The layout of the Thieves’ Guild underground headquarters was, unsurprisingly, confusing. Aside from the central complex around the Pit, where things were mostly laid out in a sensible fashion, the whole network was a confusion of oddly-angled tunnels, stairwells, meandering halls, hidden nooks, side rooms, and obfuscatory features in general. No room except the smallest and some not open to the public had only one entry, and there were abundant quiet spots for assignations of all kinds. It was all very useful for many of the purposes of its inhabitants. On the downside, for those not yet used to the place, it was very easy to get lost.
At least it provided means of avoiding the more crowded areas, if one were so inclined. Thus, it was an even nastier shock than it would otherwise have been when Jasmine emerged from the less-used back entrance to the dormitory toilets to find Grip lounging against the wall right outside.
“Morning!” the enforcer said with a bright smile.
Jasmine forced herself to relax, aware that her instinctively combative pose had given away her tension. With that out of the bag, she didn’t attempt to feign disinterest, folding her arms and scowling.
“Well. You’re up early.”
“Yes, I was,” Grip agreed, idly tossing a dagger in the air and catching it, “but that was hours ago. It’s past breakfast.”
“Somehow I assumed you’d be the type to be out all night and asleep—oh, excuse me, mysteriously absent till afternoon.”
“Then we’ve learned something about making assumptions, haven’t we?” Grip replied, grinning.
Jasmine narrowed her eyes. “What are you doing out here?”
“It’s the Guild,” she said with a shrug. “I’m a thief. I’m allowed.”
“You know what I mean,” Jasmine snapped. “And now you’re just trying to irritate me.”
“Yes, I am, and it’s working.” She pointed the dagger at her, expression now serious. “Don’t just experience the encounter, examine it. What exactly am I doing that gets under your skin? Why is it working? How can you counter this next time? What’s my motivation, here?”
“Let’s start simpler. What are you doing lurking outside the apprentices’ toilets?”
“Enforcement is about control, and control is about manipulation. You can’t maintain control through brute force, you’d be drowning in enemies before you could build a power base. It’s little things, theatrical touches and ways of getting under people’s skin that does the trick. Keeping people off-balance is more effective than keeping them afraid. For instance.” She smirked, lifting one eyebrow. “One of the most powerful things you can do to emphasize to someone that you are the one in control is to just show up in places where they think you won’t. Places where they feel safe, that should be out of bounds.”
“And so, toilets,” Jasmine said sourly.
“Toilets, hospital rooms, workplaces… For all the stories about leg-breaking—and we enforcers spread most of those ourselves—we get much better mileage out of embarrassment. Somebody owes money? Threaten them, and they may panic, or just do something dumb. But having shady characters like me turn up at their office, or finding me sitting in their kitchen making polite conversation with the little missus when they get home, or sitting next to them at temple services….? That is how you lean on someone.”
“Hm,” Jasmine said noncommittally. “Well, since you’re here, I have questions.”
Grip straightened up, twirling the dagger to rest with its blade against her forearm, and made it vanish inside her jacket with alarming deftness. “Shoot.”
“What happened with you and Randy?”
“What have you heard?”
“That you tossed him out for shaking down shopkeepers.”
“That’s the long and the short of it, yes,” Grip said, her expression openly annoyed for the first time. “He also got caught doing it by Sweet’s apprentices, which was humiliating—as much for me as for him. Insult upon injury. Was that all you wanted to know?”
“Of course not. I have a personal interest in understanding what you look for in an apprentice. I don’t really see the connection between myself and him. And if there is one, well, that’s a little distressing.”
The enforcer smiled, briefly, but in real amusement, before her expression sobered again. “Randy had—has, rather—hunger. The drive to make more of himself, to succeed, to fight the world. It’s a very Eserite thing. He’s one of those who’s always felt wronged, shortchanged; the world owes him something and he means to collect.” She shook her head, grimacing bitterly. “That we can’t have, it makes people do the most appalling bullshit. Prompted in the right way, though, it can be refined into a less narcissistic, more reasonable drive, the thing good Eserites need. A lust to equalize, turn the tables, bring the mighty down to our level and look them in the eye when they realize what’s happened. And I thought I was making progress with him, I really did. He was… Well. What his personal hobbies revealed was that he was playing me. Playing along, acting like he was absorbing the philosophies along with my tactics and know-how.” Her eyes narrowed to furious slits. “I’m not some thug, nor do I associate with riffraff, and I sure as hell don’t train that kind of scum. Eserion gives us a purpose, and it’s not to line our pockets. I failed Randy, apparently. Worse, he proved he wasn’t going to change. After that, aside from the insult to me, I could never trust that I was training an Eserite, and not just a thief. That was it for him.”
