“Morning, Doorkeeper,” Liliana stretched and yawned as she walked into the kitchen. The staunch homunculus’s one great blue eye blinked and followed the necromancer’s path from the stair to the stove. Doorkeeper was perched above the main entrance to 111 Sterling—he was the first line of defense to the planeswalkers’ home.
“Good morning, my Lady.” Doorkeeper watched as his mistress Vess stoked a huge fire on the stove and banged a pot down on top of it. “The pork was delivered last night, mistress, if you’re hungry—”
“I’m starving, Doorkeeper.”
The homunculus jumped down from his post. He bent his short legs into a bow. “Please, lady, allow me to go to the cellar for you.”
Liliana turned from the stove and grinned down at the creature. His skin shone golden-green in the early light. He had come highly recommended.
“I’d like that,” Liliana said.
Doorkeeper rushed down the stairs of the cellar and chose the most beautifully marbled chunk of salt pork out of the extensive selection.
He presented it to Liliana. She beamed at him.
“This is going to be delicious.”
Doorkeeper nodded, noticing that the mistress had more lines on her face than usual this morning—though it didn’t detract from her beauty—perhaps she had not had a restful night. Her hair was tangled but shone in the light from the kitchen windows, and the silk shift she wore clung to her body as she threw seemingly arbitrary ingredients into the pot with the salt pork.
The homunculus climbed back up to his place above the door.
Stairs creaked and Doorkeeper immediately recognized the gait of master Venser. The artificer must be coming down for breakfast as well. Doorkeeper straightened and checked the street outside using his extensive second sight powers. Master Venser was always concerned about the security of the building, and Doorkeeper liked to provide the artificer with a thorough report.
“Good morning, my Lord,” Doorkeeper greeted Venser as the artificer clunked down the steps onto the ground floor.
“Doorkeeper,” Venser smiled at the homunculus through bleary eyes, sliding a hand through his mussed hair. He looked over at Liliana and his smiled faded. “Hey Lil—” he took a step toward the stove.
“Feeling better?” the necromancer said, without looking up. Venser stopped.
“Can you believe. Bolas has Gideon here as a backup plan.” Liliana flipped chunks of pork over. Venser noticed she also held a butcher knife in her other hand. He slid onto a stool at the big table that took up the central area of the kitchen.
“Doorkeeper, would you mind making some coffee?” Liliana purred. The homunculus dropped from his lookout post again, with a grin.
“It would be my pleasure, mistress,” he said. Doorkeeper opened some cabinets, measured ingredients, and flipped some switches on the Izzet device in the corner. The fragrance of dark grounds and smoke and chocolate filled the room as the coffee brewed.
“Thank you, darling, you’re a godsend,” Liliana said. Doorkeeper clambered up to his post again with a lightness in his heart he’d never felt before.
“I need to meet this Gideon,” Vense said quietly.
“Why?” Liliana said, too blankly, as she dumped hot fried pork onto a platter and slammed it down on the table in front of herself. She didn’t offer to share.
“I’d like his take on what it feels like to be your backup plan,” Venser said. Liliana paused, her mouth full of meat, and stared at him with blisteringly violet eyes. He didn’t look away, and watched as Liliana chewed slowly and deliberately. He had the disturbing thought that she was imagining macerating him instead of the salt pork.
Liliana’s gaze flicked from visually impaling Venser to the bangle on her arm. Venser looked at it, too, and could tell instantly it was enchanted with some kind of communication umbra. Funny, he couldn’t recall Liliana ever wearing that particular piece of jewelry before…
The chime sounded again.
“Excuse me,” Liliana said, turning away from the table and walking over to the window. Venser got up to get some coffee. He grabbed two tin mugs and filled both, absently setting one next to Liliana’s still-warm plate of pig. On a whim, he took a chunk of pork and popped it in his mouth.
“Damn!” Venser cursed as the hot pork fat burned his tongue. He chewed it anyway, slurping down scalding coffee to ease the stinging in his mouth.
Liliana stood in the light of the window and looked down at her bangle. The large quartz stone was a message filter, simply allowing a quick mental link to be created when someone with the proper authorizations or key wanted to talk to her.
She knew who it was without even answering the chime. Peering back over her shoulder, Liliana found both Doorkeeper and Venser staring at her unabashedly. Doorkeeper looked solemn and proper. Venser waved.
