Tag Archives: Grip

13 – 34

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Such a procession drew attention and created a ripple of rumor that quickly swept across the city. It was early afternoon by the time they reached the wealthy district in which the Imperial Casino lay, and by that point, the news of their coming had preceded them. Well-dressed men and women had gathered on the sidewalks to stare, but mostly had the decency to remove their hats and lower their eyes in respect as the group passed. The street was also thronged with silent, grim-faced thieves of the Guild, waiting.

Trissiny walked in the front in full armor, her expression closed and eyes straight ahead, leading her silver-clad warhorse by his reins. Arjen followed with his own head lowered, surrounded by four young people, two men and two women. Only Schwartz stood out visibly, in his Salyrite robes and with Meesie riding on his shoulder. He, Tallie, and the Sakhavenid siblings kept pace with Arjen, each with one steadying hand on the carefully-wrapped bundle lying across the huge horse’s saddle. Though fully swathed, it apparent even without the presence of obvious pallbearers that it was a body.

Four Silver Legionnaires followed them, in uniform but helmetless and conspicuously absent their weapons, shivering in the winter air and looking a great deal more nervous than Legionnaires usually did in public. At the end of the procession walked a fifth soldier: Covrin had her helmet on, shield in hand, and lance held menacingly as if she intended to prod the woman in front of her at the slightest provocation. Beside her, also bare-headed and with an expression promising retribution, was Bishop Syrinx, her golden eagle-wrought sword drawn and ready.

The broad avenue terminated in a broad cul-de-sac before the steps of the Casino itself, the space now lined with quiet onlookers. Dozens of civilians murmured and jostled each other to stare, most of them in the expensive attire of the Casino’s usual clientele, but none tried to push past the perimeter of cold-faced Guild thieves enforcing a clear area in front of the steps.

Everyone stood where they were as Trissiny led the group straight toward the front doors of the Casino, with one exception. She had been standing on the top stair, watching up the street, and now as they approached, Style strode down and through the crowd. Only thieves had placed themselves in front of the steps, and so nobody had to be pushed bodily out of her way. They all knew better than to impede her.

Trissiny finally came to a stop near the center of the plaza. Style strode right up to and then past her, seeming not to notice anyone standing there and not the least bit impressed by the divine warhorse. Darius yielded his position and she came right up to Arjen’s side.

All muttering and coughing had utterly ceased among the onlookers by the time Style slipped her brawny arms, bare even in the cold, under Ross’s body and lifted him from the horse’s back. Despite his size, she did it with no apparent effort, but it was not her physical strength that held the watching enforcers silent. Everyone knew Style’s capacity for brute power, but rarely had they seen the towering chief enforcer’s face as it was now, crumpled with pain as if she might begin weeping any second.

The Hand of Avei stood to the side, head lowered, while Style carefully laid Ross upon the paving stones, and with amazing gentleness, folded back the white quilt with which they had covered him to reveal his face. He was already too pale to be merely sleeping.

At no apparent signal, every Eserite ringing the plaza silently raised their right fist defiantly to the sky.

“Lest the mighty grow complacent.” Lore’s voice was not raised—in fact, he spoke barely above a murmur from the top of the Casino’s steps. In the silence, though, he was clearly heard by all present. “Be warned: a thief can die, but the fight cannot.”

“WE ARE STILL HERE.”

Hundreds of voices, even in a respectfully soft tone, were deafening when they spoke in unison. The sounded from the enforcers circling the plaza, from the alleys and windows and rooftops all around. At this, finally, some of the civilian watchers began shuffling away, trying carefully to move up the street from the casino without creating a disruption that might draw attention. These were rich people, the kind the Thieves’ Guild existed to humble. It was one thing to play with danger by idling in the thieves’ own casino; being surrounded by the Guild in this mood was a horse of a different color.

Several enforcers came closer, forming a smaller, less precise ring around the group—not so much delineating space as making it plain by their presence, turned outward to stare flatly at the crowd, that no one was welcome to approach. Around them, though some stubborn rubberneckers remained to gawk, the crowd was beginning to stream away with enough speed that its sounds quickly grew loud enough to cover conversation. They were encouraged along by thieves turning from the scene in the middle of the plaza to give pointed looks at those who remained, several toying idly with weapons.

Style carefully folded the quilt back over Ross’s face. Still kneeling over him, she paused for a long moment to draw two steadying breaths before straightening back up to her full, intimidating height.

“All right,” the chief enforcer said simply. “Who did it?”

She turned to stare at the four disarmed Legionnaires, all of whom drew closer together in alarm and would have tried to back away had Covrin not deliberately planted the tip of her lance against the back of the sergeant’s breastplate.

“None of them,” Trissiny said evenly. “The murderer preferred death to justice. I…failed to apprehend her. That’s on me.”

“I’ll assume that’s the armor talking,” Style said shortly. “Avenist justice may be complicated, but as far at the Guild is concerned, if you killed the killer, that’s settled. Now I want to know what role this lot played, and why you brought them to me.”

“These are accomplices,” Trissiny said, turning to give the four a cold look. “They are guilty of abducting Ross, and also Schwartz here, but none of them did him any harm beyond that. Private Ulster, there, broke from them and raised steel on her comrades when Ross was shot. I don’t think they wanted anything to do with murder, and that one at least had the spine to take a stand, even if it was too late to be useful. We brought them here because they need to be debriefed and held until the Imperial investigators rounding up this conspiracy can finish their work. And right now, the Sisterhood of Avei is not trustworthy. I don’t want any more fish slipping the net before Commander Rouvad gets her house in order.”

“Well, you heard the General.” Boss Tricks materialized from the crowd as if he had teleported, pacing up to the group with an uncharacteristically dark expression. “We’ve got some guests, people. See that they’re comfortable.”

Several of the surrounding enforcers stepped forward, two hefting cudgels and Grip, at their head, toying pointedly with a long knife. The soldiers drew into an even tighter knot, eyes widening, and the sergeant finally found her voice.

“Now, just a minute here. High Commander Rouvad specifically said Legionnaires aren’t to be held by—”

Trissiny crossed to them with astonishing speed for someone in armor, her sword clearing her scabbard as she came; Schwartz barely got out of her way fast enough to avoid being run over. Sergeant Raathi broke off with an undignified squeak when the edge of the paladin’s blade came to rest against her throat.

“Rouvad,” Trissiny said icily, “is not here. I am. If I were to take your head off your shoulders right now, Sergeant, who among those present do you think will raise a whisper of complaint?”

Bishop Syrinx twirled her own sword, the flash of motion intended to catch Raathi’s attention, then deliberately sheathed the weapon, folded her arms, and smirked. Raathi’s throat moved abortively, as if she had started to swallow and then changed her mind.

“You will cooperate with the Guild,” Trissiny continued after enough of a pause had stretched out to make her point plain. “You will answer any questions you are asked and cause no trouble, and if I receive a favorable report of your conduct, I will make certain it’s considered at your trial. Do otherwise and I won’t do anything at all, and you can learn for yourself how far Commander Rouvad’s say-so goes among the Thieves’ Guild. Do I make myself plain?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Trissiny held her gaze for a moment longer before lowering the sword and turning her back dismissively on the four. “Boss, I’m trusting that they won’t be mistreated here.”

“No call for that, I don’t think,” Tricks said, studying the armored women dispassionately. “Long as they do what’s asked of ’em, it’s better for the whole business if they have no cause to complain about their treatment when it’s time for trials and sentencing. We do know a thing or two about handling the justice system, after all. In fact, we can consider that my official verdict on the matter.” The Boss raised his voice and subtly shifted to direct his words to the crowd at large. “The law is already closing in on this conspiracy, and seems to have most of ’em in hand. If it does so, fine; the Guild won’t contest the right of way with the Empire. But. These bastards have killed one of our own—an apprentice. There will be no more mercy offered. I officially no longer give a shit about interfaith procedure. Any member of this conspiracy who is not safely in Imperial custody by sunset will be found hanging in the doorway of their own temple by dawn. Be they altar boys or High Commanders, I don’t care. Eserite blood is never the last to be spilled. I have spoken.”

He received a round of sharp nods, and almost every Guild thief present who was not already moving to escort the four Legionnaires into the Casino turned and began melting away into the shadows and alleyways.

“Why have I got the strangest fucking feeling,” Style said grimly, folding her arms, “that you kids aren’t done making a goddamn mess.”

Darius cleared his throat. “Style, none of us are in any mood. If you even suggest what happened to Ross is our fault, I’m gonna come over there and smack you one.”

She raised her eyebrows fractionally. “Boy, you have to know I can demolish you with one hand.”

“I surely do, and I’ll do it anyway.”

“The defiance is good, Darius, but keep it pointed where it deserves,” Tricks said firmly. “No infighting, not right now. Kids, I expect great things from all of you, and believe me, I know what it feels like to want retribution. You all know our doctrine of revenge, though.”

“You…have a doctrine for that?” Schwartz asked hesitantly.

“Revenge should only be sought,” Tallie recited in a quiet monotone, “if it serves both a strategic and personal goal. Strategic in that it will dissuade the target or others from committing more actions that demand retaliation. Personal in that the target must understand by whom and for what they are being punished, and be unable to prevent their comeuppance, because only in that circumstance will it bring satisfaction.”

“That is disturbingly insightful,” he muttered.

“And the killer is dead,” Tricks stated, glancing at Trissiny. “which takes that off the table. The people responsible for the whole debacle are being rounded up by far more effective agents than you. This is not a situation where you can help.”

“Not more effective than her,” Tallie said defiantly, also turning to Trissiny.

“And,” Layla added, “it seems the one person most responsible is in no position to be rounded up.”

Tricks shot a look at Syrinx, who still had her arms folded and was now listening without expression.

“If you kids are thinking of trying to rough up the Archpope, so help me I will put you all in cells until you cool down. I don’t care whose Hand any of you are.”

Arjen turned to stare at him, laying his ears back, which the Boss ignored.

“Excuse me, I’m not even in your cult,” Schwartz said testily.

“I think it’s pretty significant we didn’t even have to say who we’re all talking about,” Tallie said dryly.

“And no,” Trissiny added, “no one’s talking about going to the Cathedral and attacking Justinian. No one here is stupid enough to think that would work.”

“Yo.” Darius raised his hand. “Totally that stupid, for the record. That’s why I let my baby sister tag along all the time, she’s the plan person.”

“I take full credit for his survival to date,” Layla said primly.

“It seems,” Trissiny continued, “the events of this week in Tiraas are just one part of something that has parallels in Last Rock and Puna Dara. While Justinian’s name has been brought up a lot, the truth is we haven’t absolute proof that he is the one orchestrating all this behind the scenes. Which means that both justice and revenge can be best sought without attacking him directly. Whoever is responsible for this, I mean to go make certain they get nothing they want today, and that they see who wrecked their careful plans.”

Style swelled like a bullfrog, but then released the air in a heavy sigh. “And so you’re thinking of taking my apprentices and charging off to Last Rock to help your little adventurer friends?”

“She’s not taking us anywhere,” Tallie stated, glaring at her. “We’re going with. You can dish out whatever punishment you want when we get back, Style, but this is fucking well happening. Live with it.”

“And no,” Trissiny said before Style could retort. “Last Rock is a monster that eats overweening fools; anybody who wants to try their luck with Tellwyrn and my classmates is welcome to have at it. But Puna Dara is not prepared for the kinds of trouble someone like Justinian can unleash, and I have a good friend who will never forgive me if I turn my back on the Punaji when they need help. That is where I’m going. And as far as I’m concerned, everyone here has the right to come if they choose to exercise it.”

“I swear,” Style muttered, shaking her head. “A thorn in my ass to the very end.”

“You realize, kid,” Tricks said quietly, “that not everybody is secretly a paladin. The kind of trouble that you exist to stamp down gets regular people killed. How many friends are you looking to lose today?”

“If you can persuade them not to come,” she whispered, “do. Please.”

“We’ve had this out already,” Tallie said, much more firmly. “This isn’t the big bad paladin ordering us to fight. We’re Guild, Boss; nobody orders us to do jack shit.”

Style cleared her throat pointedly.

“What’re you grunting about?” Darius snorted. “It’s true and you know it. You complain about it often enough.”

“Historically speaking,” Layla added, “paladins do not operate alone; they have usually been the focus of adventurer teams. Three thieves and a witch makes for pretty good backup, I’d say.”

“Apprentice thieves!” Style grated.

Tricks shook his head, but held up a hand. “Technically, I do have the prerogative to forbid you from going.” He gave Style a long, pensive look. “But…we’re not big on technicalities here, are we?”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she said incredulously.

“A great doom is coming,” the Boss murmured. “Shit’s going down, Style. I’ve heard from the Big Guy himself about our pet paladin, here. The word is to give her space to do what she wants, unless she gets into something we specifically cannot support. This is Guild retribution of exactly the kind our very few doctrines support. If any thieves want to have her back, apprentice or no… They’re cleared to go.”

Style turned her back, cursing monotonously under her breath.

“But you,” Tricks said grimly to Trissiny, “just keep in mind that raising a fist in defiance is the why but not the how of Eserion’s people. You assess the situation, you act with strategy, and you don’t take needless risks with our people’s lives.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” she replied, “but I appreciate that you did, nonetheless. I don’t plan to lose anybody else, today.”

“Yeah?” he shot back. “Did you plan to lose Ross?”

“Okay, that was not necessary,” Schwartz snapped. Meesie hopped onto his head and chittered angry agreement.

“It’s not wrong, though,” Trissiny said quietly. “Anything could happen. In war, people die.”

“You gotta trust us on this, Boss,” Tallie said, wearing a grim little smile. “I’ve been thinking on it all the way over. The biggest advantage of having our very own paladin isn’t even her capacity to break shit: it’s that with her riding at the head, nobody’ll even see us coming.”

Tricks heaved a sigh, rolling his eyes. “She said, in the middle of the street.”

That prompted a round of winces and glances around. Actually his concern might have been overstated; most of the onlookers had left, either voluntarily or shooed away by enforcers, and nobody who remained was within earshot. What was left of the crowd was again generating enough typical city noise to cover their conversation.

“Hey, give her a break,” Darius said reasonably. “After all, we’re just apprentices.”


“How’s it look out there, Sanrachi?” one of the gathered soldiers asked merrily as their soaking-wet comrade entered the barracks.

“Fucking glorious,” she replied with the same good cheer, settling onto one of the benches close to the fireplace and picking up a rag from the supplies laid out there. She began removing, drying and oiling her gear as she continued, not seeming to mind the rainwater that plastered her own clothes and hair. “It’s one of Naphthene’s own rages out there. I can’t believe you lazy sods are sitting around in here instead of out playing in the rain.”

“Yeah, well, you can go back out when your shift is over,” the lieutenant presently in charge said, looking up from his book and raising an eyebrow. “We’re all on standby. If that means missing a really good blow, well, life’s hard.”

“Not me!” another man called. “I haven’t missed a really good blow since I met Apta’s—”

“Yeah, yeah, my sister’s a whore, we’ve all heard it,” a fellow soldier grunted, tossing a boot at him without raising his attention from his game of chess. “You need some new material.”

The small barracks was on the second floor of the Rock’s southern gatehouse, set inside the massive outer wall of the fortress itself. This was not the main troop housing, but served as a common area where soldiers stationed on gate watch gathered. At times like this, the policy was to have enough troops on the ramparts to keep watch over the city, but more in reserve below not being distracted and tired out by having to remain alert in the middle of a storm. As much as Punaji enjoyed stormy weather as a rule, manning the top of a wall during a tropical gale as fierce as the one now raging could wear a person out. Sanrachi’s replacement had already gone above to relieve her, and another swap would take place in half an hour. With the weather this bad, the twelve soldiers patrolling the gatehouse’s towers would be rotated constantly, so there was always someone with fresh eyes on the city.

In theory, the Rock should have nothing to fear from the people of Puna Dara, but the very fact of the Punaji affinity for storms meant that watchers on the walls could not trust the weather alone to keep the gates clear, as might be the practice elsewhere.

“All quiet out there?” the lieutenant asked, then had to pause for a particularly loud clap of thunder. “…you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sanrachi said, grinning. “The usual. Some folks out in the street, but not a sign of these Rust bastards. I guess their name’s not a complete coincidence, huh? They seem shy about getting wet. So, uh…” She glanced curiously at some of the new arrivals, whose silver armor stood out strikingly among the Punaji uniforms. “What brings you out here, Sisters? I heard you were honored guests of the royal family.”

“That’s the theory,” Ephanie said lightly, “but we’re letting our LT hog all the honor. Honestly, you know how it is. We all complain about the digs we’re assigned, but put me on plush carpeting and silk sheets and I’m afraid to touch anything. I have no idea which one’s even the shrimp fork.”

“Shrimp fork’s the one you use to stab the shrimp who complains about what fork you’re eating with!” shouted the man who’d made the crack about Apta’s sister, earning a round of guffaws.

“Well, you’re welcome in here,” the lieutenant said, smiling warmly at her. In fact, Ephanie in particular had been the focus of a fair amount of attention from most of the men and several of the women stationed in this gatehouse. “Good company’s always appreciated. We don’t even mind you sharing the rations; we don’t go hungry around here.”

“Aw, we wouldn’t wanna be a burden,” Casey said cheerfully. “That’s why we keep Lang around! Someone so terrible at cards can’t help but make us friends.”

Merry scowled at her, slapping her handful of cards down on the table amid the laughter of the rest of the poker players. Indeed, her stack of pennies was the smallest by a wide margin. “I fucking knew it! That’s it, soon as we’re back in Tiraas I’m putting in a requisition for come compensation.”

While the joking and laughter carried on, Ephanie politely extracted herself from the lieutenant’s attention and went to join Nandi, who was standing by one of the windows, staring out at the storm with a slight frown.

“All right, Shahai?” she asked softly. “I’ve never known you to be bothered by a little thunder and lightning.”

“It isn’t that,” Nandi said slowly. “I can almost hear…something.”

Ephanie’s eyebrows drew together pensively. “Can you be a little more specific?”

