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“I’ve never actually seen something like that before,” Principia commented. “Aren’t they fairly rare?”

“Oh, aye, that they are,” Sister Eivery replied with good cheer, arranging the talisman carefully upon the practice dummy. “You’re an enchanter yourself, I understand? Well, divine blessings are nothing like that, basically. It’s all art an’ no science, every piece a personal touch without any easily reproducible methods goin’ into its creation. That’s why ye rarely see divine blessings on things not actively carried by a divine caster. Blessin’ your own kit, that’s a right dish o’ cake, but those blessings fade pretty quick. Layin’ a permanent blessing, the kind comparable to enchantment? Well, it ain’t just any cleric who can do that at all. An’ a good, powerful one like what we’ve got on this charm, that’s rarer still. Not so many o’ these left in circulation.”

“Not so many?” Principia said skeptically. “How many is that?”

“Well, it’s not as if I went an’ took inventory,” Eivery said, giving her a sardonic look and stepping down from the footstool she’d had to employ to arrange everything to her satisfaction upon the dummy. “I can tell ye, though, there’s a bare handful o’ clerics in each cult today who can produce permanent divine charms, and not a one can match relics like this. There’s not been a Hand of Salyrene in nigh sixty years, an’ that’s about what it takes to lay a charm of this caliber.”

“You do realize,” the elf said, raising an eyebrow, “that our operating theory is that the device we’re about to test on that apparently very rare charm will break it?”

“Aye,” replied the gnome, giving her a sunny smile. “An’ I also realize the High Commander signed off on this personally, so what’s it to the like o’ you an’ me?”

“I don’t know,” Principia murmured, shaking her head. “It just seems wasteful. We’ve got boxes of these things to play with and little enough notion what they even do; that thing seems quite valuable. Not to mention irreplaceable, apparently.”

“Well, ye never know,” Eivery said cheerfully. “The last few years, paladins ‘ave been croppin’ up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Mayhaps Salyrene’ll call up another soon an’ make all this moot, aye?”

“And maybe we’ll find ourselves with a need for every divine shielding charm in the Sisterhood’s collection and the lack of this one will mean somebody gets blasted by staff fire.”

“Oi, but you’re a dour one,” Sister Eivery said dryly. “Goin’ right for the worst case scenario, is it? Well, in that event, we can take comfort in the fact that based on what we know now, this ‘ere was the perfectly logical thing to do. That doodad an’ all its sisters ‘ave been gatherin’ dust since Jasmine Darnassy’s day. ‘Sides, if our operatin’ theory is these gadgets break divine charms, far better we do what’s necessary to know about ’em before it comes down to a crisis, aye?”

“Oh, you’re not wrong, Sister,” Principia said with a sigh. “I suppose it’s just the old grove talking. Smashing ancient, priceless artifacts to test cheap, newfangled ones… I may not be a traditional elf, but it bugs me. Gods, I’m starting to sound like my mother now. Somebody just shoot me in the head.”

“Well, I don’t have authorization for that,” Eivery said solemnly, “but if you’re serious, I can get a head start on the paperwork.”

The sergeant shook her head. “For the sake of thoroughness and my own paranoia, can you walk me through what all this setup does?”

“Aye, it’s simple enough. All the paraphernalia, ‘ere, is just so I can activate the talisman itself without bein’ immediately in range. That’s both fer safety concerns, considerin’ what ye’ll be firin’ at it here in a bit, an’ to make sure I actually can. In this situation, it might be difficult to do without an intermediary.”

Principia frowned and turned to peer at the gnome, carefully angling her head so as not to be looking down her nose. Eivery had a Stalweiss-pale complexion and hair an almost elvish shade of light blonde, which went quite well with her white Avenist robes. In bearing, though, she was much more a typical gnome than a typical Sister, all good cheer and boundless energy. Even the way she walked was a rapid series of almost-leaps that moved her at a speed comparable to her fellow Sisters, most of whom had legs as long as she was tall.

“Care to offer a little more detail on that?” Principia prompted after a moment, during which Eivery had fallen into study of her work, eyes darting over every detail of the arrangement to check for errors. “Why wouldn’t the talisman activate?”

“Well!” the little Sister said, snapping back to the present. “It’s a theological issue, innit? Now, see, what we’re aimin’ to do is possibly damage that relic, possibly permanently fer all we know, which falls under the general heading o’ sacrilege by some definitions. Aye, you’re not wrong t’be concerned on that point. See, the thing about divine power is, unless yer a dwarf, it comes from a deity. If Avei was to pop down ‘ere an’ ask us what the blazes we were up to, I reckon she’d be on board once we explained. She’s a reasonable sort, is Avei. But the likes o’ you an’ I ‘ardly warrant that kind o’ personal attention from a goddess, which means we’re dealin’ with ‘er in a more diffuse aspect. An’ when not specifically incarnated, gods are kinda… Well, mechanistic. All rules an’ principles, pretty predictable, long as you don’t draw their personal attention. There’s a good chance me tryin’ to activate a relic of Avei with the purpose in mind o’ smashin’ it would…well…”

“Get you smote?” Principia asked, raising her eyebrows.

Eivery barked a laugh and shook her head. “Hah, not by our goddess, Sergeant. If Avei takes the good time and trouble to smite somebody, they were doin’ a lot worse’n petty vandalism. Nah, though, there’s a good chance we’d find out that just plain isn’t allowed, an’ the thing wouldn’t trigger at all. So! All this ‘ere is some very basic fae work, easy enough even a divinist like me can crank it out. Not as basic as it could be, considerin’ I don’t have any fairy connections or talismans o’ power to run it, so I ‘ad to set up all these gizmos just to provide the smidgeon of energy we need. But aye, all the whole thing does is enable me to channel a little divine spark into the relic from way over ‘ere, at a safe distance an’ with enough in between that the poor thing can’t tell I’m plannin’ to blast it with your experimental whatsit, there.”

“Ah,” Principia said, nodding. “Well, you could have spared me some wondering by explaining all that up front. I am an enchanter, you know; I could’ve rigged an array myself to do more or less the same thing.”

“Aye, you could’ve set up an arcane system to channel divine power.” Eivery was generally too cheerful and too kind to be scathing, but the look she gave Principia was rather pointed. “Do ye not know yer Circles, woman? Unless you’re a straight-up mage, none o’ your tricks woulda done more’n get in the way.”

“Allow me my delusions, please,” Principia said sardonically. “They’re all that’s keeping me warm at night, these days.”

Eivery laughed obligingly, and Principia sighed, picking up the liargold-augmented staff set aside from the others, the one Commander Rouvad had already fired in demonstration. It had probably no more than three or four shots left before its liargold superstructure burned out, if that.

The relic they were using was a simple shielding charm, a fist sized golden eagle—cast in apparently real gold—on a heavy chain, now draped over the neck of a practice dummy. According to Sister Eivery, the shield it produced was significantly more powerful than even modern arcane shielding charms, though wouldn’t compare with the personal shield of either a wizard or cleric. Such was generally the case with magical relics like this: they hadn’t the strength or complexity to rival what an actual practitioner could do, but the really well-made old enchantments still held up against their newer counterparts. Modern enchantment was all about new kinds of charms, and ease of reproduction; with the exception of certain specific devices like mag cannons and Rail caravans, few modern contraptions packed the same kind of raw power that the practitioners of old had worked into the objects they left behind.

The nearest of Eivery’s fae charms was a good three yards away from the relic-wearing dummy, well outside the range of the shield once it was activated. They were simple enough, consisting of a small pedestal on which was a large crystal for power—not modern clean-cut quartz, but an older object tied to some fairy source or other—and arranged in a display of sticks, pebbles, and chalk lines, both atop the pedestal, on the floor around it, and even marked on the nearby wall. The whole thing looked far more primitive than an enchantment network of glass and metal wire, but Principia couldn’t have said whether this was due to the inherent nature of fae craft as opposed to divine, or simply Eivery’s unfamiliarity with it. In fact, it looked a lot like things she’d seen shamans create back in the grove, but elves usually defaulted to the oldest, most hidebound means they had of whatever it was they set out to do.

“Well, everything’s shipshape,” Eivery said, nodding up at her. “I’m good to go if you are.”

“Right,” Principia agreed, nodding in return. “Let’s get this over with.”

The priestess grinned at her once, then stepped over to lay her hand against the side of the pedestal.

There was no visible effect among the fairy craft laid out except for just the faintest glow kindled within the large, rough-cut crystal, but an instant later the golden eagle talisman flashed, and a sphere of pure golden light snapped into place around the dummy, producing a pleasing and very soft tone like the sustained chime of a distant bell. It was light enough that even Principia’s ears barely detected it.

“And here we go,” she muttered, raising the staff to her shoulder, and taking aim.

The familiar flash of gold light burst forth as she squeezed the clicker. It impacted the golden shield, and instantly the sphere flickered out of existence.

A split second later, the power crystal cracked straight down its center, and bits of pebbles and twigs were hurled in every direction from atop the pedestal.

“Whoops!” Eivery cried cheerfully, shielding her face. “Got a reaction outta that one, didn’t we?”

“Holy crap, it worked,” Principia muttered. “It shut it off… Quick, check on the relic.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” the priestess replied, already bouncing over to the dummy. She dragged her footstool closer and clambered up, taking the heavy necklace in both hands and peering at it closely with a pensive frown.

“Aye,” she said after a long, silent moment. “Aye, that thing smacked the Light right out of it. Not completely snuffed out, there’s still power in ‘ere…but nowhere near as much as there was. I’d ‘ave to study it closely to see whether the actual structure o’ the blessing itself is damaged. If it’s just been de-powered, odds are it’ll naturally recharge itself over time.”

“But if not…” Principia let out a low whistle. “Please do so, Sister. We need to know everything we possibly can about what we’re dealing with.”

“Way ahead o’ you,” Eivery grunted, standing on tiptoe to pull the chain over the dummy’s squat head. Principia resisted the urge to dash over and help her; after the last time, she had learned that such help was not wanted or appreciated. Not all gnomes were touchy about their height, but those who were… “Scary enough if somebody’s built a battlestaff that snuffs out divine magic. If it can actually unwork a blessing…”

“I’m no divinist,” Principia said, scowling down at the weapon in her hands, “but that seems really unlikely. Being able to counter actual energy… Well, there’s plenty of precedent for that. What would be new here is having a passive enchantment that can do it; Circle transition effects aren’t supposed to be achievable in any significant strength without a conscious caster working on them. It’s not impossible, though, not even theoretically. Actually dismantling a blessing or spell, though? That’d be like designing a spell that could build a golem.”

“Aren’t there arcane spells that can do the like o’ workin’ jigsaw puzzles?” Eivery asked curiously, trundling back over to her with the damaged relic.

“Sure,” Principia said with a shrug, “but that, again, is the work of powerful mages, who, again, have to be there casting the spell.”

“Aye,” Eivery mused, tilting her head to peer at the crates of other nullifier staves. “This ‘ere’s a leap forward in magical understanding, any way ye slice it. Stands to reason, theoretically, if somethin’ can be made to neutralize divine magic, there’s variants possible to do the same to all four schools.”

“Yeah,” Principia agreed. “Theoretically. The difference is, somebody sat down and did this. Somebody with a big budget and a lot of free time. My squad and Bishop Syrinx both are working on the who, but…” She trailed off, shaking her head.

Eivery pursed her lips thoughtfully, then suddenly grinned and hastily hopped over to the nearby velvet-lined box in which the relic had been transported. She carefully lowered it back into its home, then turned to bounce back toward the dummy.

“All right, then! Next test seems obvious t’me, aye?” Turning to face Principia, she was suddenly surrounded by a sphere of glowing gold. “Fire away!”

The elf stared at her, making no move to lift the stave into firing position. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Oh, c’mon,” Eivery said disdainfully. “Nobody went to the time an’ trouble o’ makin’ those things just so’s they could shoot at divine shielding talismans. As we were just discussing, there just aren’t enough of ’em to make it worthwhile. Nah, these’re meant to be used on clerics. That’s the real danger here, an’ therefore that’s what we need to test, aye? Best have as much intel as we can get before goin’ back to Rouvad with this.”

“Rouvad,” Principia snapped, “will mail me to my parents’ grove in three different packages if she learns I fired this thing at a priestess.”

“Pfft! Here’s me, takin’ full responsibility.” Behind her glowing shield, she grinned broadly and spread her arms wide. “I’m askin’ for it, Locke. Me word of honor before Avei’s own ears, that’s what I’ll tell the High Commander. All my idea!”

“I’d really prefer you do the tests on the relic, first.”

“Those’ll take hours, Locke. Aren’t ye curious to know the limits o’ these things?”

“I mean, we don’t know yet whether the effect is permanent! What if this completely destroys your ability to wield divine magic?”

“Categorically impossible,” the gnome said without hesitation. “C’mon, Sergeant, this is basic stuff. My power comes from Avei; it’s a function o’ my connection to her. That connection can be dampened, interfered with; aye, there’s plenty o’ precedent in the history o’ Circle warfare. Any battlemage worth ‘is salt knows how to disrupt a cleric’s power. Like we were just sayin’, all that’s new, ‘ere, is it bein’ a passive enchantment rather than an actively cast spell. But no mage, warlock, or witch can destroy a priest’s relationship with ‘er goddess. That’s nonsense. There is just no way an enchanted weapon can do it!”

Principia shook her head, unconsciously turning the staff over and over in her hands. “I do not like this at all, Eivery. I follow your logic, but really, the risk. Not just to you, but no matter what you say about responsibility, Rouvad hardly needs an excuse to toss me out of here on my beautiful ears.”

“Y’know, Locke, you surprise me,” Eivery commented, folding her arms now. “Fer the pain in the butt everybody says you are, I never expected you to be such an ol’ mother hen.”

The sergeant narrowed her eyes. “…woman, are you trying to provoke me into shooting you?”

Eivery grinned. “Is it working?”

“A little. But seriously, now…”

“Sergeant,” the gnome said more seriously, “these things came from the Thieves’ Guild, aye? As in, the Guild not only had ’em, but they tipped us off to come find ’em, right?”

“That’s what I was told. What of it?”

“Don’t give me that, you’re the clever one. Really, I’m not a nincompoop just because I’m bubbly an’ adorable, an’ I know you aren’t the irritating blockhead you like to pretend to be. We both know there’s a real urgency, here. How often does the bloody Thieves’ Guild do the Sisterhood this kind o’ favor? We don’t ‘ave time fer this, Locke. Look, in the worst case scenario, if it does somehow permanently affect my connection with Avei, that can be rebuilt. The same slow way I built it in the first place, an’ probably a sight quicker with some help from the Salyrites. But even that’s scarcely possible. We need data, an’ we can start by figurin’ out how much interference it creates with a personal divine shield, an’ how long it takes the connection to recover on its own.”

Principia shifted the weapon uncomfortably in her grip. “Based on previous cases of Circle interactions, what would you guess?”

“I’d be amazed if it’s as much as an hour,” Eivery said cheerfully. “Point o’ fact, I’ve been neutralized fer that long in the past. Aye, I wasn’t always safely behind these ‘ere walls, pokin’ and proddin’ at mystery gizmos with the likes o’ you. We’re neither of us any strangers to danger, Locke. Now pull the clicker, while we’re still young.”

Principia sighed and shook her head, but raised the staff back into firing position. “Someday, Eivery, when we know each other a little better, you’ll look back on the fact that I’m being the voice of restraint here and fully appreciate what a bad idea that means this is.”

“Promises, promises.”

“Are you sure you can still examine the relic if this—”

“Would you quit yer bellyachin’ an’ shoot me already?!”

She barely came to the end of the sentence before the flash of light snuffed out her shield.


“It’s only been a day, Lang,” Ephanie said in exasperation, looking up from her own polishing. “You can’t possibly be that bored yet.”

“Anywhere else? No, of course not,” Merry replied, gesticulating with the rag she was using on her armor. “But come on, Corporal, Locke won’t even let us hang around in the courtyard.”

“That is an excellent decision on her part,” Nandi said from her top bunk, not looking up from the book she was reading. “The sight of us hanging around in the courtyard would provoke justifiable resentment from the other squads. And that’s not even touching upon what Captain Dijanerad would think.”

“The Captain’s pretty easygoing,” Casey said.

“With Locke, yes,” Nandi agreed. “Because Shahdi is wise enough to see that Locke’s madness is a thin veneer over a sturdy framework of method. The rest of you are another matter.”

“I just want it entered into the record,” Merry stated, “that just one day is plenty of time to go completely stir crazy in a cabin.”

“I bet if you asked the Sarge real nicely she’d let you run extra drills,” Farah suggested.

“You know what, I think I will. If nothing else, it’ll confuse the hell out of her.”

“Lang,” Ephanie said in exasperation, “we’re soldiers. Waiting around is the lion’s share of what we do. If there’s ever an actual war…honestly, I can’t even imagine how you’ll cope.”

“Probably shoot herself,” Casey said cheerfully.

“While we’re fantasizing,” Farah added, “why stop at war? Let’s say we’re…stranded in the mountains. How much you wanna bet we’d eat Lang within a week?”

“Well, I mean, sure, that goes without saying,” Merry replied, grinning as she continued polishing her boots. “The only one with more meat is Avelea, and she’s actually useful around here.”

“Excuse me?” Ephanie said, setting down her rag and cuirass to scowl at her.

“It’s a compliment, Avelea.”

“And it’s not technically meat,” Nandi murmured. Casey and Merry both dissolved in laughter at Ephanie’s expression.

“I have to say I don’t mind the respite,” Farah said. “I’m pretty interested in this mission. Aren’t you all?”

“That’s half the problem,” Merry replied, still chortling. “I mean, we could be out there.”

“Doing what?” Ephanie asked pointedly. “You and I aren’t even needed for Sarge’s project, apparently, and Shahai’s group just have to wait for the apprentices to contact them. Just stay alert, run your drills and be ready, Private. We’ll have action before we know it.”

“I guess there’s that,” Merry said rather sullenly. “At least here, we’re surrounded by other soldiers and not civvies. I swear, if one more dimwit stops me on patrol to talk about the weather…”

“It’s three weeks past midwinter and people are walking around without coats,” Farah pointed out. “The weather is worth talking about.”

“I heard the Emperor’s secretly assigned the entire Azure Corps to figure out if the weather’s being unnaturally interfered with,” said Casey.

“The one thing you can be assured about the Emperor’s secret activities,” said Nandi, “is that you wouldn’t have heard about them.”

“Which would go right out the window if the whole Azure Corps was in the know,” Farah added.

“Well, still,” Casey said defensively. “It’s not natural. The Emperor’s gotta be doing something.”

“Yep,” Merry said fatalistically, “that’s it. That’s the conversation I was just being thankful I’m not out there having with the locals. You’re doing this just to annoy me, aren’t you, Elwick?”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Casey said cheerfully. “Apparently, I’d have to make sergeant before I’ll have the free time to make my decisions based on what annoys you. Which is good, it gives me plenty of time to observe Locke’s technique.”

Merry chucked a boot at her.

“I don’t know what this is,” Principia said, stepping into the cabin, “but luckily for you knuckleheads I’m far too lazy to enforce proper discipline. Lang, your footwear will be either on your feet or up your ass if you continue to be unable to control it.”

“Are we just all going to pretend she can’t hear us from halfway across the parade ground?” Farah stage whispered.