“Do you two mind?” she hissed.
Venser turned to the homunculus. “Why don’t you give me the perimeter report, Doorkeeper.”
“Of course, my Lord…”
As soon as Liliana heard the homunculus’s steady monologue of night-activity minutiae begin, she turned her attention back to the bangle and flipped the clasp to open the aura chat.
“Well, well, well. I was about to hang up. Not used to women keeping me waiting that long,” Ral’s voice buzzed in her head.
“I doubt you’re used to women at all,” Liliana thought in return.
“Now, was that… a homophobic joke… or a comment on my maturity… or a low blow referring to my sexual experience?”
“I’ll give you a clue. It was not option A.”
“Damn it, that’s what I was afraid of.”
Liliana laughed out loud and slapped a hand over her mouth when she realized it. She peeked backwards and was relieved to see Venser and Doorkeeper engrossed in conversation and not paying attention to her.
“So when are you making me breakfast, Opal?” Ral said. Hmmm, done his homework, did he Liliana grinned to herself.
“I heard that,” Ral chuckled. “And yes, despite my rogueish appearance, I am a studious, studious boy at heart… my only desire being to please my gorgeous teacher, m’am.”
“I like an overachiever, guildmage Zarek.”
There was a pause. “Looks like someone did her homework, too,” Ral’s thought came through quietly, a bit subdued.
“Your secret’s safe with me,” Liliana purred. “Unless you get on teacher’s bad side.”
Ral laughed. “Well, since my plan is to get on every side of yours, I guess I’ll take my risks. What are you doing? Come to the Aerie.”
Liliana’s eyebrow raised in surprise. “Right now?”
“Why not? What important business could you have this early in the morning?”
Liliana glanced back at her friends. Venser was staring into his coffee. Doorkeeper had resumed his vigil over the ingress.
“I can’t make it right now. Tonight, just after dark.”
“What, are you ashamed of me already?”
“My instincts tell me I should be,” Liliana said. Ral sighed.
“Fine, tonight. The dragon’s out of town. Just bang on the door.”
“Hmm, Izzety. I’ve never done it on a door before.“ Liliana smiled as she heard Ral chuckle. “No key code? No password?” she asked. “You can’t tell me there are no safeguards on the Aerie…”
“Ral Zarek doesn’t do precautions. To hell with safeguards! Everytime the dragon’s gone I turn off all that bullshit. I’m unlocking the door right now in preparation for your visit, Mistress Treakoff. In fact, it’s wide fucking open. Listen—I’ll even declare my intentions publicly! Hey, you—hey all you boring people and cretins down there, look! The door to the sacred and mysterious Aerie is flapping in the breeze because Ral Zarek wants to see a pretty lady. Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking to you, you ugly-ass Azorius patrolturds giving me the evil eye from way down there. See? I’m completely vulnerable, Opal, and it’s all your fault. I’m a victim of lust at first sight. Ral Zarek is a sloppy, romantic mess. And if my enemies use this opportunity to sneak in and claim my scalp, it’s on you. I say it’s worth it. Just promise you’ll remember me fondly.”
Liliana’s side hurt from stifling her giggles.
“See you tonight,” she said, and snapped off the aura chat.
When Liliana turned around she noticed Venser was gone. Doorkeeper gave her a courteous nod that she returned with a smile. She was in a great mood. Sitting down to finish her breakfast, she reached for the mug of coffee near her plate.
“Oh that’s nice, did you get this for me, Doorkeeper?” she beamed at the homunculus, who blinked, opening his mouth to reply…
“Thank you, you’re such a sweetling.” Liliana drained her cup, and, still thirsty, reached for Venser’s half-empty mug and drank that, too.
Kallist threw himself across the floor, tucked into a roll, and prayed the furniture would incinerate before he did. A spark-filled boom exploded on his heels as Kallist dashed beneath the grand piano. Across the room he saw Biggs, the hulking minotaur, peeking up from over the minibar; above him he saw that Murdock clung to the chandelier and was turned sideways so his svelte vedalken body presented the smallest target possible to the old man raging through the parlor of Karlov Manor.
