Tag Archives: Smythe

11 – 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was barely in time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darius sighed. “The forest it is…”

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

“Too late,” Glory murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop!” Rogrind barked, too late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“IYAAAAIII!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another crack sounded, this one a familiar wandshot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They…are not surrendering,” Darius muttered.

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

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

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

And then the whole earth shook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11 – 37

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

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

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

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

“Uh…what?” Ross asked intelligently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rumor,” Glory said sharply.

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

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

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

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

“Is there anything else?” Glory asked pointedly.

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

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

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

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

“Who the shit is this?” Casethin demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn good play,” Vandro said admiringly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nambini at Traisis Ford.”

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

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

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

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

“What idea?” Tallie exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Touch him and I’ll kill you.”

Total silence fell.

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

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

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

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

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

“Unbelievable.”

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

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

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

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

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

Basra cleared her throat. “Allow me to—”

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

Principia cleared her throat. “There are—”

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

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

“…yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Shut your yap!” Casey hissed back.

“All yaps shut!” Ephanie snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

Schwartz’s jaw dropped.

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

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

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

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

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

“Aiee,” he squeaked.

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

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

Meesie chirped smugly.

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

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

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

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

Trissiny turned to give her a long, careful look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hear that,” Ross muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As you say, Ms. Jasmine.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have. A dangerous individual.”

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

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

“I don’t know,” Jasmine whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11 – 33

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He awoke in an unfamiliar place, and for a brief moment, the confusion spared him the depression.

Memory came back, though, and Rasha groaned aloud, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. This was the single most luxurious bed in which he had ever slept, but right now it felt like a trap. He knew the trap was in his own head, knew it felt the same waking up on a hammock in his father’s schooner or his bunk back at the Guild. Something felt symbolic, though, in the way he seemed to sink into the plus, silk-sheeted mattress.

He’d been left behind. All the uselessness, all the helplessness he always felt, everything he forced himself to push down and proceed despite… Now it had validation. He knew quite well that his friends had been perfectly correct, was able to understand cognitively that they were concerned for his health, not trying to push him away or question his value. None of that, of course, made the slightest difference to the hateful little voice which immediately set about whispering that they had never wanted him around, now that he wasn’t too exhausted to hear it.

Somehow, without even deciding he was going to, he jerked into motion, thrashing against the satin sheets and downy comforter, extricating himself from the bed. Get up, get moving, get the blood flowing. It was a start.

The opulence of Glory’s best guest room wasn’t only in its gilded furniture and fine bedclothes; she also had the best and latest household enchantments. A discreet arcane range set under the bay windows kept the room pleasingly warm, the window glass itself was charmed to prevent ice from adhering or even condensation from obscuring the view. Most noticeably, the fairy lamps automatically ignited when they detected him moving away from the bed, the light level rising smoothly rather than simply flicking on. It was still afternoon, to judge by the light, and snow was now falling heavily outside. The lamps changed the character of the light in the room more than its level, bringing it up from dimness.

Rasha threw his shirt back on and struggled into his trousers, leaving his shoes sitting by the foot of the bed. With that done, he paused in the middle of the floor, feeling helpless and completely out of place. He didn’t belong here, surrounded by so much obvious wealth.

That started up a very dangerous line of thinking again, and with a soft grunt of self-recrimination, he resumed moving. This time toward the door.

The hall outside the room was totally silent, as he discovered upon poking his head out.

“H-hello?” he whispered, immediately hating himself for the hesitation in his voice. Moved by an impulse he knew wasn’t rational, Rasha retreated very carefully back into the room, pulling the door shut as gently and silently as he could. It just felt wrong to disturb the stillness of the opulent townhouse.

He rubbed his hands on his trousers, peering about helplessly. There was another door leading to the attached bathroom; that had already been pointed out to him. Well, there was nothing else here he particularly knew what to do with, so in he went.

Minutes later, feeling a bit fresher for having thoroughly washed his hands and face, and even dampened down his bed-tousled hair to straighten it, he wandered back out into the bedroom. The soap smelled of roses, and now so did he. He liked it far more than he’d ever have admitted.

