None of them were totally surprised to be ambushed as soon as they returned to the Guild. Once inside the subterranean passage complex, but long before they reached the Pit, two blonde figures materialized out of a side corridor as if by magic.
“So!” Flora said, raising her eyebrows archly. “We hear you’ve had quite an afternoon.”
“Oh, come on,” Darius protested. “Were you guys just waiting here for us to get back?”
“Oh, please,” Fauna said disdainfully. “You think we have nothing better to do with our time?”
“The ears are decorative,” Flora added, winking, “but not only decorative.”
“We heard you coming as soon as you hit the casino.”
“All right, that’s just ridiculous,” Tallie scoffed. “How sharp can elven hearing possibly be?”
“It’s not the sharpness of the blade, but the skill with which it is wielded,” Flora said sententiously. “Also, you’re ducking the question.”
“You didn’t ask a question,” said Jasmine. “But on the subject of them, what exactly have you heard?”
The elves exchanged a wry glance.
“Well, she’s got us there,” Fauna admitted.
“The word going around,” said Flora, “is that you lot went to Glass Alley, got in a fight with Ironeye’s people, and then somehow fell in with Webs and his little faction.”
“Wait, faction?” Rasha exclaimed. “And who is Webs?”
“Vandro,” Fauna replied. “So…is that not true, or did he just not mention his tag?”
“’strue,” Ross grunted. “What faction?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s infighting,” Flora said, frowning, “but Alan Vandro is of a theological mindset that puts him at odds with the Boss on many subjects. This is dangerous ground for apprentices to stumble into, guys.”
“With regard to that,” Darius said sharply, “you two were right there when Covrin told us to go find that magic shop. Since you know so damn much about this, a word of warning would have been nice!”
Again, the elves glanced at each other.
“Okay, seriously now,” said Fauna sardonically. “The tip was to go to Glass Alley, find the Finder’s Fee, and ask Sparkler about how dwarves might be tracking you.”
“It’s a big leap from that to getting into an altercation with Vanda Frost and her cell!” Flora added pointedly.
“And quite frankly we’d love to hear that story because how in the hell did you manage that?”
“If you guys have some kind of collective death wish, there are cleaner ways!”
“It wasn’t anything like that,” Tallie said wearily. “Stuff just…happened.”
“Uh huh,” Flora said skeptically. “Well, if you’re gonna be a thief, you can’t be the kind of person stuff just happens to.”
“What nonsense is that?” Jasmine demanded, scowling. “Things happen to everyone. The world is just like that.”
“An Eserite,” said Fauna, “is in control. We cultivate our skills, but more importantly, the mindset to use those skills.”
“You can’t just careen around reacting to stuff,” Flora continued. “You need to have a plan, and the ability to make a plan and enact it quickly, under pressure.”
“If you had been planning, I’m pretty sure you would not have ended up on Vanda Frost’s shit list after one encounter.”
“We’re crediting you with a certain amount of basic common sense, there, but hey, if we’re wrong…”
“Isn’t it cute how they can be assholes even when they’re been helpful and commiserative,” Darius said wryly.
“Kind of an Eserite thing, innit?” Ross grumbled.
“Well, look, anyway,” said Fauna, “we’ll wanna hear this whole story straight from the source, as it were, but you’d better not put off facing the music.”
“Style is gonna have things to say to you,” Flora said ominously. “It’ll be that much worse if you make it seem like you’re avoiding her or trying to weasel out of it.”
“Go right up to her, take your lumps, and don’t complain.”
“For the gods’ sake, don’t act submissive or meek, she’ll really tear into you if you show that kind of weakness.”
“But if you just take responsibility like grown-ups and don’t make excuses, Style won’t be any harder on you than she feels she has to be.”
“She’s ham-fisted and has zero patience for bullshit, but she is fair, and all the stuff she puts apprentices through has a purpose.”
“That’s why she’s given such an active role in apprentice training. That’s not a traditional duty for the head enforcer.”
“Hm,” Jasmine mused. “I’ve noticed that about really good teachers.”
“Like alchemy teachers, for example?” Tallie said sourly.
Darius cleared his throat. “Yeah, well… Much as I’m sure you ladies would love to stand around bickering, I say we respect the wisdom of elves. In all the stories, people who don’t listen to elves end up royally screwed. Right, Ross?”
“Wisdom of elves,” Ross grunted. “Plain common sense, more like.”
“That’s the spirit,” Flora said with a grin, patting Rasha on the shoulder.
