" It's all great fun, full of disguises and locked rooms, and considerable humor as Stalwart and Emerald are repeatedly underestimated by their foes." - --Locus
In her brief career in the palace, Emerald had learned to avoid red tape at all costs. She knew about 10 Amber Street because she had heard the Blades of the Guard refer to it; they called it the Snakepit. Whatever the brass plates of Ranulf Square might say, the Old Blades‘ real headquarters was here.
The man who let her in said, "Sister Emerald, this is a wonderful surprise," as if he meant it.
She curtseyed. "My pleasure, Sir Chefney." Chefney was Snake‘s deputy and had been partly responsible for her hair-raising adventures at Quagmarsh. In spite of that, she liked Chefney. He was unfailingly polite and good-humored.
"What brings you to our humble abode, Sister?" Humble was pure flattery. The hallway reeked of mildew and dust; the floors were scuffed and splintery, much of the paneling had warped away from the walls, but originally this had been a gracious rich-person‘s residence. Somewhere upstairs feet were stamping and metal clinking as swordsmen kept up their fencing skills.
"Someone is performing an enchantment not three streets from here. I detected it as my coach went along Quirk Row."
Anyone else except possibly Mother Superior would have countered with, "Are you sure?" Emerald might then have made a snippy retort.
Chefney did not ask if Emerald were sure. He did not produce a form for her to fill in, nor summon an inquisitor to interrogate her, or a notary to witness her testimony. He did not even inquire what a lady was doing driving along Quirk Row. He just said, "In here, please, Sister," very brusquely. As she stepped through the doorway he shouted, "Put away the dice, lads. We‘ve got work to do."
The long room was almost filled by a very large table. The half dozen men standing around it had not been playing dice. They had been rummaging through a wagonload of books and paper, and there were mutters of relief as they turned to greet her. She recognized Sir Snake and Sir Bram and Sir Demise. She was introduced to Sir Rodden, Sir Raptor, Sir Felix... and so on.
They were all very much alike, men in their thirties, still trim and athletic, neither very tall nor very short; they all moved like hot oil and their eyes were quick. They looked like older brothers of the Blades of the Royal Guard who strutted around the palace in blue and silver livery and were ever eager to squire a young lady to masques, balls, hay rides, fairs, or a dozen other festivities. The main difference to Emerald was that the Old Blades did not reek of hot iron, which was how she detected the binding spell on the guardsmen.
The formalities were brief and then Snake did not even ask her to state her business. He just raised his eyebrows. She knew she might be about to make an epochal fool of herself. What she had sensed might have a very innocent explanation. Then these men would all smile politely and thank her and go back to the important work she had just interrupted.
"My coachman took a wrong turning, into Quirk Row. I detected someone conjuring. I made him go back the same way, and noted the house, Number 25. There shouldn‘t be an elementary operating this close to the palace, should there?"
She was meddling in matters that did not directly concern her. Her business was watching over the King in whichever palace happened to be his residence at the time. Correct procedure probably required her to report her suspicions to her supervisor, Mother Petal, who would inform Prioress Alder, who would then write a note to Mother Superior herself, who would pass the word down to old Mother Spinel, who handled relations between the Sisters and the Old Blades-red tape!
Snake did not say, "Oh, that‘s just the so-and-so Sisters of Healing. They mend peoples‘ teeth." Or, "That‘s the Brethren of the Occult Word, where courtiers go for their good-luck charms-they‘re harmless, so we ignore them."
No, Snake‘s stringy mustache curled in a leer of great delight. "Absolutely not, my lady!" He was as thin as his namesake and about at trustworthy-utterly loyal to the King, of course. Almost too loyal, because he had been known to use very sneaky-snaky means to achieve his ends, as Emerald well knew. "Bram, the map! Raptor, ring the bell!"
The swordsman nearest the fireplace hauled on a rope. Instead of discreet tinkle in a distant kitchen, this produced a startling clangor out in the hallway, like a fire alarm. The muffled tap of fencers‘ feet overhead was replaced by sounds of an avalanche on the staircase.
By the time another dozen or so men poured in the door, Emerald was bent over a very grubby and dog-eared chart that Sir Bram had spread out over the table litter. Thick swordsmen‘s fingers pointed for her:
"That‘s Quirk Row."
"What does ‘75‘ mean?"
"It was about here," she said, when they let her do some pointing of her own. "We came along here and then back this way... the elementary‘s in this building... a green door next to an archway... about here."