“Sergeant!” Merry saluted without rising from her bed. “Permission to ask why you’re shiny!”

“I am an elf, Lang,” Principia said haughtily, sashaying down the center aisle between rows of bunks with her nose in the air. She wasn’t shiny, per se, but a faint lightening of the air followed her, almost as if she were being tracked by a spotlight. “I walk in beauty and light all of my days. I am hardly surprised it’s taken you this long to notice, stoopid hoomin.”

“Permission to point out that Corporal Shahai is not shiny!”

“I prefer taste and restraint in my personal grooming,” Nandi said lazily. “Glowing in public is so gauche.”

“That’s a blessing of some significant strength, if I’m not mistaken,” said Ephanie. “Congratulations on finding one priestess you can get along with, Sarge.”

“Congratulations are premature, I’m afraid,” Principia said wryly. “Sister Eivery was flinging blessings around like candy at Wildfeast, just because she could. And she was right—the effect of the neutralizers only lasts about an hour. There’ll be no living with her, I just know it.”

“Neutralizers?” Ephanie set aside her armor, and Nandi sat up and leaned over the edge of the bed, attending more closely to the conversation. “So the tip was right, then? Those weapons counter divine magic?”

“Rather effectively,” Principia said with a frown. “It’s…disturbing, to be frank. Eivery ended up taking the rest of the day to run tests and make sure she’s healthy and sorted out, so we weren’t able to get started on actually reverse-enchanting the things. The rest of our mission has just become that much more important, ladies. We know what those things are, now. It’s that much more important to know where they came from.”

“Oh, Sarge.” Ephanie reached over to the stand beside the arcane heater, picking up a thick envelope resting atop it. “You have mail. A courier brought it by an hour ago.”

“Oh, gods, what now,” Principia groaned. “Mail call is in the morning. Special deliveries are always bad news.”

“I wonder which’ll tell you what’s in it faster,” Merry mused. “Opening it, or whining at it?”

“Corporal Avelea, I want you to poison Lang’s next meal.”

“I’m…not so good with poisons, ma’am. Can I just stab her?”

Silence answered. Principia had opened the envelope and was staring at its contents. Its thickness was deceptive; rather than containing a sheaf of papers, there was only a single note, and a fluffy pink blossom, only slightly squished due to having been carefully housed in a wide envelope.

Casey frowned, edging forward to peer at it. “That’s…is that… That looks like a mimosa blossom.”

“It is,” Nandi said quietly. “Sergeant, if it’s not private…?”

“It’s just a time and a place,” Principia said tonelessly, staring at the two lines on the note. “This afternoon, in the central temple of Ryneas.”

“The god of art?” Merry wrinkled her nose. “That’s basically just a museum, right? Or do they have classes there? Is that even a proper religion?”

“Sounds like the point,” Casey said. “It’s a pretty neutral place to have a meeting. What I wanna know about is that flower. Where the hell would somebody get something like that in midwinter? And what does it mean?”

“Well, you can grow flowers in winter with alchemy or fairy magic,” Farah said slowly. “But a mimosa’s a whole tree.”

“The Arboretum,” said Nandi, in the same quiet tone, her eyes fixed on Principia’s expression. “Plants in the indoor botanical gardens are charmed to blossom year round. It holds several mimosas.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to pick the flowers in there, though,” Casey pointed out.

“Yes,” Nandi agreed. “But someone might be willing to steal one.”

“Why, though?”

“It’s a signature,” Principia said. Very carefully, she tucked the note and the flower back into their envelope. “A rather clever one; sure to get my attention, and meaningless to most people who might intercept this. All right, ladies, be ready. We’re going to have dinner early and head out to answer this summons.”

“We have to go to a museum?” Merry whined.

“Are you sure, Sergeant?” Nandi asked softly.

“I see two possibilities,” Principia replied, her tone cold. “If this is a genuine invitation, I have to answer it. If it is a trap… I’m not going alone. We’ll go to the museum, I will go to the specified gallery, and the rest of you will remain close enough that Shahai’s ears can tell you what’s going on. If it’s authentic… Then I guess you can go home. In fact, it would be best if you did. If it is not, however…” The envelope crinkled under her rigid fingers. “Then I want six Legionnaires on hand to explain to whoever had this bright idea that this is not a string they should pull.”


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11 – 10

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It had ended up being a fairly early night by the time they all got back to the Guild. Between that and the previous night’s disruptions, she had slept early and well, and been awake at her habitually early hour. In fact, by the time she made it to the mess hall, they were only just beginning to serve breakfast, and so some minutes later, she was stepping into the pit, fed and ready to begin the day, at an hour when hardly anyone was about and most of the other apprentices were still sound asleep.

“Jasmine.”

She stopped and turned. Pacing toward her was the older man who had been with Grip the day before, studying her through slightly narrowed eyes. Graying hair and the lines of his face alone betrayed his age; he was straight-backed and trim of build, with an incisive gaze set currently in a pensive expression.

In each hand, he carried a stick about a yard long; as soon as she turned to him, he tossed one in her direction, which she caught reflexively.

“Spar with me.”

“I—”

Before she could squeeze out a second word, he surged forward, stick upraised, and instinct took over. She deflected his probing strike, then the next, and then directly blocked the third to test the strength of his blows.

It was considerable.

His sharp, contemplative expression never changed as he continued pressing her. The pattern he established was immediately familiar; he was testing her abilities, probing her defenses, gauging the speed of her reflexes and the precision of her movements. Jasmine, mindful of her place as an apprentice in the Guild, endured this patiently for a few rounds, allowing him to push her backward, before suddenly striking out more aggressively.

At that, even as he gave ground under her assault, the man permitted himself a slight smile.

Attempting to probe him in return was unsatisfying, to say the least; his every movement was precise as dwarven machinery, evading and deflecting each attack with exactly the force it demanded and no more. She sensed immediately that this was an opponent whose martial skill outstripped hers by far, even when he was refraining from demonstrating it. This kind of pure, unharried control in the face of her efforts reminded her of sparring with the Avenist blademasters who had trained her initially, and more recently with Professor Ezzaniel.

Then, he abruptly switched to attack again, pressing harder than before—so hard she was suddenly forced to seriously exert herself. His strikes remained eerily perfect in placement, but they came faster, and from unexpected angles, and hit harder to boot. She swiftly realized that meeting him head-on was a losing strategy, and switched to evasion. Still he came, forcing her to spin aside ever more rapidly.

Without warning, his entire body surged forward following what she had initially mistaken for an exploratory prod at her defenses, and her answering evasion allowed him to slip behind her. She spun, then spun again—it was as if he had disappeared.

No—he was behind her, and stayed there no matter how she twisted to face him again. Then, as she finally bounded forward to gain distance, he was suddenly there again; his stick came down on hers from above with numbing force, sending it clattering to the ground, and an instant later it halted an inch from her eyes, the strike that would have bowled her over backward reined in at the last possible instant.

Jasmine stared at the shaft of wood from far too close, only now becoming aware that she was breathing heavily and sweating. She took one careful step backward, and he lowered his weapon at the same moment.

“So,” she said cautiously, “you’ve done this before.”

At that, he favored her with a small smile, then lowered his fighting stick to his side and bowed from the waist. “I am Silence.”

She returned the gesture. “Jasmine. But you seem to know that.”

“One of my old pupils identified you to me. Suggested I should examine the level of your skill.”

“Grip?”

He nodded once, again studying her consideringly. “What an interesting life you have led.”

“I beg your pardon?” She frowned, unable to keep the wariness out of her voice.

“You are very good for one your age,” he replied, still contemplating her in perfect calm. “The Eagle Style is distinctively recognizable; even Grip said you were clearly trained in it, though yesterday, what I saw you demonstrate against that boy was a classic Sun Style evasive pattern. That is the intriguing blend I see in you. Intensive training in the martial art of the Sisterhood, but with the most unlikely additions. Omnist fighting, but you also employ a Narisian saber form when evading, and those lunges are distinct to Punaji fencing—power and the illusion of wildness, remaining under perfect control.”

“Yes. Well.” She absentmindedly shifted backward half a step. “I suppose I had a rather privileged upbringing; I’ve only begun to really appreciate that since coming here. I had teachers from all over—”

“No.” He contradicted her flatly, but without ire or aggression. “You were trained in the Eagle Style alone, and trained to incredible competence. The rest are mere tidbits in comparison, things you have picked up here and there as you encountered them. It is most unusual to see someone so young who has so mastered the Eagle Style’s dueling form; almost all of what is taught to the Legions and the girls raised in Avei’s monasteries is phalanx fighting. There are plenty of blademasters among the Sisterhood, of course, but they are older women who have studied it in their own time. In this day and age, single combat is little more than a performance art, having scarce application in war.”

“That is…creepy,” she said frankly.

At this, he smiled again. “It’s little more than a parlor trick, in truth. It is said that fighting styles are as individual as faces; I happen to have devoted my life to them, and to their understanding. It is not boasting to say that few others would perceive in your attacks what I do. Hardly anyone has a need. There are many paths in Eserion’s service, and I have found mine chiefly as a teacher of the martial arts.”

“I see,” she said carefully. “Then I thank you for the lesson.”

Silence studied her mutely for a moment longer, then stepped forward, producing a small envelope from a pocket of his coat and extending it to her. “This is an invitation for you, from Glory. She wished me to offer it if I judged your level of skill commensurate with her needs.”

Jasmine frowned at the envelope, making no move to accept it. “Who is Glory?”

“A thief,” he replied, still holding it patiently out to her. “One who commands immense respect, both in the Guild and in the city at large. She does not have the power, explicitly, to give orders to me or even to you. But a request from Glory is one you would be well advised to take with the utmost seriousness.”

Finally, she reached out to take the envelope from him. “All…right. Thank you.”

“Her address is written within,” Silence said. “She will be available for you to visit any time before noon today.”

He bowed to her once more, then took two steps back before turning and climbing the stairs to the upper level, where he vanished from sight.

Jasmine frowned at the envelope in her hand, turning it over, and only after a close inspection opened it to study the scented sheet of parchment within. After a moment, she made her own way toward the steps, barely paying attention to her path as she read and re-read the missive.

Thus distracted, she paid no mind to the very few apprentices and senior thieves currently present in the pit, though all of them were now watching her closely. Including Tallie, who leaned in the doorway to the dormitory with her arms folded, studying Jasmine through narrowed eyes.


Glory’s address was in a row of large townhouses in a very expensive district, where Jasmine’s clearly secondhand coat drew contemptuous looks and a number of outright sneers, which she ignored. She did have to pause in front of the gate to peer upward at the house, and then double-check the address on the invitation. This place was bigger than Bishop Darling’s house, and its front garden was not only twice the size but looked like it would have been lavish if it were not midwinter; the desiccated state of the shrubbery and the lack of snow to obscure it were unfortunate.

She passed through the gate, crossed the path as quickly as possible, and rang the bell. No sense beating around the dried-up bush.

After a very short span of time, the door opened inward, revealing an expressionless blond man in his thirties, wearing a suit identical to that which she remembered seeing on Darling’s Butler, Price.

“Good day,” he said, the two words a masterpiece of pronunciation. Just the faintest upnote in the phrase, coupled with an infinitesimal movement of his left eyebrow, subtly challenged her prerogative to be here. The effect was unmistakeable, and yet went nowhere near crossing a line which would have justified any complaint on her part.

Butlers.

“Good morning,” she replied, proffering the violet-scented invitation. “My name is Jasmine; Glory asked me to come.”

“Of course,” the Butler said, smoothly stepping back and opening the door for her. “You are expected. Please, come in.”

“Thank you.”

She tried not to gawk, but couldn’t help peering around in fascination as the Butler led her across a marble-floored entrance hall, up a curved staircase with gilded bannisters, through a short hallway draped with crimson velvet hangings, and into a sunny little sitting room. The décor in this place was…striking. Expensive, yes, which was hardly surprising given the size and location of the house, but in terms of taste it ran heavily to reds and golds, dark woods, and golden marble. Cases of worn-looking books were interspersed with equally well-used weapons both hanging on walls and displayed behind glass. If she had to put a word to the overall aesthetic, it would be “masculine.” That is, until she reached the little sitting room on the second floor, which was done in shades of blue and mauve that really seemed they should have clashed but did not, accented by touches of lace and oil paintings depicting mostly pastoral scenes.

The Butler showed her to a seat in a dainty armchair and bowed out of the room, assuring her the mistress of the house would be with her presently. Upon his departure, she drummed her fingers on her knees, peering about with a sensation just short of nervousness. More than anything, she was curious about this Glory, but the house itself made her feel keenly out of place.

Luckily, she was not kept waiting long before the door opposite the one through which she had entered opened, and her hostess stepped in.

“Ah, the famous Jasmine!” Glory said with a broad yet sly smile, and Jasmine began to have a sinking feeling about this. Glory was a strikingly beautiful woman who could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty, and at first glance appeared just to have awakened. At any rate, her dark hair hung unstyled down her back, and she wore a brocaded robe over…apparently nothing. Upon closer inspection, however, Jasmine noted that the hair in question was freshly washed and had been brushed to a luminous sheen, the robe was artfully opened at the neck to display a generous hint of cleavage that couldn’t possibly be so pert without hidden support, and her lovely features showed subtle but clear cosmetics. Also, upon Glory’s arrival, the same scent of violets which suffused Jasmine’s invitation wafted into the room.

“I don’t know about that,” Jasmine said diplomatically, rising politely to greet her hostess. “It’s a mystery to me why anybody seems to know who I am.”

“And is that not intriguing?” Glory replied in a tone which could have been accurately characterized as a purr. She stepped forward, offering her hand in a position that left Jasmine no clear option except to take it gently and lay a kiss on her wrist, like a courtier in a chapbook.

She let a beat of confusion pass before sliding her own hand under Glory’s, gently wrapping her fingers around the woman’s wrist in a warrior’s handshake, and delicately yet firmly turning their grasped hands to a more normal orientation. Rude, possibly. She was aware that she lacked understanding of the etiquette at play here, and equally aware that she was being baited. Better to make it plain up front that she wasn’t going to play along. If that resulted in a quick expulsion from the house, well, she didn’t really know why she was here in the first place.

Glory, if anything, seemed mightily amused by Jasmine’s little display, and made a point of dragging her fingertips flirtatiously along her wrist when disengaging from the handshake.

“Please, sit down, be comfortable,” she said pleasantly, suiting the words by lowering herself smoothly into a similar chair opposite the small serving table from Jasmine’s.

“Thank you for inviting me over,” Jasmine said carefully, seating herself again. “I apologize if I seem…blunt…but I am really not educated for, ah…high society. I mean no disrespect. And I’m puzzled as to why you wished to speak to me at all.”

“Well, my dear, etiquette is what it is,” Glory said idly, lounging back in her armchair and daintily crossing her legs, the pose subtly suggestive without being too bold. “A long list of little customs which must be memorized to be observed. Overrated, I think. Blunt or no, you show respect and consideration in your manner, and that counts for far more in my estimation.” She paused, smiling with that same bare hint of mischief, before continuing. “As for why you are here… Tell me, what have you heard about me?”

“Nothing,” Jasmine said honestly. “Only your name, and that only this morning. From Silence, who I had also never heard of before.”

“I see.” For some reason, this answer seemed to amuse and delight her hostess. “Well! I am Tamisin Dinara Sharvineh, also known in Eserion’s service as Glory, and if I might be forgiven for flattering myself, a somewhat unusual creature. You are doubtless acquainted with some of the more common paths we Eserites tend to tread as we rise through the Guild. The con artists, the enforcers, the sneak-thieves, the purse-cutters. There are as many variations on these themes as there are people to practice them; ours is a faith which firmly discourages blind adherence to custom. Beyond that, though, many choose to find more unique ways of living Eserion’s faith. Silence is one; Lore, who I shall presume you have met by this point, is another. Such as they are a vital part of the Guild’s structure. Others dwell more on the outskirts of the Eserite sphere, no less esteemed or important for being unique. I am one of those.”

“Is that so?” Jasmine said politely.

Glory’s smile widened almost imperceptibly. “I am… Well, as a concept the profession has largely disappeared from civilized society, thanks chiefly to the influence of Izara and her priests. The most applicable word would be ‘courtesan.’”

Jasmine opened her mouth, then shut it after a moment, failing to find a single safe thing to say in response. She was keenly aware of the flush rising in her cheeks, especially under Glory’s knowing smile.

“From what I understand,” she murmured, “you must have been raised by Avenists, to have drilled in their combat styles as much as Grip and Silence believe you have. Tell me… Would that be Jasmine Avelea, or are you simply the daughter of devout parents with means?”

“Excuse me,” Jasmine said, finding somewhat safer footing in rejection, “but with all due respect, I am not interested in discussing my personal history.”

“Oh, but of course,” Glory said languidly, waving a hand—whose fingers, Jasmine noted for the first time, had their nails immaculately painted. For heaven’s sake, it wasn’t even midmorning. “You must pardon me—I am inquisitive by nature, but you will find I do not in the least lack respect for privacy. It is a vital trait in my profession, after all. But I have brought you here to explore possible answers to intriguing questions. And I can only imagine you must have several of your own.”

“I…” Jasmine had to pause to clear her throat, which seemed to amuse Glory. Her annoyance at that helped to ground her. “Frankly, I don’t understand what that has to do with stealing.”

“Stealing is a means to an end, Jasmine,” Glory said. “Nobody steals just to steal; those who claim they do are in it for the rush, for the thrill. Eserion is the patron of thieves in much the way Avei is looked to by lawyers, judges, and police. Not because the deity is of those things, but because their defining concept encompasses them. Eserion, young lady, can be best understood as the god of defiance.”

“I see,” Jasmine mused, frowning. “That’s…hm. I appreciate the insight; I haven’t had the chance to learn much actual Eserite theology yet. But, um…my question stands.”

“Oh?” Glory raised one immaculate eyebrow, sculpted as much by brush and pencil as by genetics. “I suspect you have made some erroneous assumptions. I am certainly not a whore; I do not rent my body, or my attention. It is through less direct and more powerful means that I accumulated all this.” She gestured idly around the tastefully expensive sitting room. “Try to understand the mindset of the very rich, and very powerful. Almost anything they want, they can buy, or take. It diminishes the value of having; human beings are meant to work, to earn. We take sadly little pleasure in pleasures that cost us nothing, and so much of the misery of acquisition is rooted in everyone’s failure to understand this. Were I for sale, well…what would be the point of me? Anyone wanting sex can simply walk into a temple of Izara—or, if they have somehow offended even the Izarites, go to a brothel. A few such do manage to exist.”

She straightened up slowly, leaning toward Jasmine in a way that displayed more of her cleavage, though her now-serious expression was arresting enough to hold her guest’s gaze. The same might not have been true of someone interested in ogling another woman’s bosom, but Jasmine was, in spite of herself, now too interested in Glory’s explanation to think on such things.

“Men and women do not come here looking to buy my affection. Oh, they bring me gifts, this is true. Lavish gifts, generally, though even that does not fund the lion’s share of my lifestyle. I operate a kind of…salon, here. It is a lively establishment, most evenings, where I hold court among the rich, the bored, the powerful…the lonely. We discuss all manner of things. Art, history, enchantment, politics, war… I am fully conversant in all the topics that are bandied about in the halls of the Palace itself.” She smiled coyly, somehow not losing the intensity of her gaze to it. “It is a rather less restrictive environment, of course. All of my guests are free to let their hair down—not enough that my home embraces bawdiness, but enough to grant them a tantalizing liberty they are denied in more acceptable settings. And I, of course, rule my tiny kingdom with just the right touch of flirtation, the merest hint of sensuality, to keep them intrigued, and always coming back. Each relationship is a thing I cultivate carefully, and with sincere appreciation for the individual which whom I share it.”

