Glory’s solarium was a beautiful room, far bigger than the small parlor in which she had received Jasmine previously. Perched on the top floor of her townhouse, it had a wall almost entirely of glass, looking out over the city and supported only by stone columns. Above, this changed into an angled glass roof, so that half the ceiling was a single skylight. The floor plan was open, with a large fireplace at one end surrounded by cozy chairs, and other seats and tables scattered about with artful randomness. In the center of the long side wall there was a raised dais, upon which sat a grand pianoforte.
This was clearly the space in which the lady of the house held her famous parties.
“Do you play?” Glory asked as she casually performed a soft prelude on the keys.
“Not…that,” Jasmine replied, standing a little stiffly off to one side. “I have an ocarina. I’m…not even very good at that. Only been practicing a while; I have a bard friend who showed me the basics.”
“I have only been practicing for a while,” Glory corrected with a smile. “Remember, diction is all part of the presentation, and thus another weapon in your arsenal. Suit your style to your surroundings. Talking like a back-alley shoulderthumper in a place like this is making a belligerent statement which I don’t believe you intend.”
“I…sorry,” Jasmine said warily. “Thank you for the advice.”
“I certainly cannot fault your sense of respect,” Glory said, glancing up at her while continuing to play. “If you can find the time and access to an instrument, I really would suggest taking up the pianoforte. Harpsichords are easier to come across, but so much of the benefit to this instrument is in the fine control it teaches you, as you must vary the pressure of keystrokes in addition to placing them precisely. So many professions render our hands either nimble or strong, one trait at the expense of the other. A pianist, if so motivated, could pick your pocket or throttle you.”
“Well, I can certainly see the utility of both.”
“I perceive,” Glory said softly, her eyes on the keys, “that you know the gist of what I asked you here to say.”
“Grip was kind enough to explain the basics,” Jasmine said more stiffly. It was later in the day than she had come the last time; no hour was specified in the invitation, but she did remember that Glory preferred to receive visitors earlier in the morning. Well, what with one thing and another, she was feeling somewhat mulish, and had chosen to prioritize research at the Temple, arriving here an hour before noon. Now she got to see the courtesan in her full armor, as it were: a formal and surprisingly modest silk gown of deep midnight blue, decorated tastefully with seed pearls and silver thread. Her hair alone was a work of art held in place by mother-of-pearl combs.
“Ah, Grip,” Glory murmured. “An old acquaintance of mine. I cannot say we are friends, but we find one another mutually useful to know. Enough to be worth the extra measure of politeness that averts an otherwise inevitable clash of personalities.” She paused, bringing the piece to a soft conclusion, and then carefully pulled the lid down over the keys. She did not, however, immediately turn on the bench to face her guest. “It was Grip who directed my attention to certain…facts. Regarding the current Hand of Avei.”
“I’ll just bet she did,” Jasmine said flatly.
Finally, Glory swiveled around to gaze up at her. “Of course you understand, this necessarily colors my thinking. I mean an apprenticeship to be a long-term relationship; it simply will not do to enter it with someone whom I know plans to leave the Guild after a fairly short time. By the same token…I cannot imagine you are too terribly disappointed by this.”
“You…are correct,” Jasmine said, choosing her words with great care. “I was definitely flattered by your consideration and I certainly mean no disrespect. But I don’t think this would have worked out, anyway.”
“And yet, you came to see me, as I asked,” Glory observed. “Twice.”
“I hardly think it’s useful or right to be rude to people. At least, not without a good reason.”
The thief smiled, stood from the bench, and approached her. To Jasmine’s surprise, Glory took both her hands and held them; after a moment’s stiff hesitation, she allowed it, and did not pull back.
“That said,” Glory said quietly, gazing at her eyes, “I think what you are doing is possibly the best piece of news I have lived to hear. You’ve had a rather sheltered upbringing, have you not? For the rest of us at large in the world, at least those who make it our business to keep abreast of events, the state of things has been quite troubling for some time. First the lack of paladins, and then the sudden appearance of two, along with hints from the gods that these are meant to be a change. Then, when paladins in the past have always been sent straight into the fray, as it were, these two are hidden away to receive an adventurer’s education from none other than Arachne Tellwyrn. And most recently, a Vidian paladin—and a demonblood, at that. The world is tilting away beneath us.” A broad, seemingly genuine smile blossomed across her features. “I took it as an extremely optimistic sign that Trissiny Avelea’s first public act was to intervene on behalf of a district full of drow and various half-bloods. And then, even better, to launch her initiative with the Silver Missions.”
