“Well, I can’t say you don’t know how to show a lady a good time,” Principia remarked. “Herschel, with the greatest of respect and all apologies to your delicacy and masculine pride… Are you sure you can afford this?”
He actually laughed lightly. “Oh, well…as a general rule, no, this sort of thing is well out of my budget. However, a good friend of mine works here, and wrangled me a membership so we can meet and talk in privacy. It is an excellent place for privacy, which is why I invited you! But, no, let’s just say I don’t commonly eat here. I mean, the drinks alone… Not that you should feel inhibited!” he added hastily. “Please, you’re my guest, get whatever you like.”
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” she replied dryly, “I’ve been a Legionnaire for a few months and a thief for two hundred years. I could buy this place. Since you’re providing the venue, how about I cover the drinks?”
“Ah, well, if you insist,” he said, not smooth enough to fully disguise his relief. She only smiled in amusement.
She had been intrigued when Schwartz’s message specified formal attire, and even somewhat surprised when he brought her to one of the city’s more expensive nightclubs. Most of these places actively sought to cultivate a men’s club atmosphere, all done up in dark hardwoods, red-stained leather, and either brass trappings with old books or pelts and hunting trophies, depending on the set of moneyed men to which they pandered. The Limelight Lounge, however, was known as a place for assignations between well-heeled couples; it was indeed designed for privacy, and also for softer tastes, its décor running heavily toward silks and velvets in deep blue, with etched glass partitions as décor. It also kept more generous hours than its counterparts, which was why it was not only open this early in the afternoon, but rather well-attended. The layout was also somewhat obfuscatory, with tables and chairs arranged in artfully uneven tiers and terraces around its stage, and two balconies running around the perimeter of the tall central room. No doubt the difficulty this created in navigating was offset by the privacy it afforded its patrons. The many nooks scattered here and there were cleverly positioned to have a good view of the stage and not much else.
They stood out somewhat, unavoidably. Though most of those present were in tailored suits and elegant gowns, Schwartz was not the only person to be seen in the formal robes of his cult, nor she the only guest in military dress uniform. Principia was, however, the only person to be seen in the white uniform of the Silver Legions; she rather doubted this place saw many Avenists. And she was, unsurprisingly, the only elf, unless more were hiding in the secluded booths. Not impossible, but this really wasn’t an elvish kind of place.
“So, this friend,” Principia mused after a moment’s pause, in which they strolled slowly along the rail of the lowest balcony. “Not a waiter or something, I assume, if he was able to get you a membership here…”
“She, actually,” he said, turning to nod toward the stage, on which a very pretty dark-haired young woman sat, singing in an exceedingly well-trained voice to the accompaniment of her guitar. Unlike many players who simply strummed the instrument’s strings, her fingers danced with a virtuoso’s mastery, filling the air with sweet little harmonies which wove around and through her song. “The management thinks quite highly of her around here. Enough to put up with my occasional presence, at any rate! Though, ah, they were quite adamant that pets are not permitted in the club.”
“You mean your little…Meesie, wasn’t it?” Principia tilted her head and smirked. “I should think elemental familiars belong in a wholly different category than pets.”
“Now, see, that’s the argument I made! I was firmly assured, however, that I was incorrect.”
She grinned, stopping and stepping in front of him to lean against the rail, gazing down at the singer. “Soooo. By friend, do you by any chance mean…?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” he said hastily. “She’s just a friend, just that, that’s all! Not that there’s anything wrong with Ami at all, of course. She’s certainly lovely—I mean, I’ve got eyes. But there’s, ah, someone…sort of. Maybe.” He trailed off, his expression growing dour, and absently rubbed at his shoulder where Meesie usually sat.
“Sounds complicated,” Principia murmured.
“It…rather is,” he admitted. “I don’t rightly know how she feels, or her situation… And we’re sort of prevented by circumstance from…well, even talking. For now. Maybe for… I don’t know. I mostly think I’m a fool to still be bothering with it at all. It’s a mess, and… I don’t know.”
