Tag Archives: Lore

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“YOU DO NOT FUCKING ROB THE FUCKING SISTERS OF FUCKING AVEI!”

“We didn’t,” Darius protested. “I mean, quite specifically, we did not rob them!”

“If anything, we un-robbed them!” Tallie added. “They were getting snookered and we—”

“Do not get cute with me,” Style snarled. “You entered their facilities under false pretenses and appropriated shit which was not yours. This is the fucking Thieves’ Guild, if you little wankstains haven’t noticed. I know what a fucking robbery is, and you just pulled one.” She stopped her pacing right in front of Tallie, and leaned in close. “ON THE GODDAMN SISTERHOOD OF FUCKING AVEI.”

“We’re not evading,” Jasmine said in perfect calm. “The matter just wasn’t as simple as you’re making it sound. We took things out of the temple, yes, but—”

“Let me see if I got the details,” the enforcer interrupted, straightening and turning to pace again. “You interrupted a Salyrite delivery of potions, reagents, magical shit in general, to a local temple of Avei. Jasmine, dressed in Legion armor, drags in Layla, pretending to be bringing her in as a prisoner. Scuffling ensues, everyone is distracted. Meanwhile, Tubby and Smarmy, here, drive a delivery truck up to the temple and accidentally block the Salyrite vehicle in.” She scowled at Ross and Darius in turn as she paced by them.

“How come the girls don’t get nicknames?” Ross muttered.

“While the scrawny one engages the Salyrite driver in an argument and generally adds to the confusion, the beefy one starts loading crates in and out of the place, and lifts the Salyrite shipment while they’re all distracted. And while this is going on, our little burgeoning cat burglar oozed first into the temple through an upper window and then the Salyrite truck to swipe documents.” Again, she stopped, folded her arms, and glared at them. “I miss anything?”

“After that,” Layla said primly, “we made copies of the documents from both cults, which prove that agents within the Sisterhood and the Collegium were massaging the figures of what had been delivered and how much paid to skim revenue and poach supplies from these transactions.”

“Which,” Tallie added with a grin, “we then had delivered to the central temples of Avei and Salyrene, along with giving the Salyrites their stuff back. So nobody lost any property, and both cults now know who in their ranks was screwing ’em over.”

“They’re welcome, incidentally,” Darius added.

Off to the side of the room, Lore chuckled, still lounging against the wall. “Not gonna lie, kids, that’s a pretty damn neat job. I’d expect full Guild members to do that kinda work, never mind apprentices on their first unsupervised heist. Only thing you forgot was how to get yourselves paid.”

“We are but lowly apprentices,” Jasmine said with a beatific smile. “Happy to work for the experience and prestige.”

“You, stop helping,” Style barked, pointing at Lore, then turned to glare at Jasmine. “And you. If you’re so insistent you didn’t actually rob the Sisterhood, wanna explain what the fuck you were doing with a set of Silver Legion armor in the first place?”

“I borrowed it,” Jasmine said blandly.

Style took two strides and leaned down directly into her face. “You wanna try again, squirt?”

Lore cleared his throat. “I’m not sure if any of your trainers have covered this explicitly, Jasmine, but the ‘borrowed’ defense isn’t regarded kindly around here. We’re thieves; we steal stuff. Taking without permission is theft, whether or not you bring the item back. Have some pride and don’t make excuses or beat around the bush.”

“Actually nobody had mentioned that, but thank you,” Jasmine said, glancing at him sidelong but keeping most of her attention on Style’s uncomfortably close glower. “Really, though, I wasn’t doing that. I did borrow it. Glory hooked me up with a dealer who had two almost-complete sets of armor. I helped him assemble them properly and showed him where to get the missing pieces, and he let me take one for the day as thanks.”

“I still say we should have borrowed both,” Layla huffed. “I would really have liked—”

“Layla,” Darius said in exasperation, “you couldn’t both be Legionnaires. If neither one was the prisoner, what the fuck would you have been doing there?”

“And if she was a prisoner,” Style growled at Jasmine, “how the fuck did you get out without her being in a cell?”

“The story we used was she was a runaway Legion cadet,” Jasmine replied, leaning subtly backward in her seat. “Which is breach of contract at the worst; it’s a legal gray area whether the Sisterhood has the authority to detain people for that. It made the perfect cover for her to kick up a fuss for half an hour and then still get to leave. Can I get some personal space, Style? I can taste what you had for lunch, here. Not everybody likes Punaji curry.”

Lore burst out laughing.

