They couldn’t avoid speculative eyes forever, of course, but fortunately it was faster to get to the apprentice dormitories from the infirmary without passing through the Pit, so at least the group postponed their inevitable march through the gauntlet of stares by a little bit. As they neared the rear barracks door, the one near the bathrooms, there were more and more people about, and at least a few gave them speculative looks, though nobody stopped them. Right outside the doors themselves were three other apprentices, chatting and laughing, who ignored them entirely.
“Man, what time even is it?” Darius grumbled. “I know it’s after dark and all, but I really do not feel like sleeping.”
“Nothing says you gotta,” Tallie replied. “There’s still folks up and around; head to the Pit and practice something if you’re too charmed-up to sleep.”
“Think I’m gonna see if they still have food out,” said Ross, then shrugged defensively at their raised eyebrows. “Sandwiches and cookies were pretty small. Didn’t wanna ask for more; we were guests.”
“Why, that’s only fair!” Darius said cheerfully, patting Ross’s somewhat protuberant belly. “You’re a growing boy, after all!”
“You’re lucky I’m tired of seein’ people get beat on tonight,” Ross growled, then shouldered past him and headed into the dormitory—and, presumably, through it toward the cafeteria on the other side.
“D’you think…” Rasha trailed off when they all turned to look at him.
“What’s on your mind?” Jasmine asked quietly.
He glanced at her and couldn’t entirely repress a grimace; the bruise growing on the side of her face was an increasingly alarming sight. At least her conservative style of dress concealed the rest of the bruises she had to have.
“I just…” He swallowed and tried again. “I’m not too much afraid of getting cuffed around the ears. Gods know I’m used to it; where I grew up, that’s just how you kept your kids in line. And I have older sisters, so, y’know…” He glanced up at Jasmine and again averted his eyes. “I never saw someone get…beaten like that, though, not in the name of discipline. That kind of pummeling would be a fight. Or possibly a murder attempt.”
“I’m still…unpacking what I think about all his,” Jasmine said, absently probing at her bruise with a fingertip. “I don’t think that was at all appropriate as a way to enforce discipline. But, on the other hand, I keep being reminded that I don’t fully understand the mindset of Eserites. And that’s exactly what I came here to learn. I’m trying not to pass judgment on things until I have more familiarity. On the other hand, I’m also trying to be wary of losing my own sense of…right and wrong.” She winced and lowered her hand. “It’s getting increasingly dicey.”
“I dunno,” Tallie mused. “This is gonna sound ungrateful and I’m sorry, Jas, but you kinda messed up my chance to figure out how bad it is by jumping in. I mean, I got a punch in the gut, a smack to the head and a yank on my hair. Way I was raised, that’s a fair enough comeuppance for some kid who did something like assault…uh, say, a friend of my parents. The, uh, comparisons kinda fall apart when I try to relate them to my own experiences.”
“I know that feeling,” Rasha grunted.
“Point being,” Tallie continued, “if that was gonna be that, well, I don’t feel hugely put-upon so far. If she was gonna continue beating me down, then yes, that would be excessive and frankly I’d be thinking about leaving right now. Since you hopped in at that point, I guess I’ll never know. What happened to you, though—”
“Was different,” Darius interrupted, hands in his pockets. “You and I got smacked as punishment. Jas was directly challenging Style’s authority. That wasn’t about disciplining apprentices, it was about maintaining status.”
“I suppose that makes sense,” Jasmine said, “though Rasha’s original concern still applies, if this is the kind of place where authority is maintained through beating.”
“You made it about beatings,” he said, then shrugged when she scowled at him. “C’mon, I was there. You were offering her a straight-up fight, and she tried multiple times to talk you out of it. She’s a Guild enforcer, and it was right in front of everybody whose respect she needs to keep. Tallie or I might have sassed her instead, and maybe that would’ve gone differently. But…there it was.”
“Hm,” she grunted, again touching her face. “I suppose. Maybe. I’m still withholding judgment.”
“That’s probably better than leaping to a judgment,” Tallie said, gently patting her shoulder.
