“Ninetails,” Glory said, her expression conveying both resignation and annoyance. “Yes, I’m sure. Trust me, the description is…unmistakable.”
“Is she…?” Rasha reached up to tap her own temple with a fingertip.
“Impossible to say, really,” her sponsor mused. “She is either unhinged in a very specific manner which does not inhibit and in fact often aids in her work as an enforcer, or faking it for effect. I rather suspect the latter, but at this point, I doubt that even she knows for sure. Ninetails has been the way she is since her apprentice days. It’s as the Vidians say: wear the mask, become the mask. Of more immediate concern, I apparently need to have words with her about the handling of other people’s apprentices.”
“I don’t want to be the cause of inter-Guild drama,” Rasha said hesitantly. “I feel like we all got our fill of that last year.”
“It isn’t your fault,” Glory said. “Whether or not, academically, Ninetails had reason to call you down for your actions, that was not an acceptable way to go about it. Unless you exaggerated in your description of her behavior?”
“I didn’t,” Rasha assured her swiftly. “But I also didn’t think it was all that bad. It’s not like she hurt me or anything.”
“Hell, Style’s done worse than that to all of us,” Tallie added, pausing in her reflective pacing before the fireplace to grin at Rasha. “It’s pretty much how she says hello.”
“Not since I took you in, you’ll note,” Glory replied. “It’s not an ethical matter, Rasha; we’re Eserites, we play roughly. This is expected. Call it a territorial concern. An enforcer manhandling my apprentice is not only an insult, if left unaddressed it stands to cost me face in a manner which may have an actual effect on my ability to work. More importantly, as an enforcer Ninetails is fully aware of this. I will have from her either an apology or an extremely persuasive explanation accounting for profoundly extenuating circumstances.”
“Uh, how lucid is this woman, exactly?” Darius asked. “Cos expecting forethought from a known crazy person…”
“Nobody knows, Darius,” Layla said primly. “Glory just went over that, do try to pay attention.”
“It’s a pretty good grift,” Tallie mused, beginning to pace again. “I bet you can get away with a lot if nobody knows how mentally culpable you are.”
“It’s good to study the methods of others, Tallie, but I don’t think that particular approach suits your personality,” Glory cautioned.
Tallie winked at her. “Way ahead of you, boss.”
“Anything else, Rasha?” Glory asked, returning her focus to her first apprentice. “Any comment on your performance requires an accurate description. If you feel you’ve left anything out, now is the time.”
“I don’t…think so,” Rasha said hesitantly. She at least did not shift or fidget, the practice of Glory’s relentless social drilling kicking in, and belatedly she banished the hesitation from her voice, meeting her trainer’s eyes evenly. “I went over it all the way home, and I still think that woman was over the line. But there were obviously other things going on that I’m not aware of, and… Well, I’ve recounted it to the best of my memory.”
“You have a tendency to second-guess yourself, Rasha,” Glory said, inclining her head slightly. “It can be an asset, so long as you are careful to do so intellectually and not emotionally; that is the difference between analyzing one’s performance for ways to improve, and self-destructive navel gazing. In this case, based upon your description, I believe your performance deserves some critique, but not castigation. This is why I asked: not because I doubt you, but because I agree that Ninetails was out of order, and I mean to tell her so. I’ll be rather miffed if I find out in the middle of that conversation that things are not as I was informed.”
“I haven’t deceived you, Glory,” Rasha stated, lifting her chin.
“Very good,” Glory said, granting her a smile. “Then what do you think you could have done better?”
Rasha took a steadying breath and let it out softly. “Perhaps I was a little too aggressive. Those ridiculous women urgently needed to be taken down a peg, and that was my instinctive response. Maybe, in hindsight, I wasn’t the best person to take on that task.”
“Rasha,” Darius chuckled, “too aggressive. Look how much our girl’s grown up!”
Layla and Tallie shot him matching looks, and for a moment there was silence in the room, penetrated only by the ticking of the grandfather clock behind Glory’s chair. As often when speaking to all of her apprentices, she had gathered them in the third-floor solarium adjacent to her bedroom, which was laid out in a comfortable fashion as a small private parlor, cozy without being crowded with the five present and even leaving Tallie room to pace, as she preferred to do while thinking. It was an especially peaceful scene today, with the fresh snow blanketing the rooftops visible through the glass wall. Tiraas did not stop or even appreciably slow when snowed upon, but it certainly looked cleaner, especially from above.
