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It had ended up being a fairly early night by the time they all got back to the Guild. Between that and the previous night’s disruptions, she had slept early and well, and been awake at her habitually early hour. In fact, by the time she made it to the mess hall, they were only just beginning to serve breakfast, and so some minutes later, she was stepping into the pit, fed and ready to begin the day, at an hour when hardly anyone was about and most of the other apprentices were still sound asleep.

“Jasmine.”

She stopped and turned. Pacing toward her was the older man who had been with Grip the day before, studying her through slightly narrowed eyes. Graying hair and the lines of his face alone betrayed his age; he was straight-backed and trim of build, with an incisive gaze set currently in a pensive expression.

In each hand, he carried a stick about a yard long; as soon as she turned to him, he tossed one in her direction, which she caught reflexively.

“Spar with me.”

“I—”

Before she could squeeze out a second word, he surged forward, stick upraised, and instinct took over. She deflected his probing strike, then the next, and then directly blocked the third to test the strength of his blows.

It was considerable.

His sharp, contemplative expression never changed as he continued pressing her. The pattern he established was immediately familiar; he was testing her abilities, probing her defenses, gauging the speed of her reflexes and the precision of her movements. Jasmine, mindful of her place as an apprentice in the Guild, endured this patiently for a few rounds, allowing him to push her backward, before suddenly striking out more aggressively.

At that, even as he gave ground under her assault, the man permitted himself a slight smile.

Attempting to probe him in return was unsatisfying, to say the least; his every movement was precise as dwarven machinery, evading and deflecting each attack with exactly the force it demanded and no more. She sensed immediately that this was an opponent whose martial skill outstripped hers by far, even when he was refraining from demonstrating it. This kind of pure, unharried control in the face of her efforts reminded her of sparring with the Avenist blademasters who had trained her initially, and more recently with Professor Ezzaniel.

Then, he abruptly switched to attack again, pressing harder than before—so hard she was suddenly forced to seriously exert herself. His strikes remained eerily perfect in placement, but they came faster, and from unexpected angles, and hit harder to boot. She swiftly realized that meeting him head-on was a losing strategy, and switched to evasion. Still he came, forcing her to spin aside ever more rapidly.

Without warning, his entire body surged forward following what she had initially mistaken for an exploratory prod at her defenses, and her answering evasion allowed him to slip behind her. She spun, then spun again—it was as if he had disappeared.

No—he was behind her, and stayed there no matter how she twisted to face him again. Then, as she finally bounded forward to gain distance, he was suddenly there again; his stick came down on hers from above with numbing force, sending it clattering to the ground, and an instant later it halted an inch from her eyes, the strike that would have bowled her over backward reined in at the last possible instant.

Jasmine stared at the shaft of wood from far too close, only now becoming aware that she was breathing heavily and sweating. She took one careful step backward, and he lowered his weapon at the same moment.

“So,” she said cautiously, “you’ve done this before.”

At that, he favored her with a small smile, then lowered his fighting stick to his side and bowed from the waist. “I am Silence.”

She returned the gesture. “Jasmine. But you seem to know that.”

“One of my old pupils identified you to me. Suggested I should examine the level of your skill.”

“Grip?”

He nodded once, again studying her consideringly. “What an interesting life you have led.”

“I beg your pardon?” She frowned, unable to keep the wariness out of her voice.

“You are very good for one your age,” he replied, still contemplating her in perfect calm. “The Eagle Style is distinctively recognizable; even Grip said you were clearly trained in it, though yesterday, what I saw you demonstrate against that boy was a classic Sun Style evasive pattern. That is the intriguing blend I see in you. Intensive training in the martial art of the Sisterhood, but with the most unlikely additions. Omnist fighting, but you also employ a Narisian saber form when evading, and those lunges are distinct to Punaji fencing—power and the illusion of wildness, remaining under perfect control.”

“Yes. Well.” She absentmindedly shifted backward half a step. “I suppose I had a rather privileged upbringing; I’ve only begun to really appreciate that since coming here. I had teachers from all over—”

“No.” He contradicted her flatly, but without ire or aggression. “You were trained in the Eagle Style alone, and trained to incredible competence. The rest are mere tidbits in comparison, things you have picked up here and there as you encountered them. It is most unusual to see someone so young who has so mastered the Eagle Style’s dueling form; almost all of what is taught to the Legions and the girls raised in Avei’s monasteries is phalanx fighting. There are plenty of blademasters among the Sisterhood, of course, but they are older women who have studied it in their own time. In this day and age, single combat is little more than a performance art, having scarce application in war.”

“That is…creepy,” she said frankly.

At this, he smiled again. “It’s little more than a parlor trick, in truth. It is said that fighting styles are as individual as faces; I happen to have devoted my life to them, and to their understanding. It is not boasting to say that few others would perceive in your attacks what I do. Hardly anyone has a need. There are many paths in Eserion’s service, and I have found mine chiefly as a teacher of the martial arts.”

“I see,” she said carefully. “Then I thank you for the lesson.”

Silence studied her mutely for a moment longer, then stepped forward, producing a small envelope from a pocket of his coat and extending it to her. “This is an invitation for you, from Glory. She wished me to offer it if I judged your level of skill commensurate with her needs.”

Jasmine frowned at the envelope, making no move to accept it. “Who is Glory?”

“A thief,” he replied, still holding it patiently out to her. “One who commands immense respect, both in the Guild and in the city at large. She does not have the power, explicitly, to give orders to me or even to you. But a request from Glory is one you would be well advised to take with the utmost seriousness.”

Finally, she reached out to take the envelope from him. “All…right. Thank you.”

“Her address is written within,” Silence said. “She will be available for you to visit any time before noon today.”

He bowed to her once more, then took two steps back before turning and climbing the stairs to the upper level, where he vanished from sight.

