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Grip insisted on bringing the dwarf.

Her logic was sound: simply taking directions from their hostage would have almost surely resulted in being sent on a mockingjay hunt. That did not make the prospect a pleasant one, however. Despite the increasingly inclement weather driving people off the streets, there was no chance of dragging a bruised and bloodied captive through the city without attracting notice, even had their prisoner been inclined to behave. Fortunately, a veteran thief like Grip knew ways to get around Tiraas invisibly. Unfortunately, hauling a bound dwarf along pretty well ruled out traveling by rooftop.

That left the sewers.

Once below street level, the apprentices were forced to rely on Grip to navigate, both because only the enforcer knew her path through the tunnels, and because only she had brought a light source. This left them to manage the dwarf, who quickly proved her spirit to be unbroken by the beating. With the rope firmly secured to both her and Ross, she had few prospects for escape, but by the time they reached their destination, she had hauled him off his feet half a dozen times; tripped, hip-checked, and headbutted each of them repeatedly, and made a game of trying to tip them into the “water,” which by its smell, was not even mostly water. The apprentices were lucky to avoid that fate, though due to the dwarf’s antics, none of them managed to avoid getting splashed.

Attempts to earn any favor or cooperation from their prisoner were wasted. She refused to impart any information, including her name, except under threat of further torture. Grip declined to provide this, scathingly reminding them that the Guild didn’t employ such methods to gain what amounted to small talk.

The exit Grip chose from the sewers brought them out in yet another dingy alley. She moved carefully to ensure no one was present before gesturing them all forward, out into the street beyond.

“Oi, what about this one?” Tallie asked, scowling at the dwarf. Any sympathy she had gained for their captive appeared to have vanished at some point, probably between the time the stocky woman had first tripped her and the last time she stomped in a puddle of vile-smelling sewage, splashing all of them. “Dragging her around up top is still going to risk attention…”

“Yeah, well, the address she gave isn’t obligingly right next to a sewer access,” Grip said sardonically, but turned to grant them a cold smile. “Don’t worry, though. They picked a good neighborhood in which to hole up. Nobody here’s going to care, not even if she starts screaming.”

“Uh oh,” Darius said nervously as Grip turned to stalk out into the street beyond. “I’ve got a bad feeling…”

It wasn’t the same street, exactly, but the aspect of the place was unmistakable. The buildings were tall, cramped together, and had been ramshackle and askew even before falling into their current state of disrepair. Everything was filthy, most things were broken, trash littered the sidewalks, and under a thin blanket of newly fallen snow which failed to obscure the squalor, what had to have been several years’ worth of smashed bottles glittered in the gutters.

“Oh, yeah, this is a problem,” Tallie said grimly. “We’re, uh…not exactly welcome in Glass Alley, Grip.”

“Yes, so I hear,” the enforcer said pointedly and without turning. She continued on her way up the street, forcing them to fall into step or be left behind. “Nobody’s going to hassle you as long as you stay with me.”

“Have you met Ironeye?” Darius muttered.

“Met?” They could almost hear her grin as she answered. “Yeah. You could say we’ve met.”

“Now tell me,” Darius asked quietly as he and Jasmine brought up the rear, keeping watch over their sullen prisoner being dragged along by Ross, “was that sexual innuendo or ‘I beat the shit out of her’ innuendo?”

“I have a bad feeling they would sound about the same,” she muttered back, “from either of them.”

“Man, that would be hot if it wasn’t looking increasingly likely one of them’s going to kick our asses before the end of the day.”

“At least one.”

“Bite your tongue.”

The district was much less occupied than when they had last visited, which made sense, considering the snow. They did pass a couple of huddled shapes crouched in the mouths of alleys, one of which shifted slightly at their approach, but no one attempted to interfere with or even acknowledge them. Either Grip was, indeed, a widely known quantity here, or far more likely, none of the hardscrabble residents of Glass Alley wanted to try their luck against five people clearly dragging along a badly beaten woman against her will.

Grip strode swiftly for half a block, then crossed the street and led them into such a narrow alley that they had to walk single file.

“Don’t even think about it,” Tallie warned the dwarf, who just curled her lip disdainfully in response. “Oy, you in the dramatic coat! Aren’t you gonna remind this fool what happens if she doesn’t behave?”

“That crap is for amateurs and bards,” Grip said curtly. “Professionals know what’s up, kid. Look at her; does that look in any way cowed to you?”

Tallie again glanced back at the dwarf, peering around Ross; the captive stared expressionlessly back, eyes hard.

“I know very well she’s going to try to screw us over at the first and every opportunity,” Grip continued, “and she knows what I’ll do about it when she does. Don’t ever let me catch you blathering on like a villain in a story during a job. Or worse, like a hero.”

They emerged into another actual street, albeit an even narrower and dirtier one. Grip paused, glancing up and down, then turned right and continued another twenty yards, coming to a stop in front of an old tenement which looked pretty much like every other structure in the neighborhood, which was to say, falling apart. It was smaller than most, though, only two stories tall and quite narrow.

She paused right in front and grunted, sizing it up. “This is the spot she said.”

“So…what now?” Darius asked quietly.

“It’s believable enough as a hideout,” Grip mused. “The surrounding layout makes it difficult to properly case. With this baggage along, I’m not even going to bother with that. Two stops, then: Tricks needs to be informed of this tip, but first, we check with Ironeye. If a gaggle of dwarves have been using this as a base, she’ll know.”

“Whoah, wait a sec,” Tallie snapped. “If Ironeye knows about this, why hasn’t she warned anyone?”

“Why would she?” Grip countered. “Ironeye’s pretty focused on this district. She’ll know other Guild business when someone’s told her. You kids and your dwarf troubles are nothing more than rumor except to those who’ve followed you or been asked by the Boss to address this. You should be glad she’s not in either category.”

“Uh,” Ross grumbled, “we’re just standing out here in the street… What if they’re watching?”

“If this is the place and if they have any sense, they are,” the enforcer replied. “I’m not interested in catching them all in one place; that’d be a brawl. First rule of enforcement: fight as little as possible. There’ll be at least one guard left, he’ll have noticed us, and he’ll probably have a way to signal the others to stay away.” She grinned unpleasantly. “We just need one. This one would suffice; whoever’s in there is icing on the cake, if they stick around. If not, meh. Our new best friend here is not done talking, by a long shot. C’mon, let’s find Frost.”

“Then why didn’t we just do that first?” Jasmine exclaimed in exasperation.

Grip gave her a withering look as she passed back they way they had come. “The hell I’m getting Ironeye down here without at least having a look first. If this turned out to be a vacant lot or one of her shops or something, I’d never hear the end of it. Now come on.”

“I’m not sure you have time,” the dwarf said suddenly, planting her feet against Ross’s efforts to tug her along.

Grip came to a stop. Slowly, she turned around, then held up a hand to signal Ross to stop pulling.

“All right,” she said flatly. “Let’s hear it, then. What’s your play?”

A very thin smile flickered across the dwarf’s bloodied lips. “Our first source of information has steadfastly refused to be helpful. With things going sour, orders were to give up and dispose of him; they may have already. Maybe not, though. Whiny fellow, name of Pick. I think he’s an acquaintance of yours? He mentioned you.”

For a moment the only sound, apart from the wind, was Tallie’s sharply indrawn breath.

“Oh, bullshit,” Darius said without conviction.

Grip pointed at him and he fell silent. She stalked forward till she stood just beyond arm’s reach of the dwarf.

“So,” the enforcer drawled, “you’ve either imprisoned a member of the Thieves’ Guild, and a personal acquaintance of mine, or you’re making that claim just to tweak my nose. Is there a third option I haven’t thought of?”

“Yes, yes,” the dwarf sneered. “Go on, get it over with, you moronic thug. It’s not as if you have a better way to express—”

A moment later, she gasped and doubled over. Grip had withdrawn the shocker from her coat pocket, aimed it at the dwarf’s groin, and fired. She held its flickering blue beam steady as her victim buckled to the ground, keeping it more or less in place until she had tried to curl into a fetal position, then finally released the switch.

“Excuse you,” Grip said mildly, “but for your information I am a versatile and sophisticated thug. F’rinstance, while some would just use this device to keep you too weak to fight or run, I can wield it very precisely to neutralize your bladder muscles. And oh, look, it works! I really hope whatever heating charm you’re using isn’t about to give out, or you’re gonna literally freeze your ass to the pavement.”

The apprentices, grimacing in unison, stepped back from the twitching dwarf and the puddle spreading underneath her.

“That was just weird,” Tallie said. “Why would she tell you that? Why now?”

“Use your noggin,” Grip said curtly. “I was about to go for reinforcements. Instead of that, she wants me to go in there. So it’s either trapped, or she knows she has allies inside. Or maybe is just trying to waste my time, but she doesn’t strike me as quite that desperate just yet.”

“You think she was lying?” Jasmine asked quietly.

Grip was again staring at the alleged hideout with her eyes narrowed in thought. “…maybe. Whether she is or not, it’s a good trick. But we can’t leave a Guild member in enemy hands.”

“I dunno,” Darius said skeptically, looking down his nose at the fallen dwarf. “Way too convenient. I bet she’s full of it.”

“I know Pick’s faults,” the enforcer said softly. “Far too well. He’s not a coward or a traitor; I’ve been thinking it was out of character for him to bolt after such a minor job fell through, especially when he owed somebody money. Well, shit.” She scowled at the dwarf, who was now catching her breath and snarling into the pavement.

“So we’re going in?” Jasmine asked.

“Not just like that,” Grip replied. “If you find yourself having to do something an enemy wants you to, at the very least do it in a way they don’t want.” She chewed her lower lip for a moment, again raising her eyes to the building.

“We can still go get Ironeye?” Ross suggested.

The dwarf actually laughed. It was half croak, but the intent was obvious. “Tick tock,” she wheezed.

“Yes, Svenheim makes the best clocks,” Tallie said snidely. “Advertise on your own time, sugar lumps.”

“Oh, we’re not backed into a corner,” Grip said softly. “I just have to do something I prefer not to, is all. That’s life.” She put away the shocker and reached into the inside of her duster, rummaging for a moment before pulling out a curious object. It looked rather like two wands attached to either end of a perpendicular handle; one had a large power crystal screwed into it, while the other bore an assembly of wires connecting it to a brass disc engraved with a complex spell diagram. “We need to either coax whoever’s in there to come out, or summon Ironeye and her people here, quickly. I can do both at once. You’ll want to stand back, kids.”

The dwarf, gritting her teeth, had worked her way laboriously to her knees, and now snarled up at the enforcer. “Do you really think you—”

Grip pointed the device at her and flicked a switch with her thumb. Small arcs of crimson lightning sprang from the tips of both shafts, splashing across the dwarf’s body, and she immediately fell back to the pavement, violently thrashing and emitting an ear-splitting scream of utter agony.

“Stop! Stop it!” Jasmine shouted, lunging forward. “What are you doing to her?”

Grip cut off the device, shifting slightly to point it at Jasmine, who instantly skidded to a halt.

“Hurting her,” the enforcer said flatly. “That’s all. No permanent harm, no damage of any kind, just a magical effect that convinces the nervous system it’s in pain. Every part of it, in a great deal of pain. This one, Jasmine, is highly illegal.”

She fired it at the dwarf again, eliciting another animalistic howl. The woman bucked wildly, heaving about so much Ross was nearly yanked into the path of the beam before Grip cut it off again.

“Holy shit, stop doing that!” Tallie said shrilly. “Omnu’s fucking balls, don’t you have any limits?”

“Of course I do, you little twit,” Grip snapped. “I had to explain some to you less than an hour ago.”

“This is too far,” Darius said, more pale than the cold could account for.

“Now, that’s something you’re going to have to work past,” Grip said calmly, giving the dwarf another shock. She had to pause, waiting for the screams to subside again, before continuing. “You’re more or less sane mortal beings; of course you don’t enjoy seeing someone in the extremity of agony. Believe it or not, I enjoy it just as little. Instinct tells you to intervene, to stop this horror, right?”

She zapped the dwarf again as if for punctuation; the resulting scream overrode any response they might have made. It trailed off a moment later, and the dwarf curled up on herself, weeping quietly.

“Instinct will get you killed,” Grip stated, shocking the prisoner once more with a perfectly calm expression. “Being an adult is all about learning to control your instincts, to do what is appropriate and necessary to live in a complex society rather than what your animal brain thinks will help you survive. Frequently it does the opposite.”

“That is bullshit!” Jasmine snarled, deliberately planting herself between Grip and the quivering dwarf. “This is cold-blooded torture. There is no reason this is justifiable, or necessary, or in any way part of the greater good!”

“People who reason that way are just…” Ross trailed off and swallowed heavily.

“Monsters?” Grip’s purely weary tone brought them all up short. She shook her head. “You think kindness is always the answer? Lemme tell you kids a story. When I was an apprentice, I had a friend who lived in this very district. Old beggar; he’d been a soldier, fell on hard times…it’s an old tale, I won’t bore you with it. First real score I had, I came here and gave every penny I could spare of it to him.”

Moving swiftly and smoothly, she stepped to one side; Jasmine, momentarily distracted by her monologue, failed to shift in response, and Grip zapped the dwarf again for a split second, drawing forth a shriek.

“He was dead by dawn,” she continued in a flat tone. “Killed for the money by the other bastards who lived here.”

“Oh, come on,” Tallie said.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Grip snapped. “Shit happens. Random crimes occur. Hell, people get struck by lightning, and not because some god was angry with them. But this? This was a specific, predictable event which I caused, because I was kind rather than sensible. I knew he was prideful and lacked self-control; I ought to have known he’d boast of his good fortune. I knew what the dregs here were like, and believe me, this place has gone way uphill since Ironeye made it her mission to straighten it out. Twenty years ago some of the people here were damn near feral. If I’d thought, I would have seen the inevitable result my kindness would have. I didn’t. I did something nice, and got someone I cared about killed.”

“That has nothing to do with—”

Jasmine broke off, staring, as Grip leveled the torture device at her face.

A moment later, the enforcer lowered it again, shaking her head. “You haven’t learned. Obviously I am not going to use this thing on any of you. But facing it down, you didn’t think, did you? No, that was just instinct. Well, let me remind you of something before you get all self righteous.” She pointed at the dwarf again, with the hand holding the weapon; again, Jasmine moved in front of it, but this time Grip didn’t fire. “This creature is a servant of a government. All governments and all laws exist to benefit those in power. The Five Kingdoms are monarchies just like ours; rather like the Tirasian Dynasty, they have a reputation for social progressiveness and reigning with a relatively gentle hand. And just like the Empire, this is for the sake of securing their own power, not out of any moral concern for their people. It’s because the velvet glove makes for more stability than the iron fist, is all. And just like the Empire, their cruelty is totally without bounds the instant they think it better serves their needs than kindness. Do you really think this one and her cronies would have stopped at just mentioning they’ve looked up your families? The people you love are in more danger now than before, and that will change only when every last one of these are stopped as completely and as brutally as necessary.”

Into the short silence which followed, the dwarf drew in a rasping breath.

“Scum,” she whispered hoarsely. “Everyone…compromises. A monster thinks…everyone else…is also a monster.”

Grip studied her for a moment with a tilted head, then suddenly jerked to the left. Jasmine shifted to intercept her, but the enforcer had already reversed out of the feint, stepping around to blast the dwarf again, this time directly in the face.

Her scream was cut off a second later as she heaved backward and cracked her skull against the pavement.

“Do that one more time,” Jasmine snarled, “and I will put you down. Completely and brutally.”

“Who are your family, Jasmine?” Darius asked softly. She jerked around to stare at him in surprise. “They know mine, and Tallie’s, and Rasha’s. Probably Ross’s and yours, too. You taunted him to try and harm them. Maybe they’re untouchable.” He stared at her, wide-eyed. “My family are…maybe safe. Dwarven agents would have to go well out of their way to reach them, and my House has defenses. But…circus folk? Fishermen? Do you want to see this,” he pointed at the twitching dwarf, “happen to someone we love?”

“Th-this…there’s nothing that justifies this,” she replied, but her voice was suddenly drained of much of its conviction.

“You want to be just?” Grip said, baring her teeth. “Go back to the Legions. You want to be nice? Join the Izarites and screw losers out of their sorrows. Join the Omnists, raise vegetables for your soup kitchen. But right now you are an Eserite, and that means your duty is to find evil people and make whatever needs to happen to them, happen.”

“Justifications are luxuries, Jasmine. Not everybody can afford them. But…” Tallie stepped forward, joining Jasmine and staring Grip down. “Jas is right. This is too far. Put that fucking thing away before we have to take it from you.”

“Quit,” whispered the dwarf. They all looked down at her in surprise; she was huddled on the ground with her forehead pressed to the icy pavement, but still speaking through cracked lips. “You children…still…have souls. Don’t let them…make you into—”

“Into you?” Grip interrupted. “Go on, pretend you wouldn’t do the same. We’re both the same monster, you ass; you loathe me because the comparison shows off your hypocrisy.”

“As fascinating as this is, I require a change from exposition to explanation.”

They whirled, finding themselves suddenly confronted by two figures who had appeared silently. Ironeye was armored and garbed exactly as they remembered; with her stood the same well-dressed man who had accompanied her before, wearing no coat but seeming quite comfortable in the chill and surveying the scene with a raised eyebrow and no sign of distaste.

“Where the hell did you come from?!” Tallie demanded. “How do you sneak up on people wearing that pile of tin cans?”

“Shadow-jumping,” Jasmine said curtly. “That man is a warlock.” He smiled pleasantly at her.

“Silence,” Ironeye commanded. “I will hear from the one person present who has any credibility. What kind of mess are you making in my district, Quintessa?”

“About goddamn time you showed up, Vanda,” Grip snapped. “I trust you recognize this piece of shit? You can’t possibly be unaware of this passel of shifty dwarves renting a space in your little slice of paradise.”

“Yes, you are correct, which means you are publicly abusing my hospitality. I’m still waiting for that explanation, and I will not do so for much longer.”

“I’ll keep it succinct,” Grip stated. “You are harboring enemies of the Guild. These dwarves are agents from one of the Kingdoms, trying to plant a mole in the Guild in order to extract information. They’ve been pressuring these apprentices to comply, without success. Now, this one claims they have Pick held prisoner in there.”

“I see.” Ironeye’s tone, impossible as it seemed, hardened further. “That, of course, changes the matter entirely. Avingell, get Branson and Ellis down here with a dozen of whatever street soldiers are handy. I want this place dissected and everyone in it secured within twenty minutes.”

