He woke near noon, despite only having managed a few hours of sleep. Quite apart from his body’s determination that daytime was for activity, he was in an unfamiliar place in which he had yet to manage to feel safe, much less at home. Only exhaustion had brought sleep at all, and couldn’t hold it long.
Rasha opened his eyes, feeling the confusion of dreams fade away as he stared at the distant stone ceiling. The barracks, or dormitory (he’d heard it called both), was certainly not cramped. High ceilings aside, he had what felt to him like a very generous allotment of personal space. His modest bunk, a simple wooden-framed affair with a thing mattress and worn but good blankets, had a chest at its foot and a stool beside it, and was framed on all four sides by privacy curtains. Three were lashed into place, with the forth able to slide open to reveal the central aisle of the…barracksatory? Whatever it was called, it was roomier and more private than accommodations on any ship he’d ever bunked down in, even with the unfiltered sounds of his fellow would-be thieves all around him.
Somehow, he’d expected it to be different here. At that moment, lying there staring at the ceiling, he didn’t know why.
It was there, the crushing feeling of hopelessness that dogged him whenever he stopped to let it. Who was he kidding? A new start, a new life, a new career… None of his would make a new him.
Rasha drew in a deep, fortifying breath and forced himself to straighten up. He’d been down this road many, many times; he knew the drill. It would get better when he started moving. For a while, at least.
Maybe it would be better overall, too. Whatever else he could say about the previous night, it had kept him too busy to welter in his own inadequacy.
His clothes were still hanging on the bedposts, undisturbed. Perhaps Style’s warnings were taken to heart by the other apprentices, though he wasn’t about to trust a bunch of thieves-in-training not to pilfer his things. Fortunately, he had no things, aside from the clothes on his back—which, after being washed, had been unwearably soaked, forcing him to wrap himself in his blankets for security despite the fact the barracks (dormitory?) was kept quite warm by arcane heating ranges at both ends. Both Tallie and Jasmine had tried to loan him nightshirts, but he’d fended them off. He wasn’t about to pile wearing girls’ clothes onto his insecurities. Bathing in the men’s washroom had been enough of a nightmare, for all that Ross and Darius had sought their own corners, likewise disinclined to be social while nude. Thank the gods for small blessings.
They were dry, a couple of damp patches aside, and he dressed himself as quickly as possible, then poked his head out.
There were soft sounds of conversation and vague rustles here and there, but he could see no one. Actually, the dormitory was a lot quieter at this hour than it had been at dawn, when people were starting to get up. Rasha peeked up and down the aisle, uncertain what he was supposed to do with himself now.
The rumbling in his stomach decided him.
He passed through the pit as quickly as possible. It was extremely alive, with people everywhere talking, standing around, and practicing various thiefly arts. Rasha kept his head down and made a beeline straight for the dining room, ignoring everyone and certain everyone was staring at him with condescending judgment.
It was all in his head, he knew that. This didn’t make it feel any less real.
The dining hall was busy, too, but fortunately nobody was looking at him when he came in. Everyone was clustered around one end of one of the rows of tables, at the far side of the hall near the kitchens. Rasha paused in the doorway, studying this, before slipping around to the side of the long room farthest from the crowd and going in search of food.
It was an arrangement he knew well from various galleys. A single cook behind the windows presided over various pots and pans of food, which he ladled out onto the tray and plate Rasha collected from stacks of them at one end. The man was distracted to the point of dismissive, watching the cluster of apprentices nearby, which suited Rasha just fine. He also poured himself a cup of tea from the pot at the end of the window, and then found himself holding a laden tray and in need of a place to sit.
His instinct was to get as far from the crowd as possible. Experience had taught him that people would notice that, and some would choose to take it personally. The happy medium would be to slide as surreptitiously as possible onto a bench at the very edge of the gathering.
They were nearly all apprentices, or so Rasha assumed; they were older teenagers and younger adults. The focus of the group was unquestionably on a man who looked to be a fit fifty or so, with graying hair and a neatly-trimmed mustache, who was perched on the very corner of the long table, telling a story.
While Rasha considered this, he caught Jasmine’s eye. She, apparently a person after his own heart, was lurking at the periphery. Seeing that he’d noticed her, she smiled and patted the empty place beside her.
Well. It was at the edge, and after all, she at least was someone he knew. He rather liked Jasmine. She was quiet, and pretty, and impressive. Also, Tallie was right across from her, and while Tallie could be overwhelming, he’d already developed a fondness for her, too. Perhaps jail and forced labor had that effect on a group.