“Kid,” Style said, slowly straightening back up but not releasing Jasmine from her glare, “there are days when I think you were put on this world specifically to be a thorn in my ass.”

“I thought the expression was ‘thorn in my side?’” Tallie piped up.

“Thorn in the foot’s also used,” Ross grunted. “The ass thing is new.”

“Classic Style!” Darius chirped.

“Shut the fuck up,” Style ordered, and they immediately did; she had spoken calmly and flatly. Style cursed and yelled and threw things as part of her ordinary conversation. Everyone who survived a month of Guild apprenticeship knew to step very lightly, however, when she lowered her voice. “Lore, I can’t deal with this magnitude of horseshit. Explain their stupidity whilst I take a mental health break.”

She turned and stomped over to a cabinet against the far wall of the underground meeting room, from which she extracted a bottle of wine and took a long swig.

Lore coughed, suppressing his earlier laughter, and finally straightened up from the wall, stepping toward them. He was one of the Guild’s few actual priests, and its foremost specialist in Eserite philosophy and what little actual dogma the cult had. For the most part, that meant he stayed around the Guild’s headquarters, assisting the Boss and training apprentices.

“You kids have really stuck your collective foot in it,” he said more somberly. “You know our relations with the other cults can be dicey. There are long-standing tensions, such as the way we like Avenists more than they like us, and Vernisites like us more than we like them. In general, though, there’s a lot of widespread dislike of thieves. Lots of groups, religious and secular, have the attitude that Eserites are only tolerated because Eserion is a god of the Pantheon, and they resent having to tolerate us. And that, kids, is why any jobs pertaining to other cults are undertaken very carefully. Very carefully. Usually with the direct say-so of and organization by the Bishop and the Boss himself. Not a gaggle of out-of-control apprentices…you know, as a general rule.”

“Ohh,” Tallie said quietly, then swallowed. “Um…”

“In the time it took you to drive back to wherever you staged all this, transcribe those documents, arrange to have them delivered, and get back here, the beehive you kicked hasn’t stopped buzzing. Sweet has already had an earful from Bishops Throale and Syrinx. The Universal Church has gotten involved, trying to smooth things over, and the Boss has been fully occupied keeping some of our hotter heads in check, because all they can see is spellflingers and soldiers getting up in the Guild’s face apparently on their own initiative.”

“Oh, fuck,” Darius mumbled.

“WELL SAID,” Style thundered, slamming the bottle back onto a shelf and turning to glare at them. “Let’s have a little pop trivia! Who can tell me under what circumstances it is acceptable for the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild to have to clean up after a pack of goddamn apprentices?”

“Um…none?” Tallie ventured.

“Wrong! Who else wants to try?”

“Well,” Jasmine said carefully, “I suppose, theoretically, in a situation where the Boss himself was considered corrupt—”

“Jasmine, it’s a constant mystery to me how you can think so goddamn much and never about the right things. Anybody else got the answer I’m looking for?”

Ross hesitantly raised a hand. “…fucking none?”

“WINNER!” Style shouted, pointing at him.

Lore shook his head. “Look… How the hell did you kids find out about this in the first place? Shenanigans between elements in the Sisterhood and the Collegium aren’t the kind of thing into which random junior Eserites normally have insight.”

“Well, actually, that was just a right place, right time sort of deal,” Tallie said almost timidly. “See, our friend Schwartz is in the Emerald College, and he’s been involved in both interfaith relations and disseminating supplies. Apparently it was all part of his own plan to get to know Eserites, which, I guess, worked. But he mentioned he’d been seeing some funny activity…”

“And then there’s our other friend Rasha,” Darius added. “Who happens to have insight into some of the alchemical reagents the Avenists use, you know, cos he goes to them for—I mean, she—they… Dammit! I knew her all of a week the other way, why am I still not used to that?”

“Because you’re a clod,” Layla said fondly, ruffling his hair.

“Rasha,” Jasmine said quickly before Style could swell up any further, “has treatment sessions with the Sisterhood as part of transitioning. She’s not using alchemy yet because they do very thorough counseling before starting on that, but she talks with the sisters about the program, and they’ve mentioned there are unexplained shortfalls in some of their alchemical supplies.”

“Which was the other thing with which Glory helped,” Layla continued primly. “She really is the most fabulous source of gossip, and I enjoy very much being a guest at her salons. There, I heard rumors about some unexpected personnel changes in various cults; individuals who are known to favor the Universal Church have been maneuvering into positions where they serve as the intermediaries between cults. It’s all very subtle, and might never have been noticed at all except one has some kind of feud with the Avenist Bishop, who made noise about this particular priestess horning in on her territory, so to speak. Even so, only the sort of people with whom Glory associates follow these dealings. If not for our very fortuitous acquaintance, the likes of us would never have learned of this.”

