“The one and only!” Rasha said with a broad smile. “Something I can help you ladies with? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
It was instinct, by that point: never let them see you’re afraid. Glory had not only schooled her apprentices in Eserite philosophy, but drilled them in roleplayed scenarios with herself and one another until she was satisfied that they would reflexively default to a Guild thief’s poise and confidence under any pressure. And so, in a situation wherein the old Rasha would have quailed and tried to run, or perhaps lashed out and suffered the consequences, she just smiled, giving them nothing.
Also, the well-practiced calm enabled her to keep in mind that she was a welcome guest in this temple and there were Silver Legionnaires within earshot. These three were working to project an intimidating presence, but if they actually did anything, it would be they and not Rasha who landed in hot water. Had Zafi already left? She didn’t dare concede her nervousness by turning to look.
“This isn’t a social call, boy,” the woman in the lead sneered, and Rasha was proud of herself for keeping her composure. They couldn’t tell, she knew it with an empirical certainty beyond even her own insecurities. Glory, a ruthless taskmaster as much as she was a nurturing mother hen, had deliberately put Rasha into social situations arranged entirely to prove to her that no one saw her as anything but a young woman after a year of transitioning, counseling, and coaching. Which meant…
“I don’t know exactly how you got your hooks into our paladin, but the last thing she needs is more of a corrupting influence,” the ringleader stated, tilting her head back to stare down the considerable length of her nose at Rasha. “It stops, now. Am I understood?”
Yep, there it was. Thorn was going to stomp these imbeciles into paste when she learned about this.
And as if by magic, that realization sucked all the menace out of their ambush.
Rasha kept her amiable smile in place, affecting an idly interested posture of her head while they prattled on.
“It’s bad enough the High Commander sees fit to indulge perverse men in…this,” the woman on the left said, putting on an identical sneer. “But don’t get too comfortable with it. Things are changing around here.”
“That’s a problem for another time, though,” added the third, folding her arms across her tabard. “Have your fun while you can. But you will keep away from General Avelea.”
“I don’t want to hear any more about you infecting her with Eserite nonsense, to say nothing of pushing the idea that your mental illness deserves to be recognized as Sisterhood doctrine,” the leader chimed in. “You thieves can be as sick as you want on your own time.”
“It’s Rasha, yes? Is that your made-up name? Well, whatever you’re really called, we know where you stay and—”
She broke off incredulously as Rasha yawned. Widely, but discreetly covering her mouth with her fingers. A lady, as Glory insisted, did not show off her molars.
“Excuse me, ladies,” Rasha said politely, managing not to betray her amusement at their expressions. “It’s been a long day already. Would you mind awfully getting to the point? It’s just that I don’t really have time for halfhearted schoolyard bullying today. Not that you’re not very good at it, I’m sure, but some of us are grown-ups, with jobs.”
They stared at her, the two on the sides with their mouths satisfyingly open. The leader managed to look even more belligerent, however.
“Oh, I see,” she snorted. “You think you’re clever. How very like an Eserite.”
“So, that’s a no, then?” Rasha said pleasantly. “Very well, you three have a lovely afternoon. I’m going to leave now.” She almost took a step backward to extricate herself from their formation, but then had a better idea. “And you,” she continued, polite as ever, “are going to get out of my way.”
The leader’s fingers shifted to grasp the handle of her longsword; the woman on the left actually gasped in outrage, while the other flushed nearly crimson, her Stalweiss coloring making it especially vivid.
“Oh,” the ringleader said quietly from behind clenched teeth. “Are we?”
“Yes, you are,” Rasha replied, batting her eyelashes. “I am an apprentice of the Theives’ Guild, and a welcome guest in this temple. Lay a finger on me or draw that sword, and you’ll be tossed out of here on your ear by Silver Legionnaires, just for starters. Then you will be dragged into an alley for an etiquette lesson by six enforcers before you can flee the city. And none of us wants that, girls. I don’t want it because stirring up drama like that would be a terrible repayment to all the people in the Sisterhood who have been very kind to me.” She smiled more broadly, again batting her eyes. Just because it was classically, stereotypically feminine, and they would hate it. “And you don’t want it because you’re cowards.”
