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Darius, growing increasingly frustrated, darted froward again, swinging at Jasmine’s head. During the last minute, he had quickly gotten over his hesitation to strike her; so far, his attempts to do so were proving fruitless.
She had begun by simply standing there, ignoring his taunts and imprecations to attack. When he finally stepped forward, launching a half-hearted jab at her head, she stepped back, avoiding it. The first minute of their duel followed that pattern, Darius growing bolder and more aggressive, without effect. Jasmine not only never struck back, she didn’t even trouble to adopt a fighting stance, keeping her hands folded behind her. She simply stepped smoothly backward and to either side, allowing Darius to chase her in a pointless circle.
The increasing jeers and commentary from the other assembled apprentices was clearly not improving Darius’s mood; his grin had collapsed entirely into a thunderous scowl. Grip, though, grinned like the cat who had eaten the canary, lounging against the wall off to the side and watching avidly. Beside her stood an older man in nondescript clothing, his face lined and hair silver-touched at the temples. Apart from nodding once to Grip in greeting, he had simply watched the fight impassively.
“All right, enough!” Darius exclaimed, coming to a stop and lowering his hands. “Are you about done screwing around? If you’re not gonna fight, we both have better things we could be doing.”
Jasmine raised one eyebrow. “If we’re not fighting… Why are you losing?”
There was a predictable outburst of hooting from the spectators at his. Darius rolled his eyes dramatically.
“Well,” he drawled, “I guess the smart thing to do here would be to walk away, since you’ve sunk to goading me. That’s just sad, Jasmine; we are all cheapened by this.”
“Are we done, then?” she asked calmly.
“Tell you what, cupcake, I’ll leave that up to you.” He slid back into a braced fighting stance, raising his fists. “I’m not gonna flail around while you show off your dancing skill. Either fight back, or we are done.”
He darted forward a bit more carefully, aiming a jab at her face, which she slapped aside. Darius grinned in triumph, bouncing in place a couple of times, before feinting left and then attacking from the other side.
Jasmine ignored the bait, stepped neatly to the side and reached deftly past his attacking fist to tap him on the head with her palm.
Darius yowled in obvious pain and stumbled to the ground, clutching his ear.
A few of the onlookers let out exuberant cheers, but most of the watching apprentices fell silent, staring in various degrees of disbelief and concentration. Grip’s smile broadened further, but she offered nothing to the tumult.
Jasmine turned to face the crowd, waiting until the shouts died down somewhat before speaking in a tone clearly used to projecting.
“I’m assuming our goal here is not to go around killing and maiming people, right? Well, what you just saw was one of the fastest and easiest ways to put someone out of commission without doing them serious harm.” She glanced at Darius, who had made it back up to his knees, keeping his back to her for the moment, then turned back to the other apprentices and raised one hand. “Here, cup your hand slightly, and gently—gently!—tap yourself on the ear with the palm.”
She demonstrated, and several of the onlookers followed suit, though some stubbornly refrained and a few knowing expressions hinted that their owners already knew where this was going.
“That sensation you feel,” Jasmine continued, “is air being pushed into your ear canal by the impact. Do that harder and it will hit your eardrum with a lot of force, which causes pain, nausea, and loss of equilibrium, not to mention loss of hearing and sometimes blurred vision. Hard enough and you can rupture the eardrum entirely. Do this to someone and they are down. It’s painful and debilitating, but not permanent or excessively cruel—even a fully ruptured eardrum heals naturally in a few weeks, barring infection. And, of course, a quick potion or divine healing can fix it in moments. It’s a weak point all humanoids share, though the ears on lizardfolk are too hard to spot to be worthwhile. Even sturdier races, like dwarves or orcs, will be neutralized by this.
“The best time to do this,” she added, holding up a finger warningly, “is before a fight breaks out, to prevent it from happening. The ear is a small target, and you have to hit it at the right angle. If someone’s already watching for an attack, it’s harder; if you’re already moving around trying to hit one another, harder still. You really only stand a chance of using this in a fight if you’re already a lot better than the person you’re fighting.”
