If any of the apprentices had been expecting an exciting and revelatory defiance of stereotype, the “job” let them down. It was a gathering of rough-looking characters dealing in dangerous-looking implements, in a half-cluttered warehouse which, to judge by the dust, had seen no legitimate use in months, in a shabby and somewhat scary part of the city. The whole thing could have come straight from a chapbook by someone whose only experience of Thieves’ Guild operations was other chapbooks.
“You sure it’s safe to be doin’ this around here?” Tallie huffed, watching over her shoulder as she backed through the alley door into the warehouse proper. Jasmine, holding the other end of the long crate they carried between them, remained silent and focused, and notably less out of breath. “Seems like a kinda dangerous part of town.”
“Child,” said Pick, who was two years older than they at the absolute most, “I realize you’re new blood, but you are still, in the broadest possible sense, Guild. We are what makes it a rough part of town. There are people in this world who won’t hesitate to take a shot at a follower of Eserion. None of them are the dregs huddling in this hole.”
Tallie preferred to save her breath, rather than talking. Under Pick’s direction, they set their crate down atop one of the other two, which were laid side-by-side in one corner of the warehouse, illuminated by a portable fairy lamp hung from a hook of indeterminate purpose attached to the nearby wall. Moments later, Ross followed them in, holding the final crate in his arms. They were about four feet long and one wide, and fairly flat, but absurdly heavy for their size; even Pick had stared with raised eyebrows when Ross uncomplainingly picked one up by himself.
The last of the apprentices Darius had found, he had a few weeks’ seniority on them, and was even quieter than Jasmine, communicating in monosyllables if that. Though not tall, Ross was a very beefy specimen, having an impressive paunch, but under the coating of fat his frame had a blocky shape which hinted at powerful muscle, and his silent hoisting of their cargo bore out the impression. His reddish hair was shaggy and almost shoulder-length, and a bushy beard hid most of his face, revealing only a round nose and sharp blue eyes in a florid complexion.
“People aren’t dregs just because they can’t afford a better place to live,” Jasmine said quietly, straightening up. She was clearly far stronger than her lanky frame suggested, to judge by the ease with which she’d handled her end of the crates. Tallie was still panting and slightly stooped.
“No,” Pick said curtly, “they can’t afford a better place to live because they’re dregs. It takes ambition and guts to move ahead in life; without those, you’ll be lucky to tread water. Most end up sinking. Here, if you’ve got enough free time to philosophize, make yourself useful. I see our buyers, so get those open.”
He tossed a crowbar at her—not aggressively, but abruptly. Jasmine snagged it out of the air without effort, giving him a sidelong look of disdain, but swiftly bent to start prying the lid off the last crate, which Ross had just set atop the pile.
Pick wore a black leather coat with a high collar that rose to the level of his eyes, and was dressed entirely in black beneath it. The ensemble managed to look somewhat dashing, and would perhaps have been quite striking on someone less reedy and sallow-faced. Turning his back on the apprentices, and thus not seeing the faces Tallie made at him, he strode away toward a pair of short, stocky figures in heavy brown cloaks, who were drifting in their direction.
“Wonder how many times a day he ‘accidentally’ gets called Prick,” Tallie muttered. Ross, standing with his arms folded, gave her a sidelong glance and a grunt, but his stolid expression relaxed into something very nearly approximating a smile. Jasmine didn’t look up from levering the top board off the crate she’d chosen; it was nailed down hard, and had to be pried off one end at a time, with some apparent difficulty. Tallie glanced at her, then shook her head. “We picked the bullshit job after all. Darius and Rasha get to enjoy the cool night air up on the roof…”
“It’s raining,” Ross grunted.
“It’s misting,” she corrected. “It’s not even a drizzle. It’s refreshing.”
He stroked his beard, then flicked his hand to one side, scattering droplets of water.
“And as soon as my lovely assistant gets that thing open, you can inspect your wares,” Pick was saying, leading the two buyers over to them. Both, upon closer inspection, had to be dwarves, despite the clearly obfuscatory cloaks. They were barely chest-high on Tallie, and twice as broad as the average human, but even the concealingly draped fabric couldn’t disguise their squarish physiques.
