She wasn't paying attention that day in the coffee shop. She should have been, she knew, especially since Kanz (which everyone who worked here unaccountably pronounced to rhyme with "dons") was notoriously upscale, but commuting between the mortal world and her home realm had become, and this was not a figure of speech, hellishly difficult of late. As had earning money. Ishild Solsken hadn't bothered to pay her for her last job, saying there were no records that it had been done.
What did the woman expect her to do, send invoices? Honestly, it was like dealing with a wicked stepmother. Doing what was required, even if it was done flawlessly, was never going to be enough.
And even back home, you couldn't live on air. Well, certain kinds of fairies supposedly could. And probably the odd cursed prince or princess, because fairies were weird about their victims. They'd turn a prince into a monster or a princess into a flower, but they would make sure that the monster and the flower would end up in a palace with scores of servants in attendance. It was a nice deal if you had the right bloodline. But that's not the point.
Normal, unmagical humans who'd been born in the realm—they wouldn't get the palace, the servants, or the edible air. They tended to be transformed permanently. Something that Solsken had suggested might happen to her one of these days if she kept pressing for payment. Oh, the woman had smiled pleasantly when she'd said it; there was no question that she would tell the Lawgivers, if asked, that it was just a harmless joke. But Solsken's eyes—chill, empty, November-rain eyes—had not been smiling.
She shook her head from side to side, hoping that doing so would jostle a few optimistic plans loose. Just one coconut milk mocha macchiato, the biggest that Kanz makes. Assuming that they do make it. And then—
And then she'd be out the cost of the macchiato. But she'd feel better. Less like she was marked for a curse the minute that she went home, anyway.
She forgot to keep her head down. She stood before the barista, gazed at him—or appeared to gaze at him—and politely gave her order.
There was a long pause. Then the barista said slowly, in a voice that she found both familiar and unfamiliar, "I could swear that I've seen you somewhere before."
She started to brush that off as the meaningless line that it doubtless was. Oh, I bet you say that to all the girls. Where have you seen me, in your dreams? But she never got beyond the "oh." For as she started to speak, she looked—really looked—at the barista.
He was a brown bear.
Blinking, she fell silent. She had to be seeing things. Bears—the animal variety, at any rate—didn't take orders in Aladdin-themed steampunk coffee shops in Connecticut suburbs. Back home, sure, but not here.
Then the bear vanished and she was gazing at a handsome young man with dark brown eyes and a disturbingly toothy smile. His red, gold and creamy white apron was geometrically patterned and resembled a Persian carpet, though, unlike the mechanical carpets that flitted back and forth between the kitchen and the front counter, it was bereft of tassels. There was one bright blue patch on his apron—a name tag, which read, in large white capital letters, "BRUNO."
"I'm afraid I don't recognize you." It was nothing but the truth, but she needed no one to tell her that she'd waited too long to say that. Now it sounded suspicious, and that was the last thing she needed to be right now. Damn it!
Bruno looked as if he would like to make something of this, then shrugged. "What's your name?" he asked instead.
"Saffron," she said, attempting to smile sweetly. Saffron was golden, like her hair had been before she cut it short and dyed it black. Also, like gold, saffron was rare and valuable. And it didn't have a single syllable in common with her real name, which was both too unusual and far, far too well-known.
Bruno grunted something that might have been either "thanks" or "sure it is" and scribbled her name on a perfectly enormous cup. "We'll call you when it's ready."
She nodded and then, after quickly scanning the room, sat down in a shadowed, out-of-the-way booth. As she did, she realized that she'd forgotten to order anything to eat. She supposed that she could go back…but no. It would look odd, after her long and silent stare at the barista. No, bearista. A bear who had known her, somehow. Not that she hadn't run into bears in the past, but…
Enough! Focus! You have debts and you need to pay them! So think of a way to do it!
Not a single method sprang to mind.
She was still brooding when an enormous cup of macchiato was placed in front of her and a young man—Bruno the Bear, just my luck—sat down opposite her. The cup, she noticed, bore the name of Saffron, but Bruno had managed to transform the S, the R and the O into cartoon doodles of a papa bear, a mama bear, and a baby bear.
"I'm surprised you didn't write 'Goldie' on the cup," she said at last.
"If I had and anyone had seen it, there would have been awkward questions. It's not like you actually have golden locks anymore. Doodles, on the other hand, are seen as the personal touch."
"And since when do baristas hand-deliver coffee to tables?"
"They don't." Bruno smiled, which in no way reassured her. "However, I'm on lunch break—"
"Since you ask, yes. Look, I already told my manager that you're an old friend"—Goldie snorted at that—"and to put your drink on my tab. And don't worry. We can talk here without being overheard; there are privacy spells in place at every booth, as per the orders of Princess Badroulbadour. She's one of the three owners."