Rasha heaved a deep sigh. “I think…I’m gonna take a walk, guys. Clear my head a bit.”
“Okay…” Tallie gave him a worried look. “Just…don’t go outside, all right? Not alone. Those assholes are still out there, and apparently they can tell when we leave the building.”
“Yeah,” he agreed absently, sticking his hands deep in his pockets and turning to slouch off up the hall. “I know. See you guys later.”
“I need to take care of something, too,” Jasmine said quietly after they’d watched him go in silence. “This…hopefully won’t take too long.”
“Grip?” Darius said, raising an eyebrow.
She gave him a faint smile. “You know, Darius, you’re not nearly as dumb as you act.”
“Hey, who’s acting?”
Jasmine shook her head, but her smile remained in place. “I’ll talk to you in a bit.”
“Sooo,” Darius drawled as she strolled off down the other hall. “Whatever shall we do in the interim? Hmm? Hmmmmm?”
“Hey,” Tallie said brightly, “you know who hasn’t seen their fill of violence tonight?”
“Ooh, is it me? I bet it’s me, I—ow! Dammit, woman!”
The number of places apprentices were truly not allowed to go was, in the end, rather small. Once above the Guild proper and into the realm of the Imperial Casino, there were far more areas where scruffy people in general were not welcome. That description applied to more apprentices than otherwise, so they ended up staying out of the Casino’s passages as a rule. However, as Rasha found while prowling through the back halls, there was some leeway. By far the majority of the Casino itself was occupied by its mostly open main room, which itself was the size of a cathedral’s sanctuary. Apart from a few smaller gaming parlors and private rooms of various kinds for the patrons, the rest of the aboveground structure was the realm of the staff who kept it all running.
There, too, he found that the back rooms themselves were mostly off-limits to the likes of him, or so he came to assume after being forcefully shooed away from several. That only made sense; a lot of money was collected and counted in a casino this size, and they wouldn’t want any unnecessary personnel mucking about. For the most part, though, no one bothered him if he just walked the halls. They didn’t even give him much in the way of funny looks; he blended in with the staff about as well as he did with the apprentices.
As such, Rasha found it more comfortable to stretch his legs in the Casino’s back passages than the Guild’s, given the number of people down below who were studying him thoughtfully, as if he were a puzzle box containing a stack of decabloons. Thus far, nobody had tried to corner him, but he figured that was only a matter of time, and resolved to stick closer to his group of friends in the future.
Up here, though, he was left alone. He knew a lot of Guild personnel were involved in the Casino’s running, and in fact had been told that quite a few apprentices worked the more menial jobs here; it had been mentioned to him as an easy way to pick up some pocket money if he lacked a sponsor and an income. And of course, there were plenty of fully accredited Guild thieves about. Despite Tricks’s warning, though, none of the topside personnel seemed to find him interesting.
Or maybe they were just better at concealing their interest. Yeah, he’d definitely try to avoid running around without his group, at least until all this blew over. For now, though, he felt the need to stretch his legs and clear his thoughts. This was a far cry from the familiar back alleys of Puna Vashtar, even when he scrupulously avoided the carpeted and decorated halls which indicated they were public areas in the Casino, but it sufficed for now.
He found himself wandering near the kitchens, though he didn’t step inside after the last upbraiding from the master cook. With his luck, it would be the same man on duty, and Rasha was starting to notice that Eserites in general displayed a mean streak when they had to state their directives more than once. Of course, who even knew whether the cooks of all people were actually affiliated with the Guild… But after the last few days, it wouldn’t surprise him. His idea of what constituted a thief had been significantly expanded as he slowly grew to understand the Guild’s mindset, and the innumerable ways its rebellious philosophy could be worked into all walks of life. Besides, he wasn’t going to assume anything at this point.
The kitchen was skirted by wide passages, though, so he could be within earshot of its hustle (definitely not winding down for the night; the Casino’s patrons would be wanting their meals and snacks until deep into the small hours) without actually getting underfoot. Moved more by curiosity than anything else, he carefully edged along a side hallway, keeping close to the wall to avoid a waiter carrying a laden tray and then a busboy pushing a cart of dishes in the other direction. At the far end was a set of double doors, and Rasha made for this simply because that was the direction in which he happened to be going.