She shrugged disarmingly, now shifting to lean against the arm of her chair in a way that dramatically emphasized the long curve of her waist and hip. “And many do manage to spend a night, here and there, in my arms. Not all—perhaps not even most. The promise, the possibility, is always there, however. That is what keeps them intrigued by me. Anything else in this world they can reach out and take at a whim. They cannot buy me, however. To have me, they must earn me. And so they spend countless hours and fortunes in my company. That which must be sought, charmed, quested for, is so much more valuable than that which can be merely bought. No one feels cheated, or is cheated, by dancing in my circle, even if they never attain the ultimate prize.”

“I…see,” Jasmine murmured, well aware that her posture was visibly stiff and uncomfortable.

“Perhaps you are beginning to,” Glory said, again with that sly smile. “You are still overburdened by the hang-ups disguised as morals your upbringing inflicted upon you.”

“Is it worth it?” Jasmine asked quietly.

Glory’s expression immediately sobered. “For me? More than worth it. I would not suggest this life to anyone who did not have the inclination. I love it all, though. The conversation, the politics. The games, the emotions, the people. And yes, the love, both physical and otherwise. It is for each person to discover how they are best served by their sexuality; I am immensely gratified by sharing myself with a variety of Tiraas’s most fascinating people. I rather suspect that you would not be. Many wouldn’t.”

“I’m still not sure I understand, though. How is this stealing or defiance?”

Glory shook her head, smiling again. “Child, the most powerful people in the Empire circulate through my home, my life, and my bed. They do it by talking, and by competing for my affection. My true trade is in secrets, and in favors. Nothing happens in this city that I cannot learn just by asking; there is very little that I cannot cause to happen by whispering the right words in the right ears. It’s an influence that must be wielded with the utmost subtlety; nothing would destroy all I have built faster than overreaching. But provided I don’t get greedy—which I do not—I am positioned to provide that which the Guild needs most of all.”

She shifted again, back to her original pose, leaning back in the armchair and smiling knowingly.

“Opportunity.”

“I see,” Jasmine said again. “I…actually begin to think that I do.”

“Yes, you would not be here if my friends thought you too dense to grasp it,” Glory said pleasantly.

“Why am I here, though? You said it yourself; this kind of thing is not for me. And I’m definitely not the sort of person who can contribute to your…enterprise.”

“Ah, so now we come to it,” Glory said solemnly. “The truth is, Jasmine, I am looking for an apprentice.”

Jasmine shot to her feet before realizing she was going to. “I will never—”

“Sit down.”

She obeyed instantly, reflexively. Glory had neither raised her voice nor roughened her tone, but there was in it the absolute conviction that she would obeyed which Jasmine had been taught from the cradle to respect.

“Dear girl,” Glory said, shaking her head, “of course you’re not the type to pursue my path in life. I told you as much; I really don’t see it in you. Besides, the nature of a Guild apprenticeship isn’t just in following a sponsor’s footsteps; it matters how you fit into your sponsor’s life and career while you are there. It would utterly wreck my methods to have someone around who served as competition. No… I need very specific things in an apprentice, and I have had my friends in the Guild keeping their eyes open for a likely prospect. You are the first such who has been brought to my attention. I am, you see, exceedingly particular.”

“Why me?” Jasmine asked warily.

“What I require,” Glory explained, “is a counterpoint. Someone calm and decorous where I am vivacious and flirtatious. Someone martial and dangerous where I am soft and pleasing—and as able and willing to demonstrate his or her skills as I am my own. Someone who can contribute, converse intelligently and be a positive presence in my salon. And finally—and this is most important—someone who will benefit from my teaching.”

She straightened, for the first time assuming a simple, upright posture, regarding Jasmine with a serious expression.

“Someone who needs to learn what I can teach them about subtlety, careful influence, and the uses of a light touch. I am, here, making my most presumptuous guess yet, but… That is the thing you came to the Guild to learn, no?”

Slowly, Jasmine nodded.

Glory nodded in return. “What made you break with the faith of Avei?”

“I haven’t.”

“Oh?”

“I…” She glanced away. “It’s a little difficult to… The truth is, I am something of a brute. I’ve realized it fairly recently. I still value Avei’s principles, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that you just can’t get anywhere in the modern world with the attitude that every problem is an evil to vanquish. The Sisterhood are right about a lot of things…but they aren’t right about everything. I came to the Guild to learn other ways of… Of acting, but also of understanding.”

Glory’s answering smile was simple and honest in a way that none of her previous expressions had been. “It may be that you are exactly what I seek. And that I am what you seek.”

Jasmine shrugged, slumping back into her own chair. “I, um… Maybe. The thought is so weird to me I’m having a hard time looking at it objectively.”

Her hostess smiled in pure, friendly amusement. “Well, let me pose a question to you, Jasmine. What is your greatest passion in life?”

“Justice,” she said immediately.

Glory nodded. “And why is that?”

Jasmine gaped at her. “I—that—well. I mean, it’s justice?”

“That is your upbringing talking.” Glory pointed a manicured finger at her. “In fact, I have known a good many people in my time who were driven by a passion for justice. Interestingly, most were either Avenists or Eserites. And every one of them, without exception, could tell me exactly the thing which ignited that passion within them. In every case, it was a painful encounter with injustice which left them compelled to seek out and destroy that monster wherever it lurked. You, though? You are following a path laid out for you by those who came before. And that will lead you nowhere.”

“Just because I haven’t suffered the way others have doesn’t mean I’m not sincere,” Jasmine said irritably.

“Sincerity isn’t passion,” Glory retorted. “Oh, don’t mistake me, you need a lot more than passion to get ahead in life. There’s a great deal of skill and technique that goes into building a meaningful existence. But without passion? Without something that drives you? You have no place to begin. Unless you are driven from within, you will be driven from without—either by the randomness of the world, or by clever people who would exploit you for their own gain. What drives you, Jasmine? Forget Avei, forget Eserion, discard all systems and ideologies. What is the thing inside you that burns, that pushes you forward to make a better world, and a better you?”

Jasmine stared at her, not even aware that her mouth was slightly open.

Glory studied her thoughtfully for a few long seconds before speaking again.

“I will have to think on this, Jasmine. I suggest you do as well. You…intrigue me. I see possibility here. But…whether it is the possibility we both need, I am not yet sure. Are you?”

Jasmine swallowed heavily. “I’m…less sure of everything than I was when I walked in here.”

Glory’s answering smile was sympathetic. “I don’t say this to many people, but… Whether or not we decide to proceed together, my door is open to you, whenever you need it. Best that you visit me in the mornings; something tells me that without specific coaching, you would mix poorly with the guests who are usually to be found in my home in the evenings. But when you have a need, you may come to me. I think that, whatever else befalls, you and I can help one another.

“For now, though, I thank you for this extremely enlightening visit, and must bid you good day. The preparations for my night’s work are more involved than you would perhaps believe.”


Outside the opulent townhouse, she came to a stop just past the gate, staring at the rich houses across the street and not seeing them.

Passion? Nothing in her early upbringing had covered that. If anything, Avei’s faith encouraged comprehension, restraint, discipline. Avenist fanatics existed—she had recently shared a campus with one—but there weren’t many and they tended not to get far in the cult. Most Avenists found them rather uncomfortable to be around.

Passion was no part of her University education either. Tellwyrn’s program emphasized rationality even more heavily than the Sisterhood did, and with even less patience for foolishness.

But…

Something was tickling at the back of her mind. Something which seemed connected to her increasing frustration with this whole enterprise, but also to her hope for what she wanted to achieve. This was another piece of the puzzle… But it suggested more pieces which were still out of her reach.

How to connect all this? She couldn’t figure a way to make the disparate fragments of her understanding fit together. If anything, her slow education in the ways of the Eserites was only pulling it all apart.

She had an idea, of course, how to proceed, but…

“Miss? Are you lost?”

Jasmine snapped back out of her inner world, finding herself confronted by an Army patrolman. He stood directly in front of her, his face and posture neither aggressive nor sympathetic. All at once, she remembered that in her casual clothing and slightly scruffy longcoat, she did not in any way look like the sort of person who had any business standing around in a neighborhood like this.

“Actually, yes,” she said, suddenly seizing on an idea. “Can you direct me to the Imperial botanical gardens? The sheltered one, in the glass dome. I was sent in this direction but I can’t even see a building like that over the houses…”

“I’m afraid you’re extremely turned around, miss,” the officer said, lifting his eyebrows. His tone didn’t quite express suspicion, but hinted that he wasn’t buying this story. “That’s in the northeast quadrant of the city, very near the center. You’re in the southwest and about four blocks too far toward the walls.”

She sighed heavily and rubbed at her forehead. “That’s just…fantastic. Really. Ugh… I’m sorry to be a bother, but if it’s not too much trouble… What’s the best way to get there you can suggest for someone with the Empire’s worst sense of direction? I started out from the old spice market and…”

At that, he smiled, if only very faintly. “Well, it’s actually fairly simple; if you’re new to the city, I wouldn’t try getting directly from one point to another. The trick is always to start at Imperial Square, which is right in the center. You can find it from anywhere, and you can get anywhere from it. In this case, you’d just take the northeast street out of the square, and the gardens will be barely a block along on your right.”

“Thank you,” she said feelingly. “Really, that’s good advice. Always from the Square, right. And from here, that is, uh…” She stood on tiptoe, craning her neck.

“That way, miss,” he said, pointing up the street to her right. “This avenue is leveled out, but if you look around you can usually manage to see the general slope of the city. Imperial Square is always uphill. When you run out of uphill to go, you’re there.”

“Thanks so much, officer, you’re a lifesaver,” she said, bowing to him.

“Ma’am,” he replied politely, nodding in return. At least he seemed less suspicious now.

She set off in the direction he had indicated. All that had mostly been to avoid a confrontation, and she was sort of proud of herself for coming up with it on the spur of the moment. She was already thinking more like a thief. The idea itself, though…

Well, it was probably a bad idea. But it was the only one she had at the moment, and it certainly wouldn’t be the worst one she’d ever had.

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11 – 9

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“Well, this place and others like it,” Joe said in response to Tallie’s last question. He had integrated himself quite smoothly into the group, aided by the byplay which occurred upon his statement that he didn’t drink. Jasmine had taken that opportunity to carefully dance around an “I told you so,” and Joe had slipped into a seat next to her. “It’s more’n a mite different from playin’ in a frontier town like I grew up in.”

“Bet a lot of things are different,” Ross grunted.

“Ain’t that the plain truth,” Joe said fervently. “Out there, ain’t more’n a few card sharps to go around, and they’re spread out across whole provinces. ‘Less one came to town, I never had anybody of my own caliber to play against, so the winnings were smaller but more consistent. Here? No shortage o’ high-rollers to compete with, once I found out where they like to hang. Means I don’t win nearly as much, ‘less I wanna try cheatin’, which is a good way to get yourself blackballed. Still, I do okay. The pots are bigger, an’ I take enough of ’em to pay my bills.”

“I’ll say!” Tallie replied, waggling her eyebrows. “I mean, just look at that suit! You’re so snazzy!”

“Thanks,” he said dryly.

“Is there an actual living in that?” Jasmine asked.

Joe shrugged. “If you’ve got a gift for it, there can be. Wouldn’t mind tryin’ my hand at somethin’ that gave a little more back to society, but it ain’t like I’ve got any better trade. All I know is poker and shootin’.” He frowned, eyes growing distant. “Same goes. There’s money in that if you’re good at it, but… Card sharping maybe ain’t the most honorable pursuit, but I’ll never kill anybody for such a dumb reason as money.”

“Killed a lot of people?” Ross asked after a pregnant pause.

Joe grunted and folded his arms. “One’s far too many.”

“Well, I think that’s just fabulous,” Tallie enthused. “This is the most precious thing I’ve ever seen. To our new friend, the littlest card shark!” She raised her glass in a toast. Joe gave her a flat look which hinted at the progressive decay of his patience.

“Sorry about Tallie,” said Rasha, pouring himself a second glass of rum. “She’s very sweet and a little abrasive. I haven’t decided if that should be ‘and’ or ‘but.’”

“Whose side are you on?” Tallie asked, affronted.

“Right now, I am on rum’s side.” He drained half his glass in one gulp.

“Slow down,” Jasmine suggested. “We have all evening.”

“I’m fine,” Rasha grunted. “This isn’t as strong as the stuff I was raised on.”

“We gotta go up four flights of stairs to leave,” said Ross. “Nobody wants to carry you.”

“I said I’m fine!”

“Rasha knows his business,” Tallie said, reaching across the table to pat his arm.

“So, you guys are with the Guild?” Joe said, glancing around the table at him. His inquisitive look settled on Jasmine, who didn’t meet it.

“Well, we’re just apprenticing at the moment,” Tallie said airily. “But hell yes we’re with them! You are looking at the four greatest future thieves ever to roll out of that casino!”

“There’s a colloquialism about counting unhatched chickens that I think applies here,” Jasmine commented.

“Oh, you, always naysaying.” Tallie flapped a hand at her face and had another drink of her rum. “You’ve gotta have confidence! Say it like you believe it, until you believe it, and then keep on believing it until it’s true! It’s all in setting the right goals—set ’em high enough, and the sky’s the goddamn limit!”

“Maybe there’s a little more to success than setting goals?” Jasmine said, her eyes on Rasha, who was pouring a third glass of rum.

“Jasmine, I like you and all, but you’ve gotta stop being the voice of reason. It cramps my style. Hey, why do we say ‘goddamn,’ anyway? Doesn’t that kind of imply only a single god? Wouldn’t ‘godsdamn’ make more sense?”

“Phonetically awkward and theologically inaccurate,” said Ross. “’Goddamn’ rolls off the tongue. Last consonant of the first word is the same sound as the first consonant of the second, so they chain together easily into a single word. I’ve heard ‘godsdamn,’ but it’s just harder to say.”

“Hm, yeah, you’re right,” Tallie agreed, rolling her mouth as if examining the flavor of the word. “Slower, and kind of awkward.”

“Also,” he continued, idly toying with his half-full glass, “notions like the Universal Church as an actual center of worship don’t date back much further than the Reconstruction. For most people, for most of history, there was only one god, or at least only one that mattered to each person.” He paused, blinked, and frowned; everyone at the table was staring at him. “What?”

“I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one sitting,” Jasmine explained.

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Stuff like that’s interesting to me. Trained with the Veskers for a while. Might still be there if I wasn’t so interested in stuff like the etymology of cussing.”

“To cussing, dammit!” Rasha said loudly, lifting his own glass.

“TO CUSSING!” Tallie roared, following suit.

“Did…they throw you out?” Jasmine asked hesitantly. “I mean, not to pry. You don’t have to answer.”

“Nah, I don’t mind,” Ross said with a shrug. “There’s room for weirdos with the bards; they don’t really throw you out. But if you’re into stuff they don’t think is appropriate… Well, bards are real good at making you uncomfortable without crossing any lines.”

“Really, they were that upset about your study of cussing?” Tallie asked, grinning broadly.

“Eh.” He shrugged again. “Really didn’t get bad till I talked with my language tutor about my hobby. Historical figures with names that turn real embarrassing in Tanglish.”

“Like who?” Tallie demanded avidly.

“Horsebutt the Enemy, for one,” Jasmine said dryly.

“Nah, Stalweiss honor names don’t really count,” Ross said, straightening up and putting his glass aside. He looked more animated than they’d yet seen him. “That’s just a different culture’s ideas what makes for an impressive portmanteau. Horsebutt, for example, makes perfect sense if you’ve been around horses; you’d know damn well which end of the horse not to mess with.”

Tallie burst out laughing so hard she nearly spilled her rum. Ross carried on despite that.

“It’s mostly orcish heroes, though there’s a few others in other human cultures. But the orcs are where the real gold is at. Like Warlord Buddux, or Slobbernock the Wise. That one’s old enough he might’ve been apocryphal. Modern orcish tends to go for shorter names.”

Tallie, by this point, was laughing so hard she was having trouble staying in her chair; even Joe and Jasmine were grinning in amusement. Ross didn’t go as far, but his expression was more relaxed than usual. He clearly enjoyed the attention.

“Yeah, well, the bards didn’t find it as funny,” he admitted with a shrug. “Bards’re big on respecting culture and language. Wasn’t like they were mean to me, I just… Y’know, didn’t feel I fit in, exactly. So, trying something else, here.”

“To the etymology of cussing!” Tallie crowed, lifting a glass which she didn’t appear to have noticed was now empty.

“And gaining new outlooks,” Jasmine agreed more soberly, nodding at Ross.

“Think it’s funny?” Rasha asked more quietly. “Laughing at people because they’re different?”

“It’s kinda mean,” Ross agreed frankly. “Not arguing that. But these people are long dead. And they didn’t think of themselves as what the names sound like to us. Just phonetic coincidence. That’s what makes it interesting to me.”

“It’s just a bit of fun, Rasha,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Nobody’s being wronged.”

He grunted, topping off his glass and raising it to his lips.

“Hey, are you okay?” Jasmine asked mildly, reaching across the table to slide the jug of rum out of his reach. Rasha either didn’t notice or didn’t react to this, polishing off his fourth glass of ale and thunking it back down onto the table, whereupon he stared accusingly at it.

“I’m s’posed to be,” he said bitterly. “That’s the whole point of all this, right? New place, new life, new…everything.”

“New skills, new friends, new connections,” Tallie agreed, still chipper but now not as exuberant, seeming to have caught some of his mood. “C’mon, Rasha, you’ve been here two days. This stuff takes time to do!”

“What if it doesn’t work?” Rasha asked in a plaintive whisper, clutching his empty glass in both hands and staring into it. “I can’t keep going like… I can’t. I’m here to become somebody who’s… Who doesn’t have to…”

“Take anybody’s crap,” Ross rumbled, nodding. “That’s what Eserion’s about.”

“Don’t care about anybody,” Rasha said, his lip trembling. “I’m sick of my crap.”

“Rasha,” Jasmine said gently, scooting closer to him. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m wrong.” Tears began to slide down his face, his thin shoulders shaking slightly. “I don’t fit, and I feel wrong all the time, like I’m not supposed to even be like this. I’m the wrong…wrong person, and life, and…” He squeezed his eyes shut, scrubbing the back of his sleeve across them.

“Okay, this is the most insensitive thing I’ve ever said, an’ I’ll apologize to him when he sobers up enough to appreciate it,” said Joe, glancing casually around at their surroundings. “But this really ain’t the place to break out cryin’. Some o’ the folk in here are just watchin’ for an excuse to jump on anything they see as weakness.”

The others followed suit, surreptitiously peering at the Den. Its noise and crowd seemed to be working in their favor; nobody appeared to have noticed Rasha’s inebriated breakdown, or to be paying them any attention at all.

“Yeah, so,” Ross mumbled, pushing back his chair. “This was fun, let’s do it again sometime. Good time to head home, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed, rising smoothly and laying a hand on Rasha’s shoulder. “C’mon, Rasha, let’s move out.”