Great. Wonderful. Not only a bear with a glamour but a Realm-owned coffee shop in the mortal world—sponsored by at least one royal. Of all the places that a thief on the outs with a former employer would want to avoid, she'd blundered into this one like a beetle lurching into a Venus flytrap. With difficulty, Goldie resisted the simultaneous urges to bolt and to bury her face in her hands.
"Are you going to call the Lawgivers?" she asked in a dreary, ironed-flat voice that said he would. Kanz might exist in the mortal world, but it was owned by at least one of the leaders of the Scheherazade Alliance and was threaded with privacy spells so good that neither she nor any of the magical devices she used to sense enchanted alarms had noticed them. It operated as if it were in the Realm, and not just the outskirts but the very heart of it. A terrorist walking into a restaurant and discovering that it was actually the embassy of their greatest enemy would be safer than she was at this moment. The Realm of Stories and Sagas was alluring, fascinating, and beguiling. It wasn't nice.
Bruno stared at Goldie as if she had suddenly sprouted two more heads. Which, given the power of magic in the Realm, is a very unfortunate metaphor, thought Goldie, shuddering. Thank you, brain.
"No," Bruno said at last. "It would be silly to call the Lawgivers on someone who wandered into your family's house years ago when they were a child. You were what, six?"
"Seven." Old enough to know better, but not old enough to be sensible. Then again, she still wasn't sensible. At least not when it came to houses, apartments and liminal spaces.
"Same difference. You were a cub. You broke a chair or two—Mama and Papa still aren't sure how you did that, since human cubs are a lot smaller and lighter than grown bears—but Mama's a woodworker. She made a couple of new ones quickly enough. She even paid a flock of Talking Birds to upholster them and stuff the cushions with eiderdown."
Goldie had a sudden vision of eider ducks plucking down from their bodies while swallows and bluebirds, threaded needles in their beaks, sewed and embroidered the brand new cushion covers. It struck her as unlikely.
Then again, she came from a place where fairy godmothers were practically the norm. So perhaps she shouldn't jump to conclusions about what was unlikely.
"I thought that your parents' cottage was…I don't know. Enchanted, I think. There it was, this cottage in the middle of the wood, with those cup-like flowers, some yellow, some white and some purple, growing out front—"
"Crocuses. Honeybees love them, and we love honey."
"—and it reminded me of my grandmother's cottage. Yet…it was in the middle of the forest, looking as if it had just been built this morning. Or as if it had teleported into the forest from a human village. I suppose it could have been a witch's cottage, but it wasn't made of gingerbread and it didn't have chicken legs. And I did knock before I tried the door." Goldie paused, gathering her thoughts. "It was a friendly little house. I would have gone in even if it had been something out of a nightmare—I know, because I've done it—but it felt safe."
Bruno leaned back in the booth, which creaked a bit. "Only you weren't expecting Talking Bears. Humans never expect Talking Animals, somehow. I suppose that's because the old stories aren't usually about us; we just show up when naïve princes need help fulfilling impossible tasks or when beautiful young women randomly need to marry tiger emperors or raven kings. No one ever asks where in the Realm wealthy tongue-cut sparrows or horses that can speak even after they've been beheaded are found." He favored her with an annoyed look. "I'll bet you thought that we were enchanted."
The thought had occurred to Goldie many times over the years—bears did not, so far as she knew, normally wear neckties, flowered hats or playsuits, and it wasn't as if princes and princesses turning into animals was remotely peculiar—but saying so seemed unwise. "Not enchanted," she lied, "but definitely unusual. Why the clothes?"
The annoyed expression deepened into a disgusted one. "So that no hunters would mistake us for wild animals, of course!" Another long pause. "My parents are…traditionalists. Wear clothes, walk on your hind legs, and live in the most human manner possible. Papa even designed that cottage. He's an architect, you know."
Goldie, sipping her macchiato, wondered if she'd ever broken into any of his buildings. She also wondered if there was any tactful way to ask if there were lots of bear architects back home. Because asking implied that she'd never noticed, and that seemed…undiplomatic.
"And you're majoring in architecture at a local college?" That was a safe guess. Most of the Realm didn't emphasize formal education, as it didn't affect people's lives nearly as much as being kind to mysterious old women or fulfilling quests without complaint. Realm-born royals didn't even need to be literate to rule. They just had to be royals. And, well, not piss off the wrong fairy.
Bruno grimaced. "Definitely not. Papa would love it—he keeps telling me that he and his business partner Al aren't getting any younger—but home building and home security just aren't for me."
Goldie mentally ran through a list of Talking Animals that she was aware of. "Al's a Pig?"
A nod. "It's short for Alviss. It means 'wise,' of course. But everyone gets that mixed up with Elvis, even back home, and he can't stand that."
And of course, being Realm-born, he'd had no choice but to be wise—or at least sensible. Just like Ishild Solsken, whose name meant "iron battle sunshine," would always be cold, contentious, and cheerful. That was just how things worked. Goldie speculated briefly what it would be like to live in a world where names and stories weren't destiny.
