“Oh, come on!”
Schwartz threw up his hands in disgust and stomped over to his desk. Behind him, acrid smoke wafted from the charred spell circle inscribed on the center of the floor in his tower room. Even the chalk lines had burned in places; the reagents deposited at specific points around the diagram were a total loss.
He flipped open the grimoire from which he was working, hands moving more angrily than he normally handled books, but still with care for the pages, and held it up to his face as if proximity would reveal hidden meanings previously missed.
“Yes…yes…no…obviously… Yes, I did that. Double-checked the… Uh huh. It’s all right!” He snapped the book shut and made to slam it back down on the desk, but caught himself at the last moment and laid it down more respectfully. “Why isn’t it working?”
The last was directed at Meesie, who had been chittering for the last few minutes; now, finally having his attention, she began hopping up and down, waving her tiny arms. Schwartz frowned. “What is it?”
She hopped in place once more, then scampered deftly up the bookcase adjacent to the desk and then across its top, finally leaping onto the narrow lintel above the door. The little elemental paused atop this, sitting precariously upright despite only having an inch of space, and placed one of her little hands upon the warding charm he had hung over the door. She bobbed her head twice, squeaking insistently.
“Hm.” Schwartz narrowed his eyes. “Hm. I suppose… You may be onto something there, Meesie. An arcane spell signature would interfere with elemental conjuration, it’s known to do that. But no, that doesn’t make any sense.” He turned and began pacing back and forth in front of the ruined circle, frowning and rubbing his chin in thought. “This is the Emerald flipping College, everything is warded to block loose arcane energy. It’s probably the most arcane-free place in the whole city. Can’t even get the fairy lamps to work…” He glanced at the light-globe handing from the center of the ceiling, which ironically was more technically a fairy lamp than the arcane devices which bore the name, being filled with tiny dancing light elementals. “Besides, if there were an arcane presence here I’d have sensed it, especially when I was trying to perform the craft.”
He trailed off, and came to a stop, eyes widening slowly. “Unless…”
Meesie gesticulated at him with both hands, squeaking in exasperation.
“Unless there was a highly focused spell targeting this room in particular,” Schwartz said, turning to face her, “carefully designed to penetrate wards and evade detection. What do you think are the chances?”
Meesie stood upright and pantomimed stabbing with a sword, then stuck out her tongue and blew a very tiny raspberry.
“Syrinx.” Schwartz nodded, his expression grim. “She’s done it before, to Prin’s squad. Who have just left the city, so if she’s chosen now to start chasing after me again… Good work, Meesie, well spotted. C’mon, let’s get this cleaned up.”
He held out a hand and the little fire-rat launched herself from the door frame, landing on his arm and scampering up to his shoulder.
“Time for an altogether different sort of spell,” Schwartz said flatly. “Afraid our experiment will have to wait, partner. I believe I have just the thing for someone who thinks they can scry on a witch of the Emerald College.”
“Come on, I’ve got money riding on this shot!”
Jasmine stopped in the process of lining up her cue, straightened, and turned a flat stare on Tallie. “I could swear I heard someone point out to you that I’m new at this game and you specifically should not bet on it. Who was it? I know it was somebody…”
“Hey, are you gonna shoot, or are you gonna jabber?” her partner asked, leaning on his cue and grinning. Jasmine sighed, shook her head, and bent over the table again, carefully aiming her shot.
The pool hall was very quiet at this hour of the morning, with no customers present except for Jasmine, Tallie, and the two young men who had sauntered in and engaged them in a game, to Tallie’s apparent delight and Jasmine’s annoyance. Even the barkeep was asleep in the corner behind his counter. And yet, somehow, there was still a faint haze of smoke hanging near the ceiling. Between that and the heavily shaded windows, it could have been midnight for all those inside could tell.
“Here, I think I see where you’re having trouble,” Jasmine’s opponent said solicitously, stepping around to her side of the table. “Let me show you…”
“No, thank you,” she said without looking up.
“Oh, you don’t wanna do that, my man,” Tallie advised with a big grin while he moved in beside her and reached to lay his hand on hers on the cue.
“It’s okay,” he assured her, bending his body over hers. “Common beginner’s mistake. What you wanna—”
He didn’t even have time to grunt as Jasmine smoothly ducked out from under him and in the same motion swept the cue against the back of his knees. He hit the floor, legs shooting under the table, and only let out a curse when his skull bonked against the floorboards.
“Please refrain from touching me,” she said curtly, and bent over the table again.