“You little Punaji brat,” hissed the second woman, actually sliding her blade a few inches out of the sheath, but the leader reached across to grab her wrist. Rasha kept eye contact with the woman in the center, not looking around to check for intervention. The sanctuary was almost crowded; someone had to be overhearing this. Legionnaires might not have been able to see the almost-drawn sword, with the four of them clustered together, but it was only a matter of time before somebody stepped in.
“Cowards, are we,” the leader said very flatly.
“Well, you seem to think it takes three of you to corner a girl half your size,” Rasha simpered. “And there’s the fact that your entire spiritual philosophy is that the sex you were accidentally born into doesn’t feeeeeeel as special if just anybody’s allowed in. Yes, I think the word applies. Don’t you?”
“Now you listen to—”
“Nope.” Rasha took one step forward; the woman didn’t back up. “You’ve wasted enough of my time. Draw the sword, or get out of the way.”
She flexed her fingers once, adjusting her grip on the hilt, eyes narrowing to slits.
“Do it,” Rasha said softly, dropping the smile. “I dare you. Do. It. Coward.”
The woman tensed, and for an instant Rasha thought she actually might.
Before anything could come of it, though, a fifth person inserted herself into their cluster. Sliding in as deftly as an alley cat, she draped an arm around Rasha’s shoulders and pushed herself subtly to the fore mostly by surreptitiously forcing Rasha backward.
It was a woman with tousled black hair and angular Sifanese (or maybe Sheng, Rasha still couldn’t reliably spot the difference) features, wearing a ragged Punaji-style greatcoat over a clearly armored leather vest.
“Hiiii,” she said in a breathy voice, eyes vacantly wide, and let her head list deeply to one side as if drunk, staring up at the central woman. “You have really pretty eyes.”
The Purist’s leader frowned, and actually took a step back, her two compatriots squinting in confusion at the new arrival. “What? I don’t… Listen, young woman, this is a private conversation.”
“Pretty eyes. Pretty, pretty eyes,” the woman crooned. Her accent was local, despite the foreign features. Well, the Empire had birthright citizenship and Tiraas itself was a melting pot, so one couldn’t assume. Rasha’s inward attempt to size up the interloper who was still clutching her faltered at her next comment. “Can I have them?”
The Purists all three stepped back, incidentally opening up their tight formation and exposing the center of lines of sight from several directions. Rasha, glancing rapidly about, immediately noticed two Legionnaires and a priestess watching them intently.
“They sing to me,” the Sifanese(?) woman cooed, beginning to sway back and forth subtly, tugging Rasha along with her. “I hear them in my dreams. They want to be mine. Pretty please, pretty eyes? I’ll give them a good home.”
Grimacing in pure disgust, the Purist leader finally turned and strode away. Her lieutenants fell in alongside her, the Stalweiss one with a lingering glare. In seconds they had departed through the temple’s front doors, all of the nearby Legionnaires openly turning to watch them go.
The second they were gone, the woman released Rasha and turned to face her. The daffy expression had vanished from her face, replaced by a sharp glare.
“You, apprentice, will run straight home and inform your sponsor of the dumbass stunt you just pulled. If you explain exactly why that was a stupid thing to do and what could have gone horribly wrong, she probably won’t box your ears the way you’d be in for if you were my apprentice. Glory’s a soft touch.”
“Me?” Rasha protested, at once relieved and offended. It was good news that the woman was Guild, but this… “I was just—”
“Oh, I was so worried!” the woman squalled suddenly, hurling herself forward and throwing her arms around Rasha in a big hug. It probably looked like a friendly gesture from the outside; only Rasha could feel the rigid fingertips digging into the pressure points at the base of her skull.
“The Guild and the Sisterhood are both unrepresented in the Church right now,” the Eserite hissed right into Rasha’s ear while soothingly rocking them both back and forth for the benefit of the onlookers. “We don’t get along great at the best of times. Intercult relations are incredibly delicate, and strained enough with that fanatical splinter sect suddenly infesting the city. What I do not fucking need is untethered apprentices picking fights with them in the temple.”