Once through them, though, he paused nervously, finding himself outside. Tallie’s warning sprang instantly to mind. This was one of the Casino’s smaller side entrances; it was an alley, if a broad one, and there was nobody about except a few of the staff.
A young man in a splattered cook’s uniform stood puffing a cigarette and talking quietly with a cocktail waitress. Both glanced curiously up at him, and for a moment Rasha froze awkwardly, fearing he had disrupted a lovers’ assignation. Then movement caught his eye, though, and he glanced across the alley, where a teenage boy was perched on a crate with a bottle of beer beside him, reading a newspaper by the fairy lamp affixed above the Casino’s side door.
“Hey there,” the girl said amiably. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around; you new?”
“Oh, uh, no, but… Actually yes, but…” Rasha stopped, feeling a blush rise to his cheeks, and drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly. The reader had only glanced at him before returning to his paper, but the other two were regarding him with bemusement. “Sorry, I’m a bit out of sorts. I am new, but I’m not staff. I’m apprenticing in the Guild.”
“Ahh,” she said, nodding with a knowing expression.
“If I’m not supposed to be here, I can…”
“Hey, relax, join us,” the cook said lightly, picking up a bottle from the stack of crates next to him and holding it out. Rasha noticed, now, that there were several beer bottles about—all either being worked upon or still sealed. Clearly they did not throw their trash to the ground in this alley. “This is a Guild facility, after all; if you were someplace you weren’t supposed to be, somebody would have an arm around your neck by now. Just don’t get in the way and nobody in the kitchens cares where you go.”
“That’s not the impression I got last time I went through the kitchens,” Rasha muttered.
The young cook laughed. “Oh, yeah. Let me guess, Arfeld was in charge at the time?”
“I…honestly have no idea.”
“Could’ve been any of them,” the waitress said reprovingly, swatting the cook on the chest. “You’ve just got a bug up your butt about Arfeld because of that reaming out he gave you. Yeah, don’t go in the kitchens unless you’ve got specific business there,” she added to Rasha with a grin. “Everything’s got a place and everybody has a purpose; they hate loiterers. But nobody’s going to mind if you hang out in the vicinity.”
“Provided,” said the young man, puffing his cigarette, “you don’t cause any trouble.”
“I’m good at not causing trouble,” Rasha agreed. He found that he had stepped aside of the door and leaned his back against the wall. Was this wise? He was outside the Casino, technically… But, he reasoned, just barely so. The door was right there. Nobody could threaten him here.
Nobody not already in the Guild, of course…
“I was an apprentice myself, for a while,” the girl said, smiling at him. Rasha glanced nervously at her companion; in his experience, men who’d cornered young women in semi-privacy could be very tetchy at being interrupted, but the fellow just placidly worked on his cigarette, pausing occasionally to sip a beer. “I get how you must feel, a little bit. Still slinging drinks here, even after I washed out. I mean, there’s a limited number of things a girl whose best asset is her looks can do to earn a living, and at least here the tips are good and I’ve got the most dangerous bastards in the Empire watching out for me. Beats the hell out of getting fondled in some dive. Or going back to Saddle Ridge and admitting to my mother she was right,” she added with a grimace. The cook grinned around his cigarette.
“Why’d you quit?” Rasha asked, then flushed again. “Um, sorry, that’s kind of personal. You don’t have to answer.”
“No, I getcha,” she said. “I remember being new… Pretty damn overwhelming, isn’t it? No, I…didn’t exactly quit.” She sighed, and scowled at her feet, then kicked at the ground. “You know, you don’t strictly have to be Guild to be Eserite?”
“Not this again,” the cook said with a groan.
“Oh, shut up,” she snapped. “You don’t. It’s a religion and a philosophy, you can believe in it without being actively a thief!”
“Sure,” he said, shrugging lazily. “But if you try acting on that philosophy without the Guild’s backing, you’ll wind up in jail or dead. And believing in it without acting on it isn’t the kind of thing Eserion has much patience for.”