She paused, studying Jasmine’s face.
“And now this.”
Jasmine shrugged self-consciously, finally pulling her hands away. “I suppose it must seem very optimistic to an Eserite, me seeking training from the Guild…”
“I have to say that would not have occurred to me,” Glory replied, stepping back to grant her some space. “It would have been just as well, I think, had the Hand of Avei sought teaching from, say, the Veskers or Izarites. What matters is that you recognize that there is more than one way to view the world, and to act within it. Very few people of any age manage to take heed of that fact, and fewer still who are of a religious bent. You will only be the second of your calling from any faith; I had thought Laressa of Anteraas an anomaly, as did most historians and theologians. This… Fills me with hope for the world.”
To Jasmine’s surprise, she curtsied deeply, lowering her head in a gesture that seemed almost discordantly deferential on this proud woman.
“I will reaffirm and strengthen my previous offer…Jasmine. First, you have my assurance that no secrets or plans of yours will reach any other ears from my lips. My home is available to you, should you need anything—and I want you to know that you have at least one friend in Tiraas. If there is any way I can be of help to you, just ask.”
Jasmine drew in a deep breath and let it out, trying to force some of her tension out with it. “I appreciate that very much. Especially after my conversation with Grip… I’m afraid she had rather the opposite intention.”
“Oh?” Glory’s gaze sharpened.
“Well,” Jasmine said sourly, “to cut a long story short, she’s blackmailing me. Grip wants me to be her apprentice, and if I don’t go along with it, she’s going to reveal who I am to the whole Guild.”
“Hm. Hmmmm.” Glory folded her hands demurely at her waist, a gesture which contrasted with the suddenly predatory cast of her eyes, even as they drifted sideways in deep thought. “How very interesting.”
She stepped down from the dais, beckoning Jasmine with a gesture, and led the way to a pair of gilded chairs by the wall of windows, flanking a small table.
“The important thing you should understand about Grip,” Glory began as she seated herself, “is that she is a creature of principle, odd as that may seem. Whatever she is up to, she believes it to be in the best interests of Eserion and the Thieves’ Guild. If you cannot see how she arrived at that conclusion, then you understand what you must learn in order to grasp her plot.”
“Plot?” Jasmine asked, sitting down as well. “You think there’s more to this?”
“Perhaps, but not necessarily. I cannot immediately divine her intent, as I don’t truly know her mind that well. We are opposites in many ways, you understand; I work with the gentlest touch possible and heavily favor honey over vinegar in enticing my prey. Grip acts through force and fear. I am not so self-absorbed as to impugn her intelligence, however. A brutal thug does not rise to the prominence she has; she has a clear knack for making plans, and seeing them put into effect.”
“I said as much to her at the time,” Jasmine said disgustedly. “I can’t see the sense in this. Unless she’s trying to make an enemy of me…”
“I cannot imagine how that would benefit her, either,” Glory mused. “I suppose if she harbors some antipathy toward the Sisters of Avei, antagonizing you and driving you off would be a good way to drive a wedge between the two cults. That’s unlikely, though. Enforcers with that kind of grudge seldom last long, and as you have surely been told before, the Guild feels no institutional hostility toward the Sisterhood. No…I suspect this is about her, and about you.”
She leaned forward, eyes intent upon Jasmine’s face. “And I can share one insight that may help you unravel her intentions. If she is truly seeking to have a hand in forming your skills, she doesn’t truly want you to submit to blackmail. No enforcer—no Eserite of any kind—submits to anything.”
“You think she’s trying to provoke a reaction,” Jasmine said thoughtfully.
“Perhaps. Or to gauge the depth of your understanding when under pressure. Whatever the specific goal, I do think she is testing you—brutally, perhaps, but that’s how Grip does everything. And I don’t think she means you any real harm. Such would not be characteristic of her.”
“I appreciate the insight very much,” Jasmine replied. “Maybe if I can suss out what she wants I can deal with her and not bring this whole thing down around my ears.”
“Let me give a piece of advice,” Glory said with a thin smile. “You seem to have fallen into the trap of relating to Grip as an apprentice to a fully vetted member of the Guild. That may be true, but that is a fleeting circumstance. In more absolute terms… She is a fearsome creature of power and menace. You are everything she is, at least twice over.”
Jasmine’s eyebrows lowered. “I didn’t come here to learn more about intimidating and assaulting people. That’s not what my calling is about.”
