“Well, this place and others like it,” Joe said in response to Tallie’s last question. He had integrated himself quite smoothly into the group, aided by the byplay which occurred upon his statement that he didn’t drink. Jasmine had taken that opportunity to carefully dance around an “I told you so,” and Joe had slipped into a seat next to her. “It’s more’n a mite different from playin’ in a frontier town like I grew up in.”
“Bet a lot of things are different,” Ross grunted.
“Ain’t that the plain truth,” Joe said fervently. “Out there, ain’t more’n a few card sharps to go around, and they’re spread out across whole provinces. ‘Less one came to town, I never had anybody of my own caliber to play against, so the winnings were smaller but more consistent. Here? No shortage o’ high-rollers to compete with, once I found out where they like to hang. Means I don’t win nearly as much, ‘less I wanna try cheatin’, which is a good way to get yourself blackballed. Still, I do okay. The pots are bigger, an’ I take enough of ’em to pay my bills.”
“I’ll say!” Tallie replied, waggling her eyebrows. “I mean, just look at that suit! You’re so snazzy!”
“Thanks,” he said dryly.
“Is there an actual living in that?” Jasmine asked.
Joe shrugged. “If you’ve got a gift for it, there can be. Wouldn’t mind tryin’ my hand at somethin’ that gave a little more back to society, but it ain’t like I’ve got any better trade. All I know is poker and shootin’.” He frowned, eyes growing distant. “Same goes. There’s money in that if you’re good at it, but… Card sharping maybe ain’t the most honorable pursuit, but I’ll never kill anybody for such a dumb reason as money.”
“Killed a lot of people?” Ross asked after a pregnant pause.
Joe grunted and folded his arms. “One’s far too many.”
“Well, I think that’s just fabulous,” Tallie enthused. “This is the most precious thing I’ve ever seen. To our new friend, the littlest card shark!” She raised her glass in a toast. Joe gave her a flat look which hinted at the progressive decay of his patience.
“Sorry about Tallie,” said Rasha, pouring himself a second glass of rum. “She’s very sweet and a little abrasive. I haven’t decided if that should be ‘and’ or ‘but.’”
“Whose side are you on?” Tallie asked, affronted.
“Right now, I am on rum’s side.” He drained half his glass in one gulp.
“Slow down,” Jasmine suggested. “We have all evening.”
“I’m fine,” Rasha grunted. “This isn’t as strong as the stuff I was raised on.”
“We gotta go up four flights of stairs to leave,” said Ross. “Nobody wants to carry you.”
“I said I’m fine!”
“Rasha knows his business,” Tallie said, reaching across the table to pat his arm.
“So, you guys are with the Guild?” Joe said, glancing around the table at him. His inquisitive look settled on Jasmine, who didn’t meet it.
“Well, we’re just apprenticing at the moment,” Tallie said airily. “But hell yes we’re with them! You are looking at the four greatest future thieves ever to roll out of that casino!”
“There’s a colloquialism about counting unhatched chickens that I think applies here,” Jasmine commented.
“Oh, you, always naysaying.” Tallie flapped a hand at her face and had another drink of her rum. “You’ve gotta have confidence! Say it like you believe it, until you believe it, and then keep on believing it until it’s true! It’s all in setting the right goals—set ’em high enough, and the sky’s the goddamn limit!”
“Maybe there’s a little more to success than setting goals?” Jasmine said, her eyes on Rasha, who was pouring a third glass of rum.
“Jasmine, I like you and all, but you’ve gotta stop being the voice of reason. It cramps my style. Hey, why do we say ‘goddamn,’ anyway? Doesn’t that kind of imply only a single god? Wouldn’t ‘godsdamn’ make more sense?”
“Phonetically awkward and theologically inaccurate,” said Ross. “’Goddamn’ rolls off the tongue. Last consonant of the first word is the same sound as the first consonant of the second, so they chain together easily into a single word. I’ve heard ‘godsdamn,’ but it’s just harder to say.”
“Hm, yeah, you’re right,” Tallie agreed, rolling her mouth as if examining the flavor of the word. “Slower, and kind of awkward.”