“Damnation, Rhoka, get out here and fight like a veteran!” Agrus Kos aimed a bam-stick blast expertly, and another explosion of sparks ensued, coupled with high-pitched curses from Kallist. The assassin clutched his breeches and scooted behind the pianist, who sat frozen in the middle of “Let Your Hair Down, Dear, Spring is Here.”
“This is a cock-festered idea, and Teysa only asked you… ‘Cause she knew I’d say no!” Kos shouted, raising a beer bottle to his lips at the same time he lowered the bam-stick for another shot. No one doubted his aim.
“Sorry,” Kallist muttered, as he took position directly behind the terrified musician, using him as a shield. Kos belched and hesitated, looking around the room for other targets.
“Should I play something else?” the pianist said, his face pale but composed. Kallist shook his head.
“I don’t know what kind of music that rabid old badger likes—”
“Skies!” Murdock shouted from the chandelier. “Play ‘The Skies Rise to Meet Me!’ Quickly!” The vedalken covered his face with his arms as crystal exploded around him. Kos’s maniacal laughter rasped through the air.
I should have spoken with him privately Kallist thought with regret.
The pianist put his hands on the keys.
Long, pained notes cut through the tragedy in the parlor. ‘The Skies Rise to Meet Me’ was the most renowned song from a popular play in which the mortal protagonist fell in love with an angel who cared only for the defense of her sanctuary.
Kos lowered his bam-stick arm.
The piece of paper lay unfolded on the work table, glaringly white and penned in offensively brisk script that gleamed ebony under the utility lamp.
Alone in his workshop, Venser stared at the letter—processing.
You’ve been working for me pretty much nonstop since we met on Mirrodin. I’ve been consumed with my own affairs and a really selfish “boss.” You should take some time off. Go out and enjoy the city. I shouldn’t have been so angry the other day in the Territories—obviously you just need some time to relax.
I took the liberty of buying some tickets for the marquee show tonight on Masque Street. They’re under your name at the box office next to Dumple’s—that’s a bar. Strange name, I know, but they have the best beer on the entire plane—I know your appetite still hasn’t been strong, so why not take the fun and easy way out with liquid nutrition, right? I recommend the hazelnut stout. The play tonight is “The Philosopher and the Schism.” Considering the splash you made in the Territories, I’m sure you can find someone to enjoy the show with you.
Why don’t we reconvene early next week, and I’ll tell you about the upcoming segment of my job and you can decide if you want to be involved or not… no pressure. It’s going to involve some dirty work. I’ll understand if you don’t want to come along, so don’t worry about it.
Hope you enjoy the weekend. Don’t forget to use your alias! And don’t talk to any peddlers.
Venser reached out slowly for the letter. He felt a strange, burning urge to crumple it and drop it down a latrine, but instead his fingers folded it into a tiny square that he slipped into one of his many pockets.
An artifact lay in disarray on his work table. He’d been tinkering with it after breakfast, had fallen asleep on his lounger, and had awakened to find the letter leaning up against the unfinished photomnemulyzer.
A sandglass of the latest Ravnican design ticked from its place on the east wall. Everything in the artificer’s room was tidy, save for the parts in use on the work table. His furnishings were simple and practical, but he’d had the walls and floor finely sanded and stained, and the windows re-done in complex patterns of stained glass he’d designed himself. The colors were muted grays and browns and blues, but the facets and arcs were astounding. It had taken the best goblin glasscutters (from the firm contracted to do all new Orzhov basilica windows) over three weeks to finish Venser’s plan. The windows cast different beguiling patterns on the walls and floor depending on the time of day. At the moment, it appeared as though the artificer stood within a storm of comets.
He knew who’d been on that call with Liliana. That kind of device’s function was predicated on recognition harmonics. All you needed was an item with trace organic matter from the person you wanted to talk to. Something like a glove would work perfectly.
She wants to keep me busy for the night.
Venser shrugged to himself. Oddly enough, he felt vaguely flattered. He reasoned that his housemate’s affairs were her affairs. Literally. He picked up a large screw and crushed it to dust in his palm with a thought. The metallic powder sifted out through his fingers and settled into a silver film on his work table.
Well, they are free tickets. And I know how to get ahold of Beatrix.
“Absolutely not,” Agrus Kos fumed, pushing back from the table and angrily rising from his chair, knocking it over. The Wojek’s keen eyes pinned Kallist, Murdock, and Biggs to their seats like guilty schoolkids.