His friend, sitting next to Tallie by the bar, laughed so hard he nearly slumped off the stool; Tallie just grinned. “Now, that’s what I shoulda placed a bet on!”
“What?” he chortled, wiping his eyes. “That Sharam would make a move, or that she’d knock him on his ass?”
“The second one. I hope your buddy gets the message the first time; I’ve seen Jasmine knock down Thieves’ Guild enforcers, Silver Legionnaires, and dwarves.”
“Damn! Now that sounds like a story!”
“It’s several stories. Long ones, too. Maybe I’ll tell you later, if we meet up again.”
Jasmine finally took her shot; the cueball grazed three other balls in passing, all of which rolled a short distance and stopped. She sighed and backed away from the table, frowning.
“Looks like I’m set up to win this one,” the other man said to Tallie as Sharam stepped back to the table, now silent and looking disgruntled.
“Eh.” She waved a hand. “Girl wasn’t wrong, I never had much chance on that wager. It’s all for the fun; that’s why I don’t bet more than pocket change.”
He grinned and leaned closer, watching Sharam silently sink his second ball in a row. Off to the side, Jasmine studied her opponent’s moves through narrowed eyes. “So, I can tell how come I’ve never seen her in here before, but you seem more comfortable in a place like this. Why haven’t we met before now? You two new in town, or just in the neighborhood?”
“Neither,” she said with amusement. “Long story, like I said.”
“Well, we’ve got time,” he murmured, shifting to lay his arm along the bar behind her. “It’s gonna take Sharam a while to finish trouncing your friend, there. How ’bout—”
“Whoah, boy.” Tallie leaned away and gave him a look. “Hold your horses, and keep your hands to yourself. Nobody here but you is that fast.”
He opened his mouth to issue a no doubt charming rebuttal, then caught Jasmine’s eye. A second later he processed that she was staring directly at him, now, her pool cue balanced lightly in both hands. Moving carefully as if to avoid startling a skittish animal, he shifted in the other direction on his stool, sliding the offending arm back into his own space. “Fair enough, my apologies, pretty lady. A girl as good-looking and charming as you always makes me lose my head a little bit. Don’t be shy about saying so if I overstep; last thing I want is to make you all uncomfortable so soon after we’ve met.”
“You really don’t have to worry about that,” she said dryly.
“That’s good to hear! I hate girls who can never say what they really—”
Sharam backed away from the table and slammed the butt of his cue against the floor, everyone now staring at him. “Fucking piece of shit…”
“Hey, man, relax,” his friend suggested. “You missed a shot. It happens. It’s just a game.”
“Shut it, Kaspar,” Sharam snarled. “She tilted the table when she blindsided me!”
“You did pretty well for quite a few shots, considering that,” Jasmine pointed out mildly. Sharam rounded on her; she raised an eyebrow, and he hesitated. Tallie’s earlier remarks had been well within his earshot.
“Sharam,” Kaspar said firmly, leaning forward. “You are acting like a great big toddler. In front of two pretty girls we just met. Come on, man, it’s too early for this. Let her take her turn.”
Sharam snorted and flounced away a few feet, where he leaned against the nearest table and folded his arms, visibly sulking.
“Wow,” Tallie murmured in a tone low enough not to be audible to him. “Prince Charming.”
“Sharam’s a good guy,” Kaspar said easily. “Just doesn’t like losing. Nobody’s perfect.”
Jasmine leaned over the table, lining up her cue, then paused. For a long moment, she just stood there, apparently lost in thought.
“Today?” Sharam suggested in a snide tone. Kaspar sighed.
Jasmine straightened up, frowning, and shifted. This time, she crouched instead of leaning, bringing herself closer to the level of the table, and moved the cue into position again. She shifted it back and forward a couple of times, then stopped and changed her grip, holding it far closer to the base with her dominant hand.
“The objective is to hit the ball with the stick,” Tallie said helpfully. “Remember? We went over that before the boys came in.”
Eyes narrowed, Jasmine changed her grip again, experimentally waggling the cue and holding it closer to the front now.
“Oh, my gods,” Sharam groaned. “Will you just shoot already? We all know how it’s gonna end, anyway.”
She ignored all the byplay. Jasmine straightened up again, her head turning as she clearly took stock of the whole table and the positions of every ball. Then she crouched again, moved her cue back into position…and began fiddling with the position of her left hand directing its tip.
Sharam tossed his cue onto the table behind him; the clatter was sharp in the quiet morning. Jasmine didn’t flinch, though Tallie winced. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m gonna go take a leak. Somebody yell for me when this is—”
This time he jumped at the sudden, sharp clack of the cue ball striking another, which shot straight into a side pocket.