“Also,” he continued, idly toying with his half-full glass, “notions like the Universal Church as an actual center of worship don’t date back much further than the Reconstruction. For most people, for most of history, there was only one god, or at least only one that mattered to each person.” He paused, blinked, and frowned; everyone at the table was staring at him. “What?”
“I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one sitting,” Jasmine explained.
“Oh.” He shrugged. “Stuff like that’s interesting to me. Trained with the Veskers for a while. Might still be there if I wasn’t so interested in stuff like the etymology of cussing.”
“To cussing, dammit!” Rasha said loudly, lifting his own glass.
“TO CUSSING!” Tallie roared, following suit.
“Did…they throw you out?” Jasmine asked hesitantly. “I mean, not to pry. You don’t have to answer.”
“Nah, I don’t mind,” Ross said with a shrug. “There’s room for weirdos with the bards; they don’t really throw you out. But if you’re into stuff they don’t think is appropriate… Well, bards are real good at making you uncomfortable without crossing any lines.”
“Really, they were that upset about your study of cussing?” Tallie asked, grinning broadly.
“Eh.” He shrugged again. “Really didn’t get bad till I talked with my language tutor about my hobby. Historical figures with names that turn real embarrassing in Tanglish.”
“Like who?” Tallie demanded avidly.
“Horsebutt the Enemy, for one,” Jasmine said dryly.
“Nah, Stalweiss honor names don’t really count,” Ross said, straightening up and putting his glass aside. He looked more animated than they’d yet seen him. “That’s just a different culture’s ideas what makes for an impressive portmanteau. Horsebutt, for example, makes perfect sense if you’ve been around horses; you’d know damn well which end of the horse not to mess with.”
Tallie burst out laughing so hard she nearly spilled her rum. Ross carried on despite that.
“It’s mostly orcish heroes, though there’s a few others in other human cultures. But the orcs are where the real gold is at. Like Warlord Buddux, or Slobbernock the Wise. That one’s old enough he might’ve been apocryphal. Modern orcish tends to go for shorter names.”
Tallie, by this point, was laughing so hard she was having trouble staying in her chair; even Joe and Jasmine were grinning in amusement. Ross didn’t go as far, but his expression was more relaxed than usual. He clearly enjoyed the attention.
“Yeah, well, the bards didn’t find it as funny,” he admitted with a shrug. “Bards’re big on respecting culture and language. Wasn’t like they were mean to me, I just… Y’know, didn’t feel I fit in, exactly. So, trying something else, here.”
“To the etymology of cussing!” Tallie crowed, lifting a glass which she didn’t appear to have noticed was now empty.
“And gaining new outlooks,” Jasmine agreed more soberly, nodding at Ross.
“Think it’s funny?” Rasha asked more quietly. “Laughing at people because they’re different?”
“It’s kinda mean,” Ross agreed frankly. “Not arguing that. But these people are long dead. And they didn’t think of themselves as what the names sound like to us. Just phonetic coincidence. That’s what makes it interesting to me.”
“It’s just a bit of fun, Rasha,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Nobody’s being wronged.”
He grunted, topping off his glass and raising it to his lips.
“Hey, are you okay?” Jasmine asked mildly, reaching across the table to slide the jug of rum out of his reach. Rasha either didn’t notice or didn’t react to this, polishing off his fourth glass of ale and thunking it back down onto the table, whereupon he stared accusingly at it.
“I’m s’posed to be,” he said bitterly. “That’s the whole point of all this, right? New place, new life, new…everything.”
“New skills, new friends, new connections,” Tallie agreed, still chipper but now not as exuberant, seeming to have caught some of his mood. “C’mon, Rasha, you’ve been here two days. This stuff takes time to do!”
“What if it doesn’t work?” Rasha asked in a plaintive whisper, clutching his empty glass in both hands and staring into it. “I can’t keep going like… I can’t. I’m here to become somebody who’s… Who doesn’t have to…”
“Take anybody’s crap,” Ross rumbled, nodding. “That’s what Eserion’s about.”
“Don’t care about anybody,” Rasha said, his lip trembling. “I’m sick of my crap.”
“Rasha,” Jasmine said gently, scooting closer to him. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m wrong.” Tears began to slide down his face, his thin shoulders shaking slightly. “I don’t fit, and I feel wrong all the time, like I’m not supposed to even be like this. I’m the wrong…wrong person, and life, and…” He squeezed his eyes shut, scrubbing the back of his sleeve across them.