“We will, of course, need to inspect the contents of each case before finalizing a purchase,” one said, in a faint but noticeable Svennish accent. Jasmine, who had just finished prying the top loose and was setting aside the crowbar to pull it away entirely, paused, glanced at him, and sighed.
“Of course,” Pick agreed, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his coat. “We have time to indulge you. In fact, you can keep the crowbar after you’re done using it.”
Both dwarves turned slightly to face him, the hoods concealing their faces somehow not blunting the displeasure in the gesture. Pick just smiled blandly.
“And how,” said the second dwarf, who spoke Tanglish as well as any Tiraan, “are we to be certain these devices perform as we were told?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Pick replied nonchalantly. “My entire instructions for this exchange consisted of the time, place, and agreed price. I’m not empowered to bargain with you even if I were inclined to. Which, I suspect, you know very well.”
Jasmine, meanwhile, had laid aside the crate’s top, and suddenly frowned in consternation. She reached into the opened crate and pulled out one of the objects it contained, incidentally mussing the bed of straw in which it was packed. It was a heavily augmented battlestaff of some kind; the clicker mechanism was obvious and familiar, but it had large crystals on either end, and its business end had a spiraling framework of what appeared to be gold set around it. “Where did this come from?” she demanded.
“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Pick snapped, whirling on her. “Kid, I get that you’re new, but this is a shady arms deal in a defunct warehouse. I should not have to explain that we don’t make inquiries. Especially that one!”
“If I may?” said the first, more accented dwarf, stepping forward and holding out a broad hand. Jasmine, still looking puzzled and displeased, went to meet him halfway, and handed over the enhanced staff.
“Holy shit, is that gold?” Tallie breathed. “No wonder those boxes are so damn heavy.”
“Seriously?” Pick exclaimed. “Omnu’s balls, what did I literally just finish saying to you?”
“Oh, pipe down, it was a rhetorical question.”
“A talkative bunch,” commented the dwarf not currently inspecting the staff. “Apprentices, then? How disappointing. We were given to understand that this matter would be professionally handled.”
“Oh, were you?” Pick said dryly, turning to face him. “Were you really? Or did you just hear that this was a Guild-sanctioned exchange and made assumptions? Perhaps just finding points to nitpick in the hope that I’ll offer you a bargain which I’ve already explained that I can’t? Yes, this job was handed off to a junior Guild member and a handful of apprentices. You may consider that a statement about the regard in which the Guild holds your opinion, and keep it in mind before you waste my time with any more complaints. If you want to buy the weapons, you know the price. In any other circumstance, I’m just as happy to pack them back up and leave. I get paid the same either way.”
“Oh, gods, please buy the damned things,” Tallie groaned. “I do not want to haul those back out to the cart.”
“Kid cease your—and you!” Pick broke off, pointing at Jasmine, who had pulled out a second staff from the crate and was studying it critically. “Unless you’re planning to make a purchase, desist fucking around with the merchandise! In fact, both of you, give the buyers some space. Go on, go play.”
He shooed them irritably away from their corner, leaving himself alone with the dwarves and Ross, who stood impassively by the crates with his burly arms folded. Tallie stuck her tongue out at Pick as she went, which he either didn’t notice or just didn’t acknowledge. Jasmine followed her without complaint, though her troubled frown remained in place.
“So, that was weird,” Tallie said pointedly. “What the hell are those things? You looked like you’ve seen ’em before.”
Jasmine continued frowning into the distance, appearing not to have heard. After a moment, though, she shook her head very slightly.
“Y’know,” Tallie remarked with a grin, “if you’re gonna act all mysterious it’s only going to make me more curious.”
At that, Jasmine blinked and turned to her. “…sorry? Was I being mysterious?”
“Slightly more than usual,” Tallie said solemnly.
