They both shifted at the sound of steps on the stairs, turning to see who was descending; it was clearly only a single pair of feet. The boots which appeared were not Silver Legion issue.
Ephanie remained in place, keeping her expression blank, as the girl in the trench coat descended, glancing at the two of them with curiosity but no sign of unease.
Casey, though, after a moment’s hesitation, came fully to attention and saluted.
Jasmine’s eyes cut back to her. She did not pause in descending, though after a bare moment, she nodded almost imperceptibly and continued on her way.
There was still no sound from above. Either Locke was remaining behind for the time being, or for whatever reason had gone for the other stairs. Ephanie waited until the Eserite apprentice was out of sight around the corner before turning and speaking pointedly to Casey.
“Is there something you’d like to tell me, private?”
“I…yes,” Casey replied. “But with all respect, corporal, I think for the moment I had better not.”
Ephanie pursed her lips and drew in a deep breath through her nose. “Elwick… I realize it’s easy to take Sergeant Locke for a fool, but we all know who’s the reason Bishop Syrinx didn’t manage to get us drummed out of the Legion and/or killed. Chain of command aside, if she tells you to butt out of something, you had better do it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Casey said simply, indulging in one quick glance down the hall in the direction Jasmine had gone. “I know.”
“Well,” Tallie said archly, “look who’s back. Young lady, do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Not really,” Jasmine replied, sliding onto the bench next to them with her tray. “Aside from dinner time. Hey, guys. How was your day?”
“Pretty good,” Ross rumbled. “Got some training.”
“We stayed in,” Rasha added, wincing. “Which was very beneficial for those of us who woke up wishing we were dead.”
“Yeah,” Tallie said, giving him a pointed look. “Next time we go drinking I’ll make sure you get water and food in you. It helps the next morning.”
“Appreciate you looking out for me,” he said wryly. “How ’bout if I’m dumb enough to do that again…don’t let me?”
She snorted and jostled his shoulder with her own. “Anyway, yeah, turns out we’ve managed to build up a little cred, what with one thing and another. Couple senior apprentices showed us a few tricks for picking pockets and cutting strings, and an actual Guild member gave us a lock-picking lesson. Shifty guy named Fingers.” She wrinkled her nose. “I could really go two ways about that tag, but he was good with the locks and didn’t pinch my butt, so I figure he’s okay.”
“Ever wonder about tags?” Ross asked, staring pensively at the forkful of potato he had just speared. “Can’t be the only Eserite ever tagged Fingers. Be surprised if he’s the only one alive now.”
“We’ll have to ask Lore about that,” Tallie said dismissively.
“Sounds like a good day,” Jasmine said after swallowing a bite of bland fish. “Can I beg a lesson from you guys?”
“Trade you for some sparring tips,” Rasha said quickly.
“Okaaaaay.” Tallie pushed her tray to the side and planted her elbows rudely on the table, staring at Jasmine with her eyebrows raised. “Now you tell us about your day.”
“Hear you got some face time with a veteran thief with serious cred,” Ross added.
Frowning reflectively, Jasmine nodded. “Yeah… Two, actually. This morning I was…well, summoned is a good word. Summoned by someone named Glory.”
“Glory?” Tallie gasped. “The Glory? The one and only?”
“That’s amazing! Who the hell is Glory?”
Jasmine grinned in spite of herself. “Well…she’s…interesting.”
“Tells us a lot,” Ross noted.
“Shush.” Tallie reached across the table to flick his forehead. “Not everybody’s a semi-bard.”
“Glory’s a…the word she used is ‘courtesan.’ She’s in the information trade. Seemed…well, rich, if nothing else.”
“What’d she want with you?” Tallie demanded.
“She’s looking for an apprentice.”
“Holy shit!” Rasha sat bolt upright. “You actually got a sponsor?”
“No, no,” Jasmine said hastily. “It was more of an initial interview. She’s looking for someone and people have mentioned I’m along the lines of what she wants, but it wasn’t like she’d decided already. We’ve never met before, after all. It was…a strange conversation. Kind of illuminating, but she honestly made me sort of uncomfortable.”
“Well, ch’yeah, if she’s a hooker,” Tallie said.
