The entrance has changed, set further back from the street than it was twenty years ago. The wide white stairs are the same, though, scrubbed and scuffed to a pearly gleam without a hint of the violence they’ve seen. Same with the warm wood of the entryway, the heavy paneled door, the peaked tiling like a cobbler or scribe’s shop – neither muddy boot nor bloodied body has left a mark. SI:7 sits in its corner like a cat, curled and watchful, secure in its status as master of its domain.
There are new agents at the doors and new faces in the hallway, but those, too, could well be the same. Close-mouthed and narrow-eyed, with the trim and wiry body-types that the Service favors and drills into shape, the agents pad through the halls. They are soft-footed and wary, relaxed in their deadliness. The trainees are more cautious, deferential and shy as deer. When they’re set loose in the taverns of the city, they’ll be puffed-up and vicious with pride, as holy as paladins – holier, even, because they do what the shining knights won’t.
He knows all this because he lived it, and nothing ever changes much in SI:7.
Tarquin walks through the corridors with funerary grace. Trainees stutter-step away gawping, and agents either eye him menacingly, or pretend he’s not there. Both smack of bad acting, and he’s a man who knows his bad acting. It’s the ones who just watch him, without affect or concern, shameless and passive – those are the seniors, First Finger and Thumb. Those are the Names. Names like Shadowmore and Underhill, d’Archacon and Sullivan. Names like Vagos and Osborne. Names like Shaw.
Names like ap Danwyrith, he wanted to say, once upon a time, a thousand years ago.
A couple are trailing him, but courteous-like, making sure he knows they’re there. It takes him a bit to find his way in the new offices, but he passes it off as part of his slow pace, and once he’s found the stairs he knows. Like all great chiefs, Mathias Shaw’s a creature of habit; if you waste your mind on little things like office space and picking meals, you won’t have any left for the real work. Tarquin picks his way up the stairs with the agents following.
Reznik the Shiv’s up there, looking much the same – maybe his skin’s drawn a little tighter, his eyes shrunk further into their sockets. He’s not surprised to see who’s come to call, either got word or just incapable of being surprised by anything; he toggles a buzzbox on his desk. “Yeah. It’s ap Danwyrith.” He waits for response, flicks the box off, and nods to the door across the room. “You can go in.”
And that’s it for Tarquin ap Danwyrith and Reznik the Shiv. Reznik never coddled the boys and girls like Osborne or even the boss, never got any closer than the job demanded. He’s no gladder to see Tarquin here than he was to see him go. It’s probably a healthy way to live. Tarquin tips his hat to him anyway and walks on into the belly of the beast.
The most dangerous man in Stormwind is looking out his window, hands in his pockets like a schoolboy. “You can sit,” he says without turning. “Something to drink?” Tarq responds in the negative. “I was just looking at the new school.” Shaw extracts a hand and points out the window. “Over on Cooper. It’ll be open by the spring, for the sons and daughters of tradesmen. The king’s taxes are financing it.”
“Yeh mean, what’s left ay the king’s taxes after the war an’ mair big-arse statues.” He sounds peevish even to his own ears, but he can’t help himself. He sits down in one of Shaw’s comfortable chairs.
“There’s enough to go around,” Shaw says, like they were agreeing. He turns. As ageless as Reznik looked, the boss might be more startling. It’s not that Tarq can’t see the passage of years – the grey at his temples and the retreat of his hairline, the crow’s-feet and laugh lines – but more that, after twenty years of Horde and Defias and Cult and aye, fucking Riders, twenty years of crown-sanctioned evil in the name of the greater good, it’s surprising that Shaw isn’t a shriveled mummy pickled in his own black bile.
“What do you think they’ll learn there?” he asks his old pupil. “I don’t mean their maths and letters and sciences. I mean, will they learn to be good and honest Stormwinders? Or will they learn to lie and cheat and steal, and foment revolution against their king?”
“The latter,” says Tarquin, grinning at the opening. “An’ if they dinna learn it there, they will somewhere else.” Shaw sighs and walks over to his own chair.
“You’re probably right, of course. I asked for a window that showed me my city growing in hope and glory, and they gave me a view of Stormwind instead.” His face shows its age when he smiles, creasing all around the cheeks and eyes. “What can I do for you, Tarquin?”
“Couple things, auld boy. I go’ this int’restin’ piece ay mail t’ither day, first off –“ Shaw cuts him off.
“Yes, we can cover that if you’d like. I think it’s fairly self-evident. What’s the second thing?” Tarquin’s a bit taken aback, recovers quickly.
“Self-evident, yeh say. But I expect ‘tis a bit mair complicated’n it looks oan its surface, which’s why I come t’yeh.” He reaches into his coat for a folded letter, drops it on the desk, and Shaw’s speaking again before he continue.
“No, it’s quite obvious. I mean, you’re right – I’m behind it.” That makes Tarquin hold still with his hand still over the letter. “If that’s your question. I am absolutely the next best thing to an ultimate source behind that letter, assuming that letter is your summons to answer multiple charges of evading the King’s taxes.” Shaw gives him another friendly-old-gent smile. “You did get that letter, right?”
