11 – 24

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At the brisk rap on her office door, Style shouted “What?!”

Jasmine slipped inside and pulled the door shut behind her. “Sorry to interrupt your evening paperwork, but from what I hear this is basically the only time you use this room.”

Style snorted and shoved a sheet of parchment to the side of her small desk. “Well, you got that right. Goddamn pen-jockeying. Interrupting this bullshit is a quick way back into my good graces. What do you need?”

“Well, this may seem a little awkward,” Jasmine said, touching the side of her face, “but I need you to punch me. I, uh, suppose you don’t hear that one very often.”

“You might be surprised,” the enforcer grunted. “Mostly from former bedmates asking for kinky shit that does not do it for me. I’m assuming that’s not what this is about.”

Jasmine grimaced, a faint blush darkening her cheeks. “Uh, no. It’s just, I had to use divine magic a little bit ago, and in that quantity it tends to naturally heal things. Mesmer said the bruises were supposed to stay as some kind of object lesson…”

“Fucking Mesmer.” Style rolled her eyes. “There’s a reason he’s neither an enforcer nor in charge. Sure, fine, in certain very rare circumstances, I can see making someone keep a minor injury as a disciplinary measure, but usually anybody who’s causing that much trouble would be booted out of here anyway. No, Jasmine, I don’t find it serves any practical purpose to have people walking around all gimped up. I thought you still had a bashed face because you were too stubborn to have him fix it. Nah, you’re fine.”

“Really.” Jasmine frowned, then shrugged, reaching for the door handle. “All right, then. Frankly, after that scene tonight I thought it made perfect sense. Well, not sense, but it was consistent with the picture I was starting to see of this place.”

“Cos you didn’t think about what you were seeing,” Style retorted.

“Well, it’s pretty clear you keep control through brute force.”

“And that is exactly what I’m talking about,” Style stated flatly, pointing at her with a pen. She then stared at the utensil as if surprised to find herself holding it, and dropped it onto the desk before continuing. “Nobody keeps control through brute force; that’s not how brute force works. Fear is always better than force; respect is better than fear. You have to use a careful combination of all three; they have an interesting interrelationship. You’re new, you’ll learn more about it. But no, Jasmine, I don’t go around punching everybody who needs to be put in line. Or even most of them.”

“Oh?” Jasmine kept one hand on the door handle, but so far made no move to turn it.

“A good enforcer can’t afford to be a one-trick pony. It’s all about the situation, and the people involved. There’s no magic formula that works all the time. All right, let’s consider you and your little group of friends, they’ll make a passable case in point. Now Tallie and Darius I will smack when they need correcting—and occasionally more than smack, if they start doing horseshit like assaulting full Guild members. Those two are talkers; engaging them verbally is just asking for more hijinks and throwing away the opportunity to teach a lesson. What they need when they’re screwing up is a reminder that their bullshit can have the kind of consequences that no silver tongue can escape from. Hopefully, after no more than a couple more repetitions, the lesson will start sinking in and they’ll toe the line without needing more reminders. If they don’t have that much basic innate intelligence, they’ve got no place here. Rasha…” She paused and shook her head. “I’m a little worried about that kid. Fragile people don’t do well in this place. But some of our best have started out that way. He’s one who needs encouragement more than correction. Plus, he’s a listener and a thinker, so explaining what he does wrong will do a lot more than belaboring the point. Likewise Ross, without the fragility.”

“But you’re comfortable smacking me around to make a point,” Jasmine said, finally taking her hand off the door and folding her arms.

“In point of fact, no.” Style mimicked the posture, leaning back in her chair. “That dust-up tonight wasn’t about discipline, it was about you directly and publicly attacking my authority. No, Jasmine, you’re not afraid of pain, and even if you were, you’re not motivated by fear. Roughing up brave people is counterproductive; it makes ’em feel all righteous, when an enforcer’s job is to make someone understand that challenging us is a mistake. Believe me, the Guild hasn’t prospered for thousands of years without knowing how to deal with Avenists. So no, Jasmine, if you will just refrain from creating scenarios where I have to fucking land on you, I’ll look forward to never again laying so much as a fingertip on your dainty little derriere.”

“Hm.” Jasmine frowned, but offered no challenge to her reasoning.

“Moving on,” said Style, “wanna tell me why you were throwing around so much magic you accidentally healed yourself?”

“Oh.” Jasmine sighed. “Well, the truth is, I was pummeling and then threatening Grip. I guess that probably changes your stance on the subject of punching me, huh.”

“There you go, making assumptions again,” Style snorted. “Rumor is an intel woman whose default state is barely sober enough to stand; there’s no good reason for any Guild member to be taking swings at her, least of all an apprentice. Grip is another matter. I know yours is an unusual situation, and I fucking damn well know what she’s like. Without specifics, I could believe either of you being at fault there. I’m still in suspense, by the way.”

“Well, Grip wanted me to be her apprentice.”

“And this led somehow to you going full paladin on her ass. You got a real way with people, kid.”

Jasmine scowled at her and snorted, but continued. “She was blackmailing me. Grip figured out who I am and said she would spill the story if I didn’t agree to be her apprentice. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about her for a few days; I settled for…brute force. It seemed like that was something she would understand, at least.”

“Hn,” Style grunted. “That’s some roundabout reasoning, even for her. Grip likes her plans complex, but… Well, watch yourself. People who assume they’re done with Grip have a tendency to learn otherwise, usually about when they get comfortable thinking it’s over.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Jasmine said with a sigh, reaching for the door again.

“Hang on,” Style ordered. “I agree that you entering a formal relationship with Grip may not be the best idea, but she is someone you, in particular, could stand to learn from. I’ve been meaning to discuss this with you, anyway. So far, Jasmine, you’ve been showing all the markings of a really talented enforcer in training. I mean, aside from your general social obtuseness, but that we can fix over the course of an apprenticeship. The major exception I see is this tendency you have to play the hero.”


“The thing about enforcers,” Style barreled on, “is that how much damage one is able to inflict ends up being less important than how threatening one seems. In your case, the very thing that made you interesting to Glory is a handicap. You’re so…well-behaved. Now, if you were a beefy dude like Ross, that would be absolutely ideal. Big scary guys who speak softly and mind their manners are exactly the right kind of intimidating; they can go places that shady thugs aren’t welcome, and don’t lose any of their looming menace factor in the process. You, though, are a pretty little blond slip of a girl—like Grip. And while Grip is a terrifying piece of work, you are not. Difference is, she has worked hard to become one.” She leveled a finger at Jasmine. “That is the distinction. Refrain from going off on a feminist rant about this, but the fact is, in the enforcer business, an attractive woman has to be three times as scary as a male counterpart to be taken as seriously. That’s just the way people perceive others. That means you have to build an aspect and a reputation to back up your threats, unless you want to have to break every goddamn kneecap you encounter. If you intend to keep going on the path you’ve apparently chosen, you’re going to have to either develop a cruel streak, or very convincingly pretend you have one.”

“That isn’t the path I chose!” Jasmine burst out. “That’s the entire point of me being here! I do not need the Guild’s help to learn how to fight or threaten people. I’m trying to be subtler.”

“Well, you’re doing a shitty job,” Style said bluntly. “You wanna be a con artist? Fine, do that. But do it; find someone who’ll coach you and start showing progress—fast. You haven’t done anything in that direction that I’m aware of beyond some cursory practice in picking locks and pockets. Right now you’re between the approach you claim to want and haven’t even looked at, and the one you’re actually good at and are afraid to pursue. Your trainers and I can help you build skills in either direction—or hell, both. But we’re not gonna choose for you, wouldn’t even if we could. Dithering is not acceptable.”

“Well, but.” Jasmine heaved an irritated sigh. “It’s not as if I’m a typical apprentice, right? My purpose here isn’t exactly to aim for full membership—”

“Then you can fuck off out of my Guild,” Style snapped. “I was extremely clear with you up front. No special treatment. You’re an apprentice exactly like all the rest. Your purpose is to work toward becoming a productive and valuable member of this Guild, or you can get yourself the hell out of it; we’re not providing room and board for every directionless teenager in Tiraas, here. I do not accept excuses or half-measures. You’re not on notice, kid; like I said, you show real promise as an enforcer. But I will be watching you, and unless you start really pursuing that potential, or other potential, you will be warned. From there it’s a short slide to the door hitting your ass on the way out. This isn’t a fucking summer camp.”

“I see,” Jasmine said quietly. “Then that’s…something to think about.”

“Yeah,” Style agreed, staring flatly at her. “Go to bed, Jasmine. Plenty of exciting new ways for you to fuck up tomorrow, but right now I think we’ve all had about enough.”

“Good evening, your Grace!” Principia said with exuberant good cheer. “What a surprise to find you working here so late. The candle burns at both ends, eh?”

“Locke,” Syrinx replied evenly after pausing a moment outside her office to study the Legionnaire. “And of course, you have no business in this part of the temple at this or any hour. Spit it out, I’ve even less patience for your idiocy than I have time for it.”

“So hostile,” Principia said brightly, falling into step beside the Bishop as she strode away down the hall. It was an upper level of the Temple, containing little but administrative offices, and at this hour was practically deserted; even the fairly lamps were dimmed. No one else appeared to be in the vicinity. “Very well, to the point. Those disruptors originated in Veilgrad, and turned up here in the hands of the Thieves’ Guild. It’s very likely they passed through the possession of the Guild underboss there, an Imperial Army corporal named Timms. Her tag is Smiler, if that helps. I can’t leave the city except on specific business so I can’t exactly go ask her; I think this dovetails more with your end of the investigation, anyway.

“Now, if Bishop Darling is playing coy about these things, it’s possible he doesn’t know anything and is trying to save face, but otherwise… The downside of his genius for cultivating contacts everywhere in Tiraas is that it leaves a lot of openings to track who he’s been talking to, and about what. What you need are access points, and luckily, there are some who are both links in his network and somewhat inherently friendly to Avenists.” She held up a small envelope, smiling slyly. “Those, I can direct you to. It would be personally awkward for me to be chasing the Bishop around that way, but if you’re caught doing it, I assume that will just be business as usual within the Church.”

Basra came to a stop, turning to face her and resting one hand casually on the hilt of her sword. She glanced fleetingly at the envelope, but made no move to reach for it. “What are you doing, Locke?”

“Helping you,” Principia said sweetly. “As is no more and no less than my duty.”

“Right. So I’m to go threaten this Smiler person with exposure to gain her compliance, is that what you want?”

“Oh, I should be so lucky,” Principia said with a grin. “I know very well you’re too intelligent to threaten a Guild underboss, though. No, your specific approach is up to you, and the less I know of it, the better, but you’re a resourceful woman. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

“I don’t suppose you plan to be so accommodating as to tell me the catch.”

“The catch is that you’ll actually be holding up your end of this job, and thus keeping yourself around and in the High Commander’s good graces. If I thought failing to turn up anything useful would get your butt booted back to Viridill, matters would be very different.” Principia shrugged. “But, it is what it is. All things being equal, I think this better serves me in the long run, even if it does result in continuing to have to put up with you.”

“You’ve developed an interesting way of addressing your superiors, Sergeant,” Basra said, though her tone remained calm and mildly inquisitive.

“Oh, certainly, go tell Rouvad I was mean to you.” Principia grinned. “I think you’re forgetting that the last time we shared this temple was before I proved myself valuable and you proved yourself crazy. Look, we can play nicely in front of the bronze, but we both know that you’re a sadistic monster and I’m a rebellious pain in the ass, and after that little business of you trying to murder my whole squad, prospects of us actually getting along are pretty much nil. But I’ve worked with people I hated a lot more than you. I see no reason we can’t work something out, here.”

“This is very slightly entertaining, but unless a reason emerges when I should bother myself with this and with you, Locke, I have much better things to do.”

“You know the reason very well.” The insouciant smile faded from Principia’s face. “In fact, you just hit it exactly. You and I have much better things to do than feud. When it comes down to it, we aren’t really in competition. Our objectives are similar, yes, but at the end of the day, I’m rank-and-file with an acknowledged knack for moving among unscrupulous types, while you are a political presence in this city’s halls of power. Neither of us could function in one another’s wheelhouse. The removal of one or the other would just be a lost asset for the Sisterhood, and us butting heads is likewise.”

“Ah, yes,” Syrinx drawled, lifting an eyebrow. “Here comes your vaunted commitment to the greater good.”

“I’m committed to my own best interests, exactly the same as you,” Principia retorted bluntly. “The difference is I’m at least capable of valuing other things, as well. I have goals and a career here, and dealing with your scheming on top of the rest of it is a headache I can do without. Do you need to find out how good I am at scheming before you realize how mutual our relationship is?”

“Our relationship, huh,” Basra said sardonically, brushing off the implied threat. “I see no reason to believe you are either a threat or a use to me.”

“Don’t you?” The smile which crept across Locke’s face was distinctly catlike. “Well, after all, we’ve gone head-to-head once already. You had the element of surprise and vastly superior positioning, and I still whipped you. Do you really wanna try it again without those advantages, Basra?”

They stared at each other, Principia with that sly smile, Basra without expression.

“Well,” the Bishop said at last, “Timms, was it? Also known as Smiler? I suppose I should be so lucky as to hope you’d do anything so rashly aggressive as try to trip me into a trap.”

“I shall take that as an acknowledgment of my base point,” Principia said, her face instantly shifting back to an innocently cheerful look. “Then I shall bid you good evening, your Grace, and I’m sure we’ll have a more fruitful discussion when you’ve seen the utility of my help. Don’t forget your notes!” Again, she proffered the envelope.


Principia raised her eyebrows. “No? No, what?”

“You’re a long way from earning my trust, Locke,” Basra said coldly. “And however you may choose to dress it up, in the end, that’s what you’re trying to do. Making yourself minimally useful according to your assigned duties isn’t going to cut it. I’ll tell you what. I will follow up on this lead, and if you have the basic self-control not to try to screw me over… We’ll talk further. About this job, and perhaps about what I can do for you beyond the bounds of your duties. And what I’ll expect you to do for me in exchange.”

She smirked faintly, then turned on her heel and strode off down the hall.

Principia stood behind her, watching her go with the slightly puzzled expression she had adopted during Basra’s last few sentences. Only when the Bishop was around the corner did she permit herself a faint half-smile, and tucked the envelope back into her belt pouch.

“Dunno, I was asleep before he came back,” Darius said absently, focusing on his breakfast.

“I don’t think the did come back,” Tallie said with a worried frown, pushing scrambled eggs around her plate. “I poked my head on on his bunk and it didn’t look slept in.”

“Rasha’s very neat about his space,” Jasmine offered. “My best friend back home is like that; she’s Punaji, too. Something about being on ships…”

“Yeah, but he’s not an early riser.” Tallie heaved a sigh, frowning deeply. “I don’t know, guys. Where could he have gone?”

“He’s in the Guild,” said Ross. “Nobody’d hurt him here.”

“But what if he left?”

“Why would he leave?” Darius demanded in exasperation. “It was the middle of the night and psycho dwarves are after us. Rasha wouldn’t have gone outside.”

“Don’t you care at all?” Tallie demanded, turning on him.

“Course I care,” he said with a shrug that belied his claim, scooping up another forkful of fried potatoes. “But I’m not ready to agree he’s in some kind of trouble. C’mon, you know Rasha, he’s got big thoughts for such a little guy. Always retreating into himself and staring moodily around. Yesterday was stressful for us all. Trust me, I’ve known people like him before. He’s not dumb enough to go out there and risk his safety. Probably just off somewhere thinking. He’ll come out when he feels like it. Like a cat.”

“He’s gonna miss breakfast,” Tallie muttered.

“We won’t let him starve,” Jasmine assured her, then turned to Darius with a frown. “Anyway, a little more concern would be appropriate. Just because he didn’t leave the Guild doesn’t mean this place is safe.”

“Nobody’s going to hurt apprentices here,” he scoffed.

“I am basically positive that’s not true,” she retorted. “Accredited thieves would probably not risk censure by being caught harming an apprentice. But let’s face it, these aren’t nice people. So far I’d say about half the ones I’ve met are good people, and most are only kind when they want something. If Rasha went off into some private corner around here…” She shook her head. “I don’t know. Something could have happened.”

Tallie slapped a palm on the table hard enough to make her silverware jump. “Damn it. I should’ve…”

“What?” Darius asked pointedly. “Tallie… I love that you care so much, but you’re not his mom. We can’t follow each other everywhere, and with all respect, Jas, I don’t think it’s wise to start assuming we’re in danger within the Guild itself. We need a safe haven, or we’ll all end up paranoid and crazy, and they really do protect apprentices here. C’mon, Ironeye could’ve probably disappeared us all good and proper, but she didn’t. Seriously, guys, I’m sure Rasha’s fine. If he hasn’t turned up by, say, dinner, then we should start to worry.”

“You afraid of the dark?” Ross asked.

Darius stared at him, blinking, then heaved a sigh and slowly set down his fork. “All right, what the fuck are you on about now?”

“Just that fear of the dark isn’t rational,” Ross said. “So rational arguments against it don’t work. It’s primal. Fear of the unknown, of what might be in the dark. Knowing there’s nothing out there does nothing for you. ‘swhy everyone has trouble sleeping after hearing a scary story.”

“Ross,” Tallie exclaimed. “We’re talking about Rasha!”

“Yeah, and something tells me we still are,” Darius said dryly. “This is one of those Vesker metaphors. They always draw ’em out more than is necessary.”

“Not wrong about that,” Ross agreed with a shrug. “Point is, our friend is missing an’ apparently didn’t come to bed last night. It’s fine to be worried. It’d be weird not to be worried. Don’t argue her out of worrying. Won’t work.”

“What, so I can’t offer comfort to someone who’s upset?” Darius retorted, scowling. “I don’t see how that’s any better.”

“This is incredible,” Tallie said to Jasmine. “We’re discussing the actual problem and these two are arguing about their feelings. When did we stop being the girls in this group?”

“Oi!” Darius protested. Jasmine just rolled her eyes and had another bite of eggs.

“Good morning.”

The soft greeting was punctuated by the arrival of a stack of wooden discs on the table beside them. All four stared incredulously up at Gimmick, who gave them a serene little smile.

“These are portable divination bafflers, keyed specifically to disrupt spells of location. It may be possible for a skilled scryer to discern details about your status even with them, and they will do nothing to counter fairy magic, but so long as you each keep one on your person, you should become un-trackable via arcane scrying by a mage or enchanter of nominal skill.”

“Nominal skill,” Tallie said blankly.

“There is, as they say, always a bigger fish, but I doubt you have antagonized the sort of archmage who can remotely neutralize these enchantments.” Saduko’s smile widened. “Your problems would be far greater were it so. These are passive charms and their power consumption is minimal, but they do consume energy. The enchantment is designed to absorb excess energy from the environment to replenish itself, which is abundant in Tiraas, but if your situation has not been resolved within six weeks, they will probably need to be recharged. Any professional enchanter will do this for a small fee.”

“I know how to recharge basic enchantments,” said Jasmine, staring up at her. “Just have to buy the dust…”

“Of course you do,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Excuse me, but I don’t believe we’d accepted Mr. Vandro’s offer.”

“Quite,” Saduko said placidly. “Webs has reconsidered his position and feels he was being unnecessarily mercenary with you. You may consider these a gift, delivered with his compliments and hopes for a fruitful future relationship.”

“Okay,” Darius said with a sigh, “what’s his angle?”

“I fear I cannot help you there,” she replied, shrugging. “I am frequently baffled by Mr. Vandro’s machinations. My skill set is specific and limited, and he employed me strictly in that capacity.”