“Courtesan,” Jasmine corrected. “She was extremely clear on the difference. And actually it seems like a significant one.”
“Whatever,” Tallie grunted, waving away her objection. “Point is, for someone raised Avenist, meeting a hooooookourtesan has gotta be uncomfortable.”
Jasmine stared at her. “How did you know I was raised Avenist?”
“You may not have noticed the presence of lesser mortals around you,” Tallie said dryly, “but you had that scrap with Silence and the ensuing conversation out in damn well public. And honestly it explains a lot. Nobody your age has a right to be such a badass unless you were getting drilled with a sword right out of the cradle.”
“Huh,” Rasha said, studying her speculatively now. “What brings you here, then? Get fed up with Avei?”
Jasmine shrugged uncomfortably, spearing another bite of food. “I have no problems with Avei. The Sisterhood, though…has issues.” She stuffed vegetables in her mouth and began chewing stubbornly, eyes on her plate.
“Must’ve been a hell of an interview, to take all day,” Tallie mused.
Jasmine looked up at her, sighed softly through her nose, finished chewing, and swallowed.
“Well. After that, I looked up and asked Principia Locke to speak with me.”
“Uh huh,” Tallie replied, raising an eyebrow. “The infamous Eserite Legionnaire elf who you won’t tell us how she knows you enough to freak out when she found you in a cell.”
“She’s my mother.”
The apprentice dining hall was rowdy and cheerful as always, but for a few moments in their little corner, it was dead silent.
“Wait…what?” Rasha finally exclaimed.
“We don’t really…talk,” Jasmine said, staring at her food. “It’s not a close relationship. Okay, honestly, it’s not a relationship. I didn’t even know she’d joined the Legions and I still can’t wrap my head around that. But…she was nearby, and I’m learning to do this Eserite thing, and I was kind of turned around and apprehensive after seeing Glory, so I figured…” She shrugged. “Well. Couldn’t hurt to get some tips. I mean, she pretty clearly has insight on belonging to the same two cults I do, if…you know, in reverse.”
“Wait, so you’re a half-elf?” Ross frowned, peering at her through narrowed eyes. “Hm. Actually I can sorta see it.”
“Well, thanks,” Jasmine said sardonically.
“I guess she must be kind of a good Eserite after all, then,” Tallie mused. “She was pretty clearly shocked when she saw you in that cell, but she recovered fast, and didn’t show a hint for the rest of the night. Hmm. Might be someone who’s worth knowing, for apprentices.”
“She really is the most awful person,” Jasmine said sourly. “She just took off right after I was born, and I didn’t see her for eighteen years. That doesn’t just go away. But…” She sighed, and shrugged. “Whatever her reasons…she has them, I guess. People don’t just do random things, and I’m learning that everybody thinks they’re justified in whatever they do. And she is trying to get to know me, now, though I can’t help being suspicious of her motives.”
“Sounds like you should be,” Rasha commented. She gave him a quick little smile.
“I think being suspicious of everyone’s motives is good policy around here,” said Ross.
“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed. “Besides, I have to wonder if I have any right to criticize other people’s actions. We’ve all screwed up.”
“That’s true for everybody,” Tallie said cheerfully.
“Probably truer than most for anybody apprenticing in this cult,” added Rasha.
“Oh!” Tallie suddenly slapped the table with her palm. “I just remembered. HEY! DARIUS!”
The last was spoken over her shoulder at full volume. Across the aisle, Darius turned around on his own bench, raising an eyebrow.
“This had better be the start of either a food fight or a blowjob, ganglepants.”
“You’re an asshole,” Tallie replied, grinning.
“Yes, I know. It’s all part of my charm. Whatcha need?”
“Get over here, I’m not gonna yell everything across the damn room.”
“Oh, no, of course not,” he said sarcastically. “Because that would be uncouth and disrespectful to everyone else in here who doesn’t care about your nonsense.”
“Less sass, more hustle!”
“This isn’t going to stop until I get up and haul my ass over there, is it.”
“Aw, see? Next time somebody tells me you’re as dumb as a block of wood, I can actually contradict them! I mean, probably won’t, but I can.”