Tarquin’s still unbalanced from this cheerful admission. “So –“ He shakes his head. “Well it’s nice ta hear yeh say it an’ all. Then t’ither thing, ‘tis about my mate Bric.”
“Oh, I should have guessed. You’re going to ask if I’m aware SI:7 resources were diverted to supporting the Inquisition during the investigation that resulted in Bricu Bittertongue’s excommunication. Or something to that effect.” Again he’s got Tarquin by the root of the tongue. It’s like Shaw’s studied him like sheet music, learned his rhythms and just where to come in to keep him off balance. He understands now how Shadowbreaker knew just what to do.
All he can muster is a nod. “Then, yes,” says Shaw. “Either me, or one of the Sullivans, I can’t quite recall. But they would have done so at my direction.” He actually looks down at a ledger. “I doubt it’s here. You’d need to have one of the girls downstairs look it up, and I’d have to sign something before they’d do so. Pain in both of our asses, really, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Shaw’s satisfied prattling gives him enough time to rally. “Aright, well, if wir bein’ open an’ honest, mate, what d’yeh want fir it?”
Tarquin leans forward over the desk. “Dinna get cute wi’ me now. Yir strong-armin’ us again, what’s it, third time now? Yeh throw the law at us, an’ cheers fir getting’ church law in oan it this time, that’s crafty – yeh throw the law at us, an’ we go an’ run some dirty errands so ev’ryone can get back ta business. ‘Moan, chief, what’s it this time? Yeh want me lot ta gang ta Draenor?”
Shaw looks at him levelly, and then laughs short and sharp. “Light, Tarquin, you always did have the balls. That’s how you’re still alive, isn’t it? When it comes to it, after all the clever fencing, you’ve got the balls to stick to it. I’ll have to tell Osborne.” He chuckles again. “But you’ve got the wrong idea. I can see how you got it, absolutely, but you’re wrong.”
Boiling in his seat, Tarquin fixes his mouth in a glass-brittle smile. “Then g’oan an’ educate me, Master Shaw.”
“I tried, Tarquin, believe me. I tried. Even tried to cure you of that fucking accent. You know, I think if I’d had them stick to the elocution, we might’ve kept you. I really believe that. It all starts with words.” Shaw waves off his next inquiry. “Alright, I’ll be plain. This isn’t like when you fled north. We really did have you then, I thought. If it hadn’t been for the war with Arthas, you’d never have seen Stormwind alive. But that was more important. More important than anything.”
“Sure eno’,” Tarquin says, and means it.
“But this isn’t that. That was a sting, the Watch, the Crown and the Service all cooperating for once, and it was a thing of beauty. This?” Shaw gestures at the letter on the desk. “This, and Bricu…this is just incidental.”
“Yeh jus’ said it came direct frae yeh. Which is it, Shaw?”
“Oh, it’s absolutely from me. But…try to understand, Tarquin, how very many things I have to do in a day. Dozens. Hundreds. These time-lost Horde incursions? We’re only beginning to understand them, and we haven’t even properly established our spies in Vol’jin’s Orgrimmar to compare notes. The Gilneans are still grumbling, nobody can find the Black Prince, Pandaria’s demanding reparations…” Shaw shakes his head exaggeratedly. “I’m growing old in this job.”
“Me deepest sympathies.” Tarquin drips sarcasm to score the paneling of Shaw’s desk. “So what’re yeh tryin’ ta say?”
“What I’m trying to say is – and please, brace yourself, and tell me if you feel faint – you’re just not that important to me.” Shaw smiles again, with malice in it. “Sorry.”
“This letter says diff’rent.” Shaw picks up the summons and looks at it, and then back up at Tarquin with ice in his eyes.
“No, it doesn’t. It says that you have been charged with evading the King’s Taxes on a scale approaching capital crimes. It says that you are called to answer for your offenses, like any other citizen of Stormwind. Just like Sir Bittertongue – excuse me, Master Bittertongue’s trial took place because he was unfit to wear the spurs of the Silver Hand.” Shaw puts the letter back on the desk. “It says that you’re not above the law, Tarquin. And if I say it too, it’s no more than I say to every other prince of thugs who thinks to make my city his personal kingdom.”
Tarquin lets it all wash over him. There’s something in there, maybe, some crack he can wiggle into it. But Shaw’s still going. “Yes, I started an investigation into your smuggling and tax evasion; yes, I offered to help the Inquisition find evidence and witnesses. But this wasn’t some grand undertaking. It was actually very little effort. I was – and I hope this means the same thing in your language that it does in mine – doing my job.”
“Awright, well, afore this goes ta the courts let’s-“
“Let’s not,” suggests Shaw with a false cheer so bright it’s glaring. “You can bribe judges or intimidate witnesses or work for a pardon. His Majesty’s court will probably let you run your little gang off to the end of the world again, and buy your freedom with their blood. The important thing you understand is – “ he punctuates it with a prodding finger – “I. Don’t. Care.”
