God, I suck at this.

This won't make any sense unless you're in my Tuesday night RPG group. Sorry. A city of thieves is being forced to work together to stave off a foreign invasion.

Krum made sure he was there first. The Gunni temple was one of the few buildings in the city made entirely of stone, and it was the closest thing to neutral ground that there was. It technically fell within Ruis's territory, but Ruis had never demanded protection money from the lone priest who ran the place. It was a small, round building, built by refugees from the war in the south, nowhere near as lavish as the massive decadent monstrosities that the merchants spoke of. The Gunni religion was a mess of deities, great and small, each with multiple facets and manifestations, and in another part of the world, there are temples dedicated to just one of these deities.

Here, however, there is only one temple, and Dropal Gupta, the priest, has dedicated tiny parts of his small temple to each. The walls are covered in frescoes of these deities, and the floor and ceilings are mosaics of even more. Some of the wealthier men in the city visit the temple simply because they consider it one of the only places in the city that values art.

But today, it is host to the city's most influential criminals and thugs, much to Gupta's shagrin. "This is a place of worship, not a--!"

"Shut it," said Krum, cutting his protests short. Behind him, the imposing 7-foot figure of Faz, his commander of infantry, as well as the smaller, but still menacing Wartface, caused Gupta to rethink the angle of his protests.

"We won't be here forever, priest, and your building will remain un-damaged, at least by me," Krum said, brushing past the small, bald, dark-skinned man. "We certainly won't be plundering the place, although I can't speak for those Western slant-eyed bastards. Or maybe you'd prefer to take it up with them?"

Gupta tried to stammer a reply, swept along in Krum's wake. There were a few men praying at a miniature statue of a figure with a man's body and an elephant's head. Krum put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. The two or three who hadn't already turned to see what the commotion, looked around.

"Out. Come back later," he told them, not particularly loud, but firm. They looked to Gupta, then cleared out.

"We have been--" Gupta tried again.

"Quiet," Krum growled, turning to face the priest. "This is non-negotiable. We're borrowing this space for a meeting. I'd very much like you to be around, as a sign that this is indeed a safe, neutral place. But I have no problem locking you in the latrine for the duration, if you don't shut up."

Gupta wilted a bit, closed his mouth, and nodded. Krum nodded back once, shortly.

"Good. Faz, you're in here with me," Krum ordered. "Don't talk unless I ask you to. Wartface, outside. Give the signal if you see trouble." Both moved to obey. "And you, wizard," said the crimelord, apparently to no one. "Make sure no one tries anything. And be ready to persuade them, if they prove un-cooperative."

Krum then leaned against a fresco of a figure, wrapped in beams of light, striking at a monstrous fanged six-breasted female, and waited.

Iqbal Singh, successor to Constable Knob, and the head of the city's order enforcement, was the first to arrive. He was wearing his usual blackened hard leathers, along with a scimitar, and a wickedly curved knife strapped to his thigh. He was flanked by two similarly-dressed men, both of whom entered the temple with him. He sneered at the images on the wall, jerked his head in acknowledgement of Krum, and sat down, cross-legged, on a reed matt.

Soon after, Esra, the baron of the Old Beryl ruins, arrived, un-escorted, wearing a surprisingly fine brown dress, gilded in thin strands of silver, and sporting an image of an owl taking flight, swen into the right breast and around the right sleeve. She bowed with respect to both Krum and Iqbal, and even to Gupta, and with a smile, broke the rather icy silence by discussing the construction project, and plans for its expansion.

Sabiskita, the merchant, arrived next, with two men in tow. One wore the standard garb of the Merchant Guard, metal-plated leathers, buckler, short-sword, and impassive expression. The other wore an impressive suit of black armor, which Faz couldn't help but recognize as very similar to her father's, and formerly belonging to Lude.

Last to arrive were pirate lord Vikram, a man with leathery, olive-toned skin, and a full beard with bones tied into it, and Xia Fei, former pirate lord, hair also full of bones.

The small temple was rather crowded. Men and women who had spent years carefully undermining and sometimes backstabbing each other, were seated in a circle, closer than any of them were comfortable being. Everyone sat on the floor; the temple had no chairs.

The room fell into silence.

"Well," began Krum. "I called this meeting, so I'll get it started."

Vikram folded his arms. Sabiskita stretched his arms out behind him and leaned on them, expectantly. Iqbal glared.

"Western Isles are invading.," Krum began. "We're a stepping stone on their way North. If they were inclined to let us be, I'd say, go give it your best shot. But it looks like they want to stage their invasion over a pile of our corpses, and that's bad for everyone's business."

No one in the room responded. They were waiting.