Darius sighed dramatically and swiveled fully around, swinging his legs over the bench, and stood. “Ugh, fine. Someone’s a fast learner; you’ve got a long and fruitful career ahead of you as a blackmailer.”
“Thought Style said not to go into blackmail,” Ross said, frowning. “She said blackmailers usually end up murdered.”
“Well, yes,” Darius replied easily, ambling up to them. “I’m guilty of a spot of wishful thinking now and again.”
“Good of you to join us,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Just wanted to let you know, I cornered Style this morning. After she finished calling me cusswords in three languages, I brought up Pick. Fucker’s actually skipped town entirely.”
“Son of a bitch,” Darius spat, suddenly looking genuinely angry. “That sniveling little shitstain! Okay, new rule: next time I come up with a job offer, punch me in the nuts.”
“Done and done,” Rasha promised.
“Oh, but that’s not the good part,” Tallie said, now grinning insanely. “Style was under the impression Pick had already paid us. Now we get our compensation straight out of Guild funds, and the Guild will be compensated by Pick.”
“How’s he gonna compensate the Guild?” Ross asked. “’side from being gone, he didn’t seem to be much of a high roller, and the Legion killed his deal.”
“That’s his problem!” If anything, Tallie’s grin widened. “Because in addition to paying us, he’ll be paying wages for the Guild enforcers send to gather him up.”
“Ahhh.” Darius smiled beatifically. “So by ‘compensation,’ you meant ‘all his money plus one point five kneecaps.’”
“If he’s lucky!”
“I do love a happy ending,” he said, beaming.
“Strange that he would run,” Jasmine commented. “It seems like Guild members, of all people, would know not to try that.”
“Eh, there’s probably a story in there,” Tallie said without interest. “More going on. I really don’t care; we get our money and I’m done with the fucker.”
“Hey, Darius,” Jasmine added. “I, um. I wanted to apologize for being a jerk yesterday. I really wasn’t trying to pick on you, it’s just… Well, I guess I’m a little thoughtless and kind of a show-off. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, water under the bridge,” Darius said easily, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Now I have ammunition to use next time I fuck up and would rather you didn’t tie me in a knot, now that I know that’s a possibility.”
“That’s actually harder than you think,” Jasmine said seriously. “People aren’t really flexible in the right way.”
“You’re kinda cute when you’re not being creepy,” he replied, winking. “Theoretically. I assume. Looking forward to testing that theory. Catch you kids later.”
Pausing only to playfully swat Tallie’s head, he turned and strolled off back to his own dinner.
“Well, that’s kind of a relief,” Jasmine said, spearing another bite of fish. “Good to put that behind us”
“Uh huh,” Tallie said skeptically. “You cling to that optimism, girl.”
Squad One, in preparation for their afternoon’s excursion, had gotten dinner early enough that they’d had to get travel rations from the kitchen. By this point in the evening, the actual meal was still being served, though just barely; the kitchen staff were already wiping down one of the long rows of tables in the mess. Given the Ninth Cohort’s current deployment, very few squads actually ate on the same schedule, aside from breakfast. Fortunately, the person Casey was looking for happened to be present.
“Sergeant Aumbe, you speak elvish, right?” she asked, plopping into a seat opposite her target.
“And hello to you, too, Elwick.” Lontli Aumbe was a sturdily-built, broad-faced woman with skin a deep shade of mahogany, her hair trimmed close to her head in a much shorter style than even the other Legionnaires usually adopted. She was currently working her way through a bowl of the simple, hearty stew which was a staple in the Legion mess, and wearing a customarily wry expression. “Yeah, I wouldn’t say fluently, but I picked up as much as I could while we were stationed at Fort Vaspian. Wasn’t much to do at that posting, and it seemed worthwhile.”
“Wait…Vaspian?” Casey blinked. “Isn’t that the fortress across the entrance to Tar’naris? I thought it was an Imperial base?”
“It is. Used to do cooperative duty with the Silver Legions, until Queen Arkasia asked us to leave. The Third was the last Silver Legion to be stationed there.”
“…she asked the Legions to leave? And they just did it?”