He made himself smile back, and came forward to climb onto the bench beside Jasmine. “Morning. Or afternoon. I’ve lost track.”
“Just past noon,” Jasmine said.
“Oh, hey, Rasha!” Tallie said cheerfully. Both of them were just finishing off their lunches. “Welcome back to the land of the living. I dunno about you, but I’m gonna be a log tonight. A few hours of beauty rest just does not cut it.”
He gave her a smile before glancing down at the other end of the table. “What’s all this?”
“That’s Lore,” Jasmine replied, spearing a forkful of potatoes.
“Um. What’s lore?”
“Him.” Tallie pointed with her spoon. “Lore. That’s his tag; he’s a priest. This being an actual cult, there actually are priests, believe it or not! And he’s pretty much the top-ranking one, except for maybe the Bishop. He’s also the resident expert on Eserite philosophy, and the guy who’ll be teaching it to us. You pay attention to him; you don’t get tagged into the Guild proper until he says you’re fit for it.”
“Hm.” Rasha paused to tuck into his meal. It was just like the night before: bland, but filling. He was already getting nostalgic for the spicy food back home. His sister Amrit made the best curry… “Does anyone else think this is a weird system?”
“Yes,” Jasmine said emphatically, drawing a grin from him against his will.
“Weird how?” Tallie asked.
“Well, it’s…” He shrugged. “There’s no teachers. Apprentices just do whatever, and… Of the people who seem to be dedicated to looking after us, it’s just these two, right? Lore and Style?” He raised his eyebrows. “The chief enforcer and the chief priest?”
“Who told you Style was chief enforcer?” Tallie asked, frowning. “Last night you didn’t even know who she was.”
“Darius loves to talk.”
“Oh. Yeah, he does.” She grinned, spooning up the last of her carrots. “Almost as much as me.”
“Rasha has a point, though,” Jasmine mused. “These are basically top people in the guild. Apprentices are kind of…at the bottom. Seems odd that they’re the only ones who have a dedicated responsibility for us.”
“All systems are corrupt!” Tallie said cheerfully around a mouthful, prompting both of them to avert their eyes. “Makes perfect sense to me the Eserites’d have a pretty unique system. Eh?”
Rasha coughed, forking up another bite of potatoes. “So, um, anyway. After lunch. What do we…do?”
“Whatever we like,” Jasmine said quietly. “No one tries to organize your activities. But we’re expected to be consistently working toward improving our skills, trying to either get a sponsor or go straight for full Guild membership. Style pulls people aside for a talk if she thinks they aren’t working hard enough.”
“Like I say, good system,” Tallie opined. “The Guild doesn’t need people who stand around waiting to be told what to do. You gotta be a self-starter, have your own motivation!”
“I’m kind of amazed how Style knows what everyone’s up to,” Jasmine murmured. “I only actually see her once in a while, mostly just passing through if she’s not grabbing somebody for one of her little talks. But she does seem to have her thumb on everyone’s pulse.”
“Okay, then.” Rasha drew in a deep breath, let it out, and had a sip of tea. “Training. How’s that work?”
“Well, you wanna learn something, you get somebody to teach you,” Tallie said, again gesticulating with her silverware. “Anybody, really. You can learn from the other apprentices—most sponsored ones don’t live here in the Guild, but they come for training themselves, and the ones with seniority are the closest thing to dedicated teachers. Just cos they don’t have enough status to be turning up their noses at a fellow apprentice who asks for help.”
“Just because their sponsors would land on them if they did that,” Jasmine added. “Isn’t that more or less what happened to Pick?”
“He was doing a little worse than that, but yeah, basically,” Tallie agreed. “Point is, Rasha, you’ve gotta be mindful of reputation and credibility. How much you have, and how much others have. Makes a difference who you can approach and how seriously they have to take you, or who’s likely to approach you, either to give or to ask for help.”
“Ugh.” He rubbed his forehead. “So if you’re not the most social person, this is basically a nightmare.”
“Basically,” Jasmine said dourly.
“Oh, don’t listen to her,” Tallie snorted, pointing accusingly at Jasmine. “This one’s definitely not a people person, but she does okay. A good start is to head out into the pit and demonstrate what you’ve got! Try stuff out, do what other people are doing. It draws attention; people will admire what you do right, and correct you where you’re wrong.”
“That’s true,” Jasmine acknowledged. “I’m not much of a social person, but so far I seem to get by on work ethic. Haven’t really had any proper training except from a couple of the senior sponsored apprentices.”
“Flora and Fauna,” Tallie added, nodding. “The Bishop’s. You’ll like them, Rash.”
“It’s Rasha,” he emphasized.