This was clearly a bigger event than the pre-arranged sale they had been brought out for, though when Rasha and Darius had been sent to the roof, there were no other lookouts posted. Two other merchants had set up shop in the warehouse, and seemed to be doing more ambitious business than Pick. A scrawny fellow with an eyepatch and apparently permanent hunch stood behind a long, rough table laid out with various implements clearly derived from wands, in a number of unconventional and presumably illegal configurations. He dry-washed his hands almost constantly, even when speaking with prospective customers, of which he seemed to draw the lion’s share. It wasn’t exactly a busy market, only a few people being present at a time to examine the wares. This gathering was clearly no secret, but just as clearly was not widely known. Or, more likely, just had a highly specific clientele.
Tallie and Jasmine had wandered mostly by accident near the other merchant present, who seemed to be running the smallest and yet most expensive operation present. He was a well-fed, well-dressed man in his forties, and had only a single case open with three items displayed—a dagger, a tomahawk, and some kind of chain with a handle loosely coiled on a crimson velvet pillow. At the moment, he was haggling with his only apparent customer, an even more well-dressed man who bore himself with an aristocrat’s arrogance. Despite the fact that his offerings looked old and battered, this merchant had as many employees (counting himself) as items for sale: a burly man with tattooed arms exposed by his sleeveless vest stood near him, while a lean, hatchet-faced woman lounged against the wall behind the table on which his case lay, idly toying with a stiletto. The hulking bodyguard kept his attention fixed on the man talking with the boss, while the woman’s eyes darted constantly, examining everyone and every source of movement in the room, including Tallie and Jasmine.
“Ugh, what is that?” Tallie asked, wrinkling her nose and pointing to the coiled chain. “Looks like junk.”
“That’s an ak-tra,” Jasmine replied, leaning forward slightly to study.
“An orcish weapon,” Jasmine explained. “Always rare, but unheard of since the Enchanter Wars. Entirely illegal in the Empire since long before then, but there are a few in museums in Viridill. See, every link in that chain has sharpened edges.”
“Holy shit,” Tallie said, eyes wide with sudden, gruesome delight. “That would make the most hideous wounds! And be hard as hell to use without slashing yourself to pieces…”
“Yes,” Jasmine agreed. “They were only used by… Well, what used to be called headhunters, though that refers to something difference after the Enchanter’s Bane, of course. For the most part, orcs heavily emphasized honor in battle, but they also were great believers in pain as a tool of both justice and education. When someone did something truly heinous against a clan, a headhunter would be called, specifically trained, equipped with highly specialized weapons like this one, imbued through fae rituals, and sent to punish the transgressor in the most painful way possible. One properly trained in the use of the ak-tra could inflict awful wounds by wielding it like a flail, but the proper technique of it was to wrap it around an opponent’s limbs and pull. It would saw through flesh, and then snap the bone with a final jerk. It needs some rather nasty fae craft to make it work right, but that left wounds that were hellishly difficult to heal. Highly prone to infection even if the victim didn’t bleed out immediately.”
“Where the shit do you learn this stuff?” Tallie breathed, apparently torn between horror and fascination.
“This one’s been heavily used, see?” Jasmine started to reach for the ak-tra, but the woman behind it suddenly stopped playing with her knife and cleared her throat loudly. Jasmine pulled back immediately, nodding at the guard before continuing her lecture. “See how worn those links are? The edges are basically impossible to sharpen; these weapons are meant to serve a single campaign, and that’s it. It’s seen a lot of action—look, some of them are worn almost through. People suffered horribly under those teeth. And yet…the headhunter’s mission of vengeance went unfulfilled, otherwise this would have been ceremonially destroyed afterward. Instead it fell into enemy hands, and eventually ended up here. This weapon must have an incredible story to tell.”
“Oh, I see,” the snooty potential buyer said loudly, looking down his nose at them. “Very good, you brought in a shill.”
“Upon my honor,” the merchant promised, grinning, “I’ve never seen this young lady before in my life. Though if I ever do again, I just may offer her a job.”
“Oh.” Jasmine looked suddenly self-conscious, taking a step back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to interrupt…”
“Not at all, my dear, not at all,” the merchant said smoothly. “It’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow historian of armaments. And his Lordship isn’t wrong; you make a most serviceable shill, even unwittingly. I’d be willing to pay good coin for your services.”