“That was never his game,” Tallie said, slumping forward and leaning her forehead into her hand. The elbow she planted on the table narrowly missed her plate. “Damn it… It’s like the Boss said, just having us seen getting help from him places us in his camp, at least in everybody’s minds. And with everybody treating us like we’re Webs’s accomplices, our options for other supporters narrow until it’s basically true. Isn’t that right?” she demanded, lifting her head to look accusingly at Saduko.

The enchantress shrugged again. “Your reasoning seems solid, though such matters are above my head. Being voluntarily and deliberately in Webs’s camp, as you call it, I have never had to think in these terms. That is for the best. I prefer to leave such convoluted planning to him.”

“Why, that sneaky son of a bitch,” Darius said, sounding more impressed than annoyed.

“Well, this is shaping up to be a great day,” Tallie muttered, reaching for the stack. “And I was just thinking we have a prospect here that didn’t involve taking Webs’s help. I mean, our new buddy Schwartz is in the same boat as the rest of us, and he’s an acolyte of the actual goddess of magic. Surely he could hook us up with some kind of deal on anti-tracking charms…”

“And that’s why Gimmick had to come along so early to hand these off,” Darius said cheerily. “So Webs can get his hooks into us before we have the chance to realize that and act on it. Clever bastard!”

“Stop sounding so happy about it!” Tallie barked.

“Tallie, hon, we’ve been outmaneuvered. And that really shouldn’t surprise anybody, since this guy’s apparently been playing the game longer than we’ve collectively been alive.”

“Not quite that long,” Saduko said with amusement.

“Yeah, well, my point is, you can’t take these things personally.”

“Oh, just watch me,” Tallie said acidly.

“What I mean,” Darius added, “is you shouldn’t take it personally. It’s a game, at least in the minds of the people who tend to win it. You gotta stay loose, keep yourself detached. It’s the only way to keep your head cool enough to compete.”

She sighed heavily. “Someday, I’m gonna insist on detailed backstories from some of you.”

Darius grinned and waggled his eyebrows at her. “Your place or mine?”

Saduko cleared her throat as Tallie reached for her fork, her glare at Darius suggesting she didn’t have eating in mind. “Those bafflers will function so long as they are on your person, but it is best as a rule to conceal them inside your clothes. If you are being tracked by a mage, and said mage gains a line of sight to them, he or she may be able to disrupt them permanently that way.”

“So noted,” Jasmine said quickly, reaching for the stack. “And…ah, good, there are five. We’ll make sure Rasha gets his. Thank you, Gimmick.”

“Ah, yes, that is the other matter,” Saduko continued. “Mr. Vandro pays well to be appraised of any interesting events transpiring in the city, and has just learned of one he felt would be relevant to you. Your friend Rasha is currently in an Imperial jail for assault.”

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11 – 23

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They couldn’t avoid speculative eyes forever, of course, but fortunately it was faster to get to the apprentice dormitories from the infirmary without passing through the Pit, so at least the group postponed their inevitable march through the gauntlet of stares by a little bit. As they neared the rear barracks door, the one near the bathrooms, there were more and more people about, and at least a few gave them speculative looks, though nobody stopped them. Right outside the doors themselves were three other apprentices, chatting and laughing, who ignored them entirely.

“Man, what time even is it?” Darius grumbled. “I know it’s after dark and all, but I really do not feel like sleeping.”

“Nothing says you gotta,” Tallie replied. “There’s still folks up and around; head to the Pit and practice something if you’re too charmed-up to sleep.”

“Think I’m gonna see if they still have food out,” said Ross, then shrugged defensively at their raised eyebrows. “Sandwiches and cookies were pretty small. Didn’t wanna ask for more; we were guests.”

“Why, that’s only fair!” Darius said cheerfully, patting Ross’s somewhat protuberant belly. “You’re a growing boy, after all!”

“You’re lucky I’m tired of seein’ people get beat on tonight,” Ross growled, then shouldered past him and headed into the dormitory—and, presumably, through it toward the cafeteria on the other side.

“D’you think…” Rasha trailed off when they all turned to look at him.

“What’s on your mind?” Jasmine asked quietly.

He glanced at her and couldn’t entirely repress a grimace; the bruise growing on the side of her face was an increasingly alarming sight. At least her conservative style of dress concealed the rest of the bruises she had to have.

“I just…” He swallowed and tried again. “I’m not too much afraid of getting cuffed around the ears. Gods know I’m used to it; where I grew up, that’s just how you kept your kids in line. And I have older sisters, so, y’know…” He glanced up at Jasmine and again averted his eyes. “I never saw someone get…beaten like that, though, not in the name of discipline. That kind of pummeling would be a fight. Or possibly a murder attempt.”

“I’m still…unpacking what I think about all his,” Jasmine said, absently probing at her bruise with a fingertip. “I don’t think that was at all appropriate as a way to enforce discipline. But, on the other hand, I keep being reminded that I don’t fully understand the mindset of Eserites. And that’s exactly what I came here to learn. I’m trying not to pass judgment on things until I have more familiarity. On the other hand, I’m also trying to be wary of losing my own sense of…right and wrong.” She winced and lowered her hand. “It’s getting increasingly dicey.”

“I dunno,” Tallie mused. “This is gonna sound ungrateful and I’m sorry, Jas, but you kinda messed up my chance to figure out how bad it is by jumping in. I mean, I got a punch in the gut, a smack to the head and a yank on my hair. Way I was raised, that’s a fair enough comeuppance for some kid who did something like assault…uh, say, a friend of my parents. The, uh, comparisons kinda fall apart when I try to relate them to my own experiences.”

“I know that feeling,” Rasha grunted.

“Point being,” Tallie continued, “if that was gonna be that, well, I don’t feel hugely put-upon so far. If she was gonna continue beating me down, then yes, that would be excessive and frankly I’d be thinking about leaving right now. Since you hopped in at that point, I guess I’ll never know. What happened to you, though—”

“Was different,” Darius interrupted, hands in his pockets. “You and I got smacked as punishment. Jas was directly challenging Style’s authority. That wasn’t about disciplining apprentices, it was about maintaining status.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Jasmine said, “though Rasha’s original concern still applies, if this is the kind of place where authority is maintained through beating.”

“You made it about beatings,” he said, then shrugged when she scowled at him. “C’mon, I was there. You were offering her a straight-up fight, and she tried multiple times to talk you out of it. She’s a Guild enforcer, and it was right in front of everybody whose respect she needs to keep. Tallie or I might have sassed her instead, and maybe that would’ve gone differently. But…there it was.”

“Hm,” she grunted, again touching her face. “I suppose. Maybe. I’m still withholding judgment.”

“That’s probably better than leaping to a judgment,” Tallie said, gently patting her shoulder.

Rasha heaved a deep sigh. “I think…I’m gonna take a walk, guys. Clear my head a bit.”

“Okay…” Tallie gave him a worried look. “Just…don’t go outside, all right? Not alone. Those assholes are still out there, and apparently they can tell when we leave the building.”

“Yeah,” he agreed absently, sticking his hands deep in his pockets and turning to slouch off up the hall. “I know. See you guys later.”

“I need to take care of something, too,” Jasmine said quietly after they’d watched him go in silence. “This…hopefully won’t take too long.”

“Grip?” Darius said, raising an eyebrow.

She gave him a faint smile. “You know, Darius, you’re not nearly as dumb as you act.”

“Hey, who’s acting?”

Jasmine shook her head, but her smile remained in place. “I’ll talk to you in a bit.”

“Sooo,” Darius drawled as she strolled off down the other hall. “Whatever shall we do in the interim? Hmm? Hmmmmm?”

“Hey,” Tallie said brightly, “you know who hasn’t seen their fill of violence tonight?”

“Ooh, is it me? I bet it’s me, I—ow! Dammit, woman!”

The number of places apprentices were truly not allowed to go was, in the end, rather small. Once above the Guild proper and into the realm of the Imperial Casino, there were far more areas where scruffy people in general were not welcome. That description applied to more apprentices than otherwise, so they ended up staying out of the Casino’s passages as a rule. However, as Rasha found while prowling through the back halls, there was some leeway. By far the majority of the Casino itself was occupied by its mostly open main room, which itself was the size of a cathedral’s sanctuary. Apart from a few smaller gaming parlors and private rooms of various kinds for the patrons, the rest of the aboveground structure was the realm of the staff who kept it all running.

There, too, he found that the back rooms themselves were mostly off-limits to the likes of him, or so he came to assume after being forcefully shooed away from several. That only made sense; a lot of money was collected and counted in a casino this size, and they wouldn’t want any unnecessary personnel mucking about. For the most part, though, no one bothered him if he just walked the halls. They didn’t even give him much in the way of funny looks; he blended in with the staff about as well as he did with the apprentices.

As such, Rasha found it more comfortable to stretch his legs in the Casino’s back passages than the Guild’s, given the number of people down below who were studying him thoughtfully, as if he were a puzzle box containing a stack of decabloons. Thus far, nobody had tried to corner him, but he figured that was only a matter of time, and resolved to stick closer to his group of friends in the future.

Up here, though, he was left alone. He knew a lot of Guild personnel were involved in the Casino’s running, and in fact had been told that quite a few apprentices worked the more menial jobs here; it had been mentioned to him as an easy way to pick up some pocket money if he lacked a sponsor and an income. And of course, there were plenty of fully accredited Guild thieves about. Despite Tricks’s warning, though, none of the topside personnel seemed to find him interesting.

Or maybe they were just better at concealing their interest. Yeah, he’d definitely try to avoid running around without his group, at least until all this blew over. For now, though, he felt the need to stretch his legs and clear his thoughts. This was a far cry from the familiar back alleys of Puna Vashtar, even when he scrupulously avoided the carpeted and decorated halls which indicated they were public areas in the Casino, but it sufficed for now.

He found himself wandering near the kitchens, though he didn’t step inside after the last upbraiding from the master cook. With his luck, it would be the same man on duty, and Rasha was starting to notice that Eserites in general displayed a mean streak when they had to state their directives more than once. Of course, who even knew whether the cooks of all people were actually affiliated with the Guild… But after the last few days, it wouldn’t surprise him. His idea of what constituted a thief had been significantly expanded as he slowly grew to understand the Guild’s mindset, and the innumerable ways its rebellious philosophy could be worked into all walks of life. Besides, he wasn’t going to assume anything at this point.

The kitchen was skirted by wide passages, though, so he could be within earshot of its hustle (definitely not winding down for the night; the Casino’s patrons would be wanting their meals and snacks until deep into the small hours) without actually getting underfoot. Moved more by curiosity than anything else, he carefully edged along a side hallway, keeping close to the wall to avoid a waiter carrying a laden tray and then a busboy pushing a cart of dishes in the other direction. At the far end was a set of double doors, and Rasha made for this simply because that was the direction in which he happened to be going.

Once through them, though, he paused nervously, finding himself outside. Tallie’s warning sprang instantly to mind. This was one of the Casino’s smaller side entrances; it was an alley, if a broad one, and there was nobody about except a few of the staff.

A young man in a splattered cook’s uniform stood puffing a cigarette and talking quietly with a cocktail waitress. Both glanced curiously up at him, and for a moment Rasha froze awkwardly, fearing he had disrupted a lovers’ assignation. Then movement caught his eye, though, and he glanced across the alley, where a teenage boy was perched on a crate with a bottle of beer beside him, reading a newspaper by the fairy lamp affixed above the Casino’s side door.

“Hey there,” the girl said amiably. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around; you new?”

“Oh, uh, no, but… Actually yes, but…” Rasha stopped, feeling a blush rise to his cheeks, and drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly. The reader had only glanced at him before returning to his paper, but the other two were regarding him with bemusement. “Sorry, I’m a bit out of sorts. I am new, but I’m not staff. I’m apprenticing in the Guild.”

“Ahh,” she said, nodding with a knowing expression.

“If I’m not supposed to be here, I can…”

“Hey, relax, join us,” the cook said lightly, picking up a bottle from the stack of crates next to him and holding it out. Rasha noticed, now, that there were several beer bottles about—all either being worked upon or still sealed. Clearly they did not throw their trash to the ground in this alley. “This is a Guild facility, after all; if you were someplace you weren’t supposed to be, somebody would have an arm around your neck by now. Just don’t get in the way and nobody in the kitchens cares where you go.”

“That’s not the impression I got last time I went through the kitchens,” Rasha muttered.

The young cook laughed. “Oh, yeah. Let me guess, Arfeld was in charge at the time?”

“I…honestly have no idea.”

“Could’ve been any of them,” the waitress said reprovingly, swatting the cook on the chest. “You’ve just got a bug up your butt about Arfeld because of that reaming out he gave you. Yeah, don’t go in the kitchens unless you’ve got specific business there,” she added to Rasha with a grin. “Everything’s got a place and everybody has a purpose; they hate loiterers. But nobody’s going to mind if you hang out in the vicinity.”

“Provided,” said the young man, puffing his cigarette, “you don’t cause any trouble.”

“I’m good at not causing trouble,” Rasha agreed. He found that he had stepped aside of the door and leaned his back against the wall. Was this wise? He was outside the Casino, technically… But, he reasoned, just barely so. The door was right there. Nobody could threaten him here.

Nobody not already in the Guild, of course…

“I was an apprentice myself, for a while,” the girl said, smiling at him. Rasha glanced nervously at her companion; in his experience, men who’d cornered young women in semi-privacy could be very tetchy at being interrupted, but the fellow just placidly worked on his cigarette, pausing occasionally to sip a beer. “I get how you must feel, a little bit. Still slinging drinks here, even after I washed out. I mean, there’s a limited number of things a girl whose best asset is her looks can do to earn a living, and at least here the tips are good and I’ve got the most dangerous bastards in the Empire watching out for me. Beats the hell out of getting fondled in some dive. Or going back to Saddle Ridge and admitting to my mother she was right,” she added with a grimace. The cook grinned around his cigarette.

“Why’d you quit?” Rasha asked, then flushed again. “Um, sorry, that’s kind of personal. You don’t have to answer.”

“No, I getcha,” she said. “I remember being new… Pretty damn overwhelming, isn’t it? No, I…didn’t exactly quit.” She sighed, and scowled at her feet, then kicked at the ground. “You know, you don’t strictly have to be Guild to be Eserite?”

“Not this again,” the cook said with a groan.

“Oh, shut up,” she snapped. “You don’t. It’s a religion and a philosophy, you can believe in it without being actively a thief!”

“Sure,” he said, shrugging lazily. “But if you try acting on that philosophy without the Guild’s backing, you’ll wind up in jail or dead. And believing in it without acting on it isn’t the kind of thing Eserion has much patience for.”

“Pff, what do you know? Not like you ever apprenticed!”

“No, but I work here,” he said mildly, blowing a stream of smoke out over her head. “I know the basics. Everybody who’s been around here more’n two weeks knows the basics, Maisie.”

The waitress heaved a heavy sigh, glaring, then pointedly turned a cold shoulder to the cook, who grinned in amusement. “Anyway. No, I didn’t quit, I just wasn’t very…well, good. I’m quick and I can handle the politics and the social parts just fine, but there’s a big physical element to getting certified in the Guild, and I was just…” She shook her head, shrugging. “Well. I’m Maisie, by the way. As you just heard.”

“Rasha,” he replied with a smile which, to his surprise, was unforced.

“Daoud,” said the cook, waving lazily, then again held out the bottle. “Want a beer?”

“Uh…” Rasha winced. “Thanks, that’s really generous, but I’m kind of abstaining for a while.”

“Ooh.” Maisie winced. “Bad experience?”

“You could say that,” he grumbled.

“Ah, c’mon, it’s one beer,” Daoud said idly. “What could it hurt?”

“Oh, listen to you,” Maisie huffed. “You sound like the villain in an Omnist morality play. He doesn’t want to drink, what’s it to you?”

“Just being hospitable,” Daoud said, grinning around his cigarette. “Hey, isn’t it your job to get people to drink?”

“And I am on break,” she replied, tossing her head. “So, anything in particular on your mind, Rasha?”

“A lot,” he said, slumping back against the wall. “I just… Sorry, I don’t want to sound rude, I’m just not in the mood to talk about it.”

“Hey, we respect that,” Daoud said easily. “Don’t we, Maisie?”

“Of course,” she retorted, frowning up at him. “I just said I’ve been there. No worries, Rasha, you’re always welcome to loiter in the filthy alley with the rest of us gutter trash.”

“Sez you,” Daoud retorted. “I have an actual trade.”

“You’re a cook, you great oaf.”

“Yeah, but I’m a good cook. I’m going to be a chef. With some experience under my belt and a few references, I’ll have a cushy job making fancy pastries for some noble family.”

“You’re way too prideful to get along with nobles,” she said with a grin. “They’d have your head off inside a week.”

“What year do you think this is? Aristocrats in the Tiraan Empire don’t treat employees like serfs.” He shrugged. “Them with the money get to be assholes if they want. That’s the world; I can keep my head down and behave when it suits me.”

“Uh huh,” she said dryly. “Weren’t you the one just talking about how being Eserite meant taking action?”

He snorted softly. “Said I understand the philosophy, not that I subscribe to it. Like you said, I was never an apprentice. This is a job.”

Across the alley, the reader suddenly laid down his paper, shifting to stare in the direction of the front of the building. The others, noticing his movement, followed his gaze, Daoud and Maisie breaking off their argument.

Rasha immediately felt as if he’d been doused in icy sea spray.

“Good evening,” the dwarf said genially, strolling up to them as if his fine suit didn’t mark him as wildly out of place in this dingy alley.

“I’m sorry, sir, this is a staff entrance,” Maisie said politely. “There are entrances for guests in the front and rear of the building.”

“Of course, my dear, of course,” the dwarf replied in a pleasant tone. Rasha had never seen a dwarf in person before this week, but that neatly trimmed reddish beard was familiar even if the general configuration of their wide, blunt features might have confused him. “I just happened to notice a friend back here and thought I’d have a word. How’s apprenticeship treating you, Rasha?”

The cold feeling intensified. He was sure he’d never said his name to any of these people. Of course, he’d been drunk the first time… Had one of the others addressed him by name in front of them? With his blood suddenly thrumming in his ears it was impossible to concentrate on the memory.

“Excuse me,” he said, quietly enough it seemed the pounding in his chest should have been audible over it, “I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”

“Oh, not formally,” the dwarf replied, smiling benignly. “But surely we’re past formalities at this point, you and I. You know, Rasha, your sisters are very worried about you.”

Rasha bolted upright before he could restrain himself, fists clenching so hard they vibrated. “What the hell would you know about my sisters?”

“You might say I’m in the business of knowing things,” the dwarf said, still a very picture of well-mannered calm. “Please, there’s no call for hostility; I assure you, I intend you no harm. In fact, there are a lot of ways we can help one another, I believe.”

“Fuck off,” Rasha spat. “Fuck all the way off back to whatever hole you crawled out of. Stop following us around!”

“I wonder how you’re being treated by these people you are so eager to defend,” the dwarf said pointedly. “Perhaps—”

“Excuse me!” Maisie broke in, planting her fists on her hips, and scowled down at the dwarf. By this point, Daoud had tossed aside his cigarette and straightened up, and the busboy was staring alertly at the dwarf, one hand on his half-empty beer bottle. “He asked you to leave. I think you’d better do it, sir.”

“Is this how you address moneyed patrons, young woman?” the dwarf replied, turning to her with a knowing little smile. “Perhaps I should speak with your supervisor.”