“But we put that together, saw a pattern, and looked further,” Jasmine finished. “Black market dealings, places where those mislaid alchemical supplies might have been turned into untraceable cash. Pick’s connected to those, and he helped us out.”

“Surprisingly decent little prick, in his way,” Tallie added thoughtfully. “Prob’ly just cos he owes us for getting him away from those dwarves, but still.”

“Mm,” Lore grunted. “Well, you kids do impress. That was good work, spotting an opportunity and finding a way to exploit it. But what you should have done when you figured out something was fishy was go straight to Style with it. Apprentices have no business messing in other cults’ affairs.”

“But we were helping them!” Layla protested. “At least—”

“The man didn’t fucking stutter!” Style snarled. “Apprentices have no fucking business fucking around with other fucking cults’ business! You don’t help them, you don’t thwart them, you stay the hell out of their shit entirely! If you spot something fucked up going on in another Pantheon cult, or between two of them, you bring it to the Guild. The Boss will decide whether it’s something we need to intervene in, and if so, how. Not. You.”

“I realize we emphasize independence and distrust of structures,” Lore said much more gently. “It’s an understandable mistake; most of the time you’re expected not to bother the Boss, or rely excessively on the Guild. But for exactly that reason, in the few areas where the Guild does need to be involved, we take it very seriously when people go off on their own and create exactly these kinds of problems.”

“Sorry,” Ross mumbled.

Style snorted and threw up her hands, but Lore nodded gravely. “I believe you. Look… This was overall damn fine work, all right? You planned and executed an extremely neat job, and that after making excellent use of your connections and available resources. But you acted without considering the ramifications, or the role the Guild would have to play in this. That is what we can’t have.”

“And before you start getting big heads,” Style said, “he was warning you, not praising you. That’s a dangerous spot to be in, kids. If you’ve got the skills of Guild members and don’t grasp what it means to be Guild members, you’re a potential problem, if not a threat. People who land themselves in this position and don’t straighten the fuck out usually end up getting dealt with in other ways.”

Tallie swallowed heavily again. “Um…”

“No, I’m not threatening you,” Style said with a sigh. “If I thought you were gonna be that kind of problem, I’d be kicking your asses, not telling you about it. You’re students; I’m teaching. Now you understand where you went wrong. Fix your shit.”

“Understood,” Jasmine said quickly.

“I believe you,” Style replied. “Which just leaves the matter of putting this right. For now… Just leave it alone. Stay close to the Guild and wait for orders. Since you little shits are the ones with firsthand knowledge of what went down, you’re likely to be part of the process of smoothing it over, but first the Boss and the Bishop need to figure out what’s what and how to straighten it out. In the meantime, wait. And for fuck’s sake, behave yourselves.”

Jasmine cleared her throat. “Okay. And…since we’re not being punched, what’s it to be? Are we going to be scrubbing the kitchens again?”

“Jas, shut up,” Darius hissed.

Style rolled her eyes. “Punishment is for assholes; dumbasses get correction. You never have figured out the difference, Jasmine. No, when I said you were gonna make this right, that is what I meant. Now you understand how you fucked up; once you do your part to fix it, that’s that. Abusing you further isn’t gonna accomplish anything. All right, enough. Get outta here and stay in this district until I tell you otherwise. And I suggest you keep in mind that malice accounts for the lesser part of all fuckups. Trouble is much more often caused by stupidity. You wanna avoid getting in trouble, fucking think.”

“Surprisingly good advice,” Darius murmured as they filed hastily out of the room before Style could change her mind.

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed as quietly. “Actually, it reminds me of another teacher of mine. She’s fond of saying much the same thing.”

“But with less cussing?” Tallie asked with a grin.

Jasmine sighed. “It…depends.”


“I know you’re well aware of the phenomena, Professor,” said Wrynst, the designated spokesman of the group. “Demons which bleed or otherwise dispense bodily fluids inflict infernal corruption on whatever the substance touches—yet when they are killed on this plane, the bodies dissolve into ash which leaves minimal corruption behind, and in some cases none. In order to be magically reactive, spell components harvested from demons must be taken while the demon was alive. Yet, sapient demons which can use infernal magic mostly leave behind intact bodies, which may or may not be infernally active, depending on the situation. Vanislaads in particular appear to leave behind a fully intact body, and the very same demon may return later to this plane in a new body, while their previous one might still exist here. Altogether the nature of demons’ connection to magic, to life, and to this plane is not understood. We have only lists of observed effects and no understanding of the underlying principles involved.”