“Darius,” Glory finally said in a neutrally pleasant tone.
“Sorry,” he said, grimacing. “Don’t mind me, please continue.”
“Goading those women into an aggressive act would be the appropriate strategy for an enforcer,” Glory said, returning her attention to Rasha. “You have deliberately focused your learning on more cerebral styles, and should draw upon them first.”
“I couldn’t…bring myself to back down from those…people,” Rasha admitted with a slight strain in her voice.
Her sponsor’s answering smile was understanding. “Indeed, and that’s the spirit that drew you to me in the first place. An Eserite does not back down. But even the most brutal knuckleduster in the Guild is expected to act with strategy, and a head-on confrontation is generally not the best approach to even a seemingly simple fight. To step backward is not necessarily to retreat. To control the fight, one must first control one’s own footing.”
“Do you think they would actually have attacked Rasha?” Layla asked, wearing a puzzled frown. “The temple would have been crawling with Silver Legionnaires; they’d be set upon instantly. Surely they couldn’t have been so foolish.”
“These Purists are religious fanatics, Layla,” Glory said seriously. “There is no more dangerous creature in existence, and all the more so if they are foolish.”
“Huh?” Tallie halted her pacing again, tilting her head. “How’s that work? Generally you don’t want smarter enemies.”
“Boss lady’s right,” Darius said quietly. “We’ve got more reason than most to know it. Remember last year? We were chased around by highly professional Svennish intelligence agents, and they were damn hard to shake and required calling in major help. In the end we won, though. Then we were chased around by asshat Church conspirators who didn’t know what the fuck they were doing at any point, and they went down fast and hard, but not before we lost a friend.”
Another silence fell, this one more dour.
“Precisely so,” Glory said softly after giving them a moment to reflect. “A clever foe poses an ultimately greater challenge, but in the end, rational people are inherently predictable up to a point. Someone driven by passion and unencumbered by reason might do absolutely anything at all; it is impossible to plan for insanity. It is a mistake to force a physical confrontation to people like the Purists unless one has taken care to lay the groundwork beforehand, and drawn them into an ambush in which one controls the field. If it is they who take the initiative, better to back away for the time being and seek redress later, with care and forethought. For now, Rasha,” she continued with a reassuring smile, “I am satisfied with your performance today. You miscalculated, but you learned from it, and that is an apprentice’s first and foremost job.”
“Thank you,” Rasha said, bowing her head graciously. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“For now,” Glory went on, her expression growing serious again, “we must consider our next action with regard to these…people.”
“Is it necessary for us to take action?” Layla asked pointedly. “Or…wise? Apart from how dangerous this fringe sect are or aren’t, they seem like an internal Avenist matter, so long as Rasha avoids getting drawn into another trap. As you may recall, we have been spoken to about sticking our noses into the business of other cults.”
“I fear we may not have that luxury,” Glory replied. “To be sure, I will consult with Sweet about this rather than charge into the Sisterhood’s affairs unprepared. But the fact is, these women know who Rasha is, and more troublingly, were able to arrange to intercept her. It wasn’t wise of them to do so in the Temple of Avei; it is chillingly possible that they may have figured this out, and might take steps to catch her elsewhere. For the time being, I want none of you to go anywhere alone. In pairs at the very least, and preferably all four.”
“Oh, good,” Darius groaned. “Going everywhere with my little sister and two other girls. This’ll be great for my social life.”
“See, it’s funny,” Tallie said with a cheeky grin, “cos it’s not like he ever meets girls anyway.”
“It’s just a short-term precaution until we know more,” Glory assured him with an amused smile. “I will see what Sweet knows of these women, and we will of course also ask Thorn when she visits this week.”
“Great,” Darius grunted, looking even more sour than before. “Once again, it’s our pet paladin to save our asses.”
“Oh, I do hope so,” Layla said sweetly. “I just never tire of hearing your whingeing about it.”
“You are not without a point, Darius,” said Glory, “but take it in moderation. Knowing a paladin is a priceless asset, if leveraged correctly and not overly relied upon. We hardly turn to Trissiny to solve all our problems, but she is extremely relevant to this one in particular.”
