Layla looked as if she couldn’t decide what to be irate about. She had been coerced to share her carriage—which, in fairness, was designed to seat six comfortably—with her brothers “miscellaneous ruffian tag-alongs,” as she had not hesitated to call them to their faces, and now was seated with them (all dressed in working-class attire) in a booth at a tea shop from which they had only barely avoided being thrown out on sight by the existence of a House Sakhavenid tab. More to the point, she had not, at any stage in the proceedings, got her way. This seemed to be a new experience for her, one whose novelty she was not enjoying.
“And that’s pretty much it,” Darius said with a shrug while his sister glared haughtily at everyone, holding her teacup in front of her face as if it could protect her from the impoverished influence of her table companions. “I had enough and left. I mean, I could go into detail about the increasingly ridiculous crap my father has been doing in the last few years… Hell, Layla and I could both spend the whole day telling stories like that. Doesn’t really matter, though.”
“Did we really have to come all the way down here to hear that?” Rasha complained. He was hollow-eyed from lack of sleep and more sullen than usual. “That’s basically nothing more than what we could’ve picked up from context.”
“I didn’t say it was a long story or a good one,” Darius said testily. “I said it needed to be told somewhere other than the steps of an Imperial police station!” He glanced at his sister. “Or a fancy hotel.”
“This is much less fancy, I’m sure,” Rasha muttered, glancing around at the posh establishment—several of whose patrons were looking at them with borderline disgust—but this time he was ignored.
“That may not be a minor issue, or only of concern to your family,” Jasmine pointed out. “The Imperial government has allowed Houses to be overthrown from within because they were abusing the citizens in their domains. Powerful Houses, and quite recently.”
Layla looked at her sharply, as did Tallie.
“I’m not too worried about that,” Darius said, shrugging. “The old man is too clever to run afoul of House Tirasian’s policies; he contents himself with raging about them behind closed doors. And anyway, our brother Rostam will inherit the high seat, and he’s far more level-headed. It’ll be fine. I just was nearing a point where I had to either get out of there or murder somebody.” He grinned. “And, y’know, on the subject of things the Empire doesn’t approve of…”
“All right,” Jasmine said. “That’s a relief, I guess. I just wondered if there might be more reasons than the personal why Lady Layla would be out looking for you. Based on the time frame, she was probably already in Tiraas when the dwarves found her.”
“Rails are a thing,” Ross pointed out. Jasmine shrugged and sipped her tea.
Layla set down her teacup hard enough to make a sharp noise that drew everyone’s attention. She was glaring pure fury at Darius.
“You left me,” she hissed.
Darius winced. “Layla, I left you a letter. I wrote to you since I got here—please tell me that crook Collingsworth delivered them like I paid him to—”
“Oh, yes, how splendid,” she snapped. “His Lordship in his infinite kindness deigned to communicate with me after abandoning me in that…place. We were going to do this together, Darius! Ever since we were kids, we talked about getting out from under the old man’s thumb until he finally died and Rostam took over. And then, one morning I awake to find what? You’ve taken off, without so much as a by-your-leave, throwing the entire household into chaos and leaving me to deal with Father and Mother alone.”
“You know what it was like!” Darius protested. “Ever since I turned eighteen he’s been like a millstone around my neck! If it wasn’t an endless parade of idiot noblewomen he wanted me to marry, it was pressure to join the Imperial Army!”
“If you were being pressured into the Army by the high seat of a House,” Jasmine pointed out, “you’d probably have been routed directly into the officer corps. There are worse things.”
“Oh, the poor baby,” Tallie sneered. “Having to date a bunch of hot noblewomen. My heart bleeds for you.”
“Yeah, that’s easy to say if you’ve never been in that position,” Darius shot back. “Trust me, they were picked solely for political reasons, because their Houses had something my father wanted. I’m talking about an age range of fourteen to forty, and not only does good breeding not ensure attractiveness, an aristocratic upbringing tends to turn people into scheming monsters. Layla is probably the kindest noblewoman I know, and hell, you’ve met her.”