“You know why she went to you, right?” Kos directed this at Kallist. “She knew I’d say no! She’s hinted at this crazy scheme before… No! Fuck no! Why should I risk my team for a vanity project?” Kos turned and stomped over to the bar. Bethshaen, the phantasmal barkeep, nodded sympathetically at Agrus and slid him a strong pour of Agyrem whiskey.
After their abysmally-received report to Kos at Karlov Manor, the team had managed to extricate him from the grounds and back up to the ghost quarter where there would be less embarrassment for everyone involved.
“I told you he’d be mad,” Biggs muttered, wiping his brow and looking at his knees.
“It’s not this, really. It’s the report from the mission,” Murdock hissed. Kallist kicked the vedalken under the table.
“I heard that. You festering newbs,” Kos said, shaking his head. He walked back to the table with his whiskey and slammed it down hard enough to make all the other glasses jump. “Why in the abyssal void should I let you go on this little…. this little life or death field trip? I don’t care if it’s for the Grand Envoy! Teysa can suck a scepter! She asked you—you, Rhoka! Because you’re new. Because she knew I’d say no. As I’ve implied to her hundreds of times.”
Kos drank his whiskey. Bethshaen kept his eyes down and polished spectral glasses with copiousness never before seen on any plane. Murdock rolled his eyes. Biggs looked near tears.
“Let’s do it,” Kallist said. A glass dropped and crashed behind the bar. Murdock’s eyes flicked to the assassin uncertainly. Biggs sniffled, but looked up with interest.
Kos’s empty glass crashed down upon the table. “What did you say, Rhoka?” he asked dangerously.
“I said, let’s do it. Let’s take out the Obzedat. Who cares if it’s for Teysa, or Ravnica, or for any other shit reason. That’s not my motivation. It’s the job of the decade. Don’t any of you think like mercenaries? Succeed or fail, we go out right. And, let’s be honest. We all know those dead guys aren’t doing anyone any fucking favors. Teysa does the work of Orzhov on Ravnica. It happens to be the right thing to do, and the cool thing to do. That’s my vote.”
Kos, Biggs, Murdock, and Bethshaen were silent, staring at Kallist. The assassin turned his palms up at Kos with an expression of abject, booze-fueled let’s seize this day.
“Let’s do it,” Kallist repeated, softly.
Murdock and Biggs were nodding, slowly.
Kos threw up his hands. “If your souls get splattered across the void, do not come whining to me. I cannot wait to tell your newb-ass particles I told you so.”
Kallist grinned. “I’ll take the abyss over apathy,” he said, raising his glass.
“Youthful dreams,” Kos said sourly.
“This job, then we’ll free the Guildmaster,” Murdock said very quietly. “I’m sure, sir, you’ll have a plan for her rescue when we return?”
“Bet your fucking fourth arm,” Kos said. Kallist, Murdock, and Biggs looked one another. Murdock only had two arms.
The toast was somber and sloppy. A few seconds later Kos was down face first on the table, completely passed out.
The three Wojeks of Agyrem were silent a few minutes. When Kos began to snore, Murdock finally spoke.
“He’s been drunk for 72 hours.” The vedalken raised an eyebrow at Kallist.
“Well, Biggs here had to mention the lacerations, didn’t he,” the assassin snapped.
“I was telling the truth,” the minotaur growled back.
“At least he assented to the Obzedat job.” The vedalken steepled his fingers around his small herd of shot glasses.
“We could’ve done it without his blessing,” Kallist mused. Murdock fixed him with a look.
“Would you have?”
“Of course not. I just meant in theory.”
“Anyone else craving hot wings?”
“Oh come on, Luke, it’s just a dance! Just give it a shot.” The Izzet mage was in full-blown party mode and giggled wildly, scampering out into the middle of the bar where tables and chairs had been pushed aside to create a makeshift dance floor.
Venser was being dragged along, his hands caught up in Beatrix’s surprisingly vise-like grip. Everyone was laughing at the plight of the reluctant “lawmage”—after all, what better foil for this crowd than a stuffy Azorius tool? Venser grinned resignedly.
