“Will you relax?” Tallie said with open amusement. “You look like you’re walking to your execution.”
“Sorry,” Rasha said automatically, not relaxing. It wasn’t as if he could just do so on command.
“Hey, man, your personal welfare aside, there’s a strategic issue at play, here,” Darius remarked. “You go walking up to a potential mark looking like you’re terrified of getting arrested, and what do you think is gonna happen?”
“Well, I’m sorry!” he snapped. “I’ll get used to it; this is my first time out, after all. It’s not like I’ve ever stolen anything before!”
“Stolen?” The two elves were walking at the head of the group; Fauna turned to raise an eyebrow at them. “You’re not about to steal anything, either.”
“Uh, what?” Tallie asked. “I thought were were gonna be out practicing.”
“Practicing, yes, but not stealing,” said Flora. “Picking a pocket is the smallest kind of job, but it’s still a job.”
“And nobody here is a fully ranked member of the Thieves’ Guild,” added Fauna.
“Which means us pulling an actual job is asking for an ass-kicking.”
“You don’t do jobs without the supervision of an actual Guild member. I’m positive you guys have been told that.”
“Well, yeah,” said Darius, “but I thought that’s the reason we were out with you, who are actually just apprentices like us so now I get it and I feel pretty dumb. It’s a warm, comfortable feeling.”
“Good,” said Tallie kindly. “The first step in solving your problems is admitting that you’re dumb.”
“I only said it so you couldn’t,” he retorted with a grin. “Seriously, though, what are we doing out here if we’re not gonna be actually stealing anything? Practicing what, I guess is the question.”
“There’s a lot that goes into rifling pockets beyond the actual doing,” Flora replied. “You’ve got teachers, fellow apprentices, and pocket dummies back at the Guild to practice that; we’re going to be experiencing the factors that involve being out in the environment.”
“Putting them together,” Fauna added, “will, as we said, be done under the proper supervision.”
“To begin with,” said Flora, “target acquisition. Here we are.”
They came to a stop and moved adroitly to the side around a corner, where both elves leaned casually against the nearby wall. It was a smooth and well-practiced maneuver, and would probably have been quite unobtrusive had they not been elves, not to mention one being garbed in ostentatious black leather and the other in a dramatic cloak. Still, the other three apprentices clustered together on the sidewalk corner, doubtless looking even more consciously out of place.
The street they had been following was a minor one, but a straight avenue which formed one of the “spokes” radiating out from the center of the city toward the walls (though that particular street didn’t happen to connect with either). Only a few of the buildings they had passed had doors or storefronts facing it; for the most part, it was used as a route between other streets. Its traffic thus moved more swiftly than that on the street onto which they now stepped, but it was altogether less crowded. This street curved away toward the northwest, vanishing out of sight a few dozen yards ahead, and was thronged by pedestrians, the only vehicles in sight being enchanted carriages parked and serving as stalls or food trucks. In fact, even the storefronts here were partly obscured in many cases by vendor stands. This was a shopping district—and, to judge by the general shabbiness of both the stores and shoppers, a far from upscale one.
“First step in finding a target,” Fauna murmured just loudly enough for them to hear, “is to go where they are. Places like this are good starting points when you’re new.”
“Your more upscale shopping districts have richer marks and better hunting,” said Flora, “but that’s a higher-stakes game. Those folks have a general attitude that they shouldn’t have to suffer inconveniences such as thieves, and the police tend to support that view.”
“On the other hand,” Fauna continued, “poorer districts have the opposite problem. Easy pickings, but often not even worth the picking.”
“Do they always do this?” Rasha muttered. “It’s like watching a vaudeville show.”
“Nah,” Tallie said easily. “Vaudeville’s more fast-paced, and both of ’em would’ve fallen down by this point. Tandem-talk is just a schtick. Positively Vesker, even Vidian.”
The elves chose to ignore the byplay. “Once you’ve settled on your hunting grounds,” said Flora, “then you start looking for targets. Take your time, stroll around, browse. It is not a race.”