“Hmf,” the aristocrat said more thoughtfully, seeming mollified. “Well, even if I am being scammed, as I more than suspect, it’s almost worth it for the theater. Yes, I believe your asking price for the ak-tra is more reasonable than I first thought.”
“I’m glad we could come to an understanding,” the merchant replied with a broad smile.
“Now, now, we’ve not reached an understanding. Merely a more amicable bargaining position.”
“Why, of course, milord! It hardly behooves us to skip the fun part of the evening, now does it?”
“I say, that was rather fascinating!” said another voice from their other side; both girls whirled to find themselves confronted by a reedy young man with sandy hair and glasses, grinning delightedly at them. Most incongruously, he had some kind of pet on his shoulder, a little creature like a cross between a mouse and a ferret, scarlet red and, in the dimness of the warehouse, faintly glowing. “Where did you learn so much about orcs, if I may ask? It’s so dashedly hard to find reliable historical sources—what isn’t moldering away in Athan’Khar has been pretty well suppressed by the Empire.”
“The Sisters of Avei keep a lot of records,” Jasmine said absently, staring at his pet. “Especially in Viridill, where they fought the orcs regularly…”
“What is that thing?” Tallie demanded, gazing raptly at the rodent. “It’s adorable!”
“Ah! Well, she is rather fetching, isn’t she?” he said, seemingly well pleased with himself. “This is Meesie, my familiar. Don’t worry, she’s quite—Meesie, no!”
Despite his bark of horror and an abortive attempt to grab the little elemental, she had let out a shrill squeak and hurled herself forward, landing on Jasmine’s shoulder. The girl stumbled backward in surprise, prompting the female body guard to lunge forward between her and the weapons display, but Jasmine fortunately didn’t stagger that far. Even more fortunately, Meesie appeared quite delighted with her new acquaintance. She ran about in a circle on Jasmine’s shoulder, cheeping excitedly, then reared up on her hind legs, patting at Jasmine’s cheek with her forepaws.
“Gods’ books, I am so sorry!” the man blurted, reaching forward to grab the mouse. “I’ve never seen her do that, I never expected—terribly sorry! She doesn’t mean any harm, I swear, it’s just… I mean, she doesn’t usually like people without getting to know them. I’m sorry!”
“No harm done,” Jasmine said somewhat bemusedly, brushing at her shoulder, though the fire-mouse hadn’t left so much as a hair behind.
“Maybe you wanna invest in a leash?” Tallie suggested. Meesie sat upright on her owner’s palm and scolded her in high-pitched squeaks.
“All right, that’s enough,” said the female merchant’s guard in a gravelly voice which hinted at either a throat injury or a lifelong smoking habit. “You, poncy boy. If you’re here to buy, buy. Otherwise, clear out.”
“Oh, now, wait just a moment,” he said nervously, edging back from her and getting a firmer grip on his pet. “I was just—”
“Browsing, I know. I saw.” She took a menacing step forward. “This is not a kind of place where you browse, numbnuts. If you aren’t here for a good and specific reason involving a purchase, you’ve got no business here. Either buy something or fuck off, before we have to have a long conversation in the back about who told you about this gathering.”
“Hang on, now,” Jasmine protested.
“Where’s the back?” Tallie asked, looking around expressively. “This whole place is like an alley’s crusty drawers.”
Before the scene could degenerate further, there came a cry from outside, followed a second later by flashes of light visible through the warehouse’s windows. Instantly, most of those present burst into motion like startled cockroaches, shooting toward exits. None went for obvious ones, though; they bounded up piled crates to the windows, to a ladder leading to the roof, and toward the office at the back of the warehouse.
In near-perfect unison, two smoking bottles arced into the warehouse from its front and back doors. They shattered upon impact with the stone floor, emitting enormous gouts of smoke which billowed rapidly through the whole space. The rich marchant’s guards reacted fluidly, snapping shut the case and bolting with their patron, which was the last any of the apprentices could make out of them before visibility in the warehouse dropped to zero.
