Grip seemed even more disinclined than usual to talk, if the blistering pace she set was any indication. Of the four of them, Ross had the shortest legs, and was beginning to breathe heavily by the time they got out of Glass Alley into one of the slightly less disreputable districts which bordered it. The whole area of the city was poor and none of the surroundings were particularly nice, but it was a strange thing to see, how precisely contained Glass Alley was. The lines of demarcation were invisible, but they were there. The five of them stepped into a place which was just another place, from a broken netherworld inhabited by the desperate and ruled by thieves.
It took that long for even the most talkative of them to screw up her courage.
“You’re sure about that?” Tallie asked, keeping pace. Grip had turned right, heading back toward the city center and the home of most of the major cults’ headquarters, including the Collegium. “I mean, Ironeye is kind of an evil bitch. I’m just surprised you’d leave things like that, in her hands.” She hesitated for a fraction of a beat. “And quite frankly, after all that bullshit back there I’m a little less inclined to just assume you know best.”
“And what else did you notice?” Grip turned her head to give Tallie a look over her shoulder; her expression was cold but not hostile, which under the circumstances was downright encouraging. “She trusted me just as much. One sentence from me, and she took it on faith that I was being straight with her, enough to risk deploying her assets and involving the Boss. Even when I showed up with you losers, not to mention our own issues.”
“Got a bit of history, there?” Darius asked.
Grip grunted. “The intermittent history of two people with the sense to avoid each other whenever possible. I can’t fucking stand that woman, and I do believe I’m slightly fonder of her than she is of me. None of that matters. When it comes down to it, we both know the score.”
“You’re both Guild,” Jasmine murmured.
“That is part of it.” Grip kept her eyes forward as she strode onward. The snow was thickening, flakes both larger and denser; the wind wasn’t too sharp, but most sensible people had still vacated the streets. They passed very few others, and most of those safely ensconced in enchanted carriages. “There are more calculations to consider in a situation like that. Each of our goals, agendas, personalities, loyalties. Whether we’d risk Guild censure to embarrass the other—which neither of us would. Whether both of us are truly devoted to Eserion’s goals, and in neither case is that in question. You don’t ever just trust someone, even a fellow thief. Hell, especially a fellow thief. Eserites like to keep one another on their toes, and the Guild encourages that. But a good Eserite knows the score. In the thick of it, you’ll know who you can count on, and when.”
“Fucking how?” Tallie exclaimed.
Grip glanced back again, this time with just the faintest smile. “None of you have been at this more than two weeks, right? You wouldn’t need to learn if you knew everything. You’ll get there. Despite your multiple fuckups, considering the situation you kids have stumbled into, you’re not doing half bad for your level of experience. Don’t sweat it if you don’t grasp everything. As long as you’re apprentices, you can trust senior thieves to watch out for you. Don’t get used to leaning on that, but take advantage of it while you need it.”
She fell silent as they crossed a street, one of the concentric rings which rippled outward from Imperial Square toward the walls. The difference wasn’t as marked as leaving Glass Alley, but they were definitely stepping upward in the wealth and class of the districts they traversed. This one had taller and sturdier buildings, more commercial than residential, and slightly broader sidewalks. It was only early afternoon, but between the snow and the cloud cover, the fairy lamps here had been ignited; those in the previous district through which they passed apparently did not warrant the same priority of attention.
“Do you actually believe all that?” Jasmine asked quietly.
“You’ll need to specify.”
“You know what I mean. That…what you said. All the things that justified the cruelty you showed that woman.”
“And clearly, you weren’t listening,” Grip said irritably. “I told you, I don’t justify anything; I do what is necessary. I am not a nice person, Jasmine, and most days I doubt I could be considered a good one. I have my integrity, though. My honor. That matters a great deal more, in my opinion. And yes, I wouldn’t do things like that, or any of this, if I didn’t believe in it.”
“Omnu’s balls,” Tallie muttered. “Is the whole Guild like that? I’m not gonna lie, lady, that was some scary shit back there.”
“Pretty twisted logic, too,” Ross muttered.