“You are not a patron!”

“No, Maisie, he’s right,” Daoud said tersely. “This isn’t how we do things. Go get an enforcer.”

She instantly snapped her mouth shut, turned, and darted back through the doors.

“Rasha,” Daoud continued, keeping his eyes on the dwarf, “whatever this is, maybe you’d better head back in, too.”

“Of course, you needn’t act as if I’m going to bar you from doing as you like,” the dwarf said pleasantly. “I’m fairly certain my point here is made, Rasha. By all means, go enjoy the rest of your evening. We will resume this conversation at some point. I’m a big believer in not putting things off, but I’ll not tell you how to live your life.”

“You know what I’m a believer in?” Rasha whispered.

The dwarf raised his bushy eyebrows in an expression of polite curiosity. “Do tell.”

“All systems are corrupt.” His heart was pounding, breath trying to catch in his throat. He took a step forward, desperately wanting to turn and flee. He had fled too many times, though, and knew it. Once more and he’d never stop. “All governments and all laws exist to benefit those in power.”

“Please,” the dwarf said with a little sigh, holding up one hand. “Refrain from reciting the whole thing. I’m growing rather tired of thieves and their nonsense, as I’m sure you can understand. None of you are as full of surprises as you like to think.”

“Oh, really,” Rasha said, and startled himself by laughing. “Think so, do you?”

The dwarf shook his head. “Young man, I am perfectly content to—”

That was as far as he got before Rasha struck him in a flying tackle.

Somewhat to her own surprise, Jasmine wasn’t kept waiting long.

“Just so you know,” Grip said as she rounded the corner, “I’m not one to come when called. But after all, I did ask you to speak with me again, so I’ll make an exception.”

“And so,” Jasmine murmured as she turned to face the enforcer, “I also learn that you’re watching my movements.”

“Ahh, she’s beginning to watch and consider,” Grip said with a grin, coming to a stop before Jasmine in the dim corridor. It was the same spot in the Catacombs to which Grip had led her previously, still lit only by the faint light of torches around the bend. “Of course, that’s something you should have assumed anyway, but I have been gratified to see you making progress.”

“Yes, progress,” Jasmine said quietly, staring at her. “I’ve considered your proposal, and I have an answer for you.”

Grip smiled, lifting her eyebrows expectantly.

“Thank you for your consideration,” Jasmine continued. “The implied compliment is appreciated. However, I don’t believe you and I are a good professional match, so I’m afraid I must decline to become your apprentice.”

“Well, I’m afraid that’s—”

“And so that’s where the matter ends,” Jasmine stated, staring into her eyes. “It’s now dropped, and you aren’t going to so much as whisper a word of it to anyone.”

The enforcer’s posture did not shift, but there was an unmistakable threat in her sudden stillness. It was the poised tension of a coiled rattlesnake about to strike. “Child, I think you’ll find that giving orders like that to Eserites generally won’t get you anywhere. Giving them to me will get you places you do not want to go.”

“So you’ve been watching me,” Jasmine replied in the same tone. “I assume you saw this evening’s action.” She dragged her fingertips along the ghastly bruise stretching from her temple down past her cheekbone. “Do I look like someone who’s afraid of pain?”

“Maybe I’m misremembering things,” Grip said with a mirthless grin, “but I’m pretty sure I never offered you pain.”

“No, you just offered to make my life difficult,” Jasmine replied. “I’m making it clear, now, that if my secrets come out, I’m going to assume you were the one behind it. And then you’re going to learn exactly how little I fear any pain you’re capable of inflicting.”

“Keep digging, girl,” the enforcer said icily. “You’re not thinking ahead. Someone with as many connections as you have to other people needs to be mindful of them when making enemies.”

“You’re not my enemy, Grip,” Jasmine replied. “You are nowhere near my league. You’re going to threaten my connections, really? Please, please do that. Go to Last Rock and look the wrong way at one of my classmates, I dare you. If you’re particularly lucky, the kicking of your ass which follows will be over before Tellwyrn feels the need to step in. Go to Viridill and get yourself on the wrong side of Abbess Darnassy, see whether you’re resourceful enough to get out of the province alive. In fact, march yourself right down to the Temple and start something with Locke. Really, go on. I’ll wait here; I bet that’ll make a story I won’t want to miss.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Grip retorted, baring teeth again. “But that’s a fallacy, and you know it. You’re good at making friends, Jasmine. Why, you’ve managed to make some far less dangerous ones here, haven’t you?” She slipped one hand into a pocket, widening her ghastly grin subtly. “Right where I have access to them.”

“Ah. Yes,” Jasmine said softly. “Yes…there is that.”

Dazzling golden light blazed through the tunnel, and Grip reflexively attempted to leap backward, despite being momentarily blinded. Not fast enough to escape the moving wall of solid light that caught her up and slammed her against the stone behind her. She was both nimble and sturdy, and was only off guard for a moment, but that was all the time it took.

Before she could bounce back off the wall, Jasmine had stepped in front of her, a trident made of pure golden light blazing into being in her hands. In the next second, she had driven it straight at Grip’s throat; the widely-spaced prongs captured her whole neck and then sank into the stone wall behind, pinning her against it.

“Something was recently made clear to me,” Jasmine said coldly, “something I hadn’t fully appreciated.” Golden wings flared out from behind her, filling the passage, and she pressed, sinking the trident an inch deeper into solid stone, until it pushed on Grip’s throat hard enough to impede her breathing.

“People fear the Hand of Avei,” Trissiny snarled. “So let me make this explicitly plain, Grip. I’m done with your nonsense, and done with you. You have pushed me right to the brink, and one more nudge will be the end of it. Make me come after you again, and it’s not going to be you against another fighter. It’ll be wild, disproportionate, absolutely ridiculous overkill. It will be every power I can bring to bear on you, and every asset I can leverage to hunt you down if necessary. Do you think you can hide from valkyries?” She pushed another fraction of an inch, and Grip drew a rasping gasp of protest, clutching at the trident. It sparkled where her hands gripped it, where its tongs dug into the wall and where it pressed on her throat. Hard-light magical objects were well known to be degraded by physical contact with solid matter, which was why energy shields didn’t work in the rain. This one, though, did not so much as flicker, a testament to the enormous power flowing through it. “I’m talking about a piece of you in every mailbox in Tiraas. The world will know not to get in my way, Grip, and no one from Boss Tricks to the Emperor himself will dare call me down for it. So you can either make yourself useful to me as an object lesson… Or you can back. Off.”

She held the weapon in place for another few heartbeats, just to let it sink in, and then quite abruptly released it, along with every spark of magic she was channeling. The corridor was plunged back into darkness, and Grip slumped to the floor, clutching at her neck and coughing.

“Don’t make me repeat myself,” Jasmine said calmly, then stepped past her and walked back toward the exit.

She paused at the rasping laugh which followed her.

“That was all I wanted, you know,” Grip said hoarsely, dragging herself upright. “You’re here with this idea you need to be a con artist or something. You’re not. You’re an enforcer, and in the end, Eserion and Avei are on the same side. I just had to know you’re going to do—”

“Grip,” Jasmine said curtly, “I do not care.”

She walked away.

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11 – 22

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“This looks…complicated,” Tallie said skeptically a few minutes later, watching the Guild’s currently on-call healer work. “Can’t you just, y’know, make with the whoosh and the flash and fix everything?”

Mesmer wasn’t a man who’d be taken for a medic at first glance. He was dressed like a shabby street tough, in an old suit that had been of middling quality at best before being worn threadbare and ripped in multiple places. He was handsome to the point of dashing, though, and both his perfectly-trimmed hair and handlebar mustache had clearly been oiled into place with far more care than he took with his wardrobe. He had the healer’s attitude down, though, as he now demonstrated by ceasing his careful work on Jasmine and turning to Tallie, arching one supercilious eyebrow.

“Would you like to try?”

“This is normal,” Jasmine said hastily and a tad thickly; she still had some bleeding in her mouth where her cheek had cracked against the floor, as evidenced by the ugly, blossoming bruise spreading across half her face. “You never just inundate someone with divine magic. You can fix bones or organs in the wrong place, which means a slow death at worst.”

“Well, I’m glad at least one of you has cracked a book at some point in her life,” Mesmer said more affably, turning back to her and resuming what he’d been doing. This consisted of closing his eyes, laying one hand on her forehead, and gently applying very small sparks of golden light to her abdomen with the other.

“And she knows how to do divine healing, as well,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Let me guess, you’re also a priestess.”

Jasmine started to sigh, as well, then winced. “Ow. And…no. I am not a priestess.”

“It’s not like that’s some kind of clerical secret,” Mesmer said without opening his eyes. “Like I said, kid. Books: not just for propping doors open.”

“All right, then, doctor—”

“Whoah, whoah!” He broke off his work again, turning to scowl at Tallie. “The tag is Mesmer. I did not cleverly avoid eight grueling years of medical school to run around being called doctor, thank you very much!”

Tallie blinked at him in bafflement, but Jasmine grinned, showing blood in her teeth.

“Okay,” Tallie resumed after a moment, in which he returned to what he was doing. “What’s all this, then? Why just heal a little bit at a time? And what’s with the hand on her face? You did it to me, too; is it only the girls who get fondled?”

“I’d actually feel better if you let him concentrate,” Jasmine pointed out.

“Nah, it’s fine,” Mesmer said absently. “Could do this in my sleep; you’re not a complex case. The hand on the head is one of the lesser-used aspects of divine magic. It’s akin to telepathy, gives the caster a sense of a person. With enough skill, it’s a crucial diagnostic tool. With more skill, you can actually get into their minds, which is creepy as all hell and consequently I’ve never studied the method.”

“So it’s like divination,” said Tallie.

“Sure. In that it only works on people and only if you’re touching them and thus is in no way like arcane divination, yeah, it’s exactly like that. As for the little bits at a time part, I’m scanning for and fixing major issues. Concussion, loosened teeth, organ damage, internal bleeding, all that good stuff. And actually I didn’t find any, but I’m healing some internal bruising anyway, because you do not mess around with that crap. The rest, you get to keep, you lucky duck, you.” Apparently finished, he lifted his hands from Jasmine, then grinned and playfully tweaked her nose. “Since you got this collection of bruises from Style, they are considered an object lesson. Letting ’em heal the long, slow way is all part of your education.”

“Well, that answers my next question,” Tallie muttered, absently rubbing at her own stomach where Style had punched her. Upon their arrival, Mesmer had placed a hand on each of their heads, then told Tallie she was fine and set to work on Jasmine.

“And on that note,” the healer added, “while you can nip out and buy yourself a healing potion or just walk into any Omnist temple and get a thorough cleansing, I advise against it. Soon as Style sees you without your hard-earned bruises, she’ll just put ’em right back.”

“Well, that may not be an issue,” Jasmine said with a sigh. “Since I guess I won’t be around much longer.”

“Why, you’re quitting?” Style snorted, striding into the curtained-off examination room from the open lobby beyond. “I thought better of you than that, kid.”

Jasmine met her with an unfriendly stare. “Well, after all that, I expect to be kicked out. Right?”

“For what?” Style folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. “Standing up to authority? Defending someone weaker? That’s exactly the entire fucking point of everything we do here, Jasmine. You just did it in the wrong way, at the wrong time, over the wrong issue. Teaching you how to pick your battles and win them is the point of you being an apprentice.” She grinned mirthlessly. “Kicking the shit out of you when you fuck up as badly as you just did is meant to deter you making the same dumbshit mistakes twice. The technique I can teach, kid; instilling someone with the drive to take action like you did is a lot harder.”

“Hmp,” Jasmine grunted noncommittally, probing at her bruised face with her fingertips.

“Oi!” Style turned to shout back through the curtain. “The Boss told you three to come with. What’re you doing lurking out there?”

“He said to stay out while girls were being examined!” Rasha protested rather shrilly from outside.

Style turned to Mesmer with a scowl. “I can’t help but notice a complete lack of anybody with their shirt off in here. Why would you even need them undressed if you can do that creepy brain thing you do?”

Mesmer, who had stepped over momentarily to a nearby cabinet, now shrugged placidly before handing a bowl and a bottle of water to Jasmine. “I just hate being crowded when I’m working. Here, swish and spit. You look like a vampire with a goat’s table manners.”

“Get your butts in here!” Style barked.

The boys trooped single-file through the curtain, all three looking uncharacteristically nervous. Tallie gave them a smile; Jasmine waved, while obediently swishing water around her mouth. The space was not exactly cramped, but it was beginning to fell that way, with so many bodies present.

“The Boss said he’d want to talk to you,” Style said, giving them all the gimlet eye. I doubt he’ll want to shout back and forth across a curtain. This is as good a place as any for a chat, so you all just sit tight.”

“Uh huh,” Mesmer said dryly, taking the bowl and bottle from Jasmine and stepping over to the nearby sink to pour and wash them out. “Sure, fine, whatever. Just so you know if another injured dumbass comes in, I’m kicking you all out.”

“Oh, are you,” Style drawled.

“Let me put this in terms you can understand,” he said, turning back to her with a grin and placing a hand on his own chest. “Me medic. You thug. That means in the presence of a patient, I outrank you, Tricks, his Majesty, and the Big Guy himself. Savvy?”

“Actually she’s rather loquacious,” Ross commented. Everyone turned to stare at him, and he shrugged defensively. “Aside from the cussing, I mean.”

“One of her more charming qualities,” Tricks said breezily, striding in, and paused to wink at Rasha, who had jumped. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on ya. Though maybe I should install curtains all over this place. They’re great for dramatic entrances.”

“Ooh!” Darius said brightly. “What about those bead curtains that form a mosaic? Stylish, dramatic, and they make a pleasant rattling sound!”

“Hey, now that’s using the old noggin!” the Boss said, grinning and pointing at him.

“Boy,” Style said darkly, “I can deal with you shooting off your yap in front of the mortal head of our faith, because that’s practically a divine obligation in this cult. But so help me, if you start giving him ideas, I will use you for a toilet plunger.”

“That’s extremely flattering, ma’am,” Darius said sincerely, “but Tallie has dibs.”

“All right, cool it,” the Boss ordered. “I do enjoy a spot of banter and you kids seem talented, but as usual I have far too much crap to do, so let’s proceed directly to the point. Mesmer, I think one of your other rooms could use some tidying up.”

“Excuse me,” Mesmer declared, “but every facet of my infirmary is in flawless order as always. Really, Boss, if you want me to go the fuck away, you can say so without insulting—”

“GO THE FUCK AWAY!” Style roared, pointing at the door.

Mesmer heaved a dramatic sigh and flounced out. Tricks waited for the sound of the outer door closing before he continued.

“So! What, pray tell, is all this I’m hearing about dwarves?”

There was a beat of silence, in which the apprentices glanced nervously at one another.

“None of this is our fault!”

“That guy Pick—”

“I think the Silver Legions—”

“They’ve been following us around since—”

Style slammed a fist into the cabinet hard enough to rattle some of its contents loose, to judge by the muted crash that occurred within.

“How about this,” she said flatly. “Pretend you can communicate like human beings.”

“Only half-human,” Jasmine said, raising a hand. She shrugged, unperturbed, at Style’s furious stare. “For the record.”

“You’re the talker, right?” Tricks said calmly, winking at Tallie. “How about you give it to us from the beginning?”

Tallie drew in a deep breath, wincing and placing a hand on her belly, then nodded. “Uh…okay, sure. Guys, feel free to chime in if I skip anything. All right, so, a few days back Darius here got us a job doing grunt work for Pick at that weapons swap…”

She actually did not forget anything, efficiently running through the whole thread of events which had followed from the warehouse, and how they had quite accidentally come to be involved with the mysterious dwarves, the Silver Legionnaires, the gang running Glass Alley, and finally Alan Vandro and Gimmick.

“And then we got back here and Style went apeshit on us,” Tallie finished, then shrugged. “I figure you guys remember that part.”

Style, by this point, had narrowed her eyes to slits, but it was a thoughtful expression; even as new to the Guild as they were, they had learned to watch for her displeasure. The chief enforcer turned expectantly to Tricks, who was gazing pensively into the distance, slowly tapping one finger against his chin.

“Well, now,” he mused after a long moment of contemplation. “What a goddamn interesting week you kids are having. Felicitations and condolences both.”

“Thanks,” said Ross. Style shot him a look.

“Since you didn’t mention our Ms. Jasmine’s excursions to visit Glory,” the Boss continued, “I gather that was unrelated?”

“I would be amazed if Glory has anything to do with Pick or dwarves,” Jasmine answered, “and probably very little involvement with the Legions. I’d been planning to talk to her about all this after today, though. She ended up not wanting me for an apprentice, but she said I could visit and seek advice. She’s certainly smart enough to make it worthwhile.”

“As smart a cookie as was ever baked, that one,” Tricks agreed.

“I like the sound of that,” Tallie added. “Gotta say, not that I didn’t appreciate the sandwiches and the lift, but I’m less than comfortable with our main source of info and connections being Vandro.”

“Good,” Style grunted. “Trust those instincts. And while we’re at it, whatever else you end up doing about all this, you watch your ass if you have to deal with Principia Locke any further. In fact, I’d say just don’t, if you’ve got any better option.”

“Why?” asked Rasha.

“Webs is a schemer,” Style replied. “He’s a pile of agendas and he will use you in them, but that doesn’t necessarily have to bring you harm. Hell, he’ll probably go out of his way to be helpful to apprentices. Keys, though, is just an asshole. Her career path has been to ruin everyone’s day who has anything worth stealing, and her hobby is to piss off fellow thieves whenever one is unfortunate enough to meet her. The fuck if I know what she’s doing in the Legion, but if it ends up with her in a noose, which I more than half expect, not a fucking soul alive will shed a tear. She will string you along into trouble just because she thinks it’s funny.”

“Not me, she won’t,” Jasmine said simply.

Style gave her a long look, then frowned and glanced at the others. “What, is this not a secret?”

“I asked her for advice,” Jasmine said with a shrug. “They asked me why. It didn’t seem worth concealing. Anyway, I’m not banking on our relationship to ensure Locke deals fairly with us. If she gives me that kind of trouble I will go down there and beat her into the ground, and she knows it. I’ve already seen the inside of one Silver Legion cell this week and frankly it wasn’t all that uncomfortable.”

“Damn,” Darius said, grinning. “And I thought my family was messed up.”

“I’m absolutely sure they are,” Tallie assured him.

“Hn,” Style grunted, then smiled almost grudgingly. “Kid, you’ve got the makings of a top-notch enforcer. Assuming I don’t have to literally kill you in order to beat some common sense into that skull.”

Jasmine’s expression fell at the back-handed compliment, and she averted her eyes, fidgeting.

“Anyway, that’s our deal,” Tallie said, now frowning at Tricks. “Look, I get that we’re expected to solve our own problems here, and we’re working on it. But you cared enough to ask about all this, and now you know. So…what’s your plan?”

“You have an unknown party stalking some apprentices,” Darius agreed. “Surely the Guild has a stake in that.”

“Mm hm,” Tricks mused. “Too right, we do. But if you’re expecting me to come swooping to your rescue, here, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.”

“I…” Rasha glanced quickly around at the others. “…don’t think anybody’s actually going to be disappointed, then.”