“Go for it,” she said quietly, still watching Ami sing.
Schwartz blinked, turning to look at her. “Really? But you don’t even know the situation.”
“That’s my advice for most situations,” she said with a wry little smile.
“Hm.” He grunted and turned moodily to gaze down at the performing bard. “My mother advised me to forget the whole thing.”
“And the last thing I’d want is to undermine your mother, Herschel. I never met her, nor was aware of her existence, for that matter, but I will say that I’m likely at least four times her age. And what I’ve learned about love is that heartbreaks fade, but the regrets of opportunities you missed will haunt you forever.”
He simply gazed in silence for a few long moments, clearly no longer focusing on Ami, before replying. “Did you and my dad talk about things like this?”
“We did, actually,” she said, then her forehead creased in a frown. “But… You’re, what, twenty-three? Is that right?”
“Oh, ah, yes. I think I mentioned that.”
“Mm. Let’s find a place to sit, shall we?”
“Oh! Sure, good idea.”
He led her to a booth, screened by lush potted plants whose exuberant state of growth was inexplicable in the dim, windowless club. The table was elevated two steps, shielded from view to either side and affording them a good view of the stage and its performer.
“The thing is,” Principia said as she settled into a seat across from him, “you’d have been a little tyke of about five when I last saw Anton, and I had no idea you existed. I never even knew he was married. Quite frankly, I see why he kept it from me. Matters between us would have been different had I known.”
“Oh?” he said warily.
She grinned. “Let’s just say I’ve been prone to adventure most of my life, since long before that came to be considered a dirty word. It’s not often I find myself in the company of trustworthy friends, and I’m afraid I have a tendency to drag them into all manner of exploits when I have them. I’d have been a lot more cautious with Anton had I known he had a family back home. And he knew that, hence not telling me.” She shrugged. “Well, in the end, he profited from knowing me and I never got him into more trouble than I could get him back out of, but I still feel I owe your whole family an apology. Something tells me your mother wouldn’t be at all pleased to learn of some of what we got up to.”
“Mother certainly isn’t shy about experiencing the rougher side of life herself,” he said. “That’s how they met, in fact. She’d have gone with him on his trips—and did, at first, but once she became the Sheriff, she had an obligation to stay near home. My sister and I were partly raised by a variety of aunts and neighbors.”
“So, Anton’s wife is a Sheriff,” Principia murmured.
“And a former Legionnaire!” he added.
She winced. “All things considered, and with all respect to the lady, I think I’ll refrain from introducing myself.”
“If…you think that’s best,” he said doubtfully.
“So!” she continued in a more brisk tone. “As I believe I mentioned, the way Anton and I left things off, he did me a big favor which I always felt deserved repayment, and I’m sorry I never had the chance to make good on that. But you’re here and I’m here now, so let’s talk about what I can do for you. Why is it, exactly, that you feel the need to make friends and connections with Eserites?”
Schwartz frowned down at his hands, which were clasped together on the table. “I… Well. I’m afraid this is going to sound rather ungrateful, but I have to be frank on the matter of privacy. There are…circumstances. Secrets and dicey situations, and tales that aren’t even mine to tell, risks I can’t take. I’ll understand if this means you can’t work with me, but there’s going to be a lot that I just can’t—”
“All right, stop,” she said with a grin, holding up a hand. “Remember, Herschel, I am an Eserite. And as we were just discussing, your dad and I got along swimmingly without me ever knowing half the important details of his life. I definitely understand secrets and privacy, so you can leave off the flowery explanations. Let’s dispense with what you can’t tell me and focus on what you can. What is it you need?”
“I am not…exactly…sure,” he said, frowning. “Okay, well, the truth of it is… I have an enemy, which is something I am not used to, and not good at handling. I was strongly advised to befriend someone in the Thieves’ Guild to help teach me…well, how to handle an enemy.”
She narrowed her eyes in thought. “How urgent is this situation?”
“Well…it’s not good,” he said darkly. “Urgent, though… She—I mean they don’t know I’m…well, after h—them.”
