Dinner at the mansion Hevrany was much like the company of the Margravine herself: periodic flurries of activity interspersed with long minutes of tense intimacy.
Jantis, who apparently was the head butler despite his age—Thijis chose to attribute this first failing of his deductive powers to the idiosyncratic, and therefore unpredictable, nature of the Margravine’s household—commanded an army of servants who served the first course with the choreographed grace of a dance company. Thijis looked down to discover a square of lightly sauced fanfish on a gold trimmed plate before him. It was the first of many beautiful dishes, each of them served glistening with butter or lemon or the inimitable vibrancy of extremely fresh food. He lost track of how many courses there were.
The Margravine managed to be an engaged conversationalist while eating like a horse, a quality that Thijis found both endearing and a bit disturbing. The appetite of the young often frightens the old, he reminded himself, but with Mariel Hevrany there seemed to be more to it.
They finished two courses and opened a second bottle of wine, discussing industry and chess, of which the Margravine appeared to be a fan, before Thijis got to business.
“As lovely as your company is, my lady, I believe I’m required by professional dignity, at this point, to ask what service I can be to you. And to elaborate on your earlier concern regarding our, um, mutual undoing.”
Lady Hevrany brought her napkin to her exquisite lips and dabbed gently before responding.
“I should think you would have figured that out by now, detective,” said the Margravine, smiling devilishly. “What is it you call it, that thing you do—deduction?”
“I fear the level of research you’ve done on me, my lady, has left me quite naked before you,” said Thijis.
“One of us wishes,” said the lady, deadpan.
“Er-hemm. Yes, well. Let us see,” managed Irik, tugging at his cravat unnecessarily. He thought for a moment before deciding to be blunt. “I can only presume you refer to the unfortunate case of Doktor Keynish Helg. Though I maintain hope that your invitation might have been entirely social.” He raised his glass and gave her a smile. She gazed back dryly.
The dining room they sat in was high-ceilinged but small, an intimate space, for this house. The small fireplace on the interior wall was cold, unnecessary on a warm Oridosi summer night, but scented candles had been lit in place of a blaze. The Margravine was seated at the opposite end of a dining table perhaps ten feet in length: modest by the standards of Lewsberg Court but easily dwarfing anything at which he was used to eating.
The servants reappeared to clear the present course, and Lady Hevrany rose, glided down the table in his direction, and reseated herself next to him so they were sharing a corner. Jantis had her place reset in moments.
“I asked you here tonight with the intention of employing you, Mr. Thijis.”
“The privilege of being in private practice, madam,” said Thijis, setting down his glass, “is that I get to choose my clients.”
She sat back in her chair and raised one manicured eyebrow. “And to think I thought of this as your interview.”
“I like to deal with clients at arms’ length, my lady,” explained Thijis. “And I would be lying if I said that I was entirely clear on any of your intentions.” Or who the fuck you really are, or what the fuck you really want.
“My dear, dear Mr. Thijis,” said the Margravine. “We may never have met socially, but our paths have crossed before, if under different names and titles. And I have certainly been watching you for some time now. It has been said that one should know one’s enemy. In my game, I like to know my opponents, real and prospective, in every way that I can.”
“Perhaps you’ll do me the courtesy of refreshing my memory, my lady, as I—”
She laid a hand on his arm, leaning in toward him. She smelled of honeysuckle and citrus.
“In the Warrens,” said the Margravine, “they call me Mother.”
* * *
To know a city is to know it from the lowest ghetto to the highest manse. In the city of Oridos there is a saying: know the city, know your Mother.
For as long as there has been an Oridos, there has been a figure in it known as the Mother, in one form or another. Over the many centuries since the Taking, when the Elimannen crusaders reclaimed their holy city from the Eberai, the Mother has borne many faces. Whether brown or white or gold, they were women’s faces, stern of aspect and cold of eye. For in Oridos, as the saying continues, Mother is watching.
As of Year 421 of the Third Era of Our Lord, the identity of the current Mother of Oridos is a closely guarded secret known only to a very few.