“I wish I could, Avelea. I cannot pick it out, but I have the sense that there is a background sound that…” She trailed off, then finally tore her eyes from the window to look at Ephanie directly. “Elven hearing is a matter of focus. Discerning as many sounds as we do, we’d go mad from over-stimulation if we did not learn to tune most of it out. There is an art to hearing almost everything in one’s vicinity and deciding, subconsciously, what is important. Sometimes the fact that this is art and not science works against us. Something is nagging at me, and I cannot fix my attention upon it. The storm and the soldiers, obviously, do not help.”

“I’ve never seen you do that, either,” Ephanie said, studying her. “You have a great deal of experience to draw on, Shahai. Is this ringing any bells at all? Anything you want to tell me about?”

Nandi’s eyes had narrowed in concentration, tracking to the side as she listened, but at that she fixed her gaze back on Ephanie’s. “It’s nothing I would be comfortable initiating action based upon, but… My experience has been that when I have this sensation, it means someone nearby is attempting to be very stealthy, aware that an elf can hear them. Stealthier than a normal human is capable of being.”

Ephanie nodded slowly. “All right. Thanks for the warning; I’ll discreetly notify the others to be on the alert, but I don’t think we want to spook the local troops just yet.”

“No…tell their lieutenant, at least,” Merry said, having abandoned the last of her pennies and joined them in time to catch the latter part of their exchange. “We’re not the big damn heroes here, that’s those Last Rock kids and possibly Locke. We came here to support the Punaji; I think it’s a bad idea to have the attitude that these troopers are yokels who can’t be trusted to take care of their own city. We should share intel that might be important. Uh, I mean…ma’am.” She finished weakly, belatedly noticing Ephanie’s very pointed stare.

“Mouth off like that in front of anyone, Lang, and I’m gonna have to land on you,” Ephanie said dryly, “but with that said, you are dead right and I thank you for the reminder. Just learn to watch your tone. Most of the Legions do not share Locke’s idea of military comportment.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said contritely.

Ephanie nodded to Nandi. “I’ll go have a discreet word with their LT. I’ve been getting the vibe he’d be happy enough to speak with me in private. It should be his call what to tell his troops, if anything, and if he doesn’t believe me, that’s that.”

“I find human soldiers are often impressed by ‘elf stuff’ to an almost superstitious degree,” Nandi said, her grave tone somewhat spoiled by the twitch of her lips. “Don’t hesitate to mention the ears.”

Ephanie grinned and patted her shoulder. “Back shortly. Keep those ears perked and let me know if you can pick anything important out.”

“Will do.”

Not even an elf could have heard the distortion of candle smoke, or even the movement of air as it was displaced by an invisible body in the rafters; with all the noise of the storm and the boisterous soldiers present, the hidden figure above managed to creep from beam to beam all the way to the stairwell door without drawing further attention.

Rather than risk opening it herself, she had to wait for the next shift change and slip out after the soldier who went to relieve his counterpart upon the battlements. It was a simple enough matter to trip him while he was opening the heavy wooden door, providing her with an opportunity to squeeze past and scamper almost silently up the stairs.

At the top, troopers were hunkered down against the battlements themselves, lifelines tied to their belts in case of someone being blown over the edge. With the wind roaring as it was, Kheshiri didn’t even try to unfurl her wings; she’d have been instantly picked up and hurled halfway to the Stalrange. Flattening herself against the floor and as close to the inner wall as she could, she made her way carefully across, mindful of both storm and soldiers, heading for the other gatehouse—the one not currently inhabited by an elf.

This delay had cost her time. The others would be getting impatient; Shook could only take his frustrations out on her later, but if Khadizroth feared she had been intercepted he might go and do something unfortunate. She would have to move faster to get the gate open, which meant creating an opportunity rather than waiting for one.

The thought was enough to set her tail waving in anticipation.

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11 – 40

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Both carriages careened to a halt, Vandro’s skidding slightly. Tallie and Schwartz both had to cover their eyes against the sudden brightness; the roar of the explosion was enough to blot out even Meesie’s screeching.

One of the passenger doors on the front carriage swung open and Vandro himself stuck his head out. “What the hell—”

Wilberforce leaped from the driver’s seat, pivoted even as he hit the ground, and lunged back into the passenger compartment, dragging Vandro bodily with him.

“DOWN!” Schwartz tackled Tallie right off the roof before she could recover her equilibrium. Landing was instinctive to her, though it got a lot harder with a gangly witch coming down on top.

“Oof!” She pushed him away. “Have you lost your—”

“DOWN DOWN DOWN!” he bellowed, grabbing her by the shoulders and shoving her bodily at the side of Glory’s carriage. “All of you STAY IN THERE!”

Schwartz dashed to the open space between the two carriages, braced his feet, and made a double-handed lifting motion as if hoisting something heavy above his head.

Shafts of rock burst out of the ground at a steep angle, hurling clouds of snow into the air; more followed as Schwartz continued to gesticulate, grimacing, until after a few seconds he had drawn up a serviceable barricade extending up at a forty-five degree angle and blocking the ruined fortress from their view.

He was barely in time.

With a roar that put the initial explosion to shame, debris plummeted down in a massive wave, peppering the entire landscape with shattered masonry and old timbers, several of them on fire. Schwartz’s improvised rock barrier took a pounding; several large chunks broke off and one of the stone spires was broken entirely, falling to crush one fender of Vandro’s already-bedraggled carriage.

Tallie’e yelp of terror was lost in the noise; she wiggled under Glory’s carriage, arms reflexively over her head, and did not peek out again until the quiet which followed had held sway for a few seconds.

“Is it over?” Rasha asked tremulously from inside.

“Should be,” Schwartz said breathlessly, “for now. But stuff doesn’t just blow up. Somebody did that, and they have to be nearby.”

“Thanks,” Tallie said to him as she dragged herself out by one wheel. “How’d you…know?”

“It’s called fallout. My job and my religion involved being around a lot of experimental magic,” he said wryly, reaching up to soothingly pet Meesie, who was scampering back and forth along his shoulders in agitation. “Believe me, I know my way around explosions.”

“Fine work, my boy,” Vandro stated, emerging from the carriage and peering around at the damaged rock barrier.

“Hell yes!” Darius added more energetically, bounding out after him. “I told you we needed to keep this guy around! How ’bout sticking with us permanently, Schwartz? I don’t have the means to pay you a salary, but I can incentivize. You need any favors done? Pockets picked? How’d you like to marry my sister?”

“I can hear you, you preposterous oaf,” Layla snarled, leaping down from Glory’s carriage.

“Enough,” Glory said firmly, descending after her. “We are still in a predicament, here. This was our rendezvous point, and I think we have to assume we’ve just lost our reinforcements.”

Tallie gasped, turning to Jasmine, who had just emerged from the carriage and rushed to the edge of the rock barrier, staring at the burning ruins with a hollow expression. “Oh, Jas…”

“No time.” Jasmine shook herself off, turned and strode back to them. “Glory’s right; we’re now on the defensive. I suggest we pile back in and keep going. Whatever thinning of their numbers we have done tonight, it’s best to assume they have more—someone had to have done this, as Schwartz pointed out, and I’ve no way of knowing which if any of the help I called for got here…” Her voice caught momentarily. “Or survived.”

“Well, we may have a problem, there,” said Vandro. “Little did I know our boy Schwartz could do this kind of defensive magic; soon as we saw that tower go up, Wilberforce activated the shield charms on my carriage.”

“Whoah, wait, what?” Schwartz turned to frown at him. “You can’t shield a moving carriage—how’d you get around the magical interference?”

“That’s just the point, son,” Vandro said, grimacing. “I didn’t. Turning that on fried the wheel enchantments.” He patted the carriage’s abused fender. “I’m afraid this old girl isn’t going anywhere else tonight.”

Grip sighed, flicking a glance across the whole group as the lot of them finally piled out of the carriages. “Well, staying here isn’t a prospect. We’re sitting ducks in a snowstorm. Stay together and head for the treeline, the forest will hamper pursuit.”

“What if we went into the fortress?” Layla suggested.

Darius sighed. “The forest it is…”

“Oh, hush,” she said crossly. “It’s not as if they’ll expect that, and it can’t be as dangerous as who knows how many armed dwarves!”

“Too late,” Glory murmured.

The others followed her line of sight and turned to face it at varying speeds, Jasmine and the senior Eserites fastest. A line of squat figures had appeared in the darkness just ahead; thanks to the still-falling snow, they were nearly upon them before being visible, the crunch of multiple sets of feet not audible until the last moment thanks to the wind across the open space and the sound of fire raging not too far away in the ruins.

By the time they were close enough to be seen clearly, it was apparent that more than half were carrying wands.

One figure near the middle removed his hat and casually tossed it to the snow behind him with one hand, clutching a wand with the other. The face thus revealed was familiar to several of them.

“Quite the exciting evening,” Rogrind said flatly. A hint of the jovial politeness he had always displayed to them remained, though it was a clearly strained veneer over simmering anger, now. “You know something, I do believe my greatest regret about all this is that I won’t have time to sit you ruffians down and make you understand just how much harm you have caused over the course of these events. Well, second greatest. You’ve manage to kill some good people tonight.”

“The harm we caused,” Tallie snapped, “by refusing to roll over like—”

“Young lady,” the dwarf growled, “shut up. You were seen bringing several of the modified staves which started all this idiocy into those vehicles. Despite everything, I am willing to offer you terms: hand them over, and we will leave without doing any further harm to anyone, because we are still—still!—the civilized parties here.”

Grip slowly panned her gaze across the assembled dwarves, then caught Jasmine’s eye and tilted her head at them significantly. There were fifteen present, all garbed in inconspicuous winter attire, an even mix of men and women. Eight had wands pointed at the party. Jasmine nodded once in acknowledgment of Grip’s point: only four had the same calm, alert aspect as Rogrind. The rest were visibly nervous, uncertain, in at least two cases seriously frightened by all this. Civilians, somehow drafted into his campaign. Dwarven sturdiness or not, this was an army that would break at the first sign of significant threat.

Wands shifted as Schwartz made a sudden gesture with his hands.

“Stop!” Rogrind barked, too late.

Whatever he released spread outward from him like ripples in a pond, causing luminous butterflies of multiple colors to appear in the air around them, as well as illusory stalks of greenery popping up through the snow and an incongruous scent like sun-baked grass and flowers in the summer.

One panicked dwarf fired her wand at Schwartz, followed by another. No one else tried, as both weapons sparked ineffectually, the first actually igniting its owner’s sleeve and causing her to drop it with a shriek and tumble over, burying her arm in the snow.

“Those of you with wands, don’t fire them,” Schwartz said aside to his companions before turning his gaze fully on Rogrind. “I see you didn’t take our little discussion to heart. I’m afraid I was quite serious.”

Meesie leaped down from his shoulder of her own volition, actually vanishing deep into the snow and leaving a rat-shaped hole in it. An instant later, snow was hurled everywhere as she burst up into her much larger form, shook her mane, and roared.

Three more dwarves tried to shoot her; all ended up dropping suddenly-hot wands that wouldn’t fire, one also having to roll in the snow to put himself out.

“Good boy,” Grip said, stepping forward with a truly unhinged grin. She had somehow slipped on two sets of iron knuckles and produced a brass-studded club the length of her forearm from one of her pockets. Jasmine paced forward in unison, both Butlers positioned themselves pointedly in front of the group, and Meesie crouched, wriggling her hindquarters in a clear gesture of imminent feline attack.

Two of the dwarves turned and ran; most of the rest shuffled backward, looking around in alarm, and incidentally placing the hardened professionals among them on the front lines.

“Have it your way,” said Rogrind with a clear note of belligerent satisfaction.

As the two fronts collided, there came a sharp retort like a small explosion nearby, and Meesie howled in pain, vanishing from her lion form instantly. That was as much time as Jasmine had to notice the others before Grip was fully occupied dealing with two hard-eyed dwarves, and she found herself face-to-face with Rogrind himself.

He suffered one slash from her sword across his chest, and she realized her misjudgment a moment too late. First, he had some kind of armor under his coat, and second, he was good at personal combat. Stepping into her swing as it raked him, he positioned himself perfectly and slammed his fist into her ribs just under her sword arm. She managed not to drop the blade, but he hit like a mule’s kick; she staggered sideways, gasping for breath and in pain. Years of training and her innate agility kept her from losing her footing entirely, even in the snow, but Rogrind continued to defy the stolid dwarven stereotype. He pressed her, striking bare-handed; she gained a few feet of breathing room by dodging to one side and stabbing him in the upper arm. He bared his teeth in pain, his left arm suddenly bleeding profusely and hanging useless, but was too disciplined to let it stop him.

Despite the past few seconds’ education in his surprising level of combat ability, she was still unprepared for his speed. He bulled forward as swiftly as a pouncing cat, using his weight and lower center of gravity to tackle her bodily around the midsection and bear her to the ground. Jasmine twisted, trying to bring her blade back into play, but he caught her wrist. It was with his injured arm, but thanks to the famous dwarven sturdiness, he had strength enough to keep her pinned down. She clawed at his eye with her other hand, but he turned his head aside even as he slipped a stiletto from his sleeve, and a moment later she had to grasp his descending wrist to protect her throat.

That close, in a wrestling match, he was considerably stronger than she. Her arm strained to hold it off, but the blade descended inexorably.

She gritted her teeth and reached for the light inside her. There was a time to break cover, after all.

“IYAAAAIII!”

Rogrind jerked his head up, then released her and tried to stumble back, not quite fast enough. The lance that flashed down at him nailed him directly in the shoulder. It didn’t penetrate deeply enough to stick, falling out as he continued to reel backward, but left him gushing blood and with two injured arms.

A second later, Principia’s boots sank into the snow on either side of Jasmine’s head, the elf landing protectively over her from what had to have been a long leap. She surged forward, drawing her short sword and slamming her shield against Rogrind. He was too heavy for the slender elf to physically force back, but she was a whirling storm in Legion armor, pounding with her shield, jabbing and slashing with the blade, and he had no choice but to retreat after his only counterattack, an attempt to grab her shield, ended with a stab through the forearm that put his right arm fully out of commission.

More boots crunched in the snow, and then Squad One was surging past her, forming themselves into a phalanx with their sergeant at the tip. She still didn’t have her lance, but held her blade at the ready.

“Right face, shield wall!” Principia barked, and they seamlessly formed up, allowing Rogrind to scuttle away in the snow and shifting their arrowhead formation to a solid line of shields, bristling with lances, and facing the rest of the dwarves. At this development, the two who were harrying Grip also released her, backing away.

“Wait!” Rogrind said, weakly holding up his left hand, the only one he still could. “Wait! We have no argument with—”

“CHARGE!” Principia roared, and the squad raced forward.

That was too much for most of the remaining dwarven conscripts, who scattered in all directions, leaving only the few who were engaged in melee with the other Eserite apprentices, none of whom appeared to be very effective. Jasmine rapidly assessed the battlefield and bit back a curse; the Butlers, easily their best physical asset, were hovering protectively over their charges rather than contributing on the front lines. Meanwhile, golden shields of light had flashed into being around the dwarves still standing their ground.

An instant later those shields vanished, prompting exclamations of surprise. Glory and Rasha were leaning out the door of her carriage, each with a disruptor still aimed.

Six armored women collided with seven dwarves, who would have proved heavy and braced enough to break their charge completely, had they not been running spears-first. Four of the dwarves went down, so thoroughly impaled that in falling they wrenched the weapons from their owners’ grip. The rest reeled backward in disarray.

Rogrind, though, had found a moment to reach into his coat with his weakened left hand. Jasmine could make no sense of the small object he withdrew and held out, but an instant later it produced a puff of smoke, a flash, and an explosive crack just like the one which had sounded before Meesie was felled.

Merry Lang screamed as she was flung backward out of formation, spinning around to land on her side in the snow.

“Not. Another. Step,” Rogrind snarled, twisting to point his mysterious device at Principia.

Another crack sounded, this one a familiar wandshot.

More dwarves, nearly a dozen, paced forward out of the swirling snow, grim-faced and armed. They came from the direction of the road, and several were clearly injured or with disheveled clothing, as if they had limped away from wrecked carriages.

“Where do they keep coming from?” Schwartz muttered, Meesie again perched on his shoulder. He held a fireball in his right palm, balanced to throw.

“I have had enough of this,” Rogrind panted, turning to the others. “You may fire at—”

A blast of wind hurled a wall of snow over him and directly into the faces of the newly arrive dwarves. Two more wands were discharged; the bolts flew wide of the Eserites, though several of them dived to the ground anyway.

Suddenly, as if the wind had been a signal, it stopped snowing. In the absence of the thick fall of flakes, a line of six people were visible, approaching the group from the north. On the left end of their formation was Kuriwa, just now lowering her arms after calming the storm.

In the center, sword in hand, behind a glowing shield of gold, stood Basra Syrinx.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said with a satisfied little smirk, “I believe you can discern friend from foe? We do not require prisoners. Destroy them.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” drawled the man on the opposite end of the line from Kuriwa, an older gentleman of Western descent carrying a mage’s staff and smoking a cigarillo. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But I do believe the Sisterhood’s doctrine of war requires a clearly overmatched enemy be offered the chance to surrender?”

Basra gave him an irritated look past Joe, who stood next to her, but nodded. “Yes, in fact I believe you are correct. Very well. Your attention, miscellaneous dwarven rabble! I am Bishop Syrinx, of the Sisterhood of Avei and the Universal Church. With me are my very good friends the Sarasio Kid, Tinker Billie, Gravestone Weaver, Longshot McGraw and Mary the Crow. Ah, good, I see you understand what those names mean.”

The dwaves, indeed, had whirled to direct their aim at Syrinx’s reinforcements, now completely ignoring the Eserites, and even the cold-eyed professionals among them were visibly alarmed. One of their few remaining conscripts appeared to be weeping softly.

“If you do not instantly drop your weapons and surrender,” Basra continued pleasantly, “you will be scoured off the face of the earth with both efficiency and relish. And if, by some unthinkable miracle, you insist upon a firefight and manage to win, be assured that my goddess’s attention is fixed upon these events, and you are meddling in matters you do not understand.” Her eyes flicked rapidly from Principia to Jasmine and then back to Rogrind.

Nandi and Ephanie were both kneeling in the snow beside Merry, who was alive and monotonously cursing despite the crimson stain spreading through the snow around her. Principia had eased backward out of the remains of Squad One’s formation to hover near Jasmine.