“And guess who’s the beneficiary of all that benign paternal attention now that you’re gone,” Layla said venomously. “Believe you me, brother, at this point my options are to bring you home, run away myself, or commit suicide. Because being fobbed off on one of Father’s rich friends as a trade incentive is not on the table, whatever he thinks! Do you know that absolute poltroon Lord Quinian had the unmitigated nerve to approach Father about seeking my hand?”
“Quinian?” Darius repeated, appalled. “He’s older than Father!”
“I am aware of this!” she snarled. “Imagine my relief when Father ever-so-gently rebuked him on the grounds of my age.”
“Well, thank the gods,” Darius said. “I guess even he—”
“Oh, yes,” she spat. “So His Lordship concurred that he had been presumptuous and they now have a gentleman’s agreement to revisit the matter in two years, when I am of age.”
“They can’t make you marry against your will,” Jasmine said sharply. “That’s highly illegal. This is not the Age of Adventures.”
“Jas, honey,” Tallie said with a sigh, “there’s a large difference between what’s legal and what the nobility can make people do.”
“What’s worse,” Layla continued furiously, “is that you were the last influence in the House curbing our parents’ excesses. Rostam won’t make so much as a peep to endanger his inheritance, and if I register a complaint about overtaxing farmers or cheating merchants or mistreating the servants, everyone carries on as if one of the hounds had performed a particularly amusing trick. Oh, the girl thinks she has an opinion, isn’t that precious.”
“Hang on,” Ross protested. “Nobody’s that backward except the Huntsmen. Right?” He looked questioningly at Jasmine. “There’s Avenists everywhere.”
“I’m afraid you’ve hit the nail on the head, Ross,” Darius said, now looking downright queasy. “House Sakhavenid’s lands are in Mathenon—pretty wild country, even these days. The House has given the local Shaathist lodges a lot of privilege and free reign in order to have them serve as free land managers and, to a limited extent, law enforcement. It’s a relationship that’s been going on for two centuries now, and some attitudes have, uh, bled across.”
“That’s sickening,” Jasmine stated.
“That’s the nobility for you,” Tallie said philosophically, taking a sip of her tea. “This is crazy good stuff, by the way. I’d almost be tempted to come back here if I wasn’t being stared at like a wet dog.”
“And that is what you’ve left me with, dear brother,” Layla said. Her voice remained low enough that she would not be easily overheard by nearby tables, but the fury in it was in no way diminished for that. “Things are worse than ever, because Father is lashing out in ire over your little rebellion. And without you there to take you share of the pressure, guess upon whose shoulders it falls?”
There was a pause at the table, in which Darius looked completely at a loss and Layla glared icicles at him.
“Dick move, bro,” Ross rumbled at last.
“I’m sure I have no idea what that means,” Layla said with well-bred exasperation.
Jasmine cleared her throat. “He said that Darius was selfish and inconsiderate in his treatment of you.”
“Yes! Thank you!” She nodded to Ross before turning back to her brother. “It was a dick move!”
Darius heaved a sigh. “Well, look at that. Less than half an hour before she starts learning things from my so-called friends.”
“Oi,” Tallie said scathingly, “lose the attitude. I’m pretty much over the shock of you being one of those inbred staff-up-the-ass blights on the face of the earth, but you’ve been a real asshole to your sister. I think some apologies are in order.”
Layla gave her a look, clearly uncertain how to feel about that.
“Well,” Jasmine said somewhat more briskly, “if you wanted to get out from under your father’s thumb, I suppose you came to the right place. There aren’t many organizations that can really afford conflict with an established House; basically just a comparably powerful House, or a cult. If he learns you are here, though, with the Eserites specifically, there may be trouble.”
“You’ve actually joined the Thieves’ Guild, of all things?” Layla said, staring at her brother. “Darius.”
“Oh, don’t give me that look,” he retorted. “We both read Foxpaw’s Exploits, even after Mother found out and tried to ban it from the residence. We talked about this, even.”