"If you're not studying, what are you doing here?" It wasn't as if Talking Animals were the norm in the mortal world, much less in a conservative New England suburb. "And"—she couldn't keep herself from asking this one moment longer—"why did I see you as a bear when I was at the counter?"
Embarrassed realization slowly dawned in Bruno's face. Or, Goldie corrected herself, in the glamour of his face. "Oh. That's why you were staring at me. I thought that you'd used something along the lines of a Detect Identity spell, not that the glamour had failed. That was my fault. I'm running a bit short on magical energy—I've been working double shifts—and I just didn't layer the image as heavily as I normally do. It was strong enough to fool the locals, but not someone…accustomed to illusions."
"That still doesn't explain what you're doing here," retorted Goldie, privately reflecting that Bruno was disturbingly good at deflecting questions. It was the sort of gift that fairy godmothers gave to infant princes. The human variety, anyway. "Er…do you just like cooking?"
It was possible. People liked odd things sometimes. Goldie had no reason to believe that Talking Animals were any different.
Instead, Bruno clenched his fists (well, his paws, but right now they were the image of human fists) and hammered the table, which was emblazoned with red suns against brown lattice work. The table didn't tip—it couldn't—but it shook. Goldie grabbed her macchiato just in time.
"Too many happily ever afters," he muttered. "Things don't change. Half the Realm has had their lives and happiness extended for at least two human lifetimes. Longer, sometimes. How long have Cinderella and her prince been ruling? Three hundred years?" For a moment, Goldie caught a glimpse of an ursine snarl. "I need a job so that I can get married. I'm a licensed wizard! But no one wants to hire a Talking Bear. Everyone acts as if I'm some sort of-of circus performer! It's maddening!"
It was all true. As a commoner, Goldie knew it all too well.
"Who's your bride-to-be?" she asked, partly out of curiosity and partly to distract him.
"Groom-to-be," Bruno corrected her, "and he's a very handsome polar bear named Einar. He's a physician…or he would be if anyone in the Realm would hire him. We were trying to earn gold back home, even if it meant doing jobs we weren't trained to do, but then something went wrong."
"Let me guess," Goldie sighed, a sinking feeling in her stomach. "Would Ishild Solsken be involved?" At the sight of his gaping mouth, she added, "You tell your story and I'll tell you mine."
Bruno glanced at a wall clock that seemed to simultaneously be both a conglomeration of gears and valves and a mechanized genie's lamp. "Can't now, lunch break's almost over. Tell you what, come to my place tonight at eight and we'll talk over pizza. One large for me, one large for you." He scribbled a local address on a napkin. "Only—just knock at the door this time, will you?"
"Very funny," grumbled Goldie. But she held out her hand for the address.
Bruno kept his word. This too was characteristic of the Realm. Someone might be your enemy, but if you promised them hospitality, you gave them a warm place to sleep and food and drink so fine that both would make the Greek gods envious. And while they were your guest, they forgot about any inconvenient blood-feuds and did their damnedest to out-courteous you and yours. Goldie didn't think that she quite counted as an enemy—but given her history with Bruno's family, she was equally certain that his parents would not consider her a friend.
Bruno's story about Ishild Solsken, which he told her between bites of fresh seafood pizza, was approximately what Goldie had expected. After graduating from the Realm's premier university for wizard studies—much to the pride and bafflement of his parents—Bruno had gone looking for work, only to find that work was not available in large quantities. Furthermore, the more he looked for work, the less he found. Some private discussions with Einar (whom Goldie couldn't stop thinking of as "the bearfriend"), as well as some other Talking Beasts (Goats, Mice, Cats, Foxes, Tigers, Ravens and Hoodie-Crows among them), had revealed that the same pattern was prevailing for them as well.
"We figured it was systemic," he said gloomily. "That happily-ever-after thing I mentioned earlier, with humans staying young and healthy for hundreds of years, thanks to fairies rewarding their favorites with endless extensions of life as it was when they first fulfilled a quest. And that's a huge problem. But we didn't have the names of anyone who actively tried to make Talking Animal unemployment worse, if you follow me."
Eventually, Bruno had done what so many young Realm-born people did. He went to the capital to seek his fortune. He'd been certain that he'd succeed. That was how the stories went.
"But someone cast you in the role of an older brother," Goldie said flatly. Older brothers never succeeded. They always got transformed into statues in an enchanted garden or fell into carefully disguised pits after getting thoroughly drunk. And then, like as not, no one but their youngest brother or sister could save them from their doom.The Realm could be a perilous place for an only child.
Bruno nodded in response, and Goldie was certain that she saw tears in his dark round eyes. "I felt like the hero of an ancient tale, overcoming all obstacles and winning my way to—well, not wealth, but comfort, at least—and happiness with the bear I love. I didn't expect to be a victim of the villain. I didn't believe that I'd lose."
"And then you heard about Solsken."
"Whose story is this?" Bruno snapped, and then sighed. "All right, yes. She had links to every guild. She knew people. She offered work that seemed—seemed—absolutely perfect. And when I met her, she was quite charming."