“Good man,” Tricks replied with a grin, though his face immediately sobered. “There are factors that restrain me a bit, kids. First of all, all these dwarves appear to have done is track you. That’s creepy and borderline hostile at least, but the truth is, being followed around is a fact of life for Eserites. Law enforcement is just the beginning; potential marks and past marks, those who have the resources, will often stalk thieves. Avenists and Shaathists tend to do it just on general principles if they happen to learn what cult you’re in. For that matter, there’s a great deal of competition within the Guild itself, and some of the prank-playing barely toes the line short of infighting. Your fellow thieves will frequently make it their business to know what you’re up to. Dealing with this, and countering it, is something you’ll be expected to know how to do. Nobody in this Guild is going to rally to your aid just because someone is keeping tabs on you.”

Ross sighed heavily; none of them found anything to say in response.

“Now, granted, there are some mitigating factors there,” Tricks continued. “You’re apprentices, which means we don’t expect you to have the same capabilities, and you get a measure of protection. And this stalking is pretty obviously a forerunner to the real show, whatever that is. Depending on what it is, we may end up having to intervene after all. For that reason, I’m glad to be in the loop on this, finally.”

“Sorry,” Tallie muttered. “We didn’t figure you’d…”

“No worries, it’s only a few days in,” he assured her. “Whatever crisis this is leading to hasn’t happened yet, and now I’m forewarned. That’s what matters. Second problem, though: I’m constrained from rushing to your aid over a minor problem by the fact that you’re all plotting against me.”

Tricks let their babbled protestations of shock and innocence carry on for a few seconds before holding up a hand for silence. When silence did not immediately ensue, Style helped.

“SHUT IT. And you.” She turned her scowl on the Boss. “I know you like your little jokes, but leave the kids alone. Some of ’em aren’t that bright.”

“Hey,” Darius protested. “What’d she mean by that?”

“Tell you when you’re older,” Ross rumbled.

“All right, fair enough,” Tricks said easily. “Relax, guys, you’re in no trouble with me. And Style’s right, that was a little joke on my part…somewhat. But the fact is, after today, you’ll be associated with Alan Vandro’s camp in the eyes of those in the Guild who care about such things, and that is a potential issue.”

“Camp?” Rasha said shrilly. “There’s a camp? Nobody told us about any camp!”

“We probably wouldn’t have stumbled into it if he had,” Tallie said sourly. “Which would be why he didn’t.”

“Exactly,” said Tricks, nodding. “Innocent or not, though, that’s where we stand. How this looks is one of the bullshit things I have to think about in order to lead the Guild. If some of our apprentices are in some kind of danger, then sure, protecting them with all necessary resources is just part of the job. If I move to aid a group of Vandro’s underlings just because they’re in an uncomfortable situation, that’s different. It means I’m either insecure enough to try to woo away members of his faction, or overtly hostile toward him in a way that’ll start sparks flying, as people who support him, me, or other parties take the cue to get more aggressive.”

“That is horseshit,” Rasha spat with uncharacteristic vehemence. He then paled slightly and hunched his shoulders, but a moment later forced himself to straighten up again, glaring at the Boss.

“You’re completely right,” Tricks said with a sigh. “It’s politics. And the really shitty thing about politics is that you don’t get to abstain from it. Not just me, because I have to consider these things in order to get anything done around here, but everybody. It happens, and it’ll roll right over you if you don’t pay attention to it and involve yourself. It’s obnoxious as hell, but…there it is.”

“What are these factions, though?” Darius asked. “I mean, what’s everybody after?”

“There’s not really any competition for power in the Guild,” said Tricks. “Competition for jobs, credibility, and just because we like to compete, sure. But in a religion whose central premise is that people who seek power are not to be trusted, we just don’t have all that many positions of authority, and they always end up getting kind of thrust on people who don’t really want them. Anybody in one of those positions who started acting like they enjoyed it too much would find themselves…” He grinned, dragging a finger across his neck. “Retired.”

“We have joined a cult of crazy people,” Tallie said wearily. Style grinned at her.

“Point being,” Tricks continued, “most Guild members really aren’t interested in factional politics at all, and those who go in for it do so over doctrinal issues—how they feel the Guild should be run, and how Eserites should behave. Webs isn’t aiming for my job; I know for a fact he doesn’t want my job, and very few people do.”

“He keeps trying to fob it back off on Sweet,” Style added, smirking, “who is far too slippery for that to work.”

“What Webs wants,” Tricks said, giving her a sour look, “is change within the cult.”

“What change?” asked Ross.

“That’s actually a good thing to ask about and something you should know,” the Boss replied, “but it’s a diversion I really don’t have time for. Find Lore at your earliest opportunity and ask about all this; teaching you the Guild’s codes and philosophy is his job, after all. For now, we have the issue at hand to finish addressing.”

“The issue being,” Tallie said bitterly, “we’re fucked and you won’t help.”

“There you go, jumping to conclusions,” Tricks said with a gentle smile. “Here’s the core problem: who are these dwarves? What’s their agenda? What organization do they represent? What are some of their names? Where do they live?”

He let the silence stretch out, smiling knowingly, and then winked at them.

“And without knowing any of that,” the Boss finished, “what is it you expect me to do?”

“All right, that’s fair,” said Jasmine, shifting on the exam table and then wincing. “We—errh—need to find all that out, anyway.”

“Just get me a starting point,” said Tricks in a more serious tone. “Bring me anything. Because while politics may constrain me from acting overtly in your favor, I want to have people looking at these dwarves as soon as I have a direction in which to look. There’s a potentially important factor here that you guys seem to have missed.”

“Oh?” Darius raised his eyebrows inquisitively.

“Style.” Tricks turned to his head enforcer. “Last info I had, Pick is still AWOL and hasn’t paid this group for the work they did?”

“And that’s still correct,” she grunted. “I had my people do a quick sweep of the city, which turned up nothing, so I put out the word to all our chapter houses to watch for him. Didn’t bother with a thorough search, though; he’s small fry on his best day. Why, you want me to crack down on him?”

“Not necessarily,” Tricks said, frowning. “Pick has a somewhat infamous record; we’re all so accustomed to thinking he’s a useless little shitstain that when he turned up missing just as the apprentices he ditched needed to be paid, well, there’s a pretty neat and obvious little narrative there, huh? However, it’s now turned out that we have some outside faction aggressively pursuing these same kids over business related to that deal and those weapons—business that Pick was knee-deep in. I don’t actually know who he was working with or where the hell he got those gadgets, so he may be the only person who can answer those questions. And just as the dwarves start moving in, he’s nowhere to be found.”

“Holy shit,” Darius breathed, going pale. Style’s face, by contrast, reddened, an she clenched her fists in fury.

“Now, nobody go and do anything rash,” Tricks warned them. “We need answers before taking action; we’re dealing with smart people, and just about the worst thing you can do when smart people are moving against you is lash out. But if it these dwarves have managed to disappear a Guild member…oh, you’ll get your support, kids.” He smiled coldly. “They really hate thieves up in the Dwarnskolds; it’s one of the few places where Eserites have really no presence at all. So maybe it’s time we reminded all of dwarfkind that you do not fuck with the Thieves’ Guild.”

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11 – 21

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None of them were totally surprised to be ambushed as soon as they returned to the Guild. Once inside the subterranean passage complex, but long before they reached the Pit, two blonde figures materialized out of a side corridor as if by magic.

“So!” Flora said, raising her eyebrows archly. “We hear you’ve had quite an afternoon.”

“Oh, come on,” Darius protested. “Were you guys just waiting here for us to get back?”

“Oh, please,” Fauna said disdainfully. “You think we have nothing better to do with our time?”

“The ears are decorative,” Flora added, winking, “but not only decorative.”

“We heard you coming as soon as you hit the casino.”

“All right, that’s just ridiculous,” Tallie scoffed. “How sharp can elven hearing possibly be?”

“It’s not the sharpness of the blade, but the skill with which it is wielded,” Flora said sententiously. “Also, you’re ducking the question.”

“You didn’t ask a question,” said Jasmine. “But on the subject of them, what exactly have you heard?”

The elves exchanged a wry glance.

“Well, she’s got us there,” Fauna admitted.

“The word going around,” said Flora, “is that you lot went to Glass Alley, got in a fight with Ironeye’s people, and then somehow fell in with Webs and his little faction.”

“Wait, faction?” Rasha exclaimed. “And who is Webs?”

“Vandro,” Fauna replied. “So…is that not true, or did he just not mention his tag?”

“’strue,” Ross grunted. “What faction?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s infighting,” Flora said, frowning, “but Alan Vandro is of a theological mindset that puts him at odds with the Boss on many subjects. This is dangerous ground for apprentices to stumble into, guys.”

“With regard to that,” Darius said sharply, “you two were right there when Covrin told us to go find that magic shop. Since you know so damn much about this, a word of warning would have been nice!”

Again, the elves glanced at each other.

“Okay, seriously now,” said Fauna sardonically. “The tip was to go to Glass Alley, find the Finder’s Fee, and ask Sparkler about how dwarves might be tracking you.”

“It’s a big leap from that to getting into an altercation with Vanda Frost and her cell!” Flora added pointedly.

“And quite frankly we’d love to hear that story because how in the hell did you manage that?”

“And why?”

“If you guys have some kind of collective death wish, there are cleaner ways!”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Tallie said wearily. “Stuff just…happened.”

“Uh huh,” Flora said skeptically. “Well, if you’re gonna be a thief, you can’t be the kind of person stuff just happens to.”

“What nonsense is that?” Jasmine demanded, scowling. “Things happen to everyone. The world is just like that.”

“An Eserite,” said Fauna, “is in control. We cultivate our skills, but more importantly, the mindset to use those skills.”

“You can’t just careen around reacting to stuff,” Flora continued. “You need to have a plan, and the ability to make a plan and enact it quickly, under pressure.”

“If you had been planning, I’m pretty sure you would not have ended up on Vanda Frost’s shit list after one encounter.”

“We’re crediting you with a certain amount of basic common sense, there, but hey, if we’re wrong…”

“Isn’t it cute how they can be assholes even when they’re been helpful and commiserative,” Darius said wryly.

“Kind of an Eserite thing, innit?” Ross grumbled.

“Well, look, anyway,” said Fauna, “we’ll wanna hear this whole story straight from the source, as it were, but you’d better not put off facing the music.”

“Style is gonna have things to say to you,” Flora said ominously. “It’ll be that much worse if you make it seem like you’re avoiding her or trying to weasel out of it.”

“Go right up to her, take your lumps, and don’t complain.”

“For the gods’ sake, don’t act submissive or meek, she’ll really tear into you if you show that kind of weakness.”

“But if you just take responsibility like grown-ups and don’t make excuses, Style won’t be any harder on you than she feels she has to be.”

“She’s ham-fisted and has zero patience for bullshit, but she is fair, and all the stuff she puts apprentices through has a purpose.”

“That’s why she’s given such an active role in apprentice training. That’s not a traditional duty for the head enforcer.”

“Hm,” Jasmine mused. “I’ve noticed that about really good teachers.”

“Like alchemy teachers, for example?” Tallie said sourly.

Darius cleared his throat. “Yeah, well… Much as I’m sure you ladies would love to stand around bickering, I say we respect the wisdom of elves. In all the stories, people who don’t listen to elves end up royally screwed. Right, Ross?”

“Wisdom of elves,” Ross grunted. “Plain common sense, more like.”

“That’s the spirit,” Flora said with a grin, patting Rasha on the shoulder.

“To the gallows with head held high!” Fauna crowed, saluting them.

“That’s extremely helpful, thank you,” Jasmine grumbled as the group filed past them, continuing on their way to the center of the complex.

Despite the apprehension which hung over them, the sounds of the Pit were pretty much the same as always for the time of evening. It was semi-quiet, a good number of the apprentices being in the dining hall, whose open doors contributed most of the ambient noise. There were people training, though, as was nearly always the case. And, as usual, a handful of Guild members were about, either passing through on some business of their own or loitering to watch the apprentices.

Several glanced at the five of them as they approached, and one even offered a nod of greeting, but their expressions were disinterested. If any of them had heard any rumor regarding this one group of apprentices, they gave no sign.

“I guess that’s positive,” Rasha mumbled as they filed down the steps to the base of the Pit. “I half expected everybody to be anticipating our demise.”

“What a delightful turn of phrase you have, Rasha,” Darius said with a sigh.

“No reason they’d all show it overtly,” said Tallie. “Weren’t you listening to the elves? Eserites are supposed to be controlled and careful.”

“Eserites are frequently assholes,” Rasha countered, “if you haven’t noticed. Somebody would be gloating if there was reason to.”

“Yep,” Ross agreed. “Wasn’t really our fault, anyway. Maybe it won’t be so bad.”


No sooner had they reached the bottom than Style appeared at the top of the stairs opposite, glowering at them, and began stomping down. She was attired today in an actual chain mail tunic, with heavy leather gauntlets and boots, her belt bristling with pouches, weapons, and tools; it was an obvious nod to the wandering adventurers of yesteryear, floppy hat and all. Her expression, however, did as much as her booming voice to bring a halt to all conversation and activity in the Pit.

“And just when I was thinking my brand-new ass-kicking boots haven’t had a chance to be properly broken in,” she said loudly, stalking across the floor toward them, “lo and behold, I’ve got a gaggle of apprentices trying for the intramural stumbling fuckwit championship. Truly, the gods are goddamn beneficent!”

“You jinxed us,” Darius hissed, jabbing Ross with an elbow. “You, of all people!”

“There are certain formalities to be observed,” Style said, coming to a stop right in front of them and folding her brawny arms. She was taller than any of them, even Jasmine, and more powerfully built than any but Ross; the sheer physicality of her presence would have been intimidating even were it not for her glare, which looked like it could shatter glass. “Before we get to the yelling and smacking that we all know is coming, I’m going to offer you a chance to spin your side of this. Just in case it turns out you don’t all deserve to get your bells rung, and because none of you little bastards are crafty enough to weasel your way out of this with wordplay. So?” Her glower intensified by an order of magnitude. “Explain.”

“Uh…” Darius winced, and glanced aside at the others. “What have you heard?”

Style’s bulky physique made it seem she should only have been able to move slowly; this was clearly not at all the case. She clapped Darius hard on the side of the head with an open-handed swat that sent him staggering before it seemed possible for her to have un-folded her arms.

“I’d really hoped it was obvious from context,” Style growled, “but this is not the time for you to be getting clever. I’m not gonna repeat myself; if you don’t have a masterful fucking explanation for this towering cock-up, we’re gonna proceed straight to the entertaining portion of the evening.”

“We went to Glass Alley,” Tallie said quickly, “following a tip from a Silver Legionnaire that the magic shop there could provide some insight into how a group of dwarves has been following us around. Just about as soon as we got there, we met a friend of ours, Schwartz, who’s a Salyrite…um, fae user. He was getting attacked by some, uh, local residents.”

“Go on,” Style said grimly.

“Well, we were gonna jump into that,” Tallie continued, “but…it sort of became unnecessary. Ironeye showed up with her entourage and kicked everybody’s ass. And we talked to her briefly and since we weren’t doing anything wrong, she let it go without even saying much of anything to us, so, you know, we figured that was pretty much that.”

She paused, glancing at Rasha, who looked like he was preventing himself from shrinking into his own pockets by sheer force of will. “And then Rasha asked her for directions to the Finder’s Fee.”

“You asked,” Style enunciated carefully, turning the full weight of her baleful stare on Rasha, “Ironeye. For directions.”

“…seemed like she’d know the district,” he said hoarsely.

Style smiled thinly without actually diminishing the strength of her frown, which was a terrifying thing to behold. “Rasha, there’s a point to be made here about common goddamn sense, but I have to say, this is evidence that you do not lack for balls. Quite frankly I was beginning to be concerned about that. Irrespective of any other destruction I have to heap on you, here…kudos for that.”

“Well…great,” he muttered.

“Anyway.” Style turned her attention back to Tallie. “Since you’ve designated yourself the narrator, continue. You asked Ironeye for directions.”

“Right,” Tallie said, nodding. “And then she sent us into a fucking trap. We got locked in a room. So…we broke out of it. And Rumor and Gimmick were right outside, and we left with Gimmick.”

“Hmmm.” Style dragged out the grunt until it was nearly a hum. “All right, well. This is why I ask questions before cracking heads together—take note, those of you who’re going into the enforcement business. What I’ve heard is from Rumor, which was a deliberately incriminating pile of hints and vagueness about you causing trouble in Glass Alley. Nothing that actually contradicts this account, she merely implied otherwise—which was kind of what she does. If your story is true, for Ironeye to throw you in a cell just for being on her lawn was way over-the-top, and I’m gonna have fucking words with her about the treatment of other people’s apprentices. If I have to go down there and find out that this story is not true, the world of hurt you little shits are in for will make what I planned for tonight look like the gentle fondling of your virgin true love. So, with that established…” She tilted her head back, staring down her nose at them. “Would you like to modify your story any?”

“That’s what happened,” Tallie said stubbornly, clenching her fists. “Ask her. If she tells you otherwise, ask Gimmick.”

“And Herschel Schwartz,” Jasmine added quickly. “You can find him through the College of Salyrene pretty easily, I bet.”

“Mm hm,” Style said, still staring down at Tallie. “And is there anything you, in particular, would like to add?”

“Oh.” Tallie winced. “Well, uh, you know. When we got out, Rumor was, um, standing around outside the place where we’d been locked up. And I sort of punched her.”

They were reminded of the presence of multiple onlookers by a general in-drawing of breath and one low whistle. It was a startling reminder, to judge by the way Rasha jumped; Style had a way of dominating the scene to the exclusion of all else.

“Uh huh,” Style replied in a very even tone which was far more terrifying than her previous shouting. “Wanna explain your thought process, there?”

“Well,” Tallie said defensively, folding her arms, “by that point I was sick of getting the runaround from assholes, and she was continuing to be a smug, aggravating pain in the ass.”

“And that,” Style said calmly, “in your mind, is grounds for a sucker-punching.”

“She was party to what you admitted was abusive behavior toward us,” Tallie said, her voice climbing half an octave. “Aren’t we supposed to not take shit from people abusing their power? That’s the whole point of this cult, isn’t it?”

“Child,” said Style, “as an enforcer I am, among other things, a student of human behavior. Your posture and tone show me very clearly that you know you’re in the wrong, here; indignation over unjust treatment looks very different. Since you’ve been here less than two weeks, I’m not gonna call you down for your sad fucking lack of a poker face. However, keep in mind that I am a highly-ranked officer in this cult. Now, do you really think standing in front of me and twisting Eserion’s sacred principles around in a way that gets you off the hook for your own dumbfuckery is a smart thing to do?”

“Uh.” Tallie outright cringed. “Well—”

Again, Style unfolded herself almost too fast to observe. Her fist slammed into Tallie’s midsection, doubling the girl over and sending her staggering backward, where she would probably have fallen had Jasmine not caught her. Before Jasmine could get a good grip, however, Style seized a handful of Tallie’s hair and hauled her away from the group, unceremoniously tossing her toward the open center of the Pit.

Tallie staggered, wheezing and bent over with both arms wrapped around her middle, but she kept on her feet.

“I’d have hoped most of this was obvious, but since I was clearly wrong, I’m gonna explain,” Style growled, stalking toward her. “In detail. First, revenge is a science, which you will be expected to understand and master before you’re done getting trained.”

Tallie tried to straighten up, at which moment Style jabbed her hard in the collarbone with the heel of her hand, sending her staggering again.

“The purpose of retaliation,” the enforcer continued, “is to influence the future behavior of someone, and not necessarily the person being retaliated against. That means you need to approach it strategically: set out your goals, form a plan, and enact it carefully. Lashing out at someone who’s offended you is inbred orc behavior, not at all befitting a member of the Thieves’ Guild.”