“Uh, yeah.” She winced. “In hindsight, I can see why it would be.”
“So,” he murmured, toying with a forkful of potato. “Just go out there and…do things. All right.”
“Finish your meal first,” Jasmine advised.
“Oh, believe me,” he assured her, “that wasn’t in question.”
What he could do…
Looking around the pit, where apprentices were working at dummies, sparring, climbing walls, and doing several things whose purpose he couldn’t guess, Rasha felt another moment of profound helplessness. What could he do that would impress anyone here?
Then his eyes fell on the balance bars. They were clearly designed for climbing, being built up in an asymmetrical, complex formation that rose over three yards high, made of smooth-sanded wood darkened by countless hands and joined together with metal fastenings.
He was making his way toward them before he could talk himself out of it again. Somewhat to his surprise, Tallie and Jasmine followed along. It was mildly encouraging that they didn’t have much more idea what to do than he; with them being his primary source of information, he tended to forget they had only been around a few days, themselves.
“Thieves need to climb,” he said, a smile breaking unbidden across his features.
“Well, yes,” Jasmine said behind him. “I suppose that’s—whoah!”
It wasn’t like rigging. The texture, the arrangement, the inflexibility of the bars… But it was grasping, swinging, pulling, knowing the weight of his body, feeling the inertia and gravity as he swam through them. Rasha hopped upward once to grab the lowest bar, and in seconds had bounded nimbly up through the whole arrangement to perch smugly atop it.
He had to grin in sudden pride when his performance was rewarded by cheers and wolf whistles from others about the room. They quickly returned to their own business—these folks had surely seen a lot of more impressive things—but for a few moments, he was the center of attention…and approbation. It was an unfamiliar feeling.
Rasha decided on the spot he needed more of it.
“Hey, not bad!” Tallie called, grinning up at him. “Not bad at all. Lemme have a go!”
Twenty seconds later, she was beside him. Her technique for climbing was very different than his; she swung her body in wide arcs, with graceful flourishes of whatever limb was not currently needed to hold herself in place. It was an inefficient method, but an undeniably beautiful one, and Rasha found himself curious where she’d learned to climb.
He was also uncomfortably aware of how her performance accentuated the long lines of her body.
“Impressive!” he said, hoping his skin was dark enough to hide his blush. His sisters were never fooled, but people of Stalweiss stock, he’d found, often couldn’t spot faint changes in coloration, not when their own faces turned bright pink at the slightest thing. “That’s…wow, I’ve never seen anyone climb like that.”
“Why, thank you,” she said, batting her eyes and simpering.
Rasha cleared his throat. “Um, well. I suppose there’s no mystery about me; just a wharf rat, used to scaling the rigging. I was dancing on ropes before I could walk.”
“Circus rat, here!” she said cheerfully, hopping upward and throwing herself into a somersault. She landed with one hand grasping the bar on which they both sat, and slowly straightened her body out above them, free arm and legs all pointing in different directions, balancing on her palm. “The point is not to get anywhere in a hurry, but to look good while you’re getting!”
“Mission accomplished,” he mumbled.
Tallie turned her head to grin and wink at him upside-down, and he had to drop his own gaze.
“There she is!”
He craned his neck to look below, where a slim blonde woman dressed in black was striding across the pit floor toward Jasmine, grinning.
“Oh!” Tallie swiftly re-folded herself to sit beside him on the top bar. “That’s Grip!”
“Grip… Oh, Randy’s master?”
“Ex-sponsor, yeah. She is not somebody you wanna cross.” She nudged him with an elbow, grinning eagerly at the scene below, where the senior thief had cornered and engaged Jasmine in conversation. “You’ll wanna watch this. Grip was around two days ago, Jas’s first appearance here. She got baited into sparring with one of the other apprentices.” Her grin grew hugely. “Flattened him. Just completely demolished, and didn’t even get bruised. I swear her hair wasn’t mussed. Yeah, Grip’s an enforcer; she saw that, and I had a feeling she’d be back to see some more.”
“I see,” he mused.
Tallie gave him an irritated glance. “What, that’s it? You’re supposed to express disbelief. How can a little slip of a thing like Jasmine be so dangerous?”
“It actually is really surprising,” he agreed, “but this isn’t when I’m learning of it. You remember last night, when we were all literally blind and it still took three Silver Legionnaires to pin her down?”
“Oh,” she said sullenly. “Yeah, I guess so. Fair enough.”
The conversation below had progressed while they were talking, culminating in Grip turning to the other nearby apprentices and asking for volunteers, while Jasmine stood aside, looking uncomfortable.