There was another door in the room. Rasha, after hesitating a moment and glancing at the window, crept over to it. The knob was smooth-polished crystal, cut in the shape of a heart. It appeared to be quartz, pink in its center and fading to transparency toward the edges. Clearly a valuable stone, the kind of thing that would have been a display piece for any family he knew back home, assuming they didn’t just pawn it. Here, it was a doorknob.

He turned it, pulled the door very hesitantly open, and poked his head through.

His room was clearly a guest room; exquisitely, expensively decorated, but somewhat neutrally for all that. This one, in addition to being twice the size, was someone’s home. It was clean and fairly neat, but there were touches of inhabited disarray: expensive cosmetics scattered on the vanity, a fur-trimmed coat hanging by the door, silken scarves draped over the foot of the bed where several had apparently been chosen among and the rest discarded. There were elements which suggested that the owner of this place took personal comfort in a cheaper style of décor than her house reflected overall, especially in the slightly battered wooden chairs flanking the fireplace, a whole collection of oil paintings done in a very simple style of rustic landscapes, and a rug beside the bed which appeared to be simply a tanned deer hide. In pride of place over the mantle hung a glass display case containing a selection of knives, all of them clearly weapons rather than tools, and most visibly well-used.

Of course. He knew Glory’s business, or at least the general style of it as Jasmine had described it. Suddenly, having the best guest bedroom open directly onto her own made perfect sense.

Obviously, the correct thing to do was to back up, close the door, and…

What? Sit in his room? Pace? Sleep more? Go outside, find Glory and Layla, make painfully awkward small talk with a (he had to admit) rather shrewish young noblewoman and a woman who might as well be noble?

Rasha took a step forward, then another, finding himself in her bedroom before really deciding to go. It wasn’t that he had any particular plans, here, just the feeling that his already-brittle self-worth would crack permanently if he retreated in fear from one more harmless silence.

He peered cautiously around, taking in the sight of the furnishings, trying to get what he could of a sense of who she was. The room bore evidence of a contrast, paying its respects both to her wealth and sophisticated tastes, and simpler origins which she still honored. It was a small thing, but somehow it made him like her more.

Wandering close to the vanity table, he gathered the impression that she spent a great deal of time here; at any rate, it was the most cluttered part of the room. Cosmetics were strewn across the wood table under the huge mirror, which had tiny fairy lights lining its rim. Next to the vanity was an enormous wardrobe, standing open and with a brocaded robe of blue satin hanging carelessly on one of its doors.

Rasha crept closer, reaching out hesitantly to feel the fabric between thumb and forefinger. It was… Beautiful. To touch, and to look at.

A moment later he had to step forward awkwardly to catch it, as the robe slid freely from the door’s corner. It had been instinct; it wasn’t as if it would be harmed by hitting the floor. Still, he’d have felt guilty for dropping it, even more than he now did for holding it. Well, it would be the work of seconds to put it back…

His eyes caught his reflection in the vanity’s mirror. Thanks to the lights, he could see himself even more clearly than in the bathroom mirror in the guest room.

Rasha had never been pleased to see his reflection, and carefully did not dwell on why. He had grown used to not dwelling on things; dwelling led to lying in bed, loathing himself and the universe, until it felt physically impossible to move. Now, moved by some instinct he didn’t understand, he slowly lifted the robe to his chin, covering his scrawny frame and threadbare shirt.

It really was a lovely garment, royal blue and embroidered with spiraling patterns in azure which he only discerned after a closer inspection were vines and leaves. Staring at his reflection behind the robe, he took another step toward the vanity. The garment was unmistakably feminine. There’d have been hell to pay back home for messing about with something like this, as he knew from firsthand experience; his sisters had no sense of humor when it came to him touching their things, and his father even less so. They were just so nice. Women were allowed to have soft things, pleasant things, pretty things…

He had absolutely no business being here at all, much less doing this. But…when else would he ever see…?