"Aha!" said Snake, and spread himself full-length across the table so he could hold a lens over the tiny scribbles. "Number 25. There‘s the archway, there. Hand me a crayon, someone. Leads through to a mews, or a pump court. So one gets you a thousand there‘s a back door, even if there aren‘t any secret passages through the cellars. And there‘s four ways out of the court, see? That‘s a fine location for a nest of traitors. What‘s this ‘75‘ written here for?"
"Sighting report," said a man in the background, rustling paper. "Must have been recent. Someone claimed he-"
"That was me," said a familiar voice. Stalwart squirmed in through the crowd. "I saw Skuldigger."
Snake sat up on the table and crossed his bony legs. "So you said." He had collected ink stains on his silk hose.
Everyone else made eager "Go on!" noises. Skuldigger was the maniac sorcerer genius who had created the chimera monsters. Those had killed many Blades, and more than once almost the King himself. Skuldigger had escaped at Quagmarsh, but every Blade dreamed of adding Skuldigger‘s head to the trophies above his fireplace.
"Good chance, Em." Stalwart flashed Emerald a joyful smile. They had not seen each other for several weeks and she had forgotten how boyish he looked, especially when surrounded by men twice his age. If he had grown in the last month, she couldn‘t detect it. His straw-colored hair was not quite as tumbledown shaggy as before, but still absurdly short.
"Good chance to you, Wart. I hear you‘re still collecting sorcerers‘ heads to hang on your wall?"
"Oh?" he said casually. "Who told you that?"
"The King. He praised you highly."
His face reddened in anger. "Fat Man has a funny way of showing his gratitude."
She had intended to flatter him in front of the others. She had forgotten how much he wanted to be a real Blade, a member of the Royal Guard. Valuable though it was, the undercover work he was doing for Snake seemed to him like cheating, and unworthy.
"Skuldigger, guardsman!" Snake snarled. "We‘re waiting!"
"Er, yes, brother. If I‘d had my sword with me, I‘d have nailed him to a post and called the watch." Wart was not joking; he was deadly when he had to be. "But I didn‘t. Saw him on Cupmaker Street, heading toward the palace. Two days ago. I followed him. He turned into Long Bacon Road and I lost him near the Silk Traders‘ Guildhall." Snake started to speak, but Wart drowned him out. "I‘m certain he didn‘t see me. And look on the map-- There‘s an alley there leads into that same pump court!"
"So that was a shortcut for him." Snake leaned over to thump Wart on the shoulder.
"He was just going the best way home. Well done!"
"So now do you believe me?"
"Do you think I ever doubted you?" Snake asked in outraged tones, scrambling down off the table in a shower of paper and a couple of writing slates.
"What sort of conjuration?" asked a new voice.
The men cleared a way for a tall, elderly lady in White Sister robes and high hennin hat. Emerald had met Mother Spinel only once, but knew her reputation as being a battleaxe second only to Mother Superior herself. Behind her very upright back she was known as Sister Spinal.
Emerald struggled to recall the elemental spirits she had detected. "Mostly air, my lady, a trace of fire, I think, and maybe some earth, too... I was in a moving carriage..."
Sister Spinal‘s face had more wrinkles than a basket of walnuts and they all seemed to deepen in disapproval. "Not threatening, then?"
"Um, no, Mother. It gave me no sense of evil."
"Doesn‘t matter!" Snake snapped. "Unlicensed conjuring near the palace is forbidden and we have a Skuldigger sighting. That‘s enough. We‘ll do this the way we did Brandford Priory last week. Sir Dagger, you‘ll handle the door for us again."
Wart pulled an angry face. "Yes, brother."
"By the time you get there, we‘ll be in place. If there‘s no backdoor, use the front." Snake smirked. "Don‘t get stepped on!"
Scowling, Wart headed for the door. Emerald noticed grins following him. His earlier exploits had made him a hero, but now the others were treating him as their mascot, or water boy. He must hate that.
Snake was barking orders. "Head over there in twos and threes--leisurely stroll, don‘t hurry, don‘t dawdle. I want everyone in position when the palace clock chimes three. Chefney, you and Demise take the Quirk archway next the house itself. Blow your whistle when the kid gets in. They may make a break out the front. Felix and Bram, take Quirk Row on the palace side. Raptor and Grady..." When he had assigned everyone he grinned. "Any questions?"
"What if the kid doesn‘t force the door?"
"I‘ll bring a pry bar. Two whistles for that, Chef. Any more questions? No? Then go and get your swords wet!"