“And send Rumor to the Casino,” Grip added. “The Boss needs to be brought into the loop.”

“As she says,” Ironeye said to the warlock, who had looked to her for confirmation. He smiled and sketched a cursory bow. Darkness thickened out of the air, which looked very peculiar through the fluttering snow, and an instant later he vanished from view.

“Listen,” the dwarf said weakly, again trying to wrestle herself up to her knees. “This woman doesn’t know—”

Ironeye stepped forward, drawing the sword sheathed at her waist, and pressed the tip against the dwarf’s collarbone, effectively pinning her down. The blade was ancient and scarred, its length marked by runes whose faint white glow was hard to discern amid the swirling snowflakes.

“I entirely lack Grip’s genius for causing pain,” the armored woman said. “However, Avingell can make her efforts look like the flailing of an idiot child. I strongly suggest that you earn what you can of my favor before he returns. You may begin.”

“Come on,” Grip said to the apprentices, stepping back. “Untie yourself, Ross, and let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Whoah, wait a sec!” Darius protested while Ross obeyed with clear eagerness. “We’re leaving? Don’t you wanna find out what happens? What about Pick?”

“What we want isn’t a consideration here,” Grip snapped. “We have responsibilities. Ironeye is both trusted and competent; this place can now be considered secured. But there are plenty more of these bastards out there, and we still need to find your friend the witch, who if I heard right is probably their top target now. Come on.”

She strode off up the street, and they could do nothing but follow.

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11 – 30

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Of the four of them, only Ross had actually lived in Tiraas before apprenticing. That proved fortunate because he knew of an enchanting shop more or less on their route between Glory’s swanky neighborhood and the central district near Imperial Square where lay the primary temple of Salyrene; they had to detour by two streets, but in the end it proved better than Tallie’s original idea of finding a clothing store. Four personal heating charms ended up costing a lot less than four full sets of hats, gloves, and scarves would have. It was lucky that they found the shop when they did, as they were far from the only ones to have this idea upon the weather’s sudden turn. There was an annoyingly long line in the place, and they barely got there before the charms in question sold out.

That done, they proceeded in much more comfort on their way. Not a moment too soon—as they walked, the sky began intermittently spitting little puffs of snow.

Jasmine lectured them quietly as they proceeded. “The reason this opportunity is important is it may be our only chance to catch one of these people alone. I’ve been considering their situation, and I don’t think there can be more than a handful of them. If they’re an intelligence cell, those are kept small for a lot of reasons. The more people you have, the more likely your cover is to be blown.”

“You really did have the most fascinating upbringing,” Tallie noted. “Anyhow, based on what Glory said, would they really be worried about blowing their cover? Apparently they’re in good with the Empire…”

“The Imperial government has political reason to be somewhat tolerant of dwarves in general right at this moment,” said Darius. “That’s not the same as free reign. Jasmine’s right; a large cell gets noticed, and Imperial Intelligence would be all over any foreign operatives they spotted working in the capital. Sides, even if the Silver Throne is making goo-goo eyes at the Five Kingdoms right now, any kind of tussle between one of their intelligence services and the damn Thieves’ Guild will end up a huge mess for everybody, which they don’t want.” He nodded at Jasmine. “Thus, we can assume the Imps aren’t onto these guys yet, which means we can also assume there aren’t many.”

“Exactly,” she agreed, nodding back. “How many I couldn’t say, I don’t know anything about their operational doctrine. Likely not more than a dozen. Now, considering what they have to do here, the largest group will have been sent to intercept Scwhartz.”

“How come?” asked Ross.

“Schwartz,” Jasmine explained, “is a magic user, and thus a lot more dangerous to them. Dwarves are extremely hardy; they don’t have a lot physically to fear from us, since none of us have wands. He’s by a wide margin the largest physical threat to them. The reason this is significant right now ties in with these anti-tracking charms. Assuming they work, and considering Vandro’s motives I can’t fathom any reason he’d screw us over like that, the dwarves can’t locate us specifically. That means in order to prevent us getting to Schwartz, they’ll have to spread what few personnel they have between us and the Collegium. So if we find one, it’ll probably just be one.”

“Hm.” Darius frowned, rubbing his chin. “There are holes in that. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send their whole force after Schwartz?”

“They may,” Jasmine admitted. “They’ll be trying to be discreet, though—remember our previous points about making a mess in Tiraas and getting in trouble with Intelligence and the Guild. Brute force tactics don’t make sense in their position. They’ll be trying to put down him and us quietly.”

“Don’t like the sound of that,” Ross muttered.

“That’s why it’s important we stay together,” she agreed, nodding. “Silencing one dangerous opponent is a lot easier than silencing a group. What I would do in their position is keep their agents spread out but in communication—when one spots us, they’ll call to the others. From there, they’ll try to impede us from getting to the Collegium without causing an actual fight.”

“I hope Schwartz is okay,” Tallie said, frowning worriedly. “Witch or no witch, that guy’s kind of…y’know, bookish.”

“Not much we can do but get to him as quick as possible,” said Darius. “I don’t think Jasmine was done making suggestions.”

“Right,” Jasmine acknowledged. “The point is, we are going to have to go on the offensive here. Ross, you know the city. Assuming they probably don’t know where we are at this point, we need a place more or less between the Imperial Casino and the Collegium of Salyrene. Something…quiet, private, where there aren’t likely to be witnesses.”

“Can do,” he rumbled, lengthening his stride to position himself at the head of the group. “Bit out of our way from here…”

“How far out of our way?” Tallie demanded nervously. “The gods only know what’s happening to Schwartz right now…”

“He is a magic guy,” Darius said, patting her shoulder. “And we’re on the way. We can help by taking the fight to the enemy, now.”

“Not far outta the way, couple streets,” Ross added. “Weather’s lucky. Nobody’s gonna be outside if they don’t have to. Any place off the streets streets is likely to be quiet.”

“Good,” said Jasmine. “Then keep your eyes peeled for a dwarf showing too much interest in us. If we can manage to run across one of them in the absence of witnesses, we will pull them aside for a chat.”

“Uh…that’s kinda where this falls apart,” said Darius, wincing. “You’re gambling, first of all, that a trained intelligence agent will be spotted when they don’t want to be. And besides, what if it’s just some random dwarf?”

“Anybody out in this weather just hanging around is probably up to something,” said Tallie.

“Yes,” Jasmine agreed, “but Darius is also right. We may not even see one. They may fail to find us entirely. They might be on the ball enough to spot us and get their crew together before we reach the Collegium, in which case we run to the nearest public place—we are not going to try to fight a bunch of dwarves. If they just play dumb when confronted, there’s not much we can do; I’ll not be party to beating up some citizen on a hunch, and anyway, there’s a limit to how much damage we can do physically to a dwarf, unless one of you is carrying a wand I don’t know about. No, what I’m really gambling on is they’ll talk to us if we approach them. Rogrind has kept trying to get us into his service; considering what they want, if we suggest we want to talk, they’ll basically have to listen. And that will tell us they’re one of the people we’re after.”

“Wait,” said Darius. “So…we have to walk up and speak politely with them first?”

“Usually a good first move,” Tallie said, grinning.

“So we’re not gonna ambush a dwarf, drag ’em into an alley, and beat the crap out of them?” He pouted and stuck his hands in his pockets, slouching. “I never get to have any fun.”

“This is it,” Jasmine murmured some time later.

“Yeah,” Darius said tersely. “We all pretty much saw it.”

The snow was still light, but far more consistent, now. Tiny flakes drifted steadily down from the increasingly heavy cloud cover, so far not accumulating beyond a thin layer of white, windblown dust, but it had sufficed to send everyone indoors who didn’t have good and specific reason to be out. In a city like Tiraas, a lot of people had such reason, but Ross had led them two streets distant from one of the main avenues, and suddenly they were for all intents and purposes alone.

It was a narrow street, not wide enough for two carriages to pass each other, the buildings lining it old and towering an average of four stories above. It was clean, and while stonework was chipped and some window glass bore cracks, nothing was boarded up, burned out, or falling down. A relatively poor neighborhood, but not a rough one. The buildings were quite close together, spaces opening between them only every three or four structures. Lights burned in multiple windows, but mostly through drawn drapes. Nobody wanted anything to do with the weather.

Then again, considering it was clearly a working-class neighborhood, most who lived here probably had someplace to be, considering it was just past noon.

“I think we may be disappointed,” Jasmine said quietly, glancing back and forth as they made their way up the sidewalk. “Spreading agents out to intercept would require lateral movement—these buildings don’t give much opportunity for that.”

“I think we may be disappointed for entirely different reasons,” said Darius. “Seems to me the most efficient solution to all their problems would be to use the rooftops. They can move around and spy on us without risking themselves. The Guild does it.”

“Great,” Tallie muttered, glancing furtively at the tops of the structures on all sides of them.

“Well, it was a thought,” Jasmine said with a sigh. “Come on, let’s just get to Schwartz, then.”

“Hold up,” said Ross, slowing his pace.

They followed suit, shifting position to see past him—and in Tallie’s case, over his shoulder—at what had caught his attention. Buildings in this district were mostly reached by short flights of stone steps, which created little nooks on either side of them. Just ahead, one of these occurred right next to one of the street’s rare side alleys, which contributed to their failure to see a four-foot-tall person clearly standing and waiting just ahead in the alley’s mouth.

“Well, shows what we know,” Darius muttered.

Leaning calmly against the wall of the alley and watching them come was a dwarven woman who was clearly also using heating charms, to judge by her lack of head covering. Her dirty blonde hair was tied back in a bun, and she wore a heavy, padded coat which could have concealed any number of implements.

The four apprentices trailed to a stop, staring at her.

“Never seen a dwarf before?” the woman asked wryly.

Tallie barked a laugh. “Oh, we have. But you know all about that, don’cha?”

“You thieves,” the dwarf said, shaking her head. “So put upon. How awful that your planned life of victimizing others is being interfered with.”

“Well, this is a new approach,” Darius commented. “I remember what’s-his-ass as being pretty polite.”

“Professionalism requires one to deal respectfully with all manner of unsavories,” the woman replied. She hadn’t moved at all, her posture apparently relaxed, but the four of them remained stiff and alert. She had hands in her pockets, and there was no telling what they might come out holding. “It’s one thing when you’re being sweet-talked into hopefully providing a service. Now, apparently, you fancy yourselves on the hunt, which changes matters. I’ll be frank, a mutually beneficial and cordial arrangement is still on the table and still much preferred, but I’m under much less pressure from above to be nice to a gaggle of junior predators.”

“What is it about dwarves and thieves?” Darius wondered aloud.

The woman smiled thinly. “You’re pretty far gone if you have to have it explained why someone who’s not a thief would have a low opinion of them. Right, here it is: we have mutually just about run out of patience for one another, and I don’t have a boss looming over my shoulder to shmooze you, so I’ll spell it out. If you’re willing to do the right thing for what I suspect will be the first time in your lives and help us out against the syndicate of criminals and marauders who will probably toss more than half of you out on your ears before you manage to fully join, you’ll be well compensated. I don’t just mean money—you can be protected from Guild reprisal and provided for as necessary. We can help set you up in whatever kind of life you desire. Not to lay about in luxury at our expense forever, but a helping hand to get established can make all the difference for someone willing to work.”

“Listen, you little—” Tallie broke off as Jasmine held up a hand.

“I sort of want to hear this,” she said. “Go on, I think you had more.”

“Indeed,” the dwarf agreed. “What we’re asking of you doesn’t even involve hurting anyone or stealing anything. All we need is intelligence. What you know about the origins of those weapons—and if you’re as in the dark as you claim, your help in getting that information. You have access to the Guild’s inner workings, the ability to talk to people who want talk to outsiders, and that is all we need. This really is an extraordinarily generous offer, and an uncomplicated situation.” She sniffed disdainfully. “I can put some of your stubbornness down to you being young. But fighting so hard not to do the right thing the way you are… Frankly, it won’t break my heart if you decide this has to end badly for you.”

“Badly for us, she says,” Darius sneered, stepping forward. “You don’t seem to have noticed how badly outnumbered and alone you are here, shortcake.”

“Am I?” the woman asked sardonically.

“Shortcake?” Tallie said, raising her eyebrows.

“Oh, that’s an old slur,” said their new acquaintance, rolling her eyes. “Something dwarf women get accustomed to having thrown at them in human lands. It’s a handy way to distinguish the sexist, racist, objectifying twits from anybody worth talking to.”

“You ass!” Tallie exclaimed, punching Darius in the shoulder.

“I am extremely disappointed in you, Darius,” Jasmine said, frowning.

“Really not necessary, man,” Ross added.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Darius exclaimed. “Fine, I will apologize for my terrible rudeness to the little shit who’s been threatening our families, but after she either spills the beans or I’ve kicked the crap out of her. Fair enough?”

“Excuse me, you what?” the dwarf said with disdainful amusement.

“Yeah, back on topic.” He rounded on her, clenching both fists. “We’re not telling you shit. In point of fact, since you’re here, you can now reveal where you’re keeping yourselves in the city, your names, anything we can hand over to the Boss so he can track you down.”

“Generous,” she snorted.

“Not that we particularly want you tracked down,” Jasmine added. “Just that you leave us alone. And since you seem disinclined to do that, a little incentive to leave the city entirely won’t hurt. It was you people who brought this to this point, not us.”

“Well, good talk,” the dwarf said, straightening up her posture. “Answer’s no. Your funeral. Now, then, get out of my way.”

“All right, fuck this,” Darius snorted, and punched her in the face.

He had to bend down awkwardly to do it, but it was a pretty good hit. A moment later he reared back, hissing and shaking his hand. The dwarf had been rocked backward a few inches by the blow, but hadn’t even taken her hands out of her pockets. A very faint red mark on her forehead was the only sign it had happened.

“And that,” she said pleasantly, “is assault, my lad. Or in other words, a believable pretext for self-defense. Thank you for—”

A black blur whipped past them, shoving Tallie aside, and slammed into the dwarf, who this time let out an aborted squawk and went tumbling over backward into the alley.

Grip straightened, keeping her eyes on the fallen dwarf, and held up her right hand, showing the iron knuckles through which her fingers were laced. They glowed with arcane runes and had four ugly, screw-like protrusions in a row along the business end.

“Much as I prefer to let apprentices learn from their mistakes,” the enforcer said curtly, “time is wasting, and you kids are just embarrassing yourselves. Honestly, what was your plan here? You were going to beat her down for information right in full view of the street? Did you actually think she was alone?”

“Well—” Ross began, but at that moment, the dwarf started to surge back to her feet, and Grip pulled her other hand out of the pocket of her black duster. In it was a shortened wand, which she leveled and fired point blank. One flash of blue light later, the dwarf instantly collapsed back to the ground, this time twitching.

“Whoah!” Darius exclaimed.

“Boys,” Grip snapped, “drag her into the alley. Quickly, you idiots, we can’t do this out here on the street!”

“How did you find us?” Jasmine demanded. Darius and Ross had already hopped forward to obey the enforcer’s command.

“I’ve been following you,” Grip said, stepping into the darkness of the alley after the others. “Come along, quicklike. I let that singularly pointless conversation stretch out that much because I was busy neutralizing the other agent who was preparing to land on you from behind. Here, you.” She tossed a coil of tightly-woven cord to Ross. “Tie her hands together with one end, tightly, throw the rope over that fire escape and pull her upright. Just enough so she’s stretched out, toes on the ground. Fast, she’ll be coming to shortly.”

“What is that thing?” Tallie asked in fascination.

Grip smiled unpleasantly, holding up the short wand. “Shocker. Acts directly on the nervous system. Non-lethal, unless you go way overboard, but rather painful.”

“Not to mention highly illegal,” Jasmine said sharply.

“No, Jasmine,” the enforcer said condescendingly. “Flesh-melting potion in a spray bottle is highly illegal. This is just illegal. Can you two buffoons possibly move any slower?”

“Do you wanna try?” Darius snarled, fumbling with the end of the rope he was wrapping around the dwarf’s hands while Ross patiently waited with the other, having already thrown it over the fire escape. “Forgive me, this is my first time stringing somebody up!”

Grip just grunted.

“What exactly are you doing here?” Jasmine demanded. “You surely don’t think I’m going to trust you after—”

“After what?” the enforcer interrupted, grinning. “After I threatened your little friends here and you decked me?”

“Whoah, wait a sec, you what?” Tallie demanded.

“I don’t call people down for doing exactly what I want,” Grip continued, ignoring her and staring fixedly at Jasmine, “so I let it slide at the time. The point of that was to make you stand up and fight, and get past that silly idea you were nursing about being some kind of non-violent thief. But really, kid, you have got to be less easy to goad. A momentary application of common sense would tell you there’s no way a ranking Guild enforcer would actually harm apprentices just to make a point to somebody. It’s okay—you’re new. You’ll learn.”

“She asked a good question, though,” Tallie said. “Why are you helping?”

“Seriously?” Grip gave her a disdainful look. “Fuckers harassing our apprentices, and you ask why I’m helping? I realize you’re having political issues right now, but the Guild will not stand for this horseshit. The Boss isn’t currently able to act overtly. Never, ever assume that Tricks is so much as inconvenienced by such as that. About damn time, boys. And not a moment too soon.”

Ross grunted, holding tension on the rope that was keeping the dwarf strung up by her hands. She was rousing, eyes flickering. They came back into focus, her gaze landing on Grip just as the enforcer smoothly stepped forward, sank to one knee, and slammed her enchanted knuckle into their captive’s midsection. All the air was driven from the dwarf in a burst.

Grip had already pocketed the shocker, and now moved with a swift and well-practiced efficiency that put Ross and Darius’s efforts to shame. She produced what looked like a leather collar with a large rubber ball in the middle from her pocket; the device’s purpose only became clear to the apprentices when Grip roughly stuffed the ball into the dwarf’s mouth and buckled the strap behind her head, entirely gagging her.

“Do you always carry stuff like that around?” Darius asked, fascinated.

“Wait a moment,” said Tallie. “How’s she supposed to answer questions if she’s gagged?”

“First of all,” Grip replied, standing back and watching as the dwarf struggled to breathe through her nose, “that’s to stop the screaming. This is a residential neighborhood; to say nothing of any other reinforcements this one has coming, screams will send people to the police, and police will result in a big waste of everyone’s time. Second and more importantly, kid, you do not hurt someone to get information. Doesn’t work. They’ll just parrot whatever you want to hear.”