“Haste makes you clumsy.”
“Clumsy gets your ass nabbed.”
“Slow and easy, breathe deeply, make yourself relax.”
“If you’re too stressed, you’re going to make the kinds of mistakes you can’t afford.”
Tallie and Darius turned and looked pointedly at Rasha, who sighed.
“Look around,” Fauna urged. “Who jumps out at you first?”
There was a pause, in which the three apprentices edged closer to the wall, beside the senior two, getting out of the way of foot traffic while they studied their surroundings. The group drew pointed looks from passersby, and all but the most distracted made a deliberate effort to keep out of arm’s reach of them. A couple even crossed the street after eyeballing them once. Whether anyone suspected them of being thieves was an open question, but at the very least, they were a gang of somewhat scruffy-looking youths, led by two oddly-dressed elves. Any city-dweller would instinctively avoid them.
The very avoidance gave them a good vantage from which to study people, though.
“There—” Rasha started to point as he spoke, but broke off when Flora slapped his hand down.
“Don’t do that, dumbass,” she said in an affectionately amused tone that took some of the sting out of the words. “When you’re stalking or just looking for a mark, don’t ever, ever let on that you’re paying them any attention.”
“Uh, right,” he said sheepishly, rubbing his wrist. “That’s…basic common sense, sorry.”
“You’re new,” Fauna said kindly. “Sometime we’ll have to tell you some of the dumbshit moves we pulled in our first week of training.”
“Let’s not,” Flora demurred, grimacing. “Who were you looking at, Rasha?”
“Well—look, he’s almost out of sight now. The guy in the nice coat, holding the package, see? Looks like he already has money, and he’s been shopping. Might have better stuff in his pockets than just coin.”
“Hey, well spotted,” Fauna said approvingly.
“I saw him too,” Darius said with ostentatious hauteur. “I just wanted to give you the chance to speak up.”
“Shut up, Darius,” Flora ordered without heat. “However, Rasha, don’t try to steal from that guy. That’s Lacquer, one of the best at this particular business. Some Guild thieves will generously take the time to break your fingers if you try robbing ’em. That one will simply report you to Style.”
All five of them winced in unison.
“Wait, so he’s Guild?” Tallie said in tones of fascination. “Huh. He looks so posh!”
“Voices low,” Fauna reminded her. “This is somebody’s cover we’re talking about; that’s the next best thing to sacred. Professional courtesy, at the very least.”
“And yes,” Flora added, “I trust you can imagine why looking a little fancier than the general run of the crowd would be useful in this game?”
“Nobody’s gonna be watching for him to be after their purse,” Rasha mused, nodding.
“It’d make you a mark for other pickpockets,” Darius added, “but then again, if any who may be operating know you…”
“The package is a nice touch,” Tallie said, grinning. “Wonder what he bought.”
“Guys like that serve a purpose beyond making their own rent money,” said Fauna. “Non-Guild thieves do exist, and places like this are where they’re most likely to start out. A big part of why the Guild is tolerated by polite society is that we keep a firm lid on that shit. Lacquer does cut purse strings, yes, but he’s also a kind of patrolling enforcer.”
“And so the marks come to him,” Darius noted with a grin. “Damn, that’s a good racket.”
“Man knows his business,” Flora agreed. “Anyhow, Rasha shows good instincts. You’ll get to know faces and tags with time, kids; don’t stress about that too much at this juncture. For now, signs of wealth are a good first indication.”
“There are others,” said Fauna. “You’ll be doing a fair amount of people-watching on excursions like this, and you’ll develop instincts concerning who can and should be targeted. People’s body language can tell you a lot.”
“Such as?” Rasha asked.
“How alert they may be,” Flora replied. “Whether they’re likely to fight, or call for help.”
“But ‘go for the rich ones’ sounds like a generally good plan to me,” Darius said blithely. “They’re the assholes who deserve it, aside from having the money.”
Flora and Fauna exchanged a long look.