Despite the lack of any direct opposition, not one of them questioned Joe’s warning. New they might be to the Thieves’ Guild proper, but they were all people who knew how the rougher element thought, and behaved. Rarely would anyone else seek out the service of Eserion.


“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed. “We are not in league with—um. That is, I mean… Basra who?”

“Herschel,” Principia said kindly, “hush.”

“Please,” Ami muttered.

“A good number of times in my life,” Principia began, “in fact, just about every time I found myself in a helpless position at the mercy of someone I didn’t like, they took the opportunity to make a speech about how much cleverer they were than I. Okay, not every time, but enough to notice a pattern. It is wholly obnoxious, but it looked like fun, so I’m gonna try it. Besides, you kids clearly need to be taken down a peg right now, for your own good.”

She folded her hands on the table and smiled pleasantly, keeping her body subtly angled to include both Schwartz and Ami in the conversation. Only the bard was physically hemmed into the booth by her presence; Schwartz could have simply stood up and left, but he just scowled sullenly, making no move toward the aisle.

“The last time I saw Ami, here, she was quite literally up to her neck and beyond in Basra’s schemes. Now, I realize you’re a Vesker, Ami dear, and not subordinate to her. Also I understood you were informed of exactly what she nearly did to you, and anyway, you no doubt have a life of your own. Just seeing you again doesn’t necessarily form any connection to the Bishop. However.” She turned her focus to Schwartz, who swallowed heavily. “Making the assumption of Basra’s place in this explains everything so very perfectly that I’m going to have to run with it.”

She rested an elbow on the table to point at him. “You, you claim, have an enemy—someone keeping your would-be turtledove in an abused position. My gods, Herschel, you’re talking about Jenell Covrin? I would never go so far as to claim anyone deserves the kind of shit she’s getting from Syrinx, but that girl could benefit from a few sharp slaps across the mouth in general.”

“Hey!” he barked. “I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head about—”

“And that’s confirmation,” Principia said smugly, cutting him off; he immediately looked abashed. Ami rolled her eyes. “So, you’ve linked up with Ami, here, another individual who’s suffered from Basra’s excesses, and the two of you are building a base from which to take her down. Oh, she’s a rotten piece who absolutely needs to go, but you can’t deny that for both of you there’s an element of personal revenge in this. Have I left out anything important?”

Again, she folded her hands, raising an eyebrow expectantly.

Schwartz and Ami exchanged a look, and then the bard sighed.

“Well, you seem to have covered the basics,” she said snidely. “Are you pleased with yourself?”

“You know, that is rather satisfying,” Principia mused. “I begin to see why all the villains in bards’ tales do it. I must start outwitting people more often. All right, you two, while I’m the last person who will ever argue in favor of Basra bloody Syrinx getting to wander around at liberty, doing whatever the hell she likes, I am strongly tempted to nip this thing in the bud right here. Largely because I can handle her, and I very, very much doubt that you two can. What I’m entirely confident of is your own belief that you’re capable of slaying the monster and rescuing the princess. You are, respectively, in love and attached to a faith which thinks the world runs on narrative. And you’re both barely out of your teens, which makes you invincible in your own minds.”

“My, she’s a condescending one,” Ami said archly. “Even for an elf.”

“Jenell is not a princess,” Schwartz muttered, “and she doesn’t need rescuing. She needs…backup.”

“Hm.” Principia drummed her fingers on the table. “That, at least, is evidence of some sense on your part. Jenell is somewhat trapped in her situation, but not because she has no possible exits. I’ve offered her one myself, and it wasn’t even the best option available to her. No, she’s there for the same reason you two are doing this foolishness; she wants to be the hero who brings down the villain. Well, there’s a lesson with that: heroes and villains aren’t a thing, and acting this way usually ends up with you firmly in your enemy’s clutches. Much like she is now. Right now, I am heavily inclined to go right to both your cults and tell them you’re plotting against the Avenist Bishop, just to get you two safely collared and out of harm’s way.”

“Are you quite done?” Ami demanded.

“No.” Principia sighed and shook her head. “Omnu’s balls, I’m starting to sound like Arachne. Damned Legions, making an officer of me… All right, listen. I have two questions, and the answers may—may, I say—prompt me to change my mind. I want to hear how you two got hooked up together in the first place, and I want to know who it is who’s been telling you,” she fixed a gimlet stare on Schwartz, “to befriend Eserites in preparation for taking on a creature like Basra.”

“Why?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because that’s very good advice. If you’ve been getting guidance from someone who knows what they’re talking about and is trustworthy… Well, that’s significant. So spit it out. Or shall I go straight from here to Bishop Throale’s office?”

Schwartz drew in a long, slow breath, his shoulders rising with tension, and then let it out carefully, most of the ire fading from his face.

“Abbess Narnasia Darnassy told me to seek out the Eserites,” he said finally. “She also told me to go to an elven grove and ask what anth’auwa means, which I’ve done, and to prepare myself with magic to combat a divine casters. Which…I am working on.”

Principia gazed thoughtfully at him for a long moment, then slowly leaned back against the wall of the booth.

“Narnasia,” she mused. “Yes…I can see it. She wouldn’t be fooled by Syrinx. And she doesn’t suffer evil for political advantage like Rouvad is willing to. All right, consider me…tentatively interested. I still have another question, if you’ll recall.”

“Well,” Ami said, tossing her head, “since that one calls for a story, I believe I shall take over from here, Herschel. If you’ve no objection?”

“Oh, by all means,” he said, waving a hand wearily. “Be my guest. I’m a little surprised you’re that willing to trust her, though.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she chided. “She has enough figured out on her own that it hardly matters, after all. And anyway, this isn’t an entirely unexpected development.” A feline little smile tugged at the corners of her sculpted lips, and she glanced coyly at Principia. “After all, we’re due an ally and mentor. It’s about that time in the story.”

“Oh, gods,” Principia groaned. “You kids are so dead.”

“Well!” Ami said, her tone suddenly airy and bright. “You know some of the lead-in, so I shall cut to the proverbial chase. It began for us in a townhouse in Vrin Shai…”


A place like the Den naturally had multiple bolt-holes; all of its entrances and exits were admirably discreet, and fortunately, Joe knew most of them. The group exited by a path which provided a somewhat gentler climb (albeit a longer and more roundabout one), and a less public exit than the one through the floor of the Stock Exchange. When they emerged into the alley behind the Exchange, the sky had darkened; at this time of year, night fell early, and despite the unseasonable warmth the air was sharp.

“All right, gimme a sec,” Ross said, carefully leaning Rasha against the wall. Jasmine and Tallie had both helped pull and push the drunken Punaji along, but Ross had taken on most of the effort. Rasha, who was sober enough to stand, but not to move consistently in any direction, had objected so loudly to Joe touching him that their new acquaintance had quickly backed off and not offered a second time.

“’m fine, gerroff me,” Rasha growled, trying to shove at Ross and succeeding only in tipping himself sideways. Tallie, fortunately, was hovering close enough to catch him.

“You were asking me why I don’t drink?” Jasmine said wryly to her. Tallie gave her a look, but didn’t reply.

“Gonna be a fun walk back to the Guild,” Ross grumbled. “Least it’s clean here. The hell kind of alley is this?”

“A discreet one,” said Joe. “Lots of junk piled at either end, with just enough space to slip through, but we ain’t the only people to make use of this exit. C’mon, it’s just gonna get colder from here, an’ it’ll probably rain before too much longer.”

“Doesn’t really look like rain,” Jasmine said, peering upward. The stars were invisible thanks to the city’s light pollution, but the sky didn’t appear to be overcast for once.

“It’s Tiraas,” Joe said pointedly. “It’s always gonna rain, unless it sleets instead.”

“Fair enough.”

“I’m sorry,” Rasha said tearfully, now leaning against Ross’s huge shoulder. “I runed th’whole night…” Ross sighed and patted him heavily on the head.

“No, you didn’t,” Tallie said. “Although, for future reference, we’re gonna have to limit your drinking. Can’t believe we let you down four glasses of that stuff. You’ve got the body mass of a starved squirrel, boy.”

“Don’ call me small!” Rasha flared up, flailing his arms so ineffectually it was impossible to tell what he was actually trying to do. “I’m not a boy! I’m not gay!”

Ross, again holding him upright, rolled his eyes.

“Alternatively,” Tallie mused, “we could let him finish getting drunk enough to go nice and unconscious. That might be easier. Did anybody think to grab the jug?”

“Easier for you, maybe,” Ross grumbled. “Something tells me you won’t be the one carrying him.”

“Good evening.”

All of them reflexively went still, even Rasha. Ross pressed him back against the wall with one hand, shifting his body in front of the smaller boy; Tallie and Jasmine both widened their stances, and Joe carefully shifted one side of his coat, his hand hovering near the wand holstered on his right hip.

Four figures had materialized out of the surrounding dimness, two from each direction. None were any taller than Jasmine’s shoulder, all where broad and blocky, and all were covered from head to foot in obscuring brown robes that appeared almost clerical. The one who had spoken was on their left, and moved a half-step in front of his nearby companion, continuing in a light Svennish accent.

“I hope the night finds you well,” he said politely. “We wish to have a brief conversation with you.”

“This isn’t the best time,” Tallie said warily, glancing back and forth. The two pairs of dwarves simply stood, the only menace being their obscuring costumes and the fact that they were completely cutting off the exits. They could get back into the Den, probably, but not without turning their backs on the dwarves to finagle the hidden doorway; it wasn’t even visible from this side, having swung shut behind them. “We’re taking our friend home. He’s had a couple too many, as you can see.”

“I think we c’n take ’em!” Rasha blurted, trying to stumble forward. Ross planted a broad hand in the center of his chest and shoved him back against the wall.

“Oh, this need not take long,” the lead dwarf said pleasantly. “You were present last night when an exchange of goods was disrupted by the Silver Legions. We require information regarding that.”

“We don’t have any,” Jasmine said evenly. “We’re just apprentices. We were just keeping watch and carrying boxes.”

“That is, of course, possible,” he said, his shrouded head bobbing once in a nod. “It is also possible that, in keeping with your thief-cult’s general pattern of behavior, you are lying. Either for specific reason or from a general desire to be troublesome.”

“Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren’t,” Tallie snapped. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? We’re done here. Excuse us, we need to leave.”

“Excuse us,” the dwarf replied, still politely, “but we will have to insist.”

As one, all four of them took a step forward, markedly shrinking the space between them and the apprentices.

Joe, in response, paced forward to stand next to Jasmine, facing the dwarves on the left while she faced the others.

“Gentlemen,” he drawled, “I haven’t the faintest idea what this is about; I’m clearly just in the wrong place at the wrong time, here. What I do know is that you have no idea the gravity of the mistake you’re makin’. Now, kindly step aside so we can leave.”

“Young man,” the speaker replied, “there is absolutely no reason this cannot be a perfectly civil exchange. If, however, you are determined not to meet us halfway, I will remind you all that no one knows where you are, and you are none of you important enough to your Guild that they will expend much effort to find you. Now, then—”

He broke off and tried to jerk back when Joe’s wands came up, but not fast enough. The beams of white light were almost blinding in the darkness of the alley, though they flashed for only a second. In that time, the other dwarves surged forward, producing cudgels and long daggers from within their robes, only to stop when Joe shifted his stance to point one wand in each direction, covering both groups.

The first dwarf was now clutching the remains of his robe, which had been neatly sliced along his outline by the wand beams and was trying to fall off him in pieces.

“Pardon my lack o’ manners in not tippin’ my hat, but as you can see, my hands are occupied,” Joe said grimly. “Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins, from Sarasio. You mighta heard o’ me.”

“Hooooo-leeee shit,” Tallie whispered, gaping at him.

The dwarf had given up on his robe, letting it fall to reveal a well-tailored suit covering his stocky frame; he contented himself with clutching the remains of the hood over his head, managing to mostly obscure his features, aside from a reddish beard trimmed just above his collarbone.

“You are a long way from Sarasio, young man,” he said curtly, “and have thrust your wands into matters well above your head. We are not here alone, and our disappearance will be noted—and responded to, swiftly and severely.”

“This is gettin’ to be oddly traditional,” Joe muttered. “Every good-sized city I visit, I end up shootin’ some nitwit in an alley. Buster, you’re standin’ here threatening members of the Thieves’ Guild. That does not say to me that you represent a particularly savvy organization.”

“And you are completely backwards in your thinking,” Jasmine added grimly, “if you believe the Guild won’t react to the disappearance of apprentices. Eserion’s people aren’t in it to steal; we’re training to humble the abusive, the powerful.”

“Damn right,” Tallie added, stepping forward. “You go picking on the Guild’s younglings, and there won’t be a place on this earth for you to hide.”

“Well,” the dwarf said in apparent calm, “that being the case, it does appear to be against our interests to let you leave here, doesn’t it?”

He shifted one hand to his belt; Joe’s wand snapped to cover him, but an instant later his fingers touched the shielding charm attached to the buckle, and a sphere of blue light flashed into being around him. The others immediately followed suit, the bubbles of arcane energy fizzing and crackling where they touched one another.

“All right,” Joe murmured, “gotta say, this could be trouble. I can burn through those shields, but not quickly, an’ takin’ on four dwarves hand-to-hand ain’t a winnin’ move.” He eased backward into Jasmine’s line of view and gave her a pointed look.

She sighed heavily, and clenched her jaw. “Understood.”

Before she could say or do anything further, however, the pounding of multiple booted feet sounded from their right. The dwarves on that side moved in an obviously well-trained pattern, one keeping his face to the apprentices while the other shifted to his back, facing that way.

Three Silver Legionnaires approached out of the darkness, un-helmeted but in armor. Four yards away, the elf in their center barked, “Form line!” Instantly, they shifted to a crouch, shields forward and lances aimed. It was a trifling size for a phalanx, but did effectively block the whole alley. And it was, after all, a shield wall bristling with spearheads.

“You,” the elf announced in a ringing voice, “will immediately deactivate those shields, turn, and depart this scene. You will do this to avoid the bloodshed which will ensue if we are forced to take you into custody.”

A beat of silence followed. The dwarves’ leader, still holding his severed hood, shifted his head minutely, studying the apprentices, Joe, and the Legionnaires. In the next moment, however, he took a step back, bowed politely, and touched his belt again. His shield flickered off, followed by those of his comrades.

“A pleasant evening to you all,” he said courteously. “We will continue this discussion another time. It is my fervent hope we can do so on the politest of terms.”

He and the dwarf beside him began backing away; the other two edged along the wall in front of the apprentices, urged by the continuing advance of the Legionnaires. Once both groups met up, they turned and departed as rapidly as they could without breaking into unseemly haste.

“Holy shit,” Tallie breathed, “I can’t believe I’m glad to see Legionnaires, after last night. And holy shit!” she added to Joe. “You’re the freakin’ Sarasio Kid!”

He sighed. “Miss Tallie, I was hangin’ around in the roughest dive in this city, clearly too young to be drinkin’, an’ dressed in a suit that cost more’n the places most of those galoots live. And yet, nobody even thought too hard about hasslin’ me. You didn’t happen to wonder why? No disrespect intended, but based on the Eserites I’ve known, you may wanna start talkin’ a little less and thinkin’ a lot more if you mean to advance in their ranks.”

“Wow,” she muttered. “I guess I’ll just shut up, then.”

“Stand at ease,” the elf said, and the Legionnaires straightened, lowering their shields and weapons.

“Hey,” said Ross, frowning, “you’re the ones who arrested us.”

“Thin’ we c’n take um,” Rasha burbled, slumped against his shoulder.

“Actually, a different squad arrested us,” said Jasmine, studying the soldiers closely. “These were from the squad who came to hand out punishment. What was it? Interfaith initiative? I’m finding it a challenge to believe that you just happened to be patrolling this alley at this time.”

“As well you should,” said the elf. “I am Corporal Shahai, and we’ve been looking for you. I believe you should consider how it was those dwarves managed to find you.”

“How did you manage to find us?” Tallie demanded.

“Persistence, luck, and elven hearing,” Shahai replied with a thin smile. “They, whoever they are, have only one of those advantages, and I am extremely suspicious of luck. Odd enough that we should have it in such quantity; that they should as well defies belief. That group is extremely well connected, and it would seem, extremely curious about those weapons they were attempting to buy.”

“Let me guess,” Tallie said slowly.

Shahai nodded. “The Sisterhood currently has custody of them, and are likewise very curious. It has proved impossible to tell, so far, what they do. Our squad hoped you could shed some light on the subject.”

“Not tellin’ you nuthin’!” Rasha blustered, pointing off to her right.

“Rasha, go to sleep,” Ross said wearily.

“We’re not tellin’ you nothin’!” Tallie added, pointing dramatically at Shahai.

“Tallie, shut up!” Ross exclaimed in exasperation. “Ma’am…uh, I mean, sergeant.”

“Corporal,” she corrected with smile.

“Right. Well, we don’t know anything about what those were, but we need to look up the guy who set up the trade and lean on him for our own reasons. We’ll find out what we can, and be glad to tell you whatever we learn.”

“What!” Tallie squawked.

“Connections,” Jasmine said quietly. “Not just in the Guild. Right?” She turned to fix Tallie with a firm stare. “We’re supposed to be building connections. Do you really not see how allies in the Silver Legions could be incredibly useful to us? In general, but also, apparently, right now. They aren’t the only interested party who thinks we know something about those staves.”

“And the other party are a lot less friendly,” Ross added in a low rumble.

“I…well…oh, fine,” she huffed, folding her arms. “I guess. I’m still watchin’ you, though!” She leveled an accusing finger at Shahai.

“Noted,” the corporal said mildly. “Your willingness to help is greatly appreciated; I have limited authority, but I’m confident our sergeant will fully reciprocate.”

“Is she actually in the Guild?” Ross asked, frowning.

“Yes, she actually is, and that creates complications when it comes to dealing with Eserites. You may not see her directly very much, but Sergeant Locke has our implicit trust. You can find us most of the time at the Third Legion barracks behind the Temple of Avei. How can we reach you, at need?”

“Uh…” Ross turned to the others. “That’s a good question. How can they reach us?”

“We can leave word at the Casino that any Legionnaires who come asking for us have legit business,” said Tallie, still looking miffed. “I dunno how much weight our say-so has, though. Something tells me the average thief’s urge to mess with the Legions weighs more.”

“It might generally be better if you wait for us to contact you,” Jasmine said wryly.

“So noted,” Shahai replied in the same tone.

“And corporal,” Jasmine added, “try firing one of those staves at a divine shield.”

Shahai fixed her with a sharp stare, and after a moment, nodded slowly. “Very well. I will pass that along to Sergeant Locke. Thank you, Ms…?”

“Jasmine.”

“Ah.” The elf nodded again. “Well met. With that, perhaps you would allow us to escort you out of this alley? I doubt you will be accosted again on the well-lit main streets, but…”

“That is an excellent point,” said Ross, picking Rasha up bodily and hoisting him over his shoulder.

“I dun’ need one!” the Punaji burbled ineffectually.

“Hey, uh…” Tallie turned hesitantly to Joe. “Those creeps know who you are now, too. Will you be okay? I mean, I know, that sounds kinda silly, you bein’ the Sarasio Kid and all…”

“Not silly at all,” Joe murmured. “The more complicated a situation, the less likely you can just shoot your way out of it. But I’m not without friends of my own. Tell you what, though, I believe I may just pay y’all a visit here pretty soon.” He glanced at Corporal Shahai. “Both groups.”

