Without further ado, here is an excerpt from The Princess Dilemma.
Ciotoph had begun to realize that finding the princess would not be an easy job. The night was well behind him, and his pay was dwindling by the hour as he failed to turn up any clues on her whereabouts. He was in the city, because he didn't think she was crazy enough to try to ride all the way back to Deveradi.
Usually, finding someone was an easy matter. As long as you had something that belonged to them, or a lock of their hair (or sometimes a more solid piece of their body, especially if you worked for The Fox), you went to a wizard who specialized in such things and he'd magic up their location for you. The only difficult part was getting to where they were before they left.
Of course, King Linnaried had to cover his sister in anti-magic wards, and now that wasn't an option. He had to do things the hard way, and while he had a lot of skills, finding people wasn't really one of them. He was having to rely far too heavily on his natural cunning and charm, without any expertise to back it up. He could tell that he was floundering.
The first thing he'd done upon reaching Elgaris was check the inns closest to the gate. No one at any of them admitted to having seen Nyeida. He checked the stables for Daisy, too, and was disappointed to not find her. As night had softened to pre-dawn, he'd explored the allies, hoping she might have hidden in one, but all he found were beggars who sprang quickly awake and begged him for coins that he was not willing to part with.
He felt like an idiot. If he had half the brains that he usually thought he did, he would have brought something of Daisy's and had a wizard track her down. It stood to reason that wherever his horse was, the damned princess would be, too. And even if she wasn't, at least he'd have his horse back and he could stop riding Murder around.
Murder was demonstrating as much patience with city riding as he had with picking their way through the forest. He pulled at the bit, and snorted and shied from various things on the street. He even tried to bite a few beggars, which probably would have just given them more reason to demand his money. Ciotoph suspected that he'd do better on foot. It was about time to drop the contrary stallion off at a syndicate safe house. He had to get word out on the street anyway, even though paying informants was going to cut into his profit margin.
The problem was, after six months away from operations, he didn't know where any of the safe houses were. They moved them every few months, always a few steps ahead of the city guards – worthless lot that they were, and most of them were on the take anyway. What he did know were places to meet other members of the syndicate, someone who could tell him where to go.
He fought to get Murder's attention and turned towards the Holy District. Sometimes the obvious answer was the right one: the best place to find a thief was at a temple to one of the many gods of burglary, larceny, or trickery. It was so obvious that most people simply assumed that no syndicate member was foolish enough to go there, little realizing that the syndicate had paid off the few guards who weren't too superstitious to set foot in the temple of the likes of Baenmor or Radafaest or Nohfend.
It felt good to be back in Elgaris. The city had always been his home, and he didn't realize how much he'd missed it until he'd entered the shadow of the vast stone wall that encircled it. For years, that wall had been the border of his world. The Fox's mansion was too far away from it, it was like a moon in orbit of his planet. Here, in the shadows of buildings that he knew well, he imagined that he could feel the pulse of the city. He and Elgaris, they had a symbiotic relationship. Or maybe he was a parasite, he could admit that, but he was a graceful parasite. Elgaris fed him, and gave him shelter, and anchored him.
If anyone had asked, he would have said that he felt the most comfortable in Elgaris because he knew it so well. He knew which businesses and homes were protected by the syndicate, and which were not, and what their defenses were. He knew where he could hide, and who he could pay to lie about where he'd been, and just how far he could push the guards. He knew which dancers were really whores, and which ones would slap you for asking, and which ones were well-disguised men. There were few surprises in Elgaris for him, and they were usually pleasant.
But deep down inside, he could admit to himself that there was a certain level of sentimentality involved. This city had shaped him into the man he was, and shaped his view of the world. All other places were held up to Elgaris, and in his mind they were invariably found wanting. He loved the way the city was cradled by ocean and cliffs, and how the markets were filled with the exotic goods that were brought in by ships sailing the tradewinds. He felt proud to be the son of a country that had resisted the Deveradi Empire, despite having accepted their religion and their friendship.
He knew that his love of the city was another thing that stood between him and Mirisha. While he would stand on The Fox's estate and gaze into the forest, pretending that he could see beyond it, to the city, her eyes were always drawn to the woods itself. He had seen her often, looking out the window with the sadness of a caged animal that has resigned itself to its fate. She was as much a child of the wilderness as he was of the urban world.
Perhaps that was why he was so drawn to her. She was exotic, so far outside his experience that she was almost incomprehensibly alien. Once, in an attempt to get to know her better, just before he left for Deveradi, he had walked with her in the woods. She had been sent out to get the dywali root for the poison, but while they were in the depths of the forest, she had gathered a variety of herbs, mushrooms, and fruit. The way she had casually identified each plant and its properties at a glance had awed Ciotoph. To him, it was all just a sea of green. To her, each leaf was distinct and unique, like the faces of the people around him in the city.
He should have brought her with him. There was no telling how long he would have to comb the city for the princess, and how well Mirisha would cover up her lies in his absence. The thought of her at The Fox's mercy tugged at the shreds of his conscience. He could have lied and said he needed her to come with, needed her knowledge of the forest, needed her to coax the princess into coming with them, anything. It was too late now. He didn't dare return to the estate without Nyeida.
While he had been thinking about Mirisha, he reached the Holy District. The temples there were not laid out in any sort of discernible order; they were not grouped by pantheon, or by type of deity. Their placement was based strictly upon which church had claimed what plot of land when Elgaris had chosen to welcome the omnipantheonists into their city. At that time, it had been the southern border of the city. The temple of Baenmor stood on Perimeter Street, which had once run along the base of the wall. In time, though, the city had grown and the wall had been moved out to its current location.