“Win here,” Basra said, her voice suddenly as icy as the night air, “and there will be nowhere for you to hide. You may be able to bamboozle Imperial Intelligence, but you are not a match for Avei. If those weapons are not on the ground in the next five seconds, everyone dies.”

“How the hell,” Tallie hissed at Jasmine, “do you know all these people?!”

Jasmine shook her head. “I only know Joe. Guess we should be glad he has friends, too.”

“They…are not surrendering,” Darius muttered.

“Well, this is altogether unfortunate,” Rogrind said with a sigh.

“They’re government intelligence on a sanctioned op,” Grip whispered. “Shit. They can’t be taken alive. Everybody down!”

She was right; the dwarves, in unison, raised their weapons again. Joe, Billie, and Weaver did likewise.

And then the whole earth shook.

He dived down so rapidly they didn’t even hear the wind of his approach until he struck the ground hard enough to knock several of them right off their feet. The whole assemblage turned in unison, gaping in awe up at the enormous blue dragon suddenly standing a bare few yards away from them.

He swiveled his long neck around to lower his angular head directly into their midst, and bared rows of arm-sized teeth in a truly horrifying smile.

“Good evening. Nice night for it, eh?”

“By the way,” Principia said to Jasmine, “in addition to not positioning my squad in that fortress where Syrinx knew we were supposed to be, I took the liberty of calling in some additional reinforcements of my own. I apologize if this disrupts your plans.”

“Ah!” At her voice, the dragon twisted his head around to face her from a few feet away. “Prin, there you are! I must say, you throw the most terrible parties. Why is it, cousin, I only ever see you when people are getting shot in all directions?”

“C-cousin?” Jasmine’s voice jumped an octave in the course of one word and then cracked.

The dragon turned his sapphire eyes on her. “Hmph. That sounded like an exclamation of surprise. Been keeping me a secret, Principia? A less charitable person might think you were embarrassed to be related to me.”

“Well,” Principia said glibly, “I guess a less charitable person might have met you. How is she?” she added, turning away from the dragon.

“I have rarely seen anything like this injury,” Kuriwa replied. Somehow, in the intervening seconds, she had moved from across the battlefield to Merry’s side, and now paused in working on the fallen Legionnaire. “It is not excessively difficult to heal, however. Here. This was lodged in her arm.” She handed a tiny object to Principia, then lifted her head to smile at the dragon. “And hello, Zanzayed. It is a great pleasure to see you again.”

The dragon shifted to stare ominously at her. “Oh. You.”

“Since we are both in the vicinity,” she said calmly, returning her attention to Merry, “I hope you will find time to catch up. We so rarely get to talk anymore.”

He snorted, sending a blast of air over them that was hot enough to make the snow steam and smelled of brimstone and, incongruously, spearmint.

“Well,” Zanzayed huffed, “this has been fun, and all, but I’m just the transportation, here.”

He lowered his body to lie in the snow, revealing for the first time a man in a dark suit perched astride his neck, who had been hidden by the dragon’s wings. Now, he slung his leg over and slid to the ground, where he paused to straighten his coat.

“Uh oh,” Principia muttered, her eyes widening. “I didn’t order that.”

“Good evening,” said Zanzayed’s passenger, striding forward. “I am Lord Quentin Vex, head of Imperial Intelligence. With regard to this matter, I speak for the Emperor.”

He paused to sweep an expressive gaze around them, at the dwarves, the Eserites, the Legionnaires and the adventurers, all of whom had gone silent and still, staring back in alarm.

“His Majesty,” said Vex, raising an eyebrow, “requires a god damned explanation.”

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Behind Glory’s property stood a stable with a walled yard attached, its gated drive leading onto a little side street shared with her next door neighbor, opening onto the street proper. The stableyard was crowded to the point of bustling, now, as the entire household sorted themselves into the two enchanted carriages waiting at idle, their enchantments powered up to warm them before embarking. Both Glory and Vandro drove late-model Falconers, though hers was a smaller, sportier model without as much passenger space. Layla’s horses were carefully bedded down in warm stalls; though Glory herself did not keep animals, she maintained facilities for guests who did.

“Interesting girl, that one,” Vandro mused, watching Jasmine talking quietly with Schwartz and Glory by the door of the other carriage, the girl apparently showing them how to work one of those disruptor staves she’d brought back from the Temple of Avei along with her witch friend. “Got brains and muscle, but clearly isn’t the ringleader of this little pack. Doesn’t wanna put herself forward. No, I’d peg little Miss Tallie in that role—or she will be, when she grows into that bluster of hers. Frankly, those two are the only ones I mark as having a future in the Guild. The boys are sadly unremarkable.”

Wilberforce, sitting beside him on the carriage’s driver bench, cleared his throat softly, directing his face toward Grip, who lounged by the gates, watching him watch Jasmine. Vandro gave her a grin and a wave; she made no response to this, and after a moment pointedly turned her head away.

“I trust, sir,” the Butler said softly, “that you noted Miss Tallie’s remark about the Avenist Eserite mother.”

“Mmm.” Vandro took a swig from a silver hip flask, smiling to himself. “Now, we know damn well from our research that Keys doesn’t have a daughter—or at least, not one that she raised. That business with House Takhvaneh ’bout twenty years back, though… Everybody figured she nixed the pregnancy first chance, but Jasmine’s the right age, and I’d believe from her looks she’s a half-elf. Thrown away by her shiftless mother as a baby, just now trying to reconnect… Why, there’s just all kinds of ways for that to go badly, eh? Especially with the right encouragement.”

“Conversations between her friends have hinted at an Avenist upbringing,” Wilberforce noted. “A possible motivation for Locke to seek out the Sisterhood as she has.”

“I didn’t miss that either, old friend. Keys, it would seem, wants this a lot more than the girl does. How delightfully fraught with possibility.”

“There is also the fact,” Wilberforce added dryly, “on a less optimistic note, that you tend to get along poorly with Avenists.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right,” Vandro said with a sigh. “Well, hell, I’m not too old to make a few compromises. These kids are a lot more interesting than the momentary convenience I thought they were at first. We’ll have to work on cultivating ’em. Assuming, that is,” he added cheerfully, “we don’t all get murdered by dwarves tonight.”


“Hey, uh, Jasmine?”

She paused, having been about to climb into the carriage after making her farewells to Tallie, Ross, and Darius, who now strode up front to join Grip at Vandro’s carriage. The larger and more powerful of the two, it had been designated to carry more of the group. Schwartz was hovering by the rear fender of their own ride, looking nervous.

“Are you all right?” she asked, then winced. “Well, I mean, apart form the obvious. Believe me, there’s no shame in being apprehensive about something like this.”

He actually barked an incredulous little laugh, while Meesie squeaked reproachfully at her. “Oh, no, nothing like… Well, actually, I am quite nervous, that’s true. After Athan’Khar, though, this really isn’t so bad as all that.”

“Athan—wow.” Jasmine blinked. “You’ll really have to tell me that story someday.”

“Actually, I think I really will,” he replied, his expression growing grimmer. “That’s where I first met Bishop Syrinx…among other things. Look, that’s what I actually wanted to talk about, uh, Jasmine. I haven’t found a moment to grab your ear since the temple, and something about that Grip woman makes me think sharing possibly personal information in her hearing isn’t the best idea…”

“You’ve got good instincts,” she said with a sigh.

“It’s just…” Schwartz awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck. Meesie stood up to tug on his ear and point at Jasmine, squeaking encouragingly. “Well, frankly, I think you were a little too hard on Principia. She means well, and that thing with the Bishop… Well, trust me, she is fully entitled to feel hostile. I don’t think you quite appreciate just how…” He paused and swallowed heavily. “Just what Basra Syrinx is like.”

“I have some ideas in that direction, in fact,” Jasmine said quietly, nudging the carriage door fully shut. “That was the whole point of that, Schwartz.”

He blinked. “I, uh…how so?”

“Of the two of them, Syrinx is the one who worries me,” she said seriously. “Locke is…well, she has more than her share of faults, but I know pretty well what they are, and she’s not a danger except to people who deserve it. It was Syrinx I needed to land on to bring her in line. And if I’d done that while going easy on Locke, Syrinx would have made her pay for it later, when I wasn’t there to see. She would almost have to, given the way she thinks. I tried to put them on equal footing to protect Locke, and I’m trusting her to be clever enough to have picked up on that.”

“Oh.” He blinked again, twice. “Oh, I see. Well, um… I quite frankly would never have thought of that.”

Jasmine shook her head. “Neither would I, not so long ago. We really do need to have some longer conversations about this, Schwartz.”

“Right, yes,” he agreed. “But…clearly not tonight.”

She smiled, opening the carriage door. “We’ll just add that to our reasons to be certain to survive, eh?”

After she had climbed in and shut the door behind her, he shook his head and began clambering up to the top of the carriage. “Well, I thought I had plenty of those, but I suppose a bit more can’t hurt.”

Meesie ran a complete lap around the top of his head, chattering her agreement.


Night and the snowstorm had reduced the streets of Tiraas to a lamp-lit netherworld; even more windows than usual blazed with light, as if those within sought to fight back the cold by sheer volume of fairy lamps. Outside, however, the city was nearly desolate compared to its usual level of activity. Pedestrians were almost nonexistent, the few other carriages about moving slowly and cautiously in the snow. Twice on their way to the west gate, they passed carriages that had skidded off the road and collided with lamp posts, one having demolished a row of mailboxes in the process. In both cases, military police and the presumed owners of the vehicles were standing by them, competing to look more put out. Compared to the mess Tiraas usually faced in the winter, this storm was downright gentle; there was little wind and no ice, just thick snowflakes continually tumbling down. After hours of this, though, the snow was accumulating to a difficult depth.

“This could be trouble,” Glory murmured, shifting the curtain with one finger to study the passing scenery. “I expected more activity on the streets than this. If we are caught in an area where there is no one to see…”

“Tiraas is the heart of the Empire,” Jasmine said. “The Tiraan Empire is the predominant nation in the world. The center of human civilization never sleeps. And this city of all places is used to snow; everyone was just unprepared by the mild winter. It won’t be shut down that thoroughly. Look, there are people around, even if only a few, and the police are patrolling more than usual. As long as we don’t venture into side streets like they caught us in last time, it should be fine.”

“This is a main street, right?” Rasha asked nervously. “The one going right from Imperial Square to the west gate?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Glory with a smile. “If Tiraas is the Empire’s heart, this is one of its arteries. Jasmine is probably right; I just can’t help feeling a little nervous. I’m accustomed to sitting in the center of my web and letting the trouble come to me.”

“I am sorry to involve you in all this,” Jasmine said quietly.

“I’m not,” Glory replied without hesitation, absently squeezing Rasha’s shoulder. “This needs to be done, and anyway, I clearly needed to be shaken out of my routine. It’s a terrible sin for an Eserite to grow complacent.”

“They still back there?” Rasha asked tersely.

Jasmine, who was sitting on the front bench facing backward, nodded, her eyes flicking to the rear window. “Still keeping pace.”

“Uh oh,” Glory said suddenly, again looking past the curtain. Layla, Rasha, and Jasmine all crowded over to see.

Another carriage had suddenly pulled up out of an intersection and was keeping pace alongside them, not quite close enough to be menacing. Its driver’s bench had its windscreen and canvas top raised, but as they stared, one of its side windows swung open, revealing the face of a female dwarf, who gave them a pleasant smile and casually held up a wand.

Glory pulled back the curtain entirely, smiled back with equal politeness, and lifted her hand to deliver an obscene gesture. Rasha barely suppressed an outburst of nervous laughter.

“They’re too good to make a mistake like this,” Jasmine murmured. “If they didn’t ambush us before we got out of your neighborhood, they won’t here. We’re obviously making for the gates; much more opportunity outside the city.”

“Unless they know it’s a trap, of course,” said Layla. To the annoyance of virtually everyone, the young noblewoman seemed to find this whole affair to be splendid fun.

“And that’s where our current measures—ah, there we go,” Jasmine said in satisfaction as the current measures went into effect.

Up ahead, one of the doors of Vandro’s carriage had swung open, and Tallie leaped out, catching the lip of the roof with one hand and nimbly swinging herself up top, clearly not encumbered by the full-length battlestaff she carried. There, she dropped to a crouch, aimed the staff directly at the new carriage, and lit up behind a sphere of blue light which sparkled continuously as snowflakes pelted it.

Snow wasn’t as bad as rain, but a personal shielding charm wouldn’t hold up long in this weather. As the seconds passed, it became increasingly clear that what protected her was not an ordinary shielding charm.

Enchanted carriages could be outfitted with much larger and more potent power crystals than they needed, which then could be keyed to any number of enchanted devices carried within range of the carriage itself—such as energy shields. This was military gear, and while its use in civilian carriages was not a criminal offense, it definitely violated the enchanted vehicle safety codes, not to mention any insurance policies on the vehicle in question.

Quite coincidentally, both Vandro and Glory’s personal carriages had these devices installed and ready to run. The carriages themselves, unfortunately, could not be shielded, as for some reason that interfered with the enchantments powering their wheels; even Tallie’s bubble hovered closer to her than normal, to keep it out of range of any important systems it might damage.

Beside their own carriage, there suddenly paced a glowing red lion nearly as large as an ox. Meesie turned her maned head to growl at the dwarves, loud enough to be plainly audible in both vehicles even over the hum of their wheel charms and the sounds of slush being crushed beneath them. Though they couldn’t see it, Schwartz up top would be doing something to show off his magic, too.

The carriage immediately veered to put a lane’s worth of space between them, and fell back to drive parallel to its counterpart a few yards behind.

“Yeah, you’d better run,” Layla said, grinning.

Jasmine gave her a quelling look, which she appeared not to notice, before replying. “If they attack us now, where the police will intervene, we win—they set that up themselves by facing down the Guild the way they have. They’re not backing off because they’re afraid, Layla; they’re encouraging us to stand down our defenses and not attract the military police. No, this is how all cons are structured. You have to present the mark with the opportunity to put one over on you. We’ve made it plain we’re ready for a fight; they don’t know just how ready we are. They think we are riding into their trap, and once we do, we’ll spring ours.”

“And…just how many cons have you run?” Layla asked pointedly.

Jasmine grimaced. “Uh, this will be my first.”

“I see,” the aristocrat muttered. “Well, I suppose our lives are a sufficient stake. Doesn’t the Guild traditionally start apprentices off stealing, I don’t know, pocket change? Fruit from street vendors? Candy from babies?”

“It’s a good grift, regardless,” Glory said firmly. “No plan survives contact with reality, but we are well-prepared to improvise. That is the important thing.”

“I see the gates up ahead,” Rasha reported. “And Tallie’s shield is off again. Just the two carriages after us, still…”

“The gate guards may stop us,” Layla said, frowning.

Glory smiled. “The gate guards aren’t going to intervene as long as Meesie is back to mouse shape and Tallie isn’t showing off a shield that works better than it should in the snow. The sheer amount of traffic in and out of this city inevitably makes it impossible to scrutinize anyone too closely.”

“Traffic’s pretty light,” Rasha said, frowning nervously.

“But habits endure,” said Glory. “Anyway, if we are stopped, we have our cover story. Two wealthy dilettantes and their entourages repairing to our estates in Madouris after a most unsettling encounter with dwarven toughs. Shock, dismay, and so on. Still, I’m quite certain they won’t trouble us. Both these carriages are, if I say so myself, distinctive…”

“Wait, what about highway patrols?” Layla interrupted, watching the gates draw closer ahead. Traffic had, in fact, thickened, though that only meant there were four other carriages visible, none driving close enough together to force anyone to slow down in the snow. “Surely roads are heavily monitored this close to the capital…”

“Actually,” Glory said with a smile, “the capital itself is directly administered by the Silver Throne, but the lands outside it are part of Tiraan Province, governed by House Madouri. Among the new Duchess’s reforms has been the dismissal of most of her father’s rangers and public guardsmen, whose primary skill was taking bribes.”

“Oh, splendid,” Layla huffed, folding her arms. “Then we shall only meet bandits. Well, I’m sure we can handle those.”

“There are no bandits in Tiraan Province,” Glory said, now openly amused. “While the new Madouri guard corps is being trained to her more stringent standards, Duchess Ravana has made a standing contract with the Thieves’ Guild chapter in Madouris. Guild thieves who apprehend highwaymen will be compensated equally to the value of whatever was stolen, plus a bounty, and she prefers that the courts not be burdened with prosecuting such scoundrels when their heads will suffice to prove the cessation of their activities.”

“That,” Jasmine said with a grimace, “is just begging for the worst kind of abuse.”

“For a run-of-the-mill criminal cartel, perhaps,” Glory replied, shrugging placidly. “The Guild acts out of principle, however, and the Duchess has played to that perfectly. Boss Tricks has made it very clear that her offer is not to be abused in any way. Between that and Ravana making sure this arrangement is an open secret in the province, the highways around Tiraas are actually safer than under the old Duke’s administration.”

“She sounds quite the charmer,” Layla said, looking pointedly at Jasmine, who made no reply.

The gate guards did not even flag them to slow. Apparently, two luxury carriages (one with significant physical damage) with armed individuals sitting on top did not warrant closer inspection, a fact upon which Layla commented with some asperity as they eased carefully onto the bridge across the canyon.

“Well,” Glory said idly, “some of us have standing arrangements with gate guards, as I was trying to say earlier. Any Eserite who moves in circles of a certain class, really. I would be astonished if Webs weren’t fully paid up with the local constabulary. He does so love spending his money on bribes.”

“I guess if the dwarves really wanted to put us neatly out of the picture,” Rasha murmured, gazing out the window at the dizzying drop into blackness just beyond the bridge rails, “this would be the place.”

“Oh, what a lovely thought,” Layla exclaimed. “Really, thanks ever so.”

“You have to climb to get off the side of this bridge,” Jasmine said with a smile. “And those walls are more than sturdy enough to absorb collisions.”

“It ends up being tested more often than you’d think,” Glory added. “In fact, the Emperor is rumored to be drawing up legislation governing the use of enchanted carriages, requiring one to pass tests and obtain a license to drive.”

“That sounds like an entirely superfluous administrative burden,” Layla sniffed.