“Yes, of course,” Tellwyrn said neutrally, interlacing her fingers and regarding him over them. “And of course, you know why that understanding is lacking, even after thousands of years.”

“Actually, Professor, for most of that period, infernal magic was considered far more dangerous to use than it is today, and understanding of its use was correspondingly lacking. Until as recently as the Hellwars, ‘warlock’ was considered synonymous with ‘servant of Elilial,’ because no one without that goddess’s specific protection could even touch the infernal and not combust or mutate on the spot. The word itself is said to mean ‘oathbreaker,’ as the only people to whom it applied had specifically betrayed the gods. Now, though, there are not only the Wreath, but also organized warlocks in the service of Salyrene and many national governments and other organizations, not to mention independent practitioners—all because of the advancement of knowledge.”

“And you propose,” she said slowly, “to advance it again.”

Wrynst nodded, stepped forward, and laid a thick folder down upon her desk. “Yes, Professor. The full details of our proposal are there for you to peruse at your leisure. In brief, however, we have outlined an experimental protocol which will involve the repeated summoning of and experimentation upon lesser non-sapient demons to study the nature of their dimensional connection to Hell, and thus the nature of infernal magic itself. Katzils, mostly, as they are the most manageable. At present, infernomancy is more an art than science; its safe use is largely intuitive, and therefore difficult to teach and fraught with peril. We propose to study and quantify it. If our program meets with any success, it would be a great leap forward in magical understanding, as well as taking much of the inherent danger out of infernal magic. This will make it not only safer to use, but help in devising methods of resisting demons and their masters.”

Tellwyrn glanced at the folder without moving to touch it, then across the small knot of people assembled before her desk. Behind Wrynst stood the representatives from the factions which were backing Rodvenheim’s proposal: a warlock from the Topaz College of Salyrene, a magelord of Syralon, a robed Black Wreath cultist, and a battlemage of the Empire’s Azure Corps.

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

“This is, of course, possibly the most dangerous research project ever undertaken.”

“Yes, Professor,” Wrynst said solemnly, not even quibbling with her obvious hyperbole. “We are well aware of the risks, and seek to take all possible steps to mitigate them. That fact is why this research has never been conducted before.”

“Oh, it’s been tried,” said Fedora, who was lounging against a bookcase off to the side. “By many a warlock throughout the years. In slow bits and bites over the millennia, they added gradually to the knowledge of the craft, while meeting a succession of swift and grisly fates.”

Tellwyrn shot him a brief, irritated glance, which was mirrored by each of the research delegates before her. “I’m sure this lays out your proposed containment methods. Leaving that aside, in brief, what do you intend to do about the dimensional effects of such repeated summonings?”

Wrynst coughed discreetly and glanced behind himself. At his look, Colonel Azhai nodded and stepped forward.

“In short, Professor, we intend to monitor them. This campus’s inherent protections, and the fae geas laid upon it, will do a great deal to mitigate the inherent dimensional thinning effect. Our containment protocols will do more. But as part of our research protocol, we will be closely observing the state of dimensional stability in the region. Our program calls for a cessation of summoning activity should signs of dimensional instability appear, and that only as an initial measure. You are of course aware of the methods of repairing such unintended rifts.”

“They aren’t easy,” Tellwyrn murmured.

“No, ma’am,” Azhai agreed. “Which is why our strategy emphasizes prevention. But we will be prepared to take whatever restorative action is necessary, should the need arise.”

Tellwyrn looked at Fedora and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll want to read over their protective measures, just to be in the loop,” he said with a shrug. “Ultimately, though, you know a lot more about this hoodoo than I. Suggest having Yornhaldt and Harklund sign off on it, as well. Long as everyone’s confident, that’s that.” He cleared his throat and straightened up. “I do have an additional thought on this, which I’d prefer to share with you in private, Professor.”

“Of course,” Wrynst said hastily, bowing and taking a step back from the desk. “We can come back…”

“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Tellwyrn. “Let’s not take up any more of your time than we must. If you will excuse us for just a moment?”

“Certainly!”

She nodded politely and gestured.

A distortion flickered across the office, as if a wall of frosted glass had appeared to separate Tellwyrn and Fedora from the guests. Behind it were revealed only vague shapes, and no sound penetrated.