The dwarf hadn’t managed to straighten up fully from the stomach blow, despite Ross holding her upright; it resulted in her feet dragging limply on the ground. She had raised her head enough, though, that her wide blue eyes were fixed upon Grip’s face, and the psychotic grin it now wore. Blood trickled from the wound the enchanted knuckles had made on her forehead.

“You hurt someone,” Grip said very softly, “to make a point.”

She flexed her fingers in the iron knuckles once, and then struck the dwarf on the cheekbone with them. The captive could only manage a muffled squeak of pain as she was rocked to the side. Grip backhanded her coming back the other way, making a nearly matching mark on her other cheek.

“You know what really pisses me off?” The enforcer continued to work, methodically driving her augmented fist into various parts of the dwarf’s anatomy, occasionally applying short jolts with her shocker for emphasis. The whole time, she lectured her victim in a calm tone while the apprentices stood around, frozen. “Aside from the obvious territorialism, I mean. Anybody gets upset when you attack the younglings in their organization, that’s universal. No, in particular, after listening to your little speech, it’s obvious that you think you’re better than me. Than us. And that offends me, you hypocritical, insignificant hock of ham.”

She paused, pacing in a slow circle around the dwarf, who now hung limply by her wrists, emitting soft groans. Ross still held the rope, though he looked increasingly horrified.

To judge by the sound that resulted when Grip kicked the dwarf in the lower back, her boots were also steel-lined.

“Consider what I am, and what you are,” the enforcer continued, coming back around to the front and casually zapping the dwarf on one limp foot in passing. “We’re in the same business, you and I: doing bad things for a good cause. After you’ve been running around, stalking kids, threatening their families, you contemptible wart, you really don’t have a pedestal on which to set yourself. No, your only claim to virtue is what you represent.”

She grabbed a handful of the dwarf’s hair to haul her head upright and casually jabbed the iron knuckles right into her chin just below the gag. The blow was carefully not hard enough to break teeth, but blood gushed from the lip smashed against them.

“And what do you represent? You silly bitch, you’re a government agent. Any kind of nationalism is nothing more than taking credit for what you haven’t accomplished and despising people you don’t know. There’s nothing more narcissistic than believing one place is better than any other because you were born there, especially since your birth is in no way your doing. You’re a slave to a hereditary monarchy—people in power because of the happenstance of their own birth. Your entire life, your whole reason for being, is nothing but a series of coincidences.”

She paced in another full circle, back the other direction, around the now-sobbing captive.

“That’s enough of this,” Jasmine snapped, balling her fists.

“You shut your mouth,” Grip said curtly, without looking at her. Coming back around to the front, she actually knelt on the ground before the dwarf, gazing up at her bloodied face. There she just waited in silence, until the woman lifted her chin slightly, opening her eyes to stare at her.

“Ah, there it is,” Grip whispered. “It’s a very expressive look—of course, I’ve seen it enough times to interpret it just by habit. ‘You’re a monster,’ it says.” She shrugged, smiling blandly. “Well, yes, that’s quite true—and equally true of you, as you well know. Me, though? I stand for something. I act in service to a moral authority which I have chosen, one which justifies certain transgressions. In particular, against people like you. Because oh, yes, this would not be happening if you were not also a monster. An enforcer of Eserion has no business with anyone else. You may think me evil, and you’d have a point.” She grinned outright. “What’s your excuse?”

Grip stared into the dwarf’s eyes for another long moment, then abruptly stood. Her captive twitched at the sudden move, but Grip merely reached around behind her head to unfasten the ball gag and pull it off.

The dwarf coughed, spat blood, choked on a sob.

“You…animal,” she gasped, lifting her head weakly. “There was…no point. We don’t resist torture. Could’ve…jus’ asked.”

“Oh, gods,” Tallie whispered, backing up until she was pressed against the wall.

“Aww,” Grip drawled, folding her arms. “Imagine my embarrassment.”

“You—wait.” Jasmine stared at her in horror. “You knew that?”

“SOP for dwarven government operatives,” the enforcer said, smiling pleasantly. “A professional, you see, researches her opponent before engaging them.”

“Why?” Jasmine snarled, taking an aggressive step toward her. “What was the point of this?”

“The point, child, is that an individual who sees no moral problem with threatening innocent bystanders in order to get her way will now carry a vivid memory of what happens when someone stands up to her.” Grip met Jasmine’s furious stare without flinching, without much expression of any kind. She turned her head to nod pointedly at the dwarf, now a mess of sweat, tears and blood. “I told you. We don’t hurt people to get information. We hurt people because some people, kids, need to be hurt.”

She casually reached out to ruffle the dwarf’s hair; the woman tried weakly to duck her head aside, too exhausted to make much effort.

“And now, our new friend will tell us where the rest are.”

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11 – 29

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“I can handle this,” Rasha insisted at the front door of Glory’s house five minutes later.

“Rasha,” Jasmine said, firmly but kindly. “You are literally swaying as you speak. You haven’t slept all night. It doesn’t make sense to subject yourself to more of this, so long as you have any better option.”

“And I assure you, this is a much better option,” Glory added with a smile, coming up behind him to lay a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’ll loan you the best guest room, right next to mine.”

“I am just so sick of being the weak link around here,” Rasha whispered, clenching his fists. If nothing else, it helped him straighten up and hold his posture.

“Whoah, that’s enough of that kinda talk,” Tallie declared. Having been the first to the door, she now turned and pushed back through the small crowd which had formed in the foyer, elbowing Layla aside with more energy than was necessary. She wrapped her arms around Rasha in a hug, the top of his head barely coming past her shoulder. “You’ve had a shitty night, that’s all. We’re not refusing to let you help; that’s the whole point of this, Rasha. We’re gonna need you soon, and for that, you need to be rested up.”

He sighed heavily, though after a moment he un-clenched enough to hug her back—briefly. Then he pulled insistently away. “All right. I guess. Fine. But don’t be too long.”

“Pfft, what’s the worst that could happen?” Darius said airily. “All we’re doing is traipsing through the suddenly-freezing streets of the city where dwarven spies are plotting to ambush and do horrible things to us, to rescue our witch friend who they’re also going to be ambushing, when we have no idea where the hell he even is. This is a Sunday stroll through the park! Really, Rasha, you’re not gonna miss anything.”

“Whose idea was it to give him talking privileges?” Ross wondered aloud.

“And on that subject.” Darius’s aspect suddenly sobered considerably and he turned to level a finger a Layla. “You are not coming. So let’s get the tantrum and the shouting out of the way right now, because we really do not have time to stretch this out.”

“Honestly, Darius, you’ve turned into the most frightful boor,” she sniffed. “I can see I shall be forced to spend a great deal of time re-acquainting you with the concept of basic manners. Of course I’m not coming; do you really think I’m daft enough to place myself in that kind of danger? You’re the Eserites, here. I assume they’ve taught you something in that Guild of yours.”

“Huh,” he said, staring at her in evident bemusement. “That’s…strangely forward-thinking of you. Are you feeling all right, sis?”

“Feel free to take my carriage,” she said, ignoring that and turning to Jasmine, who so far was the only other member of the group she seemed inclined to address directly. “I would prefer that Talvers remain here, if it pleases our hostess, but Ralph’s uniform has sufficient bundling for the cold, and you may find him useful. Do try not to let him be hurt, but if you are attacked, don’t worry about the carriage. If agents of the Svennish government damage it, I can sue the embassy. I’ve been wanting a new one anyway, and Father has been most obstinate about upgrading to the enchanted variety.”

“I will try to keep all that in mind,” Jasmine said solemnly. Tallie rolled her eyes so exuberantly she nearly tipped over backward.

“And,” Layla added in a quieter tone, “I realize this is a lot to ask, but please see that my brother doesn’t take any needless risks. If it proves possible.”

“Oh, we’ll manage him,” Jasmine promised her with a smile. “Tallie and I have had some practice in the art. There are ways.”

“They’re called boobs,” Tallie added helpfully. “Yours don’t count for the purpose. I mean, or so I would hope. Nothing would surprise me to learn about you nobles.”

Layla sniffed once more, then turned up her nose and pointedly gave Tallie the cold shoulder. “I shall expect to see you back by dinner at the latest, Darius. If I have to chase you down again, I shall be most put out.”

“Well, you heard her, ladies and Ross,” Darius said cheerfully, opening the door. “We better get this done quick-like, or perish in the attempt. C’mon, chop chop.”

Outside on the front step, they paused, tucking hands into coat pockets.

“Brr,” Ross said, peering up at the sky. “Carriage sounds pretty good.”

“Yeah, that’s great,” Tallie said flatly. “Let’s all ride in warmth and comfort and make what’s-his-name sit up top in the cold. Doesn’t matter, he’s just a servant. You’d fit right in with the fancy crowd, Ross.”

“Stop that,” Jasmine said irritably. “Whatever your issue is with nobles, don’t take it out on Ross, of all people.”

“Also, his name is Ralph,” Darius added. “Which you know, and would have remembered if you wanted to make a complaint like that with any credibility. Now seriously, are we riding or not? Because time is going to be a factor, here, and this weather is not kidding around.”

Indeed, the typical cloud cover over Tiraas currently hung lower and heavier than was the norm, clearly threatening precipitation. Given the temperature, anything that fell from above was likely to take the form of snow or sleet.

“No,” Jasmine said slowly, frowning in thought. “No…I think we should stay on foot. To be approachable.”

“Approachable by who, for fuck’s sake?” Tallie exclaimed. “The only people we’re likely to run into who’ll care about us at all are the damn dwarves stalking us.”



“Think about it,” Ross rumbled. “All we can do is go to the Salyrite temple. Dwarves’ll know that; we’re likely to meet ’em. And if they ambush us…”

“Then we’ll see how much they enjoy the outcome of that,” Jasmine said flatly. “Stay on main streets, on public sidewalks, in full view. Ignore any verbal overtures; if they gives us an excuse to claim self-defense, we’ll take it. And any police who become involved will take our side.”

“I like this plan,” said Darius. “Right off the bat I can see half a dozen holes in it, but god damn I am sick of being the mouse in this game. Claws out, let’s do it.”

Tallie shivered and wrapped arms around herself. “All right, well, good, then I hope you’re all carrying the cash Style doled out for Pick’s job. Cos first thing we’re doing if we’re not gonna ride is stop and get some freaking scarves.”

“I just don’t see the wisdom in this,” Schwartz protested. “Or the point, now. I mean, didn’t you only need to gather allies because you were trying to deal with the Bishop alone? And that’s changed now.”

Jenell sighed, her breath making a soft puff of mist in the chilling air. “Yes, fine, I am glad to have allies, but…that was never exactly the point, Herschel. You don’t understand the position I’m in. Alone is part of it; vulnerable is the worst.” She kept her eyes forward as they walked, the expression on her disguised face flat and grim. “There really isn’t anything I hate more than that. Always at someone’s mercy, unable to act, without resources. And even with you all working at Basra, I’m still in that position, don’t you see? All of you are out of my reach, except when I take extraordinary measures to have an hour to myself, like today. Even if I could contact you regularly… You answer to your Bishop and the College. Locke is about as responsive to other people’s plans as a feral cat. And Ami. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ami. But bards…are bards.” She finally shifted her head to look up at him, her expression still controlled, but not so much so that he couldn’t see the heartbreaking hint of pleading she was trying to suppress. “I need resources of my own, Herschel. Something I can use against Basra. Something. Anything.”

He drew in a deep breath, wincing. It was almost physically painful, seeing her reduced to this. “I hear you, Jenell, and I’m doing my best to understand your position. But…these guys. I mean, I rather like them all, myself, but they’re Eserites, and not even well-trained ones. They’ve got the independent spirit without all the skill. Don’t repeat this to any of them, but honestly, this group is not a good peg on which to hang your hopes.”

She let out a low, bitter laugh. “Oh, I know that, believe me. But they’re what I have to work with, and the facts of their situation mean they have hooks I can grab. Look, the point of sending them to the Finder’s Fee was to meet both Basra’s objectives and mine. I have to get them into Basra’s fold to keep her off my back; I need to do it in a way that carefully points out what a horror she is so they’ll be wary and I’ll be able to leverage them when the time comes. That’s a very delicate line to walk, Herschel, and if it was anybody but Eserites—or maybe bards—I’d say it was impossible. This is a really rare opportunity.”

“I still almost can’t credit it,” he muttered. “Why would Bishop Syrinx cultivate contacts in a place like that?”

“Well, she wanted mages she could call on for shifty, extra-legal work. It’s not like she could knock on Bishop Throale’s door and ask for a Salyrite to scry on Locke’s activities, now is it?” She let out another misty huff of annoyance. “Now I have to come up with a new plan. Basra has other contacts, but… Hell, I hope I haven’t burned my bridges with that group anyway. After sending them into what was apparently a trap…”

“It wasn’t your trap, and they all know that,” he assured her. “The mess in Glass Alley wasn’t your fault or theirs. I… All right, look, I can probably get them to meet with you. If you’ve got something useful to offer them, I don’t get the feeling they’re in a position to turn up their noses at it. But it’ll need more. That mysterious routine you tried last time isn’t likely to appeal again. Too much uncertainty already…”

“I know,” she said moodily. “Believe me, I know. All right, just… Please tell them you met me and that I’m interested in helping, all right? I will think of something else. I’ll have to, quickly. It’ll be tricky to speak with you again, I absolutely cannot be found talking to you or Basra will completely flip her shit, but I can get you messages at the Collegium, still. Right?”

“Uh, right,” he agreed, frowning. “But, honestly, Jenell, there are other considerations here besides you. Hasn’t it occurred to you that involving these kids with Syrinx is maybe kind of cruel to them?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said with grim amusement. “Those kids aren’t all what they seem. There’s one in the group whom even Basra won’t dare harm, and also won’t antagonize by harming any of the others. They might be the only people safe around her, at least for the time being.”

“Well, that isn’t mysterious at all,” he said testily. “Just once, I’d like to know the whole of what’s happening around here…”

“Wouldn’t we all,” she agreed, patting his arm. “I’m sorry, Herschel, I’d like to bring you into the loop, but there are secrets here that go way over even Basra’s head; spilling those beans could be more than my life is worth. Just…trust me, you’ll probably be safer with those apprentices than anywhere else, too.”

She stopped suddenly, both speaking and walking. Schwartz trailed to a halt, too, blinking at her in surprise, then followed her gaze up the sidewalk ahead of them. Immediately, he froze as well.

He had followed main roads to the Great Hall, but now, on the way back, he’d let Jenell set their course, which mostly consisted of less-trafficked back streets; she was somewhat justifiably paranoid about being seen by the wrong people, even in disguise. Now they were passing through a block of factories, down a wide side street meant to provide rear access to these buildings for delivery trucks. Even just after midday, there were no deliveries or anyone else about at present. With the heavy precipitation clearly imminent, even the nearby factories had shut down, their crackling antennae dimming to the occasional spark of unformed arcane residue. Tiraas itself was slowing down, as people who had not been dressed for the sudden cold fled into whatever indoors they could.

But someone had just stepped out of an alley directly in front of them, facing the two and just standing there. A short, stocky someone with a red beard.

“Oh, bloody hell,” Schwartz whispered.

“One of those dwarves?” Jenell murmured.

“Yes. At least I think—” He broke off, tensing, as the dwarf had started toward them. Schwartz reflexively stepped forward, planting himself ahead of Jenell and holding out his arm as if to block access to her, and only realizing belatedly how utterly silly that was, interposing his thin frame between the threat and the trained soldier.

Anyhow, physical force wasn’t where his strength lay. He snapped his fingers, and with a sharp pop and a tiny cascade of harmless sparks, Meesie appeared on his shoulder. She immediately bristled like a scared cat, chattering a tiny reprimand at the approaching dwarf.

“Good evening, Mr. Schwartz,” he said amiably. “And to your companion. Companions, I suppose I should say,” he added with a genial smile at Meesie.

“No,” Schwartz snapped.

The dwarf stopped, a few yards still distant, and regarded him with a calmly curious expression. “Oh? No? Forgive me, but in my studies of Tiraan formality, I never encountered that response to a simple greeting. Is there some piece to this ritual I am missing?”

“The piece where you go away,” Schwartz replied. “I’m not interested, and I’m not doing this. Leave me alone.”

The dwarf heaved a sigh. “Honestly, I don’t know where all this obstinacy comes from. I do believe you’re spending too much time around those Eserites, Mr. Schwartz. All I seek, all I have ever asked for, is a simple conversation.”

“Well, you can—” He broke off at the sudden pressure of Jenell’s fingers on his arm.

“We’re alone here, Herschel,” she murmured. “No telling what or who is down these side alleys. And more information always beats less. If he wants to talk politely…do.”

Schwartz hesitated, glancing back and forth between her and the dwarf. Meesie growled a shrill warning.

“What an admirably sensible young lady,” the dwarf said, doffing his hat courteously to Jenell. “Forgive my presumption in pointing it out, but perhaps this is more the style of company you should keep. She does seem to be a positive influence.”

“Fine,” he said curtly. “Speak your piece and have done with it.”

“Very good,” the dwarf replied, nodding to him. “Really, my needs are simple. You were present at the interrupted exchange wherein my companions and I sought to acquire those devices which were then seized by the Silver Legion. The Sisterhood of Avei, unfortunately, is quite impenetrable, which renders them sadly beyond our grasp. Without that option, I have an all the more urgent need to learn what I can of the provenance of those devices. Our only lead is within the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Well, I certainly can’t help you with that,” Schwartz said warily.

“Oh, to be sure, I would hardly expect it of you,” the dwarf agreed with a pleasant smile. “But your young friends can. Eserites, you see, are rather hard on their would-be members. The majority of any group of apprentices to the Guild are going to wash out anyway, for one reason or another. The only thing I want of those young people is their help finding information to which I do not have access, and they may. I am prepared to compensate them most generously, even to the point of shielding them from the Thieves’ Guild, should the nature of our association happen to annoy the Guild’s leadership.”

“And you think you can actually do that?” Schwartz asked skeptically.

The dwarf’s smile widened by a hair. “The Guild has no presence in the Five Kingdoms. That is not to say they have never tried to establish one. Here, in the Empire, we are at something of a disadvantage in dealing with them. Where I am from, that state is decisively reversed.”

“Fine,” Schwartz snapped. “I’ll tell them what you said. Now good night.”

“Ah, yes,” the dwarf said, shaking his head regretfully. “Well, I’m afraid matters have recently become rather more complicated than that.”