Jasmine frowned at the envelope in her hand, turning it over, and only after a close inspection opened it to study the scented sheet of parchment within. After a moment, she made her own way toward the steps, barely paying attention to her path as she read and re-read the missive.

Thus distracted, she paid no mind to the very few apprentices and senior thieves currently present in the pit, though all of them were now watching her closely. Including Tallie, who leaned in the doorway to the dormitory with her arms folded, studying Jasmine through narrowed eyes.


Glory’s address was in a row of large townhouses in a very expensive district, where Jasmine’s clearly secondhand coat drew contemptuous looks and a number of outright sneers, which she ignored. She did have to pause in front of the gate to peer upward at the house, and then double-check the address on the invitation. This place was bigger than Bishop Darling’s house, and its front garden was not only twice the size but looked like it would have been lavish if it were not midwinter; the desiccated state of the shrubbery and the lack of snow to obscure it were unfortunate.

She passed through the gate, crossed the path as quickly as possible, and rang the bell. No sense beating around the dried-up bush.

After a very short span of time, the door opened inward, revealing an expressionless blond man in his thirties, wearing a suit identical to that which she remembered seeing on Darling’s Butler, Price.

“Good day,” he said, the two words a masterpiece of pronunciation. Just the faintest upnote in the phrase, coupled with an infinitesimal movement of his left eyebrow, subtly challenged her prerogative to be here. The effect was unmistakeable, and yet went nowhere near crossing a line which would have justified any complaint on her part.

Butlers.

“Good morning,” she replied, proffering the violet-scented invitation. “My name is Jasmine; Glory asked me to come.”

“Of course,” the Butler said, smoothly stepping back and opening the door for her. “You are expected. Please, come in.”

“Thank you.”

She tried not to gawk, but couldn’t help peering around in fascination as the Butler led her across a marble-floored entrance hall, up a curved staircase with gilded bannisters, through a short hallway draped with crimson velvet hangings, and into a sunny little sitting room. The décor in this place was…striking. Expensive, yes, which was hardly surprising given the size and location of the house, but in terms of taste it ran heavily to reds and golds, dark woods, and golden marble. Cases of worn-looking books were interspersed with equally well-used weapons both hanging on walls and displayed behind glass. If she had to put a word to the overall aesthetic, it would be “masculine.” That is, until she reached the little sitting room on the second floor, which was done in shades of blue and mauve that really seemed they should have clashed but did not, accented by touches of lace and oil paintings depicting mostly pastoral scenes.

The Butler showed her to a seat in a dainty armchair and bowed out of the room, assuring her the mistress of the house would be with her presently. Upon his departure, she drummed her fingers on her knees, peering about with a sensation just short of nervousness. More than anything, she was curious about this Glory, but the house itself made her feel keenly out of place.

Luckily, she was not kept waiting long before the door opposite the one through which she had entered opened, and her hostess stepped in.

“Ah, the famous Jasmine!” Glory said with a broad yet sly smile, and Jasmine began to have a sinking feeling about this. Glory was a strikingly beautiful woman who could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty, and at first glance appeared just to have awakened. At any rate, her dark hair hung unstyled down her back, and she wore a brocaded robe over…apparently nothing. Upon closer inspection, however, Jasmine noted that the hair in question was freshly washed and had been brushed to a luminous sheen, the robe was artfully opened at the neck to display a generous hint of cleavage that couldn’t possibly be so pert without hidden support, and her lovely features showed subtle but clear cosmetics. Also, upon Glory’s arrival, the same scent of violets which suffused Jasmine’s invitation wafted into the room.

“I don’t know about that,” Jasmine said diplomatically, rising politely to greet her hostess. “It’s a mystery to me why anybody seems to know who I am.”

“And is that not intriguing?” Glory replied in a tone which could have been accurately characterized as a purr. She stepped forward, offering her hand in a position that left Jasmine no clear option except to take it gently and lay a kiss on her wrist, like a courtier in a chapbook.

She let a beat of confusion pass before sliding her own hand under Glory’s, gently wrapping her fingers around the woman’s wrist in a warrior’s handshake, and delicately yet firmly turning their grasped hands to a more normal orientation. Rude, possibly. She was aware that she lacked understanding of the etiquette at play here, and equally aware that she was being baited. Better to make it plain up front that she wasn’t going to play along. If that resulted in a quick expulsion from the house, well, she didn’t really know why she was here in the first place.

Glory, if anything, seemed mightily amused by Jasmine’s little display, and made a point of dragging her fingertips flirtatiously along her wrist when disengaging from the handshake.

“Please, sit down, be comfortable,” she said pleasantly, suiting the words by lowering herself smoothly into a similar chair opposite the small serving table from Jasmine’s.

“Thank you for inviting me over,” Jasmine said carefully, seating herself again. “I apologize if I seem…blunt…but I am really not educated for, ah…high society. I mean no disrespect. And I’m puzzled as to why you wished to speak to me at all.”

“Well, my dear, etiquette is what it is,” Glory said idly, lounging back in her armchair and daintily crossing her legs, the pose subtly suggestive without being too bold. “A long list of little customs which must be memorized to be observed. Overrated, I think. Blunt or no, you show respect and consideration in your manner, and that counts for far more in my estimation.” She paused, smiling with that same bare hint of mischief, before continuing. “As for why you are here… Tell me, what have you heard about me?”

“Nothing,” Jasmine said honestly. “Only your name, and that only this morning. From Silence, who I had also never heard of before.”