“Well?” she asked, swiveling her chair to face him directly. “What do you think?”

“In short,” he said, “I think you have to go for it.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I have to, do I?”

“C’mon, don’t get all Tellwyrn on me,” he said with a grin. “You’ll do what you want, and we both know it. But in this case, with regard to your stated goals for this whole program? This is just too perfect to pass up. It’s dangerous and potentially incredibly valuable if it’s a success. It’s exactly the kind of research you launched this whole initiative to do. This is the first real test of the whole plan. If you’re not willing to take this on, it all becomes kind of…moot. This research hasn’t been done elsewhere because nobody was willing to touch it. If you’re not…what’s the point of the new research division?”

“Mm,” she grunted, glancing at the obscured shapes behind the barrier, which were now shifting slightly as they interacted with one another.

“There’s more,” Fedora said in a less jocular tone. “This is also the perfect opportunity to deal with the other thing I warned you about when you hired me. It’s not only incredibly dangerous, it deals with warlocks and demons—exactly the subject that gets people riled up and frightened. It is the ideal avenue of attack for your enemies to use against you.”

“And so,” she murmured, “by controlling the path my enemies take, I control their fates.”

He tilted his head. “Huh. I dunno why it should surprise me that you’ve read the Aveniad, but it does.”

“If anything it’s more surprising that you’ve read it,” she sighed.

“Some good, solid advice in there,” he replied, winking. “Take a little time to review the proposal in detail; that’ll give me a little time to make preparations for whoever’s gonna take advantage to try it. This is it, Professor. Make or break.”

“All right,” she said, suddenly brisk, and turned back to the desk. The barrier vanished, and the assembled magical specialists turned expectantly to her. “Very well, upon consultation with my head of campus security, I am strongly inclined to endorse this program. Obviously, I will need to review your proposal in detail; there may well be adjustments upon which I will have to insist.”

“Oh, of course,” Wrynst said quickly, nodding.

“But, barring some absolute dealbreaker in the fine print, I believe you have just become the proud progenitors of this University’s first major research project. Give me a few days to review in detail, consult with my faculty and make some arrangements. I shall try not to drag my feet about it.”

“Professor, we are glad to grant you whatever you need,” Wrynst assured her, glancing back at his compatriots and getting a chorus of affirmative nods. “After all, you are being more than generous with us.”

A soft chime sounded, and everyone shifted to look at Fedora, who pulled a large silver pocket watch from inside his coat and flipped it open.

“Ah,” he said in a tone of deep satisfaction. “Professor! You remember that thing you asked me to watch for yesterday? It’s happening.”

“What?” she exclaimed, shooting upright. “Already?”

“Yes, well,” Fedora said glibly, shutting the watch and putting it away again. “I may have encouraged it along a little bit.”

“I asked you,” she grated, “to watch for the sophomore class trying to sneak off campus, not to goad them into doing it!”

“I swear to you I’ve not said a word to them!” he replied, holding up his hands in surrender, but grinning unrepentantly. “I did, however, have a few selective words with Raffi at our poker game last night, on the assumption they’d find their way to Zaruda and onward from there. Sometimes, Professor, watching for bad behavior means strewing a few seeds. That’s how you find out which soil is the most fertile.” He winked at the delegates.

Tellwyrn growled wordlessly. “Mr. Wrynst, everyone, I’m sorry to cut this meeting short, but it appears I have something rather more urgent to attend to. If you will excuse me.”

“Not to worry, Professor, we…” Wrynst trailed off; Tellwyrn had vanished in the middle of his sentence.

“She does that a lot,” Fedora confided. “It’s all part of the charm.”

 

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11 – 6

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Darius, growing increasingly frustrated, darted froward again, swinging at Jasmine’s head. During the last minute, he had quickly gotten over his hesitation to strike her; so far, his attempts to do so were proving fruitless.

She had begun by simply standing there, ignoring his taunts and imprecations to attack. When he finally stepped forward, launching a half-hearted jab at her head, she stepped back, avoiding it. The first minute of their duel followed that pattern, Darius growing bolder and more aggressive, without effect. Jasmine not only never struck back, she didn’t even trouble to adopt a fighting stance, keeping her hands folded behind her. She simply stepped smoothly backward and to either side, allowing Darius to chase her in a pointless circle.

The increasing jeers and commentary from the other assembled apprentices was clearly not improving Darius’s mood; his grin had collapsed entirely into a thunderous scowl. Grip, though, grinned like the cat who had eaten the canary, lounging against the wall off to the side and watching avidly. Beside her stood an older man in nondescript clothing, his face lined and hair silver-touched at the temples. Apart from nodding once to Grip in greeting, he had simply watched the fight impassively.