“So, enemy’s a woman,” Principia said wryly. “Don’t make that face; this will go faster if you don’t try to cover up these flubs. I’m not going to interrogate you about it beyond what I need to know to help. Why is it urgent-ish?”
Again, he stared down at his hands in thought for a long moment. “…have you ever known someone who just… Just needs to be brought down?”
“Yes,” she said simply. “Frequently.”
He nodded. “And…apart from general principles, it relates to the other matter I brought up. Someone I, ah, care about is in danger from this person. Rather…constant danger.”
“I don’t…know? I suspect not, at least immediately. It’s more a matter of constant, calculated abuse.”
“This…is an ugly situation you’re sketching the outlines of,” she said, frowning. “Well, you may or may not have come to the right person. I definitely know a thing or two about dealing with hostiles, but trying to make a thief of you is probably not the wisest approach. Not knowing the person or the situation, there’s a stark limit to how much good my advice, or anyone’s, will do you. Herschel, I realize you’re a somewhat hesitant speaker in general, but you do seem to be stumbling a great deal over this. I think your first step should be to figure out what the maximum possible information you can give me about this is, and do so. I realize you’ve no personal reason to trust me, and I’ll respect your privacy. I’m not digging; I’m trying to lay out what it is I’ll need in order to help you.”
“I see,” he said, heaving a sigh. “Well, that…all makes perfect sense, I suppose. It’s just that… I was sort of warned specifically that once this person knows I’m coming after her, that’s when the real fight will begin…”
“That is probably the explicit truth,” she agreed, nodding. “And you’d better be ready for that fight when it starts. Which is the point of this, isn’t it?”
“Exactly. And… I don’t mean any disrespect, please believe that, but you’re right in that I don’t know much about you, and every person I let know about this is a chance for word to get back to…her.”
“Good,” she said. “You may not be a practiced enemy, but you’re clearly a careful thinker, Herschel. What I can tell you now is that your best plan for this will be…to plan. I’ve not seen you try to fight, but I understand you didn’t pose much of an impediment to Squad 342 last night. You’re a thinker, not a scrapper. Best to have your plans laid in full before you engage.”
He opened his mouth to reply, then suddenly turned toward the stage, where the music had stopped, followed by muted applause. The bard stood and bowed to her audience before slipping offstage, while a harpist smoothly entered from the opposite side to take her place.
“Ah, good,” Schwartz said in a more cheerful tone. “She always notices when I come in. I’ve no idea how, I swear she doesn’t even look up from her guitar, and anyway how could she see with the lights on her like that? But every time I visit she’ll come talk with me. I should introduce you here in just a moment!”
“Capital idea,” Principia said brightly, rising and slipping out of the booth. “Before that, allow me a moment, will you? I’ll be right back to meet your friend.”
“Ah, of course, sure,” he said, bobbing his head in affirmation.
After she had slid away out of view, he let out a sigh and leaned back against his seat, resting his head on the partition behind him. All this…scheming. With every new development, even the encouraging ones, it was made ever clearer to him that he was wildly out of his element. For a few long minutes he just rested there, breathing evenly and letting the soft strains of harp music from below wash over him.
“My, my, is it that bad?”
He straightened up and managed a thin smile as Ami slid into the booth across from him. “Hello. Lovely performance as always. And no…nothing new is bad. I’m just…coping, as always.”
“Well, you’re taking action, which is all anyone can ask, I suppose,” she said airily. “To judge by the white longcoat, I gather your date is this mysterious new friend in the Legions? Splendid work, Herschel. It can’t be said that you don’t move quickly.”
“Yes, and she’ll be back in just a moment.” He glanced around. “Actually, I’m not sure what the, ah… I mean, probably just the necessary. I thought it indelicate to ask.”
“Setting the trap,” Principia said brightly, appearing at the table again as if by magic. Ami jumped in surprise, then went rigid, staring at her; the elf gave her a pleasant smile. “It wouldn’t do for your friend here to get nervous and bolt, before I could position myself between her and any way off that seat. Young woman, I can see you thinking about it. Now tell me, which do you think is a worse idea: trying to shove your way past an elf, or past a Silver Legionnaire?”