"Yes," Goldie murmured, reminding herself that clenching a fist while gripping a large, hot slice of veggie pizza was not a good idea. "Yes, she's good at charming people."
The perfect jobs had dried up fairly quickly. Solsken had been apologetic about this while offering what Bruno vaguely called "chores"—work that was legal but not something to be proud of. He'd done the chores—"spying for guilds, conjuring demons to retrieve items people couldn't finish paying for, that sort of thing"—because even in the Realm you needed money to live, and he had a wedding to save up for. But these tasks had left him feeling…befouled. Unclean.
"And then…let me guess. She came to you all excited. She had a job that was absolutely perfect for you and she just knew you'd love it. And the payment was exactly what you needed, so you didn't look too closely." Goldie bit savagely into her pizza, the red onions bitter in her mouth. "Maybe you felt you couldn't afford to. Not in the Realm's economy."
Bruno toyed with a morsel of fresh crab meat. "You seem to know a lot about it. Why don't you tell me what happened next?"
Goldie didn't have to think very hard. "The job was impossible, wasn't it? Maybe it required you to make lust potions or to duplicate one gold coin times infinity or to have those demons you'd conjured stop grabbing personal property and start grabbing people. Maybe you even told her that it would make her look bad. And she was very reasonable, wasn't she? Stepson's bones, I'll bet she agreed with you. But after that, the work dried up. And somehow, she just forgot about all that back pay she owed you—because there weren't any records that you'd ever done any work for her, were there? Did she also tell you that she was seriously ill and in debt and that you'd have to wait to be paid? Or did her house suddenly need so many repairs that she couldn't afford to pay her employees…at least not right away?"
The expression on Bruno's face—that of someone who had just had a brick wall fall on his head—was answer enough.
"How did she manage to hand you lines like that?" he asked at last. "You're a—"
"Burglar, yes," Goldie replied wearily. "Tell me, do you ever have trouble with people back home not seeing you as anything but a baby bear?"
It was difficult for people, Realm-born or not, to break free of the power of stories, especially if they were part of a well-known one. Stories were patterns, and patterns, like viruses, tended to duplicate themselves. Much of the Realm would never seen Goldie as anything but seven-year-old Goldilocks. She suspected that Bruno, formerly a squeaky-voiced bear cub, was dealing with the same phenomena.
It didn't help to know that the patterns were, in some ways, still prevailing. She was still breaking and entering. And Bruno…well, he still wanted everything just right. Small wonder that Solsken's "chores" had been less than tolerable.
They continued eating in companionable silence for a while. At last Bruno said in a dreamily thoughtful voice, "So how should we get our revenge on her?"
Goldie's whitish-blonde eyebrows escalated nearly to her hairline…not that Bruno could see this. "What makes you think that I want revenge?" It sounded weak, even to her. "And shouldn't you be talking to Einar about this, not me?"
"No," Bruno retorted. "He hasn't dealt with Solsken. You have. So what do you want?"
"My money. Her records—I know that she has them. And a way to ensure that she won't be able to do this again."
"And an end to her influence," Bruno added. "So that she won't be able to crawl back into power again with the help of her friends."
Goldie wiped her greasy fingers on a handful of royal blue paper napkins and then leaned back against a faded, floral-patterned couch that had probably been the height of style in 1970. "You sound like you've got a plan."
"Not until I saw you today," Bruno said with a fierce smile. "Now…I have a few ideas. And I know some other people—Animal people—who might be able to help as well."
A thousand protests rose to Goldie's lips—that Solsken had numerous complex magical wards encircling her at all times, and probably had even more at whatever passed for her home and office, that she was rumored to be under the protection of three fairies, that she had once been the Guildmistress for the Thieves' Guild and the lover of the captain of Queen Cinderella's guards, that she went to accredited seers every day to learn what lay ahead for her. Legend said that Solsken knew everyone's secrets, and that this was what kept her safe.
I wonder how safe the people whose secrets she knows feel, said a wry voice deep inside her. Their lives must be a horror.
No. They were caught in a horror story.
And in between one thought and the next, Goldie knew how to defeat Solsken.
"Tell me about your plans, Bruno," she said, chuckling deep in her throat. "I might have an idea about how to beat her, too."
Planning vengeance—and gathering co-conspirators—took time, of course. But after several weeks, they had amassed a crew: Todd, a cynical Fox who claimed to have saved the hides of a dozen or more foolish princes while running afoul of a human cheat; Roah, a snobbish Raven who boasted of relatives who'd advised kings and gods; Piper and Viola, Alviss Pig's twin rock musician nieces; Hari, a gossipy Monkey who was terrified of sharks and who considered Solsken to be the local equivalent; and the group's enforcer, the Eldest Billy Goat Gruff. If nothing else, they knew that he could crush a bridge underfoot…and knock out any goat-eating trolls beneath it as well.