Rasha lowered his eyes, unable to meet his own gaze in the mirror, but in one defiant motion, threw the robe around his shoulders. It fit rather well; he had always been diminutive and fine-boned. Glory was actually slightly taller, and her shoulders probably about the same size as his. It would hang loose in the bust, of course, or so he assumed. He very carefully slipped his arms into the sleeves, mindful of the expensive fabric and determined not to do it the slightest damage. Yes, the robe was clearly tailored, meant for a woman’s shape; it didn’t hang on him right. Somehow, that brought a pang of disappointment. Still… It was such a pretty thing. He gazed hungrily at the image of himself in the mirror, keeping his focus below the chin and ignoring his own familiar face as much as possible.

“It really isn’t your color.”

Rasha leaped two feet straight up, letting out a squeal, and whirled to stagger backward, his shoulder painfully impacting the edge of the wardrobe’s open door.

Glory smoothly pushed shut the bedroom door which she had opened without a sound, smiling at him and gliding forward. He desperately wished he could spontaneously die.

“I-I-I’m so sorry,” he babbled, cringing and backing away. “I was just, it was, I’m sorry. I had no right—”

“Rasha.” Her tone was firm, but not angry; in fact, he only just then processed the fact that her expression was kind and open, not annoyed in the least. “I don’t know how much time you’ve spent with Lore, but he has a saying that’s always resonated with me: ‘An unlocked door is as good as an invitation.’ Classic thief’s philosophy. Trust me, Rasha, any place in this house where I don’t want you is quite beyond your power to enter. Consider yourself welcome everywhere else.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, lowering his gaze from hers in mortification. The robe seemed to itch, to hang as heavily on him as a yoke, but he felt too terrified to move enough to take it off. “It was just… It started to fall so I caught it, and then…”

“I realize blue is on the Punaji flag,” she mused, placing both hands on his shoulders, “but…mm, it really isn’t your color, is it? Warm tones, I think. Wait just a moment.”

She released him and stepped past, reaching into the wardrobe, and pulled out another silk robe, this one a deep crimson and trimmed in golden thread. Glory held it up below his chin, then made a satisfied little sound in her throat. “Ah! Yes, I think that works much better. Would you like to try this one?”

Rasha swallowed heavily. After a moment, he forced himself to meet her gaze, painful as it was. “I’m very sorry for intruding, Glory. You have every right to make fun of me and worse. I would…very much appreciate it if you’d punish me differently, though.”

Slowly, the smile leaked away from her face. “Oh, Rasha,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “You have it all wrong…” She studied his face for a long moment, then lowered the red robe and asked suddenly. “Do you trust me?”

He blinked. “I… Well… You’ve been more than kind…”

“People are kind for all sorts of reasons, many quite selfish.” Glory tilted her head slightly, still studying him. There was something indefinable in her expression which did not make him feel judged or condemned. That was…amazing. He nearly always felt judged and condemned. “Let’s not dwell upon reasons. Reach for your instincts. Can you trust me enough to take a risk, and be certain that I will not let you come to harm?”

He stared at her in bemusement.

“Don’t think,” she said softly. “Just answer. What does instinct tell you?”

“Yes,” he said, somewhat to his own surprise.

Glory nodded. “I want to try something, Rasha. You may find this…difficult. Probably embarrassing at the very least. I will swear to you up front, however, that I will never, under any circumstances, breathe a word of this to anyone unless you specifically wish it. If it turns out I am wrong, and you don’t like this, then we need never speak of it ourselves, either. It can be as if it never happened. But if I’m right… I think this will do you a world of good.”

He gazed suspiciously at her, finding nothing but kindness in her expression. “What…do you mean?”

Glory smiled. “Do you trust me?”

Very slowly, he nodded.

“All right,” she said, nodding back. “Then I’ll ask you to bear with me; this will take a fair amount of patience on your part. And as I said, if this ends up making you unhappy, we’ll just undo it and forget the entire thing. Now, let’s get that off you.”

