SWAN'S BRAID

Horses. Terizan cocked her head to one side and sifted the sounds of the city. A lot of horses. And no one rode in Old Oreen, although in the newer areas the laws had been changed. The sound of horses, therefore, could mean only one thing.

"Swan's back! The Wing has returned!"

Terizan grinned. Obviously, she wasn't the only one who realized what the sound meant.

Buzzing like a hive of excited bees, the crowd began to push back against the shops and stalls, treading both on merchandise too slowly snatched to safety and each other. Terizan saw a number of small children being lifted to better viewpoints and decided the idea had merit.

Slipping sideways into a narrow alley, she leapt for a cistern pipe, touched toe to window-ledge, to awning pole, then swung up onto the sandal maker's flat roof. Settling down beside a large clay pot of hot peppers like she belonged there – few people stopped to question first impressions – Terizan lifted a hand to block the late afternoon sun just as Swan's Wing rode into view.

The crowd didn't so much cheer as scream its appreciation.

Helmless, her short hair glinting like a cap of mountain gold, Swan rode in front, flanked a half length back by her second, the man they called Slice, and her standard bearer, a girl no older than Terizan who bore a bloody bandage around one eye as proudly as she bore the banner. There were a lot of bloody bandages, Terizan noticed. It seemed that Hyrantaz's bandits had not been defeated without cost.

But, in spite of the popular belief that it couldn't be done, they had been defeated. Slice carried Hyrantaz's head on a pike, the jaw bobbing up and down to his horse's rhythm.

They'll be going to the Crescent, Terizan thought, eyes locked on Swan as she passed, the red gold of her life-braid lying like a narrow line of fire against the dusty grey of her backplate. Terizan's heart pounded harder and faster than usual. If I hurry, I can be there first.

It seemed that half the city was already in the Crescent when Terizan arrived. She saw a number of people she knew, ignored most of them, and pushed her way in beside a friend in the front row. He turned languidly, and, when he saw who it was, his heavily kohled eyes widened in mock horror. "You're sweating."

Breathing a little heavily, Terizan wiped her forehead on her sleeve. "I beg your pardon, Poli. I forgot that you don't."

Poli smiled and patted her cheek. "Not without cash up front." His smile was his greatest asset; he had a way of using it that convinced the recipient that no other living being had ever been smiled at in such a way. Terizan wasn't at all surprised that he'd been able to make his way through the crowd to a place beside the Congress' steps where he could not only see, but hear all.

The distant cheering grew louder and then spilled over into the surrounding crowd. Terizan wanted to leap up and down on the spot as others around them were doing, trying for their first look at the Wing but she took her cue from Poli and somehow managed to stay calm.

"SWAN! SWAN! SWAN!" The chant became a roar as Swan reached the Congress' steps and reined in her horse. The Wing spread out behind her.

Terizan counted, and then counted again. There were only a dozen riders and two pack horses plus the standard bearer, Slice, and Swan herself. The twelve had seemed like a horde in the close confines of the old city but here, in a single line, they were frighteningly few. "That can't be all that survived."

"The rest are camped outside the city boundary," Poli said calmly, not so much to her as to the air. "Not in the same place they were camped when they made their kind offer to rid the trade road of Hyrantaz's pack of hyenas but close enough."

"How do you know?"

Poli raised an elegant brow. "Do you honestly think I wouldn't know where a great many mercenaries who have just returned from a dangerous campaign and will no doubt wish to celebrate their survival and are soon to have a great deal of money are camping?"

"Sorry." She wondered briefly how he'd managed the entire statement in one breath and then lost all further interest in Poli, the crowd, and the rest of the Wing as Swan raised a gauntleted hand.

"You're drooling," Poli murmured, his voice amused.

"Am not." But she wiped her mouth anyway. Just in case.

When the noise of the crowd finally faded in answer to Swan's command, the huge double doors of the Congress building swung open and the council that ran the city-state of Oreen stepped out. All seven were present and all in full robes of state; but then, they'd had plenty of warning, Terizan reflected, for the runner who brought the news of Hyrantaz's defeat had arrived at dawn, his shouted news jerking the city out of sleep.

"We have done what we were hired to do," Swan declared before any of the councilors could speak. Terizan shivered as the other woman's clear voice lifted the hair on the back of her neck. "We have come for payment."

Reluctantly dragging her gaze from Swan, Terizan could see how agitated some of the councilors were – constant small and jerky movements betrayed them. They hadn't thought she'd win. The idiots.

Councilor Saladaz, who'd recently been appointed to his sixth straight cycle as head of the Congress, stepped forward and cleared his throat. "There was the matter of proof," he said.

At a gesture from Swan the two pack horses were led forward and the bulky oilskin bundles heaved off to lie at the councilor's feet. "It was... inconvenient to bring the bodies," the mercenary captain told him dryly as ropes were untied. "These will have to do instead."

Saladaz leapt backward as the battered heads rolled out onto the Congress steps and the crowd roared with laughter. Out of the corner of one eye, Terizan saw Poli raise a scented cloth to his nose even though the smell was no worse than a great many parts of the city in high summer.

"They will have to be identified," Saladaz declared at his most pompous, struggling to regain his dignity.