“Okay, this is the most insensitive thing I’ve ever said, an’ I’ll apologize to him when he sobers up enough to appreciate it,” said Joe, glancing casually around at their surroundings. “But this really ain’t the place to break out cryin’. Some o’ the folk in here are just watchin’ for an excuse to jump on anything they see as weakness.”
The others followed suit, surreptitiously peering at the Den. Its noise and crowd seemed to be working in their favor; nobody appeared to have noticed Rasha’s inebriated breakdown, or to be paying them any attention at all.
“Yeah, so,” Ross mumbled, pushing back his chair. “This was fun, let’s do it again sometime. Good time to head home, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed, rising smoothly and laying a hand on Rasha’s shoulder. “C’mon, Rasha, let’s move out.”
Despite the lack of any direct opposition, not one of them questioned Joe’s warning. New they might be to the Thieves’ Guild proper, but they were all people who knew how the rougher element thought, and behaved. Rarely would anyone else seek out the service of Eserion.
“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed. “We are not in league with—um. That is, I mean… Basra who?”
“Herschel,” Principia said kindly, “hush.”
“Please,” Ami muttered.
“A good number of times in my life,” Principia began, “in fact, just about every time I found myself in a helpless position at the mercy of someone I didn’t like, they took the opportunity to make a speech about how much cleverer they were than I. Okay, not every time, but enough to notice a pattern. It is wholly obnoxious, but it looked like fun, so I’m gonna try it. Besides, you kids clearly need to be taken down a peg right now, for your own good.”
She folded her hands on the table and smiled pleasantly, keeping her body subtly angled to include both Schwartz and Ami in the conversation. Only the bard was physically hemmed into the booth by her presence; Schwartz could have simply stood up and left, but he just scowled sullenly, making no move toward the aisle.
“The last time I saw Ami, here, she was quite literally up to her neck and beyond in Basra’s schemes. Now, I realize you’re a Vesker, Ami dear, and not subordinate to her. Also I understood you were informed of exactly what she nearly did to you, and anyway, you no doubt have a life of your own. Just seeing you again doesn’t necessarily form any connection to the Bishop. However.” She turned her focus to Schwartz, who swallowed heavily. “Making the assumption of Basra’s place in this explains everything so very perfectly that I’m going to have to run with it.”
She rested an elbow on the table to point at him. “You, you claim, have an enemy—someone keeping your would-be turtledove in an abused position. My gods, Herschel, you’re talking about Jenell Covrin? I would never go so far as to claim anyone deserves the kind of shit she’s getting from Syrinx, but that girl could benefit from a few sharp slaps across the mouth in general.”
“Hey!” he barked. “I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head about—”
“And that’s confirmation,” Principia said smugly, cutting him off; he immediately looked abashed. Ami rolled her eyes. “So, you’ve linked up with Ami, here, another individual who’s suffered from Basra’s excesses, and the two of you are building a base from which to take her down. Oh, she’s a rotten piece who absolutely needs to go, but you can’t deny that for both of you there’s an element of personal revenge in this. Have I left out anything important?”
Again, she folded her hands, raising an eyebrow expectantly.
Schwartz and Ami exchanged a look, and then the bard sighed.
“Well, you seem to have covered the basics,” she said snidely. “Are you pleased with yourself?”
“You know, that is rather satisfying,” Principia mused. “I begin to see why all the villains in bards’ tales do it. I must start outwitting people more often. All right, you two, while I’m the last person who will ever argue in favor of Basra bloody Syrinx getting to wander around at liberty, doing whatever the hell she likes, I am strongly tempted to nip this thing in the bud right here. Largely because I can handle her, and I very, very much doubt that you two can. What I’m entirely confident of is your own belief that you’re capable of slaying the monster and rescuing the princess. You are, respectively, in love and attached to a faith which thinks the world runs on narrative. And you’re both barely out of your teens, which makes you invincible in your own minds.”
“My, she’s a condescending one,” Ami said archly. “Even for an elf.”
“Jenell is not a princess,” Schwartz muttered, “and she doesn’t need rescuing. She needs…backup.”
