Of the four of them, only Ross had actually lived in Tiraas before apprenticing. That proved fortunate because he knew of an enchanting shop more or less on their route between Glory’s swanky neighborhood and the central district near Imperial Square where lay the primary temple of Salyrene; they had to detour by two streets, but in the end it proved better than Tallie’s original idea of finding a clothing store. Four personal heating charms ended up costing a lot less than four full sets of hats, gloves, and scarves would have. It was lucky that they found the shop when they did, as they were far from the only ones to have this idea upon the weather’s sudden turn. There was an annoyingly long line in the place, and they barely got there before the charms in question sold out.
That done, they proceeded in much more comfort on their way. Not a moment too soon—as they walked, the sky began intermittently spitting little puffs of snow.
Jasmine lectured them quietly as they proceeded. “The reason this opportunity is important is it may be our only chance to catch one of these people alone. I’ve been considering their situation, and I don’t think there can be more than a handful of them. If they’re an intelligence cell, those are kept small for a lot of reasons. The more people you have, the more likely your cover is to be blown.”
“You really did have the most fascinating upbringing,” Tallie noted. “Anyhow, based on what Glory said, would they really be worried about blowing their cover? Apparently they’re in good with the Empire…”
“The Imperial government has political reason to be somewhat tolerant of dwarves in general right at this moment,” said Darius. “That’s not the same as free reign. Jasmine’s right; a large cell gets noticed, and Imperial Intelligence would be all over any foreign operatives they spotted working in the capital. Sides, even if the Silver Throne is making goo-goo eyes at the Five Kingdoms right now, any kind of tussle between one of their intelligence services and the damn Thieves’ Guild will end up a huge mess for everybody, which they don’t want.” He nodded at Jasmine. “Thus, we can assume the Imps aren’t onto these guys yet, which means we can also assume there aren’t many.”
“Exactly,” she agreed, nodding back. “How many I couldn’t say, I don’t know anything about their operational doctrine. Likely not more than a dozen. Now, considering what they have to do here, the largest group will have been sent to intercept Scwhartz.”
“How come?” asked Ross.
“Schwartz,” Jasmine explained, “is a magic user, and thus a lot more dangerous to them. Dwarves are extremely hardy; they don’t have a lot physically to fear from us, since none of us have wands. He’s by a wide margin the largest physical threat to them. The reason this is significant right now ties in with these anti-tracking charms. Assuming they work, and considering Vandro’s motives I can’t fathom any reason he’d screw us over like that, the dwarves can’t locate us specifically. That means in order to prevent us getting to Schwartz, they’ll have to spread what few personnel they have between us and the Collegium. So if we find one, it’ll probably just be one.”
“Hm.” Darius frowned, rubbing his chin. “There are holes in that. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send their whole force after Schwartz?”
“They may,” Jasmine admitted. “They’ll be trying to be discreet, though—remember our previous points about making a mess in Tiraas and getting in trouble with Intelligence and the Guild. Brute force tactics don’t make sense in their position. They’ll be trying to put down him and us quietly.”
“Don’t like the sound of that,” Ross muttered.
“That’s why it’s important we stay together,” she agreed, nodding. “Silencing one dangerous opponent is a lot easier than silencing a group. What I would do in their position is keep their agents spread out but in communication—when one spots us, they’ll call to the others. From there, they’ll try to impede us from getting to the Collegium without causing an actual fight.”
“I hope Schwartz is okay,” Tallie said, frowning worriedly. “Witch or no witch, that guy’s kind of…y’know, bookish.”
“Not much we can do but get to him as quick as possible,” said Darius. “I don’t think Jasmine was done making suggestions.”
“Right,” Jasmine acknowledged. “The point is, we are going to have to go on the offensive here. Ross, you know the city. Assuming they probably don’t know where we are at this point, we need a place more or less between the Imperial Casino and the Collegium of Salyrene. Something…quiet, private, where there aren’t likely to be witnesses.”
“Can do,” he rumbled, lengthening his stride to position himself at the head of the group. “Bit out of our way from here…”
“How far out of our way?” Tallie demanded nervously. “The gods only know what’s happening to Schwartz right now…”
“He is a magic guy,” Darius said, patting her shoulder. “And we’re on the way. We can help by taking the fight to the enemy, now.”
“Not far outta the way, couple streets,” Ross added. “Weather’s lucky. Nobody’s gonna be outside if they don’t have to. Any place off the streets streets is likely to be quiet.”
