“I’m starting to think I should’ve worn my dress uniform.”
“I hope you don’t think you need to put on a show for me,” Rasha said with a teasing smile.
“No, no,” Zafi assured her hastily. “It’s not you, I just feel like I…stick out.”
She made one small movement with her hand, a low and slight wave barely inches off the top of their table and quite unlike her usual ebullient style of expression, indicating the rest of the cafe as if afraid to draw its attention.
True, Rasha observed in glancing to the side, La Chez did cater to a fairly ritzy crowd; she herself was as well-dressed as anyone here, but Zafi did stand out a bit in her bronze armor and short sword. But it was the uniform of the Silver Legions, definitely no mark of shame, and though the cafe was well-populated at this hour of the afternoon, none of the people here were giving them a second look. Rasha had grown attuned to the movements of crowds during her last year of training, and would definitely have noticed if they had been.
But that was it exactly, she realized: it wasn’t about the crowd, but about Zafi. For the last year she had spent much of her time among people exactly like this, the wealthy, the well-bred and well-mannered, but not as one of them. Of Glory’s four apprentices, two were noble born, but two just the opposite, a wharf rat and circus brat respectively. She had firmly taught them all the same attitude toward the wealthy class: they were Eserites, and they were to move among these people like wolves among sheep. Not all—probably not even most—were to be prey; despite how some Eserites lived, Glory insisted upon humbling only the corrupt and abusive. They needed the manners, the poise, the attitude to seamlessly blend with this crowd, but they were never to be truly part of them. Eserites were not equal to the powerful. They were greater, and always ready to administer a reminder of it.
That outlook was the result of months of training, and Zafi had none of it. In this place, she felt exactly the way Rasha would have if she’d been brought here during her first week in Tiraas. And now, she found herself suddenly ashamed for failing to realize that, and bringing the girl here anyway. Stupid, inconsiderate… Glory would never have done something so careless.
Well, it was done. Now to fix it.
“Over there,” she said in a lower voice, pointing with her eyes and a tiny gesture of her head. “Looks like a…ah, there’s his insignia. A lieutenant colonel, very impressive! See, you’re not the only one here in uniform.”
Zafi glanced in the direction Rasha had indicated, a small smile breaking through her reserved expression. Then she leaned forward over the table to murmur back, carefully not staring. “Yeah, but…that’s a lieutenant colonel. And he’s Imperial Army, not Silver Legion. He can do what he likes.”
“Ah, but this is a cafe, not the army,” Rasha rejoined, grinning. “It’s society types who decide the rules here. I’m just pointing out that a military uniform is clearly acceptable dress for this establishment. Look, nobody’s giving him the side-eye. And they aren’t to you, either,” she added in a warmer tone, reaching across the table to lay a hand over Zafi’s wrist.
The metal and leather of her gauntlet were cool under Rasha’s fingers. She had already been impressed by how deftly Zafi could eat and drink wearing those bulky armored gloves.
“Yeah, well… There are uniforms, and then uniforms, you know? I note nobody else in here is in armor.”
“It’s the 80s now, nobody but Legionnaires wears armor,” Rasha replied. “It seems like a badge of honor to me, Zafi. They don’t let just any simpleton into the Silver Legions, after all. Besides, who doesn’t love a woman in uniform?”
At that, her companion’s cheeks turned a shade pinker. Zafi lowered her eyes, seemingly lost for a response. Rasha managed not to wince; she was trying to be reassuring here, not make it worse. After pausing for a couple of seconds, she tried harder.
“I’m sorry, Zafi, I never meant to put you on the spot. I certainly wouldn’t have invited you to a place like this if I’d thought it would make you uncomfortable. But that’s the thing, see; I did invite you because I knew you would fit in. Trust me, I know these people.” She glanced aside, then grimaced. “Well, people like them in general, if not these particular specimens. You are definitely not unwelcome here, and nobody’s staring. There’s a trick to it,” she added in a conspiratorial tone, shifting her head to make her eyes sparkle in the golden light of the small fairy lamp next to their table. Bless Glory and her bottomless bag of tricks. “If you’d showed up dressed in rags and stinking of an honest day’s work, yeah, they’d turn up their noses. But where there’s a gray area and people don’t automatically know what to expect, they look for cues. Then, all you need is confidence. Act like you expect to be treated with respect, and most people just automatically…will.”