“Hm.” Principia drummed her fingers on the table. “That, at least, is evidence of some sense on your part. Jenell is somewhat trapped in her situation, but not because she has no possible exits. I’ve offered her one myself, and it wasn’t even the best option available to her. No, she’s there for the same reason you two are doing this foolishness; she wants to be the hero who brings down the villain. Well, there’s a lesson with that: heroes and villains aren’t a thing, and acting this way usually ends up with you firmly in your enemy’s clutches. Much like she is now. Right now, I am heavily inclined to go right to both your cults and tell them you’re plotting against the Avenist Bishop, just to get you two safely collared and out of harm’s way.”
“Are you quite done?” Ami demanded.
“No.” Principia sighed and shook her head. “Omnu’s balls, I’m starting to sound like Arachne. Damned Legions, making an officer of me… All right, listen. I have two questions, and the answers may—may, I say—prompt me to change my mind. I want to hear how you two got hooked up together in the first place, and I want to know who it is who’s been telling you,” she fixed a gimlet stare on Schwartz, “to befriend Eserites in preparation for taking on a creature like Basra.”
“Why?” he asked suspiciously.
“Because that’s very good advice. If you’ve been getting guidance from someone who knows what they’re talking about and is trustworthy… Well, that’s significant. So spit it out. Or shall I go straight from here to Bishop Throale’s office?”
Schwartz drew in a long, slow breath, his shoulders rising with tension, and then let it out carefully, most of the ire fading from his face.
“Abbess Narnasia Darnassy told me to seek out the Eserites,” he said finally. “She also told me to go to an elven grove and ask what anth’auwa means, which I’ve done, and to prepare myself with magic to combat a divine casters. Which…I am working on.”
Principia gazed thoughtfully at him for a long moment, then slowly leaned back against the wall of the booth.
“Narnasia,” she mused. “Yes…I can see it. She wouldn’t be fooled by Syrinx. And she doesn’t suffer evil for political advantage like Rouvad is willing to. All right, consider me…tentatively interested. I still have another question, if you’ll recall.”
“Well,” Ami said, tossing her head, “since that one calls for a story, I believe I shall take over from here, Herschel. If you’ve no objection?”
“Oh, by all means,” he said, waving a hand wearily. “Be my guest. I’m a little surprised you’re that willing to trust her, though.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she chided. “She has enough figured out on her own that it hardly matters, after all. And anyway, this isn’t an entirely unexpected development.” A feline little smile tugged at the corners of her sculpted lips, and she glanced coyly at Principia. “After all, we’re due an ally and mentor. It’s about that time in the story.”
“Oh, gods,” Principia groaned. “You kids are so dead.”
“Well!” Ami said, her tone suddenly airy and bright. “You know some of the lead-in, so I shall cut to the proverbial chase. It began for us in a townhouse in Vrin Shai…”
A place like the Den naturally had multiple bolt-holes; all of its entrances and exits were admirably discreet, and fortunately, Joe knew most of them. The group exited by a path which provided a somewhat gentler climb (albeit a longer and more roundabout one), and a less public exit than the one through the floor of the Stock Exchange. When they emerged into the alley behind the Exchange, the sky had darkened; at this time of year, night fell early, and despite the unseasonable warmth the air was sharp.
“All right, gimme a sec,” Ross said, carefully leaning Rasha against the wall. Jasmine and Tallie had both helped pull and push the drunken Punaji along, but Ross had taken on most of the effort. Rasha, who was sober enough to stand, but not to move consistently in any direction, had objected so loudly to Joe touching him that their new acquaintance had quickly backed off and not offered a second time.
“’m fine, gerroff me,” Rasha growled, trying to shove at Ross and succeeding only in tipping himself sideways. Tallie, fortunately, was hovering close enough to catch him.
“You were asking me why I don’t drink?” Jasmine said wryly to her. Tallie gave her a look, but didn’t reply.
“Gonna be a fun walk back to the Guild,” Ross grumbled. “Least it’s clean here. The hell kind of alley is this?”
“A discreet one,” said Joe. “Lots of junk piled at either end, with just enough space to slip through, but we ain’t the only people to make use of this exit. C’mon, it’s just gonna get colder from here, an’ it’ll probably rain before too much longer.”