This time, Tallie had enough wind back and the presence of mind to raise her forearm to try to block the slap Style aimed at her head. With lightning precision, the larger woman switched to her other hand, clapping Tallie across the ear and sending her crashing to the ground with a yelp.

“Second, if you have a problem with the way a Guild member corrects your behavior, you come to me. If you’re whining and wasting my time, you’ll suffer for that, but if you have been legitimately abused, they will. I’ll not have assholes mistreating my apprentices. That is my prerogative.”

She folded her arms again, staring coldly down at Tallie, who huddled on the floor, seemingly afraid to try getting up again. “And finally, you do not assault members of this Guild who outrank you. Once you’re initiated and tagged, you have a lot of free reign in this cult. We’re not big on ranks in general. Your dipshit little friend Pick could walk up to the Boss himself and ream him out, and while that kind of numbnuttery has consequences, there’s no official protocol or mandatory ritual punishment. But that’s for people who have earned their way into Eserion’s Guild. You are just some kid. We’re seeing if you’re worth elevating to membership, but right now? You have no privileges here. You will treat Guild members with respect…”

She unfolded her arms and began stalking forward. “Or I will treat you like a fucking kickball!”

And suddenly, Jasmine was between them.

“That’s enough.”

Style halted, staring almost quizzically at her. “Kid. I am disciplining an apprentice, here. Only one person present gets to decide when it’s enough. You wanna venture a guess who that is?”

“This isn’t discipline,” Jasmine said flatly. “This is you picking on someone weaker than yourself who can’t fight back.”

“This is the consequences of her insubordination, thoughtlessness, assault, and general wasting of my time,” Style replied in the same tone. “And you are getting some leeway here because standing up to power and supporting your fellow thieves are things we want to encourage, but you had better think about what the consequences will be for you if you fail to butt out.”

“I keep hearing Eserites talk a big game about standing up to bullies,” Jasmine spat. “But I keep seeing Eserites being the biggest bullies themselves! From Pick treating apprentices like poorly-trained dogs to Ironeye using magical ordnance on impoverished—”

“That’s your problem, Jasmine,” Style interrupted calmly. “You fail to discern the difference between those things—and whatever other examples you’re about to spit out, including this situation right here. Pick is a smug fuckhead who will be disciplined for his behavior. Ironeye has earned credibility and the benefit of the doubt, and even not knowing the story I know her well enough to be certain whatever she did was deserved by whoever she did it to. Your new best friend Webs doesn’t sharpen his claws on people who don’t have it coming, either, and believe me you’ve no idea the cruelty that man is capable of. We do what’s necessary, and when we fuck up, we get held accountable. Just like you’re about to be.”

“Necessary,” Jasmine sneered. “It’s funny how it’s always necessary for you to throw your weight around, isn’t it?”

“Jas, don’t,” Tallie whispered, reaching up to grasp her leg.

“You’re smarter than this,” Style said evenly. “I get that you came here to work through some of your own stuff, but I expected you to know better than this. You’re picking a fight you don’t need, girl. This is not the place for cries for help. Now get out of my way, Jasmine.”

“It’s okay,” Tallie wheezed, dragging herself back to her feet. “It was my fuckup, I’ll take it. C’mon, don’t make this an issue…”

“Don’t do that,” Jasmine said, turning her head to give Tallie a sidelong look. “You deserved that first punch, Tallie, not this. Don’t make excuses for someone who outranks you to kick you while you’re down. That wouldn’t make you much of an Eserite, would it?”

“Child,” Style said almost sadly, shaking her head, “you don’t know what ‘down’ is. I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to be the one to show you. You and me are gonna talk about this, Jasmine, and that’s not a euphemism. This shit needs to be worked through, and I’ve got time and the ears to lend you. But right now you need to back off.”

“Then,” Jasmine said, turning back to face her fully and shifting to a more balanced stance, “you need to back me off.”

The silence in the Pit was absolute; no one even breathed. Even the cafeteria had gone still, apprentices clustering in the door to stare out at the scene unfolding.

Style sighed heavily. “Aw, kid… You just had to.”

She lunged with the same impossible speed, but Jasmine was not Tallie. Lacking Style’s size and muscle, she didn’t try to deflect the punch fully, instead stepping inside the reach of Style’s arm with the same blinding agility, pushing the attacking hand just slightly off-course and launching a counter-jab at Style’s throat.

Style seized her wrist and swiftly spun in a full circle, tearing Jasmine out of her balanced stance and finally hurling her aside. Apprentices scattered out of the way as Jasmine careened into the wall by the pickpocketing dummies. Despite the disorientation she’d been subjected to, though, she remained adroit on her feet, instantly regaining her poise and actually kicking off the wall to lunge back at Style.

In the intervening second, though, Style had continued forward and met Jasmine head-on with a haymaker which the smaller woman barely avoided taking full in the face. Style’s fist grazed her skull, but even as she staggered past, she managed a knife-handed jab directly into the enforcer’s armpit. It was an excellent strike, the kind of blow that could possibly have rendered her right arm temporarily numb and useless, had Style not happened to be wearing chain mail.

It was Jasmine who let out a yelp of pain.

She retreated as Style came relentlessly after her, deflecting another jab and aiming a kick at Style’s knee. The enforcer merely shifted just enough that Jasmine’s boot struck her on the thigh instead, which didn’t slow her a whit.

Her next punch caught Jasmine hard on the jaw. She reeled, her martial skill suddenly useless in a blind daze, but Style didn’t give her even those seconds to regain her equilibrium. Grabbing Jasmine by the hair with her left hand, she hauled her around and past herself, at the same time bringing her other fist up in a vicious uppercut that landed square on Jasmine’s solar plexus. The air went fully out of her in a hoarse croak, and she dropped.

The whole exchange had taken less than ten seconds.

“You assume a lot of things,” Style said coldly to the girl kneeling at her feet, presently unable to breathe. “For example, that I’m in my position for reasons other than my ability to kick ass. You’re good, kid—amazing, even. I am better. This was not the way you should’ve learned it.”

She grabbed Jasmine’s hair again, hauling her upright, and once again slammed a fist into her belly, then hurled her to the stone floor.

“Stop it!” Tallie shouted fruitlessly.

Jasmine was too dazed even to catch herself, hitting the floor in a disjointed heap. She was only there for a moment before Style’s boot impacted her ribs, flipping her fully over.

“I legitimately hate this,” Style snarled. “Beating down some fucker who deserves it? Oh, that’s satisfying. But you, kid, you just had to push me, in public, in the worst way. This is all so fucking pointless.”

At the final word, Style stomped hard on Jasmine’s upper back, slamming her down into the floor just as she’d been trying feebly to rise. Jasmine let out a croaking sound and spat a mouthful of blood.

Tallie arrived in a clumsy slide, hurling herself bodily over her fallen friend.

“Enough!” she shrieked. “What’s wrong with you?! You’re killing her!”


Everyone’s gaze shifted at the speaker, a new arrival on the scene.

Tricks, the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild and high priest of Eserion, was descending the steps into the Pit. He was a diminutive and plainly-dressed man who’d not have garnered a second look from any random passerby on the street, but those present knew who he was.

“Style is too good at her job to kill someone who doesn’t need it,” he said calmly, striding over toward his chief enforcer. “Or to hurt them one bit more than she intends.”

He came to a stop, gazing down at Jasmine and Tallie. Jasmine coughed, spraying a few more droplets of blood onto the stone floor, and the Boss sighed, then lifted his head to pan his gaze around at the silent apprentices standing on all sides.

“So. Who can tell me what our Miss Jasmine did wrong, here?”

More silence followed. Style folded her arms again, her expression pinched and unhappy.

“She challenged Style,” said Darius, his voice startling against the quiet. He was pale and looked shocked, but his tone remained even. “Publicly, in front of the people whose respect she has to keep. Against the chief enforcer, who can’t be seen as soft. And she refused multiple offers to back down.”

“Well done,” Tricks said with an approving nod, pointing at him. “We are thieves, my apprentices, but not just thieves. What we do is for a purpose, and we cannot achieve that purpose merely by redistributing wealth. That’s been tried, and it simply never goes anywhere. Eserion’s cult is about understanding what moves people, and using that understanding to move them. We’re as heavily invested in social comprehension as the Izarites or Veskers. As such, you cannot afford to act rashly. You must identify a need to act, form a plan, and proceed toward its completion with a cool head. Otherwise…”

He sighed sadly, again turning to gaze down at Jasmine, who had been helped to her hands and knees by Tallie and seemed not to have the strength or wind to rise further. “Quite apart from failing your god, you will very often find yourself bleeding on the floor.”

Tricks let the lesson sink in for another second before continuing.

“Tallie, take her to the doc. And the rest of you,” he added, turning to where Rasha, Ross, and Darius were clustered at the foot of a staircase, “go with them. I’ll be wanting to speak with you kids before you turn in tonight. Style, I’ll talk to you in a bit. I need to tend to something before finishing this.”

He patted the towering woman on the upper arm; she gave him a curt nod, then resumed watching Tallie help Jasmine slowly to her feet. The enforcer’s expression was unreadable, but her broad shoulders shifted gently in a sad sigh.

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11 – 20

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“Sounds like quite the adventure,” Vandro said genially when Tallie had finished the whole story.

By that point, they were comfortably ensconced on the leather furniture in his drawing room, and had been served hot tea, sandwiches and cookies by Wilberforce, Vandro’s silent and efficient Butler. Their host himself had not joined them, either in sitting or eating; he stood near the fire, smiling down upon them with patrician goodwill. Wilberforce had refreshed his cocktail, but Vandro so far hadn’t so much as sipped the new one, apparently just keeping it in hand for gesticulatory purposes. Gimmick, or Saduko, stood so silently unobtrusive by the door that Schwartz, at one point, jumped in startlement when she spoke, apparently having forgotten she was there.

“And the worst part is, we didn’t even get what we came for,” Tallie said sullenly. “Any of us. Now, apparently, Schwartz is as out of luck as we are with regard to that magic shop, and we have no idea what Private Covrin was trying to tell us.”

“Well, as to that, I may have a few thoughts,” Vandro said lightly, wearing his characteristic easy smile and idly swirling his drink. “The Legionnaire’s mind, of course, is inscrutable to me; I rarely manage to figure out what women are thinking when they’re right in front of me explaining it! But in the context of your little dwarf problem… Yeah, I bet I can help you there.”

“Oh?” Darius said, perking up visibly. Most of the assembled apprentices did, though Jasmine frowned pensively and Schwartz chewed on his lower lip, Meesie chittering softly to herself in apparent displeasure.

“Hold your horses,” Vandro instructed. “We’ll get to that in a moment; first of all, I have to disagree with your assessment of what the worst part was. Tell me, at least, that you kids understand exactly how you fucked up in dealing with Ironeye?”

“Well,” Darius drawled, “punching one of her subordinates was probably not the best idea anybody in this room has ever had.”

“I know for a fact it was far from the worst,” Tallie shot back.

“That woman’s a thug and a bully,” Ross said flatly. “Some Eserite, picking on people like she does.”

“We didn’t do anything to her,” Rasha added. “Sending us into that trap when we asked for help was an asshole thing to do, no matter how you slice it.”

“That it was,” Vandro agreed. “Vanda Frost is an asshole when she wants to be, just like any good enforcer. The point, there, is what you kids do and do not have the prerogative to slice. Let’s consider the strange case of Glass Alley.”

“Yeah, what the hell is even going on in there?” Darius demanded, scowling. “I get that it’s a slum, but…”

“Well, first of all, there’s Frost’s little operation,” Vandro said, beginning to pace idly in front of the fire as he talked. “Now, full disclosure, I’ve only been back in the city a few months; I was theoretically retired to sunny Onkawa, and I keep telling myself I’ll go back there when my business is concluded, but hell, I love the game too much to leave it a second time.” He paused to wink at them. “So, Frost. Here she’s set herself up as the uncontested slum queen. Her word is law, and apparently she’s wearing Imperial badges like some kind of orcish chieftain to show how little she fears the Empire. Legally speaking, this behavior suits the criteria for rebellion. The good folk of Sarasio learned the hard way not to try that shit last year; doesn’t it strain credulity, kids, that she’s getting away with it right here in the Imperial capital?”

A pause ensued, in which his audience frowned in thought.

“You’re suggesting the Empire approves her actions there?” Jasmine asked finally.

Vandro laughed. “Approves, nothing. It’s doubloons to donuts the Empire is running this show behind the scenes; there’s no way they’d allow it if they didn’t have some kind of control. I’ll bet you anything Glass Alley is crawling with Imperial spooks, all gussied up as gutter trash.”

“Why?” Rasha asked.

“In a moment,” Vandro said. “Then, on the other hand, there’s the Guild. See, Frost has put together an actual gang, a group of Guild thieves who are loyal to her before the Guild itself—you met a few of them, I understand. No harm in that so far. But then, she’s used that gang to take and hold territory, enforce her own rules on non-Guild persons, and dictate how other Eserites are to behave in her turf. That, kids, is a capital no-no. Eserion prizes freedom and independence, but there’s a line; an organization like the Guild can’t afford to tolerate competition from within, much less open rebellion. Only times that’s happened it was because a sitting Boss had been acting up and needed to be removed, which is something Tricks would be well aware of. And yet, all we hear from the him with regard to Ironeye’s operation is thundering silence. Neither the Guild nor the Empire is doing a thing to dislodge her when they both have clear reason to.”

He paused, smiling down at them with vague smugness, clearly awaiting the obvious question.

Schwartz eventually obliged him. “What’s their motive to tolerate this?”

“Search me,” Vandro said with a grin and a shrug. “I mean, the actual nature of the agreements and interactions Ironeye has with the Empire and the Guild, those I could only guess at. Maybe someone more established here in town would have more intel on that, but frankly I don’t think that’s the relevant point to the likes of you and me. As for motive, consider the state of that district and what she’s doing there. Glass Alley has had a reputation for years as the place you can go to get sleazy shit that’s not trafficked in where civilized people dwell—and probably get robbed and murdered for your trouble. The rumor mill hasn’t really caught up with the times; it still has that rep, but matters are different since Frost took over. She’s running that place according to Eserite rules. It’s a rough patch of turf, still, no mistake about that, but the effect of Frost’s brutality has been to make it overall safer. She gets a cut of all illegal business that goes on, and uses it to pay as many of the local non-Guild thugs as are interested to serve as her enforcers. She even has a dress code for ’em! Then she uses them to lean on anybody who doesn’t wanna play her game. There are rules in Glass Alley now: no unsanctioned robbery, no unnecessary assault, no rape, no destruction of property.”

“Ah, excuse me, point of order,” Schwartz said with a scowl, holding up a finger. “All I did was ask for directions, and they set on me like starving wolves.”

“It’s almost like I can tell at a glance which of you kids isn’t Guild,” Vandro replied, grinning, while Schwartz’s scowl deepened. “Honestly, boy, you walked into a neighborhood like that and asked for directions? But consider what happened after that, and how Frost responded. Who bore the brunt of her thuggish displeasure, eh? Aside from that little prank with the self-locking room, she didn’t lay a finger on you kids.”

Schwartz blinked, comprehension dawning on his face, though Meesie still muttered sullenly to herself in his hair.

“That hints at the roots of all this,” Vandro continued, contemplatively swirling his drink now. “Despite what the nobles like to sneer at each other, poor folks do not behave like wild animals as a rule. What you saw in Glass Alley, the way they ganged up to attack like that—unless you’re party to an actual war of some kind, that’s desperation. And that’s what Glass Alley has been like. Tiraas has its share of slums, of course, but most of ’em are at least a little nicer. Glass Alley is where people ended up if they had nothing left, and no hope of functioning anywhere else.”

“So that’s who Ironeye chooses to pick on, is it?” Tallie growled.

Vandro shrugged, finally taking a sip of his cocktail. “Under Ironeye’s watch, three free clinics and four food pantries have opened in Glass Alley. She has her enforcers keeping watch over ’em round the clock, to prevent what would inevitably happen if she didn’t. To bring all this to a point, kids… This is a project, and a long-term one. Frost is profiting from her gig, as all slumlords do, but she’s also trying to help. If she seems brutal and overly theatrical—and I mean, come on, that outfit—it’s because that is what it takes to get through to the kind of people who live there, at least at first. She’s probably the only person they’ve ever had try to get through to ’em; most authorities treat people like that pretty much like rats. I understand her logic. It’s not the way I would’ve gone about it, but hell, I wouldn’t attempt a job like that anyhow. Nah, the real test’ll come when and if she manages to elevate that place to the point it doesn’t need her anymore.” He grinned sardonically. “Eserites aren’t mean to be in charge; our methods do not work for running an actual society. Be interesting to see if ol’ Vanda gives up power once she’s got a taste for it.”

“Huh,” said Darius. “Well. How ’bout that.”

“So that’s Glass Alley,” Vandro said, smiling down at them. “A big, extremely complex running job, backed by both the Guild and the actual Tiraan Empire, with the lives of however many hundreds of people live there in the balance. If this thing works out, it could set a whole knew paradigm for rescuing troubled places from themselves via Eserite principles—that’s a real game-changer, right there. All in all, it’s exactly the kind of place nobody wants a bunch of untethered apprentices bumbling into. No sponsor or trainer would have sent you there or let you go if they knew what you intended. Is it any wonder Frost reacted poorly to finding the lot of you involved in an altercation right in the middle of her grand project?”

“There’s poorly,” Rasha protested, “and then there’s locking us in a closet!”

“How d’you figure?” Vandro asked mildly.

“I thought that was rather a harsh response, too,” said Schwartz.

“Yeah, but what’d she actually do to you?” their host insisted. “Were you harmed in any way, or just…inconvenienced? It sounds like she even sent someone along to keep an eye on it. Frankly, I suspect you’d have been let out of there and sent on your way within a couple of hours.”

“What makes you so certain?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Grinning, Vandro held up a chiding finger at her. “I said ‘suspect;’ it’s a jump from there to ‘certain.’ But that’d be pretty standard. You are apprentices, and while any Guild member has the prerogative to discipline you for sticking your noses into a job they’re running—hell, a good many’d take it as a moral obligation to do so—no member of the Guild is gonna bring you to any actual harm, or allow you to suffer it if they can prevent it. The Thieves’ Guild can be a rough place, yeah, and if you haven’t figured that out by now you’ve probably got no future here. But like all successful entities, it assiduously protects its younglings.” He winked. “Good ol’ Vanda herself sounds like she went mama bear on your behalf. Or do you think she customarily says ‘hello’ with rockets, ice bombs, and electrified harpoons? Nobody’d still be in that district if there was an armored boogeyman stomping around doing that shit over every little thing.”

A thoughtful silence descended while they digested both the insight and the sandwiches.

“That was quite the set-up she’s got, though,” Darius said eventually. “I mean, with the armor and the glowing eyes and Omnu’s balls, how many weapons has she got in that thing? It looked like she could take on a strike team.”

Saduko sniffed disdainfully. “Do not mistake the belt of badges for anything but a theatrical touch permitted by the Empire. Ironeye is a skilled enforcer, in that she rules through fear and psychological warfare. Her armaments are designed toward that, not combat effectiveness. They are only tricks and gimmicks, both mechanical and magical.”

“And word has it you’d know a thing or two about gimmicks,” Vandro chuckled.

She smiled, very faintly. “I am most curious where she obtained that runeblade of hers. That is the real thing, and by a wide margin the most dangerous weapon in her possession. The rest…? Frost could not stand against a skilled spellcaster of any school, much less a strike team. I have my doubts how effective she would be against an enforcer of comparable experience not encumbered by impractical armor. Mr. Vandro’s point is well-taken. Despite how it seems, she is allowed to continue because neither the Guild nor the Empire see fit to extinguish her. Both could do so without difficulty.”