“Good,” said Jasmine. “Then keep your eyes peeled for a dwarf showing too much interest in us. If we can manage to run across one of them in the absence of witnesses, we will pull them aside for a chat.”
“Uh…that’s kinda where this falls apart,” said Darius, wincing. “You’re gambling, first of all, that a trained intelligence agent will be spotted when they don’t want to be. And besides, what if it’s just some random dwarf?”
“Anybody out in this weather just hanging around is probably up to something,” said Tallie.
“Yes,” Jasmine agreed, “but Darius is also right. We may not even see one. They may fail to find us entirely. They might be on the ball enough to spot us and get their crew together before we reach the Collegium, in which case we run to the nearest public place—we are not going to try to fight a bunch of dwarves. If they just play dumb when confronted, there’s not much we can do; I’ll not be party to beating up some citizen on a hunch, and anyway, there’s a limit to how much damage we can do physically to a dwarf, unless one of you is carrying a wand I don’t know about. No, what I’m really gambling on is they’ll talk to us if we approach them. Rogrind has kept trying to get us into his service; considering what they want, if we suggest we want to talk, they’ll basically have to listen. And that will tell us they’re one of the people we’re after.”
“Wait,” said Darius. “So…we have to walk up and speak politely with them first?”
“Usually a good first move,” Tallie said, grinning.
“So we’re not gonna ambush a dwarf, drag ’em into an alley, and beat the crap out of them?” He pouted and stuck his hands in his pockets, slouching. “I never get to have any fun.”
“This is it,” Jasmine murmured some time later.
“Yeah,” Darius said tersely. “We all pretty much saw it.”
The snow was still light, but far more consistent, now. Tiny flakes drifted steadily down from the increasingly heavy cloud cover, so far not accumulating beyond a thin layer of white, windblown dust, but it had sufficed to send everyone indoors who didn’t have good and specific reason to be out. In a city like Tiraas, a lot of people had such reason, but Ross had led them two streets distant from one of the main avenues, and suddenly they were for all intents and purposes alone.
It was a narrow street, not wide enough for two carriages to pass each other, the buildings lining it old and towering an average of four stories above. It was clean, and while stonework was chipped and some window glass bore cracks, nothing was boarded up, burned out, or falling down. A relatively poor neighborhood, but not a rough one. The buildings were quite close together, spaces opening between them only every three or four structures. Lights burned in multiple windows, but mostly through drawn drapes. Nobody wanted anything to do with the weather.
Then again, considering it was clearly a working-class neighborhood, most who lived here probably had someplace to be, considering it was just past noon.
“I think we may be disappointed,” Jasmine said quietly, glancing back and forth as they made their way up the sidewalk. “Spreading agents out to intercept would require lateral movement—these buildings don’t give much opportunity for that.”
“I think we may be disappointed for entirely different reasons,” said Darius. “Seems to me the most efficient solution to all their problems would be to use the rooftops. They can move around and spy on us without risking themselves. The Guild does it.”
“Great,” Tallie muttered, glancing furtively at the tops of the structures on all sides of them.
“Well, it was a thought,” Jasmine said with a sigh. “Come on, let’s just get to Schwartz, then.”
“Hold up,” said Ross, slowing his pace.
They followed suit, shifting position to see past him—and in Tallie’s case, over his shoulder—at what had caught his attention. Buildings in this district were mostly reached by short flights of stone steps, which created little nooks on either side of them. Just ahead, one of these occurred right next to one of the street’s rare side alleys, which contributed to their failure to see a four-foot-tall person clearly standing and waiting just ahead in the alley’s mouth.
“Well, shows what we know,” Darius muttered.
Leaning calmly against the wall of the alley and watching them come was a dwarven woman who was clearly also using heating charms, to judge by her lack of head covering. Her dirty blonde hair was tied back in a bun, and she wore a heavy, padded coat which could have concealed any number of implements.
The four apprentices trailed to a stop, staring at her.
“Never seen a dwarf before?” the woman asked wryly.
Tallie barked a laugh. “Oh, we have. But you know all about that, don’cha?”
“You thieves,” the dwarf said, shaking her head. “So put upon. How awful that your planned life of victimizing others is being interfered with.”
“Well, this is a new approach,” Darius commented. “I remember what’s-his-ass as being pretty polite.”