"I'm sure there are those about who would be happy to help." From all around the Crescent came cries of agreement. Caravans that surrendered without a fight, Hyrantaz had stripped bare of everything save lives – it amused him to see a line of naked, helpless people stagger off towards the city, not all of them surviving to reach safety. "I'll take a third of what we're owed now and the rest at the end of the week."

Councilor Aleezan, who most considered to be the best brain in the Congress, stepped forward, laid a slender hand on Saladaz's shoulder and murmured something in his ear. Too far away to hear what was said, Terizan saw Saladaz nod. He didn't look happy.

"It will take a moment to count the coin," he said, tucking his hands into the heavy embroidered cuffs of his robe and scowling up at Swan. "If we can have it sent to you later today..."

"By noon," Swan suggested, in no way making it sound like the ultimatum everyone knew it was. "We'll be headquartering at The Lion."

"By noon," Saladaz agreed.

At a nod from his captain, Slice whipped his pike forward and with a moist thud, Hyrantaz's head joined the pile on the Congress steps.

Terizan felt her knees go weak as Swan smiled. "To complete the set," she said and pulled her horse's head around.

"SWAN! SWAN! SWAN!" The cheers that followed the Wing from the Crescent echoed off the Congress, battering the councilors from two directions.

"She's so..."

"Barbaric?" Poli offered. That at least one of Swan's immediate ancestors was a Kerber – a loose confederacy of warring tribes that kept the west in constant turmoil – was obvious.

"Beautiful," Terizan snapped.

Poli laughed. "Well, you do know where she's staying. You could always wander in and..." He winked. "...introduce yourself." He laughed again as she paled. "Never mind, dear. I suppose you're still young enough for unrequited lust to have a certain masochistic fascination." Gathering up her hand, he tucked it in the crook of his arm. "I'm sure that with your skills you'll be able to get close enough to watch her without her ever suspecting you're there."

"I can't." Terizan pulled her hand free, suddenly remembering what the Wing's return – What Swan, she corrected – had pushed out of her head. "I'm going to the Guild today."

Poli looked at her for a long moment. When he spoke his voice was softer and less affected than she'd ever heard it. "That fall really spooked you, didn't it?"

She nodded, trying not to think about the carving crumbling under her foot, about the long drop, about the landing. "If I'd broken something..."

"But you didn't."

"I'm not fool enough to think it'll never happen again." She spread her hands. "The Guild takes care of you. You know that, Poli. The whores have one of the first Guilds in the city."

"Granted. But somehow I just can't see you meekly accepting a Guild's control over your life." His features fell into the nearest thing to a frown she'd ever seen him wear. "You don't even take advice well."

When she shrugged, she could still feel the ache in bruised bone. Still feel the terror of lying in the darkness and wondering what would become of her if her strength and agility had been destroyed. "I've made up my mind, Poli."

He shook his head. "And you're not likely to change it, are you?" Sighing, he leaned forward and lightly kissed her cheek. "Be careful, sweetling." Then, just in case he should be accused of sentiment, added archly, "Friends who don't expect freebies are rare."

The Thieves' Guild believed that anyone who couldn't find them and gain access had no business applying for membership. The yellow stone building built into the inside curve of the old city wall showed no outward indication of what went on inside, but Terizan had heard the stories about it most of her life.

"Getting into the house is just the beginning. You have to take a thieves' path to the Sanctum deep underground."

She didn't believe all the stories about the traps set along that path – wizards were too rare and far too expensive to use for such mundane purposes – but she believed enough to approach with caution. The roof would be guarded, likewise the windows that were even remotely accessible. Which left her with two choices; an inaccessible window, or the front door.

While there was a certain in-your-face kind of charm to walking in through the front door, Terizan decided not to risk it as that was very likely the kind of attitude the Guild could do without. Besides, for a good thief, no window was truly inaccessible.

A hair shorter and a half a hair wider, she mused, squatting silently under the tiny window tucked into the eaves, and I wouldn't have made it. As it was she'd very nearly had to dislocate a shoulder and slice the curve off both hips to get through. Strapping her pack to her chest – no point in carrying equipment if it couldn't be reached quickly – Terizan started looking for a path into the heart of the Guild house.

Some considerable time later, she sat down on the floor of a grey-tiled hall and thought seriously about going out the way she'd come in. She'd dealt with all the locks, all the traps, and a dog – who'd been incredibly surprised to have a live and very angry rat tossed at him – but was no closer to finding the Sanctum than she'd been. Her stomach growled and she sagged against the wall, about at the end of her resources, personal and otherwise. Her pack was almost empty and the tiny lantern, now closed and dark at her side, was nearly out of oil.

And then she heard the voices.

Someone was making loud, angry accusations. Someone else was making equally loud, angry denials. Terizan sank lower and lower until her ear pressed against the floor. She still couldn't make out the words, but she didn't need to. Smiling in spite of her exhaustion, she traced the edge of the tile next to the one she was sitting on and felt a pair of hinges and a wire.

Movement of the wire would very likely ring bells or the equivalent to announce the imminent arrival of company. Resisting the urge to hum, she twisted it up so that the trap door no longer affected it and carefully applied pressure to the tile. Underneath, was the traditional narrow chute. Bracing herself against the sides, she chimney-walked down, pausing only long enough to close the trap.

The voices were much louder.