“All systems are corrupt,” Grip recited. “The Guild tries not to be more of a system than it can help. I told you the straight truth of what I believe and why I act the way I do, and as devoted as I am to my way, it’s just that: mine. We’re not big on doctrines, here. Look at the Eserites you kids have grown to know: Style, Lore, Glory, Webs, Ironeye. All starting from the same basic philosophy, all gone off in totally different directions, yet still devoted to that same central truth. Most of the people on that short list wouldn’t cross the street to spit on each other, but in a situation like this, we come together to protect our own.” She paused, glancing back at them again, her expression now unreadable. “Even if you get specifically sponsored by someone, the point is not to become a doctrinal clone of anybody. On the contrary, you’re supposed to understand the very simple starting point of Eserite philosophy, and make it your own. If you don’t wanna become me, then you’d better not try. But you fucking listen when I tell you something. Every perspective you come to understand contributes to you finding your own.”
“I think what we’re driving at,” said Darius, “is that the crap you were just talking is… Fuck, that’s how over-the-top Black Wreath warlocks rant in bards’ stories. I mean, if the Guild can lead to that, we’ve gotta wonder if we’re in the right place…”
Grip actually laughed—it was a short, bitter bark, but a laugh nonetheless. “Oh, you sweet little children. Any philosophy can lead to any extreme. All fucking systems, kids. Look at the Hands of Avei: paragons of justice or mass-murdering loons, depending on which one you pick. And hell, they even had a pacifist, once. What was her name?”
“Laressa,” Jasmine said quietly.
“Right, sure. That’s an easy example; Avenism is all about war, it justifies a whole mess of atrocities under the right circumstances.”
Jasmine scowled, but remained silent as Grip continued lecturing.
“The Hands of Omnu, now, those are interesting. Wandering healers, some. There was that Sheng chick, I don’t think I could pronounce the name if I could even remember it, who used to carry a broom and sweep her path so she didn’t accidentally kill a bug while walking.”
“Chang Zhi,” said Ross.
“Uh huh. And then there’s my favorite, the Sun Style grandmaster Adeche N’tombu. Sun Style fighting has zero offensive moves, it’s all about redirecting an attacker’s energy back at him, but you can maim the fuck out of somebody with their own energy if you know what you’re doing. That magnificent bastard walked from town to town in the Bandit Kingdoms, leaving a trail of torn ligaments and compound fractures until there were so few bandits left they had to change the name. ‘I have come to bring peace,’ he said to everybody. Love that guy. But to talk to any Omnist monk today, it’s hard to picture either of those extremes, right?” She shook her head. “In my opinion, every religion that survives long enough to be called one does so because it makes some very good points. And those don’t really matter all that much. Faith is a pretext; people are going to do what they’re going to do, and find their justifications after the fact. Systems are corrupt because people always corrupt them. The Eserite way works because it’s simple, basic. The belief is just two things: an acknowledgment that power corrupts, and a statement that virtuous people must oppose that corruption. The doctrine just boils down to a command to develop your skills and rely on them as a way of life.”
“All governments and all laws exist to benefit those in power,” Tallie recited. “I mean, I’m here because I’ve got a hard-earned suspicion of authority figures. But after seeing where this can lead to tonight, I just… I’ve gotta wonder if that’s not overstating the case.”
“You can take it literally,” Grip said, shrugging. “I do. Not all Eserites do, though. Silence doesn’t; Tricks doesn’t. We don’t exactly chitchat over tea and biscuits, but I’m pretty sure neither Glory nor Sweet think every government is devoid of altruism. Both of them are pretty tied up in the Imperial regime, in their own way. And you know what, it works for them. Both are good Eserites, as are some others I’ve known who argued at length that most of the catechism is a warning to be wary of people with power, overstated because hyperbole makes a point. We’re going to table this discussion for now, though.” She turned her head to look at them. “See if you can glance back without making it obvious what you’re doing.”
All of them but Jasmine faltered slightly in their steps. In uneven unison, the four shifted position slightly to glance over their shoulders at the street behind.
Grip sighed heavily. “I can see we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
“That carriage,” Tallie murmured. “It’s going awfully slow.”
“Could be…just driving safely in the snow?” Darius offered.
“When you noticed it,” said Grip, “and for fuck’s sake don’t stop, you jackalopes. When you noticed it, what was your first, immediate, instinctive response?”
“Well, that it was following us,” Jasmine replied. “But there are other explanations…”
“I’ll get to those in a moment.” Grip turned her head to study the storefronts on the opposite side of the street, only the fastest flick of her eye taking in the carriage behind them. “Always trust your instincts about danger. There’s a little voice in the back of your head that warns you when things are about to go bad. That voice is smarter than you, and sees things you won’t notice. Once the trouble starts, you have to keep a cool head and think, but when that little voice gives a warning? You damn well listen to it.”