“Of course they have,” Jenell muttered. Schwartz noted that she had offered no objection to his protective stance; if anything, she had edged more behind him. Not fear, he realized, at least not for her safety; she could face severe consequences from other corners if she were recognized.

“Your friends,” the dwarf said in a solicitous tone, “have embarked on an unwisely aggressive course. Specifically, it seems they intend to ask you, Mr. Schwartz, to use your particular skills to track myself and my associates. Now, it should go without saying that we take all reasonable precautions, but the nature of fae magic, as I’m sure you’re aware, makes it rather difficult to thwart. So many unknowable variables.” He shook his head. “This could quickly become a very disagreeable situation for us all. In the interests of everyone continuing to get along, I’m prepared to provide you with anything you reasonably request, in exchange for your assurance that you will not do them this favor.”

Schwartz stared at him, then turned his head to look at Jenell’s eyes. Meesie growled again.

He could see the same thought on her face that was ringing in his own skull. Foreign agents, the kind of people willing and capable to oppose the Guild, owing him a favor? What he couldn’t do with that. Odds are these people could manage to threaten even Syrinx’s carefully laid schemes.

Then Jenell’s expression closed down, and she shook her head almost imperceptibly. Schwartz gave her a tiny nod of agreement.

It was just too risky. They knew too little about these people. The whole problem with Syrinx was the multiplicity of parties and agendas involved, preventing them from knowing what was happening, what anyone was up to, what they could do without incurring retaliation. Adding another wildly unknowable variable to the mix could tip the whole thing into disaster.

“I am not,” he said carefully, “going to make you any promises. I do not trust you, and quite frankly, I don’t like you. Now if you will excuse us.”

The dwarf sighed softly. “Now, Mr. Schwartz, I’m afraid you are being both obstinate and disingenuous. That is tantamount to a declaration of your intention to inconvenience me, and we both know it. I’m certain you mother did not raise you to behave this way.” He smiled, again, just as pleasantly as always. “Of course, it must be hard, raising two children alone. I’m sure she has an easier time of things now, with just your sister to think of. And Melody will be of an age to move out on her own soon enough.”

Meesie burst into flames, screeching in fury. Jenell had gone pale, even behind the already-pale face of her enchanted disguise.

Schwartz, though, felt a sudden and total calm descend over him. Somewhere deep beneath it, his heart was thudding in his chest, but it was a strangely distant thing. Unbidden, his senses expanded, taking in the magic around them. The spirits, the currents of life, all the perceptions which made up the realm of the fae.

“Have you ever been to Athan’Khar?” he heard himself ask evenly.

The dwarf blinked. “Forgive me, but I don’t see—”

“I have,” Schwartz continued. “You should visit sometime. Just so you can appreciate how very much you don’t scare me, you contemptible little piece of shit.”

He snatched Meesie off his shoulder, the flames wreathing her not so much as singeing his fingers, and hurled her forward.

An explosion of fire occurred in midair halfway between Schwartz and the dwarf, and in the next moment, his quarry had been bowled over backward, a pony-sized leonine creature wrought from pure crimson flame landing on him.

Meesie opened a maw filled with fire-sculpted fangs and roared directly into the fallen dwarf’s face. The paw planted on his chest, already the size of a plate, flexed, revealing blazing claws which ripped five perfect rents in his suit.

Wreathed in an awareness of the currents of magic around him, Schwartz felt the life force of the second dwarf who darted out of another alley behind them, sensed the enchanted objects he wore which made his approach silent.

He reached out through the link with his familiar spirits, finding them in total accord with his purpose. Upward he stretched with his mind, to the towering antenna of the dormant factory behind which they stood. Dormant, with only the faintest residual flickers of energy along its length—but even residual flickers along a four-story coil made a torrent of destructive power when seized and directed.

Lightning arced from the antenna, scarring the side of the factory as it snapped downward and blasted the approaching dwarf off his feet. He fell without a cry and skidded another yard across the pavement before falling still, smoking in the cold air.

Schwartz stepped forward, coming up beside Meesie, who was snarling at the pinned dwarf and demanding his full attention. He laid a hand on the seething flames that made up her mane.

“If you attack my family,” he said quietly, “you’ll find that my mother is even less afraid of you than I am, and considerably more willing to resort to violence. I’m assuming, here, that you think yourself in a position where you don’t have to care about the fallout of assaulting an Imperial sheriff, so you’d better think about what kind of woman is given that position in a frontier town. If you ever threaten my family again, though.” He leaned forward, holding silent until the dwarf tore his eyes from Meesie’s burning fangs to meet his gaze. “I swear on Salyrene’s name, I will make you beg before I finish you.”

Without straightening, he flung out a hand, grasping at the natural cold in the very atmosphere. Moisture congealed out of the air itself, solidifying into a cluster of horizontal icicles hovering beside him. With another thought, he called up a blast of wind, ruffling everyone’s hair and clothes and causing Meesie’s fire to flicker, and most importantly, sending those jagged shafts of ice at the mouth of another alley as fast as bolts from a crossbow.

The dwarf who had poked her head out around that corner, taking aim at him with a wand, fell back with a shriek of pain, pierced in five places by spears of ice.

“I’m glad…Lucy…suggested we have this talk,” Schwartz said, finally drawing himself back up to his full height. He had been within a hair’s breadth of addressing her properly, but Jenell definitely didn’t want her real name used here. He made a mental note never to tell her Lucy had been his first dog. “I think we understand each other a bit better, now. C’mon, Lucy, let’s get out of here.”

He waited for her to catch up to him, eyeing the snarling Meesie and the pinned dwarf as she passed. Jenell didn’t speak until they had moved a dozen yards further up the street at a long stride.

“You’re just going to leave her there?”

“She’ll hold him long enough for us to get away,” he said quietly, chancing a glance back. The dwarf, sensibly, seemed to be offering Meesie no resistance. “She can’t hold that form but for a few minutes. Shorter if anything damages her; if he pulls a wand and shoots her at that range, that’ll be the end of it.”

“Ah,” she said tersely. “And then she’ll reappear with you.”

He looked at her in surprise. “How’d you know that?”

“I remember. From Athan’Khar. That monster.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Imperial Square is just a few blocks up,” she said quickly, managing to lengthen her stride further. Schwartz, whose legs were longer anyway, had no trouble keeping up. “That’s public enough we should be safe; we have to split up there. Disguise or no, I cannot be seen with you.”

“I understand.”

Again, she looked uncertainly up at him. “What’ll you do next?”

“I should go…” He trailed off. Where? Back to the Collegium? To the Guild? Either of those places would be safe, assuming the Guild would let him in… He had to find the apprentices and warn them.

“Go to the Temple of Avei,” she said when he failed to produce an answer. “I’ll take a side entrance; you go in the front. You can get through the temple to the Legion fortress in the back. Warn Locke. She can get word to the Eserites without being in nearly as much danger as you.”

“Ah. Right. That’s good thinking.”

“I’m not just a pretty face,” she said grimly. “…you know, if you want some real certainty, you could have Meesie finish him off.”

Schwartz grimaced and shook his head. “No. I can’t.”

“Herschel, if things keep going the way they have been, I don’t think you’re going to have the luxury of being this squeamish.”

“I know,” he said curtly. “But it’s not just that. The bastard threatened my family, Jenell. He’s part of a group, and he didn’t just do that on a whim. They’ve researched me, they know who I’m connected to. I need one of them left alive to explain to the others what a very bad idea that is.”

They speed-walked in silence for nearly a minute before Meesie suddenly reappeared on his shoulder. She squeaked eagerly, bounding onto Schwart’z head and squirming down into a little nest in his hair, nose pointed forward. By unspoken consensus, Schwartz and Jenell both increased their speed until they were nearly running.

“After this,” she said after another long moment, slightly out of breath, “I’m even gladder to have you along, Herschel.”

“Thanks,” he panted, not bothering to try voicing his full feelings. Glad he was along? That made one of them.

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11 – 28

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Schwartz shivered and rubbed his upper arms once he made it inside. Late as he was, a moment to let the warmth of the restaurant soak in was necessary; the temperature had plummeted quite suddenly, as if Tiraas had been abruptly reminded what season it was supposed to be. Luckily—or perhaps deliberately, warm winter or no—two large braziers flanked the entryway, doing a great deal to cut the chill that drifted inside.

The Great Hall served Stalweiss food, and its décor was clearly meant to be evocative of the Stalrange in all its mostly mythical barbaric glory. Set up to resemble a warlord’s feast hall, it was decorated with tapestries and stuffed heads, the tables hewn from coarse-looking wood, the waitresses dressed in furs that were far more flattering than practical. Schwartz wondered offhandedly, as he scanned the lunch crowd for his “date,” if this wasn’t all rather offensive, ethnically speaking. He himself was Stalweiss by blood, but like a lot of such nowadays, had his roots in the prairie and little real affinity for the old country. Still, the “barbarian” mythos that clung to the Stalrange didn’t do its inhabitants any favors. Even now, a century after Horsebutt’s disappearance, those were still the poorest provinces in the Empire.

“G’day, sir,” said the young woman in a low-cut dress behind the hostess’s desk. “Table for one?”

“I’m, ah, actually meeting someone,” he said, still shuffling his feet to restore the blood to them. He wore the heavier version of his cult’s robes, but no actual coat. If it kept up this way he’d have to use spells to make it back to the Collegium without getting frostbite… “Have you seen a—”

“You’re late.”

He blinked in confusion at the blonde girl who had slipped out of the crowd and taken his arm, frowning up at him. That voice…

Of course. Embarrassingly, it had taken him a couple of seconds to catch on, but now, looking closer, he could perceive the disguise spell. Commercially available, that; even not being an arcane specialist, any Salyrite would be able to recognize the most common enchantments. The voice matched, though, as did her eyes. Jenell had brown eyes just the faintest bit lighter than usual, like molasses swirled with a hint of honey…

Her cheeks colored slightly under his intent gaze—really, that was a good charm she’d picked up if it conveyed that, a lot of the cheaper ones blunted such subtle changes—and she tugged at his arm. “I have a table and tea. Haven’t ordered food yet; I was starting to fear they’d throw me out before you showed up. Where’ve you been?”

“I’m sorry,” he said with a wince as she led him to a secluded corner table. This place wasn’t terribly well-lit, and its booths seemed to have been designed with privacy in mind. He was beginning to feel depressingly familiar with all the places in Tiraas that offered such discreet nooks, what with one thing and another. “I had a, ah, bit of a mishap with a spell I tried… Ami had to fetch one of my superiors to straighten it out, and then she insisted on dressing me down for being careless before she’d let me go. Um, she being Archon Stross, not Ami.”

Jenell had slid into the bench opposite him while he spoke, but had frozen. “Ami?”

“Oh, right, I guess you didn’t know…” He smiled feebly. “She’s, um…helping.”

“Helping…with what?” she demanded.

Schwartz made a helpless gesture. “Everything? All this? What I, you know, assumed you’d want to talk about…”

He watched her disguised face closely, but her expression gave nothing away now. Of course, he had forced himself to assume all this was about Syrinx, but a large part of him refused to abandon the hope that she’d just wanted to see him.

After a moment, Jenell sighed, seemingly forcing herself to relax.

“All this. Right. Well.” She raised her eyes to his again, and now the very faintest smile appeared on her lips. If he wasn’t imagining things, it seemed almost as hesitant as he felt. “So…how’s Meesie?”

“Meesie is fine,” he said, grinning in spite of himself. “Not much keeps her down. I’m a little surprised you’d ask, though. Your message specified not to have her out when I came…”

“Herschel, I’m trying to be discreet, here,” she said with fond exasperation, and he felt his hopes climbing again, despite his better judgment. “Meesie is…attention-getting. Of course I don’t have anything against her, she’s adorable. Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to tell her so in person.”

“I would like that,” he said, then made an effort to control his foolish smile. “I mean, uh, I’m sure she would like to see you too. She misses you.”

Jenell actually blushed again, then straightened her posture and cleared her throat. “Well. Um. I actually did want to talk to you about more serious things than catching up. Herschel, the information I have is thirdhand, but it says you’re pursuing some kind of vendetta against Bishop Syrinx. Please tell me I have it wrong?”

Schwartz felt the smile slip away from his face. “I… Well. I prefer not to think of it in those terms. Revenge has never much appealed to me, you know? But…yeah, I guess that’s a word.”

Again she sighed, more heavily this time. “Herschel. Why the hell would you try something like this?”

He stared at her. “How can you even ask me that?”

The silence which followed was painfully awkward. Fortunately, it was soon interrupted.

“Ah, he arrives!” the waitress said cheerfully, materializing next to them with a sunny smile and a pencil poised over her notepad. “What’re we having, friends?”

“Roast quail,” Jenell said immediately and a little abruptly. Schwartz opened his mouth and only belatedly realized there was a menu lying on the table, now under her hand. Well, there had probably been nothing else to read while she’d been waiting for him. “And the peppered potatoes.”

“Good choice!” the waitress said cheerily. “That’ll feed two—anything you want to add, sir?”

“Actually, no, that sounds rather good,” Schwartz said lamely. He didn’t eat out much and had definitely never lived in a style that involved people serving him; ordering food from waitstaff was sufficiently unfamiliar to feel awkward.

“And anything stronger than the tea to drink? Or a fresh pot?”

“No, thank you,” Jenell said primly. “That will be all.”

“Very good! I’ll be back before you know it.” The girl smiled quickly at them both, then sashayed out of sight. Schwartz let out a soft breath of relief.

“Herschel,” Jenell said quietly, staring at him, “I don’t think you have any idea what you’re doing. Basra Syrinx is dangerous.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t,” she snapped. “You have no idea what she’s capable of.”

“Excuse me, but in fact, I do. I didn’t just come haring off to Tiraas to try and poison her toothbrush or some such nonsense; give me credit for a little sense!”

“Very little,” she said skeptically.

“Look,” he retorted, nettled now, “if I’d done anything to attack the Bishop, you would know. And yes, that probably would have ended quickly and poorly for me. Don’t forget, I have seen her in action. I am being careful, Jenell. All I’m doing right now is making preparations.”

“Preparations to do what?”

“Well…that’s the question, isn’t it?” He shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m gathering information, skills, and allies. Ami was already after Syrinx—apparently the whole reason she stayed with us in Viridill was to study the Bishop in action. She was only pretending to be fooled by Syrinx’s explanation of their last encounter; being strung up for Huntsmen wasn’t an experience she was going to forget quickly. And I’ve been making friends in the Thieves’ Guild, not to mention Sergeant Locke.”

“Oh, yes,” she said darkly. “That. Herschel… The fact is, if you were ready to play this game, you wouldn’t be casually spilling these details to someone you know works for Basra. How can you be sure I’m not going to go straight to her with all this?”

“Principia has told me things,” he said quietly. “About how you helped her squad before. She says you can be trusted. But…maybe you’re right, or at least in what I think you’re driving at. I do trust you, Jenell. And…maybe just because I choose to, not because it makes sense.”

Again, she blushed, then quickly cleared her throat and pressed on. “I do not need to be rescued, Herschel.”

“I know,” he said simply.

“Then why are you doing this?”

Schwartz heaved a sigh of his own. “I guess… I do want to help you, Jenell. Not to sweep you away or anything, I know you have your reasons. You wouldn’t be putting up with the Bishop otherwise. But… Look, I don’t know the details, but with what I do know, I can read between the lines. Syrinx was in Viridill as some kind of punishment for something, wasn’t she? Maybe what she did to Ami and Principia and the others, I guess the timing would be about right. Fixing that mess was how she earned her way back here. And I helped her do it. Whatever she does next…I have some responsibility there.” He raised his eyes back to hers, squaring his shoulders. “Don’t worry, I don’t have any delusions about being some kind of hero. Principia is a lot smarter and a lot better at this stuff than I. For that matter, so is Ami, and I get the feeling so are you. I’m just…helping. Because I need to. I owe…everyone…that much.”

She was quiet for a long moment, staring at the table, before lifting her head to meet his gaze. “All right. Okay. I…” Jenell paused to swallow heavily. “Ami’s smart, that’s true, and she’s a bard; I know a bit about what they teach them. Locke… Basra has files on her, things she pulled for some project of the Archpope’s some time ago and brought out again the first time Locke started causing her trouble. Honestly, Herschel, I’m not sure how you got mixed up with Principia Locke, but that woman just might be more dangerous than Basra.”

“She was a friend of my father’s,” he said. “And—”

“And she’s useful to know, and she has plenty of reason of her own to want Basra taken down,” Jenell said, nodding. “Just…be careful. You never know what’s going on between those pointy ears. You do know that Basra’s aware you’re after her?”

“Yes, that’s all according to plan,” he said quickly, another smile breaking across his face. “Principia said she put that out in front of Basra to make me seem harmless, so I can maneuver around without having to worry about being spotted. If I am, she’ll thinking nothing of it. Plus, if she does anything to me, for any reason, she’ll be called down for it by the High Commander. I do say it was all rather clever.”

“It is, at that,” Jenell mused. “Yes…I see how having Locke in could be a help. I’ve never been able to approach her, even when she offered. Basra doesn’t give me that much leeway, and Locke is close enough to the Sisterhood I felt it wasn’t worth the risk… All right, all this could work out. With the lot of us working together, perhaps we can bring her down. And between you and Ami, maybe I can actually coordinate with Locke…”

He nodded eagerly. “Yes, that’s what—”

“But.” Jenell’s gaze snapped back to his, and there was something purely ferocious behind her eyes. “I want it clearly understood, by all of you. I will be the one to finish this. When the time comes, she’s mine.” Her hands on the table clenched into fists, nails digging into her palms. “I’ve damn well earned that.”

Schwartz nodded. “I…um. Yes. I’ll back you up on that. And I’ll tell them.”

“Good.” She drew in a calming breath and let it out slowly, relaxing her hands. “All right…good. Now, more practically speaking, did you visit the magic shop I told you to in my note? I also sent some Eserites there who you’ll find it useful to know, but I guess it’s too much to hope they came by at the same time…”

“Oh, um, well, actually…” He grinned weakly. “I did meet them! Those are the Eserite friends I was telling you about. But, um…none of us made it to the shop.”

She stared at him. “What?”

“Well, there was a bit of a…an altercation, you might say. The Guild underboss for that district got involved, and that got us mixed up in Thieves’ Guild politics, and what with one thing and another… We, uh, never actually got to see the Finder’s Fee. And, um, all of us are effectively banned from Glass Alley now.”

Jenell clapped a hand over her eyes. “Those idiots!”