"...pay for results!"

It was a man's voice but it made her think of Swan, dumping the heads in front of the councilors and demanding payment. Hardly surprising, as lately everything made her think of the mercenary captain. Earlier, the tiny beam of light from her lantern had made her think of Swan's life-braid gleaming against her armour. Sternly, she told herself to get her mind back on the business at hand.

"...received exactly what you paid for. If the end result was not what you desired that is not the fault of this Guild."

Her fingertips touched the bottom trap door. She could see the thin lines of light around three sides and knew this had to be the end of the line. The voices were directly below her.

"You haven't heard the end of this." The growled warning carried more force than all the shouting. A door slammed.

Muscles straining against the stone, Terizan turned herself around and gently pushed the trap door open a crack. She could see the edge of a scarred wooden table, piled high with junk.

"Although we fulfilled the terms of the agreement, he could cause trouble later," a new voice muttered.

A third voice sighed and admitted, "He could."

"Don't be ridiculous. He has no desire to have his association with us made public. Still, although I hate to do it, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to make some small attempt to mollify him." A woman's hand with long, narrow, ringless fingers reached into Terizan's limited field of vision and picked up a parchment scroll. It took her a moment to realize she was seeing it through a lattice work of rope. A net. Obviously, she was intended to go flying into it whereupon half the supports would break away, leaving her dangling helplessly in mid air.

Her blood singing, she opened the door a little further, grabbed the edges and swung back with it. At the far end of the swing, she let go. Momentum carried her curled body past the edge of the net. She uncurled just before she hit the floor, landing heavier than she would've liked.

She could feel astonishment wash over her like a wave as she straightened.

A half a dozen lanterns banished all shadow from the small room. Two of the walls were covered floor to ceiling in racks of scrolls, one wall in a detailed map of the city, the fourth wall held a pair of doors. Spread out over the floor was a costly, though stained, carpet. A man, a woman, and a person who could have been either or both, sat behind the table and stared at her, open-mouthed. No one knew their names, but they called themselves the Thieves' Guild Tribunal.

Terizan bowed, conscious only of how exhausted she was. "I'd like to apply to the Guild," she said and stepped forward pulling out the last two items in her pack. "I took this dagger from the Captain of the City Guard, you may have heard it was missing, and this is Hyrantaz's earring – I took it this afternoon."

"From his head?" The man leaned towards her, his bulk suggesting he no longer actively indulged in the Guild's business. "You took it from his head in the Crescent?"

Terizan shrugged. There'd been so many people crowding around it had been embarrassingly easy – but if they didn't know that, she wasn't going to mention it.

As the fat man started to laugh, the woman looked speculatively up at the trap door.

"You brought the rat in with you," the third person said all at once, as though they'd come to a sudden illuminating realization. "It distracted the dog long enough for you to get away and then convinced the dog's handler that he was only after the rat. That's brilliant! But what would you have done if there'd been two dogs?"

Terizan shrugged again. "Gone looking for another rat?"

The fat man now laughed so hard tears ran down his cheeks. "Took it from his head," he kept repeating.

The woman sighed audibly and came around the table. "I think it's safe to assume the Guild is interested in admitting you. Your arrival here was very... impressive."

"I thought I was supposed to make my way to the sanctum."

The older woman nodded. "You were. But no one's ever done it before."

"No one?"

"We'd previously considered it a major accomplishment if someone got safely into the lower levels of the building." As Terizan glanced up at the trap door and the net, she added, "Of course, a good thief is prepared for every possibility."

Terizan heard the silent warning that she not get cocky about her accomplishment, and so merely said, "I agree..." and then had no idea of how to refer to any of the other three people in the room.

"You may call me Tribune One." The woman half turned, waving a hand at first the androgyne and then the fat man. "These are Two and Three. You realize you must still complete an assignment of our choosing?" At Terizan's nod she turned her towards the door on the left, opened it, and pushed her gently through. "Balzador, get our candidate here some nourishment."

The thieves playing cards in the antechamber looked up in astonishment and Balzador leapt to his feet with such energy that a Queen of Destiny fell from his sleeve and fluttered to the table. "Candidate?" he squeaked.

The tribune smiled. "Yes. She's just dropped in and as we'd like to discuss her... test, I leave her in your capable hands."

As the door to the sanctum closed, Terizan heard Tribune One murmur, "You've got to admit, she's very clever." Then the latch clicked and the iron-bound oak planks cut off Three's reply.

The card players continued to stare. "Just dropped in?" Balzador said at last.

"All things considered," One murmured over her steepled fingers, "there's really no need for you to prove yourself to us. However, formalities must be observed."

Terizan, who'd been fed, feted, and won six monkeys in a quick game of caravan, bowed slightly.

"We have, therefore," One continued, "decided to make your test showy but not especially difficult. You have five days to bring us Swan's braid."

It might have been only because of the blood roaring in her ears but the acoustics in the room suddenly changed. "Swan's what?" Terizan managed to stammer.

"Braid. In five days, bring us Swan's life-braid."

By thieves' standards, The Lion was not in what could be termed a profitable part of the city. Three story, sandstone tenements surrounded it, some with tiny shops on the first floor, the rest divided into small suites or single rooms. Almost all had external stairs, a few had roof gardens. Terizan lived in nearly an identical neighbourhood – although closer to the center of Old Oreen – and knew exactly what the area had that would be worth stealing. Nothing much.