The few Oridosi who even know the title outside of the Warrens and the Sheriff’s precincts speak of it in hushed tones or drunken boasting exclusively. In the Fourth Tribe, her name is uttered reverently or not at all.
The proprietor of that venerable institution, Mister Arven Mallick, has been known to tell a story if the time is right and the crowd a contemplative one. This is not a tale to be requested during peak business hours or while the weekend rush is thrumming and drunk. This is a tale to be listened to respectfully, when the bar is quiet and the bartender finds himself in a rare mood.
It begins, as most Warrens stories do, in the Tribe itself. On a weekend night well past dark, a minor lordling who had convinced his friends from University to join him in a night of vice and slumming in the flesh salons, decided that their evening would only be complete with a visit to the infamous headquarters of Oridosi villainy.
Tourists have always been tolerated in the Tribe, especially at night, especially on the weekends, and especially if they’re liberal with their crowns. Which counts for nothing if and when they overstay their welcome, at which point a nod from Mallick to one of the slab-muscled fellows who work the door puts the unfortunate carousers out on their asses, lucky, if they’ve half a brain, to still have their asses intact. Common and aristocratic asses alike have suffered this protocol, and for the most part have thanked said muscular gentlemen for their forbearance and gone quietly home.
Not all men are gifted with common sense, but a bad drunk flings what sense he has like so much feces.
His name was Lord Jaken Ergat and he was twenty-five years old. The son of a minor earl, he was, loosely speaking, studying finance at the University. More specifically, he was studying the financial effects of spending one’s inheritance on whores and mind-altering substances. Most of which can, of course, be found primarily in the Warrens.
When he wasn’t bed-ridden with sauma withdrawal or running up a tab with any one of the numerous escort houses that serviced the University district, young Ergat most enjoyed leading exactly the type of louche pub crawls that define the nightlife of young, monied students. University has its own alehouses, of course, but the true vice is to be found to the northwest, in the Warrens, under the shadow of the wall.
It’s unclear how many establishments they’d patronized before showing up at the Tribe that evening, but what was crystal clear to Mr. Mallick as soon as they bellied up to the bar was that they were drunk to the bowels. Ergat in particular was a slurring mess, his fine waistcoat soiled with some unspeakable substance. His friends mostly seemed impressed that he’d talked his way in the door, an achievement Mallick himself was also wondering about.
Being a calm man at the worst of times, Arven wiped down his bar and asked what they’d like. A man who measured anxiety by the slight rumblings of his well-fed belly and little else, Arven was momentarily appeased by Ergat’s drink order: two bottles of Emmerline Gold, the golden apple brandy the ancient southern estate was known for and one of the most expensive bottles on the Tribe’s shelves.
On a normal night, Ergat and his friends’ wassailing might have gone unremarked upon, if not unnoticed, but this was not a normal night. This was a night in mid-autumn, when the last of summer’s heat had finally begun to wear off, and Arnald Braksley had just returned from his great southern expedition.
Mister Braksley was tall and lean, with the weathered bronze skin of a man who had spent most of his life not only outdoors but in harsh conditions. He was known for wearing a broad-brimmed plainsman’s hat, for being gifted with horses, for having sailed multiple times outside the great seawalls during storm season and survived, and for not suffering fools. This being said he was not a brash man, or belligerent; on the contrary. As much as for any of these other things Braksley was known as a thoughtful person who would as soon buy you a drink as get in your way.
To the denizens of the Warrens, Braksley was a man to be counted on, a man who got things done, and a man whose morality, while firm, was very much his own. Perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this story, Arnald Braksley was an explorer financed in no small part by Oridos’ dear Mother.
Many said he was one of the few who knew her face, and who reliably knew where to find her. Others said they were lovers, that theirs was a tale of careful, hidden passion. But what everyone who knew him was clear on was that his tolerance for Mother’s enemies made his tolerance for fools look downright friendly.
Young Ergat must have been something of a tabloid reader in his free time—and Ergat had nothing but free time—because half a bottle of Emmerline Gold later he began to speculate about the identity of the matriarch of the Oridosi underworld quite loudly.