“You would be welcome,” she said with a smile.

As the motley group straggled back up the alley toward the busy street beyond, Nandi half-turned for a moment to look back and up.

Perched in a windowsill of the Exchange overlooking the alley, Grip grinned widely and waggled her fingers at her. Nandi turned without acknowledgment and continued on her way.

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11 – 8

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“When you said we were going someplace villainous, I didn’t think you were being funny,” Jasmine said, having to pitch her voice loudly above the shouting, pounding of feet, and general mayhem.

The Imperial Stock Exchange more closely resembled a sporting event of some kind than a place where money was counted and trade conducted. Wide-open in plan, it appeared to have been set up in a converted warehouse, with all its interesting features along the sides. No fewer than four dedicated telescroll towers bristled from the north edge of the building, their ground-level machinery and operators constantly pressed to keep up with business in their alcoves along that wall. The west wall was lit up by a huge magic mirror, quite possibly the largest of its kind in existence, upon which lists of inscrutable numbers and abbreviations glowed in blue and red, constantly moving, altering, and occasionally changing color back and forth. The other walls were heavily decorated: the triple-coin sigil of Verniselle was prominently and repeatedly displayed, as was the flag of the Tiraan Empire, a silver gryphon on a black field, represented in both its vertical and horizontal forms. There were also, closer to the floor, a goodly number of modern lightcaps, the sepia-toned portraits depicting mostly scenes from this very room.

It was both insanely crowded, and crowdedly insane. The floor teemed like an anthill in a state of perpetually recent kicking, most of the traders agitated well beyond the limits of socially acceptable behavior, filling the air with their shouting and the sharp smell of sweat. Beneath them, the floor was an icky morass of crumpled slips of paper, cigar butts, and spilled liquor. There were a good number of Vernisite clerics present, notably not only for their sigil badges and robes, but calmer bearing—calmer, and in many cases, visibly smug. Interestingly, the general press of stock traders were overwhelmingly male, while at least two in three of the clerics were women.

“Yeah, yeah, bankers are all crooked, I get it,” Tallie said breezily, likewise all but shouting to be heard. She grinned back at the others as she led them around the edge of the room. “Frankly there’s a couple of more subtle and more direct ways to get where we’re going, but I thought you guys oughta see this at least once. And no, this isn’t our final destination.”

“I could’ve done without this entirely,” Rasha said, edging closer to Jasmine and constantly eying the chaos around him; shouting, gesticulating men repeatedly pressed close to them, never quite accidentally clocking anyone with a careless fist or elbow, but that was likely only because the group was paying attention and moving out of the way. No one answered him; he’d spoken in a normal tone, which rendered his words basically inaudible.

At least Tallie didn’t dawdle. Their destination was a doorway in the back corner of the huge room; double-wide and with no doors to block the view, it revealed a broad spiral staircase of wrought iron descending straight down into a wide shaft cut into the floor. Two men were having a loud argument right outside; between the nigh-incoherent ferocity of their disagreement and the general noise, it was impossible to tell what it was even about, but the group hurried past them as quickly as possible. They seemed on the verge of coming to blows. Hidden inside the doorway, tucked just out of sight from the trading floor, a man and a woman were locked in a kiss in the corner, going about it with such passion they seemed unaware they were in a public place. Rasha ducked his head, flushing furiously as they passed the little scene. He was somewhat comforted by noting that both Jasmine and even Ross seemed uncomfortable as well, though Tallie, of course, only cheered at them in passing.

The cacophony of the trading floor followed them down the stairs, but the smaller room into which the staircase terminated was much quieter. It was a bar, and a middling expensive one to judge by the quality of its woodwork. Only middling due to the scuffs, scratches, and cigar burns which marred most of the surfaces, but still; the layout was discreet and its furnishings clearly meant to be classy, the bartender well-dressed and even the passing serving girl attired with a modesty which set the place apart from the cheaper set of pubs. Despite the early hour, it was more than hall-full, mostly with disheveled traders slouched over drinks—in some cases, whole bottles—wearing despondent expressions.

“They do the celebratory drinking up above,” Tallie said cheerfully as she led them through the room, ignoring a couple of filthy glares from sullen-looking men. “Anybody who comes down here in a good mood is usually buying a bottle to take back up top.”

“I’m still not seeing the villainy I was promised,” Jasmine noted.

“Patience, Jas, we’ll get there. Welcome to the Corral; we won’t be here long. Here we are!”

She had taken them straight through the bar to a door in the back, and immediately pulled this open, stepping through and gesturing the others after. They exchanged a round of dubious glances before following.

They were now in a public toilet. A nicely-appointed one, as toilets went, but still.

“I feel this is an appropriate time to mention,” Jasmine said, “that I don’t have a lot of patience for practical jokes.”

“Y’know, somehow, I sort of predicted that about you,” Tallie said with a grin, once again walking straight through and ignoring the rows of toilet stalls. She marched right up to the wall opposite the door and rapped sharply on it.

After a second’s pause, a framed ornithological print of a mallard suddenly slid aside, revealing a pair of suspiciously squinting eyes.

“Speak, friend, and enter,” said a male voice, muffled slightly by the intervening wall.

“Fortune is a harlot!” Tallie replied cheerfully.

The mallard slammed back into place. A second later, there was a muted click, and the entire wall swung away. Behind it, an enormously burly man in a suit that was clearly tailored to his bulky frame stepped back. In addition to being thick, he was hugely tall; he clearly had had to bend down to place his eyes in front of the hidden slot.

“Top o’ the evenin’, Scott!” Tallie said. “How they hangin’?”

“Ask me again when I’m not on watch,” he replied with a thin smile. She laughed and patted his arm in passing. Scott’s expression sobered as he studied the rest of them, but he made no move to impede their way, and after a moment, the other apprentices resumed following their guide.

The narrow space beyond the false wall led to another descending staircase, this one carved of stone. More noise and light filtered up from below, growing louder as they traveled downward. This was a longer staircase, carrying them down at least three stories.

“Gonna have to show restraint,” Ross grumbled. “Don’t wanna hafta climb this drunk.”

“That’s one reason to show restraint,” Jasmine agreed dryly.

The stairwell opened onto yet another loud, well-lit place, this one a fraction the size of the stock exchange above. Their group stopped just inside to stare around, Tallie grinning proudly, the rest in a kind of awe.

It was a circular room, roughly, arranged in three tiers. The thick stone column containing the staircase let out on the middle tier, which was the broadest; immediately to their right was a well-attended bar, with doors behind it probably leading into kitchens. This broad, circular space was laid out with tables and chairs, its inner ring marked by a wrought-iron rail ten feet tall; they were clearly serious about not letting anyone fall into the lower pit. Probably a wise precaution, considering the screeching, howling and crashing emanating from below, though between the angle and the cheering spectators ringing it, they couldn’t see what was going on down there. More tables were laid out around the upper tier, but they seemed to be more widely-spaced and attended by a better-dressed class of people than those down below.

“It’s a bar,” Rasha said finally, “under a smaller bar, under a stock exchange. Why?”

“And this is the Den!” Tallie threw her arms wide, grinning. “Get it? Because up above was the Corral.” Her grin faded slightly at their uncomprehending expressions. “You know. Bulls, bears?”

She got only three blank stares in response, and sighed, lowering her arms.

“I can see I’m gonna have to educate the hell out of you rubes. Anyway, yes, this is the Den, and yes, it’s a bar, but it’s not only that. This is one of Tiraas’s most active gambling dens!”

“I thought gambling was illegal in the Empire,” said Rasha, “and yes, I realized how dumb that was the moment I said it, no need to rub it in.”

“Very stringently regulated rather than illegal,” Jasmine said, her eyes roving constantly around the room. “The Empire doesn’t bother to police friendly betting. Anything organized or high-stakes isn’t allowed, which is why the Casino does such good business, being protected by a Pantheon cult. That’s the basics, anyway. I can’t say I ever cared enough about the Treasury laws to read the details.”

“More than I knew,” Ross grunted.

“Oh, but it’s not just gambling,” Tallie said with relish, again setting off into the fray and leaving them to straggle along behind her. “A place like this, which exists outside the rule of law, attracts all kinds of nasty folks! Mercenaries, bounty hunters, assassins! Lots of members of the Guild hang out here, as well as a good smattering of Imperial Intelligence agents.”

“Huh?” Rasha frowned. “Why would Imps… I mean, if the Empire knows about this, wouldn’t they just shut it down?”

“Some Emperors would’ve,” Ross said. “Sharidan’s too savvy. You shut this down, three more pop up elsewhere. He knows where it is, he can keep an eye on it.”

“Exactly,” Tallie said, giving the normally taciturn apprentice a look of surprise. “At any rate, that’s how it was explained to me when I was first brought here, and it makes perfect sense to me.”

“You come here often?” Rasha asked warily.

“This is my second time!” she said cheerily, weaving through the crowd toward the back of the ring; they had yet to find an unoccupied table. “Flora and Fauna brought me here when I was pretty new. Y’know…last week.”

“You keep mentioning those names,” he noted.

“They’re Sweet’s apprentices!” Tallie said. “Uh, that’s the Bishop. They’re good people.”

“I’ve spoken with them a few times,” Jasmine agreed. “They’re quite helpful.”

“Yeah, even a lot of the senior apprentices, the ones with sponsors, won’t waste their time on unskilled, no-rep nobodies like us,” said Tallie. “But those two are easygoing and usually willing to help out when they’re around. It makes sense, really; they’re Sweet’s apprentices. He’s all about building connections and relationships. Stand to reason he’d’ve taught ’em the same tactics. That’s what you’ll notice about sponsored apprentices, gang. When you get personal training from a ranking thief, you tend to pick up their general outlook and technique, even if you weren’t planning on it.”

“I’m increasingly curious about Grip and Pick,” Rasha commented.

“Recommend staying outta that,” said Ross.

Suddenly, Jasmine broke from the group, rushing over to the rail, where they had come abreast of a gap in the crowd. “Those are demons!” she exclaimed, clearly aghast.

The others moved over to join her, Rasha slipping in beside her while Tallie and Ross had to crane their heads around. He’d never seen a demon before, but he was willing to bet she was right. One of the things down there looked like a crab, with two sets of pincers and three stingers, plus a mouth full of fangs; the other resembled a gecko, except with armored plating, a barbed tail, and absurdly oversized dewclaws in place of sticky pads on its fingertips. Both were bigger than wolfhounds, and both were a mess of bloody scratches and chipped chitin. As they watched, the two combatants surged together again, clawing, biting, and stinging, accompanied by a round of cheers and catcalls from the onlookers.

“Oh, wow,” said Tallie. “Last time I was here they had gladiators. This doesn’t seem like a great idea.”

“That is a massive understatement,” Jasmine growled.

“C’mon.” Tallie tugged at her arm. “There’s a table; let’s grab it while we can.”

Jasmine allowed herself to be led away, scowling thunderously. A table had indeed opened up, and Tallie wasted no time in plopping herself into a seat, the others following suit more slowly, still clearly uncertain of their surroundings. Rasha felt slightly better at being ensconced in a place with people he more or less trusted, but the chaos, noise, and general atmosphere of the Den still did not agree with him. He was beginning to seriously question the wisdom of having come here. Maybe it was time to stop following Tallie into adventures…

“So, uh, who’s buyin’?” Ross asked.

Rasha blinked, then cringed. “I, um, don’t really have any…money,” he admitted.

“Wait,” said Jasmine. “Weren’t we supposed to get paid for doing that job of Pick’s? Does it matter that it went south?”

“That wasn’t our fault!” Rasha exclaimed.

“Hey, you’re right,” Tallie said, scowling suddenly. “If that asshole tries to stiff us on top of ditching us…”

“He’s got two more days,” Ross said in his basso rumble. “Three days from a job to make good on his word ‘cording to Guild custom. Then we can go to Style an’ she’ll beat it out of ‘im to pay us.”

“Good,” Tallie said, nodding with vicious satisfaction. “I almost hope he forgets.”

“Okay, that’ll be good in two days,” Rasha said nervously. “But, uh, for right now…”

“Relax, I can spot us a bottle,” Tallie said easily. “Got a little savings. You can pay me back when Pick coughs up.”

“What’s goin’ on up there?” Ross asked, nodding in the direction of the upper ring.

“Ah!” Tallie said with a grin, clearly relishing her role as deliverer of exposition. “Those are the gaming tables. High-stakes games, the kind the Empire doesn’t technically allow. That sorta thing they don’t really do in the Casino, either.”

“How come?” Rasha asked.

“Because it is a casino. The games there aren’t rigged, exactly, but they’re set up so that the house always has the advantage. Even the poker tables have at least one Guild member participating at all times. So the big shot high rollers only drop by now and again to circulate; anybody who wins too much from the Guild is made unwelcome. I hear the actual Sarasio Kid got kicked outta there not so long ago!”

“Isn’t he out in Sarasio?” Ross said, frowning.

Tallie shrugged. “It’s just what I heard.”

“Why are we here?” Jasmine asked, still peering around. She looked almost as tense as Rasha felt. “It’s…interesting, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sure if I see the point.”

“You’re new,” Tallie said with friendly condescension. “Being Eserite isn’t just about being a thief, Jasmine. We’re rubbing elbows with the riffraff, scoffing at the law just to be in here, risking a pointless stabbing just to have a drink. We’re showing the world we do not give a shit! This is the life, my friends!”

“I think I’ve made a serious mistake,” Rasha mumbled.

At that moment, a girl in tight pants and an equally tight blouse which covered barely half her chest sashayed up to their table, an empty tray tucked under her arm. “What’ll it be, kids?”

“What’s good?” Tallie asked easily.

“Nothing,” the waitress said immediately, with a smile. “Nothing is good. The operative question is: how drunk are you planning to get?”

“Hm, on that subject…” Tallie shifted to point at Jasmine. “What can you recommend for our teetotaler friend here?”

The serving girl blinked, then tilted her head to one side. “Go home?”

Ross snorted a laugh, which he quickly smothered. Jasmine didn’t look offended, though; if anything, she seemed amused.

“Bottle of spiced rum,” Rasha said, earning a surprised look from Tallie.

“Comin’ atcha!” the waitress replied, tipping him a wink, and then strode off into the crowd, swaying her hips unnecessarily.

“So,” said Tallie, leaning back in her chair and turning to Jasmine. “Now we’re all here and can chat… Who was that elf?”

“Which elf?”

“Don’t give me that,” Tallie said disdainfully. “The elf. How many elves have we met?”

“Two,” Jasmine replied, arching an eyebrow. “That Legion squad at the fortress had two elves. You didn’t notice? It’s odd enough to see even one in a mostly-human army.”

Tallie straightened up, frowning. “What? No, I mean… The squad leader was an elf, the one who claimed she was also in the Guild. That was the only elf I saw.”

“One of the others, too,” Ross grunted. “Kept her helmet on, mostly. You had to look close.”

“Okay, so that is weird,” Tallie acknowledged, “but back on the subject, you still know which elf I meant. The one who was so surprised to see you she dropped her fucking weapon. I’m pretty sure the Legions train people not to do that. What gives? How do you know elves?”

Jasmine opened her mouth, then hesitated.

“Nobody has to share their history,” Rasha said, frowning. “It’s the Thieves’ Guild. It’s not hard to guess some of us are running from something, or just looking for a fresh start.”

“All right, that’s fair,” Tallie said with an easygoing shrug, again lounging back in her chair till it tipped up on two legs. “Just bein’ sociable, but you’re right, nobody’s gotta play show and tell. Me, though, I don’t mind. I’m circus folk, been traveling the whole Empire since I was born.”

“That sounds exciting,” Ross observed.

“It is,” she said in a grimmer tone. “Especially when the Vidians catch up with the troupe. They do not like performing artists who aren’t affiliated with their cult. Veskers, now, those are fine—they’re pretty awesome, actually. Bards never think they’re too good for anyone, and they love hanging around with fellow performers. Most of the cults, though, take their cue from the Vidians. And why not? He’s one of the Trinity. Of course, that’s all it takes for others to pick up on it. Anywhere we went, people would try to take advantage of us. And feel smug about it, because they’re just following a religious example. Feh.”

“Don’t the Imperial authorities protect people from that?” Jasmine asked.

Tallie shrugged, twisting her lips bitterly. “It depends on the authority. We had Sheriffs and Marshals both stand up for us and be the worst bullies, and everything in between. I’ll tell you what, though. When I was eleven, we were camped near a town in Mathenon Province, and a barn burned. Well, that was all it took, that an a Sheriff who was a fucking asshole. The whole troupe was arrested. The whole troupe. As if we had anything to gain from burning some poor bastard’s barn. Farmers may be rubes, but they work hard, and that’s not an easy life. We understood that, and never gave trouble to anybody who’d treat us fairly. But one barn goes up while we’re nearby, and bam, we all get crammed into the jail for arson. I wasn’t even the youngest.”

“Why?” Jasmine demanded, scowling. “What possible point could there be in that?”

“Sometimes it’s just about power,” Rasha said wearily. “For some people, that’s the only point they need.”

“Not that time, though,” Tallie sneered. “We had stuff. Animals, both to pull wagons and some exotic ones that performed. Tents. Carts, mundane and enchanted. Our take. A circus isn’t rich, but it has assets. For a crooked little back-country Sheriff, it was enough to be well worth seizing.”

She straightened up, folded her arms on the table, and smiled, a slow, malicious expression.

“Unfortunately for that particular shithead, there was a Guild thief passing through the town, who’d stopped to watch our show. While we were being rounded up, he was zipping back to Mathenon for more Guild members. A dozen of them descended on that little flyspeck village.” Her grin broadened. “I don’t exactly know what they did, but Sheriff Arseface was pale and practically gibbering when he came to let us out of our cells. The wagons had been rifled, clearly, we had to pack everything away properly, but not so much as a copper was missing. A dozen Eserites accompanied us to the edge of the province, just in case any of the local hicks were feeling vindictive; nobody tried anything. And the thieves were happy enough to answer questions from a curious kid. Well, that’s when I decided what I wanted to do with my life. The world is full of assholes who live to push around people like mine. I never realized until then that the world also had people who’d push back.”

She leaned back again, folding her arms with a satisfied expression. The others all nodded slowly, each wearing thoughtful expressions.

“There are true believers in every cult,” Jasmine said quietly. “But also abusers who see a religion as something to exploit. Probably more of those in the Guild than most faiths.”

“Sure, I know that,” Tallie said with a shrug. “But there are believers, and they do Eserion’s work, not just to line their pockets. There’s gonna be one more when I’m through.”

“Respect that,” Ross grunted, nodding to her.

Their waitress reappeared suddenly, the tray laden this time. She deftly set four glasses down, followed by a substantial bottle of amber liquid. “And here we are! I’ll warn you, this swill isn’t what you get back home,” she added, winking at Rasha. “The Den serves only the finest of rotgut, moonshine, and bottled hellfire. Hardly anybody ever goes blind, at least not while still on the premises.”

“Music to my ears!” Tallie sang, already reaching for the bottle, which in truth was more of a jug. Its label was crudely hand-drawn, apparently depicting a trident with the inscription The Storm Cares Not. “Money now, or later?”

“Actually, you’re settled up,” said the waitress, stepping back and tucking her tray under her arm again. “Next bottle you pay for in advance, and probably the one after that. We’re not exactly a trusting institution; you don’t get a tab until you show you’re good for it.”