Except that Swan was at The Lion.

"In five days bring us Swan's life-braid."

She'd been too astounded to protest and had submitted without comment to being blindfolded and lead by Balzador up to a concealed door in an alley near the Guild house. "When you come back," he'd told her. "Come here. Someone will meet you and guide you down."

When she came back. With Swan's braid.

She couldn't do it. Couldn't offer that kind of an insult to the most beautiful, desirable woman she'd ever seen. Face it, Terizan, she sighed to herself as she watched The Lion from the shadows across the street, if you got close enough to actually touch the braid, your heavy breathing would give you away.

The large louvered panels in the inn's front wall had been folded back and the celebration in the common room had spilled out onto the small terrace. A number of those celebrating wore the red swan on their tunics, but Swan herself remained inside.

Wondering just what exactly she thought she was doing, Terizan crossed the street and entered the inn. No one noticed her, but not being noticed was one of the things she did best. With a mug of ale in her hand, she became just another of the townsfolk who wanted to get close to the heroes of the day.

Swan, holding court in the center of the common room, had been drinking. Her eyes were bright – Like jewels, Terizan thought. – and her cheeks were flushed. In one hand she cradled an immense flagon and in the other a slender young woman who, as Terizan watched, leaned forward so that ebony curls fell over her face and whispered something in the mercenary captain's ear.

"You think so?" The flagon emptied, Swan stood, kicked her chair back out of her way, and tightened her grip around the young woman's waist. Red-gold brows waggled suggestively. "Prove it."

"Here?"

The Wing roared with laughter at the matter-of-fact tone and a couple began clearing bottles and tankards off the table.

Swan cuffed the nearest one on the back of the head and then turned the motion into a courtly gesture towards the stairs. "I think not," she declared. "This lot has a hard enough time keeping up to me without my setting yet another impossibly high standard."

As the two women made for the stairs, amidst renewed laughter and advice, Terizan slipped back into the shadows.

The next night, she watched a nearly identical scene. Nearly identical in that while the young woman was again dark and slender, it was a different young woman. By the time Swan elbowed open the door to her room – both her hands being occupied – Terizan was on the tiny balcony of the building next door. By the time Swan began testing the strength of the bed, she was outside the window.

She'd spent the day thinking about the Guild. Without intending to, she'd found herself outside the building she'd fallen from, picking a bit of plaster off the ground. It couldn't have fallen when she had, but it could easily have been from the same disintegrating carving. She'd turned it over and over and finally crushed it, wiping the grey powder off on the edge of someone else's tunic.

Dying didn't frighten her as much as an injury that would put her out on the street to starve.

The Guild took care of their own.

When Swan and the girl were finished, and the sweat-slicked bodies lay tangled and sleeping, Terizan measured the distance from the window to the bed, judged the risk, and decided it was twice as high as it needed to be. After all, Swan had a preference for slender, dark-haired women.

"...a good thief is prepared for every possibility."

Including, it seemed, the possibility of stealing Swan's braid.

"Poli, I need you to make me noticeable."

One delicately plucked brow rose as Poli turned from his mirror to face her. "I beg your pardon?"

"I've decided to take your advice."

"Which bit of advice, sweetling?"

Terizan felt her cheeks grow hot and wished he wouldn't look at her like he was looking inside her. "Your advice about Swan," she growled.

"Did I give you advice about Swan?" He absently stroked cosmetic into his neck. "I don't remember, but then you've never taken my advice before so I admit I'm at a loss."

"You said that since I knew where she was staying I should wander in and... and..." Unable to finish as memories of Swan and the dark-haired young woman got in the way of her voice, she waved her hands and assumed Poli would understand.

His smile seemed to indicate he did. "How noticeable?"

"Do I really look like this?" Staring into Poli's mirror, Terizan found it difficult to recognize the person staring back at her.

"No, dear, I created this out of whole cloth." When she went to brush a feathering of hair off her face, Poli gently caught her hand. "Don't touch. That's not for you to mess up." He twitched at the silk tunic he'd insisted she borrow and smiled proudly at her reflection. "I merely emphasized features you usually keep hidden," he told her, touching her temples lightly with scent. "And if we add my small contribution to your natural grace – try not to move quite so much like a cat on the hunt, sweetling – you should be impossible for our mercenary captain to resist."

Her heart beginning to race, Terizan managed a strangled, "Thank you."

She felt Swan's eyes on her when she walked into The Lion and only the thought of lying in that alley with broken bones kept her moving forward. Tossing her hair back out of her eyes – why Poli thought being half blind was attractive she had no idea – she hooked a stool out from under the end of a trestle table and sat down. When a server appeared she ordered a flagon of the house white, mostly because she'd heard the landlord watered it. While she had to drink, she couldn't risk slowing her reflexes.

After a couple of long swallows, she looked up, met Swan's eyes, and allowed her lips to curve into the barest beginning of a smile. Then she looked down again and tried to stop her hands from shaking.

"Move."

"Ah, come on, Captain..."

"Zaydor, how would you like to stand fourth watch all the way to the coast?"

Terizan heard the man beside her laugh, obviously not taking the threat at all seriously. "Wouldn't like it at all, Captain."