“No bollocks. I will feel some disappointment, and then I will move on with my life until the next time your crimes take you into my path. You want me to be some grand nemesis, the first and latest of all the many people howling for your blood over the course of your short and interesting life. You want me to bear my grudge until it ulcerates. You want someone else to call you Oathbreaker and make you their vast bogeyman, so you can revert to being the petty failure you are and wriggle free and catch them unawares. But you won’t find them here.
“Today, you came here to confront the author of your miseries, and start the next chapter of the vast book called People Who Hate Tarquin ap Danwyrith. But for me?” Shaw smiles and relaxes. “For me, it was Tuesday.”
It seems like there isn’t much to say after that. Tarquin considers a feeble jab about having rehearsed that speech, but Shaw would probably cheerfully admit it, and only look the cleverer for having done so. He’d hit all his cues, hadn’t he? Gotten Tarquin right where he wanted him, ripped the rug out from under his feet and left him sitting in an overstuffed chair with next to – hold on.
“Next best thing,” he muses. Shaw looks at him blankly. “Yeh said, I’m the next best thing t’an ultimate source. So awright, what’s the best thing?”
“The best thing is the law,” says the boss, plainly. “That’s what’s behind the letter. Behind Bittertongue’s excommunication, at that. That’s what you’ve never understood, Tarquin-“
“Ah, fuckin’ save it.” Tarquin laughs in his face. “Boss, yir so full ay shit I could roll yeh out ta Elwynn fields an’ grow a winter crop.” Shaw’s got something to say, but he keeps talking. “Law keeps oan rollin’, it’s a machine, that’s what they say, jus’ needs a wee bit ay tinkerin’. But yeh – yir pointin’ it at people. Yir pickin’ it up like a mallet ta knock us down.”
“I am astounded by your grasp of analogy, and wish you luck in your next career as a poet. Paper and pen can be brought to you in the Vault.”
Tarquin just smiles, hilarity bubbling behind it. “Yir a fuckin’ hypocrite, Shaw. All this high-minded shite about how yeh dinna bear grudges an’ how yir jus’ doin’ yir job, but yeh lie as easy as I ever did. All the way down ta the bottom.” He bites the words off savagely, face reddening. “Yeh’ve set the dogs oan me an’ yir pattin’ yirself oan the back cos’ yeh’ve mair dogs left fir the next bloke wha’ crosses yir mind.”
“You’ve committed crimes-“
“Says fuckin’ who?”
“Says the King’s law, you cretin.”
“He does'na fuckin’ see it!” Tarquin crows to the ceiling, bouncing from his chair. “Yeh stupid blind bastard, the law’s the fuckin’ problem! Ev’ry day ay yir fuckin’ life yeh been swingin’ that hammer an’ yeh dinna ken even where it’s come frae!”
“Oh, here we are,” Shaw hisses, the wrinkles standing out, “Here we are, singing Van Cleef’s song. The laws are unjust. The laws are wrong. I cheat and steal and murder because of unjust laws, and if you were not such a tyrant, I would be a good man.”
“No’ a guid man, Shaw. Jus’ a man. A man with a puncher’s chance, that’s all wir owed, an’ that’s the last thing yeh royalist fuckers will ever give us.”
“I owe you nothing!" The older man nearly screams it.
“Yeh owe us everythin’.” Tarquin says it cold and plain, feels the truth of it, alien on his tongue. “All Stormwind is, all the Alliance is, all ay fuckin’ Azeroth, it’s owed ta the poor stupid scum do the work. An’ the bastards in the big chairs make us fight each other, an’ round us up when somethin’ comes frae the outside an’ set us after it, an’ pat us oan the heid fir doin’ sich ay guid job ay keepin’ things the wey they are. An’ if we step out, then it’s back the hammer an’ call it law.”
Shaw isn’t cowed, has never been cowed in his life, but he’s lost the pretense. The hate is ugly on his youthful face. “So alright,” he says, voice tight. “So what are you going to do about it, in the time between this and high treason being added to the charges against you?”
“Hav'na the foggiest, boss,” Tarquin says with cheerful loathing, “But I’ll think ay somethin’. I had virra guid teachers.” He scoops up the letter from the desk, replaces it in his coat, picks up his hat where it flew off during one of his tirades. “Thanks fir seein’ me.” Shaw’s all keyed-up to fight, but lets Tarquin go, doesn’t call his bully-boys. He observes the forms, and waits until Tarquin’s at the door to call his name.
“It isn’t you,” he says, cold again. “It’s what you represent. It’s the threat you pose to Stormwind.”
“Aw, Matty, auld man.” Tarquin’s smile is a glinting row of pearls, the only shield he’s ever raised, the only banner he needs to fly. “It’s the same fuckin’ thing.”
By the time he’s back at the front door, he knows what he has to do.
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