Plus, of course, an ursine wizard who was good at creating glamours of humans, provided he wasn't overtired, and a burglar who couldn't help thinking that this plan was too hard and that her crew was too soft.
About three weeks after the Gruff had joined them in a rural Realm village called Sparrow's Point—trying to recruit in the capital, right under the nose of Solsken, seemed unwise—Roah returned from a scouting trip to the city. "She's left the capital. Going off to have some meetings with her fellow investors, she told her guards, though she didn't say where."
"The dwarf kingdom," Goldie said with absolute certainty. "I've heard her bi—er, complain often enough that she just can't get them to invest in any of her enormously influential and yet strangely unprofitable businesses."
"Well, of course," said Todd, with a flick of his tail that somehow contrived to be sarcastic. "Dwarves have good taste."
"How did she leave the city?" That was Bruno, who, like the rest of them, was wearing the glamour of someone who didn't resemble his true self at all.
Roah toyed with his shiny fork, nibbling it a little. "Nothing too grandiose. A gilt coach and four, which will interest my magpie cousins and several bands of outlaws. Four guards, all young and seemingly chosen for their ability to wear armor well and look impressive while nearly dropping their swords on their feet. But nothing that smacked of magic."
"That's impossible," Goldie snapped. "She always uses magic for protection."
"At least she says she does," replied the Gruff. "Todd and I will check; we have the best noses. Roah, what route did she take?"
The two returned to the inn at Sparrow's Point two hours later with the news that while Solsken's coach had traveled the white, smoothly paved Khuldas Road—a dwarven version of a king's highway, coiling in and out of the Gamaldek Mountains to the northwest—nothing in or around the coach had smelled of any form of magic, be it fairy, necromantic, or anything in between. And, barring the showy guards, she was traveling alone.
Bruno scowled at this. "Either she doesn't expect anyone to attack her or she's daring someone to."
"We will. Just not how she expects." Goldie sighed. "Get ready to head to the capital, everyone. I'll go pay the bill."
Over the next several weeks, rumors began circulating in the capital. The first was that Solsken was mildly ill, which very quickly was corrected to "severely ill." The theory that Solsken was in dire need of healers morphed into speculation on the nature of the illness and jests about her needing to get out of the city for her health. Songs sprang up in various bars—always sung by two gifted musicians, who never looked even remotely alike—about treasure troves Solsken had stolen from her hirelings and ill-gotten secrets as potent as spells that transformed the powerful into puppets. An apelike street entertainer—or was it multiple entertainers? —did an entire routine about Solsken not having a heart in her breast and that doubtless she had hidden it somewhere to keep it from being…troublesome.
Contradicting all of this were bands of three, each containing a hitter, a rogue who fought as beasts do, with claws and teeth, and a wizard, but all of different races, sexes and species. They swore up and down that there was no proof that Solsken was a blackmailing thief and certainly none that she was a lich, and they punctuated these statements with club-like blows, slashing wounds and conjurations the like of which no one had ever seen. Strangely, the more physically emphatic that they were, the less the common people believed them.
When the Guildmasters and Guildmistresses remained silent (or agreed that this was mere gossip), the populace's howls that they were corrupt only grew stronger. The air began to be filled with tense mutters—not all from the commoners—that this was not their idea of a happily ever after.
Goldie resolutely stayed out of it. She was no enforcer, and if the plan worked out as it was supposed to, she would be better off if she had never spoken a single rumor. Instead, she washed the black dye from her blonde curls and took a very conspicuous job climbing and repairing a church tower under the noonday sun. Then she waited for her presence, the rumors and, if all else failed, the pointed suggestions of her allies to push the job into the next phase.
Three days after she was hired, the Queen's Guards showed up…along with Guildmistress Orvathar and her bodyguards.
Orvathar (Goldie had no notion of the woman's given name) looked like many elves: arrow-slim and over six feet tall with rich brown skin, a close-cropped black cap of natural hair, and delicately pointed ears. She appeared to be about twenty-five and was probably at least twenty times that age. With her head held regally high, as it was now, and clad in the artfully simple white robes and faintly glowing moonstone armlets of the Lawgivers, she could easily have been taken for a priestess…or a living statue of Idourr, the goddess of valor, justice and pity.
"Goldilocks," Orvathar said in a clear, carrying voice.
Solsken probably heard that up in the mountains, Goldie reflected sourly. Oh, well.
Aloud she said, "It's just Goldie nowadays, Guildmistress. Goldilocks sounds a bit too…juvenile."
The slightly sardonic flick of Orvathar's glance said more emphatically than words that all humans were juvenile to her, but that she wasn't going to bring that up. "May I ask what you're doing in town? You left rather hastily."
"Yes," said Goldie calmly, keeping her gaze fixed on Orvathar's face. "I'd been told that someone had been spreading lies about me to the Thieves' Guild. It seemed healthier to get out of town."
All of which was absolutely true. She had been told that lies were being spread. It was just that the person who had informed her of this was also the liar.
"And I suppose that you're not planning on robbing this church, or any of the surrounding buildings."