“Noted,” said Ross. “So…the carriage?”
“It’s not slow because of the snow,” said Grip, now studying the storefronts they were passing close to. “That’s a late-model Dawnco sedan; anything built in the last five years by one of the big names in carriages has traction control enchantments. Take note, by the way, those things are fantastic vehicles for pulling jobs. Not nearly as eye-catching as a Falconer and a hell of a lot more reliable than older carriages. Those old jalopies are all but invisible, but they break down at the drop of a hat. Dawnco economy models are cheap enough you can abandon one, too, if your take is big enough to justify the expense. Or you can invest in modifying the body to make it look like an older, less interesting rig. The Guild has a couple of enchanters and craftsmen who do that kind of work.”
“Before you turned this into a lesson,” said Tallie, “I believe you were saying that thing is following us? Or am I getting ahead?”
“You are, but I was,” Grip said, her voice still calm despite the gathering tension in each of them. “Also note that thing has lanterns, and they aren’t lit despite the weather. Driving a carriage at a walking pace with the running lights off means it’s following somebody. I’ve been watching, and nobody else walking has stayed on the same course since it turned up.”
“Shit,” Darius said feelingly.
“Cool head,” Grip reminded him. “Think. You know the situation, and you know who your enemy is. This isn’t an immediate danger, but it could become one if we get onto a street with no other bystanders. Slow your pace slightly, kids. Right now, we’ve got a captive who will give information, and have uprooted their nest. Once that information gets back to the Guild, especially if they actually have Pick in there, it’ll be open season on their asses. They are not prepared to deal with both the Guild and the Empire, and politics or no, the Empire will have to come down on any group of dwarves keeping an Imperial citizen hostage.”
“Wait, so…you make it sound like this is over,” Tallie protested.
“No,” said Darius, frowning. “Once Rumor reaches the Guild and we reach safe haven with Schwartz, it’s over. Not yet.”
“Exactly,” said Grip.
“Think they can intercept Rumor?” Jasmine asked.
Grip snorted. “Maybe. They pretty much have to try. As a general rule, though, Rumor doesn’t get intercepted. There’s a reason Ironeye keeps her around, and it’s not because anybody enjoys the company of a surly drunk. Watch your surroundings, now; we don’t want to wander onto a block with no witnesses.” They glanced back again; the carriage was still following them with its lights of, half a block distant. “They’re in damage control mode. If they can’t nab Rumor or break up Ironeye’s posse—and I’ll be amazed if they have the manpower for that—they’ll still have the Guild on them, but they can still keep the Empire out of it by eliminating anyone who can give more information to the police.”
“Meaning us,” said Ross weakly.
“Us and especially your friend Schwartz, given what you said he can do. They’ll need us silenced, and away from him.”
“They won’t let us reach the Square, then,” said Jasmine, risking a glance back at the carriage. “Or anywhere too close to the Collegium…”
“You can stop being surreptitious,” Grip said wryly. “You suck at it. They know we know; don’t act skittish, it makes you look like prey.”
“So, rooftops or sewers?” Tallie asked.
“Hang on, think ahead,” said Grip. “They lose us, they go after the next viable target.”
“Schwartz,” Jasmine said grimly.
The enforcer glanced back at them. “This is your game, kids; I’m just here to coach. We can lose these fuckers almost without effort, but that’ll direct them pretty much entirely at Schwartz. They’re under a time limit; the longer this goes, the more risk of the Guild mobilizing and/or Intelligence taking an interest. Keeping ourselves as a target will split their resources, give Schwartz and whoever else more of a chance.”
“Fuck it,” said Darius, “we don’t ditch friends like that.”
“You presume to speak for the group?” Grip asked mildly.
“In this case, hell yes he does,” Tallie snapped. “We all…know the score.”
She turned again to give them a broad grin, her eyes flicking to the carriage momentarily. “That’s what I like to hear. Guild or not, you’d best not make a habit of turning on allies; that builds a rep that’ll make it impossible for you to function. All right, then, we wanna make this interesting, but not impossible…”
“You don’t seem scared,” Ross noted.