For an extended moment, Glory just stared at her. Then the thief drummed her manicured nails on the table once, before leaning back in her chair and folding her hands in her lap.
“It occurs to me,” she mused, “that growing up in a temple as you did, under the strictest Avenist tradition, you may have a perspective that doesn’t quite match that of the general public.”
“When Grip looks upon the Hand of Avei,” said Glory, “she sees, in essence, a kindred spirit. An enforcer. That is what most of the world sees, Jasmine. And for a good many people, it will be all they see.”
“It’s an aspect of the calling, certainly,” Jasmine agreed. “But not the whole or even the half of it. A paladin is a protector, an icon of principle.”
Glory’s expression now was thoughtful, and even a little worried. “Jasmine… What did you learn of Tarsha of Mathenon? Or Sharai the Hammer?”
Jasmine frowned at the apparent change of topic, but answered. “Plenty. Tarsha was a Hand of Avei who lived three centuries ago; she put an end to the last major plague of undeath by personally standing against the undead hordes and wiping them out before they could spread out of N’Jendo. Sharai was thought to be a demigoddess, perhaps an actual daughter of Avei; she fought in the Third Hellwar and thereafter was a major player in the War of the Scions. She actually followed one of Elilial’s generals into Hell to destroy him, and made it back alive.”
“Tarsha,” Glory said quietly, “wiped out the undead plague by wiping out everyone who had it. Not those who had perished of it and risen. Everyone. In fact, in an age when there was no alchemical or divinatory means of testing for infection, she took the extreme measure of destroying everyone exposed. The woman single-handedly depopulated an entire region of N’Jendo. Whole villages. Men, women, children. The sick, the healthy…everyone. Her actions undoubtedly saved the world. They involved her chasing down fleeing villagers on her divine mount to trample or behead them, though.”
Jasmine had stiffened, her fists clutching the fabric of her trousers. “That isn’t—”
“What you were taught?” Glory smiled sadly. “Sharai the Hammer caused the War of the Scions by executing the demigod son of Sorash, and then his mother, the god’s consort, in an action which set the followers of the two gods of war against each other. Sorash was never going to defeat Avei in any kind of prolonged conflict; he was a god of violence and conquest, while she was the goddess of strategic war. But Sharai did not consider diplomacy, or even strategy; she saw a demigod getting above himself as nothing but a monster, and killed him. When his mother inevitably came after her, she killed her, too, apparently without a thought for the magnitude of the insults she was committing against Sorash in Avei’s name. When that ended as it inevitably did, she not only never sought diplomatic solutions, but never allowed them. Her scorched earth tactics and no-quarter terms were holdovers from the Hellwar, when she had fought demons, not fellow Pantheon worshipers. The Hammer’s decimation of Sorash’s cult is now understood as the primary reason the Black Wreath exists today. The Third Hellwar itself was a front for Elilial to bolster and expand her cult; with the demons pushed back, the Sorashi and Avenists alike had been at work seeking out and purging them. By turning those cults against each other, she gave them the time they needed to go to ground and establish bases of power. Huge swaths of the continent were ravaged in the War of the Scions, and no one has since managed to completely dislodge the Wreath from this world.”
Jasmine was staring at her in frozen horror, now; Glory just shook her head, looking weary and saddened.
“I meant it when I said it brought me hope, seeing Avei’s new paladin showing restraint and compassion. Even Laressa of Anteraas banked on the reputation of her predecessors to terrorize people into backing down from her. We know from the writings she left that she did it to avoid violence, and that she agonized over it. But she did it, nonetheless. She understood something that I think the Sisterhood, in its idealism, failed to teach you.”
Glory leaned forward, her gaze intent. There was compassion and empathy in her eyes, but she did not shrink from laying out the hard truth.
“People fear the Hand of Avei.”
“Hey! There you are!”
Jasmine paused in descending the steps into the Pit, raising an eyebrow at Tallie, who was waving almost frantically as she crossed toward the stairs. Darius, Ross, and Rasha all followed her more sedately.
“Here I am,” she agreed, resuming her descent. “Something up?”
“Yup! Stop, no more coming downstairs; now you’re here, we need to go.”
She stopped, blinking. “Excuse me?”
“Apparently there’s a development,” Ross grumbled. “More dwarves. She says—”
“Ha bip bip bip!” Tallie said loudly, cutting him off. She met Jasmine halfway up the stone staircase, taking her by the arm. “Come on, I wanna get this shit done with as quickly as possible. I’ll explain everything on the way.”