"I'm just here to earn some honest gold," Goldie replied with a shrug. "I haven't been paid lately. I'm broke. And I'm in the habit of eating."
"The last person you worked for was Ishild Solsken, wasn't it." Orvathar's tone made it clear that this was not truly a question. "Why didn't she pay you?"
Goldie groaned. "I have no idea."
The truth-spelled moonstones momentarily turned black. Orvathar gazed at her in what could only be described as stern pity. "Would you care to reconsider your answer?"
"I don't know!" Goldie shouted, flinging her hands skyward. "She said that she couldn't afford to pay me, but then I got back to town and heard that she'd gone out of town on some trip. At first I thought, 'People don't normally go on vacation when they're in need of money, do they?', but then I realized that I'd left town when I was out of money. Stepson's bones, I don't know why Solsken does anything!" Granted, she could draw a few deductions…but from a magical artifact's standpoint, that wasn't the same as certain knowledge.
And, as if on cue, Orvathar's moonstone armlets started glowing again.
Despite this, Orvathar still looked suspicious. She probably was; Orvathar was bright. Far too bright to rely wholly on the vagaries of enchanted objects. It was just unfortunate that she'd been born with a complex code of honor. The woman would have made a better paladin than a thief-taker.
Ten thousand questions followed, all taking place on the street, where all citizens could see and hear what was going on, and some embarrassing. Why was Goldie working on the church tower? (It was the first place that had hired her.) Who had she associated with since arriving in the capital? (No one, unless you counted work crews and supervisors.) Where was she staying? (At the Seven Swords Inn. The beds weren't much but the food was filling and cheap.) Had she heard the rumors about Ishild Solsken? (How could anyone live in this city and not hear them?) Had she repeated any of them? (No. They'd parted on bad terms, and she didn't see any point in making Solsken any angrier.) On and on and on.
Goldie let herself slip once or twice more. The Guildmistress might believe that people were fundamentally truthful, but her bodyguards, who were also Lawgivers, would be likelier to believe a thief who occasionally lied, for then they could rationalize her honesty as something that sprang from bone-cold fear. It was amazing how many Lawgivers mistook terror for respect.
Finally, there came a question that she could not answer: "Do you know where Ishild Solsken lives?"
"No," Goldie said. "I tried to find out before I left town—"
"Why did you do that?"
"Because Solsken kept telling me that she was poor while talking about needing to do repairs—or was it renovations?—to her house," Goldie replied, seething quietly. "I've lived in cottages and hovels my whole life. I've never heard of renovating a hovel. And Solsken wasn't paying me. So I wanted to see where the money was going." A pause. "Only I never learned her address. I never found out where she lives."
"And what would you have done if you had?" grated a Lawgiver-bodyguard, after glancing at Orvathar's serenely glowing armlets.
Goldie couldn't look him in the eyes, as he was completely helmeted, but she stared at the slits where his eyes had to be. "I probably would have stolen her blind. Or tried to, and been caught."
"And killed her!" snapped the bodyguard.
It was on the tip of Goldie's tongue to say don't be stupid. Choking it back, she spoke with exaggerated patience. "Murderers get punished in the Realm. They're killed or transformed or cursed by the literal wrath of Heaven. Thieves live. I hate her, yes. But she's not worth dying for."
As the bodyguard glared at her and Orvathar managed to look both disapproving and sympathetic, a Lawgiver-in-training who couldn't have been more than fifteen ran up to the Guildmistress. "Excuse me, ma'am, but our wizard has located the house. It hasn't been interfered with, so far as we know—"
"'So far as you know'?" Orvathar said quietly, seemingly growing an inch or two more as she spoke.
The trainee studied the cobblestones as if his last, best hope was written there. "We got permission to enter an hour ago"—he brandished an illuminated search warrant signed by King Charming—"but we can't unlock it. We can't even touch the door. Wizard Celinet tried blasting it down and was nearly knocked through a fruit cart. The Thieves' Guild sent over three of their best locksmiths. One got struck by lightning and the second is sleeping and won't wake up. The third took one look at the doors and ran." His sagging posture fairly shouted the one thing he didn't dare say to Orvathar: None of us knows what to do.
Orvathar considered for a few moments. Then, belatedly, she wheeled on Goldie. "Don't leave the city. We may need to continue this later." Without waiting for an answer, she motioned to her bodyguards. "Show us," she said to the trainee.
A moment later, they were gone.
Five minutes later, so was Goldie's new job. Goldie put up some token resistance, but once the man who'd hired her had yelled himself hoarse, she escaped to a nearby tavern, where she settled in to wait for Orvathar's return. If two thieves and a wizard had already been sidelined by bespelled locks and an enchanted door, there wouldn't be many from either guild who'd be willing to attempt unlocking them. And if the King himself was authorizing searches, the rumors about Solsken had reached some very highly placed ears. The Lawgivers would have to enter the house today; anything less would be suspect, and the capital was already abroil with suspicion.