To no one’s particular surprise, having Layla along dramatically increased the amount of pleasantries and formalities involved in the whole process. Upon arriving at Glory’s townhouse, she had swept to the head of the group and insisted upon taking the lead conversationally as well, directing the Butler to announce them formally. Despite the general disinclination of Butlers to take direction from anyone but their contract holder, he seemed to approve of this. At any rate, he bestowed upon Layla a very subtle smile of approbation, mild enough not to be a departure from protocol but still clear—really, Butler training must be something else—and obliged her by announcing all six of them, by name, in the order in which they arrived.

Layla had made a point of introducing her brother by full name and title; he rolled his eyes and grimaced, but didn’t bother arguing.

The wide upper room of Glory’s house in which they were received was clearly the space in which she held her larger gatherings, and the lady of the house greeted them as gracefully as befit her position, perhaps picking up Layla’s cue. At any rate, there was no hint of mockery or condescension in her voice or bearing as she made an especial point of welcoming the Lady Layla. There followed what seemed like absolutely no end of small talk.

It was just such an honor for Layla to have the opportunity to call upon Miss Sharvineh, oh but not at all, it was she who was honored by an unexpected visit from such an esteemed young lady, and Layla simply must join one of Glory’s parties in a few years when she was old enough that this wouldn’t cause a scandal, and of course Layla would be simply delighted beyond words to oblige, and so on, and so forth. Moments became minutes, and the apprentices’ patience began to fray. Darius, perhaps prompted back into old habits by the sudden presence of his sister, managed to look bored and annoyed, yet too well-bred to reveal that he was bored and annoyed. Jasmine had fallen into a parade rest stance, then immediately shifted out of it and into a deliberately casual pose that just made her look more uncomfortable. Tallie, Ross, and Rasha were left to peer around at the rich furnishings and generally feel awkward.

“Please, everyone, come in,” Glory said smoothly, finally finding what she deemed a suitable segue from Layla’s effusive introductions. “I’ll not have guests standing around uncomfortably. Smythe, some tea, please. Will you say for lunch?”

Rasha cleared his throat suddenly, pushing himself forward past Tallie. “Uh, ma’am, I’m Rasha… I was the one in jail, that your lawyer got out. I just wanted to say thank you. Really, thank you. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me otherwise, or why you would help, but…I appreciate it. Very much.” He paused to swallow heavily. “I, uh, don’t know when I’ll ever be able to pay you back, but I won’t forget.”

“Now, wait just a moment, there,” Glory said with a warm smile. “Who said anything about paying?”

Rasha squared his shoulders and raised his chin. Even visibly haggard from lack of sleep, he found a spark of Punaji independence to fan alight. “I don’t like being in debt.”

“Now that is what I like to hear,” she said approvingly, smoothly tucking a hand behind Rasha’s arm and steering him toward an arrangement of sofas and chairs around a low table. With her other, she beckoned the rest of them to follow. “It’s a very Eserite mindset. You should also consider the nature of debts, though. If there were some form of agreement or contract in place, well, that would be another thing. In its absence, any good turn done for you is a favor, nothing more.” Smiling playfully, she tapped the tip of Rasha’s nose with a finger before nudging him into an overstuffed armchair. “Get used to abusing generosity, Rasha. Not so you can abuse it, exactly, but to prevent it being done to you. People will try to trap you into paying them debts you don’t owe them; leaving a fingerhold for that kind of ploy is very risky, for a thief.”

“I see,” he said slowly, frowning in thought.

“We all appreciate you helping out, Glory,” said Tallie. “So please don’t think I’m being ungrateful, because I’m not, at all. But I have to wonder why you would spend the money and effort on it.”

“That is also good,” Glory replied, nodding to her. “Question everything, and be especially wary of unearned generosity. To answer your question, there are multiple factors at play.” She settled down into a chair at the head of the little formation of furniture, languidly crossing her legs and draping her arms over the sides in a way that subtly emphasized her figure. “On a basic level, it’s expected that Guild members will look after apprentices up to a point. On a slightly less basic one, I’ve developed a friendship with our Jasmine, here, and thus I consider myself to have at least a slight interest in what befalls her friends.” She winked at Jasmine before continuing. “But what you want to know about is my ulterior motive. I do have friends in the Guild who keep me up-to-date on interesting events. That, of course, is how I learned of Rasha’s predicament—and how I’ve learned of other things that have befallen you recently. I’ll refrain from laying out all the sordid politics of the situation, but in brief: it seems that any favor I don’t do for you, Alan Vandro will. And I object, on principle, to him gaining footholds.”

Ross sighed heavily. “Man, these politics. I don’t even understand what these factions want.”

“Oh, I don’t have any objection to Webs’s political or religious philosophies,” Glory said sardonically. “Quite frankly, he has some excellent points. But the man, personally, is a sleazy, manipulative abuser. I don’t know why he is back in the city; he had allegedly retired to Onkawa some years ago to be Toss’s problem. Whyever he is here, so long as he’s in my city, he does not need to be gaining influence.”

“I don’t get that,” Ross said, still frowning. “He was nice to us. Even gave us those charms.”

“He wants something from us,” Tallie retorted. “This is not the first time we’ve heard to watch ourselves around that guy, either. I’d say that’s starting to sound like good advice.”

“Sure,” Ross agreed, “I’m not stupid. But we’ve got nothing but people’s word for anything. What’s he ever done that’s so terrible?”

“I’ve been pondering that too, since this morning,” Jasmine said slowly. “Bird Savaraad said he was a misogynist. Honestly, I’m probably more sensitive than most to that attitude in men, and I didn’t see it from him.”

“Apparently, his head henchman is even a woman,” Darius added.

“Vandro is nothing if not a professional,” Glory said, grimacing. “And not all misogynists are cut from the same cloth, Jasmine. A man can have the basic self-control to work with women, even speak respectfully to them, and still think of them as inherently lesser. It comes out in small ways, no matter how carefully he behaves—and sometimes, in not so small ones. I don’t know what sort of hold he has on Gimmick, but I would under no circumstances wish to be in her shoes.”

“Honestly,” Layla sniffed, giving Darius an accusing stare. “Have you deliberately sought out the worst possible people with whom to associate?”

“Yep,” he said dryly. “That’s exactly what I’ve done. Just to piss you off, Layla.”

“Kindly keep a civil tongue in your head,” she snapped. “Remember we are in good company and you represent our House!”

“I assure you,” Glory said with clear amusement, “my sensibilities are not so easily ruffled. Quite frankly, I’m finding you kids rather refreshing. It’s been…well, more years than I will admit since my own apprentice peccadilloes. Though I must say you’ve managed to attract more trouble and faster than almost any group of young people I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah,” Tallie sighed. “It’s a gift.”

“Webs, if anything, is the least of our worries,” said Jasmine. “We’ve apparently made an enemy of Ironeye…”

“Yes, so I’ve heard,” said Glory. “That may cost you, but so long as you stay out of Glass Alley, she is unlikely to trouble herself with you any further.”

“We’re a lot more concerned about dwarves right now,” Rasha muttered.

“Ah, yes,” Glory said seriously, then smiled at her Butler as he set down a tray on the table and began pouring tea. “Thank you, Smythe. It’s not only the Guild to which I pay attention; my primary activities do keep me in the know with regard to all manner of important issues concerning the Empire and the world as a whole. I am glad you all came to see me in person; there is something that I think you should know, and consider.” She accepted a cut of tea from Smythe, still gazing at them seriously. “When I contacted Bird and outlined the situation, she indicated that in her professional opinion, these dwarves pestering you are likely to be government-affiliated actors.”

“She said the same to us,” Darius said slowly.

“Well, surely that’s a good thing, is it not?” said Layla. “I mean, representatives from one of the Five Kingdoms will doubtless be more civilized in their behavior than any group of random layabouts.”

A tense silence fell.

“She’s kind of adorable,” Tallie said after a moment. “Annoying, sure. But in a cute puppy kind of way.”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” Layla said haughtily.

“Government agents,” Glory said quietly, “are among the absolute worst people to have after you, Lady Layla. They are totally without scruple or restraint, and are backed by the greatest powers possible short of a major cult. If persons answering to one of the Five Kingdoms—and actually, it is only likely to be one of three—are pursuing you, then the only powers which will or can protect you if it comes to a contest of force are the Guild and the Empire. And therein lies the problem.”

“One of three?” Ross said. “I don’t get it.”

“Ah, well.” Glory’s face lightened and she leaned forward, speaking now in a tone animated by interest. “The Five Kingdoms really aren’t at all monolithic. Of them, three would certainly take an interest in those very curious weapons the Silver Legions confiscated from you, but two have not suffered all that badly from the Narisian Treaty and its aftermath, and would be more inclined to stay the course and not provoke the Empire. The more depressed states have little to lose and a desperate need to reposition themselves, but matters in Rodvenheim and Isilond are far more stable. Isilond produces crafted goods far more than raw minerals, and with the shake-up in the metals market they have, if anything, prospered. The few native Isil mining operations were bankrupted, but they are now able to buy their raw materials at quite a discount. And Rodvenheim has always been the most magically-inclined of the Kingdoms; their trade with the Empire has continued unabated, minerals not having been as much a part of their economy. Additionally, Rodvenheim is positioned very close to Puna Dara, and as per the Empire’s treaty with the Punaji, no Imperial tariffs can be imposed on trade crossing overland from Puna Dara to Rodvenheim and vice versa. They are the only dwarven state on the continent heavily involved in maritime trade, which has also bolstered their economy.”

“This is all quite fascinating,” Rasha said wearily, “but I think we’re wandering off the point…”

“All things are interconnected,” Glory replied, giving him a look of amusement. “The high and the low. The fact is, you kids are very immediately and personally affected by these issues of global economics, and had better start paying attention. Specifically, the Empire is in the middle of trade negotiations right now with representatives from Svenheim and Ostrund, both of whom are attempting to draw Stavulheim into the deal.”

“Trade negotiations?” Darius straightened slightly in his seat. “What do they have that we want?”

“Metal,” said Glory, “the same as they have always have. Part of it is an attempt to repair relations between the Kingdoms and the Empire. They are not militarily a match for Tiraas by any means, but there are innumerable reasons it is better for nations to be on good terms with those bordering them. Also, one effect of the Narisian Treaty is that the Imperial economy is heavily dependent upon Tar’naris. I’ve heard whispers that relations with the drow are cooling—faint enough that I don’t place any stock in them, but it may be beside the point. It is simply wiser policy to diversify one’s options. The Silver Throne is looking to begin importing sizable quantities of metal from the dwarves again, both to put directly into the economy and to stockpile against some future trouble. The Empire is very prosperous right now, which makes it a good time to invest and hoard non-perishable resources.”

“Oh,” said Darius, wide-eyed. “Oh, shit.”

“Darius, really,” Layla exclaimed.

“Uh…” Tallie glanced at Darius, then at Glory, and then at Jasmine, who also looked alarmed. “Okay, I’m still lost. What’s all this got to do with us?”

“If the Empire feels a need to placate the dwarves,” Jasmine said quietly, “and the dwarves after us are representatives of their governments… The Empire is not going to side with a handful of scruffy would-be thieves if all this escalates into an incident.”

“Exactly,” Glory said, nodding. “What’s worse, they may very well side against you, should anything which befalls become public enough to force an official response. In fact, things being as they are, I would advise you to prevent, if you can, matters from coming to that point. If the Empire begins to actively consider you a nuisance that needs to be silenced…”

“Whoah, now, hang on,” Tallie protested. “We’re Guild. Just apprentices, but still! The Guild exists to fight unjust power. If they tried something like that…”

“Then,” Glory said grimly, “Boss Tricks would remember, and see to it that the specific parties eventually suffered for it. Whether he would be able to protect you is another matter. The Guild has not thrived for thousands of years by charging blades out at every power which showed a hint of corruption, Tallie. And specifically, the last time the Guild openly assaulted Imperial interests was during the Enchanter Wars, when we acted in concert with an overt military action by the Sisters of Avei and a widespread propaganda campaign by the Veskers. And that was when the Empire itself was already reeling and more than half broken. Now? Tricks would have to be very careful indeed. The Empire would not risk moving in force against the Guild, there are too many other factors at play. A lot of those factors would be silenced, however, if the Guild seemingly struck first and Imperial Intelligence bloodied its nose in response. And trust me, if the instigating issue was an apparently unrelated squabble between dwarves and you, it would seem that the Guild struck first.”

“What you’re saying,” Rasha said in a tone of soul-deep exhaustion, “is that we’re on our own with this.”

“That is probably taking things a little too far.” The look Glory gave him was nearly as concerned as Tallie’s. “This is a situation, not a doom. There are still avenues to exploit. I just want you to understand all the facts before you act. It’s your best chance to avoid a blunder you can’t afford.”

“Well, we’re doing what we can,” said Jasmine. “As I mentioned, we know the name of one of those dwarves now. It’s probably a fake name, but our witch friend Schwartz may still be able to track it back to something.”

“Yeah,” said Tallie, grinning aggressively. “And ol’ Rogrind did not like hearing that.”

Glory abruptly straightened in her seat, setting aside her teacup. “You said this in front of this Rogrind?”

“Not deliberately,” Jasmine replied. “He came up behind us during it, though.”

“And this Schwartz. Did you mention him by name?”

Jasmine paled. “I…yes, I did.”

“Ohhhh, crap,” Tallie whispered.

“I think,” Glory agreed grimly, “you had better find your friend Schwartz. Quickly.”

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11 – 27

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Layla looked as if she couldn’t decide what to be irate about. She had been coerced to share her carriage—which, in fairness, was designed to seat six comfortably—with her brothers “miscellaneous ruffian tag-alongs,” as she had not hesitated to call them to their faces, and now was seated with them (all dressed in working-class attire) in a booth at a tea shop from which they had only barely avoided being thrown out on sight by the existence of a House Sakhavenid tab. More to the point, she had not, at any stage in the proceedings, got her way. This seemed to be a new experience for her, one whose novelty she was not enjoying.

“And that’s pretty much it,” Darius said with a shrug while his sister glared haughtily at everyone, holding her teacup in front of her face as if it could protect her from the impoverished influence of her table companions. “I had enough and left. I mean, I could go into detail about the increasingly ridiculous crap my father has been doing in the last few years… Hell, Layla and I could both spend the whole day telling stories like that. Doesn’t really matter, though.”

“Did we really have to come all the way down here to hear that?” Rasha complained. He was hollow-eyed from lack of sleep and more sullen than usual. “That’s basically nothing more than what we could’ve picked up from context.”

“I didn’t say it was a long story or a good one,” Darius said testily. “I said it needed to be told somewhere other than the steps of an Imperial police station!” He glanced at his sister. “Or a fancy hotel.”

“This is much less fancy, I’m sure,” Rasha muttered, glancing around at the posh establishment—several of whose patrons were looking at them with borderline disgust—but this time he was ignored.

“That may not be a minor issue, or only of concern to your family,” Jasmine pointed out. “The Imperial government has allowed Houses to be overthrown from within because they were abusing the citizens in their domains. Powerful Houses, and quite recently.”

Layla looked at her sharply, as did Tallie.

“I’m not too worried about that,” Darius said, shrugging. “The old man is too clever to run afoul of House Tirasian’s policies; he contents himself with raging about them behind closed doors. And anyway, our brother Rostam will inherit the high seat, and he’s far more level-headed. It’ll be fine. I just was nearing a point where I had to either get out of there or murder somebody.” He grinned. “And, y’know, on the subject of things the Empire doesn’t approve of…”

“All right,” Jasmine said. “That’s a relief, I guess. I just wondered if there might be more reasons than the personal why Lady Layla would be out looking for you. Based on the time frame, she was probably already in Tiraas when the dwarves found her.”

“Rails are a thing,” Ross pointed out. Jasmine shrugged and sipped her tea.

Layla set down her teacup hard enough to make a sharp noise that drew everyone’s attention. She was glaring pure fury at Darius.

“You left me,” she hissed.

Darius winced. “Layla, I left you a letter. I wrote to you since I got here—please tell me that crook Collingsworth delivered them like I paid him to—”

“Oh, yes, how splendid,” she snapped. “His Lordship in his infinite kindness deigned to communicate with me after abandoning me in that…place. We were going to do this together, Darius! Ever since we were kids, we talked about getting out from under the old man’s thumb until he finally died and Rostam took over. And then, one morning I awake to find what? You’ve taken off, without so much as a by-your-leave, throwing the entire household into chaos and leaving me to deal with Father and Mother alone.”

“You know what it was like!” Darius protested. “Ever since I turned eighteen he’s been like a millstone around my neck! If it wasn’t an endless parade of idiot noblewomen he wanted me to marry, it was pressure to join the Imperial Army!”

“If you were being pressured into the Army by the high seat of a House,” Jasmine pointed out, “you’d probably have been routed directly into the officer corps. There are worse things.”

“Oh, the poor baby,” Tallie sneered. “Having to date a bunch of hot noblewomen. My heart bleeds for you.”

“Yeah, that’s easy to say if you’ve never been in that position,” Darius shot back. “Trust me, they were picked solely for political reasons, because their Houses had something my father wanted. I’m talking about an age range of fourteen to forty, and not only does good breeding not ensure attractiveness, an aristocratic upbringing tends to turn people into scheming monsters. Layla is probably the kindest noblewoman I know, and hell, you’ve met her.”

“And guess who’s the beneficiary of all that benign paternal attention now that you’re gone,” Layla said venomously. “Believe you me, brother, at this point my options are to bring you home, run away myself, or commit suicide. Because being fobbed off on one of Father’s rich friends as a trade incentive is not on the table, whatever he thinks! Do you know that absolute poltroon Lord Quinian had the unmitigated nerve to approach Father about seeking my hand?”

“Quinian?” Darius repeated, appalled. “He’s older than Father!”

“I am aware of this!” she snarled. “Imagine my relief when Father ever-so-gently rebuked him on the grounds of my age.”

“Well, thank the gods,” Darius said. “I guess even he—”

“Oh, yes,” she spat. “So His Lordship concurred that he had been presumptuous and they now have a gentleman’s agreement to revisit the matter in two years, when I am of age.”

“They can’t make you marry against your will,” Jasmine said sharply. “That’s highly illegal. This is not the Age of Adventures.”

“Jas, honey,” Tallie said with a sigh, “there’s a large difference between what’s legal and what the nobility can make people do.”

“What’s worse,” Layla continued furiously, “is that you were the last influence in the House curbing our parents’ excesses. Rostam won’t make so much as a peep to endanger his inheritance, and if I register a complaint about overtaxing farmers or cheating merchants or mistreating the servants, everyone carries on as if one of the hounds had performed a particularly amusing trick. Oh, the girl thinks she has an opinion, isn’t that precious.”