“Apparently,” Aumbe said with a faint grin, idly toying with her spoon, “the Tiraan in general are alien enough to Narisians that she’s not too worried about cultural assimilation. But our army of badass warrior women is enough like the drow ideal there was apparently some concern about Narisian warriors running away to join. Arkasia doesn’t want that, and apparently the High Commander doesn’t either. She shifted us away. Now the Second Legion patrols Viridill, but they don’t actually fortify the tunnel anymore.”
“Huh,” Casey said thoughtfully.
“History’s interesting,” Aumbe commented. “Something tells me it’s not what you’re curious about, though.”
“Oh! Well, I…” Casey shrugged awkwardly. “I guess it doesn’t really matter, if you speak the drow language. Sorry, I just assumed.”
“It’s the same language,” the sergeant pointed out. “The Narisian dialect has some extra grammar for its different levels of formality, and they pronounce their vowels differently, but basically? Same language. Y’know, Elwick, if you need something translated, there are two actual elves in your squad.”
“Yes, I know,” Casey said with a sigh. “They’re sort of why I’m asking.”
Aumbe grunted in amusement. “Ah. They like to talk behind your back to your face?”
“Oh, it’s nothing bad,” she said hastily. “But Locke and Shahai enjoy their little jokes. And especially with Locke… Well, sometimes I like feeling like the smart one in the room for a change. Anyway, it’s not important, if I decide I care enough I can always go to a Nemitite temple and look it up. I just wondered if you happened to know what the elvish word for mimosa is.”
“Sorry, kid.” Sergeant Aumbe scooped up another spoonful of stew. “I don’t even know what that is in Tanglish.”
“Oh. It’s a tree.” Casey wilted slightly even as she spoke. “It has leaves like ferns, and the cutest pink poofy flowers in the spring…”
“Oh! You mean a silk tree!” Aumbe set down her spoon, finally beginning to look interested. “Beautiful things, they’ve got one on the grounds of the Temple of Izara. One of the few things I like about being posted there. Sorry, though, the names of trees aren’t really the kind of thing you learn from the underground elves.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Casey said, grimacing and moving to get back up. “Well, thanks anyway!”
“Hang on, though,” Aumbe said. “The thing about elvish is they don’t like making up new words for stuff; when they want to describe something, they build a word out of other words that basically tells you exactly what it is. That’s why elvish is full of those stupidly long words with all the apostrophes. Like, the names of specific species of stuff is just the kind of thing and a descriptor.”
“So…if it’s a silk tree, it’d just be the elvish for literally silk tree?”
“Probably.” Aumbe shrugged and took a bite of her stew, chewing thoughtfully for a long moment before swallowing. “Let’s see. ‘Tree’ is tris, that’s an easy one. The Tanglish word actually comes from that. ‘Silk’ is trickier.”
“Well, I know a word for silk in elvish, but it refers to the spider silk they have in Tar’naris. Whenever the drow talked about, you know, normal silk, they used the Tanglish word. Elvish doesn’t really change quickly, being spoken by immortals, and silk comes from the North. Y’know, Sifan, Sheng-la, Ang Khon. They don’t even have elves in Sifan, and I dunno about the others.”
“I see,” Casey mused. “Well…what’s the word for spider silk?”
“Hm. So, sini tris.” She kept her features schooled, but a prickle ran down her spine.
“Nah.” Aumbe shook her head and finished chewing another bite. “Nah, they put the words in the other order, and an apostrophe in there that’s pronounced as the tiniest hesitation. I actually never got the hang of that part. But, more or less, ‘silk tree’ would be tris’sini. Assuming, of course, that’s what they actually call it, which…they probably don’t.”
“Of course, of course,” Casey said, nodding. “Well, I appreciate it anyhow. It’s probably not important; sorry to interrupt your dinner.”
“No worries.” Suddenly, the sergeant frowned, holding her spoon suspended halfway back to the bowl. “Hm. That’s almost exactly the paladin’s name.”
“You’re right, it is,” Casey said innocently. “You’d think I’d have caught that! I met her once, you know.”
“Yes, Elwick.” Aumbe rolled her eyes. “We have all heard the story.”
“It’s a good story,” she said defensively.
“Sure it is, kid,” the sergeant replied, grinning. “She sounds like a good one. I mean, aside from the obvious that Avei wouldn’t pick a bad one. I’m sure it’s a coincidence, though. No reason to think I put the word together right, and anyway, what kind of sadistic moron would name their kid Silk Tree?”