Tallie and Kaspar both straightened up. “Whoah,” she muttered. “Where’d that come from?”
Sharam also stood, now frowning deeply at his opponent.
“Mmm,” she mumbled, clearly to herself. “But you have to bank them off the walls… Hmm. I think it’s like…”
Jasmine circled around the table, lining up another shot in her unconventional position.
“There is no way,” Sharam began, and then she had banked the cue ball once into a cluster of other balls, one of which sailed right into a corner pocket; another drifted easily close to a side pocket, and she moved again.
“Hmm hm hm, no…not like a spear, like a sword.”
“The fuck are you babbling about?” Sharam demanded.
Jasmine didn’t acknowledge him, but shifted her grip a few inches forward on the cue. This time, she didn’t line up her shot at all, but dropped into a smooth and sudden crouch, jabbing sharply, and immediately sinking the ball she’d nearly made on the last shot.
“Too abrupt…” She shook her head, eyes narrowed in concentration, and paced a complete circle around the table, studying.
Tallie and Kaspar were both leaning forward now, elbows on knees, watching closely.
“I thought you said she was new at this,” he murmured.
“She said she was,” Tallie replied. “I’m still lost how she’s sinking balls holding her cue that wrong…”
They all watched, equally mystified and Sharam increasingly furious, while Jasmine continued systematically putting the remaining balls into pockets. As the last few went down, her expression shifted from a frown of concentration to an increasingly satisfied grin. With the final deposit of the 8 ball into a corner pocket, she straightened up so fast she actually bounced, beaming. “Hey, I think I get this game!”
That did not improve her opponent’s mood.
“That’s—you fucking—you played me!” he spat, clenching his cue in both hands.
“Okay, whoah.” Kaspar stood up. “Take it easy, Sharam, it’s just a game.”
“Oh, let him,” Tallie said lazily. “She’ll be fine.”
“I’m not worried about her,” he muttered.
Unfortunately, Sharam heard that too. “You shut the fuck up!” he bellowed at his friend. Behind them, the bartender let out a disgruntled mutter, but incredibly did not wake up. “You fucking bitch, you played me!”
Jasmine watched him without visible alarm, idly turning her cue over in her hands. “We played each other. I thought that’s what we were doing. I didn’t want to, if you’ll all recall.”
“This is a hustle!” He stepped aggressively closer, baring his teeth. “You set me up!”
“You kinda did, lady,” Kaspar pointed out. “It’s pretty obvious. But Sharam, seriously. This isn’t worth getting into a fight over.”
“Fuck that, I’m not paying up,” Sharam raged. “You try to touch my coin, I’ll bust that pretty face!”
“The worst thing I ever did,” Jasmine said quietly, “was take a weapon to a silly boy who yelled in my face the way you’re doing now. I’ve regretted that ever since. That is the only reason you’re not already bleeding on the floor.”
He actually bellowed like an animal and rushed at her with a fist, seeming to forget he was holding a pool cue in his other hand.
Jasmine slipped to one side as deftly as a breeze, and thunked the heavy end of her cue against the back of his head almost as an afterthought. Sharam went down, and stayed down.
“In hindsight,” she said, “I’m glad I didn’t know how to manipulate dumb boys back then.”
“Hey,” grumbled the bartender, blinking blearily at them. “Fuck are you kids doin’? No fightin’. Take it outside.”
“I, uh…” Kaspar swallowed, edging away from Tallie. “I think we’re all done, here.”
“I thought you said you’d never played pool before,” Tallie said accusingly some minutes later, as they hastened up the street back toward the Imperial Casino. The surrounding district was carefully managed to suit the Guild’s needs; its main avenues contained shops which catered to the Casino’s well-heeled clientele, while threaded throughout the back alleys—sometimes within the same buildings—were a much seedier class of establishments, such as the billiard hall.
“I haven’t,” Jasmine said, her expression again thoughtful. She drew in a breath and let it out, causing a puff of mist in the morning cold. “I’m not sure I was doing it right, but really, it’s all forces and angles, isn’t it? I know quite a bit about that; I’ve been training in it since I could walk. Just had to frame it the right way in my mind to work with those skills.”
“I think you’re lucky you can kick everybody’s ass, if you’re gonna run around doing stuff like that,” Tallie said, grinning. “General tip, people who hand out in pool halls don’t appreciate surprises of that nature.”
“Hm. You know, we could do this.”