“What?” Darius asked, peering back and forth between them.
“Yeah, what?” Tallie added a little belligerently. “Is he wrong?”
“Yes,” Fauna replied firmly. “The short answer is ‘yes.’”
“The longer answer,” added Flora, “is that you’re skating close to some thin ice with that kind of talk.”
“The Guild’s philosophies do predispose us to target people with wealth and power, because those are often the ones who need to be taken down.”
“But ‘often’ isn’t ‘necessarily.’ Start to think the rich invariably deserve a takedown because they’re rich, and you’re in the realm of class warfare. That gets…messy.”
“Have you two had a lot of interactions with rich people?” Tallie demanded, folding her arms. “Because growing up as I did, those were always the ones who picked on little guys like us. And got away with it.”
“In point of fact, we have,” said Fauna. “Working under Sweet, we get to meet all kinds of people.”
“That’s our bias, by the way,” Flora added. “Apprenticing under a sponsor inevitably means you get heavily trained in their methods, and pick up at least some of their worldview. Sweet’s view on the rich is that they’re exactly as likely to be abusive toward others as anyone else, but having resources just means a greater chance of pulling it off without repercussions.”
“Wealth,” Fauna said firmly, “is not evil. Correlation is not causation.”
“The best advice we can share is that you should never get caught up in what other people deserve. There’s really no way you can know; that’s a very big question.”
“Jobs are jobs, and the Guild isn’t in the business of crusading. When we go after someone to administer much-needed humility, it’s for a specific reason, owing to something they’ve done.”
“Not something they are, or have.”
“Hnh,” Tallie grunted, looking dissatisfied.
“Well, how’s about you go first,” Fauna suggested with a sly little grin. She shifted, scanning the slowly passing crowd. It was nearing the lunch hour, and business in the market street was increasingly brisk, to the point that even their little bubble of privacy was diminishing as the press of people meant no one had time to give them especial attention. “All right, don’t stare. Across the street, about six yards north. Guy in a suit and a coat more appropriate for a typical Tiraan winter than what’s actually happening.”
“I see him,” Tallie said, leaning back against the building and stuffing her hands in her pockets. Her eyes cut sideways to fix on the target Fauna designated, though she kept her head shifted slightly the other way.
“All right, first trial,” Flora said in a lightly conversational tone. “You’re to go up—boys, stop gawking at the mark!—go up and touch his coat, just above the pocket.”
“Just touch,” added Fauna, “without drawing his attention. Don’t put your fingers in, and above all do not take anything.”
“Really, that’s it?” Tallie said condescendingly. “You call that a trial?”
“Crawl before you run, kid,” Flora retorted in the same tone. “Go on, get moving. He’s getting away.”
The designated mark, indeed, had finished acquiring a portable meat pastry from the stall and was heading off up the street. Tallie paused only to wink at her group before setting off at a long-legged lope. A few yards up, she crossed the avenue to the other side, and began closing in on her target from behind.
The two elves straightened up and started moving, leaving the boys to trail along in their wake; they kept to an idle, dawdling pace, seemingly peering at stalls and window displays as they passed, and only glancing at Tallie’s progress occasionally and surreptitiously. Rasha and Darius, after exchanging a look, tried to follow their example. To judge by some of the looks shopkeepers gave them, they weren’t entirely successful.
Tallie had begun rooting around in her pockets as she approached her mark, muttering to herself and scowling. Making a show of clear distraction, she brushed against the man in passing by. He halted in bringing the pastry to his mouth to give her an annoyed look; she offered a quick apology and a little smile before pushing on ahead.
A few more yards up the street, sighing loudly in frustration, she stopped in the mouth of an alley and took off her jacket, growling and carefully going through its pockets. The mark gave her a disdainful look as he passed.
Just after he did, Tallie “found” what she’d been looking for—a comb—and paused to straighten out her hair, which didn’t particularly need it. Then she continued on her way at a much more languorous pace.