“Sooo,” Rasha said slowly, “she gave us, basically, a slap on the knuckles…”

“And then,” Darius finished, growing a shade paler, “we wrecked one of her places and assaulted one of her people. Shit.”

“Whoah, whoah!” Ross protested, pointing accusingly at Tallie. “We didn’t assault anybody.”

Tallie drew in a long breath and let it out in an explosive sigh. “Worth it.”

“Was it?” Jasmine asked dryly. “I may ask again after you’ve had a talk with Style.”

Tallie placed a hand over her eyes, leaning against the back of the couch. “…I don’t suppose you’ve got anything a little stronger to put in the tea?”

Vandro let out a jovial, booming laugh. “Well, as long as you learned the lesson, that’s what matters. I can’t do a thing about the ass-kicking you lot are gonna get from Style when you head back to the Guild, much less the grudge Ironeye is probably gonna carry. For now, though, I’ll consider my duty to the younger generation done.”

“I, um…” Schwartz hesitantly raised a hand. “I’m sorry, I made it clear I’m not a Guild apprentice, right?”

“Consider it a free education, sonny boy,” Vandro said with a genial wink. “Won’t do you any harm to understand a bit about how Eserites think, and if you’re gonna keep hanging around with ’em, it just might do you a world of good.”

Meesie hopped down from Schwartz’s head to his shoulder, patting his cheek insistently and squeaking in agreement.

“So with that out of the way,” Vandro continued, “and if you’ve all had enough nibbling to hold body and soul together, come with me. I wanna show you something that’ll shed some light on your dwarf problem.”

The long basement room to which he escorted them was clearly an enchanting workshop. It was extremely organized in layout, lined by neat rows of shelves containing bottles of sparkling dusts, stacks of parchment of different types, and an impressive selection of inert power crystals. There were several tables strewn with projects clearly in progress, and in one corner stood a sizable rack of various wire and glass components for the physical construction of enchanted equipment.

Schwartz paused at the door, took one look around, then plucked Meesie off his shoulder and whispered a few words to her. The little fire-mouse squeaked once in farewell before vanishing completely.

“You kids are in luck,” Vandro said jovially, leading the way into the workshop. “Gimmick, here, is one of the best security-specialized enchantresses around. This is her personal working space—and on that note, kindly keep your hands firmly to yourselves at all times. Not that I don’t trust you, of course, but it seems to me you’ve already offended enough Guild members for one day’s work. This way!”

As they all trickled into the room, their host headed straight across it toward the display at the far end, while Saduko took up a position by the door, watching them all with hawkish intensity. No doubt, she shared Vandro’s concern for having anything in this chamber trifled with, and probably with a great deal more personal investment.

Against the far wall was a peculiar apparatus consisting of a large-scale map of the city, set in an extremely thick metal frame. Attached to the top of this on hinges were several framed panes of glass, each supported by spring-loaded arms that enabled them to be lowered over the map, or raised above it.

“Here, as you can see, is our fair city,” Vandro began, tapping a finger against the map with the hand not still holding his drink. “Nothing special. But when I do this…”

Moving carefully with one hand, he lowered the first pane of glass into place over the map, then touched one of the runes marking the edge of its metal frame.

Immediately, a riot of glowing blue burst into being above the map. It was difficult to make out at first glance, but upon closer, more careful inspection, the haze of blue light revealed itself to be a profusion of circular shapes, a few with crisp outlines but most fading outward into dimness, where their edges were obscured by the innumerable other blue circles covering the glass pane. The circles were all translucent, adding a layer to the map without hiding any of the markings upon it.

“Whoah,” said Tallie in an unimpressed tone. “Shiny.” Darius nudged her with an elbow, whereupon she elbowed him right back.

“Let me continue and see if you can guess the theme,” Vandro said with a grin and a wink, already reaching to lower the second pane of framed glass.

This one, once activated, added another layer of the increasingly complicated display, this one of golden circles. There appeared to be far fewer of them than of the blue ones, but the sight of all of them together began to be rather confusing.

“It’s magic!” Rasha said suddenly.

“Well, of course it’s magic,” Darius sneered. “Generally speaking, when you see glowy shit attached to a device in a magic workshop—”

“Oh, shut it, Darius. I mean, it’s a map of magic in the city! Look, see how the biggest cluster of yellow circles is around Imperial Square? That’s the Grand Cathedral, and the Trinity’s three temples that are there. Look, there’s the Casino! And the rest of those are temples and shrines, I bet.”

“Oh,” said Tallie. “Oh, wow. If the blue ones were arcane, no wonder they were all over the place. This damn city’s practically sparking with the stuff.”

“Good eye,” Vandro said approvingly. “See, I knew you’d get it.”

“I’ve actually seen devices like this before,” Schwartz said with a trace of smugness. “I didn’t want to spoil it for anyone, though.”

“Sure,” Ross grunted.

“Yep, and the Finder’s Fee has one as well; most well-equipped magic shops in the city do. Now, you’ll note there are a lot fewer fae energy fields in the city,” Vandro said, sliding the third pane down and activating it. “Reacts poorly to the presence of so much arcane magic, and anyhow, it’s not as widely favored among human civilizations.”

“Uh, why is the biggest concentration of it around the Square, as well?” Rasha asked, pointing. Indeed, of the relatively few circles of glowing green on the map, the only one of significant size overlapped with the central golden glows of the Church and adjacent temples.

“That,” said Vandro, “is actually centered on the Imperial Palace, and in answer to your next question: I don’t know, I don’t wanna know, and neither do you. The secrets of Emperors are rarely useful and always dangerous. And just for the final touch…”

He lowered the last frame into place, switched it on, and revealed a series of orange circles scattered across the city. There were more of them than green ones, but they were without exception tiny, some little more than pinpricks.

“There are that many fields of infernal energy active in Tiraas?” Jasmine demanded, aghast.

“More,” Saduko said calmly from the door behind them. “I rarely find a use for the last pane. The only infernal magic users worth knowing about are, almost by definition, not trackable.”

Vandro cleared his throat in the grim silence that ensued. “Yeah, well, speaking of things better off left alone… But in any case, my purpose here is to make a point, not to help you find anyone in particular. Just look at all the magic running around loose in this town!”

Indeed, according to the augmented map, there wasn’t an inch of space anywhere in Tiraas not swamped by magical energy; almost all of it was under a haze of arcane blue, and much buried in overlapping arcane fields. But between that, and the fae and divine spheres as well, the city had total magical coverage.

“The subject at hand, of course, is surveillance,” Vandro intoned, idly swirling his drink again. “Specifically, how those dwarves are doing it—because they’re obviously tracking you in some way, to know so accurately and quickly where you are. Now, both conventional and magical surveillance ought to be impossible with you at the Guild, which is not only warded to hell and back but not the kind of place it’s smart to hang around, gawking at apprentices. Obviously, they’ve found a way around this—one way or the other. Your new buddy Private Covrin makes it pretty clear which.”

“How’s that?” Ross asked.

“Well, she found you the same way, if I’m not mistaken! And then sent you to the Finder’s Fee, which has one of these little beauties, to spill the beans. Saduko, hon, wanna take it from here? You’re the expert, after all.”

Expressionless, she nodded to him in a gesture that was nearly a shallow bow before turning to the apprentices. “Any statement about what is and is not possible with magic should be followed by the implied qualifier ‘in theory.’ In theory, the Guild’s wards should not be penetrable, at least not without tripping them and earning the direct attention of the Guild’s employed mages.”

“The Guild employs mages?” Rasha exclaimed.

“Hell, the Guild has mages,” Vandro replied, grinning. “Eserion teaches a philosophy, kid. It’s true we don’t favor magic-users as a rule, but you really think there are no casters out there who don’t find our worldview appealing? But we digress. Gimmick was in the process of explaining your predicament.”

“Indeed,” she said. “The purpose of showing you the map display is to reveal how very many overlapping magical fields are in effect in Tiraas. All permanently placed spells must be calibrated to account for this. To say nothing of the interactions that can occur between intersecting fields of arcane magic, the presence of divine, fae, and especially infernal energy in various places creates complicating factors which must be carefully considered when establishing a permanent enchantment of any significant size—which includes defensive wards over a region the size of the Imperial Casino and its underground offices. And where there are so many intersecting forms of magical radiation, there are…variables.” She smiled thinly. “These variables can be exploited, by one with the necessary skill. I have often done so myself. Most places in Tiraas where significant magic is done are warded—the temples, government and military offices, even banks and major factories. All of those wards are vulnerable to careful incursions, which can be hidden from detection by the background haze of other magical resonances. The only reliable way to counter this is to have a sapient caster, and preferably more than one, actively monitoring the wards at all times.”

“Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of wards?” Darius asked, scratching his head.

“Not entirely,” Saduko replied. “But more to the point, there are very few organizations which have the budget and skilled personnel to do this. Mostly just the Imperial government and Salyrite temples. The Guild does not.”

“Which means,” Vandro concluded in a satisfied tone, “if you’re relying on the Guild’s standing wards to protect you from magical tracking… Well, somebody persistent enough may just be able to disappoint you. Now, once you understand that, it should be obvious what you need to do to compensate, yeah?”

“It…should?” Tallie asked, blinking, and turned to look questioningly at the others. Most of them shrugged.

“Personal wards,” Schwartz said, suddenly grinning. “Tracking deflector charms are commercially available! They’re, uh, not cheap. But they’re available.”

“Won’t those have the same problems?” Darius asked.

“On the contrary,” said Saduko, “because a person is mobile and constantly moves through the different overlapping energy fields of the city, there is no way to use those fields to exploit ward vulnerabilities. Such techniques rely on knowing the position and composition of every relevant magical influence; they are only useful on stationary targets.”

“So, uh…” Tallie turned to Schwartz. “Exactly how not cheap are we talking, here?”

“Umm,” he winced. “Well, I guess… If you had a really good job…or an inheritance…”

Rasha sighed heavily. “Typical.”

“Now, now, let’s nobody panic,” Vandro said cheerfully. “You are, after all, in a room with one of the best in the business—I think I already mentioned that!” He winked at Saduko, who made no response. “Obviously, Gimmick’s time and talents are valuable. However, I might find it worthwhile to foot the tab for you, should you decide to employ them.”

“Uh huh,” Tallie said dryly. “And…what would that cost us?”

“Well, I’ve gotta be honest,” he replied. “None of you kids really have anything I want. However, I’m a big believer in the great chain of connection, y’know? We’re all in this rotten world together. Today, I find myself in a position to help you out. Maybe someday soon, you’ll be in a position to help me.”

“You are talking,” Jasmine said slowly, “about trading money today for an as-yet undetermined favor in the future. That is possibly the worst deal I’ve ever heard of. It’s almost a chapbook cliché. This is how loan sharks hook people.”

“Kid,” Vandro said, his expression suddenly serious, “you are just about as dead right on that as anybody has ever been, and it gives me hope for the future that you knew it without having to be told. Now, nobody disappoint me by answering this right now. You’ve got some thinking to do, and some research to do.” He grinned and winked again. “Tonight, I want you to head back to the Guild, take what you have coming from Style, and then consider whether you’ve got any better options than to take ol’ Alan’s deal. And most especially learn what you can about everybody involved, here. Me, Gimmick, Ironeye… In fact, while we’re at it, I suggest you ask around about Keys, whom you also know as Sergeant Locke. All of us have a rep, and you’d better know exactly who and what you’re dealing with before you start dealing. Be careful, be smart, and be sure.” He sipped his drink again, watching them acutely over the rim of the glass. “But don’t be too long.”

Alan Vandro was a man who enjoyed his comforts, but did not allow them to rule him. As such, while he spent lavishly on large, fancy dinners whenever he had someone to entertain, on quieter nights he often had nothing but a liquid supper. This was one such night. The house was quiet, with Wilberforce off driving the kids home. He stood in the drawing room, near the fireplace, pensively gazing out the window at the street. Night was falling on Tiraas, not that one could tell from this angle. The character of the light changed as sunlight gave way to streetlamps, but it never really got dark here.

“So,” he mused, swirling the last sip of his evening cocktail in the bottom of the glass. “Isn’t that interesting. Factions within the Sisterhood, they said. And here I’d started to think Keys had gone and made herself untouchable behind those ramparts.”

“Alan,” Saduko said quietly from across the room (she never stood close to him unless it was necessary, which he had noticed with amusement and never commented upon), “I have never presumed to advise you in your affairs unless asked, but if you are considering taking some kind of action against an active member of the Silver Legions…”

“No, don’t worry, I haven’t taken leave of my senses quite yet,” he said, turning to grin roguishly at her. “That’s the whole point, doll. Why take action my own little self when I can just…pick a side? Particularly if there’s a side that already wants more or less what I want.” He turned back to the window. “In your various travels through town, what have you heard about this Bishop? Syrinx, was it?”

“Nothing good,” she said immediately. “Basra Syrinx is respected, and in some quarters, feared. I have heard nowhere any hint that she is liked.”

“Good, good,” he murmured. “That gives us plenty to work with. All right, I need some more info before we go and do anything too proactive. Details on Syrinx, and also on this aide of hers, Private Covrin. Clearly, one or both of them has some connection to Sparkler and the Finder’s Fee, which by itself is just fascinating.”

“It’s going to be hard for me to maneuver in Glass Alley after today,” she said. “Ironeye will take offense at our intervention. She will not harm a fellow Guild member without cause, but…”

“Yes, but,” he agreed. “We both know there’s a lot short of harm that can make someone’s life difficult. No, Saduko, you keep well clear of her; I’m not about to risk getting those talented fingers of yours broken. Luckily, there’s no shortage of saps who can be sent into that rathole with simple assignments. See if you can round up a few, in and around getting some details on Syrinx and her girl.”

“These waters become increasingly hazardous,” she warned. “You know as well as I what Frost is like. And what I have heard about Syrinx is…troubling. She is a good politician and a poor Avenist, by all accounts. Ruthless, vindictive, devious. Unnecessarily cruel toward those who oppose her, it is said.”

“In short,” he replied, grinning out at the city, “an evil bitch.” Vandro tossed back the last of his drink, savoring the familiar burn as it went down. “Sounds like my kind of woman.”

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11 – 19

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“Nothing,” Rasha said moments later, rising from where he had been crouched by the door. “There’s no lock, no…nothing. These bars came out of some mechanism in the door frame itself, nothing I can work at with a lockpick.”

“Do you actually have a lockpick on you?” Darius said pointedly.

Rasha scowled and rubbed his palms on his trousers. “Well, it’s sort of academic now, isn’t it?”

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!” said the bait device with disgusting good cheer.

“Shame,” said Tallie from the opposite side of the room, experimentally tugging on the bars blocking off the other door. “You’re pretty nimble with picks, for someone who’s new at it. Or so Flora said. Okay, this fucker isn’t budging. Whatever they’re attached to is in there good. Unless someone with a little more beef would care to have a go?”

“Way ahead of you,” Darius grunted. Rasha had moved aside to let him hook his hands over the scratched and half-decayed wooden frame of the door. It creaked in protest, then shifted an inch. The whole place looked to be on the verge of falling apart. Ross moved up next to him, also getting a grip; at a nod from Darius, he heaved back as well, and there came a crack of splintering wood as the frame was wrenched loose another few inches.

Tallie and Schwartz backed away against the opposite wall to watch; Jasmine, after glancing up at them, busied herself prowling among the dusty bottles of cleaning supplies on the shelves.

Darius crowed in triumph as he and Ross finally ripped an entire chunk of the door frame free, bringing with it a substantial piece of the half-rotten wood of the adjacent wall. His jubilation died almost instantly, and everyone pressed forward, craning their necks to see what he’d found.

“Okay, so, something’s just occurred to me,” Darius said, rapping his knuckles on the plate of solid iron which had been behind the old wood paneling. “The bitch who set us up for this was dressed entirely in…well, this stuff.”

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

“Don’t see any seams,” Ross grunted, peering closely at the heavier iron lining the now partially exposed doorway. “The mechanism would be in the bottom… This doesn’t match the building. This is solid.”

“It goes all the way around,” Schwartz said quietly, his eyes closed. “Except the floor, that’s just stone… Um, sensing elemental composition isn’t my strongest suit, but if you give me some minutes to meditate I can look for weak points.”

“What kind of fucking maniac builds an iron room in the back of a disused shop and dresses it up to look all innocent?” Tallie snarled.

“I think you met her,” Darius said wryly. “Remember? The scary-as-fuck one with the lightning and the harpoons and explosives and holy fuck what is going on in this district?!”

“I’m afraid it’s worse than that,” Schwartz said, grimacing and opening his eyes. “I’ve got spells that could easily break us out of an old cleaning closet and possibly an iron cell, but… There’s some kind of arcane circuitry running behind these walls. I can feel it now that I try, but I’m no arcanist; I can’t tell what it does. My fae magic could cause…um, a really bad reaction.”

“Well, maybe that’s our solution?” Darius suggested. “Cause a bad reaction, blow out a chunk of the wall?”

“How about no,” Ross growled.

“Exactly,” Schwartz said emphatically. “Be the subject magic, chemistry, politics or interpersonal relations, the rule of thumb is: if it’s volatile, don’t blindly poke at it.”

Meesie, sitting upright in his hair, squeaked in agreement, nodding her tiny head.

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

Tallie clapped a hand over her eyes. “Jasmine, sweetie, while you’re over there…?”

Jasmine had begun sorting the bottles into different clusters; at Tallie’s prompting, she paused, picked up the enchanted device with the voice, raised it over her head and slammed it onto the stone floor, where most of its pieces shattered. Just for good measure—or maybe just for emphasis—she stomped hard on the remains, splintering them further.

“Thank you,” Tallie said fervently.

“My pleasure,” Jasmine replied. “Okay, nobody panic, I think I have an idea.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” Rasha said tersely.

“Schwartz, a couple of questions,” she said, turning to the witch.

He held his arms wide in an expansive gesture, smiling ruefully. “Clearly, my time is yours.”

Jasmine grinned faintly before continuing. “First, can you work some of your magic in here if you’re not doing it at the walls themselves?”

He frowned, then turned in a slow circle, peering this way and that at something the rest of them couldn’t see. “Hm. Hmmm… I can’t tell much about the nature of these enchantments, but I think it’s probably just to make the iron resistant to magical tampering… Yes, I don’t find any triggers in there. Something would likely have reacted to Meesie if it was going to.”

“Good,” she said, nodding. “And are there any charms like that on the bars themselves?”

Tallie moved aside, giving him space to examine the bars of the rear door. “Um… It’s faint. Just because there’s less metal, I think. Actually, this I can see close enough to be fairly sure it’s a standard strengthening enchantment. I’m no arcanist, like I said, but arcane enchantment is everywhere, these days. If you’re going to practice the Craft in any capacity, you learn to recognize most of the old standbys.”

“Perfect,” she said in satisfaction. “Here’s what I need: can you whip up a spell to aggressively purify the air?”

“Your allergies acting up?” Darius said snidely.

Schwartz blinked, then frowned. “Um…sure, that’s child’s play. Why?”

“Because,” Jasmine said, turning back to the selection of bottles she had moved aside onto their own shelf, “I’ve got the ingredients here to make a potent solution that’ll dissolve iron. However, it will also put off some extremely toxic fumes which would kill us in about two minutes in an enclosed space like this. So unless you can cleanse poison out of the air, that’s a no go.”