“Doesn’t really look like rain,” Jasmine said, peering upward. The stars were invisible thanks to the city’s light pollution, but the sky didn’t appear to be overcast for once.
“It’s Tiraas,” Joe said pointedly. “It’s always gonna rain, unless it sleets instead.”
“I’m sorry,” Rasha said tearfully, now leaning against Ross’s huge shoulder. “I runed th’whole night…” Ross sighed and patted him heavily on the head.
“No, you didn’t,” Tallie said. “Although, for future reference, we’re gonna have to limit your drinking. Can’t believe we let you down four glasses of that stuff. You’ve got the body mass of a starved squirrel, boy.”
“Don’ call me small!” Rasha flared up, flailing his arms so ineffectually it was impossible to tell what he was actually trying to do. “I’m not a boy! I’m not gay!”
Ross, again holding him upright, rolled his eyes.
“Alternatively,” Tallie mused, “we could let him finish getting drunk enough to go nice and unconscious. That might be easier. Did anybody think to grab the jug?”
“Easier for you, maybe,” Ross grumbled. “Something tells me you won’t be the one carrying him.”
All of them reflexively went still, even Rasha. Ross pressed him back against the wall with one hand, shifting his body in front of the smaller boy; Tallie and Jasmine both widened their stances, and Joe carefully shifted one side of his coat, his hand hovering near the wand holstered on his right hip.
Four figures had materialized out of the surrounding dimness, two from each direction. None were any taller than Jasmine’s shoulder, all where broad and blocky, and all were covered from head to foot in obscuring brown robes that appeared almost clerical. The one who had spoken was on their left, and moved a half-step in front of his nearby companion, continuing in a light Svennish accent.
“I hope the night finds you well,” he said politely. “We wish to have a brief conversation with you.”
“This isn’t the best time,” Tallie said warily, glancing back and forth. The two pairs of dwarves simply stood, the only menace being their obscuring costumes and the fact that they were completely cutting off the exits. They could get back into the Den, probably, but not without turning their backs on the dwarves to finagle the hidden doorway; it wasn’t even visible from this side, having swung shut behind them. “We’re taking our friend home. He’s had a couple too many, as you can see.”
“I think we c’n take ’em!” Rasha blurted, trying to stumble forward. Ross planted a broad hand in the center of his chest and shoved him back against the wall.
“Oh, this need not take long,” the lead dwarf said pleasantly. “You were present last night when an exchange of goods was disrupted by the Silver Legions. We require information regarding that.”
“We don’t have any,” Jasmine said evenly. “We’re just apprentices. We were just keeping watch and carrying boxes.”
“That is, of course, possible,” he said, his shrouded head bobbing once in a nod. “It is also possible that, in keeping with your thief-cult’s general pattern of behavior, you are lying. Either for specific reason or from a general desire to be troublesome.”
“Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren’t,” Tallie snapped. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? We’re done here. Excuse us, we need to leave.”
“Excuse us,” the dwarf replied, still politely, “but we will have to insist.”
As one, all four of them took a step forward, markedly shrinking the space between them and the apprentices.
Joe, in response, paced forward to stand next to Jasmine, facing the dwarves on the left while she faced the others.
“Gentlemen,” he drawled, “I haven’t the faintest idea what this is about; I’m clearly just in the wrong place at the wrong time, here. What I do know is that you have no idea the gravity of the mistake you’re makin’. Now, kindly step aside so we can leave.”
“Young man,” the speaker replied, “there is absolutely no reason this cannot be a perfectly civil exchange. If, however, you are determined not to meet us halfway, I will remind you all that no one knows where you are, and you are none of you important enough to your Guild that they will expend much effort to find you. Now, then—”
He broke off and tried to jerk back when Joe’s wands came up, but not fast enough. The beams of white light were almost blinding in the darkness of the alley, though they flashed for only a second. In that time, the other dwarves surged forward, producing cudgels and long daggers from within their robes, only to stop when Joe shifted his stance to point one wand in each direction, covering both groups.
The first dwarf was now clutching the remains of his robe, which had been neatly sliced along his outline by the wand beams and was trying to fall off him in pieces.
“Pardon my lack o’ manners in not tippin’ my hat, but as you can see, my hands are occupied,” Joe said grimly. “Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins, from Sarasio. You mighta heard o’ me.”
