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.”