“Professionalism requires one to deal respectfully with all manner of unsavories,” the woman replied. She hadn’t moved at all, her posture apparently relaxed, but the four of them remained stiff and alert. She had hands in her pockets, and there was no telling what they might come out holding. “It’s one thing when you’re being sweet-talked into hopefully providing a service. Now, apparently, you fancy yourselves on the hunt, which changes matters. I’ll be frank, a mutually beneficial and cordial arrangement is still on the table and still much preferred, but I’m under much less pressure from above to be nice to a gaggle of junior predators.”
“What is it about dwarves and thieves?” Darius wondered aloud.
The woman smiled thinly. “You’re pretty far gone if you have to have it explained why someone who’s not a thief would have a low opinion of them. Right, here it is: we have mutually just about run out of patience for one another, and I don’t have a boss looming over my shoulder to shmooze you, so I’ll spell it out. If you’re willing to do the right thing for what I suspect will be the first time in your lives and help us out against the syndicate of criminals and marauders who will probably toss more than half of you out on your ears before you manage to fully join, you’ll be well compensated. I don’t just mean money—you can be protected from Guild reprisal and provided for as necessary. We can help set you up in whatever kind of life you desire. Not to lay about in luxury at our expense forever, but a helping hand to get established can make all the difference for someone willing to work.”
“Listen, you little—” Tallie broke off as Jasmine held up a hand.
“I sort of want to hear this,” she said. “Go on, I think you had more.”
“Indeed,” the dwarf agreed. “What we’re asking of you doesn’t even involve hurting anyone or stealing anything. All we need is intelligence. What you know about the origins of those weapons—and if you’re as in the dark as you claim, your help in getting that information. You have access to the Guild’s inner workings, the ability to talk to people who want talk to outsiders, and that is all we need. This really is an extraordinarily generous offer, and an uncomplicated situation.” She sniffed disdainfully. “I can put some of your stubbornness down to you being young. But fighting so hard not to do the right thing the way you are… Frankly, it won’t break my heart if you decide this has to end badly for you.”
“Badly for us, she says,” Darius sneered, stepping forward. “You don’t seem to have noticed how badly outnumbered and alone you are here, shortcake.”
“Am I?” the woman asked sardonically.
“Shortcake?” Tallie said, raising her eyebrows.
“Oh, that’s an old slur,” said their new acquaintance, rolling her eyes. “Something dwarf women get accustomed to having thrown at them in human lands. It’s a handy way to distinguish the sexist, racist, objectifying twits from anybody worth talking to.”
“You ass!” Tallie exclaimed, punching Darius in the shoulder.
“I am extremely disappointed in you, Darius,” Jasmine said, frowning.
“Really not necessary, man,” Ross added.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Darius exclaimed. “Fine, I will apologize for my terrible rudeness to the little shit who’s been threatening our families, but after she either spills the beans or I’ve kicked the crap out of her. Fair enough?”
“Excuse me, you what?” the dwarf said with disdainful amusement.
“Yeah, back on topic.” He rounded on her, clenching both fists. “We’re not telling you shit. In point of fact, since you’re here, you can now reveal where you’re keeping yourselves in the city, your names, anything we can hand over to the Boss so he can track you down.”
“Generous,” she snorted.
“Not that we particularly want you tracked down,” Jasmine added. “Just that you leave us alone. And since you seem disinclined to do that, a little incentive to leave the city entirely won’t hurt. It was you people who brought this to this point, not us.”
“Well, good talk,” the dwarf said, straightening up her posture. “Answer’s no. Your funeral. Now, then, get out of my way.”
“All right, fuck this,” Darius snorted, and punched her in the face.
He had to bend down awkwardly to do it, but it was a pretty good hit. A moment later he reared back, hissing and shaking his hand. The dwarf had been rocked backward a few inches by the blow, but hadn’t even taken her hands out of her pockets. A very faint red mark on her forehead was the only sign it had happened.
“And that,” she said pleasantly, “is assault, my lad. Or in other words, a believable pretext for self-defense. Thank you for—”
A black blur whipped past them, shoving Tallie aside, and slammed into the dwarf, who this time let out an aborted squawk and went tumbling over backward into the alley.
Grip straightened, keeping her eyes on the fallen dwarf, and held up her right hand, showing the iron knuckles through which her fingers were laced. They glowed with arcane runes and had four ugly, screw-like protrusions in a row along the business end.
“Much as I prefer to let apprentices learn from their mistakes,” the enforcer said curtly, “time is wasting, and you kids are just embarrassing yourselves. Honestly, what was your plan here? You were going to beat her down for information right in full view of the street? Did you actually think she was alone?”