Rasha cut herself off, a second too late. The enforcer slowly released her, pulling back and gaze down at her face with a condescending little smirk.
“No, please, go on,” she said sweetly. “Finish your thought.”
Punaji were raised not to complain about fairness; under other circumstances, Rasha might have gracefully accepted the rebuke. But she had been standing up to bullies, doing exactly what Eserites were supposed to do. Straightening her spine, she stepped backward, pulling herself out of the woman’s grasp.
“Well. I won’t keep you any longer, if you’re here on business.”
“Too right, you won’t,” she said brusquely, already striding past her toward the rear of the sanctuary. Her voice rang out as she went: “Straight to Glory, now! She won’t like it if she has to hear about this from me.”
Still practically quivering with repressed fury, Rasha herself set off for the front doors at a stately glide, spine rigid and nose upright. One of the Legionnaires actually opened the door for her, with a sympathetic look. She barely had the self-possession to nod politely in acknowledgment.
That had stirred her up even worse than the ambush. Purists and other assholes she expected to behave that way; where the hell did a Guild enforcer get off rebuking her for doing exactly what she was being trained by the Guild to do?
Fortunately, the frigid air of Imperial Square did a lot to clear her head. Rasha turned up the fur collar of her dress, surreptitiously thumbing the rune on the warming charm hidden underneath it.
The Square was as stirred up as the temple had been; apparently she wasn’t the only one having an eventful morning. Rasha slipped to one side, out of the path of traffic, and paused in the shadow of one of the great columns to study the comings and goings. A column of soldiers was just marching past, and there were knots of people clustered together in excitable conversation all across the temple steps. What had gotten under everybody’s skin this morning?
Picking out a piercing voice from the hubbub, Rasha set off sideways toward one end of the temple steps, just in time to intercept a young boy coming round the corner, pulling a wagon full of newspapers, waving one over his head, and shouting at the top of his lungs.
“EXTRA, SPECIAL EDITION! READ THE BREAKING NEWS ON THE ELVEN CRISIS! IF IT’S KNOWN, THE LANCER KNOWS IT!”
She mutely tossed him a silver coin, receiving a grin and a deftly thrown paper in response. Rasha ripped off the twine and unfolded it enough to read the front page while he carried on into the Square.
Though she wasn’t personally much interested in politics, one didn’t live under Glory’s tutelage without developing a careful respect for the web of interconnected forces that made the Empire work, and sometimes prevented it from working. Rasha’s frown rapidly deepened as her eyes darted across the lines of text.
“The elves did what?”
“Formed a united government, including the legendary high elves! As Veilgrad’s most celebrated elven resident, my readers would be very interested in your insight into these developing events.”
Macy poised her pencil over her open notepad, gazing expectantly at her target with a big smile of anticipation in place.
“I straight up don’t believe you,” Natchua said bluntly. “If you told me the Matriarchs and Elders all linked arms and went square dancing in Imperial Square, that would be more plausible.”
The reporter had the temerity to grin at her, not looking down at where she was scribbling on the pad. Omnu’s breath, was she really writing that down? “Well, assuming for the sake of argument that I’m right, can I get a quote on this from you, Natchua?”
“Here’s a headline for you: annoying reporter continues to abuse the fact that I don’t indiscriminately immolate people.”
She wrote that down, too, looking not the least bit discomfited. “You grew up in Tar’naris, I’m sure you have more insight than practically anyone into what the ramifications of this might be. Veilgrad really respects your perspective, Natchua, and it’s especially applicable here. A word from you would mean a lot to people.”
Flattery and manipulation, and both so ham-fisted they would have provoked only annoyance in Tar’naris. Natchua indulged in an irritated sigh. Macy Vaucherot, which was pronounced in zee authentic Glassian manner, the pretentious tit (even though Veilgrad was full of old families with Glassian names who had been fully Imperial for at least five generations), was actually one of the less irritating reporters who tended to buzz around. One of the more persistent and least intimidated by casual displays of infernomancy, true, but at least she only published what she actually heard in that paper of hers, without the embellishments or outright fabrications which had almost sent Natchua to kicking down some of her rivals’ doors before her entire household had frantically talked her down from that idea.