“To the gallows with head held high!” Fauna crowed, saluting them.
“That’s extremely helpful, thank you,” Jasmine grumbled as the group filed past them, continuing on their way to the center of the complex.
Despite the apprehension which hung over them, the sounds of the Pit were pretty much the same as always for the time of evening. It was semi-quiet, a good number of the apprentices being in the dining hall, whose open doors contributed most of the ambient noise. There were people training, though, as was nearly always the case. And, as usual, a handful of Guild members were about, either passing through on some business of their own or loitering to watch the apprentices.
Several glanced at the five of them as they approached, and one even offered a nod of greeting, but their expressions were disinterested. If any of them had heard any rumor regarding this one group of apprentices, they gave no sign.
“I guess that’s positive,” Rasha mumbled as they filed down the steps to the base of the Pit. “I half expected everybody to be anticipating our demise.”
“What a delightful turn of phrase you have, Rasha,” Darius said with a sigh.
“No reason they’d all show it overtly,” said Tallie. “Weren’t you listening to the elves? Eserites are supposed to be controlled and careful.”
“Eserites are frequently assholes,” Rasha countered, “if you haven’t noticed. Somebody would be gloating if there was reason to.”
“Yep,” Ross agreed. “Wasn’t really our fault, anyway. Maybe it won’t be so bad.”
“WELL WELL WELL.”
No sooner had they reached the bottom than Style appeared at the top of the stairs opposite, glowering at them, and began stomping down. She was attired today in an actual chain mail tunic, with heavy leather gauntlets and boots, her belt bristling with pouches, weapons, and tools; it was an obvious nod to the wandering adventurers of yesteryear, floppy hat and all. Her expression, however, did as much as her booming voice to bring a halt to all conversation and activity in the Pit.
“And just when I was thinking my brand-new ass-kicking boots haven’t had a chance to be properly broken in,” she said loudly, stalking across the floor toward them, “lo and behold, I’ve got a gaggle of apprentices trying for the intramural stumbling fuckwit championship. Truly, the gods are goddamn beneficent!”
“You jinxed us,” Darius hissed, jabbing Ross with an elbow. “You, of all people!”
“There are certain formalities to be observed,” Style said, coming to a stop right in front of them and folding her brawny arms. She was taller than any of them, even Jasmine, and more powerfully built than any but Ross; the sheer physicality of her presence would have been intimidating even were it not for her glare, which looked like it could shatter glass. “Before we get to the yelling and smacking that we all know is coming, I’m going to offer you a chance to spin your side of this. Just in case it turns out you don’t all deserve to get your bells rung, and because none of you little bastards are crafty enough to weasel your way out of this with wordplay. So?” Her glower intensified by an order of magnitude. “Explain.”
“Uh…” Darius winced, and glanced aside at the others. “What have you heard?”
Style’s bulky physique made it seem she should only have been able to move slowly; this was clearly not at all the case. She clapped Darius hard on the side of the head with an open-handed swat that sent him staggering before it seemed possible for her to have un-folded her arms.
“I’d really hoped it was obvious from context,” Style growled, “but this is not the time for you to be getting clever. I’m not gonna repeat myself; if you don’t have a masterful fucking explanation for this towering cock-up, we’re gonna proceed straight to the entertaining portion of the evening.”
“We went to Glass Alley,” Tallie said quickly, “following a tip from a Silver Legionnaire that the magic shop there could provide some insight into how a group of dwarves has been following us around. Just about as soon as we got there, we met a friend of ours, Schwartz, who’s a Salyrite…um, fae user. He was getting attacked by some, uh, local residents.”
“Go on,” Style said grimly.
“Well, we were gonna jump into that,” Tallie continued, “but…it sort of became unnecessary. Ironeye showed up with her entourage and kicked everybody’s ass. And we talked to her briefly and since we weren’t doing anything wrong, she let it go without even saying much of anything to us, so, you know, we figured that was pretty much that.”
She paused, glancing at Rasha, who looked like he was preventing himself from shrinking into his own pockets by sheer force of will. “And then Rasha asked her for directions to the Finder’s Fee.”
“You asked,” Style enunciated carefully, turning the full weight of her baleful stare on Rasha, “Ironeye. For directions.”
“…seemed like she’d know the district,” he said hoarsely.
Style smiled thinly without actually diminishing the strength of her frown, which was a terrifying thing to behold. “Rasha, there’s a point to be made here about common goddamn sense, but I have to say, this is evidence that you do not lack for balls. Quite frankly I was beginning to be concerned about that. Irrespective of any other destruction I have to heap on you, here…kudos for that.”