Sooner or later—and Goldie would bet on it being soon—Orvathar would need a thief who was known for getting into places that she shouldn't. Who had a whole story centered around that trait, in fact.
In the meantime, she politely asked the tavern keeper if his cook would make her a bowl of porridge, heavy on the honey and sweet cream. Enough for now, and a flaskful for later.
At times, a girl just needed some comfort food.
Orvathar returned an hour later, and Goldie, after settling her tab, went with her. After that, it was mostly a case of walking a tightrope between "these locks are impossibly dangerous, oh no" and "I could have walked in here at any time if I'd just known the damned address."
While Goldie tried to make a good show of almost opening the locks so that no one would suspect her when she climbed in through an alternate route, Bruno, who was wearing the glamour of a healer-priestess of Iseli—a daring thing to do so close to Orvathar's moonstones—did his best to help the dazed wizard and unconscious locksmiths.
"I don't want anyone saying when this is over that we didn't care if anyone got hurt," he whispered to her at one point during her lockpicking. "And don't worry. No one can hear me but you."
At last, however, Goldie stalled long enough to say (truthfully) that she could hear something humming beyond the front door…undoubtedly a trap and possibly, given Solsken's boasts, of fairy origin. She suspected that would decide Orvathar. Fairy traps were imaginative and devious. They were not kind.
"Is there another way in?" Orvathar asked. "Take it, if there is."
After that, it was just a question of crampons and toeholds, of making her way, inch by inch and yard by yard, up the side of the house.
She wasn't expecting the wall of the house to turn to glass when she was almost to the roof. But that was what levitation charms were for. It wasn't the best charm she'd ever used; Bruno was better at glamours. But it did stop her from falling, and gave her time to swing back and forth, building momentum until she could land on the roof (awkwardly) and near one of the chimneys.
She'd considered climbing into the chimney, but given the house's ability to transform while she was near it, that seemed like a bad plan. Fortunately, she didn't actually have to climb in to break the traps.
Slowly and carefully, she poured a portion of the porridge into each chimney. If she knew fairies, they'd break every single trap to get at the honey and sweet cream.
For a moment, the house swelled with golden light, filling with a humming that was almost intolerable. Then it vanished…and every door and window swung open. Goldie slipped into an attic window, crept down the stairs and found herself, naturally, in a bedroom.
Things always end in bedrooms for me, she thought. She had no doubt that the old pattern would prevail: something too hard, something too soft, and something just right.
The bedroom, at least, showed no signs of needing renovation. It was decorated with a boastful simplicity. I'm a plain person, I am, it said in pale walls and unadorned antique furniture. I could afford a palace, but I don't need much.
Goldie nodded. This is where she'd keep her treasure, if she has any. This would be the heart of the house, not the kitchen or the parlor. This is where she'd feel smugly elegant, the equal of any queen. I have to let the Lawgivers in, I know that, but first—
She examined the room, swiftly discovering (if stepping on the wrong floorboard and then ducking was discovery) a cruelly efficient crossbow that fired an iron bolt in her direction. This was followed by a patch of floor as softly sticky as molasses mixed with glue.
Too hard. Too soft. So what's in the bed?
Goldie leaped on the bed as she would have as a child and began examining it. She soon found three items: a hole in the side of the mattress that bled dwarf-cut jewels, a book beneath the pillow written in awkwardly scrawled runes (or were they pictograms?), and, inside the headboard, a ledger that documented every last copper.
She considered the jewels for a moment before deciding that taking a handful would be unwise. People tended to notice gems. And it would be hard to sell them for even a fraction of what they were worth. Besides, she could frustrate the Lawgivers so much more by proclaiming, in the presence of Orvathar and her truth-spelled armlets, that she hadn't touched or taken a single one.
The ledger….that might be evidence. But she was still going to get Bruno to cast eight duplication charms on it before she turned it in. (Or should that be octuplication?) Solsken still owed her and all seven of the Talking Animals money. And information was valuable, too.
As for the book with the odd letters…she wanted her crew to take a good look at it. Something told her it was important.
"Solsken is going to have a fit," Bruno said that evening while dining at Kanz. He was back to his old barista glamour. The others were in modified versions of the glamours they'd last used. The Gruff looked like a wrestler rather than a fighter. Piper and Viola were enthusing over a human-owned coffee shop that would never serve bacon or ham. Hari appeared to be a small, wizened grandfather who was one second away from a food fight. And Roah appeared to be sitting with his elbows on the table, though he was actually perched on it.
"Solsken is already having a fit," Piper…well…squealed. "She arrived just after Goldie gave Orvathar the original ledger."
"I thought she'd explode," Viola added dreamily.
So had Goldie, who had been there by Orvathar's side when Solsken had spotted the crowd surrounding her house and had raced toward Orvathar, all pretension to grandeur gone as her face turned purplish-red and she screamed like an enraged fishwife. She'd threatened Goldie, which Orvathar hadn't liked. Then she'd ordered the other Lawgivers to stop Orvathar, which every Lawgiver present had disliked heartily. Then she'd ordered the fairies to do her bidding, cursing at them for failing her.