Many's the hour he'd spent reading the history of his beloved city, mostly in books that he'd stolen from the homes of the wealthy. He knew by heart the details of the protests against the influx of the Deveradi church, and the costs of expanding the city, and the calculations that had been done to decide where to put the new wall. That wall had filled decades ago, and now there were hub villages several hours down the road, where people had moved to escape the over-crowding in Elgaris.
He rode east down Perimeter Street, past the temples of gods that he knew only by reputation. Ciotoph was no omnipantheonist. He paid some reverence to Baenmor because he liked the god's attitude, but he had little use for the hundreds of other deities that Deveradi had stolen from their neighbors.
Though the Syndicate used several temples as places to meet or leave messages, the Holy District was otherwise off-limits. They did not steal from the temples, assassinate priests, or conduct any sort of transaction within the district. There wasn't even protection money involved; it was mere superstition, for which Ciotoph had little patience. If he did retire and go rogue, he had a few raids planned.
The temple of Baenmor was a moderate sized two-story building, with one basement slightly visible above the street and three more hidden below. It was faced with exotic grey marble quarried in the territory the god's cult was native to. The front door was bordered by twisted chains, from which their hung locks to which there were no keys. The back door was a well-kept secret.
Ciotoph rode past the temple and continued on to a stable staffed by monks from the church of Ouharash, the celestial horse originally worshiped in Farwel Province. The stable operated on donations, and he paid them well on that day. It was not just because they had always given the best care to Daisy, but also because he felt they deserved it for putting up with Murder.
He walked behind the stable and into the alley that ran behind the temples of Perimeter Street. Like every alley in the city, it was cramped, smelly, and littered with debris. The pious were no more concerned with the sanitation of the city than anyone else was. Ciotoph slunk into the shadows and felt all his concerns ease. He was in his element. The stink, the broken crates, and the rats were all part and parcel of his city, and he accepted them as he would accept minor blemishes on a lover. Nothing is without flaw.
Baenmor was a two-faced god, and as such, his temple also had two faces. The front door, with its symbols of security, was for those who came to pray for protection from thieves. He had read that in Karons Territory, Baenmor's dual nature was well-known and accepted. In Elgaris, however, the men and women who came through the front door had no idea that the god they prayed to was just as likely to grant his aid to the thief as he was to protect against thievery.
Having had enough experience with the duplicity of men who claimed to be honest, Ciotoph had a grudging admiration for the fickle, hypocritical god. He enjoyed the irony of the situation, and the apt illustration of how little the gods really cared for petty human beings. And of course, he enjoyed the secrecy. Only a fool would walk into the temple of Nohfend, the assassin god whose church had no back door.
The back door of Baenmor's temple was well-hidden. Its outline could only be spotted from just the right angle while standing in the shadow of the alley, and it could only be opened by pressing and turning certain stones in just the right way. Not every stone in the wall that could be moved was meant to; there were numerous false clues. To join the Syndicate, hopefuls had to pass a variety of tests assigned to them by their sponsors. One of his had been to find his way into the back room of the temple of Baenmor. It had taken him three hours, and he'd nearly lost a finger, but he had succeeded. On that day, Ciotoph won his membership to the Syndicate and his respect for his chosen god.
He could open the door easily now, without a second thought, though it still took more than a minute of manipulating the stones. A small smile came to his face as the last stone slid into place and the way was opened to him. One more thing that he'd missed about his city. He stepped inside the temple, his thoughts as close to pious as they ever were.
While many religions burned specific incense that was considered sacred to their god, the priests of Baenmor offered up whatever they had most recently stolen from other temples. On that day, sandalwood was the predominant scent in the air, but it was layered over the mingled perfume of a hundred different types of smoke which had permeated the draperies and carpets over the decades.
The back rooms were quiet. Prayers were never said aloud here and the place was designed to muffle sound. Most of the worshipers would have walked silently even over a floor of rushes, but the thick carpet was a welcome touch. Ciotoph liked the air of luxury that it gave the temple, when paired with the lush midnight-blue velvet that hung on the walls.
Mindful of the fact that he had been away for half a year, he picked up a tithing pouch from the basket by the door and quietly slipped half of his remaining coins into it. He left his own money bag in its customary spot, and pushed the tithing pouch as far down as it would go into his boot. The coins dug into his calf uncomfortably through the thin leather of the sack.
He walked down the hallway until it opened up into the small, private thieves' sanctuary. The room was well-appointed, with comfortable arm chairs instead of the traditional pews, rugs more lavish than those in the hallway, and elegantly carved tables displaying holy artifacts that the priests had taken from the surrounding temples. It was well-lit, because those who came to pray in Baenmor's back room had few things to hide from each other.
Most of the worshipers were unfamiliar to him; the Syndicate was large enough that it was difficult to keep track of everyone, especially since so much of their work was done solo. He did recognize two people, and one clearly recognized him. She'd been in the Syndicate only two months when he left for Deveradi, and had served as his look-out on the last job he did for The Fox before leaving.
No one spoke in Baenmor's back room. Instead, rat-faced little Ilona signed her words to him. Didn't know you were back.
Sign conversations were terse out of necessity. It was not a language designed for expressing a lot of complex ideas or for polite chatter. Just got here. Need a safe house. Have a horse, too.
Southwest corner of King Melereth and Fountain Way. Nice place.
Ilona smiled, and her overbite only made her look more rodent-like. She looked young, maybe even younger than he'd been when he joined the Syndicate, and she had the sharpest eyes of any girl he'd ever met. He didn't think she was working directly for The Fox; usually only people who he'd sponsored did.
He left the temple, his business there concluded. The tithing pouch was gone before he reached the door. He hadn't seen, heard, or felt the priest who took it. He never did, and probably never would.
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