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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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?