Another half-block along, she stopped in the mouth of another alley, where the rest crossed the street to meet her.
“Not bad!” Fauna said, clapping her on the back. “Good routine! Most people on their first try don’t think to have a cover; getting close to someone is much easier if you provide a reason they won’t question.”
“I note nobody mentioned that before sending her off,” Darius commented.
“Well, the point is to see what you kids know,” Flora replied with a unrepentant grin. “What’s the use in just telling you beforehand?”
“Yeah, well,” Tallie said with clearly false modesty, “I can’t say I’ve ever tried stealing before, but I know a thing or two about looking more harmless than I am.”
“Ahh,” Darius said sagely. “So only half the things I’ve heard about circus folk are true.”
“Darius, one of these days I’m gonna stab you right in the nuts.”
“You know, honeybunch, you don’t have to keep making up these violent pretexts. If you wanna get your hands on my nuts, all you’ve gotta do is ask nicely.”
“Shh,” Fauna said curtly. “Trouble.” She and Flora had both gone suddenly, rigidly alert.
Before the junior apprentices could get a good start at looking around, the man in the expensive coat came stomping right up to them, pastry dangling forgotten from his hand.
“All right, what did you take?!” he demanded, glaring at Tallie.
Her eyebrows shot upward. “Excuse you?”
“I know what you did!” he snapped. “You’d better hand it over before I go for the guards!”
“Whoah, now, wait a second,” Darius said nervously. “There’s no need for—”
“No, no, this is fine,” Tallie said, folding her arms and glaring at her erstwhile mark. “I don’t know what crawled up your butt today, but check your pockets. Go on, check thoroughly. If you come up with anything missing, I’ll let you search mine. Otherwise, I’m gonna want an apology.”
“Don’t give me that,” he retorted. “You kids are thieves!”
“You accuse everybody you meet of being thieves?” Rasha demanded. He glanced quickly at the two elves; oddly, only the three human apprentices seemed to be trying to deflect their accuser. Flora and Fauna were standing like statues against the wall.
“Is there a problem here, ladies and gentlemen?”
All of them turned to face the new arrival, a man wearing an Imperial Army uniform and a no-nonsense expession.
“Yes!” barked the man with the pastry. “This little wench stole my—um—”
“As I was about to say, officer,” Tallie drawled, “this character just walked up and started throwing around wild accusations. I’ve yet to hear exactly what it is he thinks I stole.”
“I see,” said the guard, turning to study the man in question. “Sir, are you missing any possessions?”
“I—she brushed up against me! She did it quite deliberately!”
“That’s as may be, sir, but it’s not what I asked you,” the guard replied. “If something of yours has been stolen, we can address that. If you’re just going to complain about people brushing against you close to noon in a crowded shopping district, I’ll have to ask you to stop creating a scene.”
That brought the complainer up short. There was an extended silence while they all watched him shuffle awkwardly through his own pockets, keeping the grease-stained fingers of his left hand well out of it. After checking and finding his coin purse and a few other personal items, he finally stopped, looking sheepish.
“I…well, I guess I was mistaken.”
“Uh huh,” Tallie said pointedly. “Now, about that apology?”
The guard cleared his throat. “If there’s nothing else, sir, please move along.”
“Hey,” Tallie protested, while the well-dressed man hurried away up the street with his head down. “I wasn’t done with that guy!”
“Yes, you were,” the guard retorted firmly. “Are you kids apprentices with the Thieves’ Guild?”
They all froze, looking to the two elves for guidance. Flora and Fauna were both watching a point across the street.
“What if we are?”
“You can’t prove that!”
“There’s no law against—”
All three of them tried to answer at once, then broke off, wincing.
“I see,” the guard said dryly.
“Don’t avoid that question,” Flora ordered. “Being in the Guild is not illegal, and denying it is just suspicious.”
“Sorry,” Fauna added to the guard. “They’re new.”
“Uh huh,” he said, plainly unamused. “Regardless, I think you should move along, now. You’ve had enough fun here for one day.”