“Well…great,” he muttered.
“Anyway.” Style turned her attention back to Tallie. “Since you’ve designated yourself the narrator, continue. You asked Ironeye for directions.”
“Right,” Tallie said, nodding. “And then she sent us into a fucking trap. We got locked in a room. So…we broke out of it. And Rumor and Gimmick were right outside, and we left with Gimmick.”
“Hmmm.” Style dragged out the grunt until it was nearly a hum. “All right, well. This is why I ask questions before cracking heads together—take note, those of you who’re going into the enforcement business. What I’ve heard is from Rumor, which was a deliberately incriminating pile of hints and vagueness about you causing trouble in Glass Alley. Nothing that actually contradicts this account, she merely implied otherwise—which was kind of what she does. If your story is true, for Ironeye to throw you in a cell just for being on her lawn was way over-the-top, and I’m gonna have fucking words with her about the treatment of other people’s apprentices. If I have to go down there and find out that this story is not true, the world of hurt you little shits are in for will make what I planned for tonight look like the gentle fondling of your virgin true love. So, with that established…” She tilted her head back, staring down her nose at them. “Would you like to modify your story any?”
“That’s what happened,” Tallie said stubbornly, clenching her fists. “Ask her. If she tells you otherwise, ask Gimmick.”
“And Herschel Schwartz,” Jasmine added quickly. “You can find him through the College of Salyrene pretty easily, I bet.”
“Mm hm,” Style said, still staring down at Tallie. “And is there anything you, in particular, would like to add?”
“Oh.” Tallie winced. “Well, uh, you know. When we got out, Rumor was, um, standing around outside the place where we’d been locked up. And I sort of punched her.”
They were reminded of the presence of multiple onlookers by a general in-drawing of breath and one low whistle. It was a startling reminder, to judge by the way Rasha jumped; Style had a way of dominating the scene to the exclusion of all else.
“Uh huh,” Style replied in a very even tone which was far more terrifying than her previous shouting. “Wanna explain your thought process, there?”
“Well,” Tallie said defensively, folding her arms, “by that point I was sick of getting the runaround from assholes, and she was continuing to be a smug, aggravating pain in the ass.”
“And that,” Style said calmly, “in your mind, is grounds for a sucker-punching.”
“She was party to what you admitted was abusive behavior toward us,” Tallie said, her voice climbing half an octave. “Aren’t we supposed to not take shit from people abusing their power? That’s the whole point of this cult, isn’t it?”
“Child,” said Style, “as an enforcer I am, among other things, a student of human behavior. Your posture and tone show me very clearly that you know you’re in the wrong, here; indignation over unjust treatment looks very different. Since you’ve been here less than two weeks, I’m not gonna call you down for your sad fucking lack of a poker face. However, keep in mind that I am a highly-ranked officer in this cult. Now, do you really think standing in front of me and twisting Eserion’s sacred principles around in a way that gets you off the hook for your own dumbfuckery is a smart thing to do?”
“Uh.” Tallie outright cringed. “Well—”
Again, Style unfolded herself almost too fast to observe. Her fist slammed into Tallie’s midsection, doubling the girl over and sending her staggering backward, where she would probably have fallen had Jasmine not caught her. Before Jasmine could get a good grip, however, Style seized a handful of Tallie’s hair and hauled her away from the group, unceremoniously tossing her toward the open center of the Pit.
Tallie staggered, wheezing and bent over with both arms wrapped around her middle, but she kept on her feet.
“I’d have hoped most of this was obvious, but since I was clearly wrong, I’m gonna explain,” Style growled, stalking toward her. “In detail. First, revenge is a science, which you will be expected to understand and master before you’re done getting trained.”
Tallie tried to straighten up, at which moment Style jabbed her hard in the collarbone with the heel of her hand, sending her staggering again.
“The purpose of retaliation,” the enforcer continued, “is to influence the future behavior of someone, and not necessarily the person being retaliated against. That means you need to approach it strategically: set out your goals, form a plan, and enact it carefully. Lashing out at someone who’s offended you is inbred orc behavior, not at all befitting a member of the Thieves’ Guild.”
This time, Tallie had enough wind back and the presence of mind to raise her forearm to try to block the slap Style aimed at her head. With lightning precision, the larger woman switched to her other hand, clapping Tallie across the ear and sending her crashing to the ground with a yelp.
