“When you said we were going someplace villainous, I didn’t think you were being funny,” Jasmine said, having to pitch her voice loudly above the shouting, pounding of feet, and general mayhem.
The Imperial Stock Exchange more closely resembled a sporting event of some kind than a place where money was counted and trade conducted. Wide-open in plan, it appeared to have been set up in a converted warehouse, with all its interesting features along the sides. No fewer than four dedicated telescroll towers bristled from the north edge of the building, their ground-level machinery and operators constantly pressed to keep up with business in their alcoves along that wall. The west wall was lit up by a huge magic mirror, quite possibly the largest of its kind in existence, upon which lists of inscrutable numbers and abbreviations glowed in blue and red, constantly moving, altering, and occasionally changing color back and forth. The other walls were heavily decorated: the triple-coin sigil of Verniselle was prominently and repeatedly displayed, as was the flag of the Tiraan Empire, a silver gryphon on a black field, represented in both its vertical and horizontal forms. There were also, closer to the floor, a goodly number of modern lightcaps, the sepia-toned portraits depicting mostly scenes from this very room.
It was both insanely crowded, and crowdedly insane. The floor teemed like an anthill in a state of perpetually recent kicking, most of the traders agitated well beyond the limits of socially acceptable behavior, filling the air with their shouting and the sharp smell of sweat. Beneath them, the floor was an icky morass of crumpled slips of paper, cigar butts, and spilled liquor. There were a good number of Vernisite clerics present, notably not only for their sigil badges and robes, but calmer bearing—calmer, and in many cases, visibly smug. Interestingly, the general press of stock traders were overwhelmingly male, while at least two in three of the clerics were women.
“Yeah, yeah, bankers are all crooked, I get it,” Tallie said breezily, likewise all but shouting to be heard. She grinned back at the others as she led them around the edge of the room. “Frankly there’s a couple of more subtle and more direct ways to get where we’re going, but I thought you guys oughta see this at least once. And no, this isn’t our final destination.”
“I could’ve done without this entirely,” Rasha said, edging closer to Jasmine and constantly eying the chaos around him; shouting, gesticulating men repeatedly pressed close to them, never quite accidentally clocking anyone with a careless fist or elbow, but that was likely only because the group was paying attention and moving out of the way. No one answered him; he’d spoken in a normal tone, which rendered his words basically inaudible.
At least Tallie didn’t dawdle. Their destination was a doorway in the back corner of the huge room; double-wide and with no doors to block the view, it revealed a broad spiral staircase of wrought iron descending straight down into a wide shaft cut into the floor. Two men were having a loud argument right outside; between the nigh-incoherent ferocity of their disagreement and the general noise, it was impossible to tell what it was even about, but the group hurried past them as quickly as possible. They seemed on the verge of coming to blows. Hidden inside the doorway, tucked just out of sight from the trading floor, a man and a woman were locked in a kiss in the corner, going about it with such passion they seemed unaware they were in a public place. Rasha ducked his head, flushing furiously as they passed the little scene. He was somewhat comforted by noting that both Jasmine and even Ross seemed uncomfortable as well, though Tallie, of course, only cheered at them in passing.
The cacophony of the trading floor followed them down the stairs, but the smaller room into which the staircase terminated was much quieter. It was a bar, and a middling expensive one to judge by the quality of its woodwork. Only middling due to the scuffs, scratches, and cigar burns which marred most of the surfaces, but still; the layout was discreet and its furnishings clearly meant to be classy, the bartender well-dressed and even the passing serving girl attired with a modesty which set the place apart from the cheaper set of pubs. Despite the early hour, it was more than hall-full, mostly with disheveled traders slouched over drinks—in some cases, whole bottles—wearing despondent expressions.
“They do the celebratory drinking up above,” Tallie said cheerfully as she led them through the room, ignoring a couple of filthy glares from sullen-looking men. “Anybody who comes down here in a good mood is usually buying a bottle to take back up top.”
“I’m still not seeing the villainy I was promised,” Jasmine noted.
“Patience, Jas, we’ll get there. Welcome to the Corral; we won’t be here long. Here we are!”
She had taken them straight through the bar to a door in the back, and immediately pulled this open, stepping through and gesturing the others after. They exchanged a round of dubious glances before following.
They were now in a public toilet. A nicely-appointed one, as toilets went, but still.
“I feel this is an appropriate time to mention,” Jasmine said, “that I don’t have a lot of patience for practical jokes.”