Schwartz gaped at her. “Uh… What is going on?”
“Just a little…reunion between old friends,” Ami said in a strangled voice. “And this, Herschel, is why I wish you’d told me just who you were meeting.”
“I’ll bet you do,” Principia said, her false smile fading into a hard, piercing stare. “Spilt milk, Ms. Talaari. It’s not that I don’t believe in coincidences; I simply don’t like them. So why don’t we all have a calm, quiet discussion about you, me, the Schwartzes, and Basra Syrinx?”
“With all due respect, corporal,” Casey said plaintively, “is this really the best plan we have?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Nandi replied calmly, not glancing back at her. It was a well-heeled neighborhood they were walking through, and they passed mostly expensively-dressed people on the sidewalks, most of whom gave the three Legionnaires inquisitive looks. Several looked again at Nandi, doubtless unaccustomed to seeing elves in that armor. Despite the time of year, it was warm enough that they were not in their cold-weather gear, and as per regulations were not wearing helmets while on city duties that did not specifically require them.
“Um, I just can’t help thinking,” Farah said nervously, “apart from the unlikelihood of just stumbling over these apprentices, if the three of us just patrol in a constant circle around the Imperial Casino, the Thieves’ Guild will eventually notice.”
“Eventually?” At that, Nandi did glance back over her shoulder with a small smile. “I assure you, Szaravid, they’ve already noticed. Silver Legionnaires don’t patrol this district. Apart from the fact that it could be considered a provocative act against the Guild, there’s really no point. Even the Army doesn’t exert itself to keep peace here. No one attempts crime in territory under the control of the Thieves’ Guild. Or at least, no one does so twice.”
“I’m still hung up on the ‘provocative’ part of that,” Casey muttered, glancing about.
“Yes, they’ve noticed us,” Nandi said, again watching ahead. “The longer we keep up, the more curious they will be. Three soldiers are not a threat, and they’ll be wondering what we’re up to. By the third day of this, if not the second, someone will confront us to demand an explanation.”
“Three days of this?” Farah groaned.
“Likely more,” Casey said. “You were right; what are the odds of us just bumping into these apprentices?”
“Slim,” Nandi admitted. “Thus, when we are accosted by the Guild, we will tell them the full and unvarnished truth. Our squad is commanded by a Guild member, we are looking for information about the raid and the weapons confiscated there, and those apprentices are our best lead. If you should find yourselves, for any reason, confronted by Guild enforcers in my absence, these are the facts you will tell them.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Casey said warily.
“Not a good one, but the best one available to us. If we simply walked up to them and asked, they would assume we were lying and up to something, and treat us accordingly. Matters will seem different if we speak frankly when menaced their full strength—and they will make threats, so be prepared for that, but also remember they are very unlikely to harm Legionnaires unless provokes far more severely than we shall. If they refuse to accept our presence, that will be that, and we will have to report back to the sergeant and find a new avenue of approach. But I judge there is at least a strong possibility someone within the Guild will actually help us, if we put it to them the right way. I have dealt with Eserites in the past.”
“It feels risky,” Farah said, “showing them our hand like that.”
“Riskier by far to play games.” Nandi glanced back again, a clear warning in her eyes. “We will not fence with the Thieves’ Guild, ladies. We would swiftly and dramatically lose. And worse, the situation would reflect upon Sergeant Locke, embarrass Captain Dijanerad, draw the attention of Bishop Syrinx, and aggravate Commander Rouvad. Any of those outcomes could be disastrous for us.”
“I dunno,” Casey mused. “Locke’s pretty easygoing, as sergeants go…”
“That,” Nandi stated, “is because we are a small unit, because she knows you, and because the composition of this squad makes it a viable leadership strategy. The Sisterhood has extensive files on Principia Locke, and I have read them. If you had to choose between having her and Basra Syrinx for an enemy… Well, ladies, you can thank Avei for the side on which she has placed you. Trust me.”