Shamefaced, her shimmied out of the blue robe, which she then carelessly tossed in the direction of her bed. Glory then directed him to sit on the stool in front of her vanity, swiveling it so that his back was to the mirror. She had to step around him to select a brush and a small pad of powder from the mess on the table, then knelt before him and began dabbing gently at his face.

“What’s all this?” he asked suspiciously.

“Patience,” she chided with a gentle smile. “Don’t worry, I am very well-practiced at this. It won’t take long at all.”

“What are you turning me into?”

She had already finished applying the soft brush across his cheekbones, and now reached for some kind of pencil. “I can’t turn you into anything, Rasha. And if my instincts are wrong, I’m wasting your time and mine, here. But I don’t think they are; I think I’m going to show you something you need to see. Now, do be still; you’ll want to blink. Try not to.”

That last admonition was very much necessary, as she brought the pencil directly to his eye.

Glory was, true to her word, fast and efficient; she swiftly picked and used her various, mysterious implements, applying pencils and brushes and dabs of paint with her fingertip over his eyelids and lips, stroking at his eyelashes with some tiny bristled apparatus and then swiftly smudging something from a soft pad along his cheeks.

Then she went to work on his hair with a brush and small comb, and Rasha did his best to hold still. Her touch was gentle, but as little attention as he paid his hair ordinarily, it was distracting having his head tugged about.

The distraction was welcome. He had a sinking feeling in his gut about this whole thing, and several times nearly opened his mouth to back out.

But…he had said he trusted her. She’d promised to drop it if he wanted. He somehow hated the idea of disappointing her.

Glory pulled him to his feet and helped him into the scarlet robe with its glittering embroidery; up close, he realized it actually made the forms of dragons along the sleeves, collar and lapels. This garment was barely just a robe—it had shape, its collar rising stiffly to just below his chin and the lapels padded to the point he felt they were more of a physical presence on him than his own thin chest. Finally, with the robe tied into place to her satisfaction, she directed him to sit back down on the velvet-covered stool.

“All right,” she said seriously. “The next part…may be trickier. What I want you to do, Rasha, is to just be honest.”

“Okay,” he said uncertainly.

“That’s harder than you may realize,” she said, her dark eyes holding his own. “You strike me as someone who has been told a lot of nonsense, and had your own inner demons to deal with, besides. Those things can roil around in your head until you can’t hear the voice of your own spirit. When I show you what I’ve done, I want you to silence all that, ignore it, and tell me your truth. What you feel: you, not anyone’s expectations.”

“I… I’ll try.”

Glory smiled with a hint of mischief. “Have you learned the secret to a really good lie yet?”

“Um…what secret do you mean?”

She winked. “The trick is to believe it. That’s all acting is, Rasha; we’re practically Vidians at times. Become the mask. If you don’t feel you can be totally, dangerously honest with yourself, imagine you are someone who can. Imagine what that would feel like, and then…pretend.”

“Lie to find honesty,” he said slowly, then surprised himself by smiling back. “That might be the most Eserite idea I’ve ever heard.”

“It really is, isn’t it?” she said with a grin, then took a deep breath and nodded. “All right, Rasha. Remember—there is nobody here but us, and no one will ever learn of this. All that matters is your truth.”

With that, she took him by the shoulders and turned him around on the swiveling stool to face the mirror.

Rasha couldn’t help gasping. The bottom dropped out of the whole world, leaving him in exhilarating, terrifying free fall.

He knew the lines of his own face, had always been inexplicably dissatisfied with it, and knew how other boys had sneered at his small stature and fine bones. That face, though, was now a completely different one. And yet, the same… It was both. It was as if he was seeing it correctly for the first time.

Huge, limpid eyes stared back at him, with long, dark lashes and just the faintest lining of kohl to make them stand out dramatically against his bronze complexion. Skillful, barely perceptible touches of rouge and contouring had turned narrow cheeks into sweeping angles, framing a graceful little nose and delicately pointed chin. Lips a deep shade of crimson that looked downright natural against that coppery skin were carefully shaped, and made somehow even more fetching by the open shape of startlement in which they were now set. Rasha’s black hair was too short to have given Glory much to work with, but that made its current styling all the more amazing: fluffy bangs swept to one side, the whole mop brushed to a soft shine and with more body than it had ever had. It was rakish, tomboyish, even, and somehow even more feminine for that.