“Oh, nice. That’s a nice touch.” Darius straightened up and turned to glare at her, still clutching his ear. “Couldn’t resist getting in a last little shot, could you?”
“Oh,” Jasmine said, suddenly looking flustered, in a sharp contrast to her previous bearing. “Um, sorry, I wasn’t thinking—”
“I’ll tell you what, Jas,” he said curtly. “Congratulations on being good at fighting. Everybody here’s good at something. The point is to get along with people and gain new skills. You’re gonna have a hard time if you can’t resist taking the opportunity to be an asshole every time you show somebody up.”
“Whatever,” he snorted, turning on his heel and slouching away, but not before his parting comment was audible. “Bitch.”
“Leave it,” Grip ordered when Jasmine took a step in his direction. The enforcer strode forward, effortlessly scattering apprentices with a sharp gesture. “Do not waste your time on petulant jackasses. The boy was right about that much, though I suspect the irony was lost on him. A word in your ear, kid? This way.” She tilted her head toward the corner of the pit, pausing only to sweep a very sharp look around at the assembled onlookers. Those who hadn’t already got the hint immediately set off in search of something else to do.
“So, you’ve done this before,” Grip said as Jasmine followed her. They came to a stop next to the climbing bars, atop which Rasha and Tallie still sat. The enforcer was surely aware of their presence, but did not acknowledge them.
“I’ve had the benefit of training, yes,” Jasmine agreed warily.
“Well, the fighting, yeah,” Grip said with a knowing little smile. “But also teaching. That’s exactly the right approach to take around here—show people what you know, make yourself useful, earn respect. You’re off to a good start, kid. Now, let’s talk about what you did wrong.”
Jasmine folded her arms, eyebrows lowering. “I thought I handled him pretty well.”
“Once the actual fighting started, yeah, you owned him. Listen, girl, I am an enforcer, and a good one. Inflicting pain and fear in Eserion’s name is my job, my calling, and my faith. So pay attention when I tell you that your objective as a practitioner of the violent arts should be not to fight. You inflict exactly as much damage as you need to in order to get the results you want. Violence is a means to an end; violence being the end in and of itself is a symptom of a particular species of crazy that we don’t tolerate around here.”
“Excuse me,” Jasmine said in annoyance, “but as I just said, I chose the least—”
“Mouth shut,” Grip said flatly. “I am speaking. A corollary of this principle is that as much as an enforcer needs to be good at force, she also needs to be good at theater. You have to control every aspect of your interactions in order to gain the fear and respect you need. How you present yourself, what you say, is a lot more important in the long run than breaking elbows—or eardrums. As such, announcing that you’re a feminist who can be goaded into a fight as easily as that boy did is a serious mistake. I doubt most of those yahoos out there have the motive or the understanding to leverage that, but in other circumstances… You showed a weakness in front of a crowd. Don’t do that.”
“I see,” Jasmine murmured, still frowning, but now in thought. “Thank you. That’s good advice.”
“I wouldn’t waste everyone’s time saying it, otherwise,” Grip said with a humorless little grin. “That aside, good show, kid. I’m gonna be watching you with interest.”
She clapped the apprentice on the shoulder once, and then strode away without another word. As she passed the older man who’d been watching the fight with her, he smoothly fell into step at her side, and they disappeared through the door into the catacombs. Jasmine stood there, gazing after them with a pensive frown still in place.
At least, until Tallie landed on the floor beside her.
“That was Grip!” Tallie enthused, ignoring the way Jasmine started away from her and slipped momentarily into a fighting stance. “You lucky bitch, you!”
“I’d really prefer it if people didn’t call me that,” Jasmine said pointedly, relaxing. “I spoke to that woman once before, briefly. So, she’s an enforcer? Who was that man with her?”
“Oh, who cares?” Tallie said dismissively, while Rasha clambered more sedately down to join them. “It was Grip, Jasmine! And she talked to you! Hell, she took the time to teach you!”
“That’s what full Guild members do with apprentices, right? I guess I’m making some progress, then.”