“I see.” For some reason, this answer seemed to amuse and delight her hostess. “Well! I am Tamisin Dinara Sharvineh, also known in Eserion’s service as Glory, and if I might be forgiven for flattering myself, a somewhat unusual creature. You are doubtless acquainted with some of the more common paths we Eserites tend to tread as we rise through the Guild. The con artists, the enforcers, the sneak-thieves, the purse-cutters. There are as many variations on these themes as there are people to practice them; ours is a faith which firmly discourages blind adherence to custom. Beyond that, though, many choose to find more unique ways of living Eserion’s faith. Silence is one; Lore, who I shall presume you have met by this point, is another. Such as they are a vital part of the Guild’s structure. Others dwell more on the outskirts of the Eserite sphere, no less esteemed or important for being unique. I am one of those.”

“Is that so?” Jasmine said politely.

Glory’s smile widened almost imperceptibly. “I am… Well, as a concept the profession has largely disappeared from civilized society, thanks chiefly to the influence of Izara and her priests. The most applicable word would be ‘courtesan.’”

Jasmine opened her mouth, then shut it after a moment, failing to find a single safe thing to say in response. She was keenly aware of the flush rising in her cheeks, especially under Glory’s knowing smile.

“From what I understand,” she murmured, “you must have been raised by Avenists, to have drilled in their combat styles as much as Grip and Silence believe you have. Tell me… Would that be Jasmine Avelea, or are you simply the daughter of devout parents with means?”

“Excuse me,” Jasmine said, finding somewhat safer footing in rejection, “but with all due respect, I am not interested in discussing my personal history.”

“Oh, but of course,” Glory said languidly, waving a hand—whose fingers, Jasmine noted for the first time, had their nails immaculately painted. For heaven’s sake, it wasn’t even midmorning. “You must pardon me—I am inquisitive by nature, but you will find I do not in the least lack respect for privacy. It is a vital trait in my profession, after all. But I have brought you here to explore possible answers to intriguing questions. And I can only imagine you must have several of your own.”

“I…” Jasmine had to pause to clear her throat, which seemed to amuse Glory. Her annoyance at that helped to ground her. “Frankly, I don’t understand what that has to do with stealing.”

“Stealing is a means to an end, Jasmine,” Glory said. “Nobody steals just to steal; those who claim they do are in it for the rush, for the thrill. Eserion is the patron of thieves in much the way Avei is looked to by lawyers, judges, and police. Not because the deity is of those things, but because their defining concept encompasses them. Eserion, young lady, can be best understood as the god of defiance.”

“I see,” Jasmine mused, frowning. “That’s…hm. I appreciate the insight; I haven’t had the chance to learn much actual Eserite theology yet. But, um…my question stands.”

“Oh?” Glory raised one immaculate eyebrow, sculpted as much by brush and pencil as by genetics. “I suspect you have made some erroneous assumptions. I am certainly not a whore; I do not rent my body, or my attention. It is through less direct and more powerful means that I accumulated all this.” She gestured idly around the tastefully expensive sitting room. “Try to understand the mindset of the very rich, and very powerful. Almost anything they want, they can buy, or take. It diminishes the value of having; human beings are meant to work, to earn. We take sadly little pleasure in pleasures that cost us nothing, and so much of the misery of acquisition is rooted in everyone’s failure to understand this. Were I for sale, well…what would be the point of me? Anyone wanting sex can simply walk into a temple of Izara—or, if they have somehow offended even the Izarites, go to a brothel. A few such do manage to exist.”

She straightened up slowly, leaning toward Jasmine in a way that displayed more of her cleavage, though her now-serious expression was arresting enough to hold her guest’s gaze. The same might not have been true of someone interested in ogling another woman’s bosom, but Jasmine was, in spite of herself, now too interested in Glory’s explanation to think on such things.

“Men and women do not come here looking to buy my affection. Oh, they bring me gifts, this is true. Lavish gifts, generally, though even that does not fund the lion’s share of my lifestyle. I operate a kind of…salon, here. It is a lively establishment, most evenings, where I hold court among the rich, the bored, the powerful…the lonely. We discuss all manner of things. Art, history, enchantment, politics, war… I am fully conversant in all the topics that are bandied about in the halls of the Palace itself.” She smiled coyly, somehow not losing the intensity of her gaze to it. “It is a rather less restrictive environment, of course. All of my guests are free to let their hair down—not enough that my home embraces bawdiness, but enough to grant them a tantalizing liberty they are denied in more acceptable settings. And I, of course, rule my tiny kingdom with just the right touch of flirtation, the merest hint of sensuality, to keep them intrigued, and always coming back. Each relationship is a thing I cultivate carefully, and with sincere appreciation for the individual which whom I share it.”

She shrugged disarmingly, now shifting to lean against the arm of her chair in a way that dramatically emphasized the long curve of her waist and hip. “And many do manage to spend a night, here and there, in my arms. Not all—perhaps not even most. The promise, the possibility, is always there, however. That is what keeps them intrigued by me. Anything else in this world they can reach out and take at a whim. They cannot buy me, however. To have me, they must earn me. And so they spend countless hours and fortunes in my company. That which must be sought, charmed, quested for, is so much more valuable than that which can be merely bought. No one feels cheated, or is cheated, by dancing in my circle, even if they never attain the ultimate prize.”

“I…see,” Jasmine murmured, well aware that her posture was visibly stiff and uncomfortable.

“Perhaps you are beginning to,” Glory said, again with that sly smile. “You are still overburdened by the hang-ups disguised as morals your upbringing inflicted upon you.”

“Is it worth it?” Jasmine asked quietly.

Glory’s expression immediately sobered. “For me? More than worth it. I would not suggest this life to anyone who did not have the inclination. I love it all, though. The conversation, the politics. The games, the emotions, the people. And yes, the love, both physical and otherwise. It is for each person to discover how they are best served by their sexuality; I am immensely gratified by sharing myself with a variety of Tiraas’s most fascinating people. I rather suspect that you would not be. Many wouldn’t.”