“All right, enough!” Darius exclaimed, coming to a stop and lowering his hands. “Are you about done screwing around? If you’re not gonna fight, we both have better things we could be doing.”

Jasmine raised one eyebrow. “If we’re not fighting… Why are you losing?”

There was a predictable outburst of hooting from the spectators at his. Darius rolled his eyes dramatically.

“Well,” he drawled, “I guess the smart thing to do here would be to walk away, since you’ve sunk to goading me. That’s just sad, Jasmine; we are all cheapened by this.”

“Are we done, then?” she asked calmly.

“Tell you what, cupcake, I’ll leave that up to you.” He slid back into a braced fighting stance, raising his fists. “I’m not gonna flail around while you show off your dancing skill. Either fight back, or we are done.”

She shrugged.

He darted forward a bit more carefully, aiming a jab at her face, which she slapped aside. Darius grinned in triumph, bouncing in place a couple of times, before feinting left and then attacking from the other side.

Jasmine ignored the bait, stepped neatly to the side and reached deftly past his attacking fist to tap him on the head with her palm.

Darius yowled in obvious pain and stumbled to the ground, clutching his ear.

A few of the onlookers let out exuberant cheers, but most of the watching apprentices fell silent, staring in various degrees of disbelief and concentration. Grip’s smile broadened further, but she offered nothing to the tumult.

Jasmine turned to face the crowd, waiting until the shouts died down somewhat before speaking in a tone clearly used to projecting.

“I’m assuming our goal here is not to go around killing and maiming people, right? Well, what you just saw was one of the fastest and easiest ways to put someone out of commission without doing them serious harm.” She glanced at Darius, who had made it back up to his knees, keeping his back to her for the moment, then turned back to the other apprentices and raised one hand. “Here, cup your hand slightly, and gently—gently!—tap yourself on the ear with the palm.”

She demonstrated, and several of the onlookers followed suit, though some stubbornly refrained and a few knowing expressions hinted that their owners already knew where this was going.

“That sensation you feel,” Jasmine continued, “is air being pushed into your ear canal by the impact. Do that harder and it will hit your eardrum with a lot of force, which causes pain, nausea, and loss of equilibrium, not to mention loss of hearing and sometimes blurred vision. Hard enough and you can rupture the eardrum entirely. Do this to someone and they are down. It’s painful and debilitating, but not permanent or excessively cruel—even a fully ruptured eardrum heals naturally in a few weeks, barring infection. And, of course, a quick potion or divine healing can fix it in moments. It’s a weak point all humanoids share, though the ears on lizardfolk are too hard to spot to be worthwhile. Even sturdier races, like dwarves or orcs, will be neutralized by this.

“The best time to do this,” she added, holding up a finger warningly, “is before a fight breaks out, to prevent it from happening. The ear is a small target, and you have to hit it at the right angle. If someone’s already watching for an attack, it’s harder; if you’re already moving around trying to hit one another, harder still. You really only stand a chance of using this in a fight if you’re already a lot better than the person you’re fighting.”

“Oh, nice. That’s a nice touch.” Darius straightened up and turned to glare at her, still clutching his ear. “Couldn’t resist getting in a last little shot, could you?”

“Oh,” Jasmine said, suddenly looking flustered, in a sharp contrast to her previous bearing. “Um, sorry, I wasn’t thinking—”

“I’ll tell you what, Jas,” he said curtly. “Congratulations on being good at fighting. Everybody here’s good at something. The point is to get along with people and gain new skills. You’re gonna have a hard time if you can’t resist taking the opportunity to be an asshole every time you show somebody up.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Whatever,” he snorted, turning on his heel and slouching away, but not before his parting comment was audible. “Bitch.”

“Leave it,” Grip ordered when Jasmine took a step in his direction. The enforcer strode forward, effortlessly scattering apprentices with a sharp gesture. “Do not waste your time on petulant jackasses. The boy was right about that much, though I suspect the irony was lost on him. A word in your ear, kid? This way.” She tilted her head toward the corner of the pit, pausing only to sweep a very sharp look around at the assembled onlookers. Those who hadn’t already got the hint immediately set off in search of something else to do.

“So, you’ve done this before,” Grip said as Jasmine followed her. They came to a stop next to the climbing bars, atop which Rasha and Tallie still sat. The enforcer was surely aware of their presence, but did not acknowledge them.