Beyond the bridge was another walled and gated town guarding the approach to Tiraas, and beyond that, the Imperial highway extending forward into snowy darkness. The road forked just beyond the outer gates, heading westward toward Viridill and north to Madouris. The provincial capital was a proverbial stone’s throw from Tiraas itself; each city was visible from atop the other’s walls. From the ground, however, in the dark and in the snow, with a stretch of forest bracketing the road ahead, there was no evidence of civilization once the outlying farms and shops petered off into the dimness.

Both carriages accelerated as they eased past the last fairy lamps into the tree-lined woods, trusting their wheel enchantments to keep them grounded. A few ruts had been carved through the white blanket ahead by other vehicles, but no effort had yet been made to clear the road, and they threw up sprays of snow to both sides as they went.

Behind them, there were now three carriages pursuing. Two were cheap Dawnco sedans of the type which had intercepted them in the city, while another stood taller and more squared in shape; it was hard to tell from ahead, with its lamps shining directly in the eyes of anyone looking back, but it appeared to be a delivery truck.

“I really hope your other allies got themselves into position,” Layla said tersely. “Otherwise our evening is going to be rather more brief than we had hoped.”

“They wouldn’t let me down,” Jasmine murmured, her eyes glued to the pursuing vehicles. “Any of them. They know where to go. We just have to hold long enough to get there.”

Suddenly the lights grew brighter. The two sedans separated to both sides and sped up to a truly reckless velocity, clearly moving forward in an attempt to flank the Eserite convoy, while the truck kept its position at the rear.

Rasha grunted, lifting one of the gold-wrapped disruptors. “And here they come.”

“Well, they have us outnumbered and alone, with no witnesses or support,” Glory said calmly, settling back into her seat, her calm smile illuminated by the flash of hostile carriage lamps accelerating forward. “Those poor bastards.”

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11 – 37

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Everyone drifted off into groups when Glory excused herself from the room, but no one felt a desire to wander far. With the exception of Vandro, who swaggered off to prowl around the townhouse, they remained in the grand salon on the top floor. Thus, when the house’s doorbell rang, it was the work of only moments for all present guests to assemble themselves. By unspoken consensus, they did so there in the salon, not moving to meet the new arrival in the front hall.

Glory herself had just rejoined them when, with customarily preternatural timing, Smythe appeared to announce their newest visitor.

“Rumor, bearing word from Boss Tricks,” he said impassively.

She very nearly pushed him aside, striding into the room and irritably brushing snowflakes out of her mussed hair. “Yeah, yeah, I feel so pretty. How about something hot to—oh, thank fuck, here you assholes are. Now I can stop rolling around in the goddamn snow.”

“Uh…what?” Ross asked intelligently.

“Boss is looking for you,” Casethin replied, panning a disgruntled stare across them. “One, two… You’re missing one.”

“Jasmine is fine; she’s here as well,” Glory said smoothly. “Smythe, something warm for our guest to drink, please. You have news, Rumor?”

“And you’re looking for us?” Tallie asked, nonplussed.

“Okay, first things first, chronologically speaking,” Casethin said irritably. “I got back to the Guild just fine with word. The dwarf was telling the truth; they had Pick in their fucking basement.”

“Is he all right?” Grip asked quietly, without expression.

“Hadn’t been roughed up,” Rumor snorted. “Fucking dwarves. Too civilized for such brutish measures, puffed-up assholes. He’s been drugged to hell, though; was practically incoherent. No way of telling what they got out of him, but Vanda and the Boss both think it can’t have been much, or they wouldn’t have been chasing these little bastards as stubbornly as they were. Anyhow, Pick’s secured in one of Vanda’s safe houses, being tended by the best healer she could scrape up. He seems fairly okay; they’re not sure what he got dosed with exactly, but practically anything’ll wear off given time. Too risky out there to try getting him back to the Casino, though, so he’s stuck with our back-alley shaman, but Zephyr knows what he’s doing.”

“Why?” Glory asked. “What’s happening?”

“Will you let me talk?” Casethin retorted with poor grace, even as she accepted a mug of something steaming from a tray proffered by Smythe. “Seriously, I’ll go over everything. This is what I do, lemme work.” She paused to take a sip, then grimaced and turned accusingly to Smythe. “There is no booze in this. What’s wrong with you?”

“Rumor,” Glory said sharply.

“Yeah, all right, fine. I got past a hilariously ineffective attempt to trip me up by what’s left of that dwarven intelligence cell, made it to the Guild and reported in to the Boss. So he’s up to speed. I’m here because he sent me out to locate these junior fuckups,” she pointed accusingly at the knot of apprentices, “and bring them and everybody else on the list into the know. This was the fourth place. Your house was empty,” she added to Vandro, “and I’ve gotta say I’m surprised to find you here of all places, but now that I think of it, I don’t actually care what you’re up to, so kindly don’t explain.”

“How does the Boss have a list of places we might possibly be?” Darius asked, frowning.

“Because,” said Grip, “before I set out after you, we established that list; considering the situation, it seemed wise to have prearranged safe spots to bring you in case we couldn’t get back to the Guild.”

“What, you’re surprised?” Rumor grinned nastily. “You thought little ol’ Grip came to rescue you outta the goodness of her heart? Breaking news: she’s got neither goodness nor heart, and she’s so far up the Boss’s ass—”

“Is there anything else?” Glory asked pointedly.

“Yeah, there is.” Rumor’s expression sobered. “We’ve got dwarven activity out there. Lots of it, widespread.”

“Activity, hm?” Vandro swirled his whiskey glass idly. He was either on another or had just never finished the first. “What sort?”

“We don’t know, and that’s put everything on hold.” Rumor took another long sip of her drink, then stalked over to the nearest chair and plunked herself down with a wince. “Oof, my poor fucking feet… Okay, so obviously, once it got back to the Boss that these fuckers had imprisoned and drugged a member of the Guild, open season was declared upon them. That’s one of the things I’m to spread around; we’re mustering. Every Guild agent in the city who’s able and inclined is to assemble at the Casino for orders, preparatory to ending these assholes for good and all.”

“For heaven’s sake,” Layla sniffed, “why did it take this long? If foreign agents were pursuing his apprentices, I should think the first hint of that was the appropriate time for a preventive show of force.”

“Who the shit is this?” Casethin demanded.

“No one,” Darius said firmly, placing a hand over Layla’s mouth when she opened it to protest.

“Allow me to answer the question, little lady,” Vandro chimed in. “We’re not the Sisterhood, or the Huntsmen; the Boss is basically a glorified housekeeper, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Eserites don’t fall in and march at anyone’s order. But when our own are attacked? That’s another matter.”

“The last time something like this happened was a year ago,” Glory added, “almost exactly. Three Army officers dragged one of our information brokers into an alley and beat her. Every Guild agent in the city mobilized to essentially shut down that entire barracks. Much as we prize our independence, we do not suffer entrenched powers to abuse our people.”

“Uh huh, that’s very nice with the history and doctrine and all,” Casethin said impatiently (despite having taken the opportunity of their conversation to finish her drink), “but I have actually important news. These dwarves have been mobilizing at the same time as we are, which is why Boss’s current orders are to assemble at the Casino and not engage ’em.”

“Wait, mobilizing who?” Rasha asked. “I thought you guys said they couldn’t have many people left.”

“That was Jasmine’s assessment, and it was solid logic,” said Tallie. “It’s not like we know, though. Yeah, mobilizing, who, exactly?”

“Dunno,” Rumor said, frowning, “but lots. We got dwarves crawling out of the fuckin’ woodwork all of a sudden. When I left the Casino—and this was a couple hours back, so no telling what’s going on now—there were three entire carriage-loads of armed dwarves appearing via the city gates, the Svenheim embassy just went on some kind of alert with armed guards at all entrances, and suddenly dwarves have been appearing, just, everywhere. In groups, lots with weapons. Least fifty, that we knew of last I was in the loop.”

“The timing doesn’t work,” Grip said sharply. “If you went right from Glass Alley to the Casino, and then set off to search for us, how the hell do you already have this much detail?”

“Yeah, that’s the scary part,” Rumor said with a grim scowl. “They are very deliberately making it known what they’re doing. These armed groups? They’re popping up in front of known Guild facilities, or at least the homes and workplaces of members. They’re showing us they’ve got numbers and mean business.”

“How can they possibly have that many people ready to mobilize in Tiraas?” Darius exclaimed. “I thought intelligence cells had to be small!”

“Dwarves do not have the same relationship to their government that we do,” Glory mused. “Some may just be travelers and tradespeople who happened to be in the city and answered a call put out in the name of their king. Then, again, at least some were undoubtedly sleeper agents. Every government has at least a handful of those in every foreign capital, at least any large enough to afford it. Or perhaps Svenheim had people in Tiraas for another purpose, and the operatives with whom you’ve been dealing were able to activate them..”

“Doesn’t really matter, in the short term,” Rumor grunted. “They’re out there, armed, and in enough numbers that us crackin’ down on ’em wouldn’t be a crackdown so much as a goddamn battle. Boss is sending people to watch ’em, but orders are it’s to be strictly hands off for now.”

“Hmm.” Vandro sipped his drink. “I have to hand it to the bastards, that is a good play. Have you seen any reaction from the Empire yet?”

“Not when I left,” Casethin said with a shrug and a grimace. “There damn well has to have been one by now, though. There’s no way Imperial Intelligence would fail to notice this going on.”

“And that enforces a detente,” said Glory, nodding. “With the dwarves and the Guild both arming up and the nature of the situation obscured, whoever shoots first will be the recipient of the Empire’s full wrath. Most long-lasting governments treat the Guild with a modicum of respect, but no legal authority will tolerate anything that resembles an insurgency flaring up in its own capital. However, it also starts the clock ticking. It won’t take Intelligence long to get enough details to step in, one way or the other. Whatever they mean to do, they’ll do soon.”

“Damn good play,” Vandro said admiringly.

“This is insanity!” Layla protested. “The Kingdom of Svenheim is not in such a secure situation that they can afford to do this. It’s potentially an act of war, and the Empire would decisively crush any of the Five Kingdoms!”

“The Empire could decisively crush all five together in open war,” Glory corrected, “though actually invading and occupying dwarven territory is tremendously unwise. That may be beside the point, however. I cannot believe the matter of these staves is important enough to Svenheim to risk war. Without doubt, every dwarf responding to this call will have some kind of deniability. The Empire may well know that they were involved in organizing it, but so long as none of these individuals are provably in the pay of their crown and their actions do not cross certain lines, Sharidan and Eleanora won’t react with excessive hostility. They do risk severely undermining the very important trade negotiations going on, however.” She narrowed her eyes in thought. “It doesn’t add up. Why is this so important to them? And if it is, why are they only acting in such force now?”

“Yeah, well, this part’s over my head,” Rumor grunted, getting up and casually tossing the empty mug to Smythe. “I gotta report back to the Boss now I know where you are. And then I’ll probably end up trudging through the goddamn snow all night carrying messages…”

“What about Pick?” Ross asked. “I mean, and Ironeye and the others? If the dwarves are arming up, aren’t they in danger?”

Rumor snorted derisively, already stomping toward the door. “Safer’n any of us. Glass Alley is a killing ground for anybody who takes Vanda on in force. I think these fuckers are too smart to try, but if they do…good.”

Smythe gave Glory a pointed look as he followed her out, prompting her to sigh.

“Well…what now?” Darius asked once they had left the room. “We can’t just sit here!”

“Oh, we’re gonna sit here, all right,” said Vandro. “This is no time to go charging out into the snow. But you’re right, son, we can’t just sit here. The trick is making the right preparations when we don’t know what the enemy intends.”

“No armed dwarves have appeared in this neighborhood, in force or otherwise,” Glory mused. “The constabulary would respond immediately to that, and I am not the only local resident with security wards which would detect such activity. We are, for the moment, as tentatively safe as before we knew of this.”

“Nambini at Traisis Ford.”

Rasha started at the sudden voice, and everyone turned to stare at Jasmine, who was just inside the salon’s rear door, leaning her back against its frame, arms folded. She had been inside long enough that the snow had melted from her hair, though there were still visibly wet patches on the shoulders of her coat.

“Wh—how long have you been there?” Darius demanded. “And what the hell was that jibberish?”

“Long enough to catch the high notes,” she said. “And it was an example.”

“Hmm,” Glory said, a slow smile creeping across her face. “Interesting idea, Jasmine.”

“What idea?” Tallie exclaimed.

“Honestly,” Layla huffed, “didn’t any of you go to school?”

“Darius, I’m gonna punch her,” Tallie announced.

“No, you’re not,” he said firmly, then turned to point at Ralph, who had abruptly jumped up from his seat near the window and taken a step toward them. “No, she’s not! Sit down!”

“During the conquest of the Stalrange,” said Jasmine, “most of the Empire’s military was obviously there. At one point a pocket of Stalweiss guerrillas took to summoning demons behind Imperial lines to disrupt the Army, which caused two Silver Legions to be routed there as support. A single half-strength Legion was left behind to patrol Viridill. At that time, three orcish clans formed a horde pact and crossed the river from Athan’Khar. With Viridill mostly undefended, the Legionnaires under the command of a then Hand of Avei, Nambini Onpomba, retreated to Vrin Shai, gathering up civilians as they went.”

“That’s fascinating,” Tallie said with heavy sarcasm, “but what the hell—”

“Shh,” said Rasha, poking her shoulder. “Jasmine doesn’t talk without a point.”

“I think I see where this is headin’,” Vandro added, grinning. “Go on, girl.”

Jasmine glanced at him expressionlessly, but continued. “The defenders were safe in Vrin Shai, which is virtually impervious to siege, but hiding behind its walls allowed the orcs free reign across the province. So Nambini tricked them. She led a force disguised as feeling refugees out of the city by cover of night, pretended to be accidentally spotted, and fled to the ford at Traisis, where she had sent actually discreet forces to prepare an ambush. The orcs had the superior numbers, but they were baited into a trap and routed. Nambini sacrificed a safe position in order to destroy what should have been a superior enemy on ground of her own choosing.”

“Okaaay,” said Darius, nodding. “I get the point of your enigmatic pronouncement now, and quite frankly, neither the mystery routine nor the history lesson were necessary. I take it you’ve got a slightly more detailed plan than that?”

Jasmine frowned, shifting her focus to the senior Guild members in the room. “How possible is it to move discreetly around the city with all this going on?”

“Extremely,” Grip said immediately. “One or two people can evade notice easily, assuming a modicum of competence. Best way would be to take the sewers. I assume Glory has a sewer access on the premises; every Guild agent with an actual house does.”

“I most certainly do,” Glory added with a smile, “and I appreciate your discretion, Quintessa, but I am also aware that you know where it is.”

“We’re kinda known for using sewers, aren’t we?” Ross asked. “I mean, ‘we’ being Eserites. Won’t they be expecting that?”

Grip smiled unpleasantly. “I’ll come along to guide you, Jasmine. If the dwarves manage an ambush, it’ll be us, in the sewers, with no witnesses. I am pretty sure we can make that work to our benefit. What’s your plan?”

Jasmine nodded and straightened. “Everyone please make preparations to move out as a group. I have a strategy in mind, but I need to go set the trap before we can bait and spring it.”

“Uh, that doesn’t really answer the question,” Darius pointed out. “What is the plan? I mean, didn’t we just hear about how letting this come to a fight isn’t a winning move right now? And here you are talking military strategy…”

Jasmine smiled faintly. “War is deception. We need to think like Eserites; think of it not as a battle, but…”

“A con,” said Vandro, nodding. “And you’re right, kiddo. A good general is the best con artist of all.”

“Where to?” Grip asked, unfolding herself from her chair. “Gonna gather up your buddy Schwartz?”

“I don’t think we’ll have time, much as I’m worried about him,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I really hope he’s safely in the Collegium… But no. We make for the Temple of Avei. Lead the way, Grip.”


“I’ve been in there for hours!” Schwartz hissed as Principia practically shoved him out of the waiting chamber and into the hall, Meesie squeaking a counterpoint to his indignation from atop his head. “Where in the Dark Lady’s name have you been? Didn’t my message express how urgent this is?!”

“Shh,” she said sharply, pushing the door shut. “I’m sorry, Herschel, I only just found out. And you are very lucky I did; believe me, it is not standard practice to hold people against their will when they come warning the Legion of…well, anything. Bishop Syrinx appears to have set preparations to keep you on ice if you came looking for me. I barely got here ahead of her; I really don’t want to think about what would have happened had she managed to corner you in that waiting room with nobody in the know.”

“Those soldiers were just doing their duty,” Ephanie said as she and the three other members of Squad One present fell in behind Principia, who was hurrying Schwartz down the hall. “Covrin aside, she doesn’t bother to personally recruit privates; they’d have known, and been able to tell the chain of command you were here. I doubt she’d have done any significant harm.”

“I make no assumptions and take no risks with regard to that woman,” Principia said darkly.

“You didn’t get any message, did you,” Schwartz said sourly.

“Not yours,” she replied, steering him down a side hall. “I just got word from a friend that you were here.”

“Who?”

She glanced at him sidelong with a faint smile. “Someone who knew you’d come here, knew there was a trap set, and was in a position to both warn me and distract Basra long enough for me to reach you first.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding, “I’m glad Jenoof!”

Principia had jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. “Shut up, boy! No names, respect her cover. Basra is undoubtedly on her way right now.”

“That’s correct,” said a new voice. Nandi Shahai appeared from a side door, beckoning them forward. “And it’s a good thing I was keeping an ear out. We have minutes, Sergeant, maybe seconds.”

Principia glanced rapidly up and down the hall, then said curtly, “In here. What’d you hear?” she asked Shahai as she ushered Schwartz through the door. It led to a conference room of sorts, mostly open in plan but with chairs lining the walls and a blackboard at one of the narrow ends.

“Covrin kept Basra away as long as she could,” Shahai said very softly as the rest of Squad One filed in and fell into a defensive formation around Schwartz and Principia. “Then, in order to avoid blowing her cover and affirm her support, she had to reveal to Basra not only that Schwartz was here, but that you had found him and were taking him away. Both are en route.”

“Ugh, this fucks everything up,” Principia growled, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I had a strategy in place, which is now out the window; confronting her this early will put us right back at square one.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Schwartz said testily, “but none of this was my idea.”

“Not your fault,” Principia assured him, patting his arm. “You did the right thing, Herschel, coming here. And you’re right, if the dwarves are getting this pushy, we need to get word to the apprentices. I just hope you haven’t been delayed too long; if they’re safe in the Casino, good, but the Guild doesn’t like to keep its younglings cooped up. This is important; Basra Syrinx is a nuisance and a distraction, that’s all. I’ll figure out something else to deal with her when I have time to worry about it.”