There were a few moments of blind chaos, begun by the pounding of numerous feet in heavy boots. Slamming, shouting, breaking objects and the abortive sounds of combat ensued. Not for long, though; the smoke didn’t last but a minute. By the time it cleared, the ruckus had been expertly pacified.
The other weapons display was smashed, and all three merchants—including Pick—were gone. There was no sign of the dwarves, either, but the soldiers who had burst in were now standing guard over his creates of modified staves. Ross was being held at lance point next to it; his expression was sullen, but he had his hands in the air.
Tallie, grunting and cursing, had been wrestled to her knees with both arms twisted behind her by armored soldiers. The man with the rat had been backed into a corner; he had his pet blazing and chittering furiously on one shoulder, while he held up a conjured fireball threateningly. Jasmine had been shoved against the wall and was being held there by two soldiers, while a third held a lance at her neck; both the troops clutching her were somewhat the worse for wear, one missing a helmet and the other with an apparently numb arm hanging at her side, her own lance lying on the floor at her feet.
Everywhere, bronze-armored women stood guard in tense postures, covering all avenues in and out of the building. All had their helmets on, with the further addition of scarves wound around the lower parts of their heads and goggles over their eyes.
As the smoke dissipated, another woman strode in, her boots clomping heavily on the floor. She came to a halt in the center of the room, turning in a slow circle to examine everything. She alone wasn’t wearing a helmet, leaving her dissatisfied expression bare for all to see.
“This is it?” she demanded. “Looks like all we caught were… Honestly, these are apprentices at most. I doubt they’re even proper street soldiers.”
“I’m not even with them!” the man with the mouse said shrilly. He was ignored.
“Think we have an enforcer here, Sarge,” said the helmetless woman gripping Jasmine, her face still mostly hidden by mask and goggles. “This one’s scrappy.”
“Just because you haven’t trained properly in augmented gear doesn’t mean I’m any more dangerous,” Jasmine spat.
“Now, you listen,” the soldier began menacingly, raising a fist.
“Button it,” snapped the sergeant. “I’ll not have you abusing prisoners, or letting yourself be goaded by Eserites. If you can’t control yourself better than that, soldier, this is not the unit for you. And you.” She pointed at the robed man. “Extinguish that immediately, and don’t even think about doing what you’re thinking about doing unless you want to multiply your problems exponentially. The lot of you,” she added grimly, turning her head to address them all, “are now in the custody of the Silver Legions.”
“This is the last time Rasha’s on lookout duty,” Darius snarled, pacing like a caged panther.
“You were a lookout too!” Rasha snapped back at him.
“I’m not the fuckhead they bowled right through!” the other apprentice retorted. “First thing I knew about this, you were on the ground and I was being tackled by the bitch coming from where you were supposed to be watching!”
“She was on me before I could react!” Rasha protested. “Naphthene’s tits, you think I’m blind? I was looking! It’s like she teleported in or something!”
“Silver Legionnaires don’t do that,” grumbled the magic-user trapped with them, who had introduced himself as Schwartz in the ride over in the armored carriage.
“How the fuck do you get snuck up on by someone in plate armor!” Darius roared.
“Will you settle your ass down?” Tallie shouted. “It is too small and too echoey for you to be shouting!”
“I AM NOT SHOUTING!”
They all froze, staring at Ross. For all his habitual silence, his voice had serious carrying power when he chose to employ it. Outside their cell, the sole remaining Legionnaire who’d been left to guard them simply lounged against the wall by the door, watching them but not seeming terribly interested.
The building to which they had been brought was clearly a lesser-used Avenist temple, only two stories tall and not at all large. It was built more like a tiny fortress than a place of worship, even apart from the cells in the basement. So far, after being deposited down here, they hadn’t been spoken to at all; their lone guard had only commented that “specialists” were being brought in to deal with them, and had refused to engage in any conversation thereafter.
“The soldiers who ambushed you,” Jasmine said after a moment of silence. “Were they actually in plate armor?”