Swan sighed. "How would you like me to buy you another pitcher of beer?"

"Like that a lot, Captain."

"How would you like to drink it on the other side of the room?"

Zaydor laughed again and Terizan heard his stool scrape back. He murmured something as he stood, but all Terizan could hear was the sudden roar of her pulse in her ears. When Swan sat beside her, knee brushing hers under the table, she had to remind herself to breathe.

Although even Poli had long since given up trying to teach her to flirt, Terizan found her inability was no handicap as the mercenary captain needed little encouragement. She listened, she nodded, and she let her completely besotted admiration show. That was more than enough.

"Shall we?"

It took a moment before she realized that Swan was standing and holding out her hand. I don't have to decide about the braid now, she thought, allowing the other woman to draw her to her feet. Desire weakened her knees but she made it to the stairs. I can wait until after.

After, Terizan stroked one finger down the narrow, red-gold braid lying across the pillow and tried to force herself to think. It wasn't easy as her brains appeared to have melted during the last couple of heated hours and dribbled out her ears.

Swan sighed in her sleep and shifted slightly, brushing damp curls against Terizan's hip.

If I'm going to do it, I should do it now. Do it and get it before she wakes. As she tensed to slip from the bed, she realized that she'd decided, at some point, to take the braid. It may have been when a particularly energetic bit of sex had pulled at joints still bruised from the fall; she didn't know and it didn't matter.

She dressed quickly, quietly, slipping her sandals under her borrowed sash – there'd be climbing when she left the inn. Picking up Swan's dagger, she bent over the bed and lifted the braid.

A hand slapped around her wrist like an iron shackle and she found herself flat on her back, Swan crouched on her chest, and Swan's dagger back in Swan's hand.

"And with my own dagger." Gone was the cheerful lechery of the common room, gone, too, the surprisingly considerate lover – this was the mercenary captain who'd delivered Hyrantaz's head to the council. "Were you planning on making it look like a suicide?"

Terizan swallowed and managed to squeak out, "Suicide?"

"Or perhaps," Swan continued, her thoughtful tones in direct and frightening contrast to her expression, "you'd planned on making it look like an accident. Was I to have become entangled with my blade at the height of passion? I doubt you could make that sound believable but then, I'd be dead so I wouldn't have to be convinced."

"Dead?" Incredulity gave her voice some force. "I had no intention of killing you!"

"Which is why I caught you with a knife at my throat?"

"It wasn't at your throat," Terizan snapped, temper beginning to overcome fear. "If you must know, I was going to steal your braid!"

"My braid?" Frowning, Swan sat back. Her weight continued to pin Terizan to the bed, but the dagger was no longer an immediate threat. One hand rose to stroke the narrow, red-gold plait hanging forward over a bare shoulder. "Why?"

"To prove that I could."

Swan stared down at her in confusion. "That's all?"

"Of course..."

"...I suppose we should make an attempt to mollify him."

Her eyes widened as she suddenly realized who the Guild had decided to mollify. Councilor Saladaz had hired the Guild, had not been entirely satisfied, and Councilor Saladaz was a powerful man who could be a powerful enemy. If Swan's braid was stolen the mercenary captain would be humiliated and apparently that would make the councilor happy. The thief sighed as deeply as she was able considering that the larger woman still sat on her chest. The thought of Swan's humiliation didn't make her happy at all – although she supposed she should've thought of that before she tried to steal the braid.

Terizan stared up at the mercenary captain and weighed her loyalties. Adding the knowledge that she was at Swan's mercy to the scale – and ignoring the spreading heat that realization brought – she came to a decision. "I'm pretty sure the Thieves' Guild sent me to steal your braid in order to humiliate you."

"What?"

"They're sucking up to Councilor Saladaz. He wasn't entirely happy with something they had done for him."

Swan's eyes narrowed. "Why would Saladaz hire a thief?"

"To steal something?" Terizan bit her lip. Oh great. Now on top of everything else she'll think I'm an idiot.

To her surprise, Swan repeated, "To steal something," as though it were a brilliant observation. "Could a thief," she demanded, "be sent to steal through a mercenary troop and warn a bandit leader of an attack?"
"Someone warned Hyrantaz that the Wing was coming?"

"Someone, yes. One of my pickets said he thought he saw a slender, dark-haired woman slip through our lines. Moved like a thief in the night, he said. We found no trace of her and we've had trouble with dryads before but Hyrantaz was warned and now you tell me that Councilor Saladaz..." The name came off her lips like a curse. "...has been dealing with the Thieves' Guild." She leaned forward and laid her blade back under Terizan's ear. "Could Saladaz have hired a thief to warn Hyrantaz?"

Terizan sifted through every commission that she'd ever heard the Guild was willing to perform. "Yes. It's possible."

"It wasn't you, was it?"

Her mouth gone completely dry, Terizan had never heard so deadly a threat spoken so quietly. Mutely, she shook her head.

Swan nodded. "Good." Then in a movement almost too fast to follow, she was off the bed and reaching for her clothes.

Terizan drew her legs up under her, ready to spring for the window but unable to leave. "You've been waiting for the dark-haired woman haven't you? That's why you've been..."