“Really?” Casey said skeptically.
“I believe it,” Farah said in a quieter tone. “I like the Sarge, too. That doesn’t mean I underestimate her.”
“Good,” said Nandi with a small smile which they couldn’t see.
They turned a corner in silence, glancing at the white, gilt-edged shape of the Imperial Casino as it was briefly visible across an intersection on their left. For the most part, Shahai was leading them on a patrol route around the Casino at a distance of one street, rather than actually circling its walls.
“I know Locke said to drop this,” Casey said after a pause, “but… Corporal Shahai, that one apprentice, with the brown hair…”
“I know, Elwick,” Nandi said quietly.
“You do? I mean… Sure you do,” she added with a sigh.
“Yeah, it’s really not surprising, is it?” Farah smiled and jostled her affectionately with an elbow.
“Orders aside, Locke’s approach to that situation was the correct one,” Nandi said quietly. “We are being sent into a circumstance in which we may end up interacting with her, closely and repeatedly. Above all else, you will respect her cover and give no hint that you know her to be anything but some girl apprenticing to the Guild. With that understood… Locke has also placed us in position to possibly be of help to her, should an appropriate situation arise. I am quite confident the sergeant does not do such things by accident.”
“What is she doing in the Guild?” Casey wondered aloud.
“Nothing that’s any of your business until she tells you otherwise,” Nandi said flatly.
“Yes, ma’am,” Casey swiftly acknowledged.
Suddenly, the corporal stopped, turning her head. “…well. Then again, sometimes one gets lucky. This way, ladies, quickly.”
“What’s happening, ma’am?” Farah asked, falling into step as Nandi picked up their pace and turned, heading down a street away from the Casino.
“One and possibly more of our targets is now leaving the Guild and moving parallel to us, a block distant,” Nandi said crisply. “Tallie has a very carrying voice. I cannot be sure who, if anyone, is with her.”
“Omnu’s breath,” Casey marveled. “Just how acute is elvish hearing?”
“The acuity is less important in this case than the practice at filtering out specific sounds from background noise. Not many elves have spent as much time in modern cities as I.”
“I bet it’d be easier for her if we both shut up,” Farah muttered. Casey shot her an annoyed look, but she earned an over-the-shoulder smile from Nandi.
In silence, the three Legionnaires strode off into the city.
“Now, isn’t that interesting,” Grip said, watching the soldiers pass by directly beneath the building on whose roof she stood. “And you thought I was in an unreasonable hurry. If this doesn’t teach you to have some faith in my instincts, Silence, I don’t know if anything will.”
The man accompanying her folded his arms, watching the Legionnaires go. “You realize the elf can assuredly hear us.”
“That’s Nandi Shahai,” Grip said dismissively. “If she wants to question why I’m stalking her, I’ll be glad to hear what she’s doing poking around the Guild. Focus, Silence. My hearing’s not on her level, but I caught enough to know I was right. They’re following that group. Specifically the girl, I’d wager a month’s take.”
Silence shook his head. “I still refuse to develop a personal stake in this.”
“I swear,” she complained, “the older you get, the less fun you become.”
“That’s the usual way of things, Quintessa,” he replied with a faint smile. “Still, you are right. In an objective sense, it is interesting. I will examine the girl more closely myself, but unless the results of that are disappointing, I believe it will be worth informing Glory. And if she decides not to lay a claim…”
“Then it’s my turn,” Grip said with a hungry smile. “You do that. For now, I’m going to follow our friends down there. This evening is just bound to get more interesting before it’s over.”
Without another word, she took off at a run and leaped across the street to catch herself on a window ledge on the building opposite, which was one floor taller than this one. In seconds, Grip had clambered up the side, agile as a squirrel, and then went bounding away over the rooftops, swiftly catching up to the four apprentices on one side of the building row and Legionnaires on the other.
Silence stood, watching, until she was out of sight, and then turned to look back at the glittering domes of the Casino, frowning in thought.