“We were kids! Darius, it’s one thing to have problems with one’s parents or disagree with how one’s House comports itself. But running away to be a thief?”
“It isn’t about stealing,” he said seriously. “Thieving as a means, not an end. Eserion’s cult is about resisting the powerful, about bringing them down to a level they deserve. It’s living free, and always having your skills and wits to rely on. Yeah, I’ll admit it, I joined up basically on a whim and because I didn’t have any better ideas, but that was then. Layla…the Guild is what we always talked about. It’s exactly the solution we were looking for.”
She twisted her lips, manifestly unconvinced.
“When I said there may be trouble,” Jasmine interjected, “I didn’t mean for the Guild, or for you. The Guild is not intimidated by aristocrats; humbling presumptuous nobles is more or less its entire purpose. But if your father is rash enough to assault Guild interests, there will be retaliation. And that’s not even raising the issue of the dwarves after us, specifically, and the risk to your sister of being involved in this.”
“Father won’t attack the Guild, except with his mouth,” Darius said dismissively.
“That may be enough,” she insisted. “Depending on what he says and who hears it. We’ve all had occasion to see how Eserites are about their credibility and reputation.” Unconsciously, she touched the side of her face where the ugly bruise had been. “Tricks might feel the need to respond to even an insult, it it came from the high seat of a powerful House.”
“You’re awfully concerned about this guy,” Tallie said sourly, “considering we know nothing about him except that he’s an asshole even by noble standards.”
“No, I’m not,” Jasmine replied patiently. “But when you pressure the nobility, they have a way of deferring the pain to those underneath them.”
“Boss knows that better’n anyone,” Ross grunted. “He won’t let that happen.”
“And anyway,” Jasmine added, “I don’t know what your reasons are for mistrusting nobles, Tallie, but be careful about prejudging people. People are people, pretty much anywhere. Among the nobles I’ve known have been some truly wise, compassionate people, possibly the most depraved ass I’ve ever met, and multiple points in between.”
“Met a lot of ’em, have you?” Darius asked her, arching an eyebrow.
There came a clatter as Tallie nearly dropped her teacup, barely catching it in time to avoid a spill. She was staring wide-eyed at Jasmine, though, paying little attention to this.
“Omnu’s balls,” she breathed, “I get it now.”
“You do?” Jasmine asked warily. “What do you get?”
“You’re a bastard!”
Jasmine’s lips thinned. “Assuming you mean the word in its literal sense…yes, I am. Thank you for bringing it up.”
“No no no!” Tallie waved a hand in exasperation, nearly upsetting her cup again. “This is the twelfth century, nobody cares about stuff like that anymore. Except!” She pointed at Layla, who sniffed in disdain. “People who are heavily invested in bloodlines!”
“You’ve lost me,” Jasmine admitted.
“Let’s review.” Tallie folded her arms on the table, now wearing a predatory grin. “You’ve clearly been trained from the cradle in Avenist combat—that takes resources that most people don’t have. You somehow, after that, have managed to travel around picking up pieces of other fighting styles, and we don’t even know how many, but Tar’naris and Puna Dara were mentioned specifically by Silence, who would know. Ordinary people who aren’t in circuses don’t just roam the Empire at their leisure! You’ve obviously had an expensive education apart from that, too. I mean, what kind of person who’s not a Salyrite or something knows how fae witchcraft, divine healing, and modern enchantment work? Not to mention having had an alchemy tutor!”
“A teacher,” Jasmine said testily, not meeting her eyes. “Not a tutor.”
“And now this! You claim to have known multiple nobles, you know enough about their politics to apparently be in on some kind of inner-House shenanigans that aren’t common knowledge. You even talk like a noble!”
“I do?” Jasmine frowned. “What does that even mean?”
“You enunciate,” Ross said helpfully. “I’ve noticed. You use complex grammar and have a larger-than-average vocabulary.”
“And that makes me a noble?”