"Taking dark-haired women to bed?" Swan yanked the laces on her breeches tight. "I thought she might come back to finish the job so I made myself available."

She should've known that there'd be a reason and she should've known that the reason had nothing to do with her. She tried to keep from sounding wistful. "Why do you believe me when I say I'm not the woman you're looking for?"

Swan twisted around and, just for an instant, so quickly that Terizan couldn't be certain she actually saw it, her expression softened. "Maybe because I don't want you to be." Then she bent and scooped her sword belt off the floor.

"Where are you going now?"

"To separate Saladaz's head from his shoulders."

"You're just going to march into the Congress and slaughter a councilor?"

"Not slaughter, execute." Her lips drew back off her teeth. "I lost a lot of good people out there and that asshole is going to pay."

"And then?"

Hands on her hips, Swan turned to face the bed. "And then what?"

"And then what happens?" Terizan slid her feet into her sandals and stood. "I'll tell you. You'll be arrested because you have no proof Saladaz did anything and then a lot more good people will get killed when the Wing tries to get you out of jail."

"So what do you suggest?"
Terizan ignored the sarcasm. "I suggest we get proof."

Both red-gold brows rose. "We?"
"Yeah, we. I, uh, I mean I owe you for not killing me when you had the chance."

One corner of Swan's generous mouth quirked up in the beginning of a smile. "Not to mention, for not turning you over to the city constables."

"Not to mention." She spread her hands. "The most obvious reason for Saladaz to want to warn Hyrantaz is that he wanted to keep him in business and he could only want to keep him in business if he was taking a percentage of the profits."

Swan nodded, slowly. "That makes sense."

"The councilor has a reputation for admiring beautiful things, so just suppose some of his payment was not in plain coin but in the best of the merchandise taken from the caravans."

"Suppose it was."

"Well, if someone should go into his townhouse, they could likely find that merchandise."

"And how would this person know what merchandise to look for?"

"Easy; every fence and constable in Oreen has a list."

Swan looked surprised. "They can read?"

"Well, no, but scholars are cheap."

"All right." The mercenary captain folded her arms across her chest. "What does this person do once she's found the merchandise in the councilor's house? It won't prove anything if you steal it."

"We could take it to one of the other councilors."

"We don't know that the other councilors weren't in on this deal as well."
Terizan smiled; if only for the moment Swan had referred to them as we. "Then we take it to the people."

"Are you sure you're good enough for this?" Swan hissed, scowling at the iron spikes set into the top of the wall surrounding Councilor Saladaz's townhouse.

"If you hadn't been expecting a dark-haired woman to try something, I'd have had your braid."

"You think." She shook her head. "I don't like this. It's too dangerous. I don't like sending someone into a danger I won't face myself."

Terizan flexed fingers and toes, preparing for the climb. "First of all, you're too good a captain not to delegate when you have to and, secondly, you're not sending me. It was my idea; I'm going on my own."

"Why?"

Because I'd cheerfully roll naked on a hill of fire ants for you. Something of the thought must have shown on her face because Swan reached out for her. Terizan stepped back. That kind of a distraction she didn't need right now. "We settled that already. Because I owe you for not killing me."

"So you're going to kill yourself?"

She wanted to say it was perfectly safe, but she didn't think she could make it sound believable. "Just make sure there's a constable or two ready when I come back over the wall. Are your people in place?"

"Everyone's ready."

"Good."

Terizan had spent the early part of the day investigating the councilor's security arrangements while Swan readied her Wing for the evening's work. If it was to be done at all, it had to be done before full dark. The wall wasn't much of a problem. That it hid nearly everything behind it, was.

She'd heard dogs in the garden so she planned to avoid the garden entirely. Saladaz probably thought that the jump from the top of the wall to the twisted wrought iron of a second floor balcony was impossibly far. He was almost right. Two fingers on each hand hooked around the railing and Terizan just barely got her feet forward in time to stop her body from slamming into the house.

The tall louvered shutters were closed but not locked and before anyone could come to investigate the sound of her landing, she was moving silently down an upper hallway.

Saladaz's prizes wouldn't be in the public rooms; they'd be some place private, but not locked away. He'd want to enjoy them, gloat over them, or there'd be no point in taking the risk of owning them.

She passed a door that gave access into a room overlooking the inner courtyard and all the hair on her body lifted. Unlike the Thieves' Guild, the councilor had obviously considered it worth the expense of having a wizard magically lock at least one of his doors.

Terizan smiled and kept moving. He might as well have hung out a sign. She had no intention of trying to get around the spell and pick the lock. Thieves who held exaggerated ideas of their skills quickly became decorations on the spikes of the Crescent and the itch caused by a sensitivity to magic had always kept her safely away from things she couldn't handle.

At the next door, she sped through a bed chamber – in use, but, given the hour, empty – went out the window, and onto the inner wall. There were servants working in the courtyard, but her long-sleeved tunic and trousers were the close to the same shade as the brick, the short, corn-coloured wig she wore was only a bit lighter, and, as good thieves learned early in their careers, people seldom looked up.

Fingers and toes splayed into nearly invisible cracks, Terizan inched across the wall. For one heart stopping moment she thought there was a spell on the window as well, but then realized she was reacting to the distant feel of the door lock. The window had no lock, but then, why should it? The window looked over a private courtyard.