“Well, she is half elf,” Casey pointed out. “Who knows?”
Aumbe grunted and finished spooning up another helping of stew. “That’d be kind of interesting if it’s true. But it doesn’t really matter; paladins aren’t any of our business. Why’d you want to know about the word, anyway?”
“Well, if I’m interpreting the conversation right, there are a couple of those trees in the Arboretum that they keep blooming through the winter. So…wow, that was even less important than I thought,” she added ruefully.
“Uh huh. Word of advice, kid?” Aumbe pointed the spoon at her. “Take some time to learn that language. Learning languages is just generally a good thing to do, and maybe it’d put a stop to you being the butt of the joke.”
“Or at least, I could join in and make someone else the butt.” Grinning, Casey stood up from the table. “Thanks, sergeant.”
She held it together until she was back out in the courtyard, and then had to pause, staring wide-eyed at nothing.
Immediately, Casey got her features back under control, and continued making her slow way in the general direction of Squad One’s cabin. Inwardly, though, her mind was racing. Her early childhood training remained in effect, both at keeping her true thoughts hidden, and her father’s lessons in recalling precise details. Project back to the moment, see every aspect of the environment, remember the exact words used. Conversations from the past flickered through her head, one after the other.
I have a daughter about your age.
Why else would Avei choose a half-elf as her paladin?
Kid doesn’t talk to me…
Holy shit, Locke.
And on the heels of astonishment came, reflexively, more analysis. Ephanie was right; Locke did like to play the fool, and she did it well. Casey, at least, was schooled enough in cunning that she never let herself forget her sergeant was two and a half centuries old, and a veteran Eserite. She had been the driving force behind their outmaneuvering of Syrinx, and was the cornerstone of their hopes of doing it again.
Casey was well aware that the odds of her having penetrated one of Locke’s deceptions by pure happenstance were slim. Once she considered that fact, other points of data clicked neatly into place. There was really no reason for Locke to have dropped that tidbit about having a daughter; she had actually never shared anything else about her personal life. And considering her origins, her admission into the Legions had almost certainly come with some prohibition against seeking out Trissiny. Had Casey been in Rouvad’s place, she’d have laid down that rule.
No. She was following a trail of breadcrumbs. Being manipulated, in truth, but she wasn’t the least bit offended by that. Manipulation was a valid way of relating to people—if you didn’t want to hurt them, at least—and she could see the restraints Locke must be working under.
The Silver Legions had put her under the guidance of a murderous, molesting lunatic, who was now back in authority after having had a disgustingly gentle slap on her knuckles. It had almost gotten them all killed by dragon-hating activists. It seemed her tenure here had been nothing but long stretches of useless waiting around, interspersed with mortal peril in pursuit of spurious nonsense.
On the other hand, Principia Locke had fought tooth and nail behind the scenes to keep them safe, emptying her own funds to get them better gear than the Legions would provide—which had saved their lives. Trissiny Avelea had taken the time to reassure a nervous cadet whom someone of her rank could just as easily have viewed as nothing more than furniture. She had gently shut down the racist comments of one of her own priestesses, and launched reforms to reach out to the women the Sisterhood had failed to protect.
If it came down to the Legions versus her sergeant or her paladin, Casey already knew whose side she was on. Especially now that she knew how connected they were.
Which was not to say she understood everything going on, here. There were clearly multiple layers to this; it was not time to act rashly. Or to act at all.
But she would watch carefully, and wait. When either of them needed her, she would be ready.
“Hey, Jasmine!” Grip said with incongruous cheer. “Let’s take a walk.”
Jasmine stopped, glancing back at the others. Tallie rolled her eyes, then made a shooing gesture; Rasha just looked nervous. Ross, as usual, seemed pensive and maybe a little sleepy.
“Okay,” she said with a soft sigh. Grip was already walking away at a respectable pace, forcing her to hasten to catch up. “What’s on your mind?”
“Stuff,” the thief said lightly, stepping through the doorway into the catacombs.
Jasmine hesitated slightly before following.