“Isn’t that good to know,” Basra herself said brightly, striding into the room with Jenell hovering behind her. “Since I’m well aware that you could hear me coming, shall I interpret this as a threat?”

“Much as I enjoy our little dances, your Grace, I’m afraid I don’t have time,” Principia said with a polite smile. “I’ve just received word that our allies in the Guild may be in immediate danger. If you will excuse us…”

“Ah, yes. Hello, Mr. Schwartz.” The Bishop turned her pleasant expression on him, smirking faintly when Meesie chattered a warning and put off a tiny puff of sparks. “How lovely to see you again. Well! Since we are all here and I have, after all, been assigned to this same project, shall we go?”

“Who says you’re coming?” Schwartz snapped, glaring daggers at her.

“I actually can answer that,” Basra mused, “acting as I am on orders from the High Commander, but your question is avoiding the real issue, which is your apparent belief that you get a say in anything I do.” She smiled more widely, showing the tips of her teeth. “Or, for that matter, in anything that goes on in my presence. I had thought I made myself abundantly clear on this issue when we last spoke, but as it seems you are determined to tweak my nose, let me just remind you…” Her smile hardened, and suddenly there was something subtly wild in the set of her eyes. “You are not always going to have Locke’s skirts to hide behind, boy. Your ineptitude and irrelevance is your saving grace. Should you actually succeed, somehow, in irritating me—”

“Touch him and I’ll kill you.”

Total silence fell.

“I’m sorry, Sergeant,” Basra said silkily after a moment, “I don’t think I heard you correctly.”

“You heard me just fine,” Principia stated. The rest of her squad were staring at her with wide eyes, as was Jenell. The exception being Shahai, who merely tilted her head inquisitively. “You’ve been looking for a way to actually hurt me, which you didn’t have before. Well, you found one. Herschel is the child of an old friend and I care about him. Therefore, let me make this explicitly plain: harm him, and I will immediately end your life.”

“Oh, my dear Sergeant Locke,” Basra said, grinning outright. “You needn’t go and make this so easy for me. I was just beginning to enjoy the game.”

“I’ve explained this to you once, Basra. You may not recall; you were rather distracted by being humiliated and exiled that evening.” Principia grinned right back, just as nastily. “This is only a game because I am choosing, for reasons of my own, to play by the Sisterhood’s rules. You are in no way prepared to contend with me if I decide to throw everything to the wind and simply remove you. Push me hard enough that I’m willing to abandon my squad and the Legions, and you’ll be dead within a fortnight. Not immediately, because I’ll need to make certain preparations. You don’t deserve to go quickly or quietly.”

“Locke,” Basra said sibilantly, sliding her sword six inches out of its sheath, “I could spend the evening reciting all the things far deadlier than you which have tried to kill me, and which are now dead. Just in the last year; those have been the best ones, and every one of them frightened me more than you do—which is to say, not in the least little bit. If you want to stop playing politely, by all means, give me the excuse—”

“Unbelievable.”

Everyone in the room shifted to stare at the door, in which had appeared Jasmine, scowling in fury. A blonde woman in dark clothes was standing at her shoulder, one eyebrow raised sardonically.

“Here I thought I was fortunate,” Jasmine growled, stalking into the room, “to find two privates who just happened to know where the very people I wanted were. But I get here, and what do I find? Two grown, apparently intelligent, allegedly competent women, loudly indulging in a feud, in front of a Salyrite and their own troops…” She kicked the door shut, barely giving Grip a chance to make it inside. “With the door open, you unbelievable ninnies!”

“Excuse me,” Merry said sharply, “but just what do you think—”

“Lang, shush,” Casey hissed, nudging her with an elbow.

“Excuse you,” Merry snapped, but subsided at a glare from Ephanie.

Basra cleared her throat. “Allow me to—”

“Silence!” Jasmine didn’t even look at her, taking two long strides toward Principia. “Lives are at stake. We have a duty to attend to. I will not have this, do you both understand? If you two are so determined to be up each other’s butts, I promise you in a completely non-metaphorical sense, I CAN MAKE THAT HAPPEN.” She stopped barely a foot from the sergeant, staring her down. “I realize that Commander Rouvad and your captain both indulge your antics to a point because of your usefulness, Sergeant Locke. I am not them. So long as you wear that uniform, you will conduct yourself in a manner which brings nothing but honor and dignity to it. That is the end of the subject. I will not have to speak of this to you again. Understood?”

Principia cleared her throat. “There are—”

She fell instantly silent when Jasmine took another step forward, glaring at her from inches away, now.

“There is exactly one acceptable response from you,” she said in deadly quiet.

“…yes, ma’am.”

“And that will be the entirety of your vocabulary in my presence for the forseeable future, unless you have an unassailable reason otherwise. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Who the hell is this kid?” Merry demanded. Despite her furious expression, she didn’t dare raise her voice above a stage whisper.

“Shut your yap!” Casey hissed back.

“All yaps shut!” Ephanie snapped.

“And as for you, Syrinx.” Jasmine turned to the Bishop, her expression not lightening in the slightest. “I’ve spoken with the High Commander about you at some length.”

“Oh, have you now,” Basra said impassively.

“Your issues,” Jasmine stated, “are not my responsibility. You are not under my command. I can’t give you orders, as you well know. So let me be plain: in no way does that mean you don’t need to concern yourself with me.”

The room lit up with a golden glow of such intensity that most of them had to avert their eyes. The eagle wings which spread from behind Jasmine barely had space to extend themselves.

“Ohhh,” Merry whispered. “Kay, I’m up to speed.”

Schwartz’s jaw dropped.

“You know where the lines are drawn, Syrinx,” Trissiny said, holding the Bishop’s gaze. “Cross them again, and it’s not going to matter how good you are with that sword. Put it back in the sheath.”

After a moment of silence so complete that the faintest chiming of the paladin’s aura could be detected at the very edge of hearing, Basra obeyed.

“And unless you want to learn whether you can outsmart a spear of divine light through your heart, you will henceforth behave yourself no less assiduously than Locke. Have I made myself plain?”

After another beat, Basra incongruously smiled. “Admirably so, General.”

“Fine.” The golden light suddenly winked out, leaving them blinking, and she turned her back on the Bishop and the Sergeant. “Schwartz, I’m really glad to see you’re safe. We were all worried.”

“Aiee,” he squeaked.

Trissiny grimaced. “And…I would appreciate it if you’d keep all of this to yourself.”

“I, um, of course!” He swallowed heavily. “I mean, though, wow, I never… That is, uh, mum’s the word.”

Meesie chirped smugly.

“For the rest of you,” Ephanie added, looking pointedly at Merry and Casey, “that is an order.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the entire rest of the squad chorused, with the exception of Principia, whose face was uncharacteristically devoid of expression.

Trissiny shook her head. “With that out of the way, I came here for a reason. Sergeant Locke, I am activating your squad. I will need you formed up and on the march as quickly as possible. Most of you, that is; designate your most best runner to send a message across the city. There are more reinforcements I need gathered.”

“That’s not necessary,” Basra said smoothly. “Squad One function splendidly at a unit, and are already under strength without being split up. I can fetch whoever else you need, General Avelea.”

Trissiny turned to give her a long, careful look.

“If you’re concerned about my response to being badgered and threatened, good,” Basra continued without apparent rancor. “That’s something you should consider before risking throwing away an ally in the future.”

“Do you really think,” Trissiny said flatly, “after what I just walked in on, you are in a position to lecture me?”

“I am correcting you,” Basra replied, “because I consider you the most promising paladin we have had in the last thousand years. Not one of your predecessors would even have thought to seek out the expanded skill set and mindset you are. But sooner rather than later, you’re going to find yourself dealing with someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and then slip-ups like that will cost you. For now,” she nodded deeply, nearly a bow, “how can I help?”

“Oh, please,” Grip said, dripping scorn. “Tell me you’re not buying that load of crap.”

“Grip,” Trissiny said, turning slowly to face her, “we are standing in the Temple of Avei. I can throw you in a cell just for what I’ve seen you do tonight. And that’s only talking legally; physically, I can throw you anywhere I want. Shut. Up.”

Grip, for some reason, grinned in evident delight, but said nothing in response.

“All right, as for the rest of you.” Trissiny turned back to face the soldiers, the Bishop, and Schwartz. “Here are your orders.”

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11 – 34

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The grand upper room of Glory’s house was meant to hold much larger groups, but with all of them gathered the place seemed very much alive even despite the gloom and snow displayed by its large windows. Layla had immediately latched onto her brother, while refusing to express anything but annoyance toward him, which he bore with practiced good humor. Glory had arrived shortly after Smythe seated them in a circle of chairs and sofas around a low table and provided refreshments to take the chill off; by the time she joined them, they were all working on hot cider (and in Vandro’s case, brandy). Layla’s retinue was present as well, though keeping themselves on the periphery as well-trained servants of the nobility naturally did. Ralph seemed quite content to hover in the background, though her footman, Talvers, appeared frustrated by the lack of anything for him to do with two preternaturally efficient Butlers looking after the group.

“So for the time being,” Vandro said following his and Grip’s recitation of the day’s events for their hostess’s benefit, “it comes down to how defensible your home is. And my apologies, by the way, for droppin’ this flaming bag on your doorstep, Glory.”

“No apologies,” she demurred, shaking her head. “We’re protecting apprentices and bringing down predators. No Guild member worth a damn should have to think twice about helping, here.”

“Well said!” Vandro proclaimed, toasting her with his glass.

“To answer the question,” Glory continued, “considering who I host here on a regular basis, this house may well have better protections than the manors of many aristocrats. It matters how desperate they are, however. My defenses are geared toward repelling discreet intrusions, not full-scale assaults.”

“They are desperate,” Grip noted, “and clearly able to enact good plans on the fly. These are professionals. We are not out of the woods yet, not until Style’s street soldiers are hounding them out of the city.”

“Uh, question?” Tallie raised her hand. “What defenses are these, and how are they different from the, uh, full assault type?”

“Well, it’s a matter of defensive philosophy,” Glory said with a vlpine smile. “If one fears organized attack, the enchantments used can be likened to a castle’s walls: designed to prevent anyone from entering uninvited. If one fears spies and assassins rather than armies, however, one tends to favor measures that make an intruder’s life hellish and brief once they are inside.”

“Are you telling us,” Darius said resignedly, “this whole place is booby-trapped?”

“Nothing so gauche,” Glory replied. “I do have basic external defenses using the standard arcane enchantments, but my home also employs fae craft to repel those who enter with hostile intent.”

“Mm,” Jasmine murmured, staring across the room at the fireplace. The hall was heated by arcane ranges, but the fire made an excellent focal point of the décor. “Good… Arcane enchantment is standardized and can be worked around, but fae measures are highly individual. It’s nearly impossible to guess what one is going up against when encountering fairy craft. The problem, there,” she added, turning to Glory, “is that a lot of dwarves can use divine magic without needing to be clerics. That will neutralize fae.”

“And arcane neutralizes divine,” Glory said calmly. “Believe me, Jasmine, I considered all relevant angles when commissioning my magical defenses.”

“So we’re safe, then?” Rasha asked, entering the room.

“Hey, man!” Darius called, grinning and waving. “You look worlds better. How you feeling?”

“Better, yes,” Rasha replied, giving him a tight little smile and sliding onto the loveseat next to Tallie. “I’m not going to be good until this is over, though.”

“Hear that,” Ross muttered.

“And no,” Grip said coldly. “All safety is an illusion.”

“I have it on good authority,” Vandro said with a grin, “that our girl Tessa was very nearly tagged Sunshine instead of Grip.”

“You should consider, Alan, how I’m going to deal with you after we’re not back-to-back against an enemy before you open your mouth at me.” The enforcer shifted her sharp gaze back to Rasha. “I repeat, we are dealing with adaptive, competent people in unknown numbers, with unknown resources. We will not become complacent.”

“However,” Vandro said in a more serious tone, “whether they physically can invade the house may not be the question; I don’t think they’ll try. Too risky and expensive. Supposing they countered whatever witchcraft is protecting this place and got in—then they’d be in the position of endangering someone with multiple friends in the highest levels of Imperial society, not to mention being in an enclosed space with two Butlers and Grip. Plus, y’know, the rest of us small fry. No, that’s not a winning move for them. Grip’s right, though, these bastards aren’t done and don’t seem the type to take defeat lying down. We should be prepared for something a little more…lateral.”

“Agreed,” Glory said, nodding. “But for the moment, there is little we can do but wait. As we are presently confined to a residence which, if I may flatter myself, sets the standard of comfort and pleasure among Tiraan households, I suggest everyone take full advantage and rest. Relax, enjoy yourselves as best you are able! My home is yours and you may avail yourselves of any amenities I have to offer. It may sound shallow, under the circumstances, but having a moment to catch one’s breat can make all the difference at times like these.”

“Truly,” Vandro said solemnly but with a twinkle in his eye, “you are a queen among hostesses, Tamisin.”

“What’d you do to your hair?” Tallie asked, patting Rasha’s head. “This looks awesome!”

“T-thanks,” he stuttered, flushing. “Um, Glory gave me… A little help.”

“We can all do with a little from time to time,” Glory said, smiling.

“You do look nice,” Jasmine agreed with a smile. “Glory… Ah, do you have a garden or anything?”

“Of course,” Glory replied, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “A walled courtyard garden, to be precise. Why do you ask?”

Jasmine cleared her throat, her expression suddenly pensive and slightly uncomfortable. “I wonder… Well, first of all, I assume it’s defensible?”

“As the rest of the house,” Glory assured her. “All the requisite charms on the walls, and all applicable magical measures extend over the whole property.”

Jasmine nodded. “If it isn’t too much trouble, could I have some privacy there for a little while?”

“Of course,” Glory said, smiling again. “As I said, my home is yours.”

“You think it wise to go outside at a time like this?” Layla asked pointedly. “Defenses or no, we are rather under siege, are we not? Or have I misunderstood the situation?”

“Yeah, maybe people shouldn’t be going off alone for any reason,” Darius agreed, frowning.

Grip cleared her throat pointedly. “How important is this, Jasmine?”

“To me?” Jasmine met her stare unhesitatingly. “Quite. Consider it…a religious matter.”

“Ah, yes, our Avenist Eserite,” Tallie said airily, “daughter of the Eserite Avenist. I didn’t realize Sisters had to go outside to pray.”

“People in pursuit of a spiritual path generally seek privacy for such things as prayer,” Glory said smoothly, “and the courtyard is as safe as the rest of the property, from anything except frostbite. I will insist you take a fresh heating charm, Jasmine, in case yours wears out. If it’s not prying, how long do you expect to be?”

“I’m not… Well, not a moment longer than necessary.” Jasmine frowned into the fire again. “There’s just something I need to…straighten out.”

“Well, now, hang on a sec,” Tallie said, her eyes narrowing as she turned them on Vandro. “Before you go off to hide in the corner, we have other business we were going to see to, remember? Like this asshole and just where the hell he gets off planting trackers on us.”

“The girl has a point,” Vandro said easily, swirling his drink with one hand. “You may not want to miss this! Sounds like it’ll be quite a party.”

“Mm.” Jasmine gave him a considering look. “You know, Tallie, if a coyote kills your chickens, you shoot it. Blaming it for doing what coyotes do is pointless, and a more relevant question is who left the chicken coop unlatched.”

“Ah, what a delightfully rustic metaphor,” Layla said, showing teeth in a smile that went nowhere near her eyes. “That should aid her comprehension considerably.”

“Let me just jump in here,” Darius said grimly. “There is not going to be a feud between you two; nobody has time or energy for that crap. If I have to enforce this by knocking your heads together, so be it.”

“I see that you have entirely taken leave of your already basic social skills,” Layla sniffed. Tallie just rolled her eyes.

“My point,” Jasmine said patiently, “is that Vandro hasn’t harmed us, and in fact these measures enabled him to come to our aid. And he didn’t plant anything on us; we accepted free gifts from someone we were repeatedly warned is a manipulator. Perhaps we’re not in a position to point fingers.”

“You are half right,” said Grip. “Hold other people responsible for the shit they pull, Jasmine. But definitely own your mistakes and don’t repeat them.”

“Yes, indeed,” Vandro said cheerily. “You’ve got a sharp little head on you, my girl! I can see why Glory found you so interesting.”

Jasmine gave him an exceedingly cool look. He winked at her.

“I’m still pissed at you,” Tallie informed him, scowling.

“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “Be pissed when you’ve been played. Make sure you channel that into doing better next time, or it’s so much wasted energy. The three of us,” he gesticulated broadly at Grip and Glory with his brandy, “may seem all wise and awesome, which we are, but we got that way through a long process of fucking up and learning from our mistakes. And that’s after getting fully trained and tagged.”

“The wise mentor thing looks better on Glory than on you,” Rasha commented, gazing flatly at Vandro and earning a grin from Tallie.

“Son, nothing looks good on me,” Vandro said genially. “It’s one of those things you just have to accept when you reach a certain span of years.”

Jasmine cleared her throat, turning back to Glory. “Anyway. Which direction…”

“Smythe,” their hostess said smoothly, “please show Jasmine to the solarium and the courtyard access. And make sure she has a new warming charm.”

“Of course, madam,” the Butler replied; he was already standing right there with Jasmine’s coat. “If you will follow me, Ms. Jasmine?”

“Thank you, Smythe,” she said, nodding to the others and shrugging into her coat. “And, ah, just Jas is fine.”

“As you say, Ms. Jasmine.”

Vandro chuckled at their retreating backs, then turned to grin at Wilberforce. “I don’t recall you ever being that stuffy.”

“Rest assured, sir,” Wilberforce replied with perfect aplomb, “I shall remain faithfully at your side no matter how your memory degrades.”

Vandro laughed so hard he slumped sideways into Ross, somehow without spilling his drink. Ross bore this with visible discomfort, and only slightly more than everyone else present.