"Now," Krum continued. "I'm sitting on the port, and I can hold it for a while, but not forever. I want to hold it, but I don't want to die for it. Land is just land, no matter how much money it can make. And it can't make money for me if I'm dead. And no one here gets to make money, or keep breathing, if those Western fucks get their way. They've got to be stopped."

"And," Krum sighed. "I can't do it alone. Now, some of you have spoken to me regarding specific arrangements and deals. Access to the port, supplies, money, troops, training. I'm sure you have deals between yourselves too. But," Krum stabbed a finger toward the Sea of Torments, "They don't make petty deals with each other, or squabble among themselves. Someone says jump, and they fucking jump, all at once, in the same direction."

Iqbal rested a finger on the hilt of his well-used, curved blade. His bodyguards followed suit. "I hope," he said, in a level voice, "you're not suggesting that we jump when you say so. Because the second you think you can tell me to jump, I'll spill your guts."

Faz placed a massive black hand on her greatsword. Sabiskita didn't move, but his guard wrapped a hand around his broadsword. The man in the suit of black armor gripped the haft of a mace. Pirates touched their sleeves, in which daggers were no doubt concealed. Outside, unseen, Wartface and his squad of leg-breakers prepared to rush to their boss's aid, a disembodied voice warning them to be ready. Krum stayed where he was, and tapped his thumbnail in signal.

Over a mile away, Grifter let go of a spell he'd been holding. A small one, the simplest of things, although not something he'd practiced much. Influencing men's minds is a tricky business, and sometimes the lightest touch is best.

A little wave of calm, like a cool breeze, flowed through the room.

"Relax," said Krum, holding calm despite the imminent violence. "I didn't invite you here so we could slaughter each other. Will you at least let me to finish?"

Iqbal lifted his finger from his blade, and rested it on his thigh. It was a small concession, but some of the building tension dissipated. The present delegates were still on alert, but the adrenaline pumps had subsided a bit.

"Thank you," said Krum, without an ounce of sarcasm or condescension. Whatever he thought of his fellow thugs, he kept a lid on it. "I propose an alliance, until our city is safe. When I say it, I mean it. A full and complete alliance."

That got their attention. Some of them even seemed to forget their weapons for a moment.

"Every one of us has some skin in the game," Krum continued, determined to finish before anyone got around to interrupting him. "I'm willing to go all in on this. I have a list of the piles of stuff the Imperials were hoarding in the port. A bunch of it can be useful, in the right hands. I have prepared orders to provide free access to the port to everyone. All of you, and your men, and your ships, and your mothers. No gate tax, no shipping tax, no differing rates. I've got veterans on staff who can help make guards into soldiers. I've got a doctor or two, and some other special talents working for me, who I'm willing to say work for us."

Krum looked around the circle. "You in? Or shall we present the gaps in our armor at that army out there?"

Krum shut his mouth, reached into the pocket of his Admiral's coat, and withdrew a gold piece. He tossed it into the middle of the circle, where it spun a few times, and settled, glimmering in the candlelight.

The room was quiet for a few moments. It seemed like an eternity to Krum.

It was Sabiskita who first broke the silence.

"The trade routes to the south are going to be subject to pillage and plunder, and our guard is stretched thin as it is," he said. "But I have sent some recruiters south to find and hire mercenaries. Our previous slave trade stations are being converted to conscription offices. When offered the choice between slavery and salary, salary tends to win out."

Sabiskita gave a small smile, and tossed a jeweled bracelet into the center of the circle. "I'm in. I'll talk to everyone who hasn't cut and run already."

Vikram whispered back and forth with Xia Fei briefly, and then rolled a spyglass into the center, which came to a stop upon colliding with Sabiskita's bracelet.

"Our ships are blocked off by the Western armada, and are hiding between the Bigotes and Hyclades deltas, but we may yet be able to run the blockade, or sink and capture ships that extend too far." He smiled wickedly. "And the first man to capture one of those western ships undamaged gets anything he asks for."

Esra removed a piece of jewelry, a stone, polished smooth, and leaned forward to place it near the other items. "We will build," she said, simply.

Iqbal held out a hand, and received a sheathed blade from one of his guards, which he lazily tossed on the pile with a sneer. "I'll keep everyone in line."

"Gupta!" Krum yelled. The priest appeared in the doorway almost instantly, skittishly. "You're the witness. Neutral. We're all agreed, and the alliance is struck. You'll keep these tokens safe, or so help me any of your million gods, I'll tie you to the roof for the birds!"

Krum groaned to his feet. "Ladies, gentlemen, we've got work to do. War council meets at the port authority in an hour."

A fair distance away, Krum let out a breath he felt he'd been holding forever. It probably wouldn't last, but at least for now, it was something.