The corridors of the Guild’s headquarters were a stark contrast to the Casino above, being ancient, worn, and rough-cut, and lit mostly by torches rather than modern fairy lights. Despite the warnings she’d been given about the Catacombs, they appeared to be basically more of the same, at least so far. Jasmine immediately decided, though, not to follow Grip in here past the point she was sure she could remember the way out.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. Grip took the first left turn, and then the second, and then stopped. Far from trying to get her lost, this was obviously a position chosen so that she could find her way back unescorted. It was also quite private; she couldn’t hear the noise of the Pit at all.
“So…stuff?” she prompted after a long moment in which the thief just stared at her through narrowed eyes.
Grip folded her arms. “I have a message from Glory. She’ll want you to visit her again to explain herself. As soon as possible, which means tomorrow morning. You do not want to keep Glory waiting. The long at the short of it, though, is she’s decided not to extend an offer of apprenticeship.”
“I…see,” Jasmine said, finding herself oddly disappointed. Which was absurd; she’d had no intention of taking on a proper apprenticeship here, especially to someone like Glory. “Well. Thank you.”
“I’ll take some of the blame for that,” Grip went on, still watching her with hawklike intensity. “Glory and I do chat, and I happened to share with her some insights I’ve had recently. For example, that Jasmine Darnassy was the last Hand of Avei. The one thought everyone would be the last, until the new one popped up.”
“Yes, so I’ve heard,” Jasmine said, keeping her tone light. “And Yasmeen Aldarasi is the crown princess of Calderaas. Same name, different dialect.”
“Mm hm.” Grip’s mouth twisted in what looked ominously like a smirk. “Common knowledge. Not exactly secret, but not as widely known except to those who’ve gone well out of their way to find out, is that Trissiny Avelea is strangely absent from the campus of the Unseen University this semester.”
A beat of silence passed.
“Wait,” Jasmine said. “Did you say Unseen—”
“Glory,” Grip interrupted, “thinks, rather justifiably, that it doesn’t suit her interests to take on an apprentice who is probably going to leave the cult entirely within a very short time. I’m certain the rejection is in no way personal. She seemed quite taken with you.”
“I…” Jasmine swallowed. “Well. That’s… I’m not really sure—”
“Just stop,” Grip said curtly. “Kid, you are a terrible liar when caught off guard. I don’t know how long you thought you were going to pull this off; that’s clearly the first thing we’ll need to work on.”
“I’m not really of the same opinion as Glory,” Grip said with a cold smile. “I think you’d make a fantastic apprentice. So, what say we start first thing in the morning?”
“Ah.” Jasmine paused, gathering her thoughts as quickly as she could. “Well. That’s extremely flattering, but with all respect to your chosen path, I’m really not hear to learn more about using force…”
“Well, let me make this easier for you,” Grip said, her smile widening and growing even less reassuring. “That was not a request.”
Jasmine narrowed her eyes. “I beg your pardon?
“You obviously didn’t do this on your own talents alone,” Grip mused, still studying her face intently. “The Boss is in on it. I’m betting Sweet, too. And Style; Tricks doesn’t so much as scratch his butt without consulting her, especially with regard to apprentices. So no, I’m not going to go blow your little charade for the specific reason that that would clearly piss off the whole uppermost level of the Guild.”
“So, when the lid is blown off your charade, you can be assured there won’t be a trace of evidence connecting it to me.” The thief grinned broadly. “Let me be plain: if you’re going to stay here, it’s going to be as my personal pupil. Period. I’m sure even you know better than to think you’ll be able to accomplish jack shit in this place once everybody knows who you are.”
She had come in here off guard and been pushed further off it with every step of this conversation, but now, the familiar heat of anger speared through her. With it came clarity, and the restoration of her confidence.
“I think someone is getting way ahead of herself,” Jasmine said icily. “Leaving aside the question of why you’d want an apprentice who’s going to be gone very soon…” She took one very deliberate step forward, fists clenched at her sides. “You’re clearly not planning carefully, if you think blackmailing me is a good idea.”
“Well, that’s the difference between us, Jasmine,” Grip replied with a slow, sly smile. “I know exactly what I’m doing. Take a little time to consider your situation. A very little time. I’ll talk to you soon.”
Without another word, she turned and strolled off back the way they had come, whistling.