“Grip,” Rasha said, frowning. “Actually, I remember that name. She was the one Pick trained under, right? Before she threw him back into the general pool?”
“Damn skippy!” Tallie exclaimed, patting him hard on the shoulder. “You’ve got sharp ears and a good memory, my little friend. Dang, everybody’s showing off their potential today.”
“Can we not call people little?” Rasha said irritably.
“That’s the whole point about Grip,” Tallie blustered on, ignoring him now. “She doesn’t do apprentices. Rarely has one, and she’s been even more standoffish than usual ever since Pick proved himself to be a prick. She’s only recently started visiting the pit to watch apprentices again, and this is the first time she’s ever paid attention to one person in particular! Holy damn, woman, I kind of want to kill you and steal your life now!”
“I, uh, don’t think it works like that,” Jasmine said warily. “Anyhow… She doesn’t really sound like the sort of person I’d want to apprentice under.”
“Are you daft?” Tallie exclaimed.
Jasmine shrugged. “It’s just… I already know fighting.”
“I’ll say,” Rasha commented.
“I came here to learn other ways of dealing with my problems,” Jasmine continued, “not to become a better fighter. And especially not to learn how to be a more…intimidating, fear-inspiring person like Grip seems to be. That isn’t the path I want to follow. I hope I’m not gonna have to turn her down or anything,” she added worriedly. “If she’s well-respected around here, that seems like it could cause me some problems…”
“Oh, not likely,” Tallie said dismissively. “I mean, people would think it was weird as hell, you refusing to apprentice under someone with that kind of rep, but Eserites are all about leaving folks alone to do their thing. As long as Style doesn’t think you’re not working or learning hard enough… Or, hell, maybe you’d gain enough cred from her just asking that you’d get a better offer!”
“Maybe,” Jasmine murmured, gazing absently at the wall.
“Anyway!” Tallie said, suddenly with a broad grin. “Let’s do something!”
“Uh, oh,” Rasha muttered.
She scowled at him. “What, uh oh? You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“I’ve learned that when somebody says ‘let’s do something’ in that tone, I’m about to have a bad time.” Jasmine smiled at him in amusement.
“Oh, you kids and your…pooh-poohedness, pooh-poohing all my enthusiasm,” Tallie said, making a swatting gesture at him. “No, look, seriously, I think Jasmine’s debut calls for something celebratory, and we’re all here to get ourselves trained, right? Well, why choose between them when we can just do both?”
“Um, I’m not sure what needs celebrating, here,” Jasmine said. “I had one brief sparring match and an even briefer conversation with an enforcer.
“I’m curious what kind of training she means, though,” Rasha said.
“It sounds like an excuse to slack off,” Jasmine muttered.
“It is!” Tallie admitted cheerfully. “But, and I’m saying this in all seriousness, I wouldn’t be suggesting it if I didn’t see a real benefit. Training in the Guild is great, it’s necessary, but it’s also a preliminary sort of thing. Eserites are active out there in the world. So, I’m gonna do you the favor a senior apprentice did for me on my first day and show you one of the places we’re gonna need to get to know. That they have booze is just an added benefit!”
“I don’t drink,” said Jasmine.
They both stared at her.
“What do you mean, you don’t drink?” Tallie demanded.
“It isn’t a complex sentence, or subject,” Jasmine said in annoyance. “I do not ingest alcohol. Why is this such a big deal for everyone?”
“It’s a big deal because everyone drinks!” Tallie exclaimed.
“Everyone does not.” Jasmine folded her arms. “I don’t. And I’m hardly the only one.”
“Hey, what happened to letting people do their own thing?” Rasha said quietly.
Tallie heaved a sigh. “Out of the mouths of babes… All right, fine, but I hope you know there’s a serious interrogation coming your way, lady. With every new thing I learn about you, the mystery deepens. You’re like this big, improbable onion. Layer upon layer of new intrigues.”
“I suppose the metaphor fits,” Jasmine said, nodding. “Plus, if you cut me, I’ll make you cry.”