As Mallick tells it, at least one of his friends tried to quiet him down from the beginning, and by the end, when the unblinking stares of the few regular Tribe patrons in the place at such an amateur hour became too obvious for even a drunk aristo to miss, the rest of his friends did too.
But Ergat, to his misfortune, was the son of a lord. Someday, he would be a lord in his own right. Who were the lowly clientele of what amounted to a commoner’s tavern to judge him? And with that thought, the gates clanged open, and his blueblood ego emerged in full, drunken glory.
There was yelling. There were accusations made. There were challenges. Finally, Ergat took to his tabletop and loudly declared that he would give a small fortune to the man who could put a face and a name to the dark, misty matron that the city knew only as Mother, pointing one long, aristocratic index finger at the verse carved into the wall behind the bar and saying that he’d like to “answer to Mother” himself. Arven Mallick claims that the lascivious tone with which he spoke the latter was obvious to all present. Ergat was met with dead silence.
The quiet that can steal over the Fourth Tribe when one of the unspoken rules of the criminal fraternity is broken can be deafening. A moment passed, then two, and finally Jaken Ergat climbed, stumbling, down from his perch only to slip in a puddle of his own brandy. A strong bronze hand caught him, pulled him to his feet, and he found himself eye to chin with Arnald Braksley.
Braksley brushed off Ergat’s shoulders for him, took his hand in greeting, leaned in close, and whispered something in his ear. He spoke for only a few moments, but when he was finished the front of Ergat’s fine breeches was dark and wet, and his noble face had gone from pale to deathly pallid. He nodded once, and Braksley led him to the door, supporting him by the elbow for most of the way. His friends followed in silent horror.
Three days later, a humbly dressed messenger from House Ergat arrived at the Fourth Tribe around dinnertime and presented Mallick with a heavy box and a sealed letter addressed to Arnald Braksley. The timing was preordained: Braksley arrived moments after the messenger had departed, and opened the letter while sitting at the bar.
He opened the box, a fine lacquered hardwood chest of the kind a lord might keep for his cigars, looked inside, and smiled. Inside, according to Mallick, were several hundred gold crowns and a wad of stained cloth. Braksley unwrapped the cloth gingerly, and lying before them on Mallick’s pristine oaken bar was a long, pale index finger, sliced off cleanly just below the knuckle. On it was a lord’s signet ring bearing the old Elimannen letter E. The seal on the letter was Ergat’s own.
Braksley took a small amount of the cash and presented the rest to Mallick for the needs of the Fourth Tribe. What he did with the finger, and the ring, and what Ergat said in his letter all remain mysteries. Arnald Braksley has never told.
Jaken Ergat was never seen again in the Warrens. He succeeded to his father’s seat at the age of 39 and is rarely seen outside of his family manse. He never took a wife, and has no surviving heirs.
* * *
Thijis had preferred to bury Arven’s comment about “Mom” somewhere deep in the back of his mind, where he had hoped to ignore it until it withered and died. Irik Thijis considered himself to be of above average intelligence, and the dimmest pickpocket on the Gash knew that you didn’t get involved in Mother’s business unless she asked you to. Even then, a high degree of caution was warranted.
His heart thumped in his chest. He had no immediate verbal response. His conscious mind was divided between shock and interest, while the powerful engines that hunkered fitfully far below ground into sudden motion, calculating and reassessing and reorganizing a multitude of different facts and assumptions.
“More dangerous words have rarely been spoken, my lady,” Thijis said.
“Dangerous for you, or for me?” she asked, looking at him carefully.
“For me, I think,” said Thijis. The simple knowledge of it stuck in his brain like a hot spike, a great secret that might sooner end him than aid him.
“Not if I’m the one who told you,” she said, leaning back in her chair. She sipped her wine, still watching him over the rim of the glass.
The possibility that she might be lying seemed low. For one thing, hers was not an assertion one made in the city of Oridos and expected to see another sunsrise. The few unfortunate souls stupid enough to impersonate Mother had met ends alternatively quiet and public; it was difficult to say which kind had been more disturbing. For another, the clicking logic in his mind wanted to confirm it was true.