“I’m still not sure I understand, though. How is this stealing or defiance?”

Glory shook her head, smiling again. “Child, the most powerful people in the Empire circulate through my home, my life, and my bed. They do it by talking, and by competing for my affection. My true trade is in secrets, and in favors. Nothing happens in this city that I cannot learn just by asking; there is very little that I cannot cause to happen by whispering the right words in the right ears. It’s an influence that must be wielded with the utmost subtlety; nothing would destroy all I have built faster than overreaching. But provided I don’t get greedy—which I do not—I am positioned to provide that which the Guild needs most of all.”

She shifted again, back to her original pose, leaning back in the armchair and smiling knowingly.

“Opportunity.”

“I see,” Jasmine said again. “I…actually begin to think that I do.”

“Yes, you would not be here if my friends thought you too dense to grasp it,” Glory said pleasantly.

“Why am I here, though? You said it yourself; this kind of thing is not for me. And I’m definitely not the sort of person who can contribute to your…enterprise.”

“Ah, so now we come to it,” Glory said solemnly. “The truth is, Jasmine, I am looking for an apprentice.”

Jasmine shot to her feet before realizing she was going to. “I will never—”

“Sit down.”

She obeyed instantly, reflexively. Glory had neither raised her voice nor roughened her tone, but there was in it the absolute conviction that she would obeyed which Jasmine had been taught from the cradle to respect.

“Dear girl,” Glory said, shaking her head, “of course you’re not the type to pursue my path in life. I told you as much; I really don’t see it in you. Besides, the nature of a Guild apprenticeship isn’t just in following a sponsor’s footsteps; it matters how you fit into your sponsor’s life and career while you are there. It would utterly wreck my methods to have someone around who served as competition. No… I need very specific things in an apprentice, and I have had my friends in the Guild keeping their eyes open for a likely prospect. You are the first such who has been brought to my attention. I am, you see, exceedingly particular.”

“Why me?” Jasmine asked warily.

“What I require,” Glory explained, “is a counterpoint. Someone calm and decorous where I am vivacious and flirtatious. Someone martial and dangerous where I am soft and pleasing—and as able and willing to demonstrate his or her skills as I am my own. Someone who can contribute, converse intelligently and be a positive presence in my salon. And finally—and this is most important—someone who will benefit from my teaching.”

She straightened, for the first time assuming a simple, upright posture, regarding Jasmine with a serious expression.

“Someone who needs to learn what I can teach them about subtlety, careful influence, and the uses of a light touch. I am, here, making my most presumptuous guess yet, but… That is the thing you came to the Guild to learn, no?”

Slowly, Jasmine nodded.

Glory nodded in return. “What made you break with the faith of Avei?”

“I haven’t.”

“Oh?”

“I…” She glanced away. “It’s a little difficult to… The truth is, I am something of a brute. I’ve realized it fairly recently. I still value Avei’s principles, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that you just can’t get anywhere in the modern world with the attitude that every problem is an evil to vanquish. The Sisterhood are right about a lot of things…but they aren’t right about everything. I came to the Guild to learn other ways of… Of acting, but also of understanding.”

Glory’s answering smile was simple and honest in a way that none of her previous expressions had been. “It may be that you are exactly what I seek. And that I am what you seek.”

Jasmine shrugged, slumping back into her own chair. “I, um… Maybe. The thought is so weird to me I’m having a hard time looking at it objectively.”

Her hostess smiled in pure, friendly amusement. “Well, let me pose a question to you, Jasmine. What is your greatest passion in life?”

“Justice,” she said immediately.

Glory nodded. “And why is that?”

Jasmine gaped at her. “I—that—well. I mean, it’s justice?”

“That is your upbringing talking.” Glory pointed a manicured finger at her. “In fact, I have known a good many people in my time who were driven by a passion for justice. Interestingly, most were either Avenists or Eserites. And every one of them, without exception, could tell me exactly the thing which ignited that passion within them. In every case, it was a painful encounter with injustice which left them compelled to seek out and destroy that monster wherever it lurked. You, though? You are following a path laid out for you by those who came before. And that will lead you nowhere.”

“Just because I haven’t suffered the way others have doesn’t mean I’m not sincere,” Jasmine said irritably.

“Sincerity isn’t passion,” Glory retorted. “Oh, don’t mistake me, you need a lot more than passion to get ahead in life. There’s a great deal of skill and technique that goes into building a meaningful existence. But without passion? Without something that drives you? You have no place to begin. Unless you are driven from within, you will be driven from without—either by the randomness of the world, or by clever people who would exploit you for their own gain. What drives you, Jasmine? Forget Avei, forget Eserion, discard all systems and ideologies. What is the thing inside you that burns, that pushes you forward to make a better world, and a better you?”

Jasmine stared at her, not even aware that her mouth was slightly open.

Glory studied her thoughtfully for a few long seconds before speaking again.

“I will have to think on this, Jasmine. I suggest you do as well. You…intrigue me. I see possibility here. But…whether it is the possibility we both need, I am not yet sure. Are you?”

Jasmine swallowed heavily. “I’m…less sure of everything than I was when I walked in here.”

Glory’s answering smile was sympathetic. “I don’t say this to many people, but… Whether or not we decide to proceed together, my door is open to you, whenever you need it. Best that you visit me in the mornings; something tells me that without specific coaching, you would mix poorly with the guests who are usually to be found in my home in the evenings. But when you have a need, you may come to me. I think that, whatever else befalls, you and I can help one another.

“For now, though, I thank you for this extremely enlightening visit, and must bid you good day. The preparations for my night’s work are more involved than you would perhaps believe.”


Outside the opulent townhouse, she came to a stop just past the gate, staring at the rich houses across the street and not seeing them.