“Uhh…” His frown deepened. “I see. Yes, I can do that. I can also add small charms to each of us to improve our breathing, and depending on what kinds of fumes you’re talking about, I think the more protection, the better.”

“Sounds like a good policy,” she said, nodding. “All right, get to work on that, if you would, please. Everybody stand back from the drain; I need some bottles for mixing, so I’m gonna pour a few of these out.”

“You’re an alchemist?” Tallie said sharply, staring hard at her.

“Oh, goodness, no,” Jasmine replied, kneeling to very carefully pour a faintly shimmering blue solution into the small grate in the floor. “Alchemy is basically chemistry with magically reactive substances. Like chemistry, it’s a whole lot of math and memorizing tables and reactions… I really don’t have a head for the theory. I had a really good alchemy teacher, though. Actually, the man’s a howling idiot, but he does know his subject. He did a whole unit on useful stuff you can make from common household alchemicals. That I paid attention to; I like practical knowledge. This stuff is all old, but what I need appears to be still good.”

“Who are you?” Tallie demanded.

Jasmine hesitated in pouring, then lifted her head to give her a guarded look. “I thought we agreed not to ask questions like that.”

“Don’t give me that,” Tallie shot back. “I told you all my whole story. These two are just a couple of guys, nothing special,” she added, pointing at Darius and Ross.

“Hey,” Ross protested, frowning.

“Just for that, you sleep alone tonight,” Darius said with a smirk.

“Rasha is here because he’s mousy and effeminate and has been picked on his whole life, and the Guild is a religion based on taking down bullies. Sorry, Rasha, but that was all pretty transparent,” she added.

Rasha scowled, but then shrugged fatalistically, saying nothing.

“You, though.” Tallie folded her arms, staring at Jasmine through narrowed eyes. “You insist on being such a mystery. You’re some kind of martial arts savant, trained by the Sisterhood and… What did that guy say? Punaji? Drow? And now this. Jasmine, who the hell has an alchemy teacher?!”

“Anybody who’s been to college,” Ross grunted. “Or had private tutors.”

“There, see?” Tallie pointed accusingly at him. “That isn’t normal!”

“It’s not abnormal,” Schwartz offered weakly.

“You know,” Jasmine said quietly, “you raise a good point, Tallie. I…haven’t really appreciated the advantages I’ve been given. At least, not enough. I think I owe some people thanks, and maybe apologies.” She smiled up at the other girl. “Thanks for that. Sometimes we all need a little kick in the pants.”

“That was not the point!” Tallie shouted.

Meesie chittered irritably at her, pointedly tugging at her long ears.

“Tallie,” Darius said soothingly. “Sweetheart. Baby. Honeypie.”

“Asshole, are you trying to see how much it takes to make me come over there and neuter you with leftover alchemicals?”

“I’m making a point,” he said, “and holy shit, girl, we need to settle on a safe word before getting into that kind of fun stuff. Seriously, though, Jas is right. We’re all here for another start; her past becomes our business when she decides to share it, and not before. Leave it alone.”

Tallie folded her arms, grumbling sullenly.

“Also,” Darius added, winking, “there was subtext, there. You are getting close to needing a kick in the pants if you can’t respect everybody’s privacy.”

“Fine, whatever!” Tallie thew her hands up and began pacing back and forth at the short end of the room, having to about-face every three steps.

A silence fell, in which Schwartz retreated to one corner of the little room and began rummaging in his pockets for spell components, and Jasmine set to work very carefully mixing fluids on the floor by the drain.

“Soooo,” Darius said after a few long moments. “Who wants to tell ghost stories?”

Tallie’s shoe hit him in the face before he noticed she’d taken it off.

Less than half an hour later, Tallie tried the handle of the door to the front room of the shop, which was now accessible, the iron bars having been removed and stacked in the corner. Nubs of melted iron remained at the top and bottom of the door, but the solution, despite the acrid fumes it had put off, did not actually heat the metal; Jasmine had warned them not to touch what remained, but at least no warmth emanated from it. The metal floor grate had also dissolved when she poured the leftover solution into it, discarding what remained into the sewers.

At least the place smelled nice. Thanks to Schwartz’s magic, the air in the dingy supply closet was now bracingly clear and crisp, very much like the atmosphere in a mountain forest in the early morning. It even smelled faintly of pine, which he insisted was a coincidence.

The door, though, was still locked. Tallie sighed, rolled her eyes, and turned to Rasha.

“Don’t see a keyhole on that one either,” he said with a shrug.

“Shut by itself, remember?” Ross added. “Must have mechanisms in the hinges.”

“I knew you poured that stuff out too early,” Tallie said accusingly to Jasmine.

“Actually,” Jasmine countered, “without the iron bars blocking it, that’s just a door, I bet. Ross, would you be so kind?”

“Glad to,” he rumbled, backing up a few steps.

The room wasn’t wide enough to give him much of a running start, but Ross was heavy, and a lot of that was muscle. At the first solid impact of his shoulder against the door, it tore right off its hinges, collapsing to the floor in the shop outside and kicking up a veritable hurricane of disturbed dust. The newly liberated apprentices retreated as one from freedom, coughing and trying to wave the resulting smog away.

“Excuse me, I believe this is my venue,” said Schwartz, pushing to the front of the group. Planting himself in a wide stance in the doorway, he raised both hands dramatically.

The blast of wind which erupted forth from his palms ripped through the shop, knocking over bottles, blowing down hanging herbs and stirring up even more dust, even as it carried the rest away. The bell jangled in protest as the front door of the shop was banged outward, rebounding off the wall outside. Schwartz kept up the pressure until the last of the greasy cloud of dust had been expelled fully out onto the street of Glass Alley.

Finally, he lowered his hands, and the wind subsided. Schwartz lifted his nose, smugly surveying his handiwork.

“I say we keep him!” Darius said cheerfully, clapping Schwartz on the shoulder nearly hard enough to make the reedy man stumble. “C’mon, how many thieves have their own wizard? I promise I’ll look after him! I’ll feed him and brush him and walk him every day…”

Meesie chittered reprovingly at him.

“Witch,” Schwartz corrected a little stiffly, adjusting his glasses. “Not a wizard. That’s a different school of magic entirely.”

“Darius, quit pissing people off for five minutes,” Tallie said, shoving him toward the door. “Don’t mind him, Schwartz. He’s a dickhead, but he doesn’t mean any harm.”

“Actually he somewhat reminds me of my little sister,” Schwartz remarked. He seemed mystified when she devolved into gales of laughter at that. Darius opened and closed his mouth, for once at a loss for words.

“Uh, ‘scuze me,” Ross rumbled. “This was a trap. It won’t be ignored. We shouldn’t hang around.”

“Good call,” Jasmine said firmly. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Are we still going to look for that magic shop?”

“Oh, hell yes we are,” Tallie declared, the mirth fading from her features. “After all the bullshit we’ve put up with, I’m not about to drop this now. C’mon, guys, let’s move out. And starting now, we take no prisoners.”

“When did we take any prisoners before?” Darius asked, scratching his head.

“Actually, it was kind of the other way around,” Rasha said helpfully. “We got taken—”

“Move it!” Tallie barked.

Most of Glass Alley had seemed to have a few disreputable-looking people here and there, or so they’d noticed in passing. To judge by the speed with which Schwartz’s attackers had assembled a mob, there must have been more out of sight, alert for the sounds of trouble or opportunity. What these folk did all day remained an open question, but whatever it was, anyone in the vicinity of the trapped apothecary’s shop had clearly taken the explosion of dust and wind from its front doors as a signal to be somewhere else. The usual loiterers were notably absent from the street outside when the apprentices and Schwartz emerged.

With some notable exceptions.

Two women were standing on the sidewalk immediately outside the shop, one of whom they already knew.

“You broke out?” said Casethin, who had acquired a bottle of whiskey in the time it had taken them to reach, get snared in and break out of the shop. “Oh, crap. That’s not good.”

“You’re goddamn right it’s not,” Tallie growled, glaring at her and cracking her knuckles ostentatiously. “And oh, look! Someone without scary armor and magic tricks who’s been sent to see how that little prank turned out. Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe I feel a violent episode coming on.”

“Whoah, keep it in your pants!” Casethin raised the hand not occupied with her bottle soothingly; she didn’t retreat or seem particularly upset by the threat, however. “Kid, I don’t have any stake in this. You can bust out, stay in jail, take over the Guild or die of the pox for all the difference it makes to me.” She paused to take a long swig before continuing. “That was a sympathetic ‘oh, crap.’ Now you’ve gone an’ flouted Vanda’s authority, and damaged her property. She is gonna be pissed.”

“I’m not at all certain how much I care about that,” Schwartz said loftily, folding his arms. On his shoulder, Meesie imitated the gesture, squeaking in agreement.

Darius cleared his throat. “Um, I think I’ll care about that a little if I have to discuss it with her. Let’s haul ass to someplace else so we don’t have to care about it. I dunno if you guys remember, but that didn’t strike me as a lady we ought to screw around with.”

“Smart boy,” said Casethin.

“Now that’s something I bet you don’t get called often,” Rasha remarked.

“There’s a time and a place, Rash,” Darius retorted.

“It’s Rasha.”

“I know what I said.”

“The Finder’s Fee,” Tallie said shortly, still glaring at Casethin. “Where is it.”

The redhead raised an eyebrow and had another drink. “Really? You’d follow my directions there? Not quick learners, are you?”

“What I’m thinking,” Tallie said, “is that since Ironeye’s apparently already gonna be pissed with us, it won’t make things much worse to haul you there by the scruff of the neck and bounce you off a few walls if it turns out to be the wrong place.”

“Child,” Casethin said condescendingly, “I am a fully trained and tagged member of the Thieves’ Guild. You kids are already gonna catch a whoopin’ from Style when Vanda finishes complaining to her. Style hates listening to complaints, but Vanda’s not somebody she can just brush off. So guess who that’ll get taken out on? Sure, you can prob’ly kick my ass, some of you look pretty scrappy. I was you, though, I’d be thinking about what happens after that.”

“The Finder’s Fee is reached directly by a side alley which starts just around the curve of the road,” said the other woman suddenly. She was Sifanese by appearance and had traces of that accent, as well as a husky quality to her voice which hinted at an old throat injury. “It is between a red brick structure and an old Army supply depot, currently condemned and barricaded.”

There was a pause while everyone shifted their attention to her, including Casethin, who for some reason looked annoyed.

“And,” Darius prompted, “you are…?”

“Gimmick,” said the Sifanese woman with a faint smile. “Also a member of the Guild. Not a member of Vanda Frost’s little…clique.”

“No, you’re here representing another clique,” Casethin said sourly. “I may just take a vacation. Somethin’ tells me Vanda’s gonna be breaking furniture tonight, what with one thing and another…”

“All right,” Tallie said warily, studying Gimmick as if for the hidden trap in her helpful tip. “Thanks. Would you mind accompanying us there? I’m a little tired of getting lost in this district.”

“Oh, Sparkler will not see you,” Gimmick said languidly. “Rumor, here, has made certain of that.”

“What rumor?” Rasha demanded.

“Yo.” Casethin raised the hand clutching her whiskey.

“In fact,” Gimmick said smoothly, “you will find that any individual or establishment in Glass Alley worth visiting has either been warned about you, or will be by sundown. Ironeye’s displeasure is not worth risking for those who must live and work here.”

“I believe I’m starting to actually hate that woman,” Tallie said, tilting her head back to stare up at the thin sliver of sky visible between the tenements surrounding them.

Casethin snickered. “Yeah, you do that, kid. Best of luck with it.”

“Jasmine, please punch her.”

“I will not,” Jasmine stated, folding her arms. “Don’t go around beating people who annoy you, Tallie. Beat people who threaten you.”

“Yes, yes,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Like a good Eserite. Fine.”

“So…all this was just…wasted?” Schwartz looked like he didn’t know whether to be crushed or furious. Meesie patted his cheek consolingly.

Gimmick coughed discreetly. “Actually…”

“Oh, here it comes,” Casethin groaned, rolling her eyes.

“I do not know what you were seeking in that magic shop,” Gimmick continued, ignoring her. “However, there is another ranking member of the Guild who would like to speak with you.”

“Um,” Schwartz said nervously, “I’m starting to think not getting involved in any more Eserite politics would be best, at least for me…”

“Not just you,” Ross muttered.

“Hang on,” Tallie said, holding up a hand. “Who the hell wants to talk with us?”

“For such a new group of apprentices,” Gimmick said smoothly, “you have generated an inordinate amount of rumor and attention from members with established reputations. Attracting Glory’s notice, being coached by Grip and Silence, interacting with the ever-difficult Keys, and now antagonizing Ironeye. With respect, you are already involved in Eserite politics, in a depth which I very much doubt you comprehend. It would be wise, in your position, to seek out more allies. One is now reaching out to you.”

“Purely out of the goodness of his little heart, I suppose,” Darius sneered.

“Of course not,” Gimmick replied with the barest hint of disdain. “You train with the Bishop’s apprentices, yes? Flora and Fauna? Have you learned anything from them about Sweet’s operational philosophy?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” Rasha piped up. “He was Boss for a while. All about connections, doing favors…”

“Exactly.” She smiled thinly. “You are being offered a favor. You will doubtless be expected to repay it, should you accept. However, it will cost you nothing to listen, and in your position… Perhaps taking on a small debt is the lesser evil, yes?”

They exchanged a round of dubious glances, mostly looking confused and mistrustful. Casethin simply watched them in silence, wearing a sardonic expression and idly swirling her bottle of whiskey.

“So,” Tallie said at last, fixing her gimlet stare back on the redhead, “shall I assume that whatever we decide here will go right back to Ironbitch?”

“Mm hm,” she drawled. “Along with the fact that you called her that.”

“Well, then, gang, I think our course is clear and obvious!” Tallie said brightly, turning to smile broadly at the rest of them. “Let’s go dig ourselves in deeper!”

“I wish you’d found another way to phrase that,” Jasmine muttered.

“Oh, and one more thing!” Tallie said, holding up a finger as if just having remembered something. Abruptly, she whirled and drove a fist into Casethin’s stomach.

The redhead dropped her bottle, folding to the sidewalk with a pained wheeze.

“Tallie!” Jasmine protested.

“Oh, that is gonna bite us on the ass,” Darius muttered, slapping a hand to his face.

“Hey, I’m a thief, not a saint,” Tallie said cheerfully, then turned and bowed to their newest acquaintance, who was watching all this with a nonplussed expression. “Lead on, oh gimmicky one!”

Gimmick was dressed in a nondescript and slightly shabby fashion, doubtless so as to avoid undue attention in Glass Alley. The enchanted carriage to which she escorted them, however, was of a late model and clearly high quality. Parked safely outside the seedy district in a locked and gated lot (to which she had a key), it was a converted delivery truck, the cargo space fitted with benches and the barrier between that and the cab removed.

She drove them to a sufficiently nice neighborhood that it was perhaps just as well she parked the truck discreetly behind the townhouse which was their destination; their clothes would have stood out here, possibly to the point of drawing the constabulary. That would have been true even before they had been knocked to the pavement and trapped in a dusty back room.

Gimmick led them through the townhouse’s back door, and straight through the kitchen onto which this opened. She came to a stop in the finely-appointed hall beyond, the apprentices and Schwartz clustering nervously behind her. Their progress was barred by a stately gentleman with neat gray hair, wearing a Butler’s uniform and a supercilious expression.

“Good afternoon,” he said serenely. “You are, of course, expected. The master will receive you in the drawing room. This way, please.”

Gimmick half-turned to give them an inscrutable look before following him. They trooped obediently after her, Tallie once again taking the lead.

The drawing room into which they were led was a handsome and somewhat rustic space, its wall paneling a dark-stained oak, dominated by a huge fieldstone fireplace with a mounted unicorn’s head above the hearth. A matching armchair, loveseat and sofa of burgundy leather were arranged haphazardly around a low table.

Beside the hearth, in which a low fire smoldered, stood a tall man who was still powerfully built, though he was growing portly with age. His graying hair had begun to recede, and his complexion was ruddy with an apparent combination of windburn and alcohol, to judge by the cocktail glass in his hand. He turned to grin at them, though, and his eyes were as sharp as his shoulders were still broad.

“Well! So these are the little rascals I’ve been hearing so much about. No trouble, I hope, Saduko?”

“I was not able to enter Glass Alley unnoticed, unsurprisingly,” she replied, folding her hands behind her back and lifting her chin. “Rumor followed me almost from the moment I arrived. I kept your name out of it, but it’s not as if she does not know…”

“Ah, well, water under the bridge,” he said lightly, gesticulating with his half-drunk cocktail. “If Frost wants to come down here and smack me around, I suppose that’ll be that. She won’t, though. Did Rumor follow you out?”

“She was occupied regaining her breath,” Gimmick said dryly, “after the young lady, here, punched the wind out of her.”

Their host threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Ah, now that’s music to the old ears! I knew inviting you kids over was the right idea. Had a feeling from the beginning. All right, everybody, don’t be shy! C’mon in, have a seat, make yourselves comfortable!” Grinning, he gestured them toward the sofa and chairs. “Settle yourselves in, and let’s talk about what ol’ Alan Vandro can do for you.”

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11 – 18

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The group hesitated, clustering instinctively together and peering around, almost like a single organism with five heads. Then Tallie squared her shoulders and stepped forward, toward the redheaded woman with the bottle.

“Hey there! Sorry, but—”

“Nnnnnnope,” the woman drawled, swirling the liquid about in her bottle and regarding them out of the corner of her eye. “What’s this look like, a tourist spot? You don’t know where you’re going, maybe you shouldn’t be here.”

“Well, that’s the ol’ rock and hard place, isn’t it?” Darius said with a flirtatious grin. “How can we know where we’re going if we don’t ask? If we can’t ask, how would we ever learn?”

“Okay, whoah.” The woman held up a hand, palm toward them. “I am way too sober for philosophy. Just a sec.”

She raised the bottle to her lips and tilted her head back, throat working convulsively while the group stared. In seconds she had drained the last of the liquid, and then casually tossed the bottle into the street, where it shattered loudly. In fact, there were a lot of broken bottles in the street here, mostly drifted into the gutters like jagged little snowbanks, but fragments of glass were strewn here and there across the center of the road and the sidewalks, as well. Glass Alley’s name began to make more sense.

“Hmm,” she slurred. “Nope, di’n’t help. Not int’rsted. Piss off.”

“Let’s try this again,” Jasmine said firmly. “We’re with the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Oh, really?” At this, the redhead shifted to lean against the wall with her shoulder, facing them directly. “Makes two of us. Uh, I mean four of us. Uh, six…” Squinting blearily, she held up one finger and appeared to try to count them, giving up after a few moments. “Eh. Lotta that goin’ ’round, ‘swhat I mean.”

“You’re in the Guild?” Rasha said incredulously.

“Hey, fuck you,” she replied without rancor. “Least I’ve got a tag. Eat my fuckin’ bloomers if you little shits’re more’n apprentices.”

“Prob’ly telling the truth, if she hangs out here,” Ross observed. “People don’t falsely claim to be Guild.”

“At least not twice,” Darius agreed.

Indeed, she did appear to be slightly less disreputable than anybody else nearby, aside from being drunk at this hour. Her clothing was sufficiently rumpled to have been slept in at least once, not to mention stained here and there, but seemed to be of decent quality. She also had a short cudgel hanging from a loop on her belt.