“Hang on,” Ross protested. “Nobody’s that backward except the Huntsmen. Right?” He looked questioningly at Jasmine. “There’s Avenists everywhere.”

“I’m afraid you’ve hit the nail on the head, Ross,” Darius said, now looking downright queasy. “House Sakhavenid’s lands are in Mathenon—pretty wild country, even these days. The House has given the local Shaathist lodges a lot of privilege and free reign in order to have them serve as free land managers and, to a limited extent, law enforcement. It’s a relationship that’s been going on for two centuries now, and some attitudes have, uh, bled across.”

“That’s sickening,” Jasmine stated.

“That’s the nobility for you,” Tallie said philosophically, taking a sip of her tea. “This is crazy good stuff, by the way. I’d almost be tempted to come back here if I wasn’t being stared at like a wet dog.”

“And that is what you’ve left me with, dear brother,” Layla said. Her voice remained low enough that she would not be easily overheard by nearby tables, but the fury in it was in no way diminished for that. “Things are worse than ever, because Father is lashing out in ire over your little rebellion. And without you there to take you share of the pressure, guess upon whose shoulders it falls?”

There was a pause at the table, in which Darius looked completely at a loss and Layla glared icicles at him.

“Dick move, bro,” Ross rumbled at last.

“I’m sure I have no idea what that means,” Layla said with well-bred exasperation.

Jasmine cleared her throat. “He said that Darius was selfish and inconsiderate in his treatment of you.”

“Yes! Thank you!” She nodded to Ross before turning back to her brother. “It was a dick move!”

Darius heaved a sigh. “Well, look at that. Less than half an hour before she starts learning things from my so-called friends.”

“Oi,” Tallie said scathingly, “lose the attitude. I’m pretty much over the shock of you being one of those inbred staff-up-the-ass blights on the face of the earth, but you’ve been a real asshole to your sister. I think some apologies are in order.”

Layla gave her a look, clearly uncertain how to feel about that.

“Well,” Jasmine said somewhat more briskly, “if you wanted to get out from under your father’s thumb, I suppose you came to the right place. There aren’t many organizations that can really afford conflict with an established House; basically just a comparably powerful House, or a cult. If he learns you are here, though, with the Eserites specifically, there may be trouble.”

“You’ve actually joined the Thieves’ Guild, of all things?” Layla said, staring at her brother. “Darius.”

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” he retorted. “We both read Foxpaw’s Exploits, even after Mother found out and tried to ban it from the residence. We talked about this, even.”

“We were kids! Darius, it’s one thing to have problems with one’s parents or disagree with how one’s House comports itself. But running away to be a thief?”

“It isn’t about stealing,” he said seriously. “Thieving as a means, not an end. Eserion’s cult is about resisting the powerful, about bringing them down to a level they deserve. It’s living free, and always having your skills and wits to rely on. Yeah, I’ll admit it, I joined up basically on a whim and because I didn’t have any better ideas, but that was then. Layla…the Guild is what we always talked about. It’s exactly the solution we were looking for.”

She twisted her lips, manifestly unconvinced.

“When I said there may be trouble,” Jasmine interjected, “I didn’t mean for the Guild, or for you. The Guild is not intimidated by aristocrats; humbling presumptuous nobles is more or less its entire purpose. But if your father is rash enough to assault Guild interests, there will be retaliation. And that’s not even raising the issue of the dwarves after us, specifically, and the risk to your sister of being involved in this.”

“Father won’t attack the Guild, except with his mouth,” Darius said dismissively.

“That may be enough,” she insisted. “Depending on what he says and who hears it. We’ve all had occasion to see how Eserites are about their credibility and reputation.” Unconsciously, she touched the side of her face where the ugly bruise had been. “Tricks might feel the need to respond to even an insult, it it came from the high seat of a powerful House.”

“You’re awfully concerned about this guy,” Tallie said sourly, “considering we know nothing about him except that he’s an asshole even by noble standards.”

“No, I’m not,” Jasmine replied patiently. “But when you pressure the nobility, they have a way of deferring the pain to those underneath them.”

“Boss knows that better’n anyone,” Ross grunted. “He won’t let that happen.”

“And anyway,” Jasmine added, “I don’t know what your reasons are for mistrusting nobles, Tallie, but be careful about prejudging people. People are people, pretty much anywhere. Among the nobles I’ve known have been some truly wise, compassionate people, possibly the most depraved ass I’ve ever met, and multiple points in between.”

“Met a lot of ’em, have you?” Darius asked her, arching an eyebrow.

There came a clatter as Tallie nearly dropped her teacup, barely catching it in time to avoid a spill. She was staring wide-eyed at Jasmine, though, paying little attention to this.

“Omnu’s balls,” she breathed, “I get it now.”

“You do?” Jasmine asked warily. “What do you get?”

“You’re a bastard!”

Jasmine’s lips thinned. “Assuming you mean the word in its literal sense…yes, I am. Thank you for bringing it up.”

“No no no!” Tallie waved a hand in exasperation, nearly upsetting her cup again. “This is the twelfth century, nobody cares about stuff like that anymore. Except!” She pointed at Layla, who sniffed in disdain. “People who are heavily invested in bloodlines!”

“You’ve lost me,” Jasmine admitted.

“Let’s review.” Tallie folded her arms on the table, now wearing a predatory grin. “You’ve clearly been trained from the cradle in Avenist combat—that takes resources that most people don’t have. You somehow, after that, have managed to travel around picking up pieces of other fighting styles, and we don’t even know how many, but Tar’naris and Puna Dara were mentioned specifically by Silence, who would know. Ordinary people who aren’t in circuses don’t just roam the Empire at their leisure! You’ve obviously had an expensive education apart from that, too. I mean, what kind of person who’s not a Salyrite or something knows how fae witchcraft, divine healing, and modern enchantment work? Not to mention having had an alchemy tutor!”

“A teacher,” Jasmine said testily, not meeting her eyes. “Not a tutor.”

“And now this! You claim to have known multiple nobles, you know enough about their politics to apparently be in on some kind of inner-House shenanigans that aren’t common knowledge. You even talk like a noble!”

“I do?” Jasmine frowned. “What does that even mean?”

“You enunciate,” Ross said helpfully. “I’ve noticed. You use complex grammar and have a larger-than-average vocabulary.”

“And that makes me a noble?”

“Makes you formally educated,” said Rasha, who looked slightly less bleary after getting a cup of the strong black tea down. “Which isn’t the same thing…”

“Exactly!” Tallie said triumphantly. “We know your mother is a thoroughly disreputable character—a Guild thief and an elf! So if you were some aristocrat’s by-blow, obviously they couldn’t just have you around.”

“That’s not necessarily true,” Jasmine protested. “House Maduri deliberately intermarries with elves every few generations to keep their bloodline rejuvenated. They’re the oldest continuously reigning House in the Empire, so clearly they’re doing something right.”

“House Aldarasi is older,” Darius commented idly.

“I said continuously reigning. There have been three Aldarasi dynasties in Calderaas, two in the Imperial period, because they keep losing the throne. The Madouris have governed Tiraan Province since before there was an Empire.”

“There!” Tallie pointed dramatically at Jasmine. “That, right there! Nobody who doesn’t move in aristocratic circles even knows stuff like that, much less cares!”

Jasmine snapped her mouth shut, looking around the table for support. Ross and Rasha were nibbling on scones and watching all this with mild curiosity at best; Darius and Layla were now studying her with identical expressions of speculation that highlighted the resemblance in their faces.

“I wonder if she could be a Madouri by-blow,” Layla mused after a moment. “The old Duke was quite the reprobate.”

Jasmine let out an irritated huff. “Hardly. I somehow doubt that anybody who’s even a potential threat to Duchess Ravana’s position is still alive.”

“An illegitimate daughter isn’t a threat to her inheritance.”

“Have you met Ravana?” Jasmine countered.

Layla’s answering smile was distinctly vulpine. “I have not, in fact. It begins to sound as if someone at this table has, however.”

“You’re still doing it,” Tallie agreed with visible satisfaction.

“There’s also the tradition of using bastards as bodyguards and companions for legitimate heirs,” Darius suggested. “It would explain all the martial training.”

“Darius, no one has done that since the Enchanter Wars,” Layla said condescendingly.

“Our House hasn’t, and I’ll grant you it hasn’t been a popular practice since then, but come on. You and I both know old Houses keep their own customs, and don’t appreciate people prying into their business.”

“Old Houses keeping their own customs is not encouraged in this day and age,” Layla retorted. “That’s how House Leduc ended up the way they did, and good riddance to them. Right, Jasmine?” she added with a honeyed smile.

Jasmine groaned and covered her eyes with a hand. “I think you’re all getting the wrong idea…”

“Can I just say something?” Everyone turned to look at Rasha, who had just set down his half-eaten scone. “None of this is anybody’s business but Jasmine’s, and she clearly doesn’t wanna talk about it. We all have pasts, and it is nobody’s concern.” He stared flatly at Tallie. “Some of us in particular need to start keeping that in mind.”

“Hey, give me a break!” Tallie protested, unable to keep the smugness off her face. “I figured something out based on the clues. I think I’m entitled to be a little pleased with myself. I mean, it’s not every day you find out there are two secret nobles in your social circle. Riiiiiiight, Jasmine?”

Jasmine sighed heavily. “Okay, look. If I admit it, will you drop the matter, finally?”

“I think that would be fair,” Tallie said primly.

“Fine. Consider it admitted. Now let’s move on.” She scowled at the rest of them. “We have much more pressing things to consider. Dwarves are still after us to be their moles in the Guild and help them find where those weapons came from—generously assuming that’s all they want. We’re somehow caught between two factions of Avenists, respectively represented by Locke and the actual Bishop. Not to mention the factions in the Guild itself that we’ve been sucked into, and between Webs, Ironeye, Glory, Grip, and whoever else, we hardly even know who the parties are, much less what they’re after. And now we have an unaligned young noblewoman involved.” She looked pointedly at Layla, who was studying her fixedly in turn. “If she manages to get caught up in this, to say nothing of the inherent shame of letting a teenage girl come to harm, there are likely to be consequences. Guild or no Guild, if a powerful House’s underage daughter gets tangled up in whatever all this turns out to be, there’s a very real possibility of Sakhavenid reprisal against all of us, potentially with Imperial backing.”

“Darius,” Layla said slowly, “what on this benighted earth have you got yourself into?”

He sighed. “Well, Layla, that message you got, telling you to find me at the police station? That’s from a group of dwarves who have been stalking and harassing us. Involving you was a way to hint that they can get at our families—they’ve clearly dug into Rasha and Tallie’s pasts too, and probably the others as well. We know nothing about their origins except for one expert opinion that they’re government agents from one of the Five Kingdoms.”

“What do these individuals want?” she asked sharply.

“We were very briefly involved in moving some weapons they were trying to buy from the Guild,” Jasmine explained. “Experimental and possibly illegal devices. The trade was broken up and the weapons seized by the Silver Legions. Those dwarves haven’t given up, and since they’re apparently not willing to take on the Legions or the Guild directly, they’ve been leaning on us. A few apprentices are, as Savaraad pointed out, a comparatively soft target.”

“And we don’t even know anything, is the pisser,” Rasha said bitterly.

“We know our way around the Guild,” said Darius. “We’ve mentioned several times to the dwarves that we don’t have useful information, and they’re still coming. That means they want us to do something more active from within the Guild to get what they want.”

“Or they just don’t believe us,” Tallie suggested.

“Yeah, well, forgive me if I leap to the worst case scenario,” he replied with a sardonic grin. “It’s been that kind of week.”

“I see,” she said thoughtfully.

“Oh, I don’t like that look,” said Tallie, staring at the young noblewoman. “That’s an intrigued look. That’s how I looked when I was your age and about to do something extremely dumb.”

“When you were my age,” Layla said primly, “I doubt you’d had the merest fraction of my experience at maneuvering around hostile factions capable and willing to inflict very real harm. Honestly, Darius, how have you let them come to this? You’re supposed to provide an example and support, you and even Jasmine, here. Aristocracy exists for a reason beyond fattening its own purses. How could you expect a group of disaffected farmers to contend with this?”

“It might be best,” he said thoughtfully, “if you stopped talking. Like, several sentences ago.”

“Excuse you,” Tallie said with a savage grin, “but nobody here’s a farmer. I’m a circus freak, thank you very much.”

“Sailor,” said Rasha, raising a hand.

“Bard,” Ross grunted. “Half-trained, but still.”

“I thought you were an acrobat?” Jasmine said to Tallie.

“All right, fine, I guess that was a little rude to the actual freaks. There were none in my parents’ outfit, but still.”

“Oh, this just keeps getting better,” Layla said, rolling her eyes.

“Okay, seriously, Layla, shut up,” Darius said curtly. “I’m not hanging around with these people because I couldn’t do better. They can all take care of themselves just fine, and also, I like them, so stop being rude.”

“Very well,” she said indifferently. “What, then, is your plan?”

“Well,” Tallie said brightly, “upon advice from legal counsel, next we’re going to go visit the prostitute who just bailed Rasha out of jail!”

“It wasn’t bail,” Rasha muttered. “She paid for a lawyer.”

“Prostitutes, now?” Layla sniffed. “I appreciate you leaving that until after the preceding revelations; somehow, it’s just not shocking anymore.”

“Glory isn’t a prostitute,” Jasmine said sharply. “She’s a courtesan.”

“There’s a difference?” Rasha asked.

“There most certainly is,” Layla interjected, looking suddenly a lot more interested. “Prostitutes are the lowest dregs of civilized society. A courtesan, depending on her clientele, may be a welcome guest of nobles, kings, or emperors. Which one is this? Did you say Glory?”

“That’s her Guild tag,” Jasmine replied. “Her name is Tamisin Sharvineh.”

“Oh!” Layla positively lit up in delight. “You mean, you have an established acquaintance with Tamisin Sharvineh herself and an invitation to visit her? Then by all means, let us be off! One does not keep someone like that waiting!”

“Whoah,” Tallie said in alarm. “What the hell do you mean, us?”

“Yep,” Darius said resignedly. “Allow me to introduce my baby sister.”

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11 – 26

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“Lord?” Tallie screeched.

Darius sighed, looked at her, and then at Layla, who was still glaring at him. “Uh…all right. Why don’t we take this someplace other than the steps of the police station? Clearly we need to talk…”

“I don’t see what there is to talk about,” Layla snapped. “You’re coming home with me and these people can totter off back wherever it is you found them. This is enough of this, Darius!”

“He’s right, though,” Jasmine said, stepping closer to her. “There’s clearly a difference of opinion here, and this really isn’t the place.”

She glanced at the doors of the station. Quite apart from drawing looks from everyone who passed by, they were now the object of fixed attention by the two soldiers standing watch at the doors.

“Your opinion was not asked, young woman,” Layla said haughtily. “Remove yourself.”

“Layla!” Darius snapped. “First of all, don’t talk about my friends that way, because it makes me unhappy. Second and more importantly, these are Thieves’ Guild apprentices. Don’t talk to Eserites that way, because it results in them making you unhappy.”

“I did not come all the way out here to be threatened!” Layla exclaimed.

“He said it.” Ross pointed at Darius.

“If you’re so insistent on having a conversation about this, you can do so in the carriage. Don’t force me to have Ralph put you bodily in it.”

“Whoah, now,” Jasmine said soothingly. “Nobody is putting anybody bodily anywhere. You’re making a scene, Lady Layla, and this is a very public place.”

“That does it!” Layla actually stomped her foot. “Ralph!”

The driver of the carriage stepped down and took two strides which brought him all the way up the stairs to join them. He was taller than Tallie and broader than Ross, all of it muscle.

“Kindly assist Lord Darius into the carriage,” Layla said smugly.

“Here, now,” one of the soldiers on duty said sharply, taking a step toward them.

“Ralph, don’t even think about it,” Darius snapped, edging behind Tallie, who immediately stepped away, scowling furiously at him.

“Sorry, m’lord,” Ralph rumbled, shrugging and reaching out toward Darius. “The Lady’s currently in your mother’s good graces; I’m afraid her word goes.”

“Exactly!” Layla said, folding her arms.

“No, it doesn’t.” Jasmine planted herself in front of Ralph, making him pause. “That’s enough of this. We’re all intelligent, civilized people; let’s behave like it, please.”

“You may feel free to remove any troublesome pests who interfere in House business,” Layla said coldly.

Ralph sighed, but reached out and grasped Jasmine’s shoulder. “Here, now, miss, if you’ll just—”

Two seconds later, he had received a punch in the elbow and a kick to the inside of the knee, sending him tumbling back down the steps with an incongruously high-pitched cry of pain. The footman leaped forward to intervene, just in time to catch Jasmine’s heel in his stomach; he doubled over with a cry.

“HOW DARE YOU!” Layla shrieked, turning to the two soldiers on duty, both of whom were now striding forward with their weapons raised. “Officers! You will arrest this wench immediately!”

“Stand down in the Emperor’s name!” one of the soldiers barked, leveling his staff at Ralph and the footman, neither of whom seemed about to get up.

“Young lady,” the second said sharply to the astonished Lady Layla, “while individuals are culpable for their actions before the law, the Writ of Privilege clearly states that aristocrats share complicity for any illegal action undertaken at their orders, by their vassals. You have just instructed your servant to assault a private citizen.”

She gaped at him, “But—but—but—”

“Now who’s embarrassing the House?” Darius complained loudly. “Layla, have you lost your mind? Even Father doesn’t treat people that way.”


Jasmine cleared her throat loudly. “Excuse me, officers, but I was just reminded that the victim of a crime has prosecutorial discretion. I have no intention of pressing any charges here. Can we all please drop this?”

“Fine,” the more loquacious soldier said curtly, turning to her. “And in the future, you will kindly remember not to use excessive force in self-defense.”

“Of course,” she said politely.

“Now see here!” Layla shrieked. “Have you any idea who I am?! My father will hear of this!”

“I daresay he will,” the soldier replied with visible exasperation. “You are creating a public disturbance, disrupting access to an Imperial public facility, and committing assault. He’ll hear it from the gossip columns, and if you don’t all take this somewhere else immediately, he will hear of it in an official letter of censure from the Imperial Army!”

She gaped at him. “Do you—how dare—You can’t speak to me that way!”