“Makes you formally educated,” said Rasha, who looked slightly less bleary after getting a cup of the strong black tea down. “Which isn’t the same thing…”
“Exactly!” Tallie said triumphantly. “We know your mother is a thoroughly disreputable character—a Guild thief and an elf! So if you were some aristocrat’s by-blow, obviously they couldn’t just have you around.”
“That’s not necessarily true,” Jasmine protested. “House Maduri deliberately intermarries with elves every few generations to keep their bloodline rejuvenated. They’re the oldest continuously reigning House in the Empire, so clearly they’re doing something right.”
“House Aldarasi is older,” Darius commented idly.
“I said continuously reigning. There have been three Aldarasi dynasties in Calderaas, two in the Imperial period, because they keep losing the throne. The Madouris have governed Tiraan Province since before there was an Empire.”
“There!” Tallie pointed dramatically at Jasmine. “That, right there! Nobody who doesn’t move in aristocratic circles even knows stuff like that, much less cares!”
Jasmine snapped her mouth shut, looking around the table for support. Ross and Rasha were nibbling on scones and watching all this with mild curiosity at best; Darius and Layla were now studying her with identical expressions of speculation that highlighted the resemblance in their faces.
“I wonder if she could be a Madouri by-blow,” Layla mused after a moment. “The old Duke was quite the reprobate.”
Jasmine let out an irritated huff. “Hardly. I somehow doubt that anybody who’s even a potential threat to Duchess Ravana’s position is still alive.”
“An illegitimate daughter isn’t a threat to her inheritance.”
“Have you met Ravana?” Jasmine countered.
Layla’s answering smile was distinctly vulpine. “I have not, in fact. It begins to sound as if someone at this table has, however.”
“You’re still doing it,” Tallie agreed with visible satisfaction.
“There’s also the tradition of using bastards as bodyguards and companions for legitimate heirs,” Darius suggested. “It would explain all the martial training.”
“Darius, no one has done that since the Enchanter Wars,” Layla said condescendingly.
“Our House hasn’t, and I’ll grant you it hasn’t been a popular practice since then, but come on. You and I both know old Houses keep their own customs, and don’t appreciate people prying into their business.”
“Old Houses keeping their own customs is not encouraged in this day and age,” Layla retorted. “That’s how House Leduc ended up the way they did, and good riddance to them. Right, Jasmine?” she added with a honeyed smile.
Jasmine groaned and covered her eyes with a hand. “I think you’re all getting the wrong idea…”
“Can I just say something?” Everyone turned to look at Rasha, who had just set down his half-eaten scone. “None of this is anybody’s business but Jasmine’s, and she clearly doesn’t wanna talk about it. We all have pasts, and it is nobody’s concern.” He stared flatly at Tallie. “Some of us in particular need to start keeping that in mind.”
“Hey, give me a break!” Tallie protested, unable to keep the smugness off her face. “I figured something out based on the clues. I think I’m entitled to be a little pleased with myself. I mean, it’s not every day you find out there are two secret nobles in your social circle. Riiiiiiight, Jasmine?”
Jasmine sighed heavily. “Okay, look. If I admit it, will you drop the matter, finally?”
“I think that would be fair,” Tallie said primly.
“Fine. Consider it admitted. Now let’s move on.” She scowled at the rest of them. “We have much more pressing things to consider. Dwarves are still after us to be their moles in the Guild and help them find where those weapons came from—generously assuming that’s all they want. We’re somehow caught between two factions of Avenists, respectively represented by Locke and the actual Bishop. Not to mention the factions in the Guild itself that we’ve been sucked into, and between Webs, Ironeye, Glory, Grip, and whoever else, we hardly even know who the parties are, much less what they’re after. And now we have an unaligned young noblewoman involved.” She looked pointedly at Layla, who was studying her fixedly in turn. “If she manages to get caught up in this, to say nothing of the inherent shame of letting a teenage girl come to harm, there are likely to be consequences. Guild or no Guild, if a powerful House’s underage daughter gets tangled up in whatever all this turns out to be, there’s a very real possibility of Sakhavenid reprisal against all of us, potentially with Imperial backing.”