“S’risly,” said their new acquaintance, blinking with her eyelids slightly out of sync. “Maybe you should run along. ‘Bout to be some fuss an’ noise right aroun’ here.”

“Look, all we need to know is where the shop called the Finder’s Fee is,” Tallie said. “Do some newbies a favor and point in a direction, yeah?”

Suddenly the woman’s gaze sharpened, to the point of suggesting she wasn’t nearly as inebriated as she acted. “Huh. You too? Why’s that place so popular today?”

Tallie opened her mouth to answer, and at that moment the door of the shop behind them blew off its hinges.

The apprentices leaped reflexively away as the door rebounded off the wall and a man came staggering out backward, accompanied by a blast of wind. He reeled into the street, where he landed on his behind, luckily far enough out to avoid the worst of the broken glass.

“Too late,” the redhead said fatalistically, and began edging away from the whole scene.

There came a flash of reddish light from within the shop, followed by a shriek and the smell of smoke. A woman rushed out, arms covering her head, and plowed right into the man in the street, sending them both to the ground.

A moment later, a man in neat robes which made him look wildly out of place here stepped out of the shop. He wore glasses and had a faintly glowing rat-sized creature perched on his shoulder.

“I did ask nicely,” he said. “Repeatedly.”

“Hey, it’s that guy!” Darius exclaimed. “Schmidt, from the jail!”

Herschel Schwartz turned to stare at them, then blinked in surprise. “Oh. Oh! Wow, this is… I mean, fancy meeting you lot here!”

“And the coincidences keep piling up,” Rasha muttered.

“Yeah, no offense, but you look like you belong here even less than we do,” said Tallie.

“An’ that’s sayin’ somethin’,” the drunk woman muttered from a few feet away. No one acknowledged her.

“Well, I was looking for a magic shop, actually,” said Schwartz. “The local residents seem deucedly unfriendly. I don’t suppose you guys happen to know where the Finder’s Fee is?”

“Hmm.” Tallie folded her arms. “I think maybe we should talk.”

“Later,” Jasmine said curtly. “Trouble.”

The two Schwartz had blasted out of the shop were on their feet, and not looking terribly intimidated after their rough handling.

“You son of a bitch,” snarled the man, while the woman produced a pair of throwing knives from inside each sleeve.

“Honestly, I just asked for directions,” Schwartz exclaimed, the little fire-mouse on his shoulder chittering furiously. “If you don’t want to help, that’s fine, I’ll wish you good day. Do I need actually light you on fire?”

The two each took one step forward, glaring, and began spreading out as if to flank them. For a pair to attempt this on a group of six looked very odd.

“Really?” Schwartz protested. “I do? In case it wasn’t already apparent, that was not a euphemism.”

“Hush,” Jasmine murmured, positioning herself near him and slightly in front. As she spoke, Tallie, Darius, and Ross all instinctively shifted themselves to form a perimeter around the witch, leaving Rasha to scuttle somewhat belatedly behind them. “Thugs like this are cowards at heart; they shouldn’t be this aggressive toward a large group, and especially not with magic user.”

“That’s what I thought!” he said.

“She means,” said Darius, “they’re either dangerously crazy or they know something we don’t—oh. Speak of the Dark Lady.”

Feet crunched on glass shards as the half-dozen onlookers stepped forward from the alleyways and door frames in which they’d been lounging. More followed, appearing from deeper within the alleys, stepping out of just-opened doors, and in one case, climbing down from a second-story window. In contrast to the pair Schwartz had already dealt with, who were visibly furious, they mostly looked…hungry.

“Ah,” said Schwartz, dipping both hands into his pockets. “Well. This could be a problem.”

“You think?” Rasha hissed.

“I’ve faced much scarier than this,” the witch replied quietly as sixteen thugs crept forward, forming a wide semicircle around their group. “But… I mean, the force I’d have to use here… Somebody’s going to get seriously hurt.”

“Gonna be one of us if you don’t get over those hangups right now,” Tallie said curtly. “I don’t see what looks like a leader. Everybody find the biggest, meanest one you can see, and hurt ’em as loudly and messily as you can manage.”

Not all of them were even armed. Most were, with everything ranging from broken bottles and chair legs to daggers and even a couple of short swords. None of the toughs appeared to be carrying energy weapons, thankfully. They now had the apprentices and Schwartz completely encircled, and stopped. It was as if they were waiting for a signal, fingering weapons and staring.

Suddenly, Darius laughed.

“Yeah, figured it out, haven’t we?” he said, loudly and with apparent good cheer. “Somebody’s gotta go first, eh? Okay, c’mon, we don’t have all day for this. Whichever one of you heroes wants to get flame-broiled and beaten into the pavement so your buddies can have a better chance, step forward!”

Tallie barked a laugh in response, a sound that was far more caustic than Darius’s, and clearly less genuinely amused. “Rubes. It’s always the same. So brave in the pack, but every one too chickenshit to be the one to step up.”

Schwartz removed his right hand from his pocket and held it up at chest height. With a flash and a fwoosh of heated air, a fireball sprang into existence in his palm.

A couple of the encircling toughs shuffled a half-step back, glancing at their fellows. Not one retreated further than that.

Then, something about the size and shape of a bottle arced over them, tumbling end-over-end, to land in the gutter right in the middle of the open space between both groups.

A deep sound like the boom of a cathedral bell erupted, accompanied by a wall of sheer kinetic force that slammed the apprentices back against the wall and sent the thugs reeling in all directions, peppering everyone with trash and bits of glass.

“The fuck?!” Darius wheezed, having barely caught himself against the wall and avoided a tumble to the pavement. Only he and Jasmine were still on their feet, she having regained her balance and landed in a fighting crouch.

Amid the chorus of groans and curses, glass crunched under booted feet approaching from down the street.

“Oh, dear,” Schwartz murmured. “Is this as bad as I fear it is?”

“Yup,” Ross said tersely, hauling himself upright and dabbing blood from his forehead, where a fragment of glass had struck him.

Finally, the surrounding toughs began to climb to their feet and attempt to scatter away from the four figures who had just arrived.

“Freeze,” said the woman in the lead, her voice echoing unnaturally. She was instantly and universally obeyed.

The leader was flanked by two men in tailored suits, incongruous in the squalor of Glass Alley—one towering and enormously muscular, the other wiry, with an eyepatch of red leather and a coiled bullwhip hanging from his belt. A third man trailed along behind them, a tall, lean fellow wearing dark robes very much like a warlock out of a chapbook, his expression as supercilious as any nobleman’s.

Leading them, though, was a figure who wouldn’t have been immediately taken for a woman had she not spoken. She wore a blood-red hooded cape, marred by burns in several places. Under the cape was a leather trench coat dyed the same shade of deep red, and under that a completely concealing suit of armor, the color of old iron and heavily dented and scratched. It was also decorated with bulky protrusions of uncertain purpose; they looked heavy, and incorporated a few visible pipes and wires like dwarven machinery. Covering her face was a plain iron mask, its only features a pair of eye slits which glowed a cold arcane blue. She wore a broad belt made, apparently, entirely of the silver gryphon badges worn by Imperial officers. Most were charred, dented, cut, and in a few cases, partially melted. A sheathed longsword with an elaborately wrought hilt hung from her trophy belt.

“The hell is this?” Rasha whispered fiercely.

“Big trouble,” said Darius, his voice completely lacking his customary bluster.

The new arrivals came to a stop at the edge of the scene, studying the spectacle before them. Their faces were as expressionless as their leader’s mask.

“Ellis,” she said in her bizarrely resonant voice, “remind me to thank Wilhelmina, and apologize for my skepticism. That thing performs remarkably well.”

“Still not your secretary, Vanda,” said the lean man with the eyepatch.

“You’ll do,” she replied, shifting her head slightly to look directly at Schwartz and the apprentices. “All right. Who wants to explain this to me?”

“Uhh,” Schwartz began, then broke off with a grunt as Darius put an elbow into his ribs.

The huge man to the armored woman’s right cleared his throat and pointed at the man and woman whom Schwartz had thrown from the nearby shop; both had frozen at Vanda’s command in the process of rising.

“Why, if it isn’t Lord and Lady Shroomfiend,” she said, fixing her unnatural stare upon them. “Casethin’s message said I would find you two here, at least. The rest of this is an unpleasant surprise. Cass,” she added, raising her voice, “you had better still be nearby.”

“All right, all right, keep your heavy-ass pants on,” grumbled the redhead from earlier, slouching over toward them from the nearby alleyway in which she had taken shelter. “Bout time you got here, Vanda. If that boy hadn’t been some kind of caster he’d be a filleted corpse now.”

Vanda shifted her head again to look at Schwartz. “Yes, and what a loss to the world that would have been, I’m sure.”

“Excuse me?” Schwartz said, clearly affronted.

“Tarniq,” she said, ignoring him, “it’s not as if I credit you with a great deal of sense or restraint—hence this entire embarrassing spectacle—but I begin to be personally affronted by you attempting to collect the Unwary Tax in my district. I’m almost positive that I recall telling you not to.”

“I didn’t!” the man protested in a frightened squeal. “I never-we weren’t! He was actin’ all high an’ mighty, putting on airs, we was just—”

“Silence,” she said calmly, and he immediately snapped his mouth shut. “Let’s hear from what I’m sure is the only reliable witness here.”

“By that, do you mean the drunk one?” said the robed man behind her in a languid tone. Casethin made a rude gesture at him.

“While we’re young, Cass,” Vanda prompted.

“Right, well, Tarniq’s not lying; they weren’t trying to shake down the kid, at least at first. He came looking for Sparkler’s shop, asked ’em where it was, they started growling an’ yapping like mutts instead of giving a straight answer, because, well, you’ve met ’em.”

“It wasn’t like that!” Tarniq protested. “You saw, he tried to—”

Vanda calmly extended her left arm and tilted her hand upward; from the hefty gauntlet under her wrist, a long metal dart shot forth and impaled his leg through the calf, trailing a metal cable back to her arm. Tarniq broke off with a shrill scream, clutching at his leg.

“Don’t touch it,” Vanda said without inflection, and he flinched, whimpering, but obeyed. The woman with him pressed herself close to his body, wrapping an arm around his shoulder and staring up at Vanda in obvious terror.

“Holy shit,” Rasha whispered. The apprentices clustered closer together around Schwartz, those who had been cut by flying glass not even touching their wounds anymore. Even Schwartz looked rattled, now. Meesie was silent but practically vibrating with tension.

“Continue, please,” said the woman in armor.

Casethin sighed. “Right, well, they decided to get clever an’ he decided to get dumb. Shia told him this place was the shop an’ ushered him inside. I can’t absolutely swear they were gonna shake him down, but honestly…”

“Yes,” Vanda mused, turning to stare at the couple on the ground before her. “Honestly. The rest of these animals I understand,” she added, waving languidly at the surrounding thugs, several of whom flinched. “Who are these?”

“They seem to know Castypants, here,” Casethin said with a shrug. “Wrong place, wrong time thing; they weren’t expecting to meet him. Claim they’re Guild.”

“Ah, so? That makes all of this much simpler. And here I thought I was dealing with the complication of people who don’t know better than to start trouble in my district.”

“Ah, excuse me?” Schwartz said somewhat tremulously. “I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here.”

“That appears to be your problem in a nutshell,” Vanda agreed. “And now, I have to decide what to do about all this.”

“P-please,” Tarniq whimpered. Blood generously soaked his ragged trouser leg.

Vanda turned to stare at him for a silent moment, and then minutely adjusted the position of her left hand.

Lightning arced down the cable connecting her glove to the shaft of metal through his leg, and ignited into sparks and flashes of electricity limning both Tarniq and Shia, accompanied by screams of pain. It lasted for only a couple of seconds.

In the shocked aftermath, Vanda calmly pointed her right fist at the man who had broken from the group and pelted away down the street; the projectile which flew from her heavy gauntlet screamed like a firework rocket in flight—which, apparently, it was, to judge by the way it exploded upon striking him in the back. Shrieking in pain and shock, he tumbled to the street, where he at least had the presence of mind to roll about and put out the fire blazing on his jacket.

A moment later, she shifted to aim the same fist at Jasmine, who had surged forward at this. Jasmine froze, and then was pulled roughly back by Darius and Ross.

“Do you imagine,” Vanda asked Tarniq in perfect calm, “that I am so hard up for things to fill my day that I enjoy coming down here to correct your behavior? You may consider this the final expiration of my patience with you two.” There came a soft click, and the metal cable tightened. The long dart was ripped from Tarniq’s leg, prompting another scream from him, and the whole thing abruptly reeled itself back into her glove. “You will leave Glass Alley and not return.”

“Please, miss,” Shia whispered. “We’ve no place better to—”

“You have had more opportunities than you deserve to better yourselves, and I am not your caretaker. If you have not left my district by sundown, you never will. Am I understood?”

They huddled together, offering no response beyond terrified stares.

Vanda shook her head in disgust, then turned to the apprentices. “You. Explain yourselves.”

“Who do you think you are?” Jasmine snapped. She was immediately dragged bodily backward, again, by Ross and Darius, who this time tried to place themselves in front of her. She shrugged them off, glaring challengingly at Vanda.

“You must be new,” said the armored woman, a sardonic note audible in her eerie voice. “I am Ironeye by tag, and Glass Alley is mine. Any Guild activity taking place here goes through me. No sponsor would have sent you here for training, which means you lot are fooling around on your own time, and thus, dealing with you is at my discretion.”

Casethin cleared her throat loudly. “Uh, if it helps? They were lookin’ for the shop, too, an’ didn’t come here to cause trouble. When Professor an’ Missus Shit-for-brains, here, started in on their buddy, they moved to help out. Can’t fault ’em for that.”

“Mm,” Vanda mused, turning to pan her eerie stare around at the others on the ground. Most of them visibly flinched. “Fine. Which leaves…this lot. I suppose it’s not worthwhile asking what you cretins were thinking.”

“They smelled blood,” the robed man said idly, inspecting his fingernails. “Rather like sharks. Vultures. Or any other animal with starkly limited brain functions.”

“Very well, then. Since it’s such an unseasonably fine day, you can all take a little time to reflect upon your actions.”

Vanda slipped one armored hand behind her back; what she did with it was hidden by her cape, but that hand was clutching a faintly luminous blue sphere when it emerged. There were several cries and a few more people tried to run, but before they could get more than a step, she hurled it to the ground.

A blast of frigid wind erupted outward, accompanied by a dense flurry of snow, and suddenly everything in a five-foot radius was encased in a heavy coating of ice.

“Silence,” Vanda said, immediately cutting off the cries which resulted from this. Everyone nearby was, at minimum, dusted with frost; most of those nearest the point of impact, including Tarniq and Shia, found themselves physically held down by solid ice. The apprentices edged back, having been just far enough away to avoid the worst of it, though they did have to brush frost and snow off their clothes.

The armored ruler of Glass Alley took a moment to survey her handiwork in silence, then turned to leave.

“Wait!” Rasha said abruptly. “Excuse me!”

He wriggled out of the group, avoiding their grasp and ignoring their hissed warnings. Vanda paused, turned, and stared down at him in silence.

“Can you tell us where the Finder’s Fee is?” Rasha asked. “Please. Uh, ma’am.”

In the short silence which ensued, the chattering of several sets of teeth was audible.

“I mean,” Rasha said awkwardly, “I figure…if anybody knows this district, it’s you. If, um, it’s not too much trouble.”

Very slowly, she raised one arm. Everyone on the ground who had arms free ducked and covered their heads as best they could.

Vanda merely pointed up the street, however, in the opposite direction from which they had come. “About two blocks, on the other side. You want a shop with a green door and a display of bottles in the window. Don’t bother knocking; Sparkler is usually cooped up in the back with his experiments.”

With that, she turned and strode away. Her three escorts tarried for a moment to look speculatively at Rasha before following. Casethin just shook her head, slouched backward against the wall again, and pulled a silver flask from her pocket.

“Well, uh,” Schwartz said awkwardly, “So! Why are you lot looking for the Finder’s Fee?”

“Hey, here’s an idea,” Tallie said tersely, flicking her gaze across the shivering street full of thugs currently trying to pry themselves out of the ice. “Walk and talk.”

“You’re sure?” Schwartz said a few minutes later, frowning as the group proceeded down the sidewalk. “It was Jenell Covrin?”

“She said she was the Avenist Bishop’s aide,” said Tallie. “You know her?”

“Yes, I do,” he replied, his frown remaining in place. Meesie climbed atop his head, where she began soothingly trying to straighten his hair, cheeping worriedly. “I wonder if she’s the one who sent the message… There was no name, but it came though the Salyrite temple here in the city, directing me to the Finder’s Fee in Glass Alley.”

“Gotta be,” Ross grunted.

“It makes sense,” Rasha agreed. “Too many agendas going around for me to believe in coincidence. I still don’t know what the woman wants, though. It’s weird she would send us all out here without explaining her point…”

“I think we’re a bit past the point of worrying about traps, don’t you?” Darius remarked.

“I wasn’t there, granted,” said Jasmine, “but assuming you told me what happened accurately, it makes sense to me. Covrin has her angle to play, and she needs us to trust her to do it. A good start is proving her usefulness by setting us on a lead to how these dwarves are tracking us. On the other hand, this makes me leery of what she’s going to eventually want. If it were something small, she could just ask.”

“Think we’re here,” said Ross.

They straggled to a stop, studying the store in front of which they now stood. It certainly matched Vanda’s description: the wooden door was cracked and flaking, but plenty of its original green paint remained, and behind the iron bars over its display window a dusty collection of bottles was visible. There was no sign.

“All right, then,” Tallie said, cracking her knuckles. “Let’s get this crap over with as quickly as we can.”

She pulled the door open and stepped through, the others trailing in slowly after her.

A bell sounded from above the door as they entered, followed seconds later by a muffled voice from the rear of the shop. “I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

Inside, it didn’t look much like a magic shop. Alchemy, possibly, or an apothecary; the shelves all along the walls were full of bottles of various unknowable substances, and bunches of dried plants hung from the ceiling. The whole place was cluttered, disorganized, and liberally coated with dust, to the point that Rasha sneezed immediately upon entering. There was nobody present but themselves, though the voice had emerged from a door behind the counter at the far end, directly opposite the entrance.

“Guess it’s this way, then,” Tallie muttered, again leading the others. They all filed after her, around the counter and through the door, being careful not to touch anything. Aside from much of it being precariously stacked, almost everything was dusty if not actually grimy.

Behind the main room appeared to be a cleaning closet, to judge by the mops and buckets piled in one corner, and the shelves full of common household alchemical supplies along one wall. The floor was stone, with a drain set in the center. Its entrance was in one corner, with another door in the opposite corner, positioned that they couldn’t see anything past it except the lamplight streaming through.

Tallie crept closer to this, peeking around the corner.

Abruptly, the door slammed in her face, prompting her to jump backward with a squeak. At the same moment, the door to the front of the shop likewise shut itself, physically bumping Rasha forward, where the bounced off Ross.

Immediately following that, iron bars slid out of the door frames, blocking both entrances off like cell doors.

“Wait, what?” Schwartz, exclaimed, trying to spin around to look at both doors at once. On his shoulders, Meesie stood upright, fur bristling, squealing in alarm.

There came a soft crackle from nearby. Positioned among the cleaning supplies was a cobbled-together device with two small power crystals and a tangle of inscrutable wires and an inset vial of enchanting dust. As they all turned to stare at it, the crystal flickered faintly with light, and it emitted a voice.

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

“Okay, Rasha?” said Darius. “New plan. Let’s not ask evil overlords for directions.”

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