“Hooooo-leeee shit,” Tallie whispered, gaping at him.
The dwarf had given up on his robe, letting it fall to reveal a well-tailored suit covering his stocky frame; he contented himself with clutching the remains of the hood over his head, managing to mostly obscure his features, aside from a reddish beard trimmed just above his collarbone.
“You are a long way from Sarasio, young man,” he said curtly, “and have thrust your wands into matters well above your head. We are not here alone, and our disappearance will be noted—and responded to, swiftly and severely.”
“This is gettin’ to be oddly traditional,” Joe muttered. “Every good-sized city I visit, I end up shootin’ some nitwit in an alley. Buster, you’re standin’ here threatening members of the Thieves’ Guild. That does not say to me that you represent a particularly savvy organization.”
“And you are completely backwards in your thinking,” Jasmine added grimly, “if you believe the Guild won’t react to the disappearance of apprentices. Eserion’s people aren’t in it to steal; we’re training to humble the abusive, the powerful.”
“Damn right,” Tallie added, stepping forward. “You go picking on the Guild’s younglings, and there won’t be a place on this earth for you to hide.”
“Well,” the dwarf said in apparent calm, “that being the case, it does appear to be against our interests to let you leave here, doesn’t it?”
He shifted one hand to his belt; Joe’s wand snapped to cover him, but an instant later his fingers touched the shielding charm attached to the buckle, and a sphere of blue light flashed into being around him. The others immediately followed suit, the bubbles of arcane energy fizzing and crackling where they touched one another.
“All right,” Joe murmured, “gotta say, this could be trouble. I can burn through those shields, but not quickly, an’ takin’ on four dwarves hand-to-hand ain’t a winnin’ move.” He eased backward into Jasmine’s line of view and gave her a pointed look.
She sighed heavily, and clenched her jaw. “Understood.”
Before she could say or do anything further, however, the pounding of multiple booted feet sounded from their right. The dwarves on that side moved in an obviously well-trained pattern, one keeping his face to the apprentices while the other shifted to his back, facing that way.
Three Silver Legionnaires approached out of the darkness, un-helmeted but in armor. Four yards away, the elf in their center barked, “Form line!” Instantly, they shifted to a crouch, shields forward and lances aimed. It was a trifling size for a phalanx, but did effectively block the whole alley. And it was, after all, a shield wall bristling with spearheads.
“You,” the elf announced in a ringing voice, “will immediately deactivate those shields, turn, and depart this scene. You will do this to avoid the bloodshed which will ensue if we are forced to take you into custody.”
A beat of silence followed. The dwarves’ leader, still holding his severed hood, shifted his head minutely, studying the apprentices, Joe, and the Legionnaires. In the next moment, however, he took a step back, bowed politely, and touched his belt again. His shield flickered off, followed by those of his comrades.
“A pleasant evening to you all,” he said courteously. “We will continue this discussion another time. It is my fervent hope we can do so on the politest of terms.”
He and the dwarf beside him began backing away; the other two edged along the wall in front of the apprentices, urged by the continuing advance of the Legionnaires. Once both groups met up, they turned and departed as rapidly as they could without breaking into unseemly haste.
“Holy shit,” Tallie breathed, “I can’t believe I’m glad to see Legionnaires, after last night. And holy shit!” she added to Joe. “You’re the freakin’ Sarasio Kid!”
He sighed. “Miss Tallie, I was hangin’ around in the roughest dive in this city, clearly too young to be drinkin’, an’ dressed in a suit that cost more’n the places most of those galoots live. And yet, nobody even thought too hard about hasslin’ me. You didn’t happen to wonder why? No disrespect intended, but based on the Eserites I’ve known, you may wanna start talkin’ a little less and thinkin’ a lot more if you mean to advance in their ranks.”
“Wow,” she muttered. “I guess I’ll just shut up, then.”
“Stand at ease,” the elf said, and the Legionnaires straightened, lowering their shields and weapons.
“Hey,” said Ross, frowning, “you’re the ones who arrested us.”
“Thin’ we c’n take um,” Rasha burbled, slumped against his shoulder.