Passion? Nothing in her early upbringing had covered that. If anything, Avei’s faith encouraged comprehension, restraint, discipline. Avenist fanatics existed—she had recently shared a campus with one—but there weren’t many and they tended not to get far in the cult. Most Avenists found them rather uncomfortable to be around.

Passion was no part of her University education either. Tellwyrn’s program emphasized rationality even more heavily than the Sisterhood did, and with even less patience for foolishness.

But…

Something was tickling at the back of her mind. Something which seemed connected to her increasing frustration with this whole enterprise, but also to her hope for what she wanted to achieve. This was another piece of the puzzle… But it suggested more pieces which were still out of her reach.

How to connect all this? She couldn’t figure a way to make the disparate fragments of her understanding fit together. If anything, her slow education in the ways of the Eserites was only pulling it all apart.

She had an idea, of course, how to proceed, but…

“Miss? Are you lost?”

Jasmine snapped back out of her inner world, finding herself confronted by an Army patrolman. He stood directly in front of her, his face and posture neither aggressive nor sympathetic. All at once, she remembered that in her casual clothing and slightly scruffy longcoat, she did not in any way look like the sort of person who had any business standing around in a neighborhood like this.

“Actually, yes,” she said, suddenly seizing on an idea. “Can you direct me to the Imperial botanical gardens? The sheltered one, in the glass dome. I was sent in this direction but I can’t even see a building like that over the houses…”

“I’m afraid you’re extremely turned around, miss,” the officer said, lifting his eyebrows. His tone didn’t quite express suspicion, but hinted that he wasn’t buying this story. “That’s in the northeast quadrant of the city, very near the center. You’re in the southwest and about four blocks too far toward the walls.”

She sighed heavily and rubbed at her forehead. “That’s just…fantastic. Really. Ugh… I’m sorry to be a bother, but if it’s not too much trouble… What’s the best way to get there you can suggest for someone with the Empire’s worst sense of direction? I started out from the old spice market and…”

At that, he smiled, if only very faintly. “Well, it’s actually fairly simple; if you’re new to the city, I wouldn’t try getting directly from one point to another. The trick is always to start at Imperial Square, which is right in the center. You can find it from anywhere, and you can get anywhere from it. In this case, you’d just take the northeast street out of the square, and the gardens will be barely a block along on your right.”

“Thank you,” she said feelingly. “Really, that’s good advice. Always from the Square, right. And from here, that is, uh…” She stood on tiptoe, craning her neck.

“That way, miss,” he said, pointing up the street to her right. “This avenue is leveled out, but if you look around you can usually manage to see the general slope of the city. Imperial Square is always uphill. When you run out of uphill to go, you’re there.”

“Thanks so much, officer, you’re a lifesaver,” she said, bowing to him.

“Ma’am,” he replied politely, nodding in return. At least he seemed less suspicious now.

She set off in the direction he had indicated. All that had mostly been to avoid a confrontation, and she was sort of proud of herself for coming up with it on the spur of the moment. She was already thinking more like a thief. The idea itself, though…

Well, it was probably a bad idea. But it was the only one she had at the moment, and it certainly wouldn’t be the worst one she’d ever had.

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11 – 7

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“Well, I can’t say you don’t know how to show a lady a good time,” Principia remarked. “Herschel, with the greatest of respect and all apologies to your delicacy and masculine pride… Are you sure you can afford this?”

He actually laughed lightly. “Oh, well…as a general rule, no, this sort of thing is well out of my budget. However, a good friend of mine works here, and wrangled me a membership so we can meet and talk in privacy. It is an excellent place for privacy, which is why I invited you! But, no, let’s just say I don’t commonly eat here. I mean, the drinks alone… Not that you should feel inhibited!” he added hastily. “Please, you’re my guest, get whatever you like.”

“Not to put too fine a point on it,” she replied dryly, “I’ve been a Legionnaire for a few months and a thief for two hundred years. I could buy this place. Since you’re providing the venue, how about I cover the drinks?”

“Ah, well, if you insist,” he said, not smooth enough to fully disguise his relief. She only smiled in amusement.

She had been intrigued when Schwartz’s message specified formal attire, and even somewhat surprised when he brought her to one of the city’s more expensive nightclubs. Most of these places actively sought to cultivate a men’s club atmosphere, all done up in dark hardwoods, red-stained leather, and either brass trappings with old books or pelts and hunting trophies, depending on the set of moneyed men to which they pandered. The Limelight Lounge, however, was known as a place for assignations between well-heeled couples; it was indeed designed for privacy, and also for softer tastes, its décor running heavily toward silks and velvets in deep blue, with etched glass partitions as décor. It also kept more generous hours than its counterparts, which was why it was not only open this early in the afternoon, but rather well-attended. The layout was also somewhat obfuscatory, with tables and chairs arranged in artfully uneven tiers and terraces around its stage, and two balconies running around the perimeter of the tall central room. No doubt the difficulty this created in navigating was offset by the privacy it afforded its patrons. The many nooks scattered here and there were cleverly positioned to have a good view of the stage and not much else.

They stood out somewhat, unavoidably. Though most of those present were in tailored suits and elegant gowns, Schwartz was not the only person to be seen in the formal robes of his cult, nor she the only guest in military dress uniform. Principia was, however, the only person to be seen in the white uniform of the Silver Legions; she rather doubted this place saw many Avenists. And she was, unsurprisingly, the only elf, unless more were hiding in the secluded booths. Not impossible, but this really wasn’t an elvish kind of place.