“Hey,” Rasha snapped, balling his fists. “We weren’t doing—”
“Shut it!” Flora barked. “We’ll continue this conversation later.”
“As soon as the guards are involved, playtime is over,” Fauna said just as firmly. “Don’t argue with them, and there is zero valid reason for you to be making fists in a policeman’s presence. Simmer down.”
“Come on,” Flora ordered, straightening up and beckoning them curtly. “Do as the nice man says.”
The patrolman continued to watch them closely as the elves led them away up the street; this time, they were also followed by the gazes of nearly everyone in earshot. Fair or no, it appeared their practice had indeed been cut short, and not because the guard had told them so.
“Okay, what the hell just happened?” Tallie hissed. “I know that guy didn’t feel me touch his coat—he’d have said something at the time if he did!”
“You’re right,” Fauna said curtly. “You did fine. But we heard someone tell him that we were Guild—same voice that fetched the guard while that guy was approaching us.”
“And systematically informed every shopkeeper in a ring around us while we were dealing with that,” said Flora. “And there he is.”
This time, she made no bones about blatantly pointing.
Directly across the street from them stood a dwarf with a neatly-trimmed reddish beard, wearing a dapper suit. Seeing the elf pointing, he turned to face them directly, offered a knowing smile and politely tipped his hat to them. Then he turned and strolled away up a nearby alley.
“Follow him!” Fauna barked.
Instantly, both elves took off at a run, which carried them out of the way nearly before an outcry could develop at the sight—and aside from the inherent spectacle of elves moving at high speed, Flora’s billowing cloak tended to catch attention. They were swiftly gone, however, each vanishing into another small alley up and down the street, respectively.
“Oh, hell yes,” Tallie growled, stalking off after the dwarf as directed. Darius and Rasha followed, equally grim-faced.
Their quarry was not far away. Despite having a head start on them, he had been stopped just a few yards up the alley. Flora and Fauna had already converged there, but were hanging back; it was not they who had intercepted the dwarf and held his attention.
“Excuse me,” he said politely, his Svennish accent faint but distinct. “You appear to be blocking the path.”
“Yes,” the Silver Legionnaire standing in front of him said curtly. “And you appear to be meddling in things that don’t concern you.”
Flora and Fauna, standing behind the Legionnaire, exchanged a look, their expressions openly confused.
“Young lady, I haven’t the slightest idea what—”
He broke off as she raised her lance, aiming the tip directly at his face.
“We could play that game, but you’d win,” the young woman snapped, “so I’m not going to. You are making life difficult for these apprentices in an effort to put pressure on them to comply with your demands. You then led them into this alley and allowed them to intercept you so you could make your demands in privacy.”
“That’s quite a tale,” he said calmly. “I don’t suppose you have anything resembling evidence to back that up?”
“Shut up,” she retorted. “We’re not doing this. You are going to back down, and think carefully about how I intercepted both them and you on such short notice. You must be pretty confident to risk the ire of the Thieves’ Guild, but no matter who you work for, you don’t want to have both the Guild and the Sisterhood after you. The last political entity to get caught between them was the Tiraan Empire, in a little tiff called the Enchanter Wars. I assume you know how that ended?”
“Are you threatening me?” The dwarf sounded merely curious.
“I wasn’t,” she replied, stepping forward and forcing him to retreat, or get poked in the nose with her weapon. “Now I am. Clear your ass out of here while it’s only got one hole in it.”
“I hardly think this conduct is befitting a Silver Legionnaire,” the dwarf said, moving no further. “I wonder what your superiors would say?”
At that, the soldier grinned, broadly and very unpleasantly. “Well, don’t wonder. Go learn for yourself. I’m Private Covrin, personal aide to Bishop Syrinx. Right now I’m going to let you leave here and drop this little gambit, but if you push me, I’ll go right to the Bishop with this. And by this time tomorrow, you’ll have the full strength of the Guild, the Sisterhood, and Imperial Intelligence pursuing every aspect of your business. Possibly the Veskers, Salyrites, and whoever else owes her Grace a favor, just for shits and giggles. Is that what you want? All those people…examining you?”