“Layla!” Darius shouted. “House Sakhavenid’s holdings are hell and gone from here, and you are a minor. Not only can you not give orders to Imperial troops, they can throw you in a cell if you do stuff like start fights in front of a police station!” He stepped forward and grabbed her firmly by the arm. “Sorry, officers, we’re leaving.”

“Do,” the senior officer said flatly, staring him down.

“Fine,” Layla humphed, futilely trying to tug her arm away from Darius. “We can repair to my hotel to—”

“Yeah, that won’t be necessary,” he said flatly. “Come on, guys, there’s a discreet establishment not far from here where we can talk. I guess I owe some explanations…”

“I damn well guess so!” Tallie snarled.

“I beg your pardon?” Layla snapped. “These urchins are most definitely not accompanying us, and that is final!”

Schwartz had been granted rooms at the College’s main campus in Tiraas. Ami didn’t know whether this was at Bishop Throale’s request due to his project of befriending the Thieves’ Guild, or because he was conducting some actual research on behalf of his cult. He was usually conducting some kind of research anyway, but that was just what he did. The inner politics of Salyrene’s faith were not interesting to her except in an academic sense, and while she was busy contending with Syrinx, Locke, and the various strings those tied to everyone around them, she preferred to keep her mind clear of distractions. The Salyrites, at least, were among the least prone to politicking of all the cults. It had to be something in their doctrines, considering that they were a whole cult of intellectuals, and Ami had known enough of those, both Nemitite and secular, to know how fond they were of backbiting.

Unfortunately, Schwartz wasn’t in his rooms, which compelled her to go looking for him. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been; there were only a few places he was likely to have gone, and the likeliest prospects by far were in the public areas of the temple. She made a point of carrying her flute case (she didn’t prefer the flute, but it was more easily portable than her guitar) and wearing her golden harp pin. Everybody loved a bard, except those who specifically hated them. And everybody knew not to stop a bard trying to go where she pleased unless they had a really good reason.

The library complex occupied two upper floors of the Collegium; fortunately Ami didn’t have to go hunting further than that. The librarians knew exactly where her quarry was.

She strolled into the alcove that Schwartz appeared to have completely taken over. Books were absolutely everywhere, and not in the way that they usually were in libraries; most of these were open, lying strewn across tables, benches, windowsills and each other, though she noted that not one had been so much as rumpled or had its spine cracked. Schwartz was still Schwartz.

He was muttering to himself, scrawling furiously in what appeared to be a journal, hunched over a reading table behind a parapet of stacked books. Meesie bounded onto the top of the tallest, greeting Ami with a shrill squeak.

“And hello to you too,” the bard replied archly.

Schwartz’s head snapped up, and he grinned broadly, bringing her up short. He wasn’t usually so demonstrative… Then again, upon closer inspection, she noticed that his eyes were also a little too wide. Other signs of agitation were hard to discern, as his clothes and hair were pretty much always rumpled.

“Ami!” he said brightly, attempting to stand up so fast he caught his thighs on the underside of the table and bounced right back down into his seat. “What brings you here?”

She planted her fists on her hips and looked down her nose at him. “Herschel, have you been into that vile black potion of yours?”

“What, coffee? First of all, coffee is wonderful, and no, I found something better. Deferred sleep! It’s an old witch’s standby—I could never get it quite right until recently, always had some iffy side effects!”

Grinning up at her, he listed slightly to the right.

“I think you could do with some practice,” she said.

“Nonsense, everything’s perfect! Ami, I’ve had a singularly significant discovery! This is so much better than sleeping, I should do this all the time!”

Meesie bounced across the table to stand at the very edge near Ami, where she pointed back at Schwartz and squeaked urgently.

“Yes,” Ami told the little elemental, “that was the conclusion to which I had just come. Now come along, Herschel, I think we need to have a talk with someone a tad more experienced…”

“I was kicking around possibilities for an anti-tracking charm, you see,” he said, rustling frantically in the scrawled papers and notes strewn about behind his wall of books. “You don’t ordinarily use fae magic to block arcane like that, but my new friends—you know, the Eserites—had a need and I thought it would be just perfect if I could be the one to help them out with it, you know? And so I laid my deferred sleeping charm and was researching and I came across the most fascinating thing!”

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said soothingly, stepping around the table. “You can tell me all about it on the way to the medical wing.”

“Nonsense, I don’t need any medicine,” he said crossly, ignoring Meesie’s indignant squeak of disagreement. “Listen—ah, here it is! So I was doing background research on concealment and deflection in general, right? And you’re aware, of course, how fae magic is closely tied to emotional states. Well, I think I’ve stumbled across the reason Bishop Syrinx gets away with abusing Avei’s power!”

That brought Ami up short. “W—you have? And you found this by accident?”

“There’s a certain school of thought which insists there are no accidents,” he muttered, rapidly leafing through the book he’d yanked out from under the pile. “Especially when dealing with the gods. But no, well, I mean, maybe. That’s not the point. All right, I told you about the elvish term, yes? Anth’auwa?”

“Yes,” she said patiently, “and I was aware of it already, if you’ll recall.”

“Of course, yes, right, my apologies. Well! For the basis of any kind of attention-deflection spell using fae magic you would naturally start with an emotional state which is averse to having attention paid to it, and I found an intersection between that and the heartless! They’re very good at hiding and blending in, you see—actually there’s a whole book on them in here, it’s in elvish which I can’t read, but of course I never step foot in a library without a few scrolls of translation handy. Blast it, now what did I do with that book…”

“Hershel,” she said patiently, “focus, please.”

“Yes! Right, the spell. I’d been checking that for background information—I mean, both for the spell and because it caught my eye because, well, Syrinx, you know? It seems that the large part of the reason anth’auwa don’t get noticed is because most people just don’t comprehend what they are. Actually there was some really interesting notation on studies done by the dwarves up in Svenheim, I couldn’t find the original but it was referenced in the elvish book, where apparently less educated people tend to be more instinctively wary of people who exhibit signs of social pathology, while the more intellectual are prone to rationalize away their tells. Isn’t that fascinating?”

“Fascinating might be overstating it. It’s interesting, certainly, but I thought we were focusing?”

“Right! And that got me thinking about a bit of Eserite doctrine I read while boning up on them before seeking them out. I mean, they don’t even have many actual doctrines, and those they tend not to write down where others can read them, but there’s a bit out there. They have this thing about the three kinds of invisibility: Can’t see, don’t see, and won’t see. You follow?”

She sighed deeply. “I’m getting the impression this isn’t that kind of narrative. Follow? No. I’m assuming you’ll come to a point, whereupon all this will begin to make some sense. And then we can go to the medical wing.”

Meesie squeaked insistently at her.

“Yes, well, you couldn’t get him out of here, either,” Ami retorted.

“So at this point I had a hunch!” he said, having given up on finding whatever he was looking for in the book, and now stared eagerly up at her. “I’ve been reading up on theology and what’s known about the nature of gods, specifically how to get their attention. You know the usual ways: mortal self-sacrifice is reliable, even more than being a cleric dedicated to a certain god; they don’t consistently interact with anyone except paladins, high priests, you know, the likes of that. So I pried into the gap there, with how clerics can wield divine power from a god without that god necessarily paying attention to them. Even then, there are exceptions. Bring their power into conflict with demons, undead, things like that—they’ll notice anything they inherently oppose. Use their power to do something they don’t approve of, they’ll pay attention to that, as well. But! It is, in theory, possible for a priest to go their whole life without ever once drawing their deity’s direction attention, even while using divine magic! Extremely unlikely, of course, but theoretically!”

“None of this is new,” she said skeptically, “to you, to me, or to anyone who’s an ordained member of any cult. It’s theoretical, but it’s all pretty basic.”

“Right!” he said, nodding so enthusiastically his spectacles began sliding off. Meesie leaped nimbly to his shoulder and pushed them back into place; Schwartz appeared not to notice any of this. “So I focused on what does work rather than what doesn’t. The emotional state that makes divine magic function for someone, even when its deity isn’t paying attention. What’s most necessary, is faith.” He looked expectantly up at her. “Get it?”

“…continue explaining, perhaps?”

Schwartz let out a little sigh of frustration, which he would ordinarily have been far too considerate to do, so she decided not to reprimand him.

“Well, I mean, what is faith?”

“Herschel, so help me, if you’ve spent this whole night finding what you think is an answer to one of the great theological questions…”

“No, no, no, this is a practical matter entirely. Psychologically speaking, faith is confidence. Absolute certainty, even when lacking evidence. Faith in practice—such as drawing on divine magic—is basically confidence that one is just, that one is doing the right thing. Now!” He actually bounced once in his seat in eagerness. “What if there were a kind of person who’s completely, congenitally incapable of self-doubt? Who automatically assumes everything they do is right because they’re doing it, who regards a deity as a mechanistic series of forces, without the kind of emotional engagement that could attract emotional engagement in return? Eh?”

“Are you suggesting,” Ami said slowly, intrigued in spite of herself, “that anth’auwa are invisible to the gods?”

“Oh, no, heavens no,” he said, frowning. “Invisible, that’s ridiculous. That’s Black Wreath craft, and if anybody knew how they were doing it the Salyrites would have found a way to neutralize it centuries ago. No, but remember? Can’t see, don’t see, won’t see? She doesn’t need to be invisible to Avei. She just needs to be very, very unlikely to draw Avei’s attention. Avei won’t smite what she doesn’t notice! And from a certain point of view, someone with no conscience is more faithful than a mentally normal person could be! She’d never experience guilt or uncertainty. All she has to do is refrain from doing something counter to Avei’s doctrines while channeling divine magic, and apparently, avoiding notice is the entire point of how they get along in the world—I can’t believe it would be all that much of a stretch for her.”

“Well, Omnu’s breath,” she mused in wonder. “Herschel, I think you actually have stumbled upon something, here.”

Meesie squeaked in exasperation, tugging at Schwartz’s ear, which he continued to ignore.

“So,” he said eagerly, “all we have to do is call Avei’s attention to her directly and in detail!”

“Quite,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “How?”

He physically deflated. “Well, uh…that part I… I mean, there’s bound to be something in the books somewhere…”

“Mm hm. Well, unless you want to go share these insights with High Commander Rouvad or what’s-her-name out in Last Rock, assuming you could get near either of them and are willing to take the risk of word getting back to Basra, this appears to be a stopping point. Now come along, Herschel; your long-awaited meeting with Jenell is soon, and you’ll want to have yourself straightened up a bit before then.”

“What!” For the second time, he tried to stand too fast and came to grief on the table. “Ow! Is it that late already?”

“No,” she said dryly. “I had a feeling I’d need to dig you out of somewhere, fortunately for you. Now come on, there’s bound to be someone in this temple who can fix whatever you’ve done to yourself?”

“Done?” he said indignantly. “I assure you, I do not require fixing, it was a perfectly foolproof…”

He was interrupted mid sentence by a massive yawn.

“Ah, yes,” he said blearily, “right, off to see Jenell…just as soon as I…catch a nap…”

Schwartz slumped forward alarmingly fast, his forehead thunking against the table top. Ami experienced a split-second of real worry before he began snoring.

“You know,” she said to Meesie, “my life was actually rather peaceful. I was playing the guitar in the evenings, and plotting against an evil Bishop by day. All very rote for a bard. And then I had to go and get mixed up with a man.”

The elemental squeaked in commiseration.

“Well, that’s very easy for you to say.”

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11 – 25

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“Still sore?” Jasmine asked sympathetically.

Tallie immediately removed her hand from her midsection,which she had been rubbing while wincing. “Eh. I’ve been bruised a lot worse after falling off stuff.”

“If you’re worried about Style, I have it directly from her own mouth that Mesmer was full of it.” Jasmine pointedly touched the now-unbruised side of her face. “We can find a temple or an alchemy shop…”

“It’s not bad enough to be worth the effort or time,” Tallie said quickly. “Let’s just get to the station before something even worse happens to Rasha.”

“Can’t walk much faster,” Ross pointed out, “or we’ll be knockin’ people over. Then he won’t be the only one in a cell.”

“Honestly, I’m rather disappointed,” Darius said to Jasmine, grinning. “I thought you went out and got your face fixed specifically to tweak Style. This is a big wrench in my plans, you know. I was gonna sell peanuts to your next go-round, make myself some quick pocket change.”

“Boy, are you in the right cult,” Jasmine muttered.

“Aw, aren’t you sweet to notice!”

They didn’t have very far to travel; Rasha had apparently been arrested right outside the Casino, and consequently taken to the nearest police station. The military police in Tiraas being what they were, the building was actually a fortified barracks which, they observed upon drawing closer, had actual mag cannons positioned on top of its corner turrets. Soldiers patrolled the battlements and stood at attention outside. Their eyes followed the four apprentices, but none of them looked particularly shifty—or particularly interesting, being generally dressed like working-class young people. They blended easily with the crowd streaming in and out of the broad doors.

Inside, the place looked less military and more like a government office. People milled about the marble-floored open space inside the doors, talking with one another and in one case shouting at an unimpressed-looking soldier with a battlestaff leaning on his shoulder. Two more troopers were escorting a woman with a black eye toward a rear door; based on their scowls and her limp, the way she accommodatingly followed instructions was a recent development.

Tallie immediately led them across the room to the first open desk they saw; the entire side wall was lined with counters behind which stood a row of soldiers, positioned so that they were at least head and shoulders above those in the main floor. They were behind iron bars with small windows cut out, and behind them stood a couple of other soldiers, conspicuously carrying firearms and watching the lobby closely.

“Help you?” offered the woman Tallie had selected in a weary tone which suggested she was nearing the end of her shift.

“Yes, hello,” Tallie said briskly, placing her hands on the counter and ignoring the way the fresher-looking soldier in the back immediately turned his stare on her. “We’re with the Thieves’ Guild.”

The corporal behind the bars just heaved a long-suffering sigh and gave her an expectant look.

“A friend of ours was arrested last night,” Tallie continued. “His name’s Rasha. We’re here to see him.”

The woman sighed again and shook her head. “What else you got? He have a last name? What’s he arrested for? Basic description? Kid, I’m gonna need details if you want me to dig this guy up. You have any idea how many knuckleheads pass through here in chains?”

“He’s a Punaji boy,” Jasmine said hastily as Tallie scowled and opened her mouth to argue. “We were told he was in for assault…” She glanced at the others. “…possibly of a dwarf?”

“Now, hang on,” Darius protested. “We don’t know anything about that…”

“Who else?” Ross grunted.

“Oh, I remember that guy,” the corporal said before the conversation could degenerate further. “Little fella, looked almost too depressed to walk. Didn’t give anybody a second’s trouble. Yeah, he’ll be in the Tank—double doors on your right, there, follow the hall straight to the main desk and the sergeant on duty will know where he is. Visitation’s allowed.”

“Thank you, Corporal,” Jasmine said politely, stepping back and pulling Tallie gently by the elbow.

“What’d you tell her we were Guild for?” Darius asked as they followed the soldier’s directions into a wide hallway beyond the main lobby. “That had to make everything more difficult…”

“Actually, probably made things easier,” said Ross. “Guild’s got strict codes for dealin’ with cops; Guild thieves are prob’ly a lot less trouble than shroomheads and drunks. ‘sides, you don’t wanna be more difficult with the Guild than you have to, or they come back with more.”

“What he said,” Tallie agreed. “Honestly, Darius, what do you hear when Lore talks to us?”

“The soothing sound of rain on a tin roof.”

“I’m telling him you said that.”

“You’re a bad person, Tallie.”

She made no answer. They had arrived at a T intersection in the hall, which continued on ahead, but the side hallway branching off to the right was lined with cells. Tallie picked up her pace, dashing past the desk in the intersection behind which sat another officer, to grasp the bars of the first cell across the way.

“Rasha! Are you okay?”

He was very much as the corporal out front had described. Sitting on one of the thinly-padded bunks in the cell, he slumped with his head down, as if trying to collapse inward into a puddle. At Tallie’s voice, he shifted slightly, then only after a long moment raised his head. His face was haggard, eyes bloodshot and set in darkened pits.

“Oh. Hey, Tallie. Hi, guys.”

The others filed carefully past the desk, watching the other people present, whom Tallie had ignored. The sergeant behind the desk was observing all this with long-suffering patience, and the other soldier at this post had just resumed her position near him, having started to lunge for Tallie upon her rush to the bars and been called back by her superior.

Also present was a well-groomed, if somewhat tired-looking, redheaded dwarf with a neatly-trimmed beard, watching them with a smile which could only be described as smug.

“Are you hurt?” Tallie demanded. “Are they treating you all right? You haven’t been abused, have you? YOU!” She stuck her whole arm through the bars, pointing at Rasha’s cellmate. “You better not have laid a finger on him!”

“HEY,” barked the uniformed woman by the sergeant’s desk. “Get the hell out of that cell!”

“I beg your pardon, little missy,” the old man in the cell answered in an affronted tone while Jasmine and Darius dragged Tallie away from the bars. “Just whaddaya take me for? I’m in fer vagrancy an’ loitering! Ain’t never harmed so much as a flea!”

“That’s for damn sure,” the sergeant said dryly. “We’ll be pickin’ ’em out of that cell for weeks. And you’re in for trafficking, Cletus. As usual.”

“Bah! A man’s gotta make a livin!” He looked like a homeless person—filthy, dressed in layers of ragged old clothes, and as he demonstrated by grinning at the sergeant, with his few remaining teeth stained blue by glittershroom use.

“So you’re friends of our terrifying, monstrous back-alley strangler, eh,” the sergeant continued, eyeing them all over without shifting from his seat. “Good thing you came along. We were afraid he was gonna bust out of there. Just bend the bars apart and smash his way out of the station through a wall.”

“Sergeant Prynne is having a little jest at my expense,” the dwarf said blandly.

“I don’t get it,” Jasmine replied, staring him down.

“Well, you see, Jas,” Darius explained condescendingly, “this asshole here would be the person Rasha assaulted—”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Rasha’s shroom-trafficking cellmate raised a finger warningly. “Allegedly assaulted! Don’t never admit nothin’ to the fuzz! Ain’t you kids never been arrested before?”

“We’re rusty,” Tallie muttered. “It’s been a couple of days.”

“I can’t believe this is even happening!” Jasmine exclaimed. “Dwarves are almost the sturdiest people in existence—Rasha’s not physically capable of harming him! Look, he’s not even scratched!”

“Yes, Jasmine, that would be the joke,” said Darius. “Glad you could join us.”