“Oh, all right,” Darius said, pushing forward through the crowd and trying for a show of reluctance, which was ruined by his broad grin. “I guess I can have a go. But just promise you won’t cry, Jas. I hate to see a pretty lady all mussed.”
Instantly, Jasmine’s posture shifted, reluctance and uncertainty vanishing as she turned to face him.
“All right,” she said quietly. “I promise.”
“He’s not very bright, is he?” Rasha whispered.
“No,” Tallie replied, grinning insanely. “No, he is not.”
“Ah, there they are,” Principia said as Casey and Farah entered the cabin. “Finally. Front and center, ladies, we’re waiting on you.” Indeed, the rest of the squad were clustered around the arcane heater at the end in which they slept, all but Principia herself sitting on their bunks. “We’ve got new marching orders straight from the High Commander. This is the big one, girls: an actual mission, something important to the Sisterhood’s interests, and a chance for us to prove our worth. We will not mess this up. I hope you enjoyed your last hour of normal duty shifts in a while, because once I’ve briefed you, we are off to the races.”
“Um, before that,” Farah said nervously. “We have something to report.”
Beside her, Casey sighed, looking resigned.
“Well?” Principia said impatiently. “Out with it, then.”
“It’s, um…” Farah shuffled her booted feet. “Well, Sarge, you remember the mystery of the jackass cadet who kept signing out prayer rooms under the name I. P. Standing?”
“Oh, no,” Nandi whispered.
Principia glanced at her, then fixed her stare back on Farah. “Vaguely, sure. What of it?”
“Well,” Farah said, “the good news is, today we caught her red-handed.” Casey edged subtly away from her.
“And the bad news?” Principia demanded.
Farah cringed, hunching her shoulders as if trying to withdraw her head into her breastplate like a turtle. “Colonel Standing would like a word with you, ma’am. At your earliest convenience.”
There was a moment of silence, in which Ephanie’s eyes widened in horror and Nandi closed hers. Then Merry burst out laughing so hard she almost immediately rolled off her bunk.
“You remember telling Farah to be more assertive?” Casey added helpfully. “Well, she’s been working on it.” Farah shot her a filthy look.
“Well, isn’t that the fuckin’ cherry on top,” Principia said sourly. “Thank you so much, Szaravid.”
“Sorry, Sarge,” Farah said miserably.
“Elwick,” the sergeant added, “walk over to Lang, and if she’s still on the floor by the time you get there, stomp on her organs. Everybody else, just…sit down and sort yourselves out. This is important.”
Merry was still grinning half a minute later when they had all assembled and arranged themselves under their sergeant’s now-irritated stare, but even she managed to mostly compose herself. Nandi sat cross-legged on her own top bunk; the others spread out on the bottom ones, waiting expectantly.
“Much as we need more warm bodies around here,” Principia mused, “I do rather like the coziness. After all the shouting and drilling, it’s nice to be a group of people and not the armored golems the bronze demands of us. Needless to say, as always, you are none of you to carry tales of how I do things up the chain of command.”
“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused, most smiling.
“All right, to business.” Principia nodded once. “What we caught last night was the tail end of a bigger and more important operation. Rounding up a handful of Eserite apprentices, in addition to being a completely useless thing to do, was not the point. That raid was prompted by a tip from relatively high in the Guild itself, and its point was to seize the weapons being traded in that warehouse. I didn’t bring any to show you, because they’re to stay locked in the main temple at Commander Rouvad’s orders, but what we found are modified battlestaves of strange design and uncertain purpose. They are capped at both ends with large crystals and incorporate some kind of gold superstructure. When fired, they produce a slightly diffuse beam of yellow light which exerts a mild kinetic force on a target and no other visible effect. It is useless against energy shields. In short, the Legion has apprehended strange weapons that someone in the Thieves Guild felt it was important that we know about. We can’t tell what they are, or what they’re supposed to do, or where they come from.”
She let that sink in for a moment, panning her stare around the squad. “And it is now our job to answer those questions.”
“How?” Merry asked.
“In several ways,” Principia said, beginning to pace up and down. She only had room to make about three steps at a time before having to turn. “First, I’m to examine the devices themselves to figure out their purpose; the High Commander has suspended my weapons research until this is done. Second, this squad is to track the origins of the weapons, and try to learn about their provenance.”
“Once again,” said Merry, “how?”
“I’ve been mulling that,” Principia said seriously. “And I’ll come to it in a moment. First, though, there’s another thing you need to know. What I said about this being an important test of the squad’s mandate is true, but the stakes are higher than that. Commander Rouvad has tasked Bishop Syrinx with the same objectives; she is to pursue the matter through political channels. The Church, the Eserite Bishop, and whatever else she can manage.”