“Pff, what do you know? Not like you ever apprenticed!”
“No, but I work here,” he said mildly, blowing a stream of smoke out over her head. “I know the basics. Everybody who’s been around here more’n two weeks knows the basics, Maisie.”
The waitress heaved a heavy sigh, glaring, then pointedly turned a cold shoulder to the cook, who grinned in amusement. “Anyway. No, I didn’t quit, I just wasn’t very…well, good. I’m quick and I can handle the politics and the social parts just fine, but there’s a big physical element to getting certified in the Guild, and I was just…” She shook her head, shrugging. “Well. I’m Maisie, by the way. As you just heard.”
“Rasha,” he replied with a smile which, to his surprise, was unforced.
“Daoud,” said the cook, waving lazily, then again held out the bottle. “Want a beer?”
“Uh…” Rasha winced. “Thanks, that’s really generous, but I’m kind of abstaining for a while.”
“Ooh.” Maisie winced. “Bad experience?”
“You could say that,” he grumbled.
“Ah, c’mon, it’s one beer,” Daoud said idly. “What could it hurt?”
“Oh, listen to you,” Maisie huffed. “You sound like the villain in an Omnist morality play. He doesn’t want to drink, what’s it to you?”
“Just being hospitable,” Daoud said, grinning around his cigarette. “Hey, isn’t it your job to get people to drink?”
“And I am on break,” she replied, tossing her head. “So, anything in particular on your mind, Rasha?”
“A lot,” he said, slumping back against the wall. “I just… Sorry, I don’t want to sound rude, I’m just not in the mood to talk about it.”
“Hey, we respect that,” Daoud said easily. “Don’t we, Maisie?”
“Of course,” she retorted, frowning up at him. “I just said I’ve been there. No worries, Rasha, you’re always welcome to loiter in the filthy alley with the rest of us gutter trash.”
“Sez you,” Daoud retorted. “I have an actual trade.”
“You’re a cook, you great oaf.”
“Yeah, but I’m a good cook. I’m going to be a chef. With some experience under my belt and a few references, I’ll have a cushy job making fancy pastries for some noble family.”
“You’re way too prideful to get along with nobles,” she said with a grin. “They’d have your head off inside a week.”
“What year do you think this is? Aristocrats in the Tiraan Empire don’t treat employees like serfs.” He shrugged. “Them with the money get to be assholes if they want. That’s the world; I can keep my head down and behave when it suits me.”
“Uh huh,” she said dryly. “Weren’t you the one just talking about how being Eserite meant taking action?”
He snorted softly. “Said I understand the philosophy, not that I subscribe to it. Like you said, I was never an apprentice. This is a job.”
Across the alley, the reader suddenly laid down his paper, shifting to stare in the direction of the front of the building. The others, noticing his movement, followed his gaze, Daoud and Maisie breaking off their argument.
Rasha immediately felt as if he’d been doused in icy sea spray.
“Good evening,” the dwarf said genially, strolling up to them as if his fine suit didn’t mark him as wildly out of place in this dingy alley.
“I’m sorry, sir, this is a staff entrance,” Maisie said politely. “There are entrances for guests in the front and rear of the building.”
“Of course, my dear, of course,” the dwarf replied in a pleasant tone. Rasha had never seen a dwarf in person before this week, but that neatly trimmed reddish beard was familiar even if the general configuration of their wide, blunt features might have confused him. “I just happened to notice a friend back here and thought I’d have a word. How’s apprenticeship treating you, Rasha?”
The cold feeling intensified. He was sure he’d never said his name to any of these people. Of course, he’d been drunk the first time… Had one of the others addressed him by name in front of them? With his blood suddenly thrumming in his ears it was impossible to concentrate on the memory.
“Excuse me,” he said, quietly enough it seemed the pounding in his chest should have been audible over it, “I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”
“Oh, not formally,” the dwarf replied, smiling benignly. “But surely we’re past formalities at this point, you and I. You know, Rasha, your sisters are very worried about you.”
Rasha bolted upright before he could restrain himself, fists clenching so hard they vibrated. “What the hell would you know about my sisters?”