“And yet we get a bottle on the house,” Jasmine said suspiciously.

“You’re new,” the girl replied, waggling her eyebrows. “The house is not that generous. Nah, somebody likes the look of one or more of you. One of the high-rollers spotted you this round. You get thirsty again, sing out!”

She sashayed off again with a toss of her hair, leaving the group to stare after her in confusion, then at their bottle of spiced rum.

“So,” Ross said after a moment, “when you were here before, you made some friends?”

“I…guess?” Tallie shrugged. “I mean, I get along with people, but not anybody in particular that I remember.”

“We’re at a table with two pretty girls,” Rasha observed. “Tables up there are full of rich guys who play poker for too much money. It was bound to happen.”

“Aw, you little sweet-talker, you,” Tallie cooed at him, fluttering her lashes. He hated himself for blushing, partly because he knew it would just encourage her.

“I think I see our admirer,” Ross mumbled, pointing with his forehead. The others turned to follow his gaze, just in time to see a teenage boy in an expensive-looking suit stroll up to them, the tigers eye set into his bolo tie flashing distractingly.

“Well, hey there,” he said with an amiable grin, strolling straight up to Jasmine. “Can’t say I was expecting—”

“Hi!” she interrupted loudly, thrusting out a hand at him. “My name’s Jasmine.”

The boy paused, blinking at her in surprise, then glanced down at her hand. After a moment of apparent confusion, he tentatively took it. “Okay. It’s good to…meet you?”

“Awwwww!” Tallie squealed. “He’s adorable! Look at his little suit! How old are you?”

“Tallie,” Rasha said sharply. “You are being incredibly condescending.”

Their benefactor glanced wryly at him; fortunately, he didn’t seem particularly offended, so much as resigned.

“Aw, but look!” Tallie said. “Look what a handsome little guy he is! Really, though, are you old enough to be in here? This is a bar. It’s pretty much the sketchiest bar in town.”

“It’s a sight worse’n that, to speak the plain truth,” the teenager replied.

“How about we’re polite to the guy who buys us drinks?” Ross said, giving Tallie a disapproving glower. “Good to meet you, and thanks for the bottle. I’m Ross.”

“Pleasure,” said the teen, tipping his hat to them. His gaze turned inquisitive, landing again on Jasmine. “Name’s Joe. So, uh…what brings you here?”

Jasmine winced, glancing quickly around at the others. “I’m really starting to wish I knew.”

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11 – 7

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“Well, I can’t say you don’t know how to show a lady a good time,” Principia remarked. “Herschel, with the greatest of respect and all apologies to your delicacy and masculine pride… Are you sure you can afford this?”

He actually laughed lightly. “Oh, well…as a general rule, no, this sort of thing is well out of my budget. However, a good friend of mine works here, and wrangled me a membership so we can meet and talk in privacy. It is an excellent place for privacy, which is why I invited you! But, no, let’s just say I don’t commonly eat here. I mean, the drinks alone… Not that you should feel inhibited!” he added hastily. “Please, you’re my guest, get whatever you like.”

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” she replied dryly, “I’ve been a Legionnaire for a few months and a thief for two hundred years. I could buy this place. Since you’re providing the venue, how about I cover the drinks?”

“Ah, well, if you insist,” he said, not smooth enough to fully disguise his relief. She only smiled in amusement.

She had been intrigued when Schwartz’s message specified formal attire, and even somewhat surprised when he brought her to one of the city’s more expensive nightclubs. Most of these places actively sought to cultivate a men’s club atmosphere, all done up in dark hardwoods, red-stained leather, and either brass trappings with old books or pelts and hunting trophies, depending on the set of moneyed men to which they pandered. The Limelight Lounge, however, was known as a place for assignations between well-heeled couples; it was indeed designed for privacy, and also for softer tastes, its décor running heavily toward silks and velvets in deep blue, with etched glass partitions as décor. It also kept more generous hours than its counterparts, which was why it was not only open this early in the afternoon, but rather well-attended. The layout was also somewhat obfuscatory, with tables and chairs arranged in artfully uneven tiers and terraces around its stage, and two balconies running around the perimeter of the tall central room. No doubt the difficulty this created in navigating was offset by the privacy it afforded its patrons. The many nooks scattered here and there were cleverly positioned to have a good view of the stage and not much else.

They stood out somewhat, unavoidably. Though most of those present were in tailored suits and elegant gowns, Schwartz was not the only person to be seen in the formal robes of his cult, nor she the only guest in military dress uniform. Principia was, however, the only person to be seen in the white uniform of the Silver Legions; she rather doubted this place saw many Avenists. And she was, unsurprisingly, the only elf, unless more were hiding in the secluded booths. Not impossible, but this really wasn’t an elvish kind of place.

“So, this friend,” Principia mused after a moment’s pause, in which they strolled slowly along the rail of the lowest balcony. “Not a waiter or something, I assume, if he was able to get you a membership here…”

“She, actually,” he said, turning to nod toward the stage, on which a very pretty dark-haired young woman sat, singing in an exceedingly well-trained voice to the accompaniment of her guitar. Unlike many players who simply strummed the instrument’s strings, her fingers danced with a virtuoso’s mastery, filling the air with sweet little harmonies which wove around and through her song. “The management thinks quite highly of her around here. Enough to put up with my occasional presence, at any rate! Though, ah, they were quite adamant that pets are not permitted in the club.”

“You mean your little…Meesie, wasn’t it?” Principia tilted her head and smirked. “I should think elemental familiars belong in a wholly different category than pets.”

“Now, see, that’s the argument I made! I was firmly assured, however, that I was incorrect.”

She grinned, stopping and stepping in front of him to lean against the rail, gazing down at the singer. “Soooo. By friend, do you by any chance mean…?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” he said hastily. “She’s just a friend, just that, that’s all! Not that there’s anything wrong with Ami at all, of course. She’s certainly lovely—I mean, I’ve got eyes. But there’s, ah, someone…sort of. Maybe.” He trailed off, his expression growing dour, and absently rubbed at his shoulder where Meesie usually sat.

“Sounds complicated,” Principia murmured.

“It…rather is,” he admitted. “I don’t rightly know how she feels, or her situation… And we’re sort of prevented by circumstance from…well, even talking. For now. Maybe for… I don’t know. I mostly think I’m a fool to still be bothering with it at all. It’s a mess, and… I don’t know.”

“Go for it,” she said quietly, still watching Ami sing.

Schwartz blinked, turning to look at her. “Really? But you don’t even know the situation.”

“That’s my advice for most situations,” she said with a wry little smile.

“Hm.” He grunted and turned moodily to gaze down at the performing bard. “My mother advised me to forget the whole thing.”

“And the last thing I’d want is to undermine your mother, Herschel. I never met her, nor was aware of her existence, for that matter, but I will say that I’m likely at least four times her age. And what I’ve learned about love is that heartbreaks fade, but the regrets of opportunities you missed will haunt you forever.”

He simply gazed in silence for a few long moments, clearly no longer focusing on Ami, before replying. “Did you and my dad talk about things like this?”

“We did, actually,” she said, then her forehead creased in a frown. “But… You’re, what, twenty-three? Is that right?”

“Oh, ah, yes. I think I mentioned that.”

“Mm. Let’s find a place to sit, shall we?”

“Oh! Sure, good idea.”

He led her to a booth, screened by lush potted plants whose exuberant state of growth was inexplicable in the dim, windowless club. The table was elevated two steps, shielded from view to either side and affording them a good view of the stage and its performer.

“The thing is,” Principia said as she settled into a seat across from him, “you’d have been a little tyke of about five when I last saw Anton, and I had no idea you existed. I never even knew he was married. Quite frankly, I see why he kept it from me. Matters between us would have been different had I known.”

“Oh?” he said warily.

She grinned. “Let’s just say I’ve been prone to adventure most of my life, since long before that came to be considered a dirty word. It’s not often I find myself in the company of trustworthy friends, and I’m afraid I have a tendency to drag them into all manner of exploits when I have them. I’d have been a lot more cautious with Anton had I known he had a family back home. And he knew that, hence not telling me.” She shrugged. “Well, in the end, he profited from knowing me and I never got him into more trouble than I could get him back out of, but I still feel I owe your whole family an apology. Something tells me your mother wouldn’t be at all pleased to learn of some of what we got up to.”

“Mother certainly isn’t shy about experiencing the rougher side of life herself,” he said. “That’s how they met, in fact. She’d have gone with him on his trips—and did, at first, but once she became the Sheriff, she had an obligation to stay near home. My sister and I were partly raised by a variety of aunts and neighbors.”

“So, Anton’s wife is a Sheriff,” Principia murmured.

“And a former Legionnaire!” he added.

She winced. “All things considered, and with all respect to the lady, I think I’ll refrain from introducing myself.”

“If…you think that’s best,” he said doubtfully.

“So!” she continued in a more brisk tone. “As I believe I mentioned, the way Anton and I left things off, he did me a big favor which I always felt deserved repayment, and I’m sorry I never had the chance to make good on that. But you’re here and I’m here now, so let’s talk about what I can do for you. Why is it, exactly, that you feel the need to make friends and connections with Eserites?”

Schwartz frowned down at his hands, which were clasped together on the table. “I… Well. I’m afraid this is going to sound rather ungrateful, but I have to be frank on the matter of privacy. There are…circumstances. Secrets and dicey situations, and tales that aren’t even mine to tell, risks I can’t take. I’ll understand if this means you can’t work with me, but there’s going to be a lot that I just can’t—”

“All right, stop,” she said with a grin, holding up a hand. “Remember, Herschel, I am an Eserite. And as we were just discussing, your dad and I got along swimmingly without me ever knowing half the important details of his life. I definitely understand secrets and privacy, so you can leave off the flowery explanations. Let’s dispense with what you can’t tell me and focus on what you can. What is it you need?”

“I am not…exactly…sure,” he said, frowning. “Okay, well, the truth of it is… I have an enemy, which is something I am not used to, and not good at handling. I was strongly advised to befriend someone in the Thieves’ Guild to help teach me…well, how to handle an enemy.”

She narrowed her eyes in thought. “How urgent is this situation?”

“Well…it’s not good,” he said darkly. “Urgent, though… She—I mean they don’t know I’m…well, after h—them.”

“So, enemy’s a woman,” Principia said wryly. “Don’t make that face; this will go faster if you don’t try to cover up these flubs. I’m not going to interrogate you about it beyond what I need to know to help. Why is it urgent-ish?”

Again, he stared down at his hands in thought for a long moment. “…have you ever known someone who just… Just needs to be brought down?”

“Yes,” she said simply. “Frequently.”

He nodded. “And…apart from general principles, it relates to the other matter I brought up. Someone I, ah, care about is in danger from this person. Rather…constant danger.”

“Life-threatening?”

“I don’t…know? I suspect not, at least immediately. It’s more a matter of constant, calculated abuse.”

“This…is an ugly situation you’re sketching the outlines of,” she said, frowning. “Well, you may or may not have come to the right person. I definitely know a thing or two about dealing with hostiles, but trying to make a thief of you is probably not the wisest approach. Not knowing the person or the situation, there’s a stark limit to how much good my advice, or anyone’s, will do you. Herschel, I realize you’re a somewhat hesitant speaker in general, but you do seem to be stumbling a great deal over this. I think your first step should be to figure out what the maximum possible information you can give me about this is, and do so. I realize you’ve no personal reason to trust me, and I’ll respect your privacy. I’m not digging; I’m trying to lay out what it is I’ll need in order to help you.”

“I see,” he said, heaving a sigh. “Well, that…all makes perfect sense, I suppose. It’s just that… I was sort of warned specifically that once this person knows I’m coming after her, that’s when the real fight will begin…”

“That is probably the explicit truth,” she agreed, nodding. “And you’d better be ready for that fight when it starts. Which is the point of this, isn’t it?”

“Exactly. And… I don’t mean any disrespect, please believe that, but you’re right in that I don’t know much about you, and every person I let know about this is a chance for word to get back to…her.”

“Good,” she said. “You may not be a practiced enemy, but you’re clearly a careful thinker, Herschel. What I can tell you now is that your best plan for this will be…to plan. I’ve not seen you try to fight, but I understand you didn’t pose much of an impediment to Squad 342 last night. You’re a thinker, not a scrapper. Best to have your plans laid in full before you engage.”

He opened his mouth to reply, then suddenly turned toward the stage, where the music had stopped, followed by muted applause. The bard stood and bowed to her audience before slipping offstage, while a harpist smoothly entered from the opposite side to take her place.

“Ah, good,” Schwartz said in a more cheerful tone. “She always notices when I come in. I’ve no idea how, I swear she doesn’t even look up from her guitar, and anyway how could she see with the lights on her like that? But every time I visit she’ll come talk with me. I should introduce you here in just a moment!”

“Capital idea,” Principia said brightly, rising and slipping out of the booth. “Before that, allow me a moment, will you? I’ll be right back to meet your friend.”

“Ah, of course, sure,” he said, bobbing his head in affirmation.

After she had slid away out of view, he let out a sigh and leaned back against his seat, resting his head on the partition behind him. All this…scheming. With every new development, even the encouraging ones, it was made ever clearer to him that he was wildly out of his element. For a few long minutes he just rested there, breathing evenly and letting the soft strains of harp music from below wash over him.

“My, my, is it that bad?”

He straightened up and managed a thin smile as Ami slid into the booth across from him. “Hello. Lovely performance as always. And no…nothing new is bad. I’m just…coping, as always.”

“Well, you’re taking action, which is all anyone can ask, I suppose,” she said airily. “To judge by the white longcoat, I gather your date is this mysterious new friend in the Legions? Splendid work, Herschel. It can’t be said that you don’t move quickly.”

“Yes, and she’ll be back in just a moment.” He glanced around. “Actually, I’m not sure what the, ah… I mean, probably just the necessary. I thought it indelicate to ask.”

“Setting the trap,” Principia said brightly, appearing at the table again as if by magic. Ami jumped in surprise, then went rigid, staring at her; the elf gave her a pleasant smile. “It wouldn’t do for your friend here to get nervous and bolt, before I could position myself between her and any way off that seat. Young woman, I can see you thinking about it. Now tell me, which do you think is a worse idea: trying to shove your way past an elf, or past a Silver Legionnaire?”

Schwartz gaped at her. “Uh… What is going on?”

“Just a little…reunion between old friends,” Ami said in a strangled voice. “And this, Herschel, is why I wish you’d told me just who you were meeting.”

“I’ll bet you do,” Principia said, her false smile fading into a hard, piercing stare. “Spilt milk, Ms. Talaari. It’s not that I don’t believe in coincidences; I simply don’t like them. So why don’t we all have a calm, quiet discussion about you, me, the Schwartzes, and Basra Syrinx?”


“With all due respect, corporal,” Casey said plaintively, “is this really the best plan we have?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Nandi replied calmly, not glancing back at her. It was a well-heeled neighborhood they were walking through, and they passed mostly expensively-dressed people on the sidewalks, most of whom gave the three Legionnaires inquisitive looks. Several looked again at Nandi, doubtless unaccustomed to seeing elves in that armor. Despite the time of year, it was warm enough that they were not in their cold-weather gear, and as per regulations were not wearing helmets while on city duties that did not specifically require them.

“Um, I just can’t help thinking,” Farah said nervously, “apart from the unlikelihood of just stumbling over these apprentices, if the three of us just patrol in a constant circle around the Imperial Casino, the Thieves’ Guild will eventually notice.”

“Eventually?” At that, Nandi did glance back over her shoulder with a small smile. “I assure you, Szaravid, they’ve already noticed. Silver Legionnaires don’t patrol this district. Apart from the fact that it could be considered a provocative act against the Guild, there’s really no point. Even the Army doesn’t exert itself to keep peace here. No one attempts crime in territory under the control of the Thieves’ Guild. Or at least, no one does so twice.”

“I’m still hung up on the ‘provocative’ part of that,” Casey muttered, glancing about.

“Yes, they’ve noticed us,” Nandi said, again watching ahead. “The longer we keep up, the more curious they will be. Three soldiers are not a threat, and they’ll be wondering what we’re up to. By the third day of this, if not the second, someone will confront us to demand an explanation.”

“Three days of this?” Farah groaned.

“Likely more,” Casey said. “You were right; what are the odds of us just bumping into these apprentices?”

“Slim,” Nandi admitted. “Thus, when we are accosted by the Guild, we will tell them the full and unvarnished truth. Our squad is commanded by a Guild member, we are looking for information about the raid and the weapons confiscated there, and those apprentices are our best lead. If you should find yourselves, for any reason, confronted by Guild enforcers in my absence, these are the facts you will tell them.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Casey said warily.

“Not a good one, but the best one available to us. If we simply walked up to them and asked, they would assume we were lying and up to something, and treat us accordingly. Matters will seem different if we speak frankly when menaced their full strength—and they will make threats, so be prepared for that, but also remember they are very unlikely to harm Legionnaires unless provokes far more severely than we shall. If they refuse to accept our presence, that will be that, and we will have to report back to the sergeant and find a new avenue of approach. But I judge there is at least a strong possibility someone within the Guild will actually help us, if we put it to them the right way. I have dealt with Eserites in the past.”

“It feels risky,” Farah said, “showing them our hand like that.”

“Riskier by far to play games.” Nandi glanced back again, a clear warning in her eyes. “We will not fence with the Thieves’ Guild, ladies. We would swiftly and dramatically lose. And worse, the situation would reflect upon Sergeant Locke, embarrass Captain Dijanerad, draw the attention of Bishop Syrinx, and aggravate Commander Rouvad. Any of those outcomes could be disastrous for us.”

“I dunno,” Casey mused. “Locke’s pretty easygoing, as sergeants go…”

“That,” Nandi stated, “is because we are a small unit, because she knows you, and because the composition of this squad makes it a viable leadership strategy. The Sisterhood has extensive files on Principia Locke, and I have read them. If you had to choose between having her and Basra Syrinx for an enemy… Well, ladies, you can thank Avei for the side on which she has placed you. Trust me.”

“Really?” Casey said skeptically.

“I believe it,” Farah said in a quieter tone. “I like the Sarge, too. That doesn’t mean I underestimate her.”

“Good,” said Nandi with a small smile which they couldn’t see.

They turned a corner in silence, glancing at the white, gilt-edged shape of the Imperial Casino as it was briefly visible across an intersection on their left. For the most part, Shahai was leading them on a patrol route around the Casino at a distance of one street, rather than actually circling its walls.

“I know Locke said to drop this,” Casey said after a pause, “but… Corporal Shahai, that one apprentice, with the brown hair…”

“I know, Elwick,” Nandi said quietly.

“You do? I mean… Sure you do,” she added with a sigh.

“Yeah, it’s really not surprising, is it?” Farah smiled and jostled her affectionately with an elbow.

“Orders aside, Locke’s approach to that situation was the correct one,” Nandi said quietly. “We are being sent into a circumstance in which we may end up interacting with her, closely and repeatedly. Above all else, you will respect her cover and give no hint that you know her to be anything but some girl apprenticing to the Guild. With that understood… Locke has also placed us in position to possibly be of help to her, should an appropriate situation arise. I am quite confident the sergeant does not do such things by accident.”

“What is she doing in the Guild?” Casey wondered aloud.

“Nothing that’s any of your business until she tells you otherwise,” Nandi said flatly.

“Yes, ma’am,” Casey swiftly acknowledged.