“I see,” Jasmine said slowly.
“Anyway, don’t worry too much about the resemblance,” Grip said, suddenly much more nonchalant. “I don’t have a type. I rarely pick a protege, and only when I spot somebody who I think needs my personal coaching. You have very little in common with Randy.”
“Glad to hear that, anyway.”
“Don’t be,” Grip said flatly. “It was a neutral statement, not a compliment or insult. He’s him, and you’re you. He failed. You still might. Do not get cocky.”
Jasmine tilted her head back, meeting the enforcer’s stare without hesitation. “I have advantages he definitely lacks.”
Grip smiled humorlessly. “And this is why you need me, in part.”
“That’s the other thing I was going to ask. What in the world do you want with me?”
The thief tilted her head, permitting herself a small smile which even looked deliberate. “If you understood my reasons, you wouldn’t need my help. If you were yet in a position to understand, I’d explain it. Some things you have to learn through experience.”
“Uh huh,” Jasmine said skeptically. “Well, this has been interesting—”
“You are on a schedule, you know,” Grip said pointedly.
“Yes, I am,” she retorted. “Right now I have to go deal with Glory again, followed by other things which are no business of yours. And in the slightly longer term, between all that and you I am reconsidering this whole project. You can threaten me with exposure if you like; while I’m debating whether I actually need to be here, that’s nothing more than helping me make up my mind. If I do decide to stay, we’ll talk. But not right now.”
“I’ll tell you what, kid,” the enforcer said, smiling again. “I’m going to grant you a few days’ leeway, because this right here is a valuable lesson. Learning how to weasel out of pursuit and delay the inevitable is a crucial skill for a thief, but not as much as learning the limits of how long you can get away with that. So here you go: learn the limits.” She winked. “And thus, you’re studying under me, whether you want to or not. Think about what I did, and try it yourself. Talk to you real soon, Jasmine.”
She turned and strolled away, leaving Jasmine standing alone in the corridor, staring after her.
After another moment’s contemplation, Jasmine turned and cut back through the toilets and the barracks into the Pit. The route she had started to take was roundabout and three times as long, and…well, there was no point, now.
“Heeeey, there she is!” called the first person she particularly wanted to see, after she’d exchanged nods with a few other apprentices. Tallie waved with her customary exuberance. “Missed you at breakfast, Jas!”
“Oddly enough I don’t have much of an appetite,” she replied, strolling over to join Tallie and Rasha by the pickpocketing dummies. “What’s the plan for today, guys?”
“Ross left early, too,” Rasha said quietly. “Apparently he’s got a lesson and some personal time with an actual Guild member.”
“Stands to reason, he’s been here twice as long as us,” Tallie said airily. “Good on him! We’re just waiting for oh look here he comes now.”
“Discussing who you’d all like to shag?” Darius asked, swaggering up to the group. “Don’t worry, I get that a lot. Morning, ladies.” He grinned broadly at Rasha, who narrowed his eyes.
“You need a new routine, Darius,” Tallie retorted. “That smug cocky guy schtick of yours is way overplayed. Try something original, something your own! Like the friggin’ pox.”
“Hey, don’t joke,” Darius said solemnly. “My uncle died of the frigginpox.”
“Are you sure?” Rasha snapped. “Maybe it was just embarrassment at being related to you.”
“Ooh, and the littlest Punaji tries his best!” Darius grinned down at him. “Not at your quickest first thing in the morning, are you?”
“Before this devolves any further,” Jasmine said pointedly, “you made it sound like you’ve got a plan for today?”
“Hell yeah!” Tallie crowed. “We’re meeting the elf twins preeeeetty much any time now, I dunno where they are. But they’re taking us out actually pickpocketing!”
“In…a group?” Jasmine raised her eyebrows. “That sounds like a good way to court far too much attention.”