The robe, too… He could see, now, how its shaped lapels, the lines of its embroidery, suggested feminine contours, even argued for them, all without physically changing the shape underneath. It had been more cleverly designed than any ship he’d ever seen.

Rasha stared at the girl in the mirror, unable for the longest moment to breathe.

“There’s no one here but you,” Glory whispered, her fingers coiling on his shoulders. She leaned down till her face was next to that of the strange girl’s, warm eyes watching Rasha’s. “Nothing else matters. Now, Rasha… How do you feel?”

He had never appreciated, before, how feminine his soft voice sounded when it whispered. That fact now underscored the truth it spoke without waiting for his approval.

“Beautiful.”

Glory’s fingers gently squeezed his thin shoulders, her face lighting with a soft smile of approval. “And how does it feel to be beautiful?”

How? That question was just too huge to answer. Perfect? Right? There was no word for finding what had been always missing and yet never missed. But before Rasha’s whirling thoughts could settle into a useful shape, the girl’s sensuous lips moved again, and that breathy voice sounded.

“Powerful.”

In the mirror, Glory’s eyes practically glowed with satisfaction. “I thought so.”

“But…” Rasha swallowed heavily. It was somehow dissonant, seeing that girl’s face shift in time with his own motions. She was…she was… And yet, he was still… “I don’t…what does this mean?”

“Oh, Rasha.” Glory knelt behind him, wrapping one arm around him and resting her chin on his shoulder. “I can’t answer that. Nobody can, but you. I think, though, you’ll be able to find your answers. If I’m not wrong, you’ve absorbed such a pile of nonsense about how things should be that it’s never occurred to you to look. Is that so?”

Rasha nodded. In the mirror, the young woman he was supposed to be nodded back. It felt like a knife in the heart, but bitterly joyous. If this torrent of emotion didn’t get itself organized soon, he was going to pass out…

“They’re always doing that,” Glory whispered bitterly, clinging to the boy in the chair and the girl in the mirror. “Always with their rules. This is this, that is that, you’re only allowed to be and think a certain few things… And why?” She bared her teeth in an expression that Rasha would have called a sneer on someone less elegant. “As long as huge swaths of normal, healthy, real life is considered wrong, then everyone is always guilty of something. And guilty people are so much easier to control. And if anyone won’t stand for their foot on our necks, well. That’s even better, it gives them an other to point at. A scapegoat. Someone to rally their mobs against, to keep them complacent. And that is why the world needs Eserites.”

“I’m not,” Rasha whispered tremulously, still gazing at the girl’s face, hungry to memorize every detail. “What you’re talking about… I can’t. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I just, I ran away.”

Glory squeezed again, tenderly. “You are wrong, Rasha. You ran, yes—but not away. You ran toward. You came to Tiraas, to the Guild, to the people who could teach you how to fight back.” She bared her perfect teeth again, eyes blazing in the mirror, and Rasha felt something deep in a core he’d never known he had come alive in response. A beast woke, stretched, flexed its claws, and purred a counterpoint to Glory’s voice. “Your whole life, they have tried to make you something they could use. And they didn’t. You left, you came here, you sought out the power you needed. They did not break you. And they will not. And that, Rasha, is why you’re one of us.”

In the mirror, the girl’s chin lifted; tears still glistened in her perfectly brushed lashes, but there was a storm in those lovely eyes, now. Iron in the set of her jaw.