And for that matter, she certainly did have opinions about Tar’naris and what such a development would mean for the Empire, and came perilously close to starting in on them before the recollection of Melaxyna and Kheshiri’s hurried advice about the power of the press came back to mind.
Elilial’s remarks about Natchua’s so-called “cunning” had, over the last several months, frequently made her stop and second-guess her first impulses. There was actually a pattern, she’d found; while most of her actions were described with words like “reckless” and “harebrained” by those close to her, in hindsight she noticed that they tended to lead to success when she spotted a benefit others had missed and aimed right at it with no regard for common sense, whereas just acting out of temper or apathy rarely ended well. It didn’t take much reflection to see which of those it would be to rant at a reporter about what abhorrent monsters most Narisians were. It was true, but the knowledge wouldn’t do anything to help anybody who got their news from Macy’s rag. Riling up the local populace and pissing off the Imperial Foreign Service might be worthwhile in a hypothetical situation where there was a benefit to her in it, but this was not one of those.
“I wasn’t a noble or anything, in Tar’naris,” Natchua said carefully. “I came from the farming House, and most of what I was taught about the affairs of the powerful was to stay as far from them as possible. I don’t think I actually have much in the way of insight into this, Macy.”
“But you were selected to attend the legendary University at Last Rock!”
“Yeah,” Natchua said dryly, “I’m the one who got kicked out, if you’ll recall. Look, international relations are over my head. What I do know is that the Tiraan Empire has not endured for a thousand years by being stupid, and the Tirasian Dynasty deserves credit for stitching the whole thing back together within a few years of the Enchanter Wars and keeping it that way during a century of unprecedented changes of all kinds. I have no idea how international relations should be handled, but it seems to me the people whose job that is are pretty good at it. Unexpected surprises like this are a good time for all of us out here in Veilgrad to stay the course and let the diplomats work. I can’t think of any recent examples of them letting us down.”
“But what about—”
“Good chat, Macy, but you caught me on the way to an appointment. Bye,” Natchua said firmly, turning away.
“I just wonder if you have any thoughts on—”
At least this time she didn’t shout or try to chase after her when Natchua shadow-jumped fifty feet up the street; experience had taught her that would only drive her quarry away faster.
The short range jump had put her in front of a public house with an outdoor terrace, on which a cluster of students from the nearby college were gathered around a brazier holding pints. Upon her appearance, one of them pressed himself against the waist-high wall, brandishing his tankard at her.
“Veilgrad stands!” he yelled unsteadily.
“Veilgrad stands!” she shouted back, pointing at him. A roar of approval rose from the whole group, and Natchua carried on down the sidewalk, grinning as they clamored behind her, though she did mutter to herself. “It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, ya louts.”
Her destination was another pub, this one abandoned since the chaos crisis, after which its owner had packed up and moved his operations to Mathenon, where the climate was mild, the coin flowed like water and nothing even slightly interesting ever happened. The Mad Marquis had stood empty till the catacomb reconstruction efforts had brought Agatha Svanwen’s company to Veilgrad. Then, its empty condition, central location, and basement access to the catacomb system had made it an appealing headquarters for her stonemasons.
The Svanwen Company guards out front waved her in with a smile. Inside, the common room was filled with masons and miners sitting around at tables and notably not doing any work; they raised such a cheer at Natchua’s arrival that it took her a few minutes to get it quieted down enough to receive directions to the basement access.
At least it was quieter down there, though notably tense, as she observed immediately on arrival.
Svanwen herself was present, along with two of her employees, a dwarven man who’d come with her from Stavulheim and a Veilgrad local, both wearing suits and holding clipboards rather than stoneworking tools. Standing at the other side of the room and looking notably unhappy were five humans in Imperial Army uniforms, complete with the eye symbol on a blue background of the Azure Corps.