The room behind the window was a study. It held a massive table with a slanted writing surface, racks and racks of scrolls, a number of very expensive glass lamps – had she been on personal business the lamps alone would've brought a tidy profit – and a cushioned lounger with a small round table drawn up beside it. There were beautiful ornaments on display all over the room. The three she recognized immediately, Terizan slipped into her pack. A quick search of the scrolls discovered two sets of ebony handles chased with silver from the merchants' list of stolen goods. She took one and left the second. After all, something had to remain for the constables to discover. A malachite inkwell was far too heavy so she contented herself with removing the set of matching brushes.

Even without the inkwell, the extra weight made the trip back along the courtyard wall much more interesting than the initial journey had been. A handhold, barely half a fingerwidth, began to crumble. She shifted her weight and threw herself forward; stretching, stretching. Her toes clutched at safety and she started breathing again.

Down below, the servants continued doing whatever it was that servants did, oblivious to the drama being played out over their heads.

Bedchamber and halls were crossed without incident. Chewing the corner of her lip, Terizan measured the distance from the balcony back to the wall. Logic said it had to be the same distance going out as coming in, but logic didn't have to contend with a row of iron spikes and a weighted pack. If I jump a little short, I can catch myself on the base of the spikes and listen for Swan. Once I hear her, I can pull myself up to the top. She flexed her knees and tried not to think about what would happen if she jumped a little too short.

Then her hands were wrapped around the spikes. She bit back a curse as one knee slammed into the bricks and held her breath listening for the dogs.

"I'm telling you, Constable, I saw someone climb over this wall."

They were directly opposite her. Gathering her strength, Terizan heaved herself up onto the top and began to run, bow-legged, for the far end, her heels touching down between every fourth spike.

"There! Up there! Stop thief!"

Heart in her throat, Terizan threw herself up into a young sycamore tree and down onto the roof of a long, two story building. She had to get to the center of the city. At the end of the building, she danced along a narrow ledge, spun round a flag pole, bounced up an awning and onto the top of another wall. Behind her, the hue and cry grew as more and more people took up the chase.

"There he is! Don't let him get away!"

She touched ground, raced through a tangle of back streets – peripherally aware of the occasional large body that placed itself to delay individuals if not the crowd pursuing her – crossed the High Street with what seemed like half of Oreen after her, darted between two buildings, and shrugged out of her pack. An ancient addition had crumbled away from newer stone leaving a dangerous stairway to the rooftops. Terizan skimmed up it, hanging the pack on a projection near the bottom, and threw herself flat behind the lip of the roof just as the chase reached the alley.

"Look! There's his pack!"

Wincing a little as the thieves' stair crumbled under the purposefully heavy footsteps of two of Swan's Wing, Terizan stripped off her trousers and turned them inside out to expose the striped fabric they'd been lined with. The sleeves came off the tunic and were stuffed into her breast band, significantly changing her silhouette. The wig she added to a pigeon's nest and couldn't see much difference between them.

With all the attention on the alley and her pack, it was an easy matter to flip over the far side of the building and into a window before anyone reached the roof by more conventional methods. It helped that two very large mercenaries were having a shoving match on the stairs.

By the time she reached the street, the mob had turned and was heading back to Councilor Saladaz's townhouse. Out in front ran a pair of merchants who'd lost everything to Hyrantaz's bandits.

"Your left tit is lopsided."

Terizan slipped a hand inside her tunic and shoved at the crumpled sleeve. "Better?"

"Much." Swan grinned and stepped out of the shadow of the doorway. She linked her arm through the shorter woman's and they began to walk back to The Lion. "Everything worked out just like you said it would. When the constable pulled the drawstring on the pack everything in it fell out at his feet. He stared open-mouthed and a number of my louder officers stirred up the crowd, demanding to see each piece. When he held up the scroll ends, I thought the merchant they'd been taken from was going to spit fire. I've never seen anyone so angry. One of my people bellowed that the thief came out of Councilor Saladaz's house and that was all it took. The councilor is not a very popular man right now."

They could hear the roar of the crowd in the distance. If anything, it appeared to be growing both louder angrier as it moved away from them.

"I left plenty for them to find," Terizan murmured. "And I expect when they're done with Saladaz, it'll occur to someone that perhaps the other councilors ought to be checked out as well."

"You're quite the strategist."

Terizan's face flushed at the emphatic admiration in Swan's voice. She mumbled something non-committal and kept her eyes on her feet.

"Given that what you do is illegal and the odds have to catch up to you sooner or later – which would be an incredible waste – have you ever considered taking up another profession?"

"Like what?"

"Oh... mercenary perhaps."

Terizan stopped dead and turned to stare up at the taller woman. Although her night sight was very good, the shifting shadows of dusk made it difficult to read Swan's expression. "Do you mean..."

"Thanks to that son of a leprous baboon..." Swan cocked her head as the background sounds of the crowd rose momentarily to a foreground scream of victory. "...who is even now being taken care of – I have a few openings."

"But I don't, I mean, I can't..." Terizan took a deep breath and tried again. "That is, I won't kill anyone."

Swan shrugged. "I can always get plenty of swords; brains are harder to come by. Besides," her voice softened and one hand rose to cup Terizan's face, "you're smart, you're beautiful, you're amazingly flexible; I think I'd like to get to know you better."