“You have the spirit, beneath all the pain,” Glory whispered fiercely. “I know you see weakness in yourself, but that’s the voice of those who’d control you, not your voice. You’ll learn to silence it. The true voice inside you brought you here, and that proves that you, the real you, are clever enough and strong enough to find the help and the power you need. You have the fire that drives you to stand up and make them pay. How dare they? Who do they think they are?” Her grip was almost painful now, but that almost pain was a comfort and a strength; the girl in the mirror raised one slender hand to grasp Glory’s arm in turn. “You have it in you, if you want, to turn on those who would control you, and ram a lesson in humility straight down their throats. And then down the next bastard’s, and the next after that. If, Rasha, you decide that is the life you want. It’s your life; no one gets to decide for you. Anyone who dares will bleed for the temerity.”

Finally, for the first time ever, Rasha knew the truth, heard no crushing inner voice of despair, spoke without a second’s doubt.

“I will,” she vowed. “So help me, I will.”

Glory’s face shone with pride; she pressed her cheek to Rasha’s, and together they gazed at their reflections for long minutes of silence.

“I still have no idea what to do,” Rasha finally admitted, and felt a laugh bubbling up. She let it, not trying to understand.

Glory grinned right back. “Well…there’s time, and it’s a process. You’ve still your Guild training; that will teach you the technique you need to stand and fight back against the abusers and oppressors. And…as for more personal matters, Rasha, I’m afraid our cult isn’t the best suited to help guide you to such answers. There’s no harm in looking outside it, though. The Izarites and Avenists actually have a great deal of wisdom to offer about situations like this, and even the Sisterhood won’t hesitate to help, Eserite or no.” She squeezed Rasha’s shoulders again, giving her an affectionate jostle. “Don’t worry about that any more than you can help. There’s time, as I said, to get your thoughts in order and consider your next steps. For right now… I am still in need of an apprentice. Do you think you’re in need of a home?”

Finally, at long last, Rasha tore her gaze from the mirror to look directly at Glory. “Wh—me? But I thought you wanted someone like Jasmine…”

“The funny thing is, we don’t always know what we want,” Glory replied, smiling broadly. “Much less what we need. I’m glad to count Jasmine as a friend, and I’d have been glad to have her as a pupil. In the end, though, she doesn’t need me. You and I, though… I have a feeling that we have a great deal to offer each other.”

Suddenly there was a soft knock on the door, and it opened.

Rasha tensed up in a blind panic, only Glory’s grip keeping her grounded.

“Pardon me, madam,” said Smythe from the doorway, not entering—in fact, he kept himself fully out of sight behind the door. “Your other guests have returned, accompanied by Quintessa Valaine, Alan Vandro, and his Butler, in a carriage which appears to have been repeatedly rammed. I gather there have been further developments.”

“I see,” Glory said wryly. “Thank you, Smythe; please see that they are comfortable in the upper hall. I’ll be there directly.”

“Yes, madam,” Smythe acknowledged, then gently pulled the door shut.

Glory heaved a sigh and gently stroked Rasha’s hair once. “Ah, it never ends. Think on it, okay? You don’t need to answer right away, and in fact I’d rather you didn’t; this is the kind of thing that requires some deliberation. Just, please make certain it’s you doing the thinking, and not the bitter voice that tries to eat you from within. We’ll work on making that little bastard shut up. For now.” She stood, giving Rasha’s shoulders a last squeeze with her aristocratic fingers. “In my bathroom, in the pink jar to the left of the sink, is a cream that’ll remove makeup. Just wipe it on, then rinse it off with water. Be careful not to get any in your eyes; it stings something awful. If,” she added in a gentler tone, “that is what you decide to do. If not, well, you really do look amazing.” She bent forward to lightly kiss Rasha on the top of her head. “And all we have in this house are friends who’ll accept you for you, and strangers whose opinion doesn’t matter. Don’t do anything you feel unready for, but it’s never to early to start thinking about letting people see your true self. When you decide it’s time.”

With one last, gentle squeeze, she turned and glided to the door, then slipped out.

Rasha remained there, hungrily gazing at her new face. But not for long. As desperately needed as this was…there was work to do. Friends in need. She drew in a steadying breath, then rose and turned toward the bathroom.

There was no little voice saying she couldn’t.

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