“So, this friend,” Principia mused after a moment’s pause, in which they strolled slowly along the rail of the lowest balcony. “Not a waiter or something, I assume, if he was able to get you a membership here…”

“She, actually,” he said, turning to nod toward the stage, on which a very pretty dark-haired young woman sat, singing in an exceedingly well-trained voice to the accompaniment of her guitar. Unlike many players who simply strummed the instrument’s strings, her fingers danced with a virtuoso’s mastery, filling the air with sweet little harmonies which wove around and through her song. “The management thinks quite highly of her around here. Enough to put up with my occasional presence, at any rate! Though, ah, they were quite adamant that pets are not permitted in the club.”

“You mean your little…Meesie, wasn’t it?” Principia tilted her head and smirked. “I should think elemental familiars belong in a wholly different category than pets.”

“Now, see, that’s the argument I made! I was firmly assured, however, that I was incorrect.”

She grinned, stopping and stepping in front of him to lean against the rail, gazing down at the singer. “Soooo. By friend, do you by any chance mean…?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that,” he said hastily. “She’s just a friend, just that, that’s all! Not that there’s anything wrong with Ami at all, of course. She’s certainly lovely—I mean, I’ve got eyes. But there’s, ah, someone…sort of. Maybe.” He trailed off, his expression growing dour, and absently rubbed at his shoulder where Meesie usually sat.

“Sounds complicated,” Principia murmured.

“It…rather is,” he admitted. “I don’t rightly know how she feels, or her situation… And we’re sort of prevented by circumstance from…well, even talking. For now. Maybe for… I don’t know. I mostly think I’m a fool to still be bothering with it at all. It’s a mess, and… I don’t know.”

“Go for it,” she said quietly, still watching Ami sing.

Schwartz blinked, turning to look at her. “Really? But you don’t even know the situation.”

“That’s my advice for most situations,” she said with a wry little smile.

“Hm.” He grunted and turned moodily to gaze down at the performing bard. “My mother advised me to forget the whole thing.”

“And the last thing I’d want is to undermine your mother, Herschel. I never met her, nor was aware of her existence, for that matter, but I will say that I’m likely at least four times her age. And what I’ve learned about love is that heartbreaks fade, but the regrets of opportunities you missed will haunt you forever.”

He simply gazed in silence for a few long moments, clearly no longer focusing on Ami, before replying. “Did you and my dad talk about things like this?”

“We did, actually,” she said, then her forehead creased in a frown. “But… You’re, what, twenty-three? Is that right?”

“Oh, ah, yes. I think I mentioned that.”

“Mm. Let’s find a place to sit, shall we?”

“Oh! Sure, good idea.”

He led her to a booth, screened by lush potted plants whose exuberant state of growth was inexplicable in the dim, windowless club. The table was elevated two steps, shielded from view to either side and affording them a good view of the stage and its performer.

“The thing is,” Principia said as she settled into a seat across from him, “you’d have been a little tyke of about five when I last saw Anton, and I had no idea you existed. I never even knew he was married. Quite frankly, I see why he kept it from me. Matters between us would have been different had I known.”

“Oh?” he said warily.

She grinned. “Let’s just say I’ve been prone to adventure most of my life, since long before that came to be considered a dirty word. It’s not often I find myself in the company of trustworthy friends, and I’m afraid I have a tendency to drag them into all manner of exploits when I have them. I’d have been a lot more cautious with Anton had I known he had a family back home. And he knew that, hence not telling me.” She shrugged. “Well, in the end, he profited from knowing me and I never got him into more trouble than I could get him back out of, but I still feel I owe your whole family an apology. Something tells me your mother wouldn’t be at all pleased to learn of some of what we got up to.”

“Mother certainly isn’t shy about experiencing the rougher side of life herself,” he said. “That’s how they met, in fact. She’d have gone with him on his trips—and did, at first, but once she became the Sheriff, she had an obligation to stay near home. My sister and I were partly raised by a variety of aunts and neighbors.”

“So, Anton’s wife is a Sheriff,” Principia murmured.

“And a former Legionnaire!” he added.

She winced. “All things considered, and with all respect to the lady, I think I’ll refrain from introducing myself.”

“If…you think that’s best,” he said doubtfully.

“So!” she continued in a more brisk tone. “As I believe I mentioned, the way Anton and I left things off, he did me a big favor which I always felt deserved repayment, and I’m sorry I never had the chance to make good on that. But you’re here and I’m here now, so let’s talk about what I can do for you. Why is it, exactly, that you feel the need to make friends and connections with Eserites?”

Schwartz frowned down at his hands, which were clasped together on the table. “I… Well. I’m afraid this is going to sound rather ungrateful, but I have to be frank on the matter of privacy. There are…circumstances. Secrets and dicey situations, and tales that aren’t even mine to tell, risks I can’t take. I’ll understand if this means you can’t work with me, but there’s going to be a lot that I just can’t—”

“All right, stop,” she said with a grin, holding up a hand. “Remember, Herschel, I am an Eserite. And as we were just discussing, your dad and I got along swimmingly without me ever knowing half the important details of his life. I definitely understand secrets and privacy, so you can leave off the flowery explanations. Let’s dispense with what you can’t tell me and focus on what you can. What is it you need?”

“I am not…exactly…sure,” he said, frowning. “Okay, well, the truth of it is… I have an enemy, which is something I am not used to, and not good at handling. I was strongly advised to befriend someone in the Thieves’ Guild to help teach me…well, how to handle an enemy.”

She narrowed her eyes in thought. “How urgent is this situation?”

“Well…it’s not good,” he said darkly. “Urgent, though… She—I mean they don’t know I’m…well, after h—them.”

“So, enemy’s a woman,” Principia said wryly. “Don’t make that face; this will go faster if you don’t try to cover up these flubs. I’m not going to interrogate you about it beyond what I need to know to help. Why is it urgent-ish?”

Again, he stared down at his hands in thought for a long moment. “…have you ever known someone who just… Just needs to be brought down?”

“Yes,” she said simply. “Frequently.”