The fairies hadn't appreciated that. At all. Solsken had very quickly found herself the target of multiple curses. When the glittering smoke had cleared, a hideous beast with bull's horns, a wolf's head, a raven's wings, a snake's body, cloven hooves (the hooves of sheep? Pigs? Goats?) and the tails of a lion, a squirrel and, for some reason, a gerbil was lying on the street looking both extremely angry and extremely confused, and the fairies were gone.
Goldie suspected that the curses had combined into the standard beastform transformation which required the target to become a better, more courteous person and to have someone fall in love with them. If this was the case, that spell would last a long, long time.
"Not to change the subject," Goldie said, pulling the indecipherable book from under her jacket, "but have any of you ever seen anything like this before?" She opened the book at random and showed them the mysterious writing, explaining where she'd found it.
There was a tense silence. Finally, Roah spoke. "That's…that's the written language of Talking Beasts. It's private; we only use it among ourselves." He gazed at her unapologetically. "Humans—and other non-Beasts—have taken too much already."
"But this isn't about our people," said Bruno, whose glamour wore a stunned snarl. "It's…secrets about the Realm's powerful. Things they paid her not to tell. Spells she had hirelings weave to keep her—targets—loyal to her. And…gods, she convinced them that the ones with real power over them were Talking Animals. She took people who were afraid of us and made them more frightened. And then, when they were so scared they might have turned on her—"
"She gave them someone to hate, " rumbled the Gruff. "Us."
A bitter silence fell.
Goldie was the first to break it. "So we're agreed. No blackmail."
There was an emphatic murmur of agreement at this.
"Good. Would you agree that we need to unravel the damage she's done, and that not a single town crier or gossipy bartender can do it? Because I have an idea. It would involve work, of course, but with the right machinery and a little practice, it could earn us money and change the Realm. It might even change people's minds."
Bruno squinted at her. "How?"
Goldie gave him a beatific smile. Blogging was out of the question--most of the Realm hadn't had an industrial revolution yet, and she had no idea how to build magic-based computers--but she thought that she'd come up with an adequate substitute.
"Have you ever heard newspapers?" she said, grinning. "There are printing presses back home. They just aren't used much. Wouldn't it be nice to have commoner-focused news for a change, instead of what gets bellowed at us by town criers or handed down by royal edict?"
"And news about Talking Animals," replied Bruno, the snarl on his glamour dissolving into a trickster's wicked smile. "We could even have an edition in our own language."
"International news," Roah put in. "Of course, you'll need some practiced long-distance fliers for that. I know some Talking Swans--"
"And I can be a political reporter," added Todd, smirking...well...slyly. "All I'd have to do is attend meetings, write down what happens, and ask questions at the right time. I think that one or two of the princes whose lives I saved will allow that."
"How are we going to do all this writing without...well...hands?" asked Piper plaintively. "Glamours are fine, but Viola and I have hooves."
The response, surprisingly, came from the Gruff. "Imports. From this world." He glanced at Bruno. "You're not the only one who ever moved here to earn some gold. I used to work in an electronics store--at night, because I bought a second-hand glamour from a drunk sorcerer and it wasn't very good."
He shrugged. "Anyway. Get a few voice-activated recorders. Learn how to use them. And then work with them while we get things like camcorders to the dwarves and the goblins. I'll wager ten battles with trolls that they'll compete to create versions with dwarven magic--or goblin magic--and our world's machinery. We can even challenge them to make cameras and recorders for Talking Animals. A whole new market."
His voice turned dry as he glanced at each of them in turn. "If all else fails, we can tell them that inventing anything like that is impossible. It's amazing how many beings take that as a personal challenge."
Bruno gaped at him. "I never pictured you as a technophile."
"I can be a hitter and what mortals call a nerd," the Gruff said with a snort. "We're more than our stories, wizard."
"The only question," said Hari, with a solemn grimace that only a monkey could manage, "is whether or not we reporters can find enough stories to tell."
"Oh, I'm not worried about that." Goldie tapped Solsken's book. "With a story about blackmail, magical manipulation, deceit, bigotry and political intrigue, I've think we've already got our first scoop. And once we write it, it'll be Solsken's story. She'll never get away from it."
Bruno caught on immediately. "And telling what's happening so that the whole Realm can know...that'll become part of our tales. "
Goldie gave him a pumpkin grin and nodded.
It wouldn't be automatic. Stories tended to like established patterns. But they also liked metaphors. She was known for finding things that she wasn't supposed to find and getting away with it. Bruno and his parents were known for investigating and discovering mysteries. Their story-patterns would expand to fit reporting.
And that, of course, would change the Realm. Good. The status quo's been in need of change for a long, long time.
And even though this had never been done before, she couldn't help but be optimistic.
All the ideas that had been mentioned this evening felt just right.