“Extremely,” Rasha agreed. “The Purists made it clear they’re mostly irate about her, and my insidious Eserite influence on her. It seems not everybody buys this Great Uniter shtick that’s been in the papers.”
Darius rolled his eyes melodramatically.
“That is my concern precisely,” said Glory. “They have connected you to Trissiny despite you having had no in-person contact with her in a year; the last time we saw her face to face, the Purists were still scattered to the winds and a political concern to nobody. It is precisely this which makes me think we are seeing the resurgence of old problems, rather than entirely new ones. I’ve heard mention of these Purists off and on for years, but more as a punchline than a threat. Even their name is a derisive label thrown by other Avenists, not something they created themselves. They were a fringe belief, rarely more than one or two of them existing in a temple with little formal contact between them. Now, quite suddenly, they are organized and in Tiraas in their entire force. More strikingly, according to Rasha, they have uniforms. None of that simply happens, unassisted.”
“You think they have backers, with resources,” Tallie said, frowning.
Glory nodded. “The loyalist conspiracy was annihilated…allegedly. I am reasonably sure that what they knew, Archpope Justinian knows. He has made it abundantly clear since this summer that he is displeased with the Sisterhood, and it would be precisely his pattern to arrange for extra pressure upon them which cannot be easily linked to him.”
“Fuck,” Darius said with feeling. “That guy again.”
“Yeah, this is lookin’ more and more like a Trissiny thing,” Tallie observed.
“By the same token,” said Layla, “is it not possible that this is a ploy to draw her into some kind of trap?”
“Possible indeed,” Glory said, nodding. “Be careful not to get too far into the weeds with conspiracy theories, however. Really complex and excessively indirect plots rarely work out in practice, the world is just too unpredictable. We’ll speak with Thorn in a few days at most, and see what she knows and thinks about this. I will consult Sweet in the meantime. Only then, when we possess a better view of the situation, will we take action. If nothing else, I must have some time to listen to the grapevine and see what role the Guild plays in this.”
“What’s the Guild got to do with any of it?” Darius asked. “Didn’t we just decide this is an Avenist problem?”
“I doubt the Guild has anything directly to do with the Purists, or the reverse,” Glory agreed with a thoughtful frown. “However, there is the matter that relations between the Guild and the Sisterhood are both paramount and necessarily tense right now.”
“Ninetails mentioned that,” Rasha said, nodding.
“Precisely,” said Glory. “And her territorial attitude toward you indicates that you stepped into a job she considers her own. Do you not think it odd, then, that the Boss would send a notably unstable enforcer to conduct relations with the Sisterhood at a time like this?”
Silence fell again, this one especially pensive.
“There are several things going on here,” Glory said grimly. “We don’t yet know the half of it. But we will. And when we do…then we shall do what needs to be done.”
“Fancy shmancy,” Style drawled, perusing the bottle’s label while pouring herself a glass of sparkling wine. “Real Glassian gold, huh. Dulac, 526? What the hell are they counting from? This must’ve set you back a shiny new penny.”
“You don’t gotta be insulting, Style,” Flora reproved.
“Yeah, we know you’ve got your routine, but that’s not called for,” Fauna added.
“Over the line, is what it is.”
“Really. The very nerve.”
Style sighed heavily and turned her glare on Sweet, handing him back the bottle. “I dared, for one precious moment, to hope that that bullshit would end with their apprenticeship. But no, it’s gonna be vaudeville for their entire eternal fucking lives, isn’t it? Makes me grateful I’ll be peacefully decomposing before a fraction of that time has passed.”
“Well, they’re not wrong,” he replied smugly, holding out the bottle toward Lore in a mute offer which the priest declined with a gesture of his own half-full glass. “Really, Style. Buying an expensive gift, on the very day of their tagging? That’s just plain hurtful. I’ll have you know I stole this fair and square.”
“And how long are you planning to keep us in suspense?” Lore asked, grinning. “Come on, come on, you didn’t just come here to hand out princely booze. Let’s have some introductions!”
“Too right!” Sweet agreed, turning to set both bottle and glass upon a velvet-covered blackjack table, currently free of customers and its dealer not in evidence. This corner of the Casino’s main floor was near one of the entrances to the Guild’s underground complex, but was still nominally public. And yet, the well-heeled patrons did not have to be warned to stay away from a cluster of tough-looking people in relatively shabby clothes having a small celebration. Lack of privacy aside, the Guild’s headquarters proper just plain didn’t have much to offer in the way of facilities for special occasions. Why bother, when their faith had little use for ceremony and the Empire’s fanciest establishment was right upstairs?