“Darius,” Layla said slowly, “what on this benighted earth have you got yourself into?”
He sighed. “Well, Layla, that message you got, telling you to find me at the police station? That’s from a group of dwarves who have been stalking and harassing us. Involving you was a way to hint that they can get at our families—they’ve clearly dug into Rasha and Tallie’s pasts too, and probably the others as well. We know nothing about their origins except for one expert opinion that they’re government agents from one of the Five Kingdoms.”
“What do these individuals want?” she asked sharply.
“We were very briefly involved in moving some weapons they were trying to buy from the Guild,” Jasmine explained. “Experimental and possibly illegal devices. The trade was broken up and the weapons seized by the Silver Legions. Those dwarves haven’t given up, and since they’re apparently not willing to take on the Legions or the Guild directly, they’ve been leaning on us. A few apprentices are, as Savaraad pointed out, a comparatively soft target.”
“And we don’t even know anything, is the pisser,” Rasha said bitterly.
“We know our way around the Guild,” said Darius. “We’ve mentioned several times to the dwarves that we don’t have useful information, and they’re still coming. That means they want us to do something more active from within the Guild to get what they want.”
“Or they just don’t believe us,” Tallie suggested.
“Yeah, well, forgive me if I leap to the worst case scenario,” he replied with a sardonic grin. “It’s been that kind of week.”
“I see,” she said thoughtfully.
“Oh, I don’t like that look,” said Tallie, staring at the young noblewoman. “That’s an intrigued look. That’s how I looked when I was your age and about to do something extremely dumb.”
“When you were my age,” Layla said primly, “I doubt you’d had the merest fraction of my experience at maneuvering around hostile factions capable and willing to inflict very real harm. Honestly, Darius, how have you let them come to this? You’re supposed to provide an example and support, you and even Jasmine, here. Aristocracy exists for a reason beyond fattening its own purses. How could you expect a group of disaffected farmers to contend with this?”
“It might be best,” he said thoughtfully, “if you stopped talking. Like, several sentences ago.”
“Excuse you,” Tallie said with a savage grin, “but nobody here’s a farmer. I’m a circus freak, thank you very much.”
“Sailor,” said Rasha, raising a hand.
“Bard,” Ross grunted. “Half-trained, but still.”
“I thought you were an acrobat?” Jasmine said to Tallie.
“All right, fine, I guess that was a little rude to the actual freaks. There were none in my parents’ outfit, but still.”
“Oh, this just keeps getting better,” Layla said, rolling her eyes.
“Okay, seriously, Layla, shut up,” Darius said curtly. “I’m not hanging around with these people because I couldn’t do better. They can all take care of themselves just fine, and also, I like them, so stop being rude.”
“Very well,” she said indifferently. “What, then, is your plan?”
“Well,” Tallie said brightly, “upon advice from legal counsel, next we’re going to go visit the prostitute who just bailed Rasha out of jail!”
“It wasn’t bail,” Rasha muttered. “She paid for a lawyer.”
“Prostitutes, now?” Layla sniffed. “I appreciate you leaving that until after the preceding revelations; somehow, it’s just not shocking anymore.”
“Glory isn’t a prostitute,” Jasmine said sharply. “She’s a courtesan.”
“There’s a difference?” Rasha asked.
“There most certainly is,” Layla interjected, looking suddenly a lot more interested. “Prostitutes are the lowest dregs of civilized society. A courtesan, depending on her clientele, may be a welcome guest of nobles, kings, or emperors. Which one is this? Did you say Glory?”
“That’s her Guild tag,” Jasmine replied. “Her name is Tamisin Sharvineh.”
“Oh!” Layla positively lit up in delight. “You mean, you have an established acquaintance with Tamisin Sharvineh herself and an invitation to visit her? Then by all means, let us be off! One does not keep someone like that waiting!”
“Whoah,” Tallie said in alarm. “What the hell do you mean, us?”
“Yep,” Darius said resignedly. “Allow me to introduce my baby sister.”