Suddenly, the corporal stopped, turning her head. “…well. Then again, sometimes one gets lucky. This way, ladies, quickly.”

“What’s happening, ma’am?” Farah asked, falling into step as Nandi picked up their pace and turned, heading down a street away from the Casino.

“One and possibly more of our targets is now leaving the Guild and moving parallel to us, a block distant,” Nandi said crisply. “Tallie has a very carrying voice. I cannot be sure who, if anyone, is with her.”

“Omnu’s breath,” Casey marveled. “Just how acute is elvish hearing?”

“The acuity is less important in this case than the practice at filtering out specific sounds from background noise. Not many elves have spent as much time in modern cities as I.”

“I bet it’d be easier for her if we both shut up,” Farah muttered. Casey shot her an annoyed look, but she earned an over-the-shoulder smile from Nandi.

In silence, the three Legionnaires strode off into the city.


“Now, isn’t that interesting,” Grip said, watching the soldiers pass by directly beneath the building on whose roof she stood. “And you thought I was in an unreasonable hurry. If this doesn’t teach you to have some faith in my instincts, Silence, I don’t know if anything will.”

The man accompanying her folded his arms, watching the Legionnaires go. “You realize the elf can assuredly hear us.”

“That’s Nandi Shahai,” Grip said dismissively. “If she wants to question why I’m stalking her, I’ll be glad to hear what she’s doing poking around the Guild. Focus, Silence. My hearing’s not on her level, but I caught enough to know I was right. They’re following that group. Specifically the girl, I’d wager a month’s take.”

Silence shook his head. “I still refuse to develop a personal stake in this.”

“I swear,” she complained, “the older you get, the less fun you become.”

“That’s the usual way of things, Quintessa,” he replied with a faint smile. “Still, you are right. In an objective sense, it is interesting. I will examine the girl more closely myself, but unless the results of that are disappointing, I believe it will be worth informing Glory. And if she decides not to lay a claim…”

“Then it’s my turn,” Grip said with a hungry smile. “You do that. For now, I’m going to follow our friends down there. This evening is just bound to get more interesting before it’s over.”

Without another word, she took off at a run and leaped across the street to catch herself on a window ledge on the building opposite, which was one floor taller than this one. In seconds, Grip had clambered up the side, agile as a squirrel, and then went bounding away over the rooftops, swiftly catching up to the four apprentices on one side of the building row and Legionnaires on the other.

Silence stood, watching, until she was out of sight, and then turned to look back at the glittering domes of the Casino, frowning in thought.

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11 – 6

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Darius, growing increasingly frustrated, darted froward again, swinging at Jasmine’s head. During the last minute, he had quickly gotten over his hesitation to strike her; so far, his attempts to do so were proving fruitless.

She had begun by simply standing there, ignoring his taunts and imprecations to attack. When he finally stepped forward, launching a half-hearted jab at her head, she stepped back, avoiding it. The first minute of their duel followed that pattern, Darius growing bolder and more aggressive, without effect. Jasmine not only never struck back, she didn’t even trouble to adopt a fighting stance, keeping her hands folded behind her. She simply stepped smoothly backward and to either side, allowing Darius to chase her in a pointless circle.

The increasing jeers and commentary from the other assembled apprentices was clearly not improving Darius’s mood; his grin had collapsed entirely into a thunderous scowl. Grip, though, grinned like the cat who had eaten the canary, lounging against the wall off to the side and watching avidly. Beside her stood an older man in nondescript clothing, his face lined and hair silver-touched at the temples. Apart from nodding once to Grip in greeting, he had simply watched the fight impassively.

“All right, enough!” Darius exclaimed, coming to a stop and lowering his hands. “Are you about done screwing around? If you’re not gonna fight, we both have better things we could be doing.”

Jasmine raised one eyebrow. “If we’re not fighting… Why are you losing?”

There was a predictable outburst of hooting from the spectators at his. Darius rolled his eyes dramatically.

“Well,” he drawled, “I guess the smart thing to do here would be to walk away, since you’ve sunk to goading me. That’s just sad, Jasmine; we are all cheapened by this.”

“Are we done, then?” she asked calmly.

“Tell you what, cupcake, I’ll leave that up to you.” He slid back into a braced fighting stance, raising his fists. “I’m not gonna flail around while you show off your dancing skill. Either fight back, or we are done.”

She shrugged.

He darted forward a bit more carefully, aiming a jab at her face, which she slapped aside. Darius grinned in triumph, bouncing in place a couple of times, before feinting left and then attacking from the other side.

Jasmine ignored the bait, stepped neatly to the side and reached deftly past his attacking fist to tap him on the head with her palm.

Darius yowled in obvious pain and stumbled to the ground, clutching his ear.

A few of the onlookers let out exuberant cheers, but most of the watching apprentices fell silent, staring in various degrees of disbelief and concentration. Grip’s smile broadened further, but she offered nothing to the tumult.

Jasmine turned to face the crowd, waiting until the shouts died down somewhat before speaking in a tone clearly used to projecting.

“I’m assuming our goal here is not to go around killing and maiming people, right? Well, what you just saw was one of the fastest and easiest ways to put someone out of commission without doing them serious harm.” She glanced at Darius, who had made it back up to his knees, keeping his back to her for the moment, then turned back to the other apprentices and raised one hand. “Here, cup your hand slightly, and gently—gently!—tap yourself on the ear with the palm.”

She demonstrated, and several of the onlookers followed suit, though some stubbornly refrained and a few knowing expressions hinted that their owners already knew where this was going.

“That sensation you feel,” Jasmine continued, “is air being pushed into your ear canal by the impact. Do that harder and it will hit your eardrum with a lot of force, which causes pain, nausea, and loss of equilibrium, not to mention loss of hearing and sometimes blurred vision. Hard enough and you can rupture the eardrum entirely. Do this to someone and they are down. It’s painful and debilitating, but not permanent or excessively cruel—even a fully ruptured eardrum heals naturally in a few weeks, barring infection. And, of course, a quick potion or divine healing can fix it in moments. It’s a weak point all humanoids share, though the ears on lizardfolk are too hard to spot to be worthwhile. Even sturdier races, like dwarves or orcs, will be neutralized by this.

“The best time to do this,” she added, holding up a finger warningly, “is before a fight breaks out, to prevent it from happening. The ear is a small target, and you have to hit it at the right angle. If someone’s already watching for an attack, it’s harder; if you’re already moving around trying to hit one another, harder still. You really only stand a chance of using this in a fight if you’re already a lot better than the person you’re fighting.”

“Oh, nice. That’s a nice touch.” Darius straightened up and turned to glare at her, still clutching his ear. “Couldn’t resist getting in a last little shot, could you?”

“Oh,” Jasmine said, suddenly looking flustered, in a sharp contrast to her previous bearing. “Um, sorry, I wasn’t thinking—”

“I’ll tell you what, Jas,” he said curtly. “Congratulations on being good at fighting. Everybody here’s good at something. The point is to get along with people and gain new skills. You’re gonna have a hard time if you can’t resist taking the opportunity to be an asshole every time you show somebody up.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Whatever,” he snorted, turning on his heel and slouching away, but not before his parting comment was audible. “Bitch.”

“Leave it,” Grip ordered when Jasmine took a step in his direction. The enforcer strode forward, effortlessly scattering apprentices with a sharp gesture. “Do not waste your time on petulant jackasses. The boy was right about that much, though I suspect the irony was lost on him. A word in your ear, kid? This way.” She tilted her head toward the corner of the pit, pausing only to sweep a very sharp look around at the assembled onlookers. Those who hadn’t already got the hint immediately set off in search of something else to do.

“So, you’ve done this before,” Grip said as Jasmine followed her. They came to a stop next to the climbing bars, atop which Rasha and Tallie still sat. The enforcer was surely aware of their presence, but did not acknowledge them.

“I’ve had the benefit of training, yes,” Jasmine agreed warily.

“Well, the fighting, yeah,” Grip said with a knowing little smile. “But also teaching. That’s exactly the right approach to take around here—show people what you know, make yourself useful, earn respect. You’re off to a good start, kid. Now, let’s talk about what you did wrong.”

Jasmine folded her arms, eyebrows lowering. “I thought I handled him pretty well.”

“Once the actual fighting started, yeah, you owned him. Listen, girl, I am an enforcer, and a good one. Inflicting pain and fear in Eserion’s name is my job, my calling, and my faith. So pay attention when I tell you that your objective as a practitioner of the violent arts should be not to fight. You inflict exactly as much damage as you need to in order to get the results you want. Violence is a means to an end; violence being the end in and of itself is a symptom of a particular species of crazy that we don’t tolerate around here.”

“Excuse me,” Jasmine said in annoyance, “but as I just said, I chose the least—”

“Mouth shut,” Grip said flatly. “I am speaking. A corollary of this principle is that as much as an enforcer needs to be good at force, she also needs to be good at theater. You have to control every aspect of your interactions in order to gain the fear and respect you need. How you present yourself, what you say, is a lot more important in the long run than breaking elbows—or eardrums. As such, announcing that you’re a feminist who can be goaded into a fight as easily as that boy did is a serious mistake. I doubt most of those yahoos out there have the motive or the understanding to leverage that, but in other circumstances… You showed a weakness in front of a crowd. Don’t do that.”

“I see,” Jasmine murmured, still frowning, but now in thought. “Thank you. That’s good advice.”

“I wouldn’t waste everyone’s time saying it, otherwise,” Grip said with a humorless little grin. “That aside, good show, kid. I’m gonna be watching you with interest.”

She clapped the apprentice on the shoulder once, and then strode away without another word. As she passed the older man who’d been watching the fight with her, he smoothly fell into step at her side, and they disappeared through the door into the catacombs. Jasmine stood there, gazing after them with a pensive frown still in place.

At least, until Tallie landed on the floor beside her.

“That was Grip!” Tallie enthused, ignoring the way Jasmine started away from her and slipped momentarily into a fighting stance. “You lucky bitch, you!”

“I’d really prefer it if people didn’t call me that,” Jasmine said pointedly, relaxing. “I spoke to that woman once before, briefly. So, she’s an enforcer? Who was that man with her?”

“Oh, who cares?” Tallie said dismissively, while Rasha clambered more sedately down to join them. “It was Grip, Jasmine! And she talked to you! Hell, she took the time to teach you!”

“That’s what full Guild members do with apprentices, right? I guess I’m making some progress, then.”

“Grip,” Rasha said, frowning. “Actually, I remember that name. She was the one Pick trained under, right? Before she threw him back into the general pool?”

“Damn skippy!” Tallie exclaimed, patting him hard on the shoulder. “You’ve got sharp ears and a good memory, my little friend. Dang, everybody’s showing off their potential today.”

“Can we not call people little?” Rasha said irritably.

“That’s the whole point about Grip,” Tallie blustered on, ignoring him now. “She doesn’t do apprentices. Rarely has one, and she’s been even more standoffish than usual ever since Pick proved himself to be a prick. She’s only recently started visiting the pit to watch apprentices again, and this is the first time she’s ever paid attention to one person in particular! Holy damn, woman, I kind of want to kill you and steal your life now!”

“I, uh, don’t think it works like that,” Jasmine said warily. “Anyhow… She doesn’t really sound like the sort of person I’d want to apprentice under.”

“Are you daft?” Tallie exclaimed.

Jasmine shrugged. “It’s just… I already know fighting.”

“I’ll say,” Rasha commented.

“I came here to learn other ways of dealing with my problems,” Jasmine continued, “not to become a better fighter. And especially not to learn how to be a more…intimidating, fear-inspiring person like Grip seems to be. That isn’t the path I want to follow. I hope I’m not gonna have to turn her down or anything,” she added worriedly. “If she’s well-respected around here, that seems like it could cause me some problems…”

“Oh, not likely,” Tallie said dismissively. “I mean, people would think it was weird as hell, you refusing to apprentice under someone with that kind of rep, but Eserites are all about leaving folks alone to do their thing. As long as Style doesn’t think you’re not working or learning hard enough… Or, hell, maybe you’d gain enough cred from her just asking that you’d get a better offer!”

“Maybe,” Jasmine murmured, gazing absently at the wall.

“Anyway!” Tallie said, suddenly with a broad grin. “Let’s do something!”

“Uh, oh,” Rasha muttered.

She scowled at him. “What, uh oh? You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“I’ve learned that when somebody says ‘let’s do something’ in that tone, I’m about to have a bad time.” Jasmine smiled at him in amusement.

“Oh, you kids and your…pooh-poohedness, pooh-poohing all my enthusiasm,” Tallie said, making a swatting gesture at him. “No, look, seriously, I think Jasmine’s debut calls for something celebratory, and we’re all here to get ourselves trained, right? Well, why choose between them when we can just do both?”

“Um, I’m not sure what needs celebrating, here,” Jasmine said. “I had one brief sparring match and an even briefer conversation with an enforcer.

“I’m curious what kind of training she means, though,” Rasha said.

“It sounds like an excuse to slack off,” Jasmine muttered.

“It is!” Tallie admitted cheerfully. “But, and I’m saying this in all seriousness, I wouldn’t be suggesting it if I didn’t see a real benefit. Training in the Guild is great, it’s necessary, but it’s also a preliminary sort of thing. Eserites are active out there in the world. So, I’m gonna do you the favor a senior apprentice did for me on my first day and show you one of the places we’re gonna need to get to know. That they have booze is just an added benefit!”

“I don’t drink,” said Jasmine.

They both stared at her.

“What do you mean, you don’t drink?” Tallie demanded.

“It isn’t a complex sentence, or subject,” Jasmine said in annoyance. “I do not ingest alcohol. Why is this such a big deal for everyone?”

“It’s a big deal because everyone drinks!” Tallie exclaimed.

“Everyone does not.” Jasmine folded her arms. “I don’t. And I’m hardly the only one.”

“Hey, what happened to letting people do their own thing?” Rasha said quietly.

Tallie heaved a sigh. “Out of the mouths of babes… All right, fine, but I hope you know there’s a serious interrogation coming your way, lady. With every new thing I learn about you, the mystery deepens. You’re like this big, improbable onion. Layer upon layer of new intrigues.”

“I suppose the metaphor fits,” Jasmine said, nodding. “Plus, if you cut me, I’ll make you cry.”

Rasha barked an unexpected laugh, stifling himself when Tallie scowled at him. “What? That was funny.”

“Thanks,” Jasmine said with a smile.

“Anyway!” Tallie said with a roll of her eyes. “Get yourselves together, guys, we’re taking a field trip. Since Grip chased everybody off from Jasmine and we’re all still messed up after our ridiculous adventure last night, it’s the perfect time for gwah!”

She jerked away from Ross, placing a hand on her chest and panting dramatically.

“What?” he asked, blinking in surprise. “You okay?”

“Damn it, don’t do that!” she snapped. “How did you do that? You’re like a buffalo; how the hell did you sneak up on us?”

He shrugged.

“Excuse me, but he snuck up on you,” Rasha said helpfully. “We saw him coming.”

“He just walked up,” Jasmine added. “Hi, Ross.”

“Jasmine.” He nodded to her before turning back to Tallie. “Can I come?”

“I—well, hell, sure.” She chuckled. “More the merrier, and I guess we’ve got as much of a history as we do with anyone else here. C’mon, kids, I’m going to open your eyes to a whole new world.”

“Um…” Rasha glanced around. “Should we…find Darius, first?”

Tallie sighed, shaking her head. “Rasha, we did one job with the guy.”

“One job,” Ross rumbled, “then jail, then cleaning duty.”

“Right, well, the point is, we’re not married to him. He’s off sulking after making an ass of himself with Jasmine. We’ll make other friends, Rasha, don’t get too attached.”

“Excuse me,” Jasmine interrupted, “but where, exactly, are you proposing to take us?”

Tallie winked. “To a place where all good thieves can congregate outside the sanctity of their Guild, to mix with the sort of people with whom they’ll need to do business. A place where we can make contacts, get anything money can buy, and generally do business.”

“For some reason,” Jasmine said with a sigh, “I can’t help assuming this is a place where we can get stabbed, and then get a nasty infection.”

“There, y’see?” Tallie grinned and slugged her on the shoulder. “I said you pick things up quick.”

“What kinda drinks to they have?” Ross asked.

“Plentiful, strong, and cheap!”

He nodded. “I’m in.”

Rasha remained silent, following along behind as the still-chattering Tallie led them up the stairs and toward the hall, unable to dislodge her last piece of advice from the forefront of his brain.

Who else would he be wiser not to get attached to? How long would it be before they realized they could do without him?

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11 – 5

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He woke near noon, despite only having managed a few hours of sleep. Quite apart from his body’s determination that daytime was for activity, he was in an unfamiliar place in which he had yet to manage to feel safe, much less at home. Only exhaustion had brought sleep at all, and couldn’t hold it long.

Rasha opened his eyes, feeling the confusion of dreams fade away as he stared at the distant stone ceiling. The barracks, or dormitory (he’d heard it called both), was certainly not cramped. High ceilings aside, he had what felt to him like a very generous allotment of personal space. His modest bunk, a simple wooden-framed affair with a thing mattress and worn but good blankets, had a chest at its foot and a stool beside it, and was framed on all four sides by privacy curtains. Three were lashed into place, with the forth able to slide open to reveal the central aisle of the…barracksatory? Whatever it was called, it was roomier and more private than accommodations on any ship he’d ever bunked down in, even with the unfiltered sounds of his fellow would-be thieves all around him.

Somehow, he’d expected it to be different here. At that moment, lying there staring at the ceiling, he didn’t know why.

It was there, the crushing feeling of hopelessness that dogged him whenever he stopped to let it. Who was he kidding? A new start, a new life, a new career… None of his would make a new him.

Rasha drew in a deep, fortifying breath and forced himself to straighten up. He’d been down this road many, many times; he knew the drill. It would get better when he started moving. For a while, at least.

Maybe it would be better overall, too. Whatever else he could say about the previous night, it had kept him too busy to welter in his own inadequacy.

His clothes were still hanging on the bedposts, undisturbed. Perhaps Style’s warnings were taken to heart by the other apprentices, though he wasn’t about to trust a bunch of thieves-in-training not to pilfer his things. Fortunately, he had no things, aside from the clothes on his back—which, after being washed, had been unwearably soaked, forcing him to wrap himself in his blankets for security despite the fact the barracks (dormitory?) was kept quite warm by arcane heating ranges at both ends. Both Tallie and Jasmine had tried to loan him nightshirts, but he’d fended them off. He wasn’t about to pile wearing girls’ clothes onto his insecurities. Bathing in the men’s washroom had been enough of a nightmare, for all that Ross and Darius had sought their own corners, likewise disinclined to be social while nude. Thank the gods for small blessings.

They were dry, a couple of damp patches aside, and he dressed himself as quickly as possible, then poked his head out.

There were soft sounds of conversation and vague rustles here and there, but he could see no one. Actually, the dormitory was a lot quieter at this hour than it had been at dawn, when people were starting to get up. Rasha peeked up and down the aisle, uncertain what he was supposed to do with himself now.

The rumbling in his stomach decided him.

He passed through the pit as quickly as possible. It was extremely alive, with people everywhere talking, standing around, and practicing various thiefly arts. Rasha kept his head down and made a beeline straight for the dining room, ignoring everyone and certain everyone was staring at him with condescending judgment.

It was all in his head, he knew that. This didn’t make it feel any less real.