“Hey, Fauna and Flora know what they’re doing, generally speaking,” Darius said with a shrug.
“And it’s Flora and Fauna,” Tallie corrected. “How many times I gotta tell you?”
“As many as it takes before that starts making a difference, you daffy bimbo.”
“Anyhow,” Rasha added, “we’re getting a chance to practice what we learned yesterday.”
“Oh…that sounds pretty good, actually,” said Jasmine with a sigh. “Wish I could come, but I’ve got to go dance to Glory’s tune again. It’s less of an honor this time, since I’ve been forewarned that this is the let-down speech.”
“Oh, ouch,” Tallie said, wincing sympathetically. “Not her type after all, huh?”
“And that’s just the start of the day,” Jasmine said dourly.
“Well, hey, don’t feel bad,” Darius replied cheerfully, slapping her on the shoulder. “You weren’t around to get the teaching, so it’s not like you could’ve come, anyway!”
“My, aren’t you a charmer,” Tallie said, scowling at him. “We could teach her what we know on the spot, y’know, and I bet the elves know a lot more than any of us, anyhow. No need to be a dick.”
“It’s a having a dick thing,” Darius said seriously. “Rasha, tell her.”
“Whoah!” Rasha protested. “I have and want nothing to do with you and dicks!”
“Hmm.” Darius made a show of stroking his chin in thought. “I feel I should be able to run with that. There’s a good burn in there, I can sense it, but there are hazards. A lot of the directions I could take it would make me sound pretty gay.”
“How about—” Tallie broke off as Rasha’s finger was thrust into her face.
“Don’t help him! And if you don’t want to sound gay, Darius, try talking a little bit less about dicks.”
“And he recovers from his earlier fumble!” Darius crowed, beaming. “Anyhow, where the hell are those girls? Just like a pair of elves to be shiftless and unreliable. Boom!” He whirled, pointing both fingers behind him. Another passing apprentice, finding herself in his sights, paused to give him a contemptuous once-over before continuing on her way. Darius sighed and turned back to them. “Well, shit, I thought for sure they’d be right behind me if I started bad-mouthing ’em.”
“Nice, boy,” said Flora from directly above them. “Real attractive.”
“And it might’ve worked, if only you were apprenticing with the Veskers,” Fauna added archly.
Both elves were perched nimbly on the edge of the Pit. Half of it was railed, a fairly new addition which had apparently been abandoned partway through, leaving the rest of its surface borders as a constant falling hazard. Flora and Fauna, doubtless to emphasize their agility, had chosen to balance on the iron bannister, sitting as casually as if in easy chairs.
“Ladies!” Darius cried, waving exuberantly up at them. “May I just say you’re looking extra svelte today? And not just because I have a perfect view of your legs from here.”
“Do we really wanna help him?” Flora asked her counterpart.
“Eh, he might as well come along,” Fauna replied with a shrug. “I kinda like the others.”
As if on some inaudible cue, both hopped forward plummeting down to land nimbly beside the other apprentices. Flora’s characteristic cloak billowed very dramatically at her descent.
“So, you coming along today, Jasmine?” Flora asked with a broad grin.
“I’m afraid I have to go oh what am I doing, I know you heard our whole conversation.”
“Dammit!” Fauna huffed irritably, flipping a doubloon to Flora, who caught it with a gleeful cackle. “You had to pick today to start learning?”
“Yeah, I’m increasingly okay with how this has panned out,” Jasmine said dryly.
“Well, cats and kittens, we are burning daylight,” Tallie added. “C’mon, ladies and Rasha, let’s get a move on. See you this afternoon, Jas?”
“Or tonight. It depends on how long I get tied up today.”
“Try not to do that,” Flora advised.
“And if you do, make sure you establish a safe word,” Fauna added.
Jasmine blinked. “…what?”
“Isn’t she precious?” Flora cackled, turning to go with a wide sweep of her cloak.
“I swear, one of these days you’re gonna hit somebody important with that damn thing…”
“Didja see what I did there?” Tallie asked Darius, grinning and prodding him on the shoulder. “Ladies and Rasha, I said. See, the implication—”
“Yes, yes, thank you for defending my honor, Tallie,” Rasha said, rolling his eyes. “C’mon, they’re leaving us behind. Bye, Jasmine.”