The snow was several inches thick, now, and doing an aesthetic favor to Glory’s garden; mild as the winter had been before today, it was still winter, and with the exception of two small evergreen conifers, nearly all the decorative plants here were dead or dormant. Now, under a pristine blanket of snow, everything looked fresh and clean. The courtyard was not overly large, but spacious enough to accommodate groups comfortably; Jasmine wandered to an open spot in the center, surrounded by bare-limbed bushes, and found that the space felt more than expansive even in comparison to the large upper salon in which the others were still talking.

She turned in a complete circle, studying the high walls surrounding the courtyard. On one side was the driveway leading from the street to the carriage house in the back; the opposite wall was shared by the neighbor’s garden, and of course the house stood in front. The walls themselves were nearly two stories tall and lined with spiked iron fences on top. It was a classic Tiraan garden, designed for privacy above all.

With a soft sigh, she reached into her coat, carefully unlatched one of her belt pouches, and extracted the little wooden ocarina.

The instruments were every bit as ubiquitous and simple as the elf had told her in the forest above Veilgrad, once she knew to look for them. She had found one easily in one of the shops in Last Rock, and hadn’t even needed to get lessons from Teal to play it; a few minutes of messing around were enough to grasp the basics. She had used the cheap clay ocarina to practice the lullaby, but since getting that down had now and again found time to hone her musical skills (such as they were) with other tunes she knew. For that, she preferred to use the carved wooden one Kuriwa had given her. In fact, she wasn’t exactly sure where the other was. Probably back in Clarke Tower.

She lifted the ocarina to her lips and very softly began to play the old melody.

Thanks to her warming charm, her face and hands were not growing numb, though she was still noticeably cool. Still, the discomfort faded in concentration. She’d never been a particularly musical person, but found the act of making music to be like combat, in some ways. It carried her away to a space of clarity and focus. At least, now that she had enough basic practice not to be utterly awful at it. She still wouldn’t have performed in front of others, but found her own playing good enough, now, to be pleasing to her, the occasional flubbed note and all.

But the song ended, and nothing happened. She lowered the ocarina, frowning at it in contemplation. Maybe a few missed notes did matter? She didn’t have a deep understanding of fae magic, which was what this had to be. Nobody truly understood fae magic itself, even those who practiced it. By its very nature, it was the hardest of the four schools to pin down. Jasmine sighed softly and lifted the instrument to her lips again. May as well try once more before giving up.

“If I have to visit this city, I quite prefer it this way. Snow is good for covering the sins of civilization.”

Jasmine whirled—of course the woman had appeared behind her. Heaven forbid she get a look at how she did it. Elves.

Kuriwa, looking perfectly at ease in her dyed buckskins despite the snow already accumulating in her black hair, was peering around inquisitively at the garden, but quickly focused her attention on Jasmine. “Are you in danger?”

“No. Well, actually, yes, but that’s—it’s complicated. That’s not why I wanted to speak with you. I hope you weren’t in the middle of something important?”

“I am in the middle of many things,” Kuriwa said with a mysterious little smile, “and at the beginnings and ends of others. I consider nothing currently going on to be more important than family. I am very glad to see you again, Trissiny. That hair dye doesn’t suit you, though.”

“Jasmine,” she said quickly. The shaman raised an eyebrow. “I am…well, playing a role. I prefer not to use any name but my cover for the time being.”

“Jasmine, then,” the elf said, nodding and showing no hint of surprise. “How can I help you?”

She busied herself for a moment tucking the ocarina away in its pouch. “I… Okay, well, I’m in a bit of a situation right now. I am currently enrolled as an apprentice in the Thieves’ Guild. Why is that funny?”

“Forgive me,” said Kuriwa, still grinning. “I am not amused, but merely pleased. And proud. Do you know how few young women in your position would even think to seek out such training?”

“That’s been mentioned to me a few times,” she muttered. “Thanks, I guess. Anyway, I’ve made some friends and learned some few skills, and we have stumbled into an unexpectedly dangerous situation. We’re being hounded by government agents from one of the dwarven kingdoms over… You know what, it doesn’t really matter.”

“You need help dealing with these?” Kuriwa tilted her chin up slightly. “I find it best not to meddle in the Kingdoms’ affairs needlessly, but I will not suffer my kin to be harmed by them.”

“I’m not in the least afraid of them,” Jasmine said with a sigh. “If they manage to push me to the point where it becomes necessary, with the powers I can call on, I could smash through anything they throw at me. The issue I’m grappling with is…whether I should.”

“You seek a solution that does not involve the use of force? I continue to be proud. That’s wise, for one so young.”

“Yes, well, I suppose I’m wiser than I was a year ago,” Jasmine said bitterly.

“As am I,” Kuriwa said with a smile. “But I think you were not done?”

She began to pace up and down, swiftly wearing a rut in the fresh snow. “Obviously, that will put an end to my apprenticeship. I’m only able to be here as long as I’m being discreet.”

“Yes, I can see how the Guild would find it troublesome for someone of your rank to be openly among them. And why they would leap at the chance to gain your favor underhandedly. This new Boss, from what I have seen, is less congenial than the last one, and cleverer by half.”

“I hate to just give up,” Jasmine whispered, eyes on the ground as she wandered back and forth. “But I’m more and more uncertain I’m doing anything good here. I’ve been trained by various thieves… I talked with Commander Rouvad about this, and even Principia. People keep telling me the Guild and the Sisterhood aren’t so inherently opposite at their core, but… I came here to learn specific things that I’m just not. I wanted to know how to plan, to, to scheme. To be able to deal with the likes of the Black Wreath without them running circles around me the way they have every time, without being so dependent on my sword and flinging divine power about. But everywhere I turn, here, they want to make me an enforcer. All the Guild is doing so far is refining my ability to intimidate and assault. That is specifically what I don’t need more of.”

“I see,” Kuriwa mused. “And is that the Guild’s fault, or yours?”

Jasmine stopped pacing, turning to stare at her. After a moment of silence, she trudged over to a stone bench and plunked herself roughly down, heedless of the snow covering it. Heating charm or no, cold immediately seeped through her coat and trousers. She ignored it.

“I think if I knew that, I’d know already whether I should go or stay.”

Kuriwa’s steps were so light the snow barely crunched beneath them; it seemed almost incongruous that she left footprints. She padded over to sit down beside Jasmine on the bench.

“Then, you’ve called on me to seek my advice?”

“I…yes, please. I’m running out of fresh perspectives on this.”

“I’m glad to hear that. It seems, based on what you have said, that you’re concerned with not becoming an overly violent, brutish style of warrior, correct? That you worry for you ability to act carefully and with forethought?”

“That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”

“Then you already fail to give yourself enough credit, I think. Considering my promise to aid you, and the trying situation in which you find yourself, it would seem more immediately useful to ask me to fight alongside you. Instead, you seek wisdom and perspective. That is hardly the action of a brute.”

Jasmine sighed. “Well, no offense, but I don’t actually know how much good you’d be in a fight. Not that I doubt your abilities, but I like to work with understood assets.”

“Mm.” Kuriwa smiled faintly. “There’s a reason I respect the use of assumed names, you know. Perhaps you’ve heard of me under a nickname I’ve acquired since the Enchanter Wars: Mary the Crow?”

Jasmine’s head whipped around and she stared, wide-eyed. “You’re—well, of course you are. And I’m related to you. Because of course I am. Isn’t that great. Suddenly I appreciate Principia more.”

Kuriwa grinned. “I told you any black-haired woodkin is blood to you; I believe I also mentioned the tendency of our family line to be…challenging. Am I wrong, Jasmine, in intuiting that something specific and quite recent has happened to bring these things to a head for you?”

“Well, yes. Today we’ve been helped out by a senior Guild enforcer, Grip. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of her?”

“I have. A dangerous individual.”

“You don’t need to tell me that,” she said bitterly. “She gave us a very close look at just what it means to be a Guild enforcer, and that was more viciousness than I ever wanted to see and not immediately put a stop to with my sword. And this is what they want me to become. It’s left me with this terrible feeling that I’m not just wasting my time here, but actively making things worse.”

“And yet, here you still are, asking questions,” Kuriwa mused. “If the sight was so appalling, I wonder why you did not unfurl your wings, bring Grip to task, and then settle the dwarves and end your affiliation with the Guild in one fell swoop.”

“I don’t know,” Jasmine whispered.

The shaman laid one arm around her shoulders. “Jasmine, I can tell you that in my very long life, some of the worst and best people I have ever known were Eserites. But I do happen to know whose house this is, and that tells me the same is true of your relatively short life. All this suggests to me the shape of your problems, and it is not the situation around you.” With her other hand, she reached across and gently tapped Jasmine on the forehead. “But the one within.”

“I kind of want to resent that, but at the same time I think you have a point,” Jasmine said with another little sigh. “Is that… I suppose this is a more complicated question. Can you help me at all with this?”

“In several ways, yes.” Kuriwa smiled and very gently gave her shoulders a shake. “I rather think I could help you work through these issues over the course of several very long, involved conversations. I would enjoy getting to know you in the process, as well. But something tells me that in addition to being a generally practically-minded person, you are in a specific hurry right now. Yes?”

“Uh, yes to both of those,” Jasmine said with a wry grimace.

“I had a feeling.” The shaman smiled again. “Everything is a rush when you’re young. Well. Between Avei and me, you should be quite safe for a short time while unconscious, dwarves or no dwarves.”

“Hang on, what?” Jasmine said in sudden alarm, pulling away from her. “Unconscious?”

“Be calm,” Kuriwa urged gently. “I am not going to do anything to you without your permission. But your answers, as I said, lie within. I rather think you already understand far more than you realize on some level; it only need be brought to light. If you will allow me to, I can indeed help with that.”

Despite her instinctive hesitation, Jasmine did not have to think on that for more than a few seconds before nodding. “I…unwise as it may be…trust you.”

“Good,” Kuriwa said, smiling. “Then close your eyes.”

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11 – 32

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Grip seemed even more disinclined than usual to talk, if the blistering pace she set was any indication. Of the four of them, Ross had the shortest legs, and was beginning to breathe heavily by the time they got out of Glass Alley into one of the slightly less disreputable districts which bordered it. The whole area of the city was poor and none of the surroundings were particularly nice, but it was a strange thing to see, how precisely contained Glass Alley was. The lines of demarcation were invisible, but they were there. The five of them stepped into a place which was just another place, from a broken netherworld inhabited by the desperate and ruled by thieves.

It took that long for even the most talkative of them to screw up her courage.

“You’re sure about that?” Tallie asked, keeping pace. Grip had turned right, heading back toward the city center and the home of most of the major cults’ headquarters, including the Collegium. “I mean, Ironeye is kind of an evil bitch. I’m just surprised you’d leave things like that, in her hands.” She hesitated for a fraction of a beat. “And quite frankly, after all that bullshit back there I’m a little less inclined to just assume you know best.”

“And what else did you notice?” Grip turned her head to give Tallie a look over her shoulder; her expression was cold but not hostile, which under the circumstances was downright encouraging. “She trusted me just as much. One sentence from me, and she took it on faith that I was being straight with her, enough to risk deploying her assets and involving the Boss. Even when I showed up with you losers, not to mention our own issues.”

“Got a bit of history, there?” Darius asked.

Grip grunted. “The intermittent history of two people with the sense to avoid each other whenever possible. I can’t fucking stand that woman, and I do believe I’m slightly fonder of her than she is of me. None of that matters. When it comes down to it, we both know the score.”

“You’re both Guild,” Jasmine murmured.

“That is part of it.” Grip kept her eyes forward as she strode onward. The snow was thickening, flakes both larger and denser; the wind wasn’t too sharp, but most sensible people had still vacated the streets. They passed very few others, and most of those safely ensconced in enchanted carriages. “There are more calculations to consider in a situation like that. Each of our goals, agendas, personalities, loyalties. Whether we’d risk Guild censure to embarrass the other—which neither of us would. Whether both of us are truly devoted to Eserion’s goals, and in neither case is that in question. You don’t ever just trust someone, even a fellow thief. Hell, especially a fellow thief. Eserites like to keep one another on their toes, and the Guild encourages that. But a good Eserite knows the score. In the thick of it, you’ll know who you can count on, and when.”

“Fucking how?” Tallie exclaimed.

Grip glanced back again, this time with just the faintest smile. “None of you have been at this more than two weeks, right? You wouldn’t need to learn if you knew everything. You’ll get there. Despite your multiple fuckups, considering the situation you kids have stumbled into, you’re not doing half bad for your level of experience. Don’t sweat it if you don’t grasp everything. As long as you’re apprentices, you can trust senior thieves to watch out for you. Don’t get used to leaning on that, but take advantage of it while you need it.”

She fell silent as they crossed a street, one of the concentric rings which rippled outward from Imperial Square toward the walls. The difference wasn’t as marked as leaving Glass Alley, but they were definitely stepping upward in the wealth and class of the districts they traversed. This one had taller and sturdier buildings, more commercial than residential, and slightly broader sidewalks. It was only early afternoon, but between the snow and the cloud cover, the fairy lamps here had been ignited; those in the previous district through which they passed apparently did not warrant the same priority of attention.

“Do you actually believe all that?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“You’ll need to specify.”

“You know what I mean. That…what you said. All the things that justified the cruelty you showed that woman.”

“And clearly, you weren’t listening,” Grip said irritably. “I told you, I don’t justify anything; I do what is necessary. I am not a nice person, Jasmine, and most days I doubt I could be considered a good one. I have my integrity, though. My honor. That matters a great deal more, in my opinion. And yes, I wouldn’t do things like that, or any of this, if I didn’t believe in it.”

“Omnu’s balls,” Tallie muttered. “Is the whole Guild like that? I’m not gonna lie, lady, that was some scary shit back there.”

“Pretty twisted logic, too,” Ross muttered.

“All systems are corrupt,” Grip recited. “The Guild tries not to be more of a system than it can help. I told you the straight truth of what I believe and why I act the way I do, and as devoted as I am to my way, it’s just that: mine. We’re not big on doctrines, here. Look at the Eserites you kids have grown to know: Style, Lore, Glory, Webs, Ironeye. All starting from the same basic philosophy, all gone off in totally different directions, yet still devoted to that same central truth. Most of the people on that short list wouldn’t cross the street to spit on each other, but in a situation like this, we come together to protect our own.” She paused, glancing back at them again, her expression now unreadable. “Even if you get specifically sponsored by someone, the point is not to become a doctrinal clone of anybody. On the contrary, you’re supposed to understand the very simple starting point of Eserite philosophy, and make it your own. If you don’t wanna become me, then you’d better not try. But you fucking listen when I tell you something. Every perspective you come to understand contributes to you finding your own.”

“I think what we’re driving at,” said Darius, “is that the crap you were just talking is… Fuck, that’s how over-the-top Black Wreath warlocks rant in bards’ stories. I mean, if the Guild can lead to that, we’ve gotta wonder if we’re in the right place…”

Grip actually laughed—it was a short, bitter bark, but a laugh nonetheless. “Oh, you sweet little children. Any philosophy can lead to any extreme. All fucking systems, kids. Look at the Hands of Avei: paragons of justice or mass-murdering loons, depending on which one you pick. And hell, they even had a pacifist, once. What was her name?”

“Laressa,” Jasmine said quietly.

“Right, sure. That’s an easy example; Avenism is all about war, it justifies a whole mess of atrocities under the right circumstances.”

Jasmine scowled, but remained silent as Grip continued lecturing.

“The Hands of Omnu, now, those are interesting. Wandering healers, some. There was that Sheng chick, I don’t think I could pronounce the name if I could even remember it, who used to carry a broom and sweep her path so she didn’t accidentally kill a bug while walking.”

“Chang Zhi,” said Ross.

“Uh huh. And then there’s my favorite, the Sun Style grandmaster Adeche N’tombu. Sun Style fighting has zero offensive moves, it’s all about redirecting an attacker’s energy back at him, but you can maim the fuck out of somebody with their own energy if you know what you’re doing. That magnificent bastard walked from town to town in the Bandit Kingdoms, leaving a trail of torn ligaments and compound fractures until there were so few bandits left they had to change the name. ‘I have come to bring peace,’ he said to everybody. Love that guy. But to talk to any Omnist monk today, it’s hard to picture either of those extremes, right?” She shook her head. “In my opinion, every religion that survives long enough to be called one does so because it makes some very good points. And those don’t really matter all that much. Faith is a pretext; people are going to do what they’re going to do, and find their justifications after the fact. Systems are corrupt because people always corrupt them. The Eserite way works because it’s simple, basic. The belief is just two things: an acknowledgment that power corrupts, and a statement that virtuous people must oppose that corruption. The doctrine just boils down to a command to develop your skills and rely on them as a way of life.”

“All governments and all laws exist to benefit those in power,” Tallie recited. “I mean, I’m here because I’ve got a hard-earned suspicion of authority figures. But after seeing where this can lead to tonight, I just… I’ve gotta wonder if that’s not overstating the case.”

“You can take it literally,” Grip said, shrugging. “I do. Not all Eserites do, though. Silence doesn’t; Tricks doesn’t. We don’t exactly chitchat over tea and biscuits, but I’m pretty sure neither Glory nor Sweet think every government is devoid of altruism. Both of them are pretty tied up in the Imperial regime, in their own way. And you know what, it works for them. Both are good Eserites, as are some others I’ve known who argued at length that most of the catechism is a warning to be wary of people with power, overstated because hyperbole makes a point. We’re going to table this discussion for now, though.” She turned her head to look at them. “See if you can glance back without making it obvious what you’re doing.”

All of them but Jasmine faltered slightly in their steps. In uneven unison, the four shifted position slightly to glance over their shoulders at the street behind.

Grip sighed heavily. “I can see we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

“That carriage,” Tallie murmured. “It’s going awfully slow.”

“Could be…just driving safely in the snow?” Darius offered.

“When you noticed it,” said Grip, “and for fuck’s sake don’t stop, you jackalopes. When you noticed it, what was your first, immediate, instinctive response?”

“Well, that it was following us,” Jasmine replied. “But there are other explanations…”

“I’ll get to those in a moment.” Grip turned her head to study the storefronts on the opposite side of the street, only the fastest flick of her eye taking in the carriage behind them. “Always trust your instincts about danger. There’s a little voice in the back of your head that warns you when things are about to go bad. That voice is smarter than you, and sees things you won’t notice. Once the trouble starts, you have to keep a cool head and think, but when that little voice gives a warning? You damn well listen to it.”

“Noted,” said Ross. “So…the carriage?”