“Well—” Ross began, but at that moment, the dwarf started to surge back to her feet, and Grip pulled her other hand out of the pocket of her black duster. In it was a shortened wand, which she leveled and fired point blank. One flash of blue light later, the dwarf instantly collapsed back to the ground, this time twitching.
“Whoah!” Darius exclaimed.
“Boys,” Grip snapped, “drag her into the alley. Quickly, you idiots, we can’t do this out here on the street!”
“How did you find us?” Jasmine demanded. Darius and Ross had already hopped forward to obey the enforcer’s command.
“I’ve been following you,” Grip said, stepping into the darkness of the alley after the others. “Come along, quicklike. I let that singularly pointless conversation stretch out that much because I was busy neutralizing the other agent who was preparing to land on you from behind. Here, you.” She tossed a coil of tightly-woven cord to Ross. “Tie her hands together with one end, tightly, throw the rope over that fire escape and pull her upright. Just enough so she’s stretched out, toes on the ground. Fast, she’ll be coming to shortly.”
“What is that thing?” Tallie asked in fascination.
Grip smiled unpleasantly, holding up the short wand. “Shocker. Acts directly on the nervous system. Non-lethal, unless you go way overboard, but rather painful.”
“Not to mention highly illegal,” Jasmine said sharply.
“No, Jasmine,” the enforcer said condescendingly. “Flesh-melting potion in a spray bottle is highly illegal. This is just illegal. Can you two buffoons possibly move any slower?”
“Do you wanna try?” Darius snarled, fumbling with the end of the rope he was wrapping around the dwarf’s hands while Ross patiently waited with the other, having already thrown it over the fire escape. “Forgive me, this is my first time stringing somebody up!”
Grip just grunted.
“What exactly are you doing here?” Jasmine demanded. “You surely don’t think I’m going to trust you after—”
“After what?” the enforcer interrupted, grinning. “After I threatened your little friends here and you decked me?”
“Whoah, wait a sec, you what?” Tallie demanded.
“I don’t call people down for doing exactly what I want,” Grip continued, ignoring her and staring fixedly at Jasmine, “so I let it slide at the time. The point of that was to make you stand up and fight, and get past that silly idea you were nursing about being some kind of non-violent thief. But really, kid, you have got to be less easy to goad. A momentary application of common sense would tell you there’s no way a ranking Guild enforcer would actually harm apprentices just to make a point to somebody. It’s okay—you’re new. You’ll learn.”
“She asked a good question, though,” Tallie said. “Why are you helping?”
“Seriously?” Grip gave her a disdainful look. “Fuckers harassing our apprentices, and you ask why I’m helping? I realize you’re having political issues right now, but the Guild will not stand for this horseshit. The Boss isn’t currently able to act overtly. Never, ever assume that Tricks is so much as inconvenienced by such as that. About damn time, boys. And not a moment too soon.”
Ross grunted, holding tension on the rope that was keeping the dwarf strung up by her hands. She was rousing, eyes flickering. They came back into focus, her gaze landing on Grip just as the enforcer smoothly stepped forward, sank to one knee, and slammed her enchanted knuckle into their captive’s midsection. All the air was driven from the dwarf in a burst.
Grip had already pocketed the shocker, and now moved with a swift and well-practiced efficiency that put Ross and Darius’s efforts to shame. She produced what looked like a leather collar with a large rubber ball in the middle from her pocket; the device’s purpose only became clear to the apprentices when Grip roughly stuffed the ball into the dwarf’s mouth and buckled the strap behind her head, entirely gagging her.
“Do you always carry stuff like that around?” Darius asked, fascinated.
“Wait a moment,” said Tallie. “How’s she supposed to answer questions if she’s gagged?”
“First of all,” Grip replied, standing back and watching as the dwarf struggled to breathe through her nose, “that’s to stop the screaming. This is a residential neighborhood; to say nothing of any other reinforcements this one has coming, screams will send people to the police, and police will result in a big waste of everyone’s time. Second and more importantly, kid, you do not hurt someone to get information. Doesn’t work. They’ll just parrot whatever you want to hear.”
The dwarf hadn’t managed to straighten up fully from the stomach blow, despite Ross holding her upright; it resulted in her feet dragging limply on the ground. She had raised her head enough, though, that her wide blue eyes were fixed upon Grip’s face, and the psychotic grin it now wore. Blood trickled from the wound the enchanted knuckles had made on her forehead.