The records room at the Silver Legion’s complex in the Temple of Avei was a fairly public space; one needed reason and at least a minimal level of clearance to be there, but such reasons did occur consistently in the normal course of the day. Ordinarily, women would be coming and going through the well-lit archives to retrieve, deposit, or copy files on a regular basis.
It was quiet, now, and empty, and she had to force herself not to rush in her efforts, as rushing led to sloppiness. She was keenly aware, however, that her presence was the reason no one else was in here. She hadn’t left orders not to be disturbed, but had had to identify herself in order to gain access, and…apparently, one thing had led to another.
An hour into her search, though, she was at least making progress. Hopefully the disruption her presence must be causing the Legion’s ordinary functions was minor and easily remedied. Surely if anything important came up that necessitated access to the files, whoever needed it wouldn’t hesitate?
She looked up in mild surprise when the door to the long filing room finally opened, then straightened fully, setting down her folder and blinking. “Oh! Commander! I’m sorry, I hope I’m not disturbing you…”
High Commander Rouvad smiled faintly, pulling the door shut behind her. “Not in the least, I’m glad of the excuse to take a break. Disconcerting, isn’t it?”
“Not having to salute,” Rouvad said, her smile widening as she approached. “You’ve got a look I recognize, not knowing quite what to do with your hands. It was awkward enough for me, and I got to this position after long years of making smaller steps. Don’t repeat this, but I still feel uncomfortable, not saluting a General. Somehow I never quite imagined myself as the woman in charge; it still feels like I’m watching somebody else play a role, some days.”
“I…um, I see.” Awkwardly, she relaxed her tense posture. “For the record, I didn’t tell them not to disturb me in here.”
“Yes, I know,” Rouvad said, shaking her head ruefully. “That would be Sergeant Pinitar’s work. A stickler for respect toward the faith’s persons of importance, and quite a fan of yours, incidentally. Don’t worry, you’re not disrupting the Sisterhood’s affairs unduly. I did leave orders that we not be disturbed, though. If it’s not something extremely personal, I can probably help you find what you’re looking for a lot quicker, Trissiny.”
For a moment, she considered insisting on the name. Principia hadn’t been the first to emphasize that while she was Jasmine, she was Jasmine; a convincing deception began with deceiving oneself, on some level. It had been a favorite theme of Tricks’s, when he was initially coaching her in this role. Just for a moment, though. That conversation would be, at best, a distraction, and probably achieve nothing productive.
“I spoke with Principia Locke recently,” she said instead.
Rouvad nodded. “I just learned of that this morning, in fact. Sergeant Locke credits your help with much of her progress on her current mission.”
She drummed her fingers once on the file atop the cabinet directly in front of her. “I’m not trying to get her or her squad in trouble, here.”
“Allow me to lay that worry to rest,” Rouvad said seriously. “A certain amount of politicking is inevitable in any organization the size of the Sisterhood. I have no choice but to engage in it, myself. But among my personal priorities as a commander is to protect my troops from that as much as possible. If Locke has done something that deserves reprimand, she’ll get it. If not, I will not see her put upon in service to anyone’s agenda. I’m afraid,” she added with a sigh, “I have not always managed to shield Squad 391 from that as well as I should have; Locke and her soldiers are already more suspicious of the chain of command than I like to see in a unit, but I can’t blame them for it. Restoring that trust is something of a priority right now.”
“I see,” Jasmine murmured. “Well, perhaps that’s a good lead-in for what I was looking for. When we talked, Locke mentioned someone highly placed in the Sisterhood trying to murder her, and apparently her whole squad.”
“Oh, did she,” Rouvad said flatly. “Might I ask how that came up in conversation?”
“I asked her to see me to gain her insights on my own project; she certainly knows a great deal about being Eserite, and apparently has managed to learn something about integrating the two faiths without dissonance. We were discussing that, and I expressed an opinion that the Guild was inherently somewhat more corruptible than the Sisterhood. That was part of her rejoinder.”
“Hm.” Rouvad turned to lean backward against the file cabinet, folding her arms. “For what it’s worth, her point is well-taken. The Sisterhood is more corruptible by nature, just because it is more structured. Predatory people can exist in almost any environment, and they tend to thrive in the military. Where there are rules, those rules can be exploited. The comparative chaos of the Guild’s structure counters that to a point. Coupled, of course, with its inherent opposition to the abuse of structures.”