“Y’know, somehow, I sort of predicted that about you,” Tallie said with a grin, once again walking straight through and ignoring the rows of toilet stalls. She marched right up to the wall opposite the door and rapped sharply on it.
After a second’s pause, a framed ornithological print of a mallard suddenly slid aside, revealing a pair of suspiciously squinting eyes.
“Speak, friend, and enter,” said a male voice, muffled slightly by the intervening wall.
“Fortune is a harlot!” Tallie replied cheerfully.
The mallard slammed back into place. A second later, there was a muted click, and the entire wall swung away. Behind it, an enormously burly man in a suit that was clearly tailored to his bulky frame stepped back. In addition to being thick, he was hugely tall; he clearly had had to bend down to place his eyes in front of the hidden slot.
“Top o’ the evenin’, Scott!” Tallie said. “How they hangin’?”
“Ask me again when I’m not on watch,” he replied with a thin smile. She laughed and patted his arm in passing. Scott’s expression sobered as he studied the rest of them, but he made no move to impede their way, and after a moment, the other apprentices resumed following their guide.
The narrow space beyond the false wall led to another descending staircase, this one carved of stone. More noise and light filtered up from below, growing louder as they traveled downward. This was a longer staircase, carrying them down at least three stories.
“Gonna have to show restraint,” Ross grumbled. “Don’t wanna hafta climb this drunk.”
“That’s one reason to show restraint,” Jasmine agreed dryly.
The stairwell opened onto yet another loud, well-lit place, this one a fraction the size of the stock exchange above. Their group stopped just inside to stare around, Tallie grinning proudly, the rest in a kind of awe.
It was a circular room, roughly, arranged in three tiers. The thick stone column containing the staircase let out on the middle tier, which was the broadest; immediately to their right was a well-attended bar, with doors behind it probably leading into kitchens. This broad, circular space was laid out with tables and chairs, its inner ring marked by a wrought-iron rail ten feet tall; they were clearly serious about not letting anyone fall into the lower pit. Probably a wise precaution, considering the screeching, howling and crashing emanating from below, though between the angle and the cheering spectators ringing it, they couldn’t see what was going on down there. More tables were laid out around the upper tier, but they seemed to be more widely-spaced and attended by a better-dressed class of people than those down below.
“It’s a bar,” Rasha said finally, “under a smaller bar, under a stock exchange. Why?”
“And this is the Den!” Tallie threw her arms wide, grinning. “Get it? Because up above was the Corral.” Her grin faded slightly at their uncomprehending expressions. “You know. Bulls, bears?”
She got only three blank stares in response, and sighed, lowering her arms.
“I can see I’m gonna have to educate the hell out of you rubes. Anyway, yes, this is the Den, and yes, it’s a bar, but it’s not only that. This is one of Tiraas’s most active gambling dens!”
“I thought gambling was illegal in the Empire,” said Rasha, “and yes, I realized how dumb that was the moment I said it, no need to rub it in.”
“Very stringently regulated rather than illegal,” Jasmine said, her eyes roving constantly around the room. “The Empire doesn’t bother to police friendly betting. Anything organized or high-stakes isn’t allowed, which is why the Casino does such good business, being protected by a Pantheon cult. That’s the basics, anyway. I can’t say I ever cared enough about the Treasury laws to read the details.”
“More than I knew,” Ross grunted.
“Oh, but it’s not just gambling,” Tallie said with relish, again setting off into the fray and leaving them to straggle along behind her. “A place like this, which exists outside the rule of law, attracts all kinds of nasty folks! Mercenaries, bounty hunters, assassins! Lots of members of the Guild hang out here, as well as a good smattering of Imperial Intelligence agents.”
“Huh?” Rasha frowned. “Why would Imps… I mean, if the Empire knows about this, wouldn’t they just shut it down?”
“Some Emperors would’ve,” Ross said. “Sharidan’s too savvy. You shut this down, three more pop up elsewhere. He knows where it is, he can keep an eye on it.”
“Exactly,” Tallie said, giving the normally taciturn apprentice a look of surprise. “At any rate, that’s how it was explained to me when I was first brought here, and it makes perfect sense to me.”
“You come here often?” Rasha asked warily.
“This is my second time!” she said cheerily, weaving through the crowd toward the back of the ring; they had yet to find an unoccupied table. “Flora and Fauna brought me here when I was pretty new. Y’know…last week.”