Darius, suddenly, looked slightly guilty. “Well… I mean, not exactly…”
“Thought so,” she said, shaking her head. “The Legion uses scouts in light armor for that kind of work. An actual, trained Guild enforcer could probably have spotted light-armored Legion scouts scaling the building, but unless you’ve got a background in that kind of work, it’s not really fair to expect apprentices to see that coming. Don’t pick on Rasha just because he was closer to the point of attack. You wouldn’t have done any better.”
Darius rounded on her, clenching his fists. “Oh, what the hell do you know?”
“This and that,” she said dryly. “More than you think.”
“You do seem pretty knowledgeable about the Legions,” Schwartz observed.
Jasmine shrugged. “This whole thing is fishy. That was just an arms deal. That’s business for Imperial law enforcement. The Legions don’t generally care about things like that—their peacekeeping is basically just patrolling the streets and being seen. In fact, I don’t think Imperial Intelligence would appreciate them butting in.”
“Oy, buckethead!” Tallie grabbed the cell’s door, rattling it in its frame. “Anything to add to that?”
The soldier turned her head to study Tallie for a moment, then resumed her idle study of the wall.
At that moment, the door opened, and one of the Avenist priestesses apparently running this little temple entered, her head turned to speak over her shoulder to someone following as she walked.
“…appreciate you coming out at this hour, orders or no orders. This whole thing has been inconvenient for all of us.”
“Inconvenient for them,” Schwartz muttered, getting a commiserating grin from Tallie. Meesie burrowed down into his hair, squeaking irritably to herself.
“Not at all, Sister, it’s all part of the excitement of protecting and serving the big city,” said the first woman in after the priestess. One by one, a handful of Silver Legionnaires trooped in, most helmeted, though the leader was bare-headed. The rank and file all looked more or less the same in full armor, but the leader, at least, was definitely not part of the group which had arrested them. She was quite distinctive, being not only an elf, but one with coal-black hair pulled back in a tight braid. “Now, what’ve we got here?”
“Sergeant Tivraash is of the opinion these are just apprentices,” said the priestess, folding her hands at the waist and studying the prisoners coolly.
“I am not an apprentice!” Schwartz exclaimed. “I’m not even an Eserite! And I didn’t do anything!”
“He’s right on all counts, for the record,” Tallie added. “Boy’s not with us, didn’t so much as attempt to buy a sawed-off battlestaff, and seems like a perfectly pleasant fellow.”
“Thank you,” said Schwartz emphatically. Meesie chirped in agreement.
“Well, I’ll be the judge of all that,” said the elf, strolling forward and tapping the bars with the head of her lance. “I am Sergeant Locke, commander of Silver Legion squad 391, and just as charmed as hell to meet all of you ducklings. But, since we’re all…” She glanced at Schwartz and winked. “Well, mostly Guild, you can call me Keys.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Wait, what?” Rasha exclaimed.
“Bullshit,” Darius grunted, folding his arms.
“What am I missing?” Schwartz demanded.
“That sounds like a Guild tag,” Tallie explained. “This Silver Legionnaire is claiming to be a member of the Thieves’ Guild, which is even more ridiculous than it sounds, trust me.”
“Oh, but it’s true!” Locke said cheerfully. “Conventional, no. Useful? Very. You see, kids, my squad is part of an interfaith initiative the Legion is trying out. Which is great news for you, because it means I may be able to offer you a better deal than being handed over to the Imperial Army as would be standard policy in this situation. If, that is, your attitudes swiftly and significantly improve. Now, everybody front and center, let’s have a little chat. And yes, that means you in the back. C’mon, girl, skulking behind the big guy wouldn’t make you invisible even if I didn’t have elvish eyes. Step forward, chop chop. Don’t make me come in there and get you.”
Jasmine, upon the entry of the Legionnaires, had surreptitiously folded herself into a corner, where view of her was mostly blocked by Ross’s hulking form. At being directly addressed, though, she suddenly straightened up, stepped out and stalked right up to the bars, staring the elf down.
“Why don’t you try it, Sergeant?”
Sergeant Locke dropped her lance.