“All systems are corrupt,” Jasmine muttered.
“Yes, so they tell me,” Rouvad said dryly. “You know, Locke is a Legionnaire, now. Anything Legion-relevant that you want her to tell you, you can order her to.”
“Yes, I know. As does she. She asked me not to, said she doesn’t want to stir up more politics.” Jasmine shook her head. “And yes, I am aware that she fed me just enough information to help me find what I need, especially since it’s an accusation I can’t just let go. All while covering her own butt. I’m not blind.”
“Avei wouldn’t have picked you if you were obtuse,” Rouvad stated, “despite what I suspect some of those thieves have been telling you. And don’t underestimate Locke. It wasn’t just a matter of protecting herself; by making you dig up your own information, she arranged for you to be more invested in it. That’s a vitally important piece of mortal nature you need to be aware of, Trissiny. It’s why organizations have intense initiation rites, part of why basic training in any military is so brutal. People value something much more if they’ve had to work for it.”
Jasmine sighed. “Forgive me, Commander, but I’ve just come from a singularly unpleasant encounter with a person who breaks elbows for a living and seems to want to teach me to follow the same path. I’m a little sour on the subject of manipulating people at the moment.”
Rouvad cracked a faint, wry grin. “I know that feeling, too. I’m sorry to have to say this, General Avelea, but you’d better get over it. These are the methods by which you keep your troops in order.”
“I know, I know. I’m coping. I was always taught that Avei disapproves of lies, though.”
“That’s Narnasia’s voice talking, not Avei’s. War is deception.”
“Yes, I’m getting quite the education in that as we speak. But since you’re here and offered…?”
The Commander clenched her jaw for a moment, looking away. “Well. Loath as I am to drag you into politics, that’s probably just wishful thinking on my part. Locke may have exaggerated slightly; it wasn’t a murder attempt, so much as a plot to discredit her squad which could have resulted in their injury or death. I have to acknowledge that from their perspective, the difference is just quibbling.”
“She also claimed the person responsible is still in a position of authority,” Jasmine said, hearing her own voice climb in incredulous disapproval. “This really happened? And that’s true?”
Rouvad nodded slowly, turning her head again to meet her eyes. “Yes, Bishop Syrinx is now reinstated to her position.”
For a moment, she could only stare. “…the Bishop?”
“Have you met Basra Syrinx, Trissiny?”
“Once. It was… Well, surprising. She struck me as quite clever.”
“Oh, isn’t that the truth,” Rouvad said in a surprisingly sour tone.
“I don’t mean to be pushy, Commander, but I think I need to insist on a full explanation of this.”
“It’s not pushy,” Rouvad replied immediately. “You’re entitled to know, by virtue of rank alone. I wasn’t keeping it from you, Trissiny, but by default I don’t inform you of the Legions’ doings unless you are specifically involved. But, yes, since you are, now… Well, to begin with, have you ever heard the phrase ‘social pathology?’”
She narrowed her eyes. “I… Actually, I think I have, but only in passing. During one of Professor Tellwyrn’s lectures, I think. I can’t recall specifically what the context was.”
“Well, by that description it could refer to almost anything, but that’s the term used by dwarven mind-scholars. Actually, the elves have a word for it as well, but personally I find the dwarven perspective more useful. Admirably scientific people, the dwarves; their research is all conducted very rationally and well-documented. Social pathology is a condition from which Basra Syrinx suffers.”
“It certainly doesn’t sound pleasant,” Jasmine said pointedly. “I doubt it would even if I didn’t know it was relevant to her attacking her own soldiers.”
“It’s a congenital disorder of the brain,” Rouvad continued. “It causes the victim to have a very limited range of emotions and predisposes them toward certain characteristic traits: egotism, obsessiveness, aggression. The most important fact of it, though, is that it leaves the sufferer unable to form emotional connections to other people—to anything, really.” She paused, frowning at the wall and clearly not seeing it. “How to put this… Well, to you and I, a person, a puppy, and a chair are three qualitatively different kinds of things. They demand different responses and types of treatment. Syrinx lives in a world inhabited entirely by chairs…some of which cut in front of her in line and chew up her shoes.”