“I’ve had the benefit of training, yes,” Jasmine agreed warily.

“Well, the fighting, yeah,” Grip said with a knowing little smile. “But also teaching. That’s exactly the right approach to take around here—show people what you know, make yourself useful, earn respect. You’re off to a good start, kid. Now, let’s talk about what you did wrong.”

Jasmine folded her arms, eyebrows lowering. “I thought I handled him pretty well.”

“Once the actual fighting started, yeah, you owned him. Listen, girl, I am an enforcer, and a good one. Inflicting pain and fear in Eserion’s name is my job, my calling, and my faith. So pay attention when I tell you that your objective as a practitioner of the violent arts should be not to fight. You inflict exactly as much damage as you need to in order to get the results you want. Violence is a means to an end; violence being the end in and of itself is a symptom of a particular species of crazy that we don’t tolerate around here.”

“Excuse me,” Jasmine said in annoyance, “but as I just said, I chose the least—”

“Mouth shut,” Grip said flatly. “I am speaking. A corollary of this principle is that as much as an enforcer needs to be good at force, she also needs to be good at theater. You have to control every aspect of your interactions in order to gain the fear and respect you need. How you present yourself, what you say, is a lot more important in the long run than breaking elbows—or eardrums. As such, announcing that you’re a feminist who can be goaded into a fight as easily as that boy did is a serious mistake. I doubt most of those yahoos out there have the motive or the understanding to leverage that, but in other circumstances… You showed a weakness in front of a crowd. Don’t do that.”

“I see,” Jasmine murmured, still frowning, but now in thought. “Thank you. That’s good advice.”

“I wouldn’t waste everyone’s time saying it, otherwise,” Grip said with a humorless little grin. “That aside, good show, kid. I’m gonna be watching you with interest.”

She clapped the apprentice on the shoulder once, and then strode away without another word. As she passed the older man who’d been watching the fight with her, he smoothly fell into step at her side, and they disappeared through the door into the catacombs. Jasmine stood there, gazing after them with a pensive frown still in place.

At least, until Tallie landed on the floor beside her.

“That was Grip!” Tallie enthused, ignoring the way Jasmine started away from her and slipped momentarily into a fighting stance. “You lucky bitch, you!”

“I’d really prefer it if people didn’t call me that,” Jasmine said pointedly, relaxing. “I spoke to that woman once before, briefly. So, she’s an enforcer? Who was that man with her?”

“Oh, who cares?” Tallie said dismissively, while Rasha clambered more sedately down to join them. “It was Grip, Jasmine! And she talked to you! Hell, she took the time to teach you!”

“That’s what full Guild members do with apprentices, right? I guess I’m making some progress, then.”

“Grip,” Rasha said, frowning. “Actually, I remember that name. She was the one Pick trained under, right? Before she threw him back into the general pool?”

“Damn skippy!” Tallie exclaimed, patting him hard on the shoulder. “You’ve got sharp ears and a good memory, my little friend. Dang, everybody’s showing off their potential today.”

“Can we not call people little?” Rasha said irritably.

“That’s the whole point about Grip,” Tallie blustered on, ignoring him now. “She doesn’t do apprentices. Rarely has one, and she’s been even more standoffish than usual ever since Pick proved himself to be a prick. She’s only recently started visiting the pit to watch apprentices again, and this is the first time she’s ever paid attention to one person in particular! Holy damn, woman, I kind of want to kill you and steal your life now!”

“I, uh, don’t think it works like that,” Jasmine said warily. “Anyhow… She doesn’t really sound like the sort of person I’d want to apprentice under.”

“Are you daft?” Tallie exclaimed.

Jasmine shrugged. “It’s just… I already know fighting.”

“I’ll say,” Rasha commented.

“I came here to learn other ways of dealing with my problems,” Jasmine continued, “not to become a better fighter. And especially not to learn how to be a more…intimidating, fear-inspiring person like Grip seems to be. That isn’t the path I want to follow. I hope I’m not gonna have to turn her down or anything,” she added worriedly. “If she’s well-respected around here, that seems like it could cause me some problems…”

“Oh, not likely,” Tallie said dismissively. “I mean, people would think it was weird as hell, you refusing to apprentice under someone with that kind of rep, but Eserites are all about leaving folks alone to do their thing. As long as Style doesn’t think you’re not working or learning hard enough… Or, hell, maybe you’d gain enough cred from her just asking that you’d get a better offer!”

“Maybe,” Jasmine murmured, gazing absently at the wall.