A gigantic minotaur dressed in a plaid skirt of some kind stomped his foot to the music and howled with abandon. Venser felt the beer going to his head. He’d had several pints of that hazelnut brew… Beatrix whirled him around and Venser nearly crashed into a slender young man only about four feet tall—dancing with a half-ogre woman about seven feet tall.
“Excuse me!” Venser apologized.
“No problem, it’s not your fault—it’s a symptom of the Izzet waltz!” the young man said, and Venser noticed that his eyes were glittering green and almost fey in appearance. The strange kid spun his half-ogre partner away with him...
The music—provided by a three goblin trumpeters, a centaur tambourine player, a Simic fiddler and a vedalken on bongos—got even louder. Venser had not thought it possible.
The minotaur got up and ran to the bar, plucked the bartender right out from behind the counter, and joined the dance. The human bartender laughed and danced with ease, flinging her red hair this way and that.
Beatrix was smiling, her cheeks flushed and her brown eyes shining with pleasure. Venser tried to move a bit better, for her sake. The music and the clapping and the stomping sped up and crescendoed, and then finally the dance was over.
Venser collapsed into a chair. He was sure the onion rings were slowing him down. After two acts of The Philosopher and the Schism Beatrix had insisted she was too hungry to sit through act three and the deep-fried extravaganza had ensued. Venser was sure he’d never eaten so much batter and grease in the entirety of the rest of his life. These people, whoever they were… fried everything. Cheese. Desserts. Sausage rounds. Potatoes. Fruit. Mushrooms. Okra. Peppers. Ice cream.
The minotaur took a heavy seat next to Venser, wiping a good amount of sweat from his muzzle. “It’s a mystery to me how female mages can dance so damn much,” he grumbled with a laugh. Venser could only shake his head in agreement. The minotaur smiled ferociously and fixed him with a beady dark eye. “You new, eh? Haven’t seen you here before. But any friend of Beatrix’s is a friend of ours.”
The minotaur extended a hand. Venser took it and tried to give a manly shake in the minotaur’s crushing grip. He winced. “‘Ours’?” Venser asked. “I don’t recognize your guild, sir…” the minotaur and the youth with the fey eyes were both wearing colorful plaid items, but no sigil that Venser could identify.
“We’re still new,” the minotaur explained. “Welcome, master Lawmage, to Schmazzgordios Guild!” He extended a hand magnanimously, sweeping his arm to indicate the entire bar. Venser noticed that all the patrons wore plaid save himself, Beatrix, and a lone guy with long hair over in the corner.
“What does Schmazzgordios stand for?” Venser said, intrigued.
“Cheese and beer. And I’m Schmazz. Nice to meet you—?”
“Luke,” Venser replied automatically. “It’s my pleasure.”
“A lot more fun than a Prahv party, eh? No offense.”
Beatrix appeared, holding four beers that she clanked down on the table with glee. She nudged Schmazz with an elbow and sat down next to Venser, so close that he felt her tool belt digging into his thigh.
“Cheers! To new friends,” she said, shoving beers at them.
“There are only three of us,” Venser said, taking one.
“You get two! Because you’re so serious,” Beatrix laughed, making a dour face. Schmazz guffawed. Beatrix pressed the second glass into Venser’s other hand.
“But I don’t want tw—”
“Curse of the Double Fist,” said Schmazz. “Sorry, Luke, it’s a tradition. ‘First time on Schmazzgordios ground, your turn to double-pound.’” Beatrix giggled and nodded and Venser noticed the glittery-eyed kid as well as the long-haired loner had joined their table.
“I’m Wren,” said the kid. “Nice one, Beatrix, he looks like he might actually be able to drink with us. Not like the pontiff that one time—”
“Wren!” Beatrix blushed. Prettily, Venser noticed.
“Dack,” said the long-haired guy. Venser tried to put down a beer to shake hands. Dack laughed. “Ah, don’t bother—drinking’s the real priority here.” Venser felt like the guy reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t think of who…
“Cheers!” Beatrix said again, thrusting her pint skyward.
“Cheers!” A chorus of voices answered her. Glasses crashed together, beer sloshed, and laughter exploded around the table. The band started a new song.
Cheers, Venser thought, draining one pint and then the next, to the cheering of his tablemates.
If only she could see me now.
...to be continued in Chapter 10: Boombastic
Retribution in Ravnica
an original Magic: The Gathering fan fiction