A dozen dozen inchoate bits of knowledge about the Mother of Oridos, her modus operandi, and the mysteries associated with her identity had started to click into place like mosaic tiles as soon as she’d said it. The resulting image, crafted from what in other minds might be simple mental flotsam but in Irik Thijis’ mind were carefully filed fragments of information, looked a lot like Mariel Hevrany.
“I wondered,” he said, “if you were hiding in plain sight. Perhaps not the most practical way to go about being the empress of organized crime, but certainly one of the more adventurous. Let it never be said that you don’t have style, Mother.”
She quirked a smile. “Oh? What would be more pragmatic? Hiding in the Undercity, hatching devilish plots in my underground lair? Perhaps you envisioned me with a hooked nose and coal black eyes, a flabby-breasted crone with dark, shamanic powers. Exerting her bony grasp, and all that.”
“That would certainly be how Warrener children imagined it. Like some villainess out of an old Black Hunter tale.” He smiled. “The Mother Spider crouches over her web.” Trading stories of Black Hunter, the half-mythical vigilante who had haunted the streets in Irik’s parents’ day, was a favorite pastime of Oridosi children. They were actually printing little books about him now, cheap things made of pulpy newsprint drawn with crude illustrations in black ink. This week in Tales of the Black Hunter…
“No, my lady,” continued Thijis, “my thought was that you would look surpassingly ordinary. Just another woman in the crowd, not to be glanced at twice. Ordinariness seems the best camouflage, to me, but then, what do I know?”
“You don’t think I’m ordinary, Mr. Thijis?” He could see she was playing with him now, and despite the newly thin ice on which he found himself walking, Thijis thought it best to continue in the same vein as before. If she was testing his mettle, he’d not let her down.
“My lady Hevrany,” he said, “in the short time I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you, I would have to say that you seem to be anything and everything but ordinary.”
“You must have questions. Now is the time to begin asking them.”
“Two, in fact,” said Thijis. “First, what is your relationship to Keynish Helg? Second, and perhaps more importantly, how could that desiccated old man prove the undoing of anyone, let alone the most dangerous person in Oridos?”
“I have known Keynish Helg since I was a child,” said the Margravine, her glacial eyes older than their years. “The Helg family has old roots in this city. They were a great house, once, but unlike some of us they never recovered from the Race War. Key is the last of them, and inherited the last of their money. Which is mostly gone now, too, I should think. I’m not even certain he owns his mansion anymore. He’s obsessed with his research, you see.”
“I did see.”
“Yes,” she continued. “Which brings us to the point. I am involved in certain…business ventures with a number of partners. Doktor Helg was one of several scientists we contracted with to do research into the potential industrial uses of elekstone.”
“That’s all a bit hand-wavey, if you don’t mind me saying so, Margravine,” said Thijis. “That is to say, you just told me a bunch of things without really telling me anything, now didn’t you?”
“There will be some things I can share with you going forward, Mr. Thijis, and some things I cannot.”
“Sorry. I don’t work that way,” he replied, finishing his wine and waving for more.
“I am not being arbitrarily difficult, Mr. Thijis. Not all secrets are mine to tell.”
“They’re like that, secrets.”
“Nor am I accustomed to being refused.”
“I haven’t refused you, my lady,” Thijis said, moderating his tone. “I am simply telling you what my process consists of. Generally, it starts with the client telling me everything they know about their current predicament. Incidentally, are you aware of what your friend Keynish has been keeping in his basement?”
She looked at him grimly. “One of the many reasons you’re here.”
“What, pray tell, are the others? And you haven’t answered my question about Helg.”
“I need you to look into this for me, Mr. Thijis. I need to know what Helg knows, and I need to know who put you and the police onto him.”
“So it wasn’t you that drew us into this,” said Thijis. She didn’t respond. “As for what Helg knows, you just said he works for you.”
“He’s in sheriff’s custody,” said the Margravine.
“Surely that wouldn’t stop you. It can’t be just a myth that you have undersheriffs on the payroll.”
“Some things are best handled from the outside. Your connections with the sheriff’s department may be just as effective and will undoubtedly draw less attention than mine.”