“May I present to you,” Sweet proclaimed, gesturing at the two preening elves with a grandiose air he had originally copied from a circus ringmaster, “the unimpeachable pride of my own distinguished career, a pair of rising talents who I fully expect shall go on to pickpocket the gods themselves, and the two newest full-fledged members of the Theives’ Guild: Cloak!”
Grinning broadly, Flora sketched a mocking half-curtsy, flourishing with both hands the anachronistic black cloak which she had taken to wearing as a personal affectation during her first weeks of apprenticeship. By this point she had a whole closet full of them; this one was a sleek number with a rainproof enchantment lined with deep crimson velvet, a solstice gift from Sweet himself.
“And,” he continued just as proudly, “Dagger!”
Fauna didn’t share her counterpart’s taste for on-the-nose pageantry, and as such did not brandish or even touch any of the multiple knives strapped to various parts of her person, but grinned to match Flora and leaned on the other elf’s shoulder, winking at the onlookers.
“Oh, for fuck’s fucking sake, Sweet!” Style exclaimed.
“You’re in a pissy mood even for you tonight,” he complained. “Imagine, mocking someone’s tag. Were you raised in a landfill, you obstreperous wench?”
“Did you have to tag them as a pair? Who the fuck does that?”
“It’s actually not unprecedented, Style,” Lore said with a calmer smile. “Common, no, but it’s not like he invented the practice. They aren’t the first pair to have been obviously inseparable from the day they joined up, and let’s face it, nobody doubted these two were going to stay together as a unit after apprenticeship. Cloak, Dagger,” he said, turning to them directly and raising his glass, “my congratulations, and welcome to the ranks. We’re all proud of you.”
“Yes, we are!” Sweet said, beaming. “Right, Style?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she snorted, waving him off. “What, you want me to gush and swoon? You two’ve always had talent, everybody with eyes has known you were gonna do well once you got trained up.”
“Why…why Style,” Flora sniffled, her eyes welling up.
“That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to us,” Fauna whimpered in the same tone.
“Maybe the sweetest thing she’s ever said to anyone!”
“Even in bed, I hear.”
“None of this means anybody likes you two treefuckers,” Style grunted, raising her glass to her mouth. Incongruously given her bluff aspect, she took a tiny sip and paused to savor it, inhaling through her nose.
“So what’s the plan, ladies?” Lore asked genially, swirling his glass. “Most have some kind of plan upon graduating. Usually either a big, spectacular job connected to nothing and incredibly likely to backfire, or the first careful steps of a long-term career strategy.”
“The immediate plan is to celebrate,” Flora said cheerfully.
“And then, well, we’ll see,” Fauna continued.
“Honestly, it’s almost like a case of vertigo.”
“So much possibility and freedom!”
“Probably the big spectacular job, just to gloat in not needing Sweet’s permission.”
“All I ask is that you don’t burn down the city,” said Sweet. “I’ve got all my stuff here. But if you two’re bored, I can find—”
“Eeeee!” Cutting him off, both elves suddenly emitted squeals and scurried away, leaving their sponsor blinking after them. While the senior Eserites turned to watch in bemusement, Flora and Fauna clustered around the new arrivals to their quiet corner of the Casino: a young teenage boy and an adult woman of Punaji stock, the latter with a bundle slung over her chest and cradled protectively in one arm. The newly-minted thieves leaned toward this, cooing in delight.
“Oh, she’s gorgeous! Congratulations!”
“What’s her name?”
“And hello to you, too,” Lakshmi Sanjakar replied pointedly, but not without a self-satisfied grin of her own. “Seems congratulations are in order all around. This is Padmara.”
“And let’s keep the squealing down, shall we?” Sanjay added imperiously. “Honestly, you got any idea how hard it is to get the brat to sleep? If you wake her up, Imma pummel somebody.”
“Did you seriously bring a fucking baby in here?” Style demanded. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Peepers? If she’s not awake already, better double check she’s not dead.”
“What’s wrong with me is we just got back into town and everybody I know is here,” Lakshmi shot back. “What, you think I’m gonna trust this punk to look after an infant while I check in?”