Rasha barked an unexpected laugh, stifling himself when Tallie scowled at him. “What? That was funny.”
“Thanks,” Jasmine said with a smile.
“Anyway!” Tallie said with a roll of her eyes. “Get yourselves together, guys, we’re taking a field trip. Since Grip chased everybody off from Jasmine and we’re all still messed up after our ridiculous adventure last night, it’s the perfect time for gwah!”
She jerked away from Ross, placing a hand on her chest and panting dramatically.
“What?” he asked, blinking in surprise. “You okay?”
“Damn it, don’t do that!” she snapped. “How did you do that? You’re like a buffalo; how the hell did you sneak up on us?”
“Excuse me, but he snuck up on you,” Rasha said helpfully. “We saw him coming.”
“He just walked up,” Jasmine added. “Hi, Ross.”
“Jasmine.” He nodded to her before turning back to Tallie. “Can I come?”
“I—well, hell, sure.” She chuckled. “More the merrier, and I guess we’ve got as much of a history as we do with anyone else here. C’mon, kids, I’m going to open your eyes to a whole new world.”
“Um…” Rasha glanced around. “Should we…find Darius, first?”
Tallie sighed, shaking her head. “Rasha, we did one job with the guy.”
“One job,” Ross rumbled, “then jail, then cleaning duty.”
“Right, well, the point is, we’re not married to him. He’s off sulking after making an ass of himself with Jasmine. We’ll make other friends, Rasha, don’t get too attached.”
“Excuse me,” Jasmine interrupted, “but where, exactly, are you proposing to take us?”
Tallie winked. “To a place where all good thieves can congregate outside the sanctity of their Guild, to mix with the sort of people with whom they’ll need to do business. A place where we can make contacts, get anything money can buy, and generally do business.”
“For some reason,” Jasmine said with a sigh, “I can’t help assuming this is a place where we can get stabbed, and then get a nasty infection.”
“There, y’see?” Tallie grinned and slugged her on the shoulder. “I said you pick things up quick.”
“What kinda drinks to they have?” Ross asked.
“Plentiful, strong, and cheap!”
He nodded. “I’m in.”
Rasha remained silent, following along behind as the still-chattering Tallie led them up the stairs and toward the hall, unable to dislodge her last piece of advice from the forefront of his brain.
Who else would he be wiser not to get attached to? How long would it be before they realized they could do without him?
19 thoughts on “11 – 6”
Ended up being a shorter chapter than I wanted, but the next sequence is longer and I don’t want to break it up, so here we are.
I think I am officially old now, to judge by the way I am systematically falling apart. The abdominal complaint I’ve been stressing about for the last few weeks isn’t kidney-related; it turns out to be IBS. I puzzled this out myself using the internet which I don’t recommend doing if you have access to actual health care but I don’t so here we are. But anyway, that’s good news; it’s treatable with simple diet changes, which I’ve done and gotten great results in only a week.
Unfortunately, the single biggest contributing factor seems to be my back brace. I have a slipped disc in my spine and have to wear a brace to do physical work at my job, which compresses my midsection. This now causes knifelike pain in my side. So if I wish to remain gainfully employed I get to pick which kind of agony I want to suffer on a given day.
Also, I’ve developed a mysterious lump in the throat. According to the internet, there are any number of things this could be, and only three of them are cancer.
See you Wednesday. Should be a longer, more interesting chapter. Provided I don’t get eaten by a hippo or something.
Thank you for the chapter.
Maybe you could look into getting a different, more comfortable back brace? Although I don’t think there are any that don’t compress your midsection…
I hope your health improves soon, being miserable physically can’t be great for your mental health either.
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I’m actually quite happy with my brace itself. Until this condition arose, it’s never given me any trouble. And you’re right, you really can’t wrap something around your midsection without having something wrapped around your midsection.
Your situation makes me believe in God because what else is the cause of all your health problems?!
Unwanted medical advice (and I’m only a medical student), but neck lumps are serious – you should really get it checked out. I understand that can be harder in America than Australia, but it isn’t something to ignore – especially if it starts getting bigger.