The dining hall was busy, too, but fortunately nobody was looking at him when he came in. Everyone was clustered around one end of one of the rows of tables, at the far side of the hall near the kitchens. Rasha paused in the doorway, studying this, before slipping around to the side of the long room farthest from the crowd and going in search of food.

It was an arrangement he knew well from various galleys. A single cook behind the windows presided over various pots and pans of food, which he ladled out onto the tray and plate Rasha collected from stacks of them at one end. The man was distracted to the point of dismissive, watching the cluster of apprentices nearby, which suited Rasha just fine. He also poured himself a cup of tea from the pot at the end of the window, and then found himself holding a laden tray and in need of a place to sit.

His instinct was to get as far from the crowd as possible. Experience had taught him that people would notice that, and some would choose to take it personally. The happy medium would be to slide as surreptitiously as possible onto a bench at the very edge of the gathering.

They were nearly all apprentices, or so Rasha assumed; they were older teenagers and younger adults. The focus of the group was unquestionably on a man who looked to be a fit fifty or so, with graying hair and a neatly-trimmed mustache, who was perched on the very corner of the long table, telling a story.

While Rasha considered this, he caught Jasmine’s eye. She, apparently a person after his own heart, was lurking at the periphery. Seeing that he’d noticed her, she smiled and patted the empty place beside her.

Well. It was at the edge, and after all, she at least was someone he knew. He rather liked Jasmine. She was quiet, and pretty, and impressive. Also, Tallie was right across from her, and while Tallie could be overwhelming, he’d already developed a fondness for her, too. Perhaps jail and forced labor had that effect on a group.

He made himself smile back, and came forward to climb onto the bench beside Jasmine. “Morning. Or afternoon. I’ve lost track.”

“Just past noon,” Jasmine said.

“Oh, hey, Rasha!” Tallie said cheerfully. Both of them were just finishing off their lunches. “Welcome back to the land of the living. I dunno about you, but I’m gonna be a log tonight. A few hours of beauty rest just does not cut it.”

He gave her a smile before glancing down at the other end of the table. “What’s all this?”

“That’s Lore,” Jasmine replied, spearing a forkful of potatoes.

“Um. What’s lore?”

“Him.” Tallie pointed with her spoon. “Lore. That’s his tag; he’s a priest. This being an actual cult, there actually are priests, believe it or not! And he’s pretty much the top-ranking one, except for maybe the Bishop. He’s also the resident expert on Eserite philosophy, and the guy who’ll be teaching it to us. You pay attention to him; you don’t get tagged into the Guild proper until he says you’re fit for it.”

“Hm.” Rasha paused to tuck into his meal. It was just like the night before: bland, but filling. He was already getting nostalgic for the spicy food back home. His sister Amrit made the best curry… “Does anyone else think this is a weird system?”

“Yes,” Jasmine said emphatically, drawing a grin from him against his will.

“Weird how?” Tallie asked.

“Well, it’s…” He shrugged. “There’s no teachers. Apprentices just do whatever, and… Of the people who seem to be dedicated to looking after us, it’s just these two, right? Lore and Style?” He raised his eyebrows. “The chief enforcer and the chief priest?”

“Who told you Style was chief enforcer?” Tallie asked, frowning. “Last night you didn’t even know who she was.”

“Darius loves to talk.”

“Oh. Yeah, he does.” She grinned, spooning up the last of her carrots. “Almost as much as me.”

“Rasha has a point, though,” Jasmine mused. “These are basically top people in the guild. Apprentices are kind of…at the bottom. Seems odd that they’re the only ones who have a dedicated responsibility for us.”

“All systems are corrupt!” Tallie said cheerfully around a mouthful, prompting both of them to avert their eyes. “Makes perfect sense to me the Eserites’d have a pretty unique system. Eh?”

Rasha coughed, forking up another bite of potatoes. “So, um, anyway. After lunch. What do we…do?”

“Whatever we like,” Jasmine said quietly. “No one tries to organize your activities. But we’re expected to be consistently working toward improving our skills, trying to either get a sponsor or go straight for full Guild membership. Style pulls people aside for a talk if she thinks they aren’t working hard enough.”

“Like I say, good system,” Tallie opined. “The Guild doesn’t need people who stand around waiting to be told what to do. You gotta be a self-starter, have your own motivation!”

“I’m kind of amazed how Style knows what everyone’s up to,” Jasmine murmured. “I only actually see her once in a while, mostly just passing through if she’s not grabbing somebody for one of her little talks. But she does seem to have her thumb on everyone’s pulse.”

“Okay, then.” Rasha drew in a deep breath, let it out, and had a sip of tea. “Training. How’s that work?”

“Well, you wanna learn something, you get somebody to teach you,” Tallie said, again gesticulating with her silverware. “Anybody, really. You can learn from the other apprentices—most sponsored ones don’t live here in the Guild, but they come for training themselves, and the ones with seniority are the closest thing to dedicated teachers. Just cos they don’t have enough status to be turning up their noses at a fellow apprentice who asks for help.”

“Just because their sponsors would land on them if they did that,” Jasmine added. “Isn’t that more or less what happened to Pick?”

“He was doing a little worse than that, but yeah, basically,” Tallie agreed. “Point is, Rasha, you’ve gotta be mindful of reputation and credibility. How much you have, and how much others have. Makes a difference who you can approach and how seriously they have to take you, or who’s likely to approach you, either to give or to ask for help.”

“Ugh.” He rubbed his forehead. “So if you’re not the most social person, this is basically a nightmare.”

“Basically,” Jasmine said dourly.

“Oh, don’t listen to her,” Tallie snorted, pointing accusingly at Jasmine. “This one’s definitely not a people person, but she does okay. A good start is to head out into the pit and demonstrate what you’ve got! Try stuff out, do what other people are doing. It draws attention; people will admire what you do right, and correct you where you’re wrong.”

“That’s true,” Jasmine acknowledged. “I’m not much of a social person, but so far I seem to get by on work ethic. Haven’t really had any proper training except from a couple of the senior sponsored apprentices.”

“Flora and Fauna,” Tallie added, nodding. “The Bishop’s. You’ll like them, Rash.”

“It’s Rasha,” he emphasized.

“Uh, yeah.” She winced. “In hindsight, I can see why it would be.”

“So,” he murmured, toying with a forkful of potato. “Just go out there and…do things. All right.”

“Finish your meal first,” Jasmine advised.

“Oh, believe me,” he assured her, “that wasn’t in question.”


What he could do…

Looking around the pit, where apprentices were working at dummies, sparring, climbing walls, and doing several things whose purpose he couldn’t guess, Rasha felt another moment of profound helplessness. What could he do that would impress anyone here?

Then his eyes fell on the balance bars. They were clearly designed for climbing, being built up in an asymmetrical, complex formation that rose over three yards high, made of smooth-sanded wood darkened by countless hands and joined together with metal fastenings.

He was making his way toward them before he could talk himself out of it again. Somewhat to his surprise, Tallie and Jasmine followed along. It was mildly encouraging that they didn’t have much more idea what to do than he; with them being his primary source of information, he tended to forget they had only been around a few days, themselves.

“Thieves need to climb,” he said, a smile breaking unbidden across his features.

“Well, yes,” Jasmine said behind him. “I suppose that’s—whoah!”

It wasn’t like rigging. The texture, the arrangement, the inflexibility of the bars… But it was grasping, swinging, pulling, knowing the weight of his body, feeling the inertia and gravity as he swam through them. Rasha hopped upward once to grab the lowest bar, and in seconds had bounded nimbly up through the whole arrangement to perch smugly atop it.

He had to grin in sudden pride when his performance was rewarded by cheers and wolf whistles from others about the room. They quickly returned to their own business—these folks had surely seen a lot of more impressive things—but for a few moments, he was the center of attention…and approbation. It was an unfamiliar feeling.

Rasha decided on the spot he needed more of it.

“Hey, not bad!” Tallie called, grinning up at him. “Not bad at all. Lemme have a go!”

Twenty seconds later, she was beside him. Her technique for climbing was very different than his; she swung her body in wide arcs, with graceful flourishes of whatever limb was not currently needed to hold herself in place. It was an inefficient method, but an undeniably beautiful one, and Rasha found himself curious where she’d learned to climb.

He was also uncomfortably aware of how her performance accentuated the long lines of her body.

“Impressive!” he said, hoping his skin was dark enough to hide his blush. His sisters were never fooled, but people of Stalweiss stock, he’d found, often couldn’t spot faint changes in coloration, not when their own faces turned bright pink at the slightest thing. “That’s…wow, I’ve never seen anyone climb like that.”

“Why, thank you,” she said, batting her eyes and simpering.

Rasha cleared his throat. “Um, well. I suppose there’s no mystery about me; just a wharf rat, used to scaling the rigging. I was dancing on ropes before I could walk.”

“Circus rat, here!” she said cheerfully, hopping upward and throwing herself into a somersault. She landed with one hand grasping the bar on which they both sat, and slowly straightened her body out above them, free arm and legs all pointing in different directions, balancing on her palm. “The point is not to get anywhere in a hurry, but to look good while you’re getting!”

“Mission accomplished,” he mumbled.

Tallie turned her head to grin and wink at him upside-down, and he had to drop his own gaze.

“There she is!”

He craned his neck to look below, where a slim blonde woman dressed in black was striding across the pit floor toward Jasmine, grinning.

“Oh!” Tallie swiftly re-folded herself to sit beside him on the top bar. “That’s Grip!”

“Grip… Oh, Randy’s master?”

“Ex-sponsor, yeah. She is not somebody you wanna cross.” She nudged him with an elbow, grinning eagerly at the scene below, where the senior thief had cornered and engaged Jasmine in conversation. “You’ll wanna watch this. Grip was around two days ago, Jas’s first appearance here. She got baited into sparring with one of the other apprentices.” Her grin grew hugely. “Flattened him. Just completely demolished, and didn’t even get bruised. I swear her hair wasn’t mussed. Yeah, Grip’s an enforcer; she saw that, and I had a feeling she’d be back to see some more.”

“I see,” he mused.

Tallie gave him an irritated glance. “What, that’s it? You’re supposed to express disbelief. How can a little slip of a thing like Jasmine be so dangerous?”

“It actually is really surprising,” he agreed, “but this isn’t when I’m learning of it. You remember last night, when we were all literally blind and it still took three Silver Legionnaires to pin her down?”

“Oh,” she said sullenly. “Yeah, I guess so. Fair enough.”

The conversation below had progressed while they were talking, culminating in Grip turning to the other nearby apprentices and asking for volunteers, while Jasmine stood aside, looking uncomfortable.

“Oh, all right,” Darius said, pushing forward through the crowd and trying for a show of reluctance, which was ruined by his broad grin. “I guess I can have a go. But just promise you won’t cry, Jas. I hate to see a pretty lady all mussed.”

Instantly, Jasmine’s posture shifted, reluctance and uncertainty vanishing as she turned to face him.

“All right,” she said quietly. “I promise.”

“He’s not very bright, is he?” Rasha whispered.

“No,” Tallie replied, grinning insanely. “No, he is not.”


“Ah, there they are,” Principia said as Casey and Farah entered the cabin. “Finally. Front and center, ladies, we’re waiting on you.” Indeed, the rest of the squad were clustered around the arcane heater at the end in which they slept, all but Principia herself sitting on their bunks. “We’ve got new marching orders straight from the High Commander. This is the big one, girls: an actual mission, something important to the Sisterhood’s interests, and a chance for us to prove our worth. We will not mess this up. I hope you enjoyed your last hour of normal duty shifts in a while, because once I’ve briefed you, we are off to the races.”

“Um, before that,” Farah said nervously. “We have something to report.”

Beside her, Casey sighed, looking resigned.

“Well?” Principia said impatiently. “Out with it, then.”

“It’s, um…” Farah shuffled her booted feet. “Well, Sarge, you remember the mystery of the jackass cadet who kept signing out prayer rooms under the name I. P. Standing?”

“Oh, no,” Nandi whispered.

Principia glanced at her, then fixed her stare back on Farah. “Vaguely, sure. What of it?”

“Well,” Farah said, “the good news is, today we caught her red-handed.” Casey edged subtly away from her.

“And the bad news?” Principia demanded.

Farah cringed, hunching her shoulders as if trying to withdraw her head into her breastplate like a turtle. “Colonel Standing would like a word with you, ma’am. At your earliest convenience.”

There was a moment of silence, in which Ephanie’s eyes widened in horror and Nandi closed hers. Then Merry burst out laughing so hard she almost immediately rolled off her bunk.

“You remember telling Farah to be more assertive?” Casey added helpfully. “Well, she’s been working on it.” Farah shot her a filthy look.

“Well, isn’t that the fuckin’ cherry on top,” Principia said sourly. “Thank you so much, Szaravid.”

“Sorry, Sarge,” Farah said miserably.

“Elwick,” the sergeant added, “walk over to Lang, and if she’s still on the floor by the time you get there, stomp on her organs. Everybody else, just…sit down and sort yourselves out. This is important.”

Merry was still grinning half a minute later when they had all assembled and arranged themselves under their sergeant’s now-irritated stare, but even she managed to mostly compose herself. Nandi sat cross-legged on her own top bunk; the others spread out on the bottom ones, waiting expectantly.

“Much as we need more warm bodies around here,” Principia mused, “I do rather like the coziness. After all the shouting and drilling, it’s nice to be a group of people and not the armored golems the bronze demands of us. Needless to say, as always, you are none of you to carry tales of how I do things up the chain of command.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused, most smiling.

“All right, to business.” Principia nodded once. “What we caught last night was the tail end of a bigger and more important operation. Rounding up a handful of Eserite apprentices, in addition to being a completely useless thing to do, was not the point. That raid was prompted by a tip from relatively high in the Guild itself, and its point was to seize the weapons being traded in that warehouse. I didn’t bring any to show you, because they’re to stay locked in the main temple at Commander Rouvad’s orders, but what we found are modified battlestaves of strange design and uncertain purpose. They are capped at both ends with large crystals and incorporate some kind of gold superstructure. When fired, they produce a slightly diffuse beam of yellow light which exerts a mild kinetic force on a target and no other visible effect. It is useless against energy shields. In short, the Legion has apprehended strange weapons that someone in the Thieves Guild felt it was important that we know about. We can’t tell what they are, or what they’re supposed to do, or where they come from.”

She let that sink in for a moment, panning her stare around the squad. “And it is now our job to answer those questions.”

“How?” Merry asked.

“In several ways,” Principia said, beginning to pace up and down. She only had room to make about three steps at a time before having to turn. “First, I’m to examine the devices themselves to figure out their purpose; the High Commander has suspended my weapons research until this is done. Second, this squad is to track the origins of the weapons, and try to learn about their provenance.”

“Once again,” said Merry, “how?”

“I’ve been mulling that,” Principia said seriously. “And I’ll come to it in a moment. First, though, there’s another thing you need to know. What I said about this being an important test of the squad’s mandate is true, but the stakes are higher than that. Commander Rouvad has tasked Bishop Syrinx with the same objectives; she is to pursue the matter through political channels. The Church, the Eserite Bishop, and whatever else she can manage.”

“Holy shit,” Casey breathed. “It’s…a race, then.”

“It’s more complicated than that, Elwick,” Principia said grimly. “In addition to doing our actual jobs, we’ll need to carefully manage our situation relative to Syrinx. Yes, this is a chance to pull ahead and prove ourselves more useful than she, which is a step toward the important goal of validating the Commander’s trust in this squad and making Syrinx herself redundant. However, she is not unaware of our stake in this, and if we start to show her up too badly… Well, you all know how restrained dear Basra is when she feels threatened.”

“She just got back from being punished for that,” Ephanie objected. “Surely she won’t lash out again.”

“She is likely to be more careful right now than she otherwise might, for exactly that reason,” Principia agreed, “but never forget that Basra’s calculations are just that. She had no personal restraint or regard for anyone but herself; only self-interest keeps her in check. This is going to be tricky, ladies.”

“Okay,” Casey said, frowning but slowly nodding. “What’s your plan, then, Sarge?”

“To begin with, leave Syrinx to me,” Principia said firmly. “If she approaches any of you in any way, report to me immediately and in detail. Aside from that, just keep clear of her.”

“Always a good policy,” Merry noted.

The sergeant nodded to her. “With that said, there’s the matter of how to actually begin tracking these weapons. The leads are few and the trail cold, ladies; this isn’t going to be an easy job. Maybe not a possible one. But we’re going to do what we can, using the very thing this squad was formed to foster: our connections with other cults.”

They glanced around at each other in confusion.

“Well,” Farah said doubtfully, “I guess one of Nemitoth’s libraries might be able to help identify the enchantments used on those weapons…”

“Yes, true, but that’s not what I meant,” said Principia. “I’m referring to the connections we have formed as a squad.”

“That pretty much is just Bishop Darling, isn’t it?” said Merry.

Principia grinned. “Think more recently. Very recently.”

“Oh, no,” Merry groaned.

“Oh, yes, Lang. We’re going to split into two teams for phase one of this. The first group will consist of Shahai, Elwick, and Szaravid. You will locate those Guild apprentices we met last night, cultivate friendships, and get them to tell you whatever it is they know. Do not treat them as a disposable information source, either. Useless as apprentices are, they won’t be apprentices forever. Not everyone who applies to the Guild makes it all the way—not even most. But we won’t waste a potential connection.”

“Why us, though?” Casey objected. “I mean, all due respect, Sarge, but wouldn’t you be a better choice to deal with the Guild?”

“I do have the knowledge and experience, this is true,” Principia agreed. “And for exactly that reason, I’ll be coaching you on what to say, what to do, and how to proceed. Carefully. But by the same token, I have my own reputation among the Guild, and my presence would be…complicating. Trust me when I say it’s best I remain at a circumspect distance from them for now. But I chose you three by process of elimination. Avelea radiates discipline and dignity even when out of uniform; among Eserites, that’s tantamount to tattooing ‘kick me’ on you forehead. And Lang…” She turned a critical look on Merry, who grinned puckishly. “Honestly, Lang, I could see you either making the best of friends with Eserites, or the worst of enemies, depending on how the conversation went. I’m reluctant to flip that coin when either heads or tails could end with you getting shanked.”

“Your concern for my welfare touches me, Sarge.”

“Yes, yes. Passive-aggressive jab at my leadership, obligatory rejoinder about my boots touching you, and we move on. We three, Lang, Avelea, and I, are going to pursue the other lead we’ve gained lately.” She grinned. “It’s a weak one, but he was on the scene—and given what we’re looking into, building a tie to the Salyrites will be all kind of useful. So while you guys are dancing with thieves, we’re going to look up our new friend Mr. Schwartz.”

“Question.” Farah raised a hand. “Don’t all of these people…um, sort of hate us right now?”

“I thought Schwartz seemed pretty mild-mannered,” Ephanie commented.

“Yes,” Farah said dryly, “but you don’t have to deal with the Eserites.”

“Well, I think you overestimate the level of hostility we’ll meet, Szaravid,” said Principia. “Hate is a very strong word. But yes, there may be some ill feeling. In that case, you will simply have to employ charm and persuasion.”

“And,” Farah said hesitantly, “what if I don’t…have charm and persuasion?”

“Then,” Principia said, “I guess you’re back to being assertive, aren’t you?”

Merry let out a long sigh and leaned back against the frame of her bunk. “Oh, yeah. This is gonna work.”

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