He nodded. “And…apart from general principles, it relates to the other matter I brought up. Someone I, ah, care about is in danger from this person. Rather…constant danger.”

“Life-threatening?”

“I don’t…know? I suspect not, at least immediately. It’s more a matter of constant, calculated abuse.”

“This…is an ugly situation you’re sketching the outlines of,” she said, frowning. “Well, you may or may not have come to the right person. I definitely know a thing or two about dealing with hostiles, but trying to make a thief of you is probably not the wisest approach. Not knowing the person or the situation, there’s a stark limit to how much good my advice, or anyone’s, will do you. Herschel, I realize you’re a somewhat hesitant speaker in general, but you do seem to be stumbling a great deal over this. I think your first step should be to figure out what the maximum possible information you can give me about this is, and do so. I realize you’ve no personal reason to trust me, and I’ll respect your privacy. I’m not digging; I’m trying to lay out what it is I’ll need in order to help you.”

“I see,” he said, heaving a sigh. “Well, that…all makes perfect sense, I suppose. It’s just that… I was sort of warned specifically that once this person knows I’m coming after her, that’s when the real fight will begin…”

“That is probably the explicit truth,” she agreed, nodding. “And you’d better be ready for that fight when it starts. Which is the point of this, isn’t it?”

“Exactly. And… I don’t mean any disrespect, please believe that, but you’re right in that I don’t know much about you, and every person I let know about this is a chance for word to get back to…her.”

“Good,” she said. “You may not be a practiced enemy, but you’re clearly a careful thinker, Herschel. What I can tell you now is that your best plan for this will be…to plan. I’ve not seen you try to fight, but I understand you didn’t pose much of an impediment to Squad 342 last night. You’re a thinker, not a scrapper. Best to have your plans laid in full before you engage.”

He opened his mouth to reply, then suddenly turned toward the stage, where the music had stopped, followed by muted applause. The bard stood and bowed to her audience before slipping offstage, while a harpist smoothly entered from the opposite side to take her place.

“Ah, good,” Schwartz said in a more cheerful tone. “She always notices when I come in. I’ve no idea how, I swear she doesn’t even look up from her guitar, and anyway how could she see with the lights on her like that? But every time I visit she’ll come talk with me. I should introduce you here in just a moment!”

“Capital idea,” Principia said brightly, rising and slipping out of the booth. “Before that, allow me a moment, will you? I’ll be right back to meet your friend.”

“Ah, of course, sure,” he said, bobbing his head in affirmation.

After she had slid away out of view, he let out a sigh and leaned back against his seat, resting his head on the partition behind him. All this…scheming. With every new development, even the encouraging ones, it was made ever clearer to him that he was wildly out of his element. For a few long minutes he just rested there, breathing evenly and letting the soft strains of harp music from below wash over him.

“My, my, is it that bad?”

He straightened up and managed a thin smile as Ami slid into the booth across from him. “Hello. Lovely performance as always. And no…nothing new is bad. I’m just…coping, as always.”

“Well, you’re taking action, which is all anyone can ask, I suppose,” she said airily. “To judge by the white longcoat, I gather your date is this mysterious new friend in the Legions? Splendid work, Herschel. It can’t be said that you don’t move quickly.”

“Yes, and she’ll be back in just a moment.” He glanced around. “Actually, I’m not sure what the, ah… I mean, probably just the necessary. I thought it indelicate to ask.”

“Setting the trap,” Principia said brightly, appearing at the table again as if by magic. Ami jumped in surprise, then went rigid, staring at her; the elf gave her a pleasant smile. “It wouldn’t do for your friend here to get nervous and bolt, before I could position myself between her and any way off that seat. Young woman, I can see you thinking about it. Now tell me, which do you think is a worse idea: trying to shove your way past an elf, or past a Silver Legionnaire?”

Schwartz gaped at her. “Uh… What is going on?”

“Just a little…reunion between old friends,” Ami said in a strangled voice. “And this, Herschel, is why I wish you’d told me just who you were meeting.”

“I’ll bet you do,” Principia said, her false smile fading into a hard, piercing stare. “Spilt milk, Ms. Talaari. It’s not that I don’t believe in coincidences; I simply don’t like them. So why don’t we all have a calm, quiet discussion about you, me, the Schwartzes, and Basra Syrinx?”


“With all due respect, corporal,” Casey said plaintively, “is this really the best plan we have?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Nandi replied calmly, not glancing back at her. It was a well-heeled neighborhood they were walking through, and they passed mostly expensively-dressed people on the sidewalks, most of whom gave the three Legionnaires inquisitive looks. Several looked again at Nandi, doubtless unaccustomed to seeing elves in that armor. Despite the time of year, it was warm enough that they were not in their cold-weather gear, and as per regulations were not wearing helmets while on city duties that did not specifically require them.

“Um, I just can’t help thinking,” Farah said nervously, “apart from the unlikelihood of just stumbling over these apprentices, if the three of us just patrol in a constant circle around the Imperial Casino, the Thieves’ Guild will eventually notice.”

“Eventually?” At that, Nandi did glance back over her shoulder with a small smile. “I assure you, Szaravid, they’ve already noticed. Silver Legionnaires don’t patrol this district. Apart from the fact that it could be considered a provocative act against the Guild, there’s really no point. Even the Army doesn’t exert itself to keep peace here. No one attempts crime in territory under the control of the Thieves’ Guild. Or at least, no one does so twice.”

“I’m still hung up on the ‘provocative’ part of that,” Casey muttered, glancing about.

“Yes, they’ve noticed us,” Nandi said, again watching ahead. “The longer we keep up, the more curious they will be. Three soldiers are not a threat, and they’ll be wondering what we’re up to. By the third day of this, if not the second, someone will confront us to demand an explanation.”

“Three days of this?” Farah groaned.