“On the way where?” Jasmine demanded, but allowed herself to be pulled back up the steps. Behind them, the boys had hastened their stride, and caught up by the time they reached the top level.
“We’re going to get some answers!” Tallie said with a kind of grim exultation. “And for that, apparently, we have to go to a magic shop in Glass Alley.”
“A magic—wait, where?” Jasmine glanced helplessly back at the others; Darius rolled his eyes and Ross shrugged, while Rasha just looked tired and frustrated. “What’s Glass Alley?”
Glass Alley was the worst place in Tiraas, apparently.
A sad little cluster of tenements and the seediest of shops crammed right under the shadow of the city’s wall, it was among the poorest districts, as those nearest the walls usually were. Unlike Lor’naris and the Glums, it at least wasn’t built into an old quarry, but the three- and four-story structures crammed haphazardly together made for a lack of natural light, certainly not helped by the fact that the city-installed street lights tended not to last long here. Even now, at midday, it was dim. The district itself was of average size, but anomalous in that its central thoroughfare was a winding street that twisted back and forth all the way through, rather than one matching the curve of the circular outer wall, as most cross-streets in Tiraas were.
It was also filthy, run-down, and not a safe place to be after dark. Or before dark. At any time at all, really.
Tallie had explained all this with a kind of dark glee after she explained to Jasmine what had happened to the rest of the group that morning.
“I see,” Jasmine said grimly, looking around as they turned into the Alley itself. The street wasn’t broad, and the buildings were crammed together and towering on both sides; it was very much like stepping into a narrow canyon. The fact that its erratic curve hid what was only a dozen yards ahead did not help the place’s sullen aspect. “And do you know where in this place the shop in question is?”
“It’ll pretty much have to be on the main street,” Darius said cheerfully, strolling right in as if he owned the place; the others, having paused to consider Glass Alley carefully, now followed. “All the shops are; everything down side alleys is either places people live or the kind of shit even we don’t want to stumble across.”
“What’s that mean, even we?” Ross muttered.
“Means we’re thieves, Ross,” Tallie said, turning to wink at him. “We’re the trash and riffraff of this city. Get used to it.”
“We are going to get beaten, mugged, and left to die,” Rasha mumbled, hunching in on himself and huddling close to Jasmine.
They were, indeed, getting some very speculative looks indeed from those they passed. Glass Alley’s inhabitants were uniformly poorly dressed, dirty, and frequently showing scars. Not a one of them appeared to be engaged in anything constructive; those out on the street were just standing, sitting, or lounging in the mouths of tiny alleyways. It wasn’t hard to imagine they were waiting for prey.
“Oy, cut that shit out,” Darius said, scowling back at him. “We’re Guild, here; nobody’s gonna try it on with us.”
“Place like this, dunno how much that counts for,” Ross growled.
“All the more reason to straighten up, Rasha,” Darius said pointedly. “It’s instinctive. It’s primal. If you act like a victim, somebody’ll step up and make you one.”
“Well, there’s five of us, anyway,” Tallie said, seemingly unconcerned. Behind her, Rasha made an effort to relax his posture, though his eyes still darted rapidly about at every little movement. “We may have to beat somebody down in order to get left alone, though.”
“’We’ means me, doesn’t it,” Jasmine said resignedly.
Tallie grinned at her. “Well, if the shoe fits…”
“Anybody else notice a lack of signs?” Ross said.
He was right; most of the storefronts they passed had boards over their windows. Some of those had fairly crude logos painted on them, but for the most part, the establishments here didn’t bother to identify themselves.
“That,” said Darius, “means everybody looking to do business here knows what they’re after.”
“And that the business in question isn’t wise to advertise,” Jasmine added with less cheer.
“That, too,” he said brightly.
“So our plan’s just to…wander up and down until we happen across this place?” Rasha demanded. “When we probably won’t even know what it is from looking?”
That brought them all up short. They had already progressed far enough into the district that the broader thoroughfare on which they had approached was lost to sight around the curve.
“I guess we’ll just have to ask for directions,” Tallie said.
In unison, the others turned their heads to look around. Half a dozen people were within eyeshot, all of them filthy, ragged, and staring hungrily at the apprentices. Nearest was a lean woman with tousled red hair, working on a bottle of whiskey; she was notably less dirty than everyone else in the vicinity. Catching Tallie’s eye, she smirked, raised her bottle as if in a toast, and had another pull. Based on the level of liquid left, she’d been working on it for a while already.
“Think I’ve found a flaw in your plan,” said Ross.