“Finally, here she is,” said the man apparently in the lead, who wore a captain’s stripes and a disgruntled expression. “Can we get this over with?”
“And hello to you too,” Natchua said, raising her eyebrows. “I’m quite well today, thank you for asking.”
“Thanks for coming, Natchua,” Svanwen said with that firmly calm voice she so often used to keep order among her laborers. “I appreciate you going out of your way. This is Captain Fedhaar, from the Azure Corps.”
“Commander of the Fourth Infernal Containment Unit,” Fedhaar said with a bit more grace, finally nodding to her.
“Enchanté ,” Natchua replied. “So what’s this I hear about demons in the tunnel?”
“Probably not more than one,” Svanwen said before the captain could reply. “A few of my people have been seeing odd tracks since last week, but one finally got a look at it yesterday. Needless to say, I ceased operations and pulled everybody out, and we’ve had a guard posted on every entrance we couldn’t seal up outright. By the description, it’s pretty clearly a rozzk’shnid.”
Natchua glanced at Fedhaar, then back to her, frowning. “Well, those do like tunnels, but they’re not sapient and can’t use magic. What do you need me for, exactly?”
“She wants you to clear the creature out. Isn’t it obvious?” Captain Fedhaar said sarcastically, folding his arms. “Nothing but the legendary Natchua will do.”
Another time she might have taken exception to the attitude, but in this case Natchua had to agree with him.
“Seriously?” she demanded, pointing to the disgruntled battlemages while holding Svanwen’s gaze. “You’ve got the most highly-trained professionals at demon containment on the continent, on loan from the Imperial Army, to deal with what amounts to an animal control problem? That’s already overkill, not to mention a situation that can only get messier the more people are involved. What the hell is my gray ass doing down here?”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” said Fedhaar, apparently meaning it. At any rate, he looked a bit less irritated.
“You’re right, as demons go, a rozzk’shnid in the tunnels isn’t much of a crisis,” Svanwen agreed. “Hell, I could take care of the damn thing myself with a battlestaff and a hunting party. At this point, it’s more a matter of morale and personnel management, Natchua. Sometimes, the best person for the job isn’t the best person for the job.”
Natchua blinked at her, then turned to Fedhaar. “Do you know what she’s talking about?”
He shrugged. “Lady, I’m in the Army. The brass rarely uses the best person for the job, but I don’t think it’s on purpose.”
“It’s like this,” said the dwarf, now with some amusement. “My crew are composed of my own people from Stavulheim, who have no particular faith in the Imperial government, and locals who are of…divided opinions. Some of ‘em will no doubt be reassured by knowing the Army is on the case, but not all, and maybe not most. Like I said, this is not a big deal. All of us together are well more than a match for the creature. But what I need to get my people back to work is assurance that there aren’t demons in the tunnels, so they don’t have to be looking over their shoulders every five seconds. I asked you to come, Natchua, to lend your credibility. We track the thing down and kill it, and then I can get the say-so of everyone’s favorite friendly local warlock and hero of the Battle of Ninkabi that it’s safe to get back to work.”
Natchua heaved a sigh, then grimaced apologetically at Captain Fedhaar. “Well… Crap. I guess I can’t turn up my nose at that, can I? As the least actually useful person here, it’d be an asshole move to not contribute what relatively little I can. All right, Agatha, fair enough. I’m in.”
“Glad to have you,” the dwarf said with a smile. “I’ll earmark you an honorarium from the discretionary—”
“Oh, don’t bother. I mean, thanks, but what the hell would I buy? Anything I need, Sherwin is happy to squander his ancestral wealth on. Save your funds for the folks doing the real work.”
“Huh,” Fedhaar grunted, staring at Natchua. “You weren’t kidding, Ms. Svanwen. Everything about her screams ‘cocky, irritating college kid,’ but damn if she doesn’t leave me with a positive impression.”
“Yeah, I’m a real fudge-dipped strawberry,” she drawled. “Everybody loves Natchua. All right, then! C’mon, nobody’s getting any younger. Let’s go fuck around in the dark demon-infested tunnels.”
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