“You hurt someone,” Grip said very softly, “to make a point.”
She flexed her fingers in the iron knuckles once, and then struck the dwarf on the cheekbone with them. The captive could only manage a muffled squeak of pain as she was rocked to the side. Grip backhanded her coming back the other way, making a nearly matching mark on her other cheek.
“You know what really pisses me off?” The enforcer continued to work, methodically driving her augmented fist into various parts of the dwarf’s anatomy, occasionally applying short jolts with her shocker for emphasis. The whole time, she lectured her victim in a calm tone while the apprentices stood around, frozen. “Aside from the obvious territorialism, I mean. Anybody gets upset when you attack the younglings in their organization, that’s universal. No, in particular, after listening to your little speech, it’s obvious that you think you’re better than me. Than us. And that offends me, you hypocritical, insignificant hock of ham.”
She paused, pacing in a slow circle around the dwarf, who now hung limply by her wrists, emitting soft groans. Ross still held the rope, though he looked increasingly horrified.
To judge by the sound that resulted when Grip kicked the dwarf in the lower back, her boots were also steel-lined.
“Consider what I am, and what you are,” the enforcer continued, coming back around to the front and casually zapping the dwarf on one limp foot in passing. “We’re in the same business, you and I: doing bad things for a good cause. After you’ve been running around, stalking kids, threatening their families, you contemptible wart, you really don’t have a pedestal on which to set yourself. No, your only claim to virtue is what you represent.”
She grabbed a handful of the dwarf’s hair to haul her head upright and casually jabbed the iron knuckles right into her chin just below the gag. The blow was carefully not hard enough to break teeth, but blood gushed from the lip smashed against them.
“And what do you represent? You silly bitch, you’re a government agent. Any kind of nationalism is nothing more than taking credit for what you haven’t accomplished and despising people you don’t know. There’s nothing more narcissistic than believing one place is better than any other because you were born there, especially since your birth is in no way your doing. You’re a slave to a hereditary monarchy—people in power because of the happenstance of their own birth. Your entire life, your whole reason for being, is nothing but a series of coincidences.”
She paced in another full circle, back the other direction, around the now-sobbing captive.
“That’s enough of this,” Jasmine snapped, balling her fists.
“You shut your mouth,” Grip said curtly, without looking at her. Coming back around to the front, she actually knelt on the ground before the dwarf, gazing up at her bloodied face. There she just waited in silence, until the woman lifted her chin slightly, opening her eyes to stare at her.
“Ah, there it is,” Grip whispered. “It’s a very expressive look—of course, I’ve seen it enough times to interpret it just by habit. ‘You’re a monster,’ it says.” She shrugged, smiling blandly. “Well, yes, that’s quite true—and equally true of you, as you well know. Me, though? I stand for something. I act in service to a moral authority which I have chosen, one which justifies certain transgressions. In particular, against people like you. Because oh, yes, this would not be happening if you were not also a monster. An enforcer of Eserion has no business with anyone else. You may think me evil, and you’d have a point.” She grinned outright. “What’s your excuse?”
Grip stared into the dwarf’s eyes for another long moment, then abruptly stood. Her captive twitched at the sudden move, but Grip merely reached around behind her head to unfasten the ball gag and pull it off.
The dwarf coughed, spat blood, choked on a sob.
“You…animal,” she gasped, lifting her head weakly. “There was…no point. We don’t resist torture. Could’ve…jus’ asked.”
“Oh, gods,” Tallie whispered, backing up until she was pressed against the wall.
“Aww,” Grip drawled, folding her arms. “Imagine my embarrassment.”
“You—wait.” Jasmine stared at her in horror. “You knew that?”
“SOP for dwarven government operatives,” the enforcer said, smiling pleasantly. “A professional, you see, researches her opponent before engaging them.”
“Why?” Jasmine snarled, taking an aggressive step toward her. “What was the point of this?”
“The point, child, is that an individual who sees no moral problem with threatening innocent bystanders in order to get her way will now carry a vivid memory of what happens when someone stands up to her.” Grip met Jasmine’s furious stare without flinching, without much expression of any kind. She turned her head to nod pointedly at the dwarf, now a mess of sweat, tears and blood. “I told you. We don’t hurt people to get information. We hurt people because some people, kids, need to be hurt.”
She casually reached out to ruffle the dwarf’s hair; the woman tried weakly to duck her head aside, too exhausted to make much effort.
“And now, our new friend will tell us where the rest are.”