“You keep mentioning those names,” he noted.
“They’re Sweet’s apprentices!” Tallie said. “Uh, that’s the Bishop. They’re good people.”
“I’ve spoken with them a few times,” Jasmine agreed. “They’re quite helpful.”
“Yeah, even a lot of the senior apprentices, the ones with sponsors, won’t waste their time on unskilled, no-rep nobodies like us,” said Tallie. “But those two are easygoing and usually willing to help out when they’re around. It makes sense, really; they’re Sweet’s apprentices. He’s all about building connections and relationships. Stand to reason he’d’ve taught ’em the same tactics. That’s what you’ll notice about sponsored apprentices, gang. When you get personal training from a ranking thief, you tend to pick up their general outlook and technique, even if you weren’t planning on it.”
“I’m increasingly curious about Grip and Pick,” Rasha commented.
“Recommend staying outta that,” said Ross.
Suddenly, Jasmine broke from the group, rushing over to the rail, where they had come abreast of a gap in the crowd. “Those are demons!” she exclaimed, clearly aghast.
The others moved over to join her, Rasha slipping in beside her while Tallie and Ross had to crane their heads around. He’d never seen a demon before, but he was willing to bet she was right. One of the things down there looked like a crab, with two sets of pincers and three stingers, plus a mouth full of fangs; the other resembled a gecko, except with armored plating, a barbed tail, and absurdly oversized dewclaws in place of sticky pads on its fingertips. Both were bigger than wolfhounds, and both were a mess of bloody scratches and chipped chitin. As they watched, the two combatants surged together again, clawing, biting, and stinging, accompanied by a round of cheers and catcalls from the onlookers.
“Oh, wow,” said Tallie. “Last time I was here they had gladiators. This doesn’t seem like a great idea.”
“That is a massive understatement,” Jasmine growled.
“C’mon.” Tallie tugged at her arm. “There’s a table; let’s grab it while we can.”
Jasmine allowed herself to be led away, scowling thunderously. A table had indeed opened up, and Tallie wasted no time in plopping herself into a seat, the others following suit more slowly, still clearly uncertain of their surroundings. Rasha felt slightly better at being ensconced in a place with people he more or less trusted, but the chaos, noise, and general atmosphere of the Den still did not agree with him. He was beginning to seriously question the wisdom of having come here. Maybe it was time to stop following Tallie into adventures…
“So, uh, who’s buyin’?” Ross asked.
Rasha blinked, then cringed. “I, um, don’t really have any…money,” he admitted.
“Wait,” said Jasmine. “Weren’t we supposed to get paid for doing that job of Pick’s? Does it matter that it went south?”
“That wasn’t our fault!” Rasha exclaimed.
“Hey, you’re right,” Tallie said, scowling suddenly. “If that asshole tries to stiff us on top of ditching us…”
“He’s got two more days,” Ross said in his basso rumble. “Three days from a job to make good on his word ‘cording to Guild custom. Then we can go to Style an’ she’ll beat it out of ‘im to pay us.”
“Good,” Tallie said, nodding with vicious satisfaction. “I almost hope he forgets.”
“Okay, that’ll be good in two days,” Rasha said nervously. “But, uh, for right now…”
“Relax, I can spot us a bottle,” Tallie said easily. “Got a little savings. You can pay me back when Pick coughs up.”
“What’s goin’ on up there?” Ross asked, nodding in the direction of the upper ring.
“Ah!” Tallie said with a grin, clearly relishing her role as deliverer of exposition. “Those are the gaming tables. High-stakes games, the kind the Empire doesn’t technically allow. That sorta thing they don’t really do in the Casino, either.”
“How come?” Rasha asked.
“Because it is a casino. The games there aren’t rigged, exactly, but they’re set up so that the house always has the advantage. Even the poker tables have at least one Guild member participating at all times. So the big shot high rollers only drop by now and again to circulate; anybody who wins too much from the Guild is made unwelcome. I hear the actual Sarasio Kid got kicked outta there not so long ago!”
“Isn’t he out in Sarasio?” Ross said, frowning.
Tallie shrugged. “It’s just what I heard.”
“Why are we here?” Jasmine asked, still peering around. She looked almost as tense as Rasha felt. “It’s…interesting, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sure if I see the point.”