“You might say I’m in the business of knowing things,” the dwarf said, still a very picture of well-mannered calm. “Please, there’s no call for hostility; I assure you, I intend you no harm. In fact, there are a lot of ways we can help one another, I believe.”
“Fuck off,” Rasha spat. “Fuck all the way off back to whatever hole you crawled out of. Stop following us around!”
“I wonder how you’re being treated by these people you are so eager to defend,” the dwarf said pointedly. “Perhaps—”
“Excuse me!” Maisie broke in, planting her fists on her hips, and scowled down at the dwarf. By this point, Daoud had tossed aside his cigarette and straightened up, and the busboy was staring alertly at the dwarf, one hand on his half-empty beer bottle. “He asked you to leave. I think you’d better do it, sir.”
“Is this how you address moneyed patrons, young woman?” the dwarf replied, turning to her with a knowing little smile. “Perhaps I should speak with your supervisor.”
“You are not a patron!”
“No, Maisie, he’s right,” Daoud said tersely. “This isn’t how we do things. Go get an enforcer.”
She instantly snapped her mouth shut, turned, and darted back through the doors.
“Rasha,” Daoud continued, keeping his eyes on the dwarf, “whatever this is, maybe you’d better head back in, too.”
“Of course, you needn’t act as if I’m going to bar you from doing as you like,” the dwarf said pleasantly. “I’m fairly certain my point here is made, Rasha. By all means, go enjoy the rest of your evening. We will resume this conversation at some point. I’m a big believer in not putting things off, but I’ll not tell you how to live your life.”
“You know what I’m a believer in?” Rasha whispered.
The dwarf raised his bushy eyebrows in an expression of polite curiosity. “Do tell.”
“All systems are corrupt.” His heart was pounding, breath trying to catch in his throat. He took a step forward, desperately wanting to turn and flee. He had fled too many times, though, and knew it. Once more and he’d never stop. “All governments and all laws exist to benefit those in power.”
“Please,” the dwarf said with a little sigh, holding up one hand. “Refrain from reciting the whole thing. I’m growing rather tired of thieves and their nonsense, as I’m sure you can understand. None of you are as full of surprises as you like to think.”
“Oh, really,” Rasha said, and startled himself by laughing. “Think so, do you?”
The dwarf shook his head. “Young man, I am perfectly content to—”
That was as far as he got before Rasha struck him in a flying tackle.
Somewhat to her own surprise, Jasmine wasn’t kept waiting long.
“Just so you know,” Grip said as she rounded the corner, “I’m not one to come when called. But after all, I did ask you to speak with me again, so I’ll make an exception.”
“And so,” Jasmine murmured as she turned to face the enforcer, “I also learn that you’re watching my movements.”
“Ahh, she’s beginning to watch and consider,” Grip said with a grin, coming to a stop before Jasmine in the dim corridor. It was the same spot in the Catacombs to which Grip had led her previously, still lit only by the faint light of torches around the bend. “Of course, that’s something you should have assumed anyway, but I have been gratified to see you making progress.”
“Yes, progress,” Jasmine said quietly, staring at her. “I’ve considered your proposal, and I have an answer for you.”
Grip smiled, lifting her eyebrows expectantly.
“Thank you for your consideration,” Jasmine continued. “The implied compliment is appreciated. However, I don’t believe you and I are a good professional match, so I’m afraid I must decline to become your apprentice.”
“Well, I’m afraid that’s—”
“And so that’s where the matter ends,” Jasmine stated, staring into her eyes. “It’s now dropped, and you aren’t going to so much as whisper a word of it to anyone.”
The enforcer’s posture did not shift, but there was an unmistakable threat in her sudden stillness. It was the poised tension of a coiled rattlesnake about to strike. “Child, I think you’ll find that giving orders like that to Eserites generally won’t get you anywhere. Giving them to me will get you places you do not want to go.”
“So you’ve been watching me,” Jasmine replied in the same tone. “I assume you saw this evening’s action.” She dragged her fingertips along the ghastly bruise stretching from her temple down past her cheekbone. “Do I look like someone who’s afraid of pain?”