“Likely more,” Casey said. “You were right; what are the odds of us just bumping into these apprentices?”

“Slim,” Nandi admitted. “Thus, when we are accosted by the Guild, we will tell them the full and unvarnished truth. Our squad is commanded by a Guild member, we are looking for information about the raid and the weapons confiscated there, and those apprentices are our best lead. If you should find yourselves, for any reason, confronted by Guild enforcers in my absence, these are the facts you will tell them.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Casey said warily.

“Not a good one, but the best one available to us. If we simply walked up to them and asked, they would assume we were lying and up to something, and treat us accordingly. Matters will seem different if we speak frankly when menaced their full strength—and they will make threats, so be prepared for that, but also remember they are very unlikely to harm Legionnaires unless provokes far more severely than we shall. If they refuse to accept our presence, that will be that, and we will have to report back to the sergeant and find a new avenue of approach. But I judge there is at least a strong possibility someone within the Guild will actually help us, if we put it to them the right way. I have dealt with Eserites in the past.”

“It feels risky,” Farah said, “showing them our hand like that.”

“Riskier by far to play games.” Nandi glanced back again, a clear warning in her eyes. “We will not fence with the Thieves’ Guild, ladies. We would swiftly and dramatically lose. And worse, the situation would reflect upon Sergeant Locke, embarrass Captain Dijanerad, draw the attention of Bishop Syrinx, and aggravate Commander Rouvad. Any of those outcomes could be disastrous for us.”

“I dunno,” Casey mused. “Locke’s pretty easygoing, as sergeants go…”

“That,” Nandi stated, “is because we are a small unit, because she knows you, and because the composition of this squad makes it a viable leadership strategy. The Sisterhood has extensive files on Principia Locke, and I have read them. If you had to choose between having her and Basra Syrinx for an enemy… Well, ladies, you can thank Avei for the side on which she has placed you. Trust me.”

“Really?” Casey said skeptically.

“I believe it,” Farah said in a quieter tone. “I like the Sarge, too. That doesn’t mean I underestimate her.”

“Good,” said Nandi with a small smile which they couldn’t see.

They turned a corner in silence, glancing at the white, gilt-edged shape of the Imperial Casino as it was briefly visible across an intersection on their left. For the most part, Shahai was leading them on a patrol route around the Casino at a distance of one street, rather than actually circling its walls.

“I know Locke said to drop this,” Casey said after a pause, “but… Corporal Shahai, that one apprentice, with the brown hair…”

“I know, Elwick,” Nandi said quietly.

“You do? I mean… Sure you do,” she added with a sigh.

“Yeah, it’s really not surprising, is it?” Farah smiled and jostled her affectionately with an elbow.

“Orders aside, Locke’s approach to that situation was the correct one,” Nandi said quietly. “We are being sent into a circumstance in which we may end up interacting with her, closely and repeatedly. Above all else, you will respect her cover and give no hint that you know her to be anything but some girl apprenticing to the Guild. With that understood… Locke has also placed us in position to possibly be of help to her, should an appropriate situation arise. I am quite confident the sergeant does not do such things by accident.”

“What is she doing in the Guild?” Casey wondered aloud.

“Nothing that’s any of your business until she tells you otherwise,” Nandi said flatly.

“Yes, ma’am,” Casey swiftly acknowledged.

Suddenly, the corporal stopped, turning her head. “…well. Then again, sometimes one gets lucky. This way, ladies, quickly.”

“What’s happening, ma’am?” Farah asked, falling into step as Nandi picked up their pace and turned, heading down a street away from the Casino.

“One and possibly more of our targets is now leaving the Guild and moving parallel to us, a block distant,” Nandi said crisply. “Tallie has a very carrying voice. I cannot be sure who, if anyone, is with her.”

“Omnu’s breath,” Casey marveled. “Just how acute is elvish hearing?”

“The acuity is less important in this case than the practice at filtering out specific sounds from background noise. Not many elves have spent as much time in modern cities as I.”

“I bet it’d be easier for her if we both shut up,” Farah muttered. Casey shot her an annoyed look, but she earned an over-the-shoulder smile from Nandi.

In silence, the three Legionnaires strode off into the city.


“Now, isn’t that interesting,” Grip said, watching the soldiers pass by directly beneath the building on whose roof she stood. “And you thought I was in an unreasonable hurry. If this doesn’t teach you to have some faith in my instincts, Silence, I don’t know if anything will.”

The man accompanying her folded his arms, watching the Legionnaires go. “You realize the elf can assuredly hear us.”

“That’s Nandi Shahai,” Grip said dismissively. “If she wants to question why I’m stalking her, I’ll be glad to hear what she’s doing poking around the Guild. Focus, Silence. My hearing’s not on her level, but I caught enough to know I was right. They’re following that group. Specifically the girl, I’d wager a month’s take.”

Silence shook his head. “I still refuse to develop a personal stake in this.”

“I swear,” she complained, “the older you get, the less fun you become.”

“That’s the usual way of things, Quintessa,” he replied with a faint smile. “Still, you are right. In an objective sense, it is interesting. I will examine the girl more closely myself, but unless the results of that are disappointing, I believe it will be worth informing Glory. And if she decides not to lay a claim…”

“Then it’s my turn,” Grip said with a hungry smile. “You do that. For now, I’m going to follow our friends down there. This evening is just bound to get more interesting before it’s over.”

Without another word, she took off at a run and leaped across the street to catch herself on a window ledge on the building opposite, which was one floor taller than this one. In seconds, Grip had clambered up the side, agile as a squirrel, and then went bounding away over the rooftops, swiftly catching up to the four apprentices on one side of the building row and Legionnaires on the other.

Silence stood, watching, until she was out of sight, and then turned to look back at the glittering domes of the Casino, frowning in thought.

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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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