“Actually, a different squad arrested us,” said Jasmine, studying the soldiers closely. “These were from the squad who came to hand out punishment. What was it? Interfaith initiative? I’m finding it a challenge to believe that you just happened to be patrolling this alley at this time.”
“As well you should,” said the elf. “I am Corporal Shahai, and we’ve been looking for you. I believe you should consider how it was those dwarves managed to find you.”
“How did you manage to find us?” Tallie demanded.
“Persistence, luck, and elven hearing,” Shahai replied with a thin smile. “They, whoever they are, have only one of those advantages, and I am extremely suspicious of luck. Odd enough that we should have it in such quantity; that they should as well defies belief. That group is extremely well connected, and it would seem, extremely curious about those weapons they were attempting to buy.”
“Let me guess,” Tallie said slowly.
Shahai nodded. “The Sisterhood currently has custody of them, and are likewise very curious. It has proved impossible to tell, so far, what they do. Our squad hoped you could shed some light on the subject.”
“Not tellin’ you nuthin’!” Rasha blustered, pointing off to her right.
“Rasha, go to sleep,” Ross said wearily.
“We’re not tellin’ you nothin’!” Tallie added, pointing dramatically at Shahai.
“Tallie, shut up!” Ross exclaimed in exasperation. “Ma’am…uh, I mean, sergeant.”
“Corporal,” she corrected with smile.
“Right. Well, we don’t know anything about what those were, but we need to look up the guy who set up the trade and lean on him for our own reasons. We’ll find out what we can, and be glad to tell you whatever we learn.”
“What!” Tallie squawked.
“Connections,” Jasmine said quietly. “Not just in the Guild. Right?” She turned to fix Tallie with a firm stare. “We’re supposed to be building connections. Do you really not see how allies in the Silver Legions could be incredibly useful to us? In general, but also, apparently, right now. They aren’t the only interested party who thinks we know something about those staves.”
“And the other party are a lot less friendly,” Ross added in a low rumble.
“I…well…oh, fine,” she huffed, folding her arms. “I guess. I’m still watchin’ you, though!” She leveled an accusing finger at Shahai.
“Noted,” the corporal said mildly. “Your willingness to help is greatly appreciated; I have limited authority, but I’m confident our sergeant will fully reciprocate.”
“Is she actually in the Guild?” Ross asked, frowning.
“Yes, she actually is, and that creates complications when it comes to dealing with Eserites. You may not see her directly very much, but Sergeant Locke has our implicit trust. You can find us most of the time at the Third Legion barracks behind the Temple of Avei. How can we reach you, at need?”
“Uh…” Ross turned to the others. “That’s a good question. How can they reach us?”
“We can leave word at the Casino that any Legionnaires who come asking for us have legit business,” said Tallie, still looking miffed. “I dunno how much weight our say-so has, though. Something tells me the average thief’s urge to mess with the Legions weighs more.”
“It might generally be better if you wait for us to contact you,” Jasmine said wryly.
“So noted,” Shahai replied in the same tone.
“And corporal,” Jasmine added, “try firing one of those staves at a divine shield.”
Shahai fixed her with a sharp stare, and after a moment, nodded slowly. “Very well. I will pass that along to Sergeant Locke. Thank you, Ms…?”
“Ah.” The elf nodded again. “Well met. With that, perhaps you would allow us to escort you out of this alley? I doubt you will be accosted again on the well-lit main streets, but…”
“That is an excellent point,” said Ross, picking Rasha up bodily and hoisting him over his shoulder.
“I dun’ need one!” the Punaji burbled ineffectually.
“Hey, uh…” Tallie turned hesitantly to Joe. “Those creeps know who you are now, too. Will you be okay? I mean, I know, that sounds kinda silly, you bein’ the Sarasio Kid and all…”
“Not silly at all,” Joe murmured. “The more complicated a situation, the less likely you can just shoot your way out of it. But I’m not without friends of my own. Tell you what, though, I believe I may just pay y’all a visit here pretty soon.” He glanced at Corporal Shahai. “Both groups.”
“You would be welcome,” she said with a smile.
As the motley group straggled back up the alley toward the busy street beyond, Nandi half-turned for a moment to look back and up.
Perched in a windowsill of the Exchange overlooking the alley, Grip grinned widely and waggled her fingers at her. Nandi turned without acknowledgment and continued on her way.