“Oh, I’ve been in worse spots,” the enforcer said with a reminiscent smile. “Frequently. All right, this’ll do. Follow my lead and be quick.”
They had come to another major intersection, well-lit by fairy lamps and with a carriage passing by along the cross street. The district beyond was visibly more genteel than this one…and more empty. Two men in the heavy coats of the Army’s winter uniform were trudging down the sidewalk ahead, but there were no other pedestrians, and no vehicles.
Rather than crossing the street, though, Grip turned sharply right—not along the sidewalk, but into the cafe which stood on the corner. The others dutifully trooped in after her, enjoying the warmth of arcane heating ranges set up under the windows. Their personal heating charms were holding, but they weren’t the same as being indoors out of the snow.
The place was remarkably busy for being after the lunch hour; apparently quite a few people had been caught in the sudden change of weather, and decided to see if it could be waited out here. To judge by the morose expressions of most of the patrons, that hope was fading. Grip made a beeline for the counter at the back of the front room. Or more precisely, for the door beside it.
“Hey there,” she said pleasantly to a startled-looking man standing behind the counter. “Don’t mind us, just need to use your rear door.”
“Oh, no, you don’t!” Before the youth could answer, the door opened and a brawny man with an impressive mustache strode through, planting himself in her path and folding his arms. “Employees only.”
“This really won’t inconvenience you in the slightest,” Grip said, still with a friendly smile.
“Not happening,” he said flatly, staring her down. “If you’re not going to order something, you can leave. Out the front.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Tallie started to wheedle, but Grip snapped her fingers at her and she fell silent, scowling.
Grip, meanwhile flicked her other hand, causing a gold coin to shoot out of her sleeve and into her palm, where she immediately slipped it between her fingers and began rolling it back and forth across her knuckles, still regarding the cafe’s apparent owner with a smile.
“Now, friend, I’m asking you for a simple favor,” she said politely. “And I’ll walk away from here with a memory of how you treated my friends and I in our hour of need. Might be I can direct some business your way, if I’ve a need to.”
Both men had their now-wide eyes fixed on the coin, clearly recognizing the gesture. The big man coughed, making his mustache flutter. “Ah, yes, well… I suppose rules can be bent. If it’s important. Please, uh, don’t mess with anything in the kitchen.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it!” Grip promised, winking and flipping the coin at him. He caught it by reflex, then instinctively pressed himself against the counter as she strode forward toward the door behind him. “You’re a true gentleman, sir. A little token for your trouble.”
In the kitchen behind, she marched straight through, ignoring the stares of the two cooks, though Darius winked flirtatiously at one. There was a door on the opposite side opening onto a rear hallway; the door at the end of this let them out into an alley. Grip led them to the nearest end, and thus back onto a main street running perpendicular to the one they had been on.
“Hang on a second,” Tallie exclaimed, “this is that cross-street we just came to! We could’ve just—what the hell was the point of all that? Look, there they are!”
Indeed the carriage had just rounded the corner going much faster than it had been previously. It immediately slowed, so abruptly that it skidded for a moment on the thickening snow.
“Theatrics,” said Grip, setting off down the new sidewalk at a much faster pace. The carriage had quickly regained traction (she was apparently right about its enchantments) and came after them, now close enough they could hear the hum of its wheel charms. It had its canvas top raised over the driver’s seat and its windscreen was partially obscured by snow, concealing the identity of the driver. It seemed a safe bet it was a dwarf, though. Grip carried on lecturing, seemingly unperturbed by the pursuit. “Never underestimate the value of a little theater. We want them to follow us around; making that too obvious would prompt them to make a move. If we make at least token efforts to get away—ah, good. More.”
This street curved slightly, being one of the circular ones running around the entire city. It apparently wasn’t a major one, to judge by the frequency of “spoke” streets intersecting it; they had already come to one of these, and another seemingly identical Dawnco sedan had come barreling down this, decelerating so fast it went into an outright skid, one of its wheels bouncing off the curb.
“Good?” Ross exclaimed.
“Means we’re holding their attention, all right,” Darius said grimly. “Holy hell, how many carriages do they need?”
“This could be a problem,” Jasmine said tersely as the new carriage came to a stop partially blocking the intersection. “We’re alone.”
“Shit,” Tallie whispered, glancing around at the complete lack of vehicles and pedestrians surrounding them. “I knew we should’ve gone down the street with the soldiers…”
“Relax,” Grip murmured, thrusting her hands into the pockets of her duster. “Calm. Always keep a clear head when in danger.”