“Keynish Helg clearly has his own motivations. I wasn’t aware of…how far he’d taken his research. I may not have allowed it, had he come to me. But his intellect is impressive, and despite his methods his results seem promising.”
“I’m enthralled by your moral fortitude, my lady,” said Thijis.
“Watch your mouth, detective,” said Hevrany. “Before it gets you in trouble.” Thijis cleared his throat.
“My apologies. Is there nothing else you can tell me?”
“Trust no one. This situation is a many-headed beast, Mr. Thijis.”
“Ominous,” he said. “Very well. You’ve intrigued me. I’ll take the case.” As if you wanted to refuse her, said one voice in Thijis’ head, and: did you think you’d walk out of here if you had? said another. “I’ll need a retainer.”
“Jantis,” the Margravine said quietly. The butler emerged from the shadows near the door to the kitchens as if by magic, removing Thijis’ dinner plate and laying a leather portfolio in its place. Thijis opened it.
He’d expected a bag of crowns, perhaps a clip of banknotes. Inside the folder were a handful of documents and a silver key. The letterhead bore the seal of Kaznov & Fullerin, an Oridosi banking house.
“A line of credit?” asked Thijis. The Margravine nodded. He flipped to the second page of the sheaf of creamy paper and saw the credit limit on the account, underscored in dark black ink. His eyes widened and flicked to hers in an instant.
“I’m at your service, my lady,” he said.
* * *
The ethereal network of the Holy Phiros was beginning to gel around him, its viscosity noticeably thicker than it had been only minutes before. Key had thought he would be able to make it, gliding in past the outer barriers on inertia alone if necessary, before the density got so bad, but it was becoming increasingly clear that he lacked sufficient velocity to break through. Had he been embodied, he might have growled; the growl of a sauma fiend, a sound of utter craving undercut by a deep self-loathing evident in every note of its disharmony.
He arrested his motion, stopping as suddenly as a cautious rat, and considered the amber universe around him. To fly through a golden sky—how magical, Key! Seffa had been incurably sentimental: nothing was as important as the experience of something, as the emotions it drew out of her. Where Helg saw a landscape, she saw beauty; where he saw information on a page, she poetry. Where he saw a key to unlocking more light and knowledge, she saw a fantasy of flying through a mystical realm. He had once found it almost intolerable, a feeling he looked back on with a disgust he reserved only for his younger self. Now it seemed the source of all meaning, of all knowledge. Seffa was light, and Key sought that light like a drowning man sought air.
As the Phirotic infrastructure thickened around him, it also began to fade out. It felt counterintuitive. He reminded himself that despite the feeling that it was the Phiros itself that was changing, it was only a change in perception. He was falling out of the space of the Phiros, leaving its environs and phasing back into what most people thought of as the real world. The Phiros was by its very nature a paradox: it existed in reality and outside of it, simultaneously infinitely large and impossibly small. It curled within the very substrate of the universe, lying in wait for those with the ability to tap its potential. All accessible through the lens of a mineral traded like some crude commodity.
The detachment that came with sailing the seas of the Phiros faded too, and by measured increments Key again became aware that he was a man, with a body, with a body’s needs, desires, and passions. Only the need for Seffa came through in the amber sea. Key could not account for the transference of this singular feeling, when all others faded to nothing. In the Phirotic sea there was only data, but for the desire for her, which he was forced to categorize it as an unexplained phenomenon. Settling back into his body, he returned to the warm comfort of the belief that it was her own purity that made his search for her persevere into that other place. Surely there was something more than human to Seffa, some divine, ineffable light that was constant through all realms of creation. Surely he, Key, could sense it; surely she could sense his need, wherever she was. Surely she strained for him as well?
His line of thought faltered, as it always did at this point. Logic brought him only so far, and then came the darkness of questions without answers. He assigned to the black space that was Seffa and her feelings for him a variable, and let it remain, for the present, unknown. It was better that way.
With his body came the rage, the frustration, the furious knowledge that he had failed. He had been so sure that this time would be the breakthrough he needed. Keynish Helg blinked his eyes and awoke to pain.