“Maybe I’m misremembering things,” Grip said with a mirthless grin, “but I’m pretty sure I never offered you pain.”
“No, you just offered to make my life difficult,” Jasmine replied. “I’m making it clear, now, that if my secrets come out, I’m going to assume you were the one behind it. And then you’re going to learn exactly how little I fear any pain you’re capable of inflicting.”
“Keep digging, girl,” the enforcer said icily. “You’re not thinking ahead. Someone with as many connections as you have to other people needs to be mindful of them when making enemies.”
“You’re not my enemy, Grip,” Jasmine replied. “You are nowhere near my league. You’re going to threaten my connections, really? Please, please do that. Go to Last Rock and look the wrong way at one of my classmates, I dare you. If you’re particularly lucky, the kicking of your ass which follows will be over before Tellwyrn feels the need to step in. Go to Viridill and get yourself on the wrong side of Abbess Darnassy, see whether you’re resourceful enough to get out of the province alive. In fact, march yourself right down to the Temple and start something with Locke. Really, go on. I’ll wait here; I bet that’ll make a story I won’t want to miss.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Grip retorted, baring teeth again. “But that’s a fallacy, and you know it. You’re good at making friends, Jasmine. Why, you’ve managed to make some far less dangerous ones here, haven’t you?” She slipped one hand into a pocket, widening her ghastly grin subtly. “Right where I have access to them.”
“Ah. Yes,” Jasmine said softly. “Yes…there is that.”
Dazzling golden light blazed through the tunnel, and Grip reflexively attempted to leap backward, despite being momentarily blinded. Not fast enough to escape the moving wall of solid light that caught her up and slammed her against the stone behind her. She was both nimble and sturdy, and was only off guard for a moment, but that was all the time it took.
Before she could bounce back off the wall, Jasmine had stepped in front of her, a trident made of pure golden light blazing into being in her hands. In the next second, she had driven it straight at Grip’s throat; the widely-spaced prongs captured her whole neck and then sank into the stone wall behind, pinning her against it.
“Something was recently made clear to me,” Jasmine said coldly, “something I hadn’t fully appreciated.” Golden wings flared out from behind her, filling the passage, and she pressed, sinking the trident an inch deeper into solid stone, until it pushed on Grip’s throat hard enough to impede her breathing.
“People fear the Hand of Avei,” Trissiny snarled. “So let me make this explicitly plain, Grip. I’m done with your nonsense, and done with you. You have pushed me right to the brink, and one more nudge will be the end of it. Make me come after you again, and it’s not going to be you against another fighter. It’ll be wild, disproportionate, absolutely ridiculous overkill. It will be every power I can bring to bear on you, and every asset I can leverage to hunt you down if necessary. Do you think you can hide from valkyries?” She pushed another fraction of an inch, and Grip drew a rasping gasp of protest, clutching at the trident. It sparkled where her hands gripped it, where its tongs dug into the wall and where it pressed on her throat. Hard-light magical objects were well known to be degraded by physical contact with solid matter, which was why energy shields didn’t work in the rain. This one, though, did not so much as flicker, a testament to the enormous power flowing through it. “I’m talking about a piece of you in every mailbox in Tiraas. The world will know not to get in my way, Grip, and no one from Boss Tricks to the Emperor himself will dare call me down for it. So you can either make yourself useful to me as an object lesson… Or you can back. Off.”
She held the weapon in place for another few heartbeats, just to let it sink in, and then quite abruptly released it, along with every spark of magic she was channeling. The corridor was plunged back into darkness, and Grip slumped to the floor, clutching at her neck and coughing.
“Don’t make me repeat myself,” Jasmine said calmly, then stepped past her and walked back toward the exit.
She paused at the rasping laugh which followed her.
“That was all I wanted, you know,” Grip said hoarsely, dragging herself upright. “You’re here with this idea you need to be a con artist or something. You’re not. You’re an enforcer, and in the end, Eserion and Avei are on the same side. I just had to know you’re going to do—”
“Grip,” Jasmine said curtly, “I do not care.”
She walked away.