“Easy for you to say!” Ross growled.
The first carriage accelerated momentarily, bringing itself around to park perpendicular to the course of the street; between the two, they effectively blocked off the little section containing their quarry.
The new carriage’s door opened and a short, stocky figure in a heavy hooded coat bounded down, carrying a battlestaff.
“Afternoon!” Grip said, waving. “How’s business?”
“Wearing on my patience, thank you for asking,” he replied. The voice was male, but it wasn’t Rogrind; this one was much more tenor. He took the staff in a two-handed grip, not yet bringing it up to point at them. “If you would be so good as to step into the carriage? We’ll have to split you up, I’m afraid, seating is limited.”
“Now, what would you say were the odds of that happening?” Grip mused aloud.
“Fifty-fifty,” he replied, bringing the staff up to point at her. “I would take it as a kindness if you’d join me. Leaving corpses in the street will cause all kinds of trouble.”
“You can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with this,” Jasmine said, clenching her fists. Behind them, the other carriage remained ominously silent, though its driver seat door opened just a crack.
“Indeed, young lady, you have made sufficient trouble that I am, in a word, desperate. Factor that into your calculations.”
“You really don’t know the situation you’re in, partner,” Grip said with a wolfish grin. “Fire that thing once, and everybody gets a lot less polite. I think you fail to appreciate what that will mean.”
“I don’t have time for this,” the dwarf said curtly, wrapping his fingers around the staff’s clicker. “I’m not going to bargain, banter, or listen to threats. Into the carriages now, or—”
He broke off, turning his head to stare at yet another carriage which came roaring up the street at them. This one was larger and a few years older, a well-maintained and rather opulent Falconer luxury rig with, to judge by its speed, significantly boosted wheel enchantments.
It was also, to the apprentices, familiar.
The dwarf only belatedly realized the driver’s intention, swinging his staff around to aim at the oncoming vehicle, which was a mistake.
Before he got it fully into position, the carriage swerved straight at him, impacting him head-on and slamming him into the fender of his own carriage, which crumpled under the blow as the vehicle was spun almost a hundred eighty degrees by the much heavier Falconer, which survived the collision with nothing but a crunched fender of its own.
Behind them, the door of the other carriage burst fully open, but one of the passenger doors of the Falconer had done so before it fully stopped. Before the second dwarf could emerge, a figure wrapped in a coat and heavy scarf leaned out, aiming a battlestaff one-handed, and fired a blast of military-grade lightning.
Glass shattered, wood splintered, and at least one structural enchantment spectacularly failed with a percussive boom that sent a puff of glittering enchanting dust across half the street. The burning carriage collapsed to the pavement, one of its front wheels flying across to bounce off a lamp post.
“Oh, this is good and discreet,” Grip said acidly.
“Well, top of the afternoon to you,” Alan Vandro boomed jovially, raising his staff to point skyward and waving at them. “Can I offer you folks a lift?”
“How the hell did you find oh you conniving son of a bitch!” Tallie clapped a hand to her forehead. “Those fucking charms!”
“Yes, yes, you’ll be wanting to chew me out at length before hearing any explanations,” Vandro agreed. “Might I respectfully suggest this isn’t the time or the place?”
“Hell with it,” Grip growled, striding forward and shoving rudely past him into his carriage, which he bore with a genial grin. “Everybody getting arrested would put a stop to this game, but something tells me we’re not gonna persuade this ass to come along quietly and explain that we aren’t the ones shooting up the street. Get in, you loafers, time’s wasting! I guarantee somebody’s already called for the cops; we saw two patrolmen barely a block from here!”
That got them moving. The carriage’s passenger compartment was roomy enough for six to pile in without being unduly cramped, though it was rather cozy, especially with the three extra battlestaves leaning against the seat opposite Vandro’s.
No sooner was the door pulled shut than the carriage whirred back to life and began swiftly putting distance between itself and the scene of the brief firefight.
“Destination, sir?” Wilberforce asked through the small window separating them from the driver’s seat.
“Well, now, I’m none too sure just what you kids are up to,” Vandro confessed, winking at them. “Only thing my girl Saduko could tell me was you were moving around awful rapidly, and there were arcane implements of torture being fired in your immediate vicinity. Course, considering the company you’re keeping, something tells me those may not have been used on you.” He winked at Grip, who stared at him as she might at a stain of uncertain provenance.