The thief felt her jaw drop and the evening suddenly grew much warmer.

"There's no need to decide right away," Swan continued, her grin suggesting she could feel the heat of Terizan's reaction. "I'm not taking the Wing anywhere until we're paid so we've got another two nights to see if we'll suit."

"Swan! Swan! Swan!"

The people of Oreen screamed their approval as Swan and twelve members of the Wing rode into the Crescent. Although all seven members of council waited on the steps of the Congress, only four were actually standing. Councilor Saladaz and two others stared out at the crowd with sightless eyes, their heads having joined Hyrantaz and his bandits.

"So is it love?"

Eyes locked on Swan, Terizan shrugged. "I don't know."

Poli shook his head and sighed. "So are you going to accept her offer?"

"I don't know."

"Does she know that you're responsible for all this renewed adoration?"

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I am never ridiculous. But I do recall being asked to spread a rumour that Swan was behind the discovery of Saladaz and his little business arrangements." He smoothed down his tunic and smiled. "I guess he should have paid her right away and got her out of town."

Terizan grinned as Councilor Aleezan handed over the rest of the Wing's payment and the crowd went wild. Then the grin faded. "Poli, what should I do?"

He had to place his mouth almost on her ear to be heard over the noise. "What do you want to do?"

That was the problem, she didn't know. Swan was exciting, exotic, exhausting, and not an easy person to live with. The Wing would accept her initially for Swan's sake and in time for her own, but would she ever accept the Wing? They were as good at killing people as she was at stealing from them and she'd never really approved of slaughter for a living.

His manicured nails digging into her shoulders, Poli shook her. "Terizan, you have to make a decision. What do you want to do?"

"I want..." She didn't want to worry about injury or sickness or age. She didn't want to leave the city. And as much as she desired her, adored her, maybe even loved her, she didn't want to spend the rest of her life trying to keep up to Swan. Not to mention that she strongly suspected she'd hate sleeping in a tent. "I want to join the Thieves' Guild."

Poli released her and gracefully spread his hands, the gesture clearing asking, "So?"

"SWAN! SWAN! SWAN!"

Terizan watched the Wing, and Swan, ride out of the Crescent on a wave of adulation. She'd agreed to meet them at The Lion and give the mercenary captain her decision. Fortunately, she thought Swan would understand. Unfortunately, if she wanted to join the Thieves' Guild, she had a small problem.

"SWAN! SWAN! SWAN!"

The life-braid gleamed like a line of fire down the back of Swan's armour. Terizan chewed on a corner of her lip and suddenly smiled.

Maybe not.

"Uh, Tribunes..." His eyes wide, Balzador peered into the Sanctum. "Uh, Terizan is back."

One looked up from a detailed plan of the Congress and frowned at his expression. "Did you forget to use the blindfold again?"

"N...no. I used the blindfold but..."

"Good." Two cut him off. "Remember, she isn't a member of the Guild until she fulfills our commission. Although," he added in an undertone, "all things considered, we no longer really need to mollify our late client."

"Y...yes, I know but..."

Tribune Three sighed and turned from racking an armload of scrolls. "Well, if she's back, where is she?"

"Right here." Terizan pushed past the stammering Balzador and into the Sanctum.

One glanced up at the trap door in the ceiling, then smiled. "And did you bring us Swan's braid?"

"I did." Reaching behind her, she pushed the door the rest of the way open.

Swan swept off her blindfold, and bowed, eyes gleaming.

The tribunal stared, open mouthed, fully aware that if anything happened to their captain, the Wing would tear the city apart.

"What is the meaning of this," One demanded at last.

Terizan echoed Swan's bow. "You never specified that I had to remove the braid from Swan."

"We, we..." Two sputtered.

Then Three began to laugh. "We never did," he chuckled, slapping meaty thighs. "We never did. We said bring us Swan's braid and she most assuredly has done that."

Two's narrow lips began to twitch.

Finally, One sighed and spread her hands in surrender. "Welcome to the Guild, Terizan." Almost in spite of herself, she smiled. "We'll remember to be more specific in the future."

"I'm almost relieved you didn't take me up on my offer." When Terizan looked hurt, Swan cupped her chin with one hand. "You'd steal the company out from under me in a month."

"I don't think so," Terizan began, but Swan cut her off.

"I do. I've seen you operate. Next time I'm back this way, you'll be running that Guild."

Terizan frowned. There were a number of things she'd like to change. Most of them ran out her ears as Swan bent and kissed her good-bye, but she was sure she'd think of them again. Just as soon as she could start thinking again. She swayed a little as Swan released her.

Swan swung up into the saddle and flicked her braid back over her shoulder. "You've stolen my heart, you know."

"Come back and visit it."

"I will."

Terizan raised a hand in farewell as Swan rode out of the stable yard then climbed to the top of the tallest building in the neighbourhood to watch the Wing ride out of Oreen.

"Next time I'm back this way, you'll be running that Guild."

She dropped onto a balcony railing and danced along it to a narrow ledge. The day was fading and she had a lot to do. Plans to make. She grinned and touched her hip. Safe in the bottom of a deep pocket, sewn into a tiny, silk pouch, was a long red-gold hair, rippled down its length from the weave of the braid.