Jasmine stared at her in dawning horror, her mind racing ahead to being grasping the full implications. “And…this…person… Is the Bishop of our faith?!”
Again, the Commander heaved a heavy sigh. “This is where it gets difficult, Trissiny—especially for me. It’s another thing you really should have been made aware of before now, as both militaries and the Thieves’ Guild attract people like this. It’s not a common condition, but the studies I’ve read from Svenheim estimate as many as one in a hundred humans and elves have it, and only slightly fewer dwarves. Personally, I would love to throw Basra bloody Syrinx out of the Legions and the cult entirely; dealing with her is a constant strain on my patience and belief in the basic good of the world.”
“And yet she’s still Bishop.”
Rouvad nodded, grim-faced. “Because… For what, exactly, would we be punishing her? You can’t condemn someone for being mad, you can only deal with their actions as necessary. It’s a disease, and it’s not her fault she has it. Understand how someone with a brain like that sees the world, Trissiny. It’s not remarkable that she turned on a squad who personally irritated her, so much that she doesn’t do such things every day. Yes, we have to hold Syrinx accountable for her actions, but punishment is simply not effective on her. She is by all evidence an upstanding citizen and a highly productive member of the Sisterhood, all without being capable of anything you or I would understand as morality.”
“How is that even possible?”
“Because she’s found her own way to live by the dictates of our faith, and society at large. Basra isn’t able to love, or truly to care, but she understands cause and effect and has a sense of her own self-interest. However she does it, she toes the line. When she steps out of line I have to deal with that—but I have to do so keeping in mind what causes her to act as she does, and what methods are necessary to rein her in. They are rarely the same ones that would work on a normal person. Honestly, I’m never sure how well I do at managing her. It’s uncharitable of me, but I can never shake the suspicion that she’s up to things out of my sight far worse than anything she’s ever been accused of.”
“Like trying to murder a squad of Legionnaires?” Jasmine snapped.
“The files on that are classified,” Rouvad replied, “and thus not here. However, I’m going to have them pulled and copied and made available to you. You deserve to know all the facts. I handled that as best I could, Trissiny, but it wasn’t so simple as Locke doubtless made it sound. Do me the favor of knowing everything you can before taking a side.”
“That’s…fair,” she said somewhat grudgingly.
“There is also the matter to consider that Basra Syrinx is a priestess of Avei,” Rouvad added pointedly. “It’s the single greatest reason I extend to her as much tolerance as I do, followed shortly by the fact that her very disability makes her a shrewd and extremely valuable political agent. But in order to call upon Avei’s power, she requires the goddess’s approval.”
“Clerics have acted poorly in the past,” Jasmine pointed out.
“Indeed, yes, but there is always a line which, when crossed, cuts you off from a deity’s auspices. They don’t watch everything all the time, Trissiny, but they see when their power is called upon. So long as Basra has continued access to the light of the gods…I extend to her a little trust. Because I am trusting in Avei.”
A momentary silence fell. Jasmine nodded slowly in comprehension, and reluctant acceptance.
Rouvad studied her face thoughtfully, then sighed again. “Well, that is as good a segue as any. On a very similar note, I want Principia Locke in my Legions about as much as I want Basra Syrinx, and I tolerate her for similar reason. When she applied to enlist, I was inclined to show her the door.” She shook her head. “I was overruled.”
“Overruled? But you’re the High Commander, who could—” She broke off, eyes widening.
Rouvad nodded. “Locke is here because, for whatever reason, Avei wants her. I think you should know that, if you’re going to try dealing with the woman.”
Jasmine bit her lip. “Commander… What do you think of Principia?”
“She’s trouble,” Rouvad said immediately. “But… And I’m surprised to find myself saying this… Not more trouble than she’s worth. She is a lousy soldier and probably always will be…but I have never been able to fault her effort, or her apparent care for the women she leads. And they have the highest opinion of her, including one whose opinion I, personally, value highly. For now… Just as with Syrinx, I’m trusting that Avei knows what she is doing.”
The Commander and the paladin sat in silence for another moment, and then Jasmine heaved a sigh. “Well. I guess I should be glad somebody does.”
Rouvad grinned. “It’s the only thing that keeps me going.”