“Short version:” said Darius, “the dwarves no longer want us recruited for information, they want us as silenced as possible before we can cause them any more trouble. We’ve helped capture one of their people and taken their hideout, all of which is now in Ironeye’s hands. Rumor’s been sent to tell the Boss, and we were on the way to find Schwartz, who they’re also after. If we can rescue him, we can use his skills and some intel we’ve gathered to crack open their operation.”
“Hmm hm hm,” Vandro mused. “And they know this?”
“They do,” said Grip. “These are professionals, and they’re now backed into a corner. They’re getting aggressive.”
“We have to get to the Colleg—”
Jasmine was interrupted by an impact which rocked the carriage violently, sending them all careening into the right wall and shoving it off course.
“Sir,” Wilberforce said calmly, “we seem to have more new acquaintances.”
The carriage shook again, the other Dawnco rig that had pulled alongside it ramming against it, seeking to drive them into a lamp post. The Falconer had the more powerful wheel charms, though, and Wilberforce yielded just enough space to gain some maneuverability before expertly swerving to the left, slamming the sides of the two vehicles together again and sending the smaller carriage skidding onto the opposite sidewalk.
“Omnu’s fucking balls!” Tallie shouted, extricating herself from Ross’s lap. “Aren’t there any goddamn police in this fucking city?”
“Not near here,” Vandro said, his good cheer apparently undiminished. “Big cock-up near the north wall. Multiple water pipes burst, a whole neighborhood getting rapidly iced down; most of the nearby city guard is converging there to help. Not a coincidence, something tells me.”
“These assholes actually are good,” Grip said with grudging respect.
“All right, Schwartz will have to look after himself,” Vandro said grimly. “We can ease their desperation by not going after him. Wilberforce, take the next turn that points us away from the Collegium.”
“Whoah, hang on!” Tallie snapped. “Who are you to decide that?”
“The fella whose carriage you’re riding in, my dear,” Vandro said, his jovial smile returning. “Which, by the way, has taken damage on your behalf amounting to more than you’ve made in any previous three years of your life. It’s good strategy, though.” He winked at Jasmine. “You agree, don’t you, hon?”
She drew in a deep breath, looking profoundly unhappy. “It’s… Well, he’s right. These dwarves are clearly willing to go to extremes now; we can ward off more destruction and possibly harm to innocents by not forcing their hand. And Schwartz… He’s probably the safest of any of us. He’s a caster and hopefully he’s in the Collegium. I hope,” she added, worry lines appearing on her forehead.
“Fuck,” Tallie hissed, slamming a fist into the glossy mahogany paneling of the carriage’s wall. “Shit fuck damn!”
“They’ve backed off,” Grip noted, peering out the window. “All right, we can’t just drive around the city all day, they won’t stay backed off for long.”
“If we go for anywhere safe, they’ll just start up again,” Darius said, frowning. “They can’t have us getting too near police. What’s… Is there a safe spot we can get to that they won’t recognize is safe until its too late?”
“Get us into the most genteel neighborhood you can without going too near the Square,” Vandro instructed Wilberforce, then turned back to the others. “The risk of upsetting nobles will restrain them a bit. Upset nobles exponentially increase everyone’s headaches. This only buys us a little time, though.”
“Glory,” Ross said suddenly. “They don’t know about Glory.”
“I say, that’s a capital idea!” Vandro exclaimed. “Good man! Wilberforce! You know the address?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Wait,” Jasmine said sharply. “I don’t like the idea of dragging her into this. We left Rasha there, too…”
“Actually, that is a good idea,” said Grip. “Glory’s connected to everything in this city, and you’d better believe her home has the best defenses a civilian residence is allowed in Tiraas. They won’t know its significance—hopefully—it’s defensible, and she can get us more help.”
Jasmine pulled aside the rear window shade to stare at the carriage still following them, its fender and side paneling scarred by the recent joust. “If it comes down to it…I can—”
“Whoah,” Grip said firmly. “It’s not time to play the trump card yet, kid. We’re Eserites; we’ll maneuver before we resort to a pitched battle.”
“That’s the spirit!” Vandro said, his exuberant cheer not quite masking the thoughtful look he leveled at Jasmine.
He wasn’t the only one.