“Jas, babe, we’ve done it. It’s done. It was nice of you to let the boys keep their money for a healing potion, but seriously, you won. Maybe ‘fair and square’ is overstating it, but…”
“No, no.” Jasmine took her hands out of her coat pockets to gesticulate, her face becoming more animated. “I mean, we could do it! Again, repeatedly! It’s like a con, don’t you see? I’m positive I could pretend to do it badly again, that part can’t be hard. We get people to bet, thinking they’re taking money from a bad player, and then I beat them!” She actually laughed. “Now that I’ve thought of it, it’s so simple! I wonder if anybody’s tried this before? Anyway, at least Style can’t get on me for being sheltered, if I can actually come up with a good grift.”
She came to a stop, realizing Tallie had already done so. The other apprentice was standing a few feet back, staring incredulously at her.
Jasmine frowned. “What?”
“Yoo hoo! Hey, girls!”
“Oh, hey, Schwartz,” Tallie said, turning and waving. Schwartz came panting up to them, slightly out of breath. “What’s up? You look like you’ve been running. Were you looking for us?”
“Yeah,” he wheezed, leaning against a convenient lamp post. “Sorry, gimme a sec… Yes, had to backtrack a bit. I had a spirit guide showing me toward you, but that’s a class of divinatory magic and the fae branches are notoriously imprecise…which, ah, is neither here nor there. Are you two all right? You’re alone?”
“We’re just peachy,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Our very own Jasmine has just invented pool hustling. Why, what’d you need us for in such a hurry?”
“This wouldn’t have to do with that business at the temple the other day, would it?” Jasmine asked in a more sober tone. “Oh! Hi, Meesie.”
The elemental had leaped from Schwartz’s shoulder onto hers, and squeaked delightedly, standing up and patting Jasmine’s cheek.
“Uh, sorry about that,” Schwartz said. “She really likes you! She’s not usually that friendly with…well, regardless…”
“It’s all right, she helps against the cold.” She lightly scratched the top of Meesie’s head with a fingertip, causing the elemental to cheep ecstatically.
“Okay, I want one of those,” Tallie announced.
“Anyhow, yeah, it’s not a strictly social visit,” Schwartz said more seriously, standing up straight and smoothing his hair, which was windblown after his run. “We had a bit of an incident earlier this morning in my room. I was trying to—um, never mind, that’s a long story. The point is, my fae casting was being disrupted, and I eventually figured out it was due to an arcane scrying spell focused on my chamber.”
Meesie ducked out from under Jasmine’s hand and stood upright, squeaking indignantly.
“Ah, yes,” Schwartz amended. “Meesie helped.”
His familiar squealed loudly, pointing at him.
“In fact,” he said, grinning ruefully, “it was her idea. There, satisfied?”
She cheeped and folded her arms.
“Someone was scrying on you?” Tallie asked, frowning. “Shit, that’s creepy. Last time anybody scryed on us it was some bad fucking news.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “My first thought was Bishop Syrinx, of course.”
The two apprentices exchanged a glance.
“Why of course?” Tallie asked.
Schwartz scowled, his shoulders shifting as he drew in a deep breath. “We have a history, let’s leave it at that. When I find somebody being invasive or hostile toward me with unknown intent, I have good reason to immediately think of Syrinx.” Meesie gathered herself up, and then leaped back to his shoulder, where she snuggled against his neck. He reached up to pat her absently.
“She’s a piece of work, all right,” Jasmine said in an oddly inscrutable tone. “Syrinx has a reputation even beyond the Sisterhood.”
“I never heard of her before all that fuckery with the dwarves,” Tallie protested. “What reputation?”
“Avenists don’t generally enjoy bureaucracy, or appreciate the Church getting into the Sisterhood’s business,” Jasmine said. “The post of Bishop tends to go to someone likely to be…well, not exactly wanted around in the Temple. Syrinx has the temperament of a shark, so she’s useful in a political post for the very same reasons she can be dangerous to be around. High Commander Rouvad believes she has her on a tight leash. I…am less certain of that.”
“So am I,” Schwartz agreed, now studying her thoughtfully. He abruptly blinked as if remembering what he was supposed to be doing. “Oh, um, but I was explaining… Well, anywho, I investigated before rushing off to do anything. First of all, understand that I live in the Emerald College, and I’m a practicing witch, so anybody managing to scry on my room is serious business; they have to penetrate all kinds of layers of defenses to get at me, and then evade my own detection. But yes, it was a scrying spell, I found that out in the course of flooding the space with fae energy and shattering it. That may’ve caused some very uncomfortable feedback for the perpetrator.” He paused, looking smug, and cleared his throat. “But anyway. Before I went charging off after Bishop Syrinx, obviously, I did some divinations of my own to figure out what was going on. And…it’s not her. What I found out is that it does indeed have to do with you guys and what I just helped you with.”