They locked eyes, both ignoring the thieves standing around looking on.
Then, oddly, the dwarf cracked a smile. He took another step back, then bowed slightly to her, doffing his hat. “Well. What an intriguing day this has turned out to be. I’ll bid you all good afternoon, then.” He turned and made his way back toward the alley entrance, having to stop after only three steps. “Excuse me, please.”
Tallie, standing at the head of the trio, folded her arms and stared down her nose at him.
“Let him through,” Flora said quietly.
Tallie sneered, but edged aside. Darius snorted and leaned against the alley wall, out of the way; Rasha just curled his lip and refused to budge, forcing the dwarf to edge around him.
Silence reigned until he was out of the alley and around the corner.
“Well, this just gets more and more interesting,” Fauna said pointedly, staring at Covrin. “Not that we don’t appreciate the help, but…”
“But you’ll be wanting to know what the hell is going on here,” the soldier replied distractedly, her attention on the other three. “This group is missing some people.”
“So, uh.” Tallie cocked her head to one side. “You’re with Locke’s squad, then?”
“No,” Covrin said heatedly, then moderated her tone. “No. Let’s put aside the question of me for a moment. In your position, I’d be wondering just how that dwarf managed to be on you so quickly. You haven’t been away from the Casino that long; the Guild is heavily warded against arcane scrying, and it patrols its environs too well for anyone to safely set up watchers at its entrances. So how’d he find you?”
“How did you?” Rasha demanded.
“The same way, I expect,” Covrin replied with a cold little smile. “In Glass Alley there’s a magic shop called the Finder’s Fee. The answers you need most immediately are there; look for a Guild member with the tag Sparkler who works there. I suggest you gather the rest of your group, first, and maybe don’t wander off by yourselves any further. I don’t know who those dwarves are, exactly, but they’re a capable group. You don’t need them picking you off one by one.”
“Why the hell do you kids have dwarves after you?!” Flora exclaimed.
“It’s, uh…” Tallie winced, glancing aside at the boys. “Complicated.”
“Well, no shit,” Fauna said acidly.
“Right now,” said Rasha, “I’m most curious about how you come into this, Private Covrin.”
“Any organization the size of the Sisterhood of Avei,” she replied, “has factions, agendas, schisms… People mistreating power and undercutting each other. All systems are corrupt, or so I hear.” She gave that a moment to sink in before continuing. “Whatever other problems you guys have, you’ve had the bad luck to be caught up in an internal Sisterhood power struggle. Locke is a shifty one who never does anything with only one agenda. And Bishop Syrinx is dangerous in a way that even your trainers probably don’t want to cross. I’ve got a feeling you two may know a little bit about that already,” she added, turning toward Flora and Fauna.
The elves folded their arms and narrowed their eyes at her in perfect unison.
“Still waiting to hear your part in this,” Tallie prompted.
Covrin turned back to face them, her eyes intent and suddenly almost fervent. “I can help you know what’s going on, who’s attempting what, and why. Right now you’re acting blind. If you know who the players are, though, you can play them. Or at least, keep them from playing you. Which you’d better believe they are doing right now.”
“And what do you get out of this?” Darius asked with uncharacteristic seriousness.
“Later,” Covrin said curtly. “Get your friends, go to Glass Alley, find out how you’re being tracked. That’s my offer of good faith. When you know I’m good for it… Maybe I’ll have a favor to ask in return. But don’t take too long about this. None of you are any use to me if you get knifed in alley or carried off by dwarves.”
She turned, paused at the sight of the two elves, then shoved roughly between them. Neither made any attempt to inhibit her, just turning to watch her go with eyes still narrowed suspiciously.
Covrin did not turn to look back as she vanished into the dimness beyond, but her voice carried nonetheless.
“Watch your backs.”