“It’s not slow because of the snow,” said Grip, now studying the storefronts they were passing close to. “That’s a late-model Dawnco sedan; anything built in the last five years by one of the big names in carriages has traction control enchantments. Take note, by the way, those things are fantastic vehicles for pulling jobs. Not nearly as eye-catching as a Falconer and a hell of a lot more reliable than older carriages. Those old jalopies are all but invisible, but they break down at the drop of a hat. Dawnco economy models are cheap enough you can abandon one, too, if your take is big enough to justify the expense. Or you can invest in modifying the body to make it look like an older, less interesting rig. The Guild has a couple of enchanters and craftsmen who do that kind of work.”

“Before you turned this into a lesson,” said Tallie, “I believe you were saying that thing is following us? Or am I getting ahead?”

“You are, but I was,” Grip said, her voice still calm despite the gathering tension in each of them. “Also note that thing has lanterns, and they aren’t lit despite the weather. Driving a carriage at a walking pace with the running lights off means it’s following somebody. I’ve been watching, and nobody else walking has stayed on the same course since it turned up.”

“Shit,” Darius said feelingly.

“Cool head,” Grip reminded him. “Think. You know the situation, and you know who your enemy is. This isn’t an immediate danger, but it could become one if we get onto a street with no other bystanders. Slow your pace slightly, kids. Right now, we’ve got a captive who will give information, and have uprooted their nest. Once that information gets back to the Guild, especially if they actually have Pick in there, it’ll be open season on their asses. They are not prepared to deal with both the Guild and the Empire, and politics or no, the Empire will have to come down on any group of dwarves keeping an Imperial citizen hostage.”

“Wait, so…you make it sound like this is over,” Tallie protested.

“No,” said Darius, frowning. “Once Rumor reaches the Guild and we reach safe haven with Schwartz, it’s over. Not yet.”

“Exactly,” said Grip.

“Think they can intercept Rumor?” Jasmine asked.

Grip snorted. “Maybe. They pretty much have to try. As a general rule, though, Rumor doesn’t get intercepted. There’s a reason Ironeye keeps her around, and it’s not because anybody enjoys the company of a surly drunk. Watch your surroundings, now; we don’t want to wander onto a block with no witnesses.” They glanced back again; the carriage was still following them with its lights of, half a block distant. “They’re in damage control mode. If they can’t nab Rumor or break up Ironeye’s posse—and I’ll be amazed if they have the manpower for that—they’ll still have the Guild on them, but they can still keep the Empire out of it by eliminating anyone who can give more information to the police.”

“Meaning us,” said Ross weakly.

“Us and especially your friend Schwartz, given what you said he can do. They’ll need us silenced, and away from him.”

“They won’t let us reach the Square, then,” said Jasmine, risking a glance back at the carriage. “Or anywhere too close to the Collegium…”

“You can stop being surreptitious,” Grip said wryly. “You suck at it. They know we know; don’t act skittish, it makes you look like prey.”

“So, rooftops or sewers?” Tallie asked.

“Hang on, think ahead,” said Grip. “They lose us, they go after the next viable target.”

“Schwartz,” Jasmine said grimly.

The enforcer glanced back at them. “This is your game, kids; I’m just here to coach. We can lose these fuckers almost without effort, but that’ll direct them pretty much entirely at Schwartz. They’re under a time limit; the longer this goes, the more risk of the Guild mobilizing and/or Intelligence taking an interest. Keeping ourselves as a target will split their resources, give Schwartz and whoever else more of a chance.”

“Fuck it,” said Darius, “we don’t ditch friends like that.”

“You presume to speak for the group?” Grip asked mildly.

“In this case, hell yes he does,” Tallie snapped. “We all…know the score.”

She turned again to give them a broad grin, her eyes flicking to the carriage momentarily. “That’s what I like to hear. Guild or not, you’d best not make a habit of turning on allies; that builds a rep that’ll make it impossible for you to function. All right, then, we wanna make this interesting, but not impossible…”

“You don’t seem scared,” Ross noted.

“Oh, I’ve been in worse spots,” the enforcer said with a reminiscent smile. “Frequently. All right, this’ll do. Follow my lead and be quick.”

They had come to another major intersection, well-lit by fairy lamps and with a carriage passing by along the cross street. The district beyond was visibly more genteel than this one…and more empty. Two men in the heavy coats of the Army’s winter uniform were trudging down the sidewalk ahead, but there were no other pedestrians, and no vehicles.

Rather than crossing the street, though, Grip turned sharply right—not along the sidewalk, but into the cafe which stood on the corner. The others dutifully trooped in after her, enjoying the warmth of arcane heating ranges set up under the windows. Their personal heating charms were holding, but they weren’t the same as being indoors out of the snow.

The place was remarkably busy for being after the lunch hour; apparently quite a few people had been caught in the sudden change of weather, and decided to see if it could be waited out here. To judge by the morose expressions of most of the patrons, that hope was fading. Grip made a beeline for the counter at the back of the front room. Or more precisely, for the door beside it.

“Hey there,” she said pleasantly to a startled-looking man standing behind the counter. “Don’t mind us, just need to use your rear door.”

“Oh, no, you don’t!” Before the youth could answer, the door opened and a brawny man with an impressive mustache strode through, planting himself in her path and folding his arms. “Employees only.”

“This really won’t inconvenience you in the slightest,” Grip said, still with a friendly smile.

“Not happening,” he said flatly, staring her down. “If you’re not going to order something, you can leave. Out the front.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Tallie started to wheedle, but Grip snapped her fingers at her and she fell silent, scowling.

Grip, meanwhile flicked her other hand, causing a gold coin to shoot out of her sleeve and into her palm, where she immediately slipped it between her fingers and began rolling it back and forth across her knuckles, still regarding the cafe’s apparent owner with a smile.

“Now, friend, I’m asking you for a simple favor,” she said politely. “And I’ll walk away from here with a memory of how you treated my friends and I in our hour of need. Might be I can direct some business your way, if I’ve a need to.”

Both men had their now-wide eyes fixed on the coin, clearly recognizing the gesture. The big man coughed, making his mustache flutter. “Ah, yes, well… I suppose rules can be bent. If it’s important. Please, uh, don’t mess with anything in the kitchen.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it!” Grip promised, winking and flipping the coin at him. He caught it by reflex, then instinctively pressed himself against the counter as she strode forward toward the door behind him. “You’re a true gentleman, sir. A little token for your trouble.”

In the kitchen behind, she marched straight through, ignoring the stares of the two cooks, though Darius winked flirtatiously at one. There was a door on the opposite side opening onto a rear hallway; the door at the end of this let them out into an alley. Grip led them to the nearest end, and thus back onto a main street running perpendicular to the one they had been on.

“Hang on a second,” Tallie exclaimed, “this is that cross-street we just came to! We could’ve just—what the hell was the point of all that? Look, there they are!”

Indeed the carriage had just rounded the corner going much faster than it had been previously. It immediately slowed, so abruptly that it skidded for a moment on the thickening snow.

“Theatrics,” said Grip, setting off down the new sidewalk at a much faster pace. The carriage had quickly regained traction (she was apparently right about its enchantments) and came after them, now close enough they could hear the hum of its wheel charms. It had its canvas top raised over the driver’s seat and its windscreen was partially obscured by snow, concealing the identity of the driver. It seemed a safe bet it was a dwarf, though. Grip carried on lecturing, seemingly unperturbed by the pursuit. “Never underestimate the value of a little theater. We want them to follow us around; making that too obvious would prompt them to make a move. If we make at least token efforts to get away—ah, good. More.”

This street curved slightly, being one of the circular ones running around the entire city. It apparently wasn’t a major one, to judge by the frequency of “spoke” streets intersecting it; they had already come to one of these, and another seemingly identical Dawnco sedan had come barreling down this, decelerating so fast it went into an outright skid, one of its wheels bouncing off the curb.

“Good?” Ross exclaimed.

“Means we’re holding their attention, all right,” Darius said grimly. “Holy hell, how many carriages do they need?”

“This could be a problem,” Jasmine said tersely as the new carriage came to a stop partially blocking the intersection. “We’re alone.”

“Shit,” Tallie whispered, glancing around at the complete lack of vehicles and pedestrians surrounding them. “I knew we should’ve gone down the street with the soldiers…”

“Relax,” Grip murmured, thrusting her hands into the pockets of her duster. “Calm. Always keep a clear head when in danger.”

“Easy for you to say!” Ross growled.

The first carriage accelerated momentarily, bringing itself around to park perpendicular to the course of the street; between the two, they effectively blocked off the little section containing their quarry.

The new carriage’s door opened and a short, stocky figure in a heavy hooded coat bounded down, carrying a battlestaff.

“Afternoon!” Grip said, waving. “How’s business?”

“Wearing on my patience, thank you for asking,” he replied. The voice was male, but it wasn’t Rogrind; this one was much more tenor. He took the staff in a two-handed grip, not yet bringing it up to point at them. “If you would be so good as to step into the carriage? We’ll have to split you up, I’m afraid, seating is limited.”

“Now, what would you say were the odds of that happening?” Grip mused aloud.

“Fifty-fifty,” he replied, bringing the staff up to point at her. “I would take it as a kindness if you’d join me. Leaving corpses in the street will cause all kinds of trouble.”

“You can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with this,” Jasmine said, clenching her fists. Behind them, the other carriage remained ominously silent, though its driver seat door opened just a crack.

“Indeed, young lady, you have made sufficient trouble that I am, in a word, desperate. Factor that into your calculations.”

“You really don’t know the situation you’re in, partner,” Grip said with a wolfish grin. “Fire that thing once, and everybody gets a lot less polite. I think you fail to appreciate what that will mean.”

“I don’t have time for this,” the dwarf said curtly, wrapping his fingers around the staff’s clicker. “I’m not going to bargain, banter, or listen to threats. Into the carriages now, or—”

He broke off, turning his head to stare at yet another carriage which came roaring up the street at them. This one was larger and a few years older, a well-maintained and rather opulent Falconer luxury rig with, to judge by its speed, significantly boosted wheel enchantments.

It was also, to the apprentices, familiar.

The dwarf only belatedly realized the driver’s intention, swinging his staff around to aim at the oncoming vehicle, which was a mistake.

Before he got it fully into position, the carriage swerved straight at him, impacting him head-on and slamming him into the fender of his own carriage, which crumpled under the blow as the vehicle was spun almost a hundred eighty degrees by the much heavier Falconer, which survived the collision with nothing but a crunched fender of its own.

Behind them, the door of the other carriage burst fully open, but one of the passenger doors of the Falconer had done so before it fully stopped. Before the second dwarf could emerge, a figure wrapped in a coat and heavy scarf leaned out, aiming a battlestaff one-handed, and fired a blast of military-grade lightning.

Glass shattered, wood splintered, and at least one structural enchantment spectacularly failed with a percussive boom that sent a puff of glittering enchanting dust across half the street. The burning carriage collapsed to the pavement, one of its front wheels flying across to bounce off a lamp post.

“Oh, this is good and discreet,” Grip said acidly.

“Well, top of the afternoon to you,” Alan Vandro boomed jovially, raising his staff to point skyward and waving at them. “Can I offer you folks a lift?”

“How the hell did you find oh you conniving son of a bitch!” Tallie clapped a hand to her forehead. “Those fucking charms!”

“Yes, yes, you’ll be wanting to chew me out at length before hearing any explanations,” Vandro agreed. “Might I respectfully suggest this isn’t the time or the place?”

“Hell with it,” Grip growled, striding forward and shoving rudely past him into his carriage, which he bore with a genial grin. “Everybody getting arrested would put a stop to this game, but something tells me we’re not gonna persuade this ass to come along quietly and explain that we aren’t the ones shooting up the street. Get in, you loafers, time’s wasting! I guarantee somebody’s already called for the cops; we saw two patrolmen barely a block from here!”

That got them moving. The carriage’s passenger compartment was roomy enough for six to pile in without being unduly cramped, though it was rather cozy, especially with the three extra battlestaves leaning against the seat opposite Vandro’s.

No sooner was the door pulled shut than the carriage whirred back to life and began swiftly putting distance between itself and the scene of the brief firefight.

“Destination, sir?” Wilberforce asked through the small window separating them from the driver’s seat.

“Well, now, I’m none too sure just what you kids are up to,” Vandro confessed, winking at them. “Only thing my girl Saduko could tell me was you were moving around awful rapidly, and there were arcane implements of torture being fired in your immediate vicinity. Course, considering the company you’re keeping, something tells me those may not have been used on you.” He winked at Grip, who stared at him as she might at a stain of uncertain provenance.

“Short version:” said Darius, “the dwarves no longer want us recruited for information, they want us as silenced as possible before we can cause them any more trouble. We’ve helped capture one of their people and taken their hideout, all of which is now in Ironeye’s hands. Rumor’s been sent to tell the Boss, and we were on the way to find Schwartz, who they’re also after. If we can rescue him, we can use his skills and some intel we’ve gathered to crack open their operation.”

“Hmm hm hm,” Vandro mused. “And they know this?”

“They do,” said Grip. “These are professionals, and they’re now backed into a corner. They’re getting aggressive.”

“We have to get to the Colleg—”

Jasmine was interrupted by an impact which rocked the carriage violently, sending them all careening into the right wall and shoving it off course.

“Sir,” Wilberforce said calmly, “we seem to have more new acquaintances.”

The carriage shook again, the other Dawnco rig that had pulled alongside it ramming against it, seeking to drive them into a lamp post. The Falconer had the more powerful wheel charms, though, and Wilberforce yielded just enough space to gain some maneuverability before expertly swerving to the left, slamming the sides of the two vehicles together again and sending the smaller carriage skidding onto the opposite sidewalk.

“Omnu’s fucking balls!” Tallie shouted, extricating herself from Ross’s lap. “Aren’t there any goddamn police in this fucking city?”

“Not near here,” Vandro said, his good cheer apparently undiminished. “Big cock-up near the north wall. Multiple water pipes burst, a whole neighborhood getting rapidly iced down; most of the nearby city guard is converging there to help. Not a coincidence, something tells me.”

“These assholes actually are good,” Grip said with grudging respect.

“All right, Schwartz will have to look after himself,” Vandro said grimly. “We can ease their desperation by not going after him. Wilberforce, take the next turn that points us away from the Collegium.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Whoah, hang on!” Tallie snapped. “Who are you to decide that?”

“The fella whose carriage you’re riding in, my dear,” Vandro said, his jovial smile returning. “Which, by the way, has taken damage on your behalf amounting to more than you’ve made in any previous three years of your life. It’s good strategy, though.” He winked at Jasmine. “You agree, don’t you, hon?”

She drew in a deep breath, looking profoundly unhappy. “It’s… Well, he’s right. These dwarves are clearly willing to go to extremes now; we can ward off more destruction and possibly harm to innocents by not forcing their hand. And Schwartz… He’s probably the safest of any of us. He’s a caster and hopefully he’s in the Collegium. I hope,” she added, worry lines appearing on her forehead.

“Fuck,” Tallie hissed, slamming a fist into the glossy mahogany paneling of the carriage’s wall. “Shit fuck damn!”

“They’ve backed off,” Grip noted, peering out the window. “All right, we can’t just drive around the city all day, they won’t stay backed off for long.”

“If we go for anywhere safe, they’ll just start up again,” Darius said, frowning. “They can’t have us getting too near police. What’s… Is there a safe spot we can get to that they won’t recognize is safe until its too late?”

“Get us into the most genteel neighborhood you can without going too near the Square,” Vandro instructed Wilberforce, then turned back to the others. “The risk of upsetting nobles will restrain them a bit. Upset nobles exponentially increase everyone’s headaches. This only buys us a little time, though.”

“Glory,” Ross said suddenly. “They don’t know about Glory.”

“I say, that’s a capital idea!” Vandro exclaimed. “Good man! Wilberforce! You know the address?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Wait,” Jasmine said sharply. “I don’t like the idea of dragging her into this. We left Rasha there, too…”

“Actually, that is a good idea,” said Grip. “Glory’s connected to everything in this city, and you’d better believe her home has the best defenses a civilian residence is allowed in Tiraas. They won’t know its significance—hopefully—it’s defensible, and she can get us more help.”

Jasmine pulled aside the rear window shade to stare at the carriage still following them, its fender and side paneling scarred by the recent joust. “If it comes down to it…I can—”

“Whoah,” Grip said firmly. “It’s not time to play the trump card yet, kid. We’re Eserites; we’ll maneuver before we resort to a pitched battle.”

“That’s the spirit!” Vandro said, his exuberant cheer not quite masking the thoughtful look he leveled at Jasmine.

He wasn’t the only one.

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11 – 31

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Grip insisted on bringing the dwarf.

Her logic was sound: simply taking directions from their hostage would have almost surely resulted in being sent on a mockingjay hunt. That did not make the prospect a pleasant one, however. Despite the increasingly inclement weather driving people off the streets, there was no chance of dragging a bruised and bloodied captive through the city without attracting notice, even had their prisoner been inclined to behave. Fortunately, a veteran thief like Grip knew ways to get around Tiraas invisibly. Unfortunately, hauling a bound dwarf along pretty well ruled out traveling by rooftop.

That left the sewers.

Once below street level, the apprentices were forced to rely on Grip to navigate, both because only the enforcer knew her path through the tunnels, and because only she had brought a light source. This left them to manage the dwarf, who quickly proved her spirit to be unbroken by the beating. With the rope firmly secured to both her and Ross, she had few prospects for escape, but by the time they reached their destination, she had hauled him off his feet half a dozen times; tripped, hip-checked, and headbutted each of them repeatedly, and made a game of trying to tip them into the “water,” which by its smell, was not even mostly water. The apprentices were lucky to avoid that fate, though due to the dwarf’s antics, none of them managed to avoid getting splashed.

Attempts to earn any favor or cooperation from their prisoner were wasted. She refused to impart any information, including her name, except under threat of further torture. Grip declined to provide this, scathingly reminding them that the Guild didn’t employ such methods to gain what amounted to small talk.

The exit Grip chose from the sewers brought them out in yet another dingy alley. She moved carefully to ensure no one was present before gesturing them all forward, out into the street beyond.