“Be that as it may,” the sergeant said flatly, “I have two witnesses who saw Mr. Rasha-with-no-surname physically attack Mr. Rogrind. Being non-inducted employees of the Thieves’ Guild, they are considered trustworthy witnesses, as the Guild has and enforces very strict policies against lying to law enforcement. Which I suspect you know. The lack of any significant injury done will doubtless be reflected in his sentencing, but that’s up to whatever magistrate has to deal with this waste of time. A credible charge of assault has been brought and the accused is being held as per the law.”

“In the Tiraan Empire,” the dwarf explained pleasantly, “the victim of a crime has prosecutorial discretion. Charges will be pressed by default—unless, of course, I should decide not to press them.”

“Let me just stop you right there,” Tallie snarled, stomping up to him. She towered over the dwarf, who tilted his head back to look up at her without the slightest indication of unease. “The answer to your next insinuation is, as always, fuck off!”

“Actually, young lady, I had intended to discuss the matter as frankly as possible,” he said politely, taking a step back. “Too much insinuation, I feel, has led us into this series of misunderstandings. And are you sure you should speak for your companions?”

“I am perfectly okay with that,” Jasmine said grimly, folding her arms. Ross grunted in approval.

“Ehhh…” Darius made a waffling motion with his hand. “I feel that rejection didn’t contain nearly enough obscenities. But I’ll give her points for the spirit of the thing.”

“Honestly,” said the dwarf—Rogrind, apparently—with a disarming shrug, “your obstreperousness is amazing to behold. You kids have never even indulged me in a proper discussion.”

“Are you saying you’ve been repeatedly told by these people to leave them alone and have refused?” Sergeant Prynne cut in dryly. “Because that verges on harassment.”

“He’s a blackmailer!” Tallie said shrilly, pointing at the dwarf. “Arrest him!”

“Whoah,” Darius said, coming up behind her and placing his hands on her shoulders. “Let’s not go telling soldiers in their own police station who to arrest, kay?”

“I would be careful, Miss Peuterschmidt,” Rogrind said with a smile. “Bringing false charges is a punishable offense under Tiraan law.”

“The burden of proof on that is virtually impossible,” Prynne noted. “You would have to prove that the accused knowingly and deliberately acted with malice aforethought. In twelve years working municipal law enforcement, I’ve never once seen that successfully prosecuted.”

“Yeah!” Tallie shouted, dramatically brandishing a finger inches from the dwarf’s nose. “Suck on that!”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Rogrind said wryly.

“Pleasure,” Prynne replied with a sunny smile. The uniformed private standing by his desk made a half-hearted effort to repress a smile.

“In fact,” the dwarf added, “forgive me, but I seem to have noted a general pattern of hostility toward me from the moment the accused was brought in. Is this, perhaps, a racial issue?”

“No,” the sergeant said evenly, “it’s an issue of you bringing me a member of the Thieves’ Guild and adamantly refusing to drop charges. You either don’t comprehend the headache you’ve insisted on dropping on my desk, or don’t care. Neither prospect predisposes me positively toward you.”

“There’s a reason we housed him in the end cell, there, by the exit,” the other soldier added with a grin. “Makes what comes next generally a lot less fuss and bother.”

“Oh?” Rogrind said dryly. “If I am not mistaken, the laws of the Tiraan Empire trump the influence wielded illicitly by the Thieves’ Guild. What is it that you believe comes next?”

“They don’t have Guild chapters up in the mountains, Sarge,” Darius confided. “Bear with the old sot, he’s new at this.”

“Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long,” Prynne complained. “I had a moment of hope when you kids turned up, but you’re clearly not the right professionals, no offense. Never thought I’d be glad to see one of those sharks, but this whole goddamn thing is a waste of my time and cell space.”

“Aw, hell, I don’t mind!” Cletus said cheerily. “Politest roommate I ever had!”

Rasha sighed heavily, again staring at the floor between his feet.

“Sharks?” Rogrind arched one bushy eyebrow. “I was under the impression you act, in this context, backed by the full force of the Imperial government. What Guild shark are you—”


The woman who appeared on the scene arrived like a storm, strewing loose papers from the bulgingly overstuffed folder tucked under her arm. She wore an expensive leather duster over a rumpled but tailored men’s suit, with spectacles perched precariously on her nose and her hair coming loose from what had at one point been a tidy bun. In her other hand was a large thermos, which she brandished upon skidding to a stop in the intersection, having arrived at a dead run.

“Oh, great,” Prynne muttered. “This one.”

The new arrival slammed the thermos down on the corner of his desk and flung out her hand at the startled dwarf; with a flick of her wrist, a business card manifested in her fingers, and was then flung contemptuously at Rogrind.

“Bird Savaraad, attorney at law,” she barked at such a rapid pace that her syllables nearly blurred together. “On retainer for the Thieves’ Guild of Tiraas and thus responsible for this nonsense right here that you’re doing and you may thank whatever the hell it is you people worship that you’re dealing with me and not Guild personnel proper and may I respectfully suggest in a strictly personal and non-professional capacity that you drop this shit before it gets to that point.”

She paused to snatch her thermos off the desk, slapping down the thick folder and tilting it up to drink deeply from whatever was inside.

“Bit early in the morning, isn’t it?” Darius said, raising an eyebrow.

“Not for coffee,” Bird Savaraad chattered. “Never too early, too late or too anything. Now then!” After rummaging in her open folder for a moment, she whipped out a long sheet of paper which had become inadvertently dog-eared where its upper edge stuck out of its housing on the way over. “It is my understanding, Mr. Rogrind if that is in fact your real name, that you intend to press charges against one Rasha, apprentice of the Thieves’ Guild, for the alleged crime of assault?”

Rogrind, who had been staring at her in apparent bemusement, at this turned to the other apprentices with an expectant expression.

In unison, all four folded their arms and glared at him.

“Hello!” Savaraad snapped, flapping the paper at him. “Yes? No? Maybe? This requires your input! If you fail to render a position it shall be assumed that you decline to press charges!”

“You can’t actually do that,” Prynne commented.

“Silence, minion!” the lawyer barked at him. He rolled his eyes.

Rogrind cleared his throat, regaining her attention. “Yes, I intend to press charges, Ms. Savaraad.”

“That’s great, fine and dandy, finally we can move on with this. I am authorized by my client to extend to you a compromise under the following terms: instead of pressing charges, you will not do that, and we can all go home. Do you acquiesce?”

“No, I don’t believe so,” Rogrind said sardonically.

“Splendid!” She grinned wolfishly, had another swig of coffee, set her thermos back down on the desk and advanced on him with the paper upheld in both hands. “I have here, Mr. Rogrind, a notarized affidavit from multiple credible witnesses who for reasons of fear for their personal welfare choose to remain anonymous but whose identities and contributions have been documented and will should this come to trial be presented confidentially to the magistrate overseeing proceedings stating that you, Mr. Rogrind…” She paused here, nearly doubled over, and drew in a loud gasp of air, before continuing at the same breakneck pace, “have been observed engaged in activities including but not limited to trafficking in illegal weaponry, assault of Imperial citizens, trafficking in drugs, animal cruelty, sale of pottery without a duly issued municipal permit to conduct commerce, tax evasion, loitering, jaywalking, arson, pushing an old lady into traffic, and negligent defenestration.”

“Is this…some manner of joke?” Rogrind demanded, turning to the soldiers, both of whom were grinning broadly enough to provide an unspoken answer to his question. “Those charges are entirely spurious, and frankly absurd!”

“And what the hell is negligent defenestration?” Darius asked in a fascinated tone. Tallie reached up to put a hand over his mouth.

“Let me break it down for you, my little lost lamb,” Savaraad barreled on. “I’m a lawyer for the Thieves’ Guild. In one hour, if I so desire, I can have a notarized statement signed by ten noble witnesses that they saw you murder the Empress. Not that would hold up in court, of course, and bringing something like that before a judge is asking to get charged with contempt, but Imperial law being what it is, standards for prosecuting offenses are very different from those required to file certain papers.”

“Hey, now,” Sergeant Prynne protested. “Let’s please refrain from discussing committing fraud right in front of me, Bird.”

She whirled on him, flapping the notarized list of accusations against Rogrind menacingly. “Don’t even think about it, buttercup! The preceding statement was clearly hypothetical and not to be construed as either a threat or offer of services, and any attempt by you to press the issue will be met with a lawsuit for wrongful prosecution at the end of which I will have your badge, your pension, your apartment, and just because I’m a vindictive asshole, those crisply-pressed slacks!”

Prynne sighed and leaned his head over the back of his chair to stare at the ceiling. “Would you kindly just get on with this and get out?”

“Gladly.” Savaraad whipped back around to point menacingly at the increasingly baffled Rogrind. “I have all the requisite paperwork drawn up and ready to be handed of to the requisite Imperial functionaries, at which point an investigation of your activities will begin. Considering some of the specific charges involved, the quality of the witnesses and evidence I have arranged will result in a direct and thorough perusal of your person, residence and activities byyyyy…” Again grinning unpleasantly, she leaned forward until her eye level was almost the same as his, and her nose inches from his face, and spoke in a menacing drawl totally unlike her previous rapid delivery. “Imperial Intelligence. All up in every. Little. Part. Of your personal business.”

Bird held Rogrind’s eyes for another moment, then abruptly straightened up and turned to the fascinated apprentices. “Y’see, kids, all systems as they say are pretty much corrupt. Laws in the Empire, as in basically every advanced society, are structured such that people who can afford the services of individuals like me can avoid trials where they will inevitably be found guilty of something simply by pushing papers around, which is why there’s a vast catalog of motions which can be filed to stall legal proceedings. Of course, in this case we don’t really need to stall, just to bring the eyes of the Empire directly onto this guy, whereupon they will discover things which while irrelevant to our business will result in him no longer being the Guild’s problem, or yours. Well?” She turned back to Rogrind, folding her hands behind her back and twisting her upper body coquettishly. “How ’bout it, big guy? What’s the word?”

Rogrind was staring at her quite evenly now. Another beat passed, wherein his seemed to consider his next words. Then he cleared his throat and turned to the desk.

“Sergeant Prynne, upon consideration, I have decided not to press charges against the accused.”

“Yyyeaaaaahhh,” Bird drawled. “I had a feeling.”

“Welp, you heard the man, Private,” Prynne said with a smirk. “Let the kid out.”

“Well, butter my butt an’ call me a biscuit!” Cletus cackled, slapping his knee, while the soldier unlocked the cell and beckoned to Rasha. “Now that there’s a perfessional! Darlin’, I’d ask you to represent me, but a body gets tired a’ bein’ told by women that he cain’t afford ’em!”

“I know what you mean,” Bird said sympathetically.

“Rasha, are you okay?” Tallie said worriedly, rushing to him as he was brought out of the cell. He shrugged.

“Hey.” Jasmine placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed until he looked up at her, then smiled. “Not your fault. Okay?”

“Course it’s his fault,” the lawyer scoffed. “Goddamn it, I realize you kids are new, but don’t attack people in front of witnesses! Now c’mon, we’re not going to discuss this in front of the yokels. Come on! Shoo shoo march let’s go!”

“Always a pleasure, Bird,” Sergeant Prynne said, waving languidly as she snatched up her effects and ushered the five of them back up the hall. Rogrind simply stood with his head slightly tilted, watching them go.

“All right, I’m an independent contractor, not strictly Guild, so I can’t do a thing about what Style does to you over this,” Bird continued as she harried them across the lobby toward the station’s front doors, her chatter nearly drowned out by the noise and press of humanity they passed. “But for now, you’re off the hot seat legally, and my retainer here covers legal advice, the bulk of which I just gave you, but just to repeat because it bears repeating, pick your battles, dammit!”

She had come to a stop on the steps outside the station, and turned to scowl at Rasha.

“Hey, go easy on him,” Tallie said, taking his shoulders from behind. “He’s had a rough—”

“Would you stop!” he burst out, shrugging her off. “Dammit, I’m not a pet, and I’m not a kid! I fucked up, all right? As usual.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Darius said. “Ease up there—on her, and on yourself. So the fucker baited you into making a mistake. I’m getting the impression this is not that guy’s first rodeo. He’s probably gonna be trying this on all of us, and I bet he knows exactly what runes to push. Okay?” He stared firmly around at the others. “Rasha had the bad luck to be first, but this isn’t over. We need to remember that.”

“Exactly,” Bird said approvingly.

Rasha heaved a sigh, shrugging his shoulders. “Well. Guess after Style gets through punching the shit out of me, I can look forward to lawyer fees being tacked onto my apprenticeship debt.”

“Actually I wasn’t summoned by the Guild,” Bird corrected. “A private individual paid for this. Far as I’m concerned you kids are off the hook; I wasn’t instructed to discuss payment with you, and were that an issue I probably would have been.”

“Oh, just let me guess,” Tallie sighed. “Alan Vandro?”

Bird wrinkled her nose. “Vandro? Ew. That arrogant misogynistic wart? Please, I’d sue him into a puddle of remorse just for making eye contact with me. No, I was contracted by Tamisin Sharvineh, whom you may also know as Glory.”

Jasmine blinked. “Really.”

“And I heartily recommend you all toddle over there at your first opportunity and express effusive thanks,” Bird added. “For now, whatever it is that dwarf wants with you, here’s a word of warning: he’s almost certainly a government agent.”

“Wait,” said Darius, frowning. “Why would a government agent be intimidated by Imperial Intelligence?”

“Every part of that question is wrong, you doorknob,” the attorney said in exasperation. “Everyone is intimidated by the goddamn secret police, especially functionaries who live and work right within their easy reach, and I didn’t mean our government! Look, culturally speaking, dwarves think of thieves the way people in the Empire do of warlocks. The Theives’ Guild is the kind of horror with which they threaten their children when they won’t eat their vegetables or go to sleep on time. Most of the dwarves active in the Empire and especially the capital are either permanent residents or merchants, the kinds of people who don’t make waves because they cannot afford to. Of the relatively few organizations in the Five Kingdoms which are active in the Empire, there are none besides government spies and the Order of the Light who would be willing to go toe-to-toe with the Guild, and this is not how the Order operates. You kids are a soft target, relatively speaking, which has to be why they’re after you so relentlessly, but they have to know that if they push it, the Guild will push back, and the Guild is not known for pushing gently. That man is indisputably a highly skilled, hardened professional who will stop at nothing to achieve whatever his goal is, and has the resources of at least one of the Kingdoms backing him. Watch your asses, clear?”

Ross let out a low whistle.

“Well, there y’see?” Darius patted Rasha on the back. “You got played by a professional spy. Could’ve happened to anybody.”

“Somehow,” Rasha said in a strained voice, “that doesn’t help!”

“Calm,” Jasmine urged. “This has been a mess, but we’ve actually made progress today.”

“Such as?” Tallie asked skeptically.

Jasmine smiled. “We have a name. Rogrind.”

Bird cleared her throat. “Well, with our business here concluded I really need to be shoving off, but in parting let me just verify that there is no possible way that’s his real actual name, and you know this, right? Right?”

“It doesn’t have to be,” said Jasmine. “For mundane detective work or even arcane scrying, it’s practically nothing to go on, true. But it’s a name he uses, and for the purposes of the right kind of fae magic, that’s a connection that can be followed back to him.” She grinned. “In addition to visiting Glory to pay our respects today, I say we head to the College of Salyrene and find our friend Schwartz. I’ll bet he can help us narrow this down to something we can tell Boss Tricks.”

“An interesting approach,” Rogrind said, joining them on the steps with a smile. All five jerked back from him, Ross momentarily losing his balance on the stairs and having to be steadied by Darius. “Let me just remind you all that up to this point, I have made every effort to gently illustrate my capability to get results, and tried to offer you more than fair restitution for your help in gaining what I need. I still much prefer those terms, and I think you’ll find that I can offer you a great deal. If you insist on making this confrontational, you should take care to be very certain you know what you’re getting into.”

“Carefully phrased,” said Bird, “but still a threat. Welp, I’m not paid enough for this. Cheerio, kids.”

She took off down the sidewalk at a brisk walk, still dripping papers from her thick folder.

“I hope none of those are important,” Darius mused, watching her go.

“She’s right, though,” said Jasmine, staring at the dwarf. “He’s threatening us, now.”

“I’m sure you misconstrued what I said,” Rogrind demurred with a pleasant smile. “And I’ll remind you that we are standing in front of an Imperial military police station, and any violent action—”

“Oh, shut your fucking gob, you piece of shit,” Rasha snarled. “Lesson learned. Next time we have to shut you up, you won’t see it coming and there won’t be witnesses.”

Rogrind sighed. “You kids really are out of your depth, aren’t you? Now, that was a threat, and right in front of—”

“How did you know my last name?” Tallie asked quietly.

The dwarf gave her a mysterious smile. “One picks up interesting bits and bobs here and there. All it takes is listening.”

“Yeah,” said Rasha. “He was also vague after he talked about my sisters.”

“Ohh, that is not a game you want to play,” Darius whispered.

Jasmine snorted. “Please, track down my family. I wish you all luck with it.”

“Ah.” Rogrind looked past them at the street. “Well, speak of the Dark Lady, as you Imperials say. A pleasure as always, my friends. I’ll talk to you soon; for now, I should leave Darius to attend to family business.”

“What?” Darius barked, whirling. “What are—”

He fell silent, staring at the street, where an expensively lacquered carriage had just pulled up to the curb in front of the police station. Rogrind strolled down the steps and away along the sidewalk, but they weren’t watching him anymore. The carriage wasn’t enchanted, but drawn by matching black horses groomed till they glowed, and had a House coat of arms on its door.

“Aw, hell,” Darius groaned.

A footman had dismounted from the rear of the carriage and approached its door, but before he reached it, the door burst open and a girl of no more than sixteen leaped out, heedless of her expensive dress.

“Darius!” she shouted, pointing accusingly at him.

He sighed heavily. “Hi, Layla. Let me guess, a dwarf told you I’d be here.”

“I don’t even want to know what manner of unsavory people you’re associating with now,” the girl seethed, stalking up the steps to him and utterly ignoring the bystanders who had stopped to gawk at her and her carriage.

“Hey,” Ross protested, and was ignored.

“Have you any idea how worried we’ve been?” Layla demanded, jabbing Darius in the chest with a finger. “Mother is positively beside herself! You shall be lucky if Father doesn’t disinherit you entirely!”

“Guys, this is my little sister, Layla,” he said resignedly. “Layla, may I introduce—”

“I refuse to become acquainted with your pack of guttersnipes!” she seethed. “Lord Darius Ahmad Sakhavenid, you will stop this nonsense and come home this instant!”

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