“You’re new,” Tallie said with friendly condescension. “Being Eserite isn’t just about being a thief, Jasmine. We’re rubbing elbows with the riffraff, scoffing at the law just to be in here, risking a pointless stabbing just to have a drink. We’re showing the world we do not give a shit! This is the life, my friends!”
“I think I’ve made a serious mistake,” Rasha mumbled.
At that moment, a girl in tight pants and an equally tight blouse which covered barely half her chest sashayed up to their table, an empty tray tucked under her arm. “What’ll it be, kids?”
“What’s good?” Tallie asked easily.
“Nothing,” the waitress said immediately, with a smile. “Nothing is good. The operative question is: how drunk are you planning to get?”
“Hm, on that subject…” Tallie shifted to point at Jasmine. “What can you recommend for our teetotaler friend here?”
The serving girl blinked, then tilted her head to one side. “Go home?”
Ross snorted a laugh, which he quickly smothered. Jasmine didn’t look offended, though; if anything, she seemed amused.
“Bottle of spiced rum,” Rasha said, earning a surprised look from Tallie.
“Comin’ atcha!” the waitress replied, tipping him a wink, and then strode off into the crowd, swaying her hips unnecessarily.
“So,” said Tallie, leaning back in her chair and turning to Jasmine. “Now we’re all here and can chat… Who was that elf?”
“Don’t give me that,” Tallie said disdainfully. “The elf. How many elves have we met?”
“Two,” Jasmine replied, arching an eyebrow. “That Legion squad at the fortress had two elves. You didn’t notice? It’s odd enough to see even one in a mostly-human army.”
Tallie straightened up, frowning. “What? No, I mean… The squad leader was an elf, the one who claimed she was also in the Guild. That was the only elf I saw.”
“One of the others, too,” Ross grunted. “Kept her helmet on, mostly. You had to look close.”
“Okay, so that is weird,” Tallie acknowledged, “but back on the subject, you still know which elf I meant. The one who was so surprised to see you she dropped her fucking weapon. I’m pretty sure the Legions train people not to do that. What gives? How do you know elves?”
Jasmine opened her mouth, then hesitated.
“Nobody has to share their history,” Rasha said, frowning. “It’s the Thieves’ Guild. It’s not hard to guess some of us are running from something, or just looking for a fresh start.”
“All right, that’s fair,” Tallie said with an easygoing shrug, again lounging back in her chair till it tipped up on two legs. “Just bein’ sociable, but you’re right, nobody’s gotta play show and tell. Me, though, I don’t mind. I’m circus folk, been traveling the whole Empire since I was born.”
“That sounds exciting,” Ross observed.
“It is,” she said in a grimmer tone. “Especially when the Vidians catch up with the troupe. They do not like performing artists who aren’t affiliated with their cult. Veskers, now, those are fine—they’re pretty awesome, actually. Bards never think they’re too good for anyone, and they love hanging around with fellow performers. Most of the cults, though, take their cue from the Vidians. And why not? He’s one of the Trinity. Of course, that’s all it takes for others to pick up on it. Anywhere we went, people would try to take advantage of us. And feel smug about it, because they’re just following a religious example. Feh.”
“Don’t the Imperial authorities protect people from that?” Jasmine asked.
Tallie shrugged, twisting her lips bitterly. “It depends on the authority. We had Sheriffs and Marshals both stand up for us and be the worst bullies, and everything in between. I’ll tell you what, though. When I was eleven, we were camped near a town in Mathenon Province, and a barn burned. Well, that was all it took, that an a Sheriff who was a fucking asshole. The whole troupe was arrested. The whole troupe. As if we had anything to gain from burning some poor bastard’s barn. Farmers may be rubes, but they work hard, and that’s not an easy life. We understood that, and never gave trouble to anybody who’d treat us fairly. But one barn goes up while we’re nearby, and bam, we all get crammed into the jail for arson. I wasn’t even the youngest.”
“Why?” Jasmine demanded, scowling. “What possible point could there be in that?”
“Sometimes it’s just about power,” Rasha said wearily. “For some people, that’s the only point they need.”
“Not that time, though,” Tallie sneered. “We had stuff. Animals, both to pull wagons and some exotic ones that performed. Tents. Carts, mundane and enchanted. Our take. A circus isn’t rich, but it has assets. For a crooked little back-country Sheriff, it was enough to be well worth seizing.”
She straightened up, folded her arms on the table, and smiled, a slow, malicious expression.