“You see how she talks to me?” her little brother said in an aggrieved tone. “Me, an innocent child! This kid is doomed, I tell ya.”
“Well, well,” Sweet chimed in, sauntering casually over to her. “Congratulations indeed! Aw, look at her little nose, she’s gonna have her mom’s good looks.”
“Poor thing,” Sanjay said mournfully. Lakshmi swatted the back of his head without looking, prompting him to grin.
“I wondered why you two suddenly took off back to Puna Dara, you sly fox,” Sweet chuckled, leaning forward between Flora and Fauna to admire the sleeping baby. “How old is she?”
“Uh huh,” Lakshmi said dryly, giving him a sardonic look. “Nice, Sweet, real subtle. Just like a man to see a baby and start counting months. ‘Oh no, am I responsible for this?’”
“He better not be, is all,” Sanjay said, curling his lip. “Fuckin’ ew, Shmi. This guy’s three times your age.”
“You get smacked a lot, don’t you, son,” Sweet asked him. The boy grinned and winked unrepentantly.
“You wanna hold her?” Lakshmi asked, shifting her smile to the elves.
It took a few moments of disentangling before little Padmara was nestled safely in Fauna’s arms, and the two still-cooing elves edged over toward Lore with Sanjay hovering protectively around them and his baby niece.
“So, Peepers,” Sweet said pleasantly. “Just outta curiosity, you understand. Am I…responsible for this?”
“Right,” she said in a quiet and grimmer tone, canting her head toward him but keeping her eyes on her daughter, the elves, and Sanjay. “Can’t say I was expecting to run into you literally first thing back in town, but it works out, since this conversation needed to happen anyway. To whatever extent it’s any of your damn business, I know you can count, and I know how you love to meddle. So I’ll tell you up front, Sweet: Padma is my daughter, she’s got a mom and an uncle and Guild friends and that is all she needs. I give no shits what kind of blood she has. She’s Punaji and will be raised Eserite, and is no fucking business of any noble. Your asshole friend Danny is not welcome to be involved in this. If I learn that he’s even informed of this, I’m gonna have Style beat your ass till the hole part is on the outside, and I think you know if I put it to her right she will damn well do it. We understand one another?”
“Whoah, now, mama bear,” he said soothingly, raising both hands. A few yards distant, Sanjay was insistently taking Padmara from the audibly disappointed elves while criticizing their baby-handling skills. “You gotta know I’m not one to get between a Guild member and family. All you had to do is make it clear what you want, and that’s what I’ll make happen. Far as I’m concerned, Danny lost any rights when he lied to me and put you two in danger for it.”
“Good,” she said, giving him a firm nod. “Just so we’re clear.”
“Seriously, though, why did you leave Tiraas? I know you’ve got friends here…”
“Sure, but I got friends at home, too. You’re not Punaji; you wouldn’t understand. She needed to be born near the sea, with a windshaman presiding. But Tiraas is where Sanjay and I are making a home, and it’s where the opportunities are. I want her to have the best chances.”
“Okay, the windshaman I’ll grant you, but this is also a coastal city, for the record,” he said. “So, uh, just to be clear, Danny is the one—”
“Sweet,” she warned.
“All right, all right, fair enough,” he soothed, grinning. “I’m just surprised, is all. When I asked you to lend the guy a bed, I didn’t mean—”
“You’re such an asshole,” Lakshmi said with no particular rancor. “If you’ll excuse me, I gotta go check in with the Boss now I’m back in town, and do some catching up. If your girls are hard up for work, maybe they wouldn’t mind babysitting sometime soon. They sure seem eneamored.”
“Well, I can’t exactly lend ‘em out anymore, so I’m not the person to ask. But you’re not wrong, I’ve got a feeling they’ll like that idea.”
“Catch you later, Sweet,” she said, giving him a final, wry smile, then stepped forward to retrieve her daughter from Sanjay. Leaving behind the elves, Style, and Lore, the three of them disappeared through the door discreetly positioned behind a potted fig tree that led deeper into the bowels of the Guild.
Standing some yards away and staring blankly after them, Sweet drew in a long, deep breath, and then let it out slowly through his teeth with a noise like air escaping a balloon.
His two erstwhile apprentices drifted back over, grinning wickedly, and positioned themselves on either side of him, each reaching up to rest an elbow on one of his shoulders.
“And you thought we were gonna burn down the city.”