“Second, if you have a problem with the way a Guild member corrects your behavior, you come to me. If you’re whining and wasting my time, you’ll suffer for that, but if you have been legitimately abused, they will. I’ll not have assholes mistreating my apprentices. That is my prerogative.”
She folded her arms again, staring coldly down at Tallie, who huddled on the floor, seemingly afraid to try getting up again. “And finally, you do not assault members of this Guild who outrank you. Once you’re initiated and tagged, you have a lot of free reign in this cult. We’re not big on ranks in general. Your dipshit little friend Pick could walk up to the Boss himself and ream him out, and while that kind of numbnuttery has consequences, there’s no official protocol or mandatory ritual punishment. But that’s for people who have earned their way into Eserion’s Guild. You are just some kid. We’re seeing if you’re worth elevating to membership, but right now? You have no privileges here. You will treat Guild members with respect…”
She unfolded her arms and began stalking forward. “Or I will treat you like a fucking kickball!”
And suddenly, Jasmine was between them.
Style halted, staring almost quizzically at her. “Kid. I am disciplining an apprentice, here. Only one person present gets to decide when it’s enough. You wanna venture a guess who that is?”
“This isn’t discipline,” Jasmine said flatly. “This is you picking on someone weaker than yourself who can’t fight back.”
“This is the consequences of her insubordination, thoughtlessness, assault, and general wasting of my time,” Style replied in the same tone. “And you are getting some leeway here because standing up to power and supporting your fellow thieves are things we want to encourage, but you had better think about what the consequences will be for you if you fail to butt out.”
“I keep hearing Eserites talk a big game about standing up to bullies,” Jasmine spat. “But I keep seeing Eserites being the biggest bullies themselves! From Pick treating apprentices like poorly-trained dogs to Ironeye using magical ordnance on impoverished—”
“That’s your problem, Jasmine,” Style interrupted calmly. “You fail to discern the difference between those things—and whatever other examples you’re about to spit out, including this situation right here. Pick is a smug fuckhead who will be disciplined for his behavior. Ironeye has earned credibility and the benefit of the doubt, and even not knowing the story I know her well enough to be certain whatever she did was deserved by whoever she did it to. Your new best friend Webs doesn’t sharpen his claws on people who don’t have it coming, either, and believe me you’ve no idea the cruelty that man is capable of. We do what’s necessary, and when we fuck up, we get held accountable. Just like you’re about to be.”
“Necessary,” Jasmine sneered. “It’s funny how it’s always necessary for you to throw your weight around, isn’t it?”
“Jas, don’t,” Tallie whispered, reaching up to grasp her leg.
“You’re smarter than this,” Style said evenly. “I get that you came here to work through some of your own stuff, but I expected you to know better than this. You’re picking a fight you don’t need, girl. This is not the place for cries for help. Now get out of my way, Jasmine.”
“It’s okay,” Tallie wheezed, dragging herself back to her feet. “It was my fuckup, I’ll take it. C’mon, don’t make this an issue…”
“Don’t do that,” Jasmine said, turning her head to give Tallie a sidelong look. “You deserved that first punch, Tallie, not this. Don’t make excuses for someone who outranks you to kick you while you’re down. That wouldn’t make you much of an Eserite, would it?”
“Child,” Style said almost sadly, shaking her head, “you don’t know what ‘down’ is. I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to be the one to show you. You and me are gonna talk about this, Jasmine, and that’s not a euphemism. This shit needs to be worked through, and I’ve got time and the ears to lend you. But right now you need to back off.”
“Then,” Jasmine said, turning back to face her fully and shifting to a more balanced stance, “you need to back me off.”
The silence in the Pit was absolute; no one even breathed. Even the cafeteria had gone still, apprentices clustering in the door to stare out at the scene unfolding.
Style sighed heavily. “Aw, kid… You just had to.”
She lunged with the same impossible speed, but Jasmine was not Tallie. Lacking Style’s size and muscle, she didn’t try to deflect the punch fully, instead stepping inside the reach of Style’s arm with the same blinding agility, pushing the attacking hand just slightly off-course and launching a counter-jab at Style’s throat.
Style seized her wrist and swiftly spun in a full circle, tearing Jasmine out of her balanced stance and finally hurling her aside. Apprentices scattered out of the way as Jasmine careened into the wall by the pickpocketing dummies. Despite the disorientation she’d been subjected to, though, she remained adroit on her feet, instantly regaining her poise and actually kicking off the wall to lunge back at Style.