“Anyway!” Tallie said, suddenly with a broad grin. “Let’s do something!”

“Uh, oh,” Rasha muttered.

She scowled at him. “What, uh oh? You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“I’ve learned that when somebody says ‘let’s do something’ in that tone, I’m about to have a bad time.” Jasmine smiled at him in amusement.

“Oh, you kids and your…pooh-poohedness, pooh-poohing all my enthusiasm,” Tallie said, making a swatting gesture at him. “No, look, seriously, I think Jasmine’s debut calls for something celebratory, and we’re all here to get ourselves trained, right? Well, why choose between them when we can just do both?”

“Um, I’m not sure what needs celebrating, here,” Jasmine said. “I had one brief sparring match and an even briefer conversation with an enforcer.

“I’m curious what kind of training she means, though,” Rasha said.

“It sounds like an excuse to slack off,” Jasmine muttered.

“It is!” Tallie admitted cheerfully. “But, and I’m saying this in all seriousness, I wouldn’t be suggesting it if I didn’t see a real benefit. Training in the Guild is great, it’s necessary, but it’s also a preliminary sort of thing. Eserites are active out there in the world. So, I’m gonna do you the favor a senior apprentice did for me on my first day and show you one of the places we’re gonna need to get to know. That they have booze is just an added benefit!”

“I don’t drink,” said Jasmine.

They both stared at her.

“What do you mean, you don’t drink?” Tallie demanded.

“It isn’t a complex sentence, or subject,” Jasmine said in annoyance. “I do not ingest alcohol. Why is this such a big deal for everyone?”

“It’s a big deal because everyone drinks!” Tallie exclaimed.

“Everyone does not.” Jasmine folded her arms. “I don’t. And I’m hardly the only one.”

“Hey, what happened to letting people do their own thing?” Rasha said quietly.

Tallie heaved a sigh. “Out of the mouths of babes… All right, fine, but I hope you know there’s a serious interrogation coming your way, lady. With every new thing I learn about you, the mystery deepens. You’re like this big, improbable onion. Layer upon layer of new intrigues.”

“I suppose the metaphor fits,” Jasmine said, nodding. “Plus, if you cut me, I’ll make you cry.”

Rasha barked an unexpected laugh, stifling himself when Tallie scowled at him. “What? That was funny.”

“Thanks,” Jasmine said with a smile.

“Anyway!” Tallie said with a roll of her eyes. “Get yourselves together, guys, we’re taking a field trip. Since Grip chased everybody off from Jasmine and we’re all still messed up after our ridiculous adventure last night, it’s the perfect time for gwah!”

She jerked away from Ross, placing a hand on her chest and panting dramatically.

“What?” he asked, blinking in surprise. “You okay?”

“Damn it, don’t do that!” she snapped. “How did you do that? You’re like a buffalo; how the hell did you sneak up on us?”

He shrugged.

“Excuse me, but he snuck up on you,” Rasha said helpfully. “We saw him coming.”

“He just walked up,” Jasmine added. “Hi, Ross.”

“Jasmine.” He nodded to her before turning back to Tallie. “Can I come?”

“I—well, hell, sure.” She chuckled. “More the merrier, and I guess we’ve got as much of a history as we do with anyone else here. C’mon, kids, I’m going to open your eyes to a whole new world.”

“Um…” Rasha glanced around. “Should we…find Darius, first?”

Tallie sighed, shaking her head. “Rasha, we did one job with the guy.”

“One job,” Ross rumbled, “then jail, then cleaning duty.”

“Right, well, the point is, we’re not married to him. He’s off sulking after making an ass of himself with Jasmine. We’ll make other friends, Rasha, don’t get too attached.”

“Excuse me,” Jasmine interrupted, “but where, exactly, are you proposing to take us?”

Tallie winked. “To a place where all good thieves can congregate outside the sanctity of their Guild, to mix with the sort of people with whom they’ll need to do business. A place where we can make contacts, get anything money can buy, and generally do business.”

“For some reason,” Jasmine said with a sigh, “I can’t help assuming this is a place where we can get stabbed, and then get a nasty infection.”

“There, y’see?” Tallie grinned and slugged her on the shoulder. “I said you pick things up quick.”

“What kinda drinks to they have?” Ross asked.

“Plentiful, strong, and cheap!”

He nodded. “I’m in.”

Rasha remained silent, following along behind as the still-chattering Tallie led them up the stairs and toward the hall, unable to dislodge her last piece of advice from the forefront of his brain.

Who else would he be wiser not to get attached to? How long would it be before they realized they could do without him?

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