I appreciate it, but there’s almost no point. Knowing if it’s a serious condition does me little good since I have no option to have a serious condition treated. It’ll either go away on its own or kill me.
Is it a physical, palpable lump, or does it feel like something stuck in your throat? Because I had the sensation of something stuck in my throat for a while that turned out to be basically psychosomatic. It’s called globus pharyngis, and can be a result of stress or your brain trying to make sense of a microabrasion in your throat.
If it is a palpable lump, I got nothin’.
Don’t know if you read old comments, or if you’ve all ready figured it out. The lump is probably a symptom of stomach acid tearing up your throat. Acid reflux and all that. Tends to go hand and hand with IBS. I struggle with it myself. Prilosec might help. I also have a small hiatal hernia (stomach pressed up into my throat slightly) so the Prilosec doesn’t really solve the problem, but it does help.
Missing closing quote.
Well, I’m finally caught up and I think this book is off to a particularly strong start. I got distracted for a few weeks by Life, and my first thought after I came back to the story was: Why did I stop reading this?
As for the chapter – I like that Triss is getting along well with her new peers (and even developing a sense of humor!). I was afraid the fish-out-of-water thing would be played up for comedy, and while there’s probably some of that coming it’s nice that reasonably smart characters stay reasonably smart when they’re in a new environment.
This also serves to highlight how much more of a people person Triss has become since the series started. Can you imagine if the Triss we met in Book 1 had tried to do this? She’d have lost her cool and blown her cover in like four seconds.
A little constructive criticism (which is obviously very subjective): I feel the lesson from Grip highlights a relatively minor but persistent flaw in this series, and that is the problem of character voice. While there’s a stunningly wide range of personal philosophies among the characters in TGAB, to my ear they tend to speak somewhat similarly, especially when they’re making some kind of point. In terms of sentence structure, word choice, and the way the argument is constructed, it isn’t difficult to imagine almost those exact words coming out of the mouth of Darling or even Arachne.
I think a lot of writers struggle with this (Wildbow does it as well, and come to that so does Aaron Sorkin), and I don’t really know how to fix it, but as far as I’m concerned that’s your job. 😛
And obviously I’m sorry for the way life keeps crapping on you. I want to give you a hug and some decent health insurance, but unfortunately neither of those is a practical option at the moment, so I’ll stick to money.
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“I came here to learn other ways of dealing with my problems, not to become a better fighter. And especially not to learn how to be a more…intimidating, fear-inspiring person like Grip seems to be. That isn’t the path I want to follow.”
i hope she figures out that she is wrong there – she is the paladin of avei, she in some ways is an enforcer already, and what she needs to learn is exactly what Grip does best: how to leverage violence into results. Which is (almost) completely independent of how good a fighter she is.
Exactly. Learning how and when to showboat could, in fact, lessen casualties to only those you want to target. Triss doesn’t realise that’s also the job of enforcers. Yet. 🙂
I think Grip will get around to drip-feeding that, as and when.
“Holy damn, woman, I kind of want to kill you and steal your life now!”
“I, uh, don’t think it works like that,” Jasmine said warily.
Well with the right transcension fields set up, I don’t see any reason it wouldn’t work.
Webb, are you by chance a fan of Avatar: the Last Airbender cartoon? The fight this chapter strongly reminds me of Aang fighting the popular kid in a Fire Nation school. I’m not sure anyone will ever top the classy nonviolent “finishing move” Aang used. Not that Jasmine would ever have chosen something so subtle or painless for her new friend Darius.
Also, Big Improbable Onion really ought to be a band name with Cut Me I’ll Make You Cry as their debut album
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Thanks now my brain is stuck developing onion themed songtitles for this.
Also the Album should be called “Layers” .. cut me and i make you cry works better as songtitle.
Other titles are :
stew with me.
The chopper blues
The final layer.
The core revealed.
Love.it, if.i.had a musical bone…sigh…
I think Webb quoted from Avatar once, so I assume he watched it. 🙂
“darted froward again” > forward ?
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