“Oi, what about this one?” Tallie asked, scowling at the dwarf. Any sympathy she had gained for their captive appeared to have vanished at some point, probably between the time the stocky woman had first tripped her and the last time she stomped in a puddle of vile-smelling sewage, splashing all of them. “Dragging her around up top is still going to risk attention…”

“Yeah, well, the address she gave isn’t obligingly right next to a sewer access,” Grip said sardonically, but turned to grant them a cold smile. “Don’t worry, though. They picked a good neighborhood in which to hole up. Nobody here’s going to care, not even if she starts screaming.”

“Uh oh,” Darius said nervously as Grip turned to stalk out into the street beyond. “I’ve got a bad feeling…”

It wasn’t the same street, exactly, but the aspect of the place was unmistakable. The buildings were tall, cramped together, and had been ramshackle and askew even before falling into their current state of disrepair. Everything was filthy, most things were broken, trash littered the sidewalks, and under a thin blanket of newly fallen snow which failed to obscure the squalor, what had to have been several years’ worth of smashed bottles glittered in the gutters.

“Oh, yeah, this is a problem,” Tallie said grimly. “We’re, uh…not exactly welcome in Glass Alley, Grip.”

“Yes, so I hear,” the enforcer said pointedly and without turning. She continued on her way up the street, forcing them to fall into step or be left behind. “Nobody’s going to hassle you as long as you stay with me.”

“Have you met Ironeye?” Darius muttered.

“Met?” They could almost hear her grin as she answered. “Yeah. You could say we’ve met.”

“Now tell me,” Darius asked quietly as he and Jasmine brought up the rear, keeping watch over their sullen prisoner being dragged along by Ross, “was that sexual innuendo or ‘I beat the shit out of her’ innuendo?”

“I have a bad feeling they would sound about the same,” she muttered back, “from either of them.”

“Man, that would be hot if it wasn’t looking increasingly likely one of them’s going to kick our asses before the end of the day.”

“At least one.”

“Bite your tongue.”

The district was much less occupied than when they had last visited, which made sense, considering the snow. They did pass a couple of huddled shapes crouched in the mouths of alleys, one of which shifted slightly at their approach, but no one attempted to interfere with or even acknowledge them. Either Grip was, indeed, a widely known quantity here, or far more likely, none of the hardscrabble residents of Glass Alley wanted to try their luck against five people clearly dragging along a badly beaten woman against her will.

Grip strode swiftly for half a block, then crossed the street and led them into such a narrow alley that they had to walk single file.

“Don’t even think about it,” Tallie warned the dwarf, who just curled her lip disdainfully in response. “Oy, you in the dramatic coat! Aren’t you gonna remind this fool what happens if she doesn’t behave?”

“That crap is for amateurs and bards,” Grip said curtly. “Professionals know what’s up, kid. Look at her; does that look in any way cowed to you?”

Tallie again glanced back at the dwarf, peering around Ross; the captive stared expressionlessly back, eyes hard.

“I know very well she’s going to try to screw us over at the first and every opportunity,” Grip continued, “and she knows what I’ll do about it when she does. Don’t ever let me catch you blathering on like a villain in a story during a job. Or worse, like a hero.”

They emerged into another actual street, albeit an even narrower and dirtier one. Grip paused, glancing up and down, then turned right and continued another twenty yards, coming to a stop in front of an old tenement which looked pretty much like every other structure in the neighborhood, which was to say, falling apart. It was smaller than most, though, only two stories tall and quite narrow.

She paused right in front and grunted, sizing it up. “This is the spot she said.”

“So…what now?” Darius asked quietly.

“It’s believable enough as a hideout,” Grip mused. “The surrounding layout makes it difficult to properly case. With this baggage along, I’m not even going to bother with that. Two stops, then: Tricks needs to be informed of this tip, but first, we check with Ironeye. If a gaggle of dwarves have been using this as a base, she’ll know.”

“Whoah, wait a sec,” Tallie snapped. “If Ironeye knows about this, why hasn’t she warned anyone?”

“Why would she?” Grip countered. “Ironeye’s pretty focused on this district. She’ll know other Guild business when someone’s told her. You kids and your dwarf troubles are nothing more than rumor except to those who’ve followed you or been asked by the Boss to address this. You should be glad she’s not in either category.”

“Uh,” Ross grumbled, “we’re just standing out here in the street… What if they’re watching?”

“If this is the place and if they have any sense, they are,” the enforcer replied. “I’m not interested in catching them all in one place; that’d be a brawl. First rule of enforcement: fight as little as possible. There’ll be at least one guard left, he’ll have noticed us, and he’ll probably have a way to signal the others to stay away.” She grinned unpleasantly. “We just need one. This one would suffice; whoever’s in there is icing on the cake, if they stick around. If not, meh. Our new best friend here is not done talking, by a long shot. C’mon, let’s find Frost.”

“Then why didn’t we just do that first?” Jasmine exclaimed in exasperation.

Grip gave her a withering look as she passed back they way they had come. “The hell I’m getting Ironeye down here without at least having a look first. If this turned out to be a vacant lot or one of her shops or something, I’d never hear the end of it. Now come on.”

“I’m not sure you have time,” the dwarf said suddenly, planting her feet against Ross’s efforts to tug her along.

Grip came to a stop. Slowly, she turned around, then held up a hand to signal Ross to stop pulling.

“All right,” she said flatly. “Let’s hear it, then. What’s your play?”

A very thin smile flickered across the dwarf’s bloodied lips. “Our first source of information has steadfastly refused to be helpful. With things going sour, orders were to give up and dispose of him; they may have already. Maybe not, though. Whiny fellow, name of Pick. I think he’s an acquaintance of yours? He mentioned you.”

For a moment the only sound, apart from the wind, was Tallie’s sharply indrawn breath.

“Oh, bullshit,” Darius said without conviction.

Grip pointed at him and he fell silent. She stalked forward till she stood just beyond arm’s reach of the dwarf.

“So,” the enforcer drawled, “you’ve either imprisoned a member of the Thieves’ Guild, and a personal acquaintance of mine, or you’re making that claim just to tweak my nose. Is there a third option I haven’t thought of?”

“Yes, yes,” the dwarf sneered. “Go on, get it over with, you moronic thug. It’s not as if you have a better way to express—”

A moment later, she gasped and doubled over. Grip had withdrawn the shocker from her coat pocket, aimed it at the dwarf’s groin, and fired. She held its flickering blue beam steady as her victim buckled to the ground, keeping it more or less in place until she had tried to curl into a fetal position, then finally released the switch.

“Excuse you,” Grip said mildly, “but for your information I am a versatile and sophisticated thug. F’rinstance, while some would just use this device to keep you too weak to fight or run, I can wield it very precisely to neutralize your bladder muscles. And oh, look, it works! I really hope whatever heating charm you’re using isn’t about to give out, or you’re gonna literally freeze your ass to the pavement.”

The apprentices, grimacing in unison, stepped back from the twitching dwarf and the puddle spreading underneath her.

“That was just weird,” Tallie said. “Why would she tell you that? Why now?”

“Use your noggin,” Grip said curtly. “I was about to go for reinforcements. Instead of that, she wants me to go in there. So it’s either trapped, or she knows she has allies inside. Or maybe is just trying to waste my time, but she doesn’t strike me as quite that desperate just yet.”

“You think she was lying?” Jasmine asked quietly.

Grip was again staring at the alleged hideout with her eyes narrowed in thought. “…maybe. Whether she is or not, it’s a good trick. But we can’t leave a Guild member in enemy hands.”

“I dunno,” Darius said skeptically, looking down his nose at the fallen dwarf. “Way too convenient. I bet she’s full of it.”

“I know Pick’s faults,” the enforcer said softly. “Far too well. He’s not a coward or a traitor; I’ve been thinking it was out of character for him to bolt after such a minor job fell through, especially when he owed somebody money. Well, shit.” She scowled at the dwarf, who was now catching her breath and snarling into the pavement.

“So we’re going in?” Jasmine asked.

“Not just like that,” Grip replied. “If you find yourself having to do something an enemy wants you to, at the very least do it in a way they don’t want.” She chewed her lower lip for a moment, again raising her eyes to the building.

“We can still go get Ironeye?” Ross suggested.

The dwarf actually laughed. It was half croak, but the intent was obvious. “Tick tock,” she wheezed.

“Yes, Svenheim makes the best clocks,” Tallie said snidely. “Advertise on your own time, sugar lumps.”

“Oh, we’re not backed into a corner,” Grip said softly. “I just have to do something I prefer not to, is all. That’s life.” She put away the shocker and reached into the inside of her duster, rummaging for a moment before pulling out a curious object. It looked rather like two wands attached to either end of a perpendicular handle; one had a large power crystal screwed into it, while the other bore an assembly of wires connecting it to a brass disc engraved with a complex spell diagram. “We need to either coax whoever’s in there to come out, or summon Ironeye and her people here, quickly. I can do both at once. You’ll want to stand back, kids.”

The dwarf, gritting her teeth, had worked her way laboriously to her knees, and now snarled up at the enforcer. “Do you really think you—”

Grip pointed the device at her and flicked a switch with her thumb. Small arcs of crimson lightning sprang from the tips of both shafts, splashing across the dwarf’s body, and she immediately fell back to the pavement, violently thrashing and emitting an ear-splitting scream of utter agony.

“Stop! Stop it!” Jasmine shouted, lunging forward. “What are you doing to her?”

Grip cut off the device, shifting slightly to point it at Jasmine, who instantly skidded to a halt.

“Hurting her,” the enforcer said flatly. “That’s all. No permanent harm, no damage of any kind, just a magical effect that convinces the nervous system it’s in pain. Every part of it, in a great deal of pain. This one, Jasmine, is highly illegal.”

She fired it at the dwarf again, eliciting another animalistic howl. The woman bucked wildly, heaving about so much Ross was nearly yanked into the path of the beam before Grip cut it off again.

“Holy shit, stop doing that!” Tallie said shrilly. “Omnu’s fucking balls, don’t you have any limits?”

“Of course I do, you little twit,” Grip snapped. “I had to explain some to you less than an hour ago.”

“This is too far,” Darius said, more pale than the cold could account for.

“Now, that’s something you’re going to have to work past,” Grip said calmly, giving the dwarf another shock. She had to pause, waiting for the screams to subside again, before continuing. “You’re more or less sane mortal beings; of course you don’t enjoy seeing someone in the extremity of agony. Believe it or not, I enjoy it just as little. Instinct tells you to intervene, to stop this horror, right?”

She zapped the dwarf again as if for punctuation; the resulting scream overrode any response they might have made. It trailed off a moment later, and the dwarf curled up on herself, weeping quietly.

“Instinct will get you killed,” Grip stated, shocking the prisoner once more with a perfectly calm expression. “Being an adult is all about learning to control your instincts, to do what is appropriate and necessary to live in a complex society rather than what your animal brain thinks will help you survive. Frequently it does the opposite.”

“That is bullshit!” Jasmine snarled, deliberately planting herself between Grip and the quivering dwarf. “This is cold-blooded torture. There is no reason this is justifiable, or necessary, or in any way part of the greater good!”

“People who reason that way are just…” Ross trailed off and swallowed heavily.

“Monsters?” Grip’s purely weary tone brought them all up short. She shook her head. “You think kindness is always the answer? Lemme tell you kids a story. When I was an apprentice, I had a friend who lived in this very district. Old beggar; he’d been a soldier, fell on hard times…it’s an old tale, I won’t bore you with it. First real score I had, I came here and gave every penny I could spare of it to him.”

Moving swiftly and smoothly, she stepped to one side; Jasmine, momentarily distracted by her monologue, failed to shift in response, and Grip zapped the dwarf again for a split second, drawing forth a shriek.

“He was dead by dawn,” she continued in a flat tone. “Killed for the money by the other bastards who lived here.”

“Oh, come on,” Tallie said.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Grip snapped. “Shit happens. Random crimes occur. Hell, people get struck by lightning, and not because some god was angry with them. But this? This was a specific, predictable event which I caused, because I was kind rather than sensible. I knew he was prideful and lacked self-control; I ought to have known he’d boast of his good fortune. I knew what the dregs here were like, and believe me, this place has gone way uphill since Ironeye made it her mission to straighten it out. Twenty years ago some of the people here were damn near feral. If I’d thought, I would have seen the inevitable result my kindness would have. I didn’t. I did something nice, and got someone I cared about killed.”

“That has nothing to do with—”

Jasmine broke off, staring, as Grip leveled the torture device at her face.

A moment later, the enforcer lowered it again, shaking her head. “You haven’t learned. Obviously I am not going to use this thing on any of you. But facing it down, you didn’t think, did you? No, that was just instinct. Well, let me remind you of something before you get all self righteous.” She pointed at the dwarf again, with the hand holding the weapon; again, Jasmine moved in front of it, but this time Grip didn’t fire. “This creature is a servant of a government. All governments and all laws exist to benefit those in power. The Five Kingdoms are monarchies just like ours; rather like the Tirasian Dynasty, they have a reputation for social progressiveness and reigning with a relatively gentle hand. And just like the Empire, this is for the sake of securing their own power, not out of any moral concern for their people. It’s because the velvet glove makes for more stability than the iron fist, is all. And just like the Empire, their cruelty is totally without bounds the instant they think it better serves their needs than kindness. Do you really think this one and her cronies would have stopped at just mentioning they’ve looked up your families? The people you love are in more danger now than before, and that will change only when every last one of these are stopped as completely and as brutally as necessary.”

Into the short silence which followed, the dwarf drew in a rasping breath.

“Scum,” she whispered hoarsely. “Everyone…compromises. A monster thinks…everyone else…is also a monster.”

Grip studied her for a moment with a tilted head, then suddenly jerked to the left. Jasmine shifted to intercept her, but the enforcer had already reversed out of the feint, stepping around to blast the dwarf again, this time directly in the face.

Her scream was cut off a second later as she heaved backward and cracked her skull against the pavement.

“Do that one more time,” Jasmine snarled, “and I will put you down. Completely and brutally.”

“Who are your family, Jasmine?” Darius asked softly. She jerked around to stare at him in surprise. “They know mine, and Tallie’s, and Rasha’s. Probably Ross’s and yours, too. You taunted him to try and harm them. Maybe they’re untouchable.” He stared at her, wide-eyed. “My family are…maybe safe. Dwarven agents would have to go well out of their way to reach them, and my House has defenses. But…circus folk? Fishermen? Do you want to see this,” he pointed at the twitching dwarf, “happen to someone we love?”

“Th-this…there’s nothing that justifies this,” she replied, but her voice was suddenly drained of much of its conviction.

“You want to be just?” Grip said, baring her teeth. “Go back to the Legions. You want to be nice? Join the Izarites and screw losers out of their sorrows. Join the Omnists, raise vegetables for your soup kitchen. But right now you are an Eserite, and that means your duty is to find evil people and make whatever needs to happen to them, happen.”

“Justifications are luxuries, Jasmine. Not everybody can afford them. But…” Tallie stepped forward, joining Jasmine and staring Grip down. “Jas is right. This is too far. Put that fucking thing away before we have to take it from you.”

“Quit,” whispered the dwarf. They all looked down at her in surprise; she was huddled on the ground with her forehead pressed to the icy pavement, but still speaking through cracked lips. “You children…still…have souls. Don’t let them…make you into—”

“Into you?” Grip interrupted. “Go on, pretend you wouldn’t do the same. We’re both the same monster, you ass; you loathe me because the comparison shows off your hypocrisy.”

“As fascinating as this is, I require a change from exposition to explanation.”

They whirled, finding themselves suddenly confronted by two figures who had appeared silently. Ironeye was armored and garbed exactly as they remembered; with her stood the same well-dressed man who had accompanied her before, wearing no coat but seeming quite comfortable in the chill and surveying the scene with a raised eyebrow and no sign of distaste.

“Where the hell did you come from?!” Tallie demanded. “How do you sneak up on people wearing that pile of tin cans?”

“Shadow-jumping,” Jasmine said curtly. “That man is a warlock.” He smiled pleasantly at her.

“Silence,” Ironeye commanded. “I will hear from the one person present who has any credibility. What kind of mess are you making in my district, Quintessa?”

“About goddamn time you showed up, Vanda,” Grip snapped. “I trust you recognize this piece of shit? You can’t possibly be unaware of this passel of shifty dwarves renting a space in your little slice of paradise.”

“Yes, you are correct, which means you are publicly abusing my hospitality. I’m still waiting for that explanation, and I will not do so for much longer.”

“I’ll keep it succinct,” Grip stated. “You are harboring enemies of the Guild. These dwarves are agents from one of the Kingdoms, trying to plant a mole in the Guild in order to extract information. They’ve been pressuring these apprentices to comply, without success. Now, this one claims they have Pick held prisoner in there.”

“I see.” Ironeye’s tone, impossible as it seemed, hardened further. “That, of course, changes the matter entirely. Avingell, get Branson and Ellis down here with a dozen of whatever street soldiers are handy. I want this place dissected and everyone in it secured within twenty minutes.”

“And send Rumor to the Casino,” Grip added. “The Boss needs to be brought into the loop.”

“As she says,” Ironeye said to the warlock, who had looked to her for confirmation. He smiled and sketched a cursory bow. Darkness thickened out of the air, which looked very peculiar through the fluttering snow, and an instant later he vanished from view.

“Listen,” the dwarf said weakly, again trying to wrestle herself up to her knees. “This woman doesn’t know—”

Ironeye stepped forward, drawing the sword sheathed at her waist, and pressed the tip against the dwarf’s collarbone, effectively pinning her down. The blade was ancient and scarred, its length marked by runes whose faint white glow was hard to discern amid the swirling snowflakes.

“I entirely lack Grip’s genius for causing pain,” the armored woman said. “However, Avingell can make her efforts look like the flailing of an idiot child. I strongly suggest that you earn what you can of my favor before he returns. You may begin.”

“Come on,” Grip said to the apprentices, stepping back. “Untie yourself, Ross, and let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Whoah, wait a sec!” Darius protested while Ross obeyed with clear eagerness. “We’re leaving? Don’t you wanna find out what happens? What about Pick?”

“What we want isn’t a consideration here,” Grip snapped. “We have responsibilities. Ironeye is both trusted and competent; this place can now be considered secured. But there are plenty more of these bastards out there, and we still need to find your friend the witch, who if I heard right is probably their top target now. Come on.”

She strode off up the street, and they could do nothing but follow.

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