In the intervening second, though, Style had continued forward and met Jasmine head-on with a haymaker which the smaller woman barely avoided taking full in the face. Style’s fist grazed her skull, but even as she staggered past, she managed a knife-handed jab directly into the enforcer’s armpit. It was an excellent strike, the kind of blow that could possibly have rendered her right arm temporarily numb and useless, had Style not happened to be wearing chain mail.
It was Jasmine who let out a yelp of pain.
She retreated as Style came relentlessly after her, deflecting another jab and aiming a kick at Style’s knee. The enforcer merely shifted just enough that Jasmine’s boot struck her on the thigh instead, which didn’t slow her a whit.
Her next punch caught Jasmine hard on the jaw. She reeled, her martial skill suddenly useless in a blind daze, but Style didn’t give her even those seconds to regain her equilibrium. Grabbing Jasmine by the hair with her left hand, she hauled her around and past herself, at the same time bringing her other fist up in a vicious uppercut that landed square on Jasmine’s solar plexus. The air went fully out of her in a hoarse croak, and she dropped.
The whole exchange had taken less than ten seconds.
“You assume a lot of things,” Style said coldly to the girl kneeling at her feet, presently unable to breathe. “For example, that I’m in my position for reasons other than my ability to kick ass. You’re good, kid—amazing, even. I am better. This was not the way you should’ve learned it.”
She grabbed Jasmine’s hair again, hauling her upright, and once again slammed a fist into her belly, then hurled her to the stone floor.
“Stop it!” Tallie shouted fruitlessly.
Jasmine was too dazed even to catch herself, hitting the floor in a disjointed heap. She was only there for a moment before Style’s boot impacted her ribs, flipping her fully over.
“I legitimately hate this,” Style snarled. “Beating down some fucker who deserves it? Oh, that’s satisfying. But you, kid, you just had to push me, in public, in the worst way. This is all so fucking pointless.”
At the final word, Style stomped hard on Jasmine’s upper back, slamming her down into the floor just as she’d been trying feebly to rise. Jasmine let out a croaking sound and spat a mouthful of blood.
Tallie arrived in a clumsy slide, hurling herself bodily over her fallen friend.
“Enough!” she shrieked. “What’s wrong with you?! You’re killing her!”
Everyone’s gaze shifted at the speaker, a new arrival on the scene.
Tricks, the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild and high priest of Eserion, was descending the steps into the Pit. He was a diminutive and plainly-dressed man who’d not have garnered a second look from any random passerby on the street, but those present knew who he was.
“Style is too good at her job to kill someone who doesn’t need it,” he said calmly, striding over toward his chief enforcer. “Or to hurt them one bit more than she intends.”
He came to a stop, gazing down at Jasmine and Tallie. Jasmine coughed, spraying a few more droplets of blood onto the stone floor, and the Boss sighed, then lifted his head to pan his gaze around at the silent apprentices standing on all sides.
“So. Who can tell me what our Miss Jasmine did wrong, here?”
More silence followed. Style folded her arms again, her expression pinched and unhappy.
“She challenged Style,” said Darius, his voice startling against the quiet. He was pale and looked shocked, but his tone remained even. “Publicly, in front of the people whose respect she has to keep. Against the chief enforcer, who can’t be seen as soft. And she refused multiple offers to back down.”
“Well done,” Tricks said with an approving nod, pointing at him. “We are thieves, my apprentices, but not just thieves. What we do is for a purpose, and we cannot achieve that purpose merely by redistributing wealth. That’s been tried, and it simply never goes anywhere. Eserion’s cult is about understanding what moves people, and using that understanding to move them. We’re as heavily invested in social comprehension as the Izarites or Veskers. As such, you cannot afford to act rashly. You must identify a need to act, form a plan, and proceed toward its completion with a cool head. Otherwise…”
He sighed sadly, again turning to gaze down at Jasmine, who had been helped to her hands and knees by Tallie and seemed not to have the strength or wind to rise further. “Quite apart from failing your god, you will very often find yourself bleeding on the floor.”
Tricks let the lesson sink in for another second before continuing.
“Tallie, take her to the doc. And the rest of you,” he added, turning to where Rasha, Ross, and Darius were clustered at the foot of a staircase, “go with them. I’ll be wanting to speak with you kids before you turn in tonight. Style, I’ll talk to you in a bit. I need to tend to something before finishing this.”
He patted the towering woman on the upper arm; she gave him a curt nod, then resumed watching Tallie help Jasmine slowly to her feet. The enforcer’s expression was unreadable, but her broad shoulders shifted gently in a sad sigh.