“Unfortunately for that particular shithead, there was a Guild thief passing through the town, who’d stopped to watch our show. While we were being rounded up, he was zipping back to Mathenon for more Guild members. A dozen of them descended on that little flyspeck village.” Her grin broadened. “I don’t exactly know what they did, but Sheriff Arseface was pale and practically gibbering when he came to let us out of our cells. The wagons had been rifled, clearly, we had to pack everything away properly, but not so much as a copper was missing. A dozen Eserites accompanied us to the edge of the province, just in case any of the local hicks were feeling vindictive; nobody tried anything. And the thieves were happy enough to answer questions from a curious kid. Well, that’s when I decided what I wanted to do with my life. The world is full of assholes who live to push around people like mine. I never realized until then that the world also had people who’d push back.”
She leaned back again, folding her arms with a satisfied expression. The others all nodded slowly, each wearing thoughtful expressions.
“There are true believers in every cult,” Jasmine said quietly. “But also abusers who see a religion as something to exploit. Probably more of those in the Guild than most faiths.”
“Sure, I know that,” Tallie said with a shrug. “But there are believers, and they do Eserion’s work, not just to line their pockets. There’s gonna be one more when I’m through.”
“Respect that,” Ross grunted, nodding to her.
Their waitress reappeared suddenly, the tray laden this time. She deftly set four glasses down, followed by a substantial bottle of amber liquid. “And here we are! I’ll warn you, this swill isn’t what you get back home,” she added, winking at Rasha. “The Den serves only the finest of rotgut, moonshine, and bottled hellfire. Hardly anybody ever goes blind, at least not while still on the premises.”
“Music to my ears!” Tallie sang, already reaching for the bottle, which in truth was more of a jug. Its label was crudely hand-drawn, apparently depicting a trident with the inscription The Storm Cares Not. “Money now, or later?”
“Actually, you’re settled up,” said the waitress, stepping back and tucking her tray under her arm again. “Next bottle you pay for in advance, and probably the one after that. We’re not exactly a trusting institution; you don’t get a tab until you show you’re good for it.”
“And yet we get a bottle on the house,” Jasmine said suspiciously.
“You’re new,” the girl replied, waggling her eyebrows. “The house is not that generous. Nah, somebody likes the look of one or more of you. One of the high-rollers spotted you this round. You get thirsty again, sing out!”
She sashayed off again with a toss of her hair, leaving the group to stare after her in confusion, then at their bottle of spiced rum.
“So,” Ross said after a moment, “when you were here before, you made some friends?”
“I…guess?” Tallie shrugged. “I mean, I get along with people, but not anybody in particular that I remember.”
“We’re at a table with two pretty girls,” Rasha observed. “Tables up there are full of rich guys who play poker for too much money. It was bound to happen.”
“Aw, you little sweet-talker, you,” Tallie cooed at him, fluttering her lashes. He hated himself for blushing, partly because he knew it would just encourage her.
“I think I see our admirer,” Ross mumbled, pointing with his forehead. The others turned to follow his gaze, just in time to see a teenage boy in an expensive-looking suit stroll up to them, the tigers eye set into his bolo tie flashing distractingly.
“Well, hey there,” he said with an amiable grin, strolling straight up to Jasmine. “Can’t say I was expecting—”
“Hi!” she interrupted loudly, thrusting out a hand at him. “My name’s Jasmine.”
The boy paused, blinking at her in surprise, then glanced down at her hand. After a moment of apparent confusion, he tentatively took it. “Okay. It’s good to…meet you?”
“Awwwww!” Tallie squealed. “He’s adorable! Look at his little suit! How old are you?”
“Tallie,” Rasha said sharply. “You are being incredibly condescending.”
Their benefactor glanced wryly at him; fortunately, he didn’t seem particularly offended, so much as resigned.
“Aw, but look!” Tallie said. “Look what a handsome little guy he is! Really, though, are you old enough to be in here? This is a bar. It’s pretty much the sketchiest bar in town.”
“It’s a sight worse’n that, to speak the plain truth,” the teenager replied.
“How about we’re polite to the guy who buys us drinks?” Ross said, giving Tallie a disapproving glower. “Good to meet you, and thanks for the bottle. I’m Ross.”
“Pleasure,” said the teen, tipping his hat to them. His gaze turned inquisitive, landing again on Jasmine. “Name’s Joe. So, uh…what brings you here?”
Jasmine winced, glancing quickly around at the others. “I’m really starting to wish I knew.”