guards bursting into the strongroom with weapons drawn, while Borgio hung back to allow a gray-bearded man in a wizard’s robe to enter.

Ioveana’s face hardened and her voice was no more than a whisper.  “Borgio.”

Within the image, there was a flurry of peering and staring as the guards noted the fetters lying on the floor next to Ioveana’s severed ropes. but the wizard’s gaze went straight to where Scarion-Marabo’s device hovered above the table.  His craggy features registered first shock, then consternation, to be followed by indignation, before finally opting for deep anger as he looked through the scryer and spotted Cascor.  He threw back his sleeves, at the same time as a short rod of black wood appeared in one hand.

Ifigenio called out, “I wouldn’t advise--”

But he was too late.  The wizard cocked his free hand beside his head and arranged its fingers in a particular pattern.

“Duck!” said the scholar and dove for the floor.  The others were not slow to follow his example.  “Cover your eyes!”

Raffalon did so just as the little room became filled with an actinic light so bright he could see the bones of his fingers through their flesh.  The impossible glare lasted only a second or two, then all was as before -- except for what they saw through the oval when they regained their feet.

The scryer framed a swirl of fierce light, turgid flames of green and orange, shot through with sparks of shining silver and purest black.  Raffalon went to the room’s narrow window -- the one through which he had originally entered when he came to see what might be worth lifting -- and looked across the rooftops toward where his Guild’s hall stood a half a mile distant.

Or, he thought, where it used to stand.  He considered the sight for a moment then turned to Ifigenio.  “I was thinking,” he said, “that such an unworldly fellow as yourself might benefit from a traveling companion more versed in the ways of his wicked Plane.”

“Very kind, I’m sure,” said the scholar.  “But with the device restored to its fullness on this Plane, as it clearly is, I need have no fear.  As long as it is willing to tolerate me.”  He threw an inquisitive glance toward the oval then said, “And it seems it is.”

His brow wrinkled as if he was hearing something surprising.  After a moment he turned to Ioveana.  “It would, however, very much like for you to come with us.  It feels . . . an attachment.”

Curious, the girl reached out and touched the purple rim.  For a moment her face showed the same surprise as Ifigenio’s then it blossomed into delight.  “It seems,” she said, “I started out on the wrong apprenticeship.”  She turned to the scholar with the beginnings of a frown.  “Is there a wizards Guild in Gephrire?”

He signaled a negative.  “More of a loose association, much of it centered on the Institute.  I hold the rank of senior fellow of the thaumaturgical faculty – though I am more a scholar than a practitioner -- and I have no doubt we will want to offer you a full scholarship.”

Raffalon was looking out the window again, his neck craned back to see the full height of what was rising above the great square.  “Are you sure you don’t need a traveling companion?” he asked Ifigenio.  “I can cook and do laundry.”

Cascor spoke over the scholar’s bemusement.  “With the device restored to function, they can be in Gephrire in an instant.  They have no need of you.”

“Ah,” said the thief.  “Pity.”

The discriminator went to the window and regarded the spectacle.  Bells were ringing and voices were now filling the street outside with sounds of panic.  After a good, long look, he said to Ifigenio, “Would it transport Raffalon and me somewhere?”

The academic looked to Ioveana.  She consulted the oval then nodded. Ifigenio asked the discriminator, “Where would you like to go?”

“Oh,” Cascor said, as a rain of flaming, spark-throwing debris began to fall from the tower of force surging up over the center of Wal, “just about anywhere.”

This story originally appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction.


Matthew Hughes

I'm writing fantasy and science fiction, often in a Jack Vance mode.