“Can you, uh, be a little more specific?” Tallie prompted.
“I really, really can’t,” he said with a rueful grimace. Meesie nodded and shot a scolding chitter at Tallie. “Oracular divination of the kind accessible through fae spirits doesn’t work like arcane scrying. It doesn’t give precise, tactical information; it’s more like interpreting poetry. You know, how prophecies are always phrased vaguely enough to cause trouble in the old bards’ stories? It’s like that.”
“That sounds like a huge pain in the ass,” Tallie grunted.
“Kinda.” Schwartz shrugged. “What it is good for is emotional stuff. Intent, threat…things like that. You can get a general view of who is or is not out to get you, how hostile they are, maybe even why they’re after you to a lesser extent, but not how close they are or what weapons they’ve got. So…that is what I could get. Basra Syrinx, while she feels about me pretty much the way I do about her, isn’t interested or involved right now. I couldn’t get any kind of bead on whoever was doing high-level scrying spells at my room, but the spirits I consulted pointed me in your direction.”
“Creepy,” Tallie muttered.
“It’s…actually funny you mention the Bishop, Schwartz,” Jasmine said slowly.
His expression hardened. “Why? What now?”
“We have been having additional trouble from that,” Tallie explained. “And apparently we pissed off somebody corrupt within the Sisterhood. A priestess and a few legionnaires came after us, tried to throw both of us and Layla in jail for questioning on false charges. Syrinx showed up, ripped her a new one, and got us out.”
“She seemed to already have some kind of grudge against Sister Falaridjad,” Jasmine added, “and it looked good and mutual.”
Schwartz straightened bolt upright, accidentally emphasizing how tall he was without his slight customary slouch. “Did you say Falaridjad?” Meesie squealed, puffing up in alarm.
Jasmine and Tallie glanced uncertainly at each other again.
“Yes,” Jasmine said slowly after a pause. “Ildrin Falaridjad. I made a point of remembering the name; there aren’t so many corrupt priestesses in the Sisterhood that one is worth ignoring. Don’t tell me you know her, too.”
“Ohhhh, boy,” Schwartz whispered, dragging a hand slowly down his face. “I think we may be in real trouble.”
“Uh huh, sounds like we’re definitely gonna want to hear some of this long story,” Tallie said firmly.
“Uh, yeah, I pretty much agree,” he said, breaking off when she held up a finger in his face.
“I’ve just had another thought,” Tallie stated. “If we know there’s crooked elements in the Sisterhood of Avei, and them and the Collegium of Salyrene were the two cults we pissed off doing this, and Schwartz just got pinged by some mage who’s either really powerful or just knows enough about the College to get through its magic defenses…”
“Oh, that is not good,” Jasmine whispered.
“Crap,” Schwartz said feelingly. Meesie huddled herself behind his ear. “I…had that thought myself, actually. It’s why I came to check on you guys rather than going right to my superiors to report a breach in the wards, which I sort of should have…”
“I think we’d better find the others,” Jasmine said. “Quickly.”
“Right, right,” he agreed absently. “They should be here when I explain…”
“Yes, that,” she said with mounting impatience, “but if scryers are hunting our group…”
“Oh, crap,” Tallie yelped. “Come on, we gotta move!”
“Where are we going?” he demanded, trailing along after as they set off toward the Casino at a pace just short of a jog.
“Find our friends,” Jasmine said tersely. “Report this to the Guild. And get a secure place for you to lay out for us what’s happening.”
“Hang on, now,” Tallie protested. “We know at least two cults are corrupted. How much can we trust the Guild? All systems, remember.”
Jasmine came to a stop, her eyes widening. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”
“Yeah, so, as far as safe meeting places go,” Tallie said, “we’re gonna need some outside help. Somebody capable and not involved with this.”
“We’ve got friends. Glory…”
“I said not involved with this. Glory is one of the best people there is, yeah, but we don’t know yet who’s into this and who’s not, and if there’s one thing Glory is, it’s connected.” Tallie chewed her lip in consternation. “I bet we can find out, but not till we’ve done some investigating, and that means getting a place to start and some help. In fact the only person we know is aligned against these crooked cultists…”
“…is Basra Syrinx,” Schwartz finished, his face going ashen. “Fucking hell.”