“Holy shit,” Casey breathed. “It’s…a race, then.”
“It’s more complicated than that, Elwick,” Principia said grimly. “In addition to doing our actual jobs, we’ll need to carefully manage our situation relative to Syrinx. Yes, this is a chance to pull ahead and prove ourselves more useful than she, which is a step toward the important goal of validating the Commander’s trust in this squad and making Syrinx herself redundant. However, she is not unaware of our stake in this, and if we start to show her up too badly… Well, you all know how restrained dear Basra is when she feels threatened.”
“She just got back from being punished for that,” Ephanie objected. “Surely she won’t lash out again.”
“She is likely to be more careful right now than she otherwise might, for exactly that reason,” Principia agreed, “but never forget that Basra’s calculations are just that. She had no personal restraint or regard for anyone but herself; only self-interest keeps her in check. This is going to be tricky, ladies.”
“Okay,” Casey said, frowning but slowly nodding. “What’s your plan, then, Sarge?”
“To begin with, leave Syrinx to me,” Principia said firmly. “If she approaches any of you in any way, report to me immediately and in detail. Aside from that, just keep clear of her.”
“Always a good policy,” Merry noted.
The sergeant nodded to her. “With that said, there’s the matter of how to actually begin tracking these weapons. The leads are few and the trail cold, ladies; this isn’t going to be an easy job. Maybe not a possible one. But we’re going to do what we can, using the very thing this squad was formed to foster: our connections with other cults.”
They glanced around at each other in confusion.
“Well,” Farah said doubtfully, “I guess one of Nemitoth’s libraries might be able to help identify the enchantments used on those weapons…”
“Yes, true, but that’s not what I meant,” said Principia. “I’m referring to the connections we have formed as a squad.”
“That pretty much is just Bishop Darling, isn’t it?” said Merry.
Principia grinned. “Think more recently. Very recently.”
“Oh, no,” Merry groaned.
“Oh, yes, Lang. We’re going to split into two teams for phase one of this. The first group will consist of Shahai, Elwick, and Szaravid. You will locate those Guild apprentices we met last night, cultivate friendships, and get them to tell you whatever it is they know. Do not treat them as a disposable information source, either. Useless as apprentices are, they won’t be apprentices forever. Not everyone who applies to the Guild makes it all the way—not even most. But we won’t waste a potential connection.”
“Why us, though?” Casey objected. “I mean, all due respect, Sarge, but wouldn’t you be a better choice to deal with the Guild?”
“I do have the knowledge and experience, this is true,” Principia agreed. “And for exactly that reason, I’ll be coaching you on what to say, what to do, and how to proceed. Carefully. But by the same token, I have my own reputation among the Guild, and my presence would be…complicating. Trust me when I say it’s best I remain at a circumspect distance from them for now. But I chose you three by process of elimination. Avelea radiates discipline and dignity even when out of uniform; among Eserites, that’s tantamount to tattooing ‘kick me’ on you forehead. And Lang…” She turned a critical look on Merry, who grinned puckishly. “Honestly, Lang, I could see you either making the best of friends with Eserites, or the worst of enemies, depending on how the conversation went. I’m reluctant to flip that coin when either heads or tails could end with you getting shanked.”
“Your concern for my welfare touches me, Sarge.”
“Yes, yes. Passive-aggressive jab at my leadership, obligatory rejoinder about my boots touching you, and we move on. We three, Lang, Avelea, and I, are going to pursue the other lead we’ve gained lately.” She grinned. “It’s a weak one, but he was on the scene—and given what we’re looking into, building a tie to the Salyrites will be all kind of useful. So while you guys are dancing with thieves, we’re going to look up our new friend Mr. Schwartz.”
“Question.” Farah raised a hand. “Don’t all of these people…um, sort of hate us right now?”
“I thought Schwartz seemed pretty mild-mannered,” Ephanie commented.
“Yes,” Farah said dryly, “but you don’t have to deal with the Eserites.”
“Well, I think you overestimate the level of hostility we’ll meet, Szaravid,” said Principia. “Hate is a very strong word. But yes, there may be some ill feeling. In that case, you will simply have to employ charm and persuasion.”
“And,” Farah said hesitantly, “what if I don’t…have charm and persuasion?”
“Then,” Principia said, “I guess you’re back to being assertive, aren’t you?”
Merry let out a long sigh and leaned back against the frame of her bunk. “Oh, yeah. This is gonna work.”