That got a small chuckle from Zafi. “Well, that is a neat trick. It’s pretty easy for you to say, though! If it’s not obvious, Rasha, I wasn’t exactly brought up to know what to do in joints like this.”
Rasha burst out laughing, to Zafi’s clear befuddlement. Nobody even glanced over at them; she knew how to laugh with open and genuine mirth without exceeding the acceptable noise level of any given room. Glory had, of course, made her practice.
She of course kept her voice low for her next comment, though. “Naphthene’s tits, do you think I was? A year and a half ago I was gutting fish on my father’s boat in the Azure Sea.”
Zafi boggled at her. “Shut up. You’re like… You’re like, if a noblewoman was somehow miraculously not stuck up!”
“Now that’s a good compliment,” Rasha chuckled. “More of those, please. But no, seriously, Zafi, I’m a wharf rat from Puna Vashtar. All of this nonsense is purely learned, during the last year, the same way anybody learns anything: practice and a good teacher. I’m apprenticed to Tamisin Sharvineh.”
She didn’t drop Glory’s name lightly, not least in this case because she wasn’t sure Zafi would recognize it, but the Legionnaire’s eyes widened immediately.
“Whoah, you’re serious? No wonder you move in General Avelea’s circles. I mean… Damn, it’s true, then? Sharvineh is actually Guild?”
This time it was Rasha’s turn to blink in startlement. “I thought that was common knowledge. It’s certainly not a secret.”
“Hey, for people who aren’t apprenticed to her, no knowledge about the likes of Tamisin bloody Sharvineh is common,” Zafi said wryly. “Rumor’s all the likes of me has to go on. Well, hell, I guess that would explain you picking up a lot of rich people craft in just a year. I still can’t wrap my head around it, though.” She leaned back in her chair, grinning at Rasha with something uncomfortably like awe. “You’re just so…poised. It’s hard to imagine you were ever anything but a lady of quality.”
Rasha’s smile slipped. “I… Well, thank you, I do appreciate that. I’ve certainly worked hard for it. But, I don’t know…” She looked down at her palms, flexing her fingers. “Maybe it’s an Eserite thing, I just… I don’t ever want to catch myself thinking like I’m better than where I came from. I mean, I left for good reasons, but there’s nothing wrong with being a hard-working person who contributes stuff that other people need. It’s not better to be rich. Well, it’s a lot more pleasant, but I mean morally. I kind of regret that I don’t even have my calluses anymore; I damn well earned them, and they stood for something worthwhile. It’s a side effect of a lot of body-altering alchemy, though.”
Her breath caught and she raised her eyes. Somehow, Rasha had fallen back into old patterns and let her tongue run away with her; she hadn’t meant to bring that up. It didn’t seem like a first date sort of topic.
Zafi, though, was just nodding understandingly. “Wow, I never even thought about that. Yeah, I guess it stands to reason they can only do so much hoodoo without having some, uh, extra consequences.”
Rasha forced herself not to duck her gaze again. “You… Well, you know what it is the Purists were all worked up about. What I visit Sister Iona for. You never asked me about it, though.”
“And I never will,” Zafi said instantly. She reached across to lay her gauntleted hand in both of Rasha’s, squeezing gently, and gave her a smile. “That’s obviously a category of thing that you decide when we talk about. Don’t be in any rush. I’ll be happy when I can say I’ve earned that trust.”
Rasha closed her fingers over the glove, smiling back. “You’re doing just fine.”
The moment stretched out. She gazed into Zafi’s brown eyes, seeing clearly the warm smile in them even though they so filled her vision that even the other woman’s lips had faded into the periphery. Soft sounds of polite diners enjoying a busy teatime washed around them, parting as if their table were a rock amid the tide. In that moment, nothing else existed but their eyes, and the completely incomprehensible yet utterly tangible connection that stretched between them.
In the next moment, their waiter returned, and Rasha might otherwise have been annoyed but Glory’s tutelage informed her that his timing was, in fact, absolutely impeccable; he broke that infinite moment at exactly the instant before it would have started to trail into awkwardness. Rasha had had her doubts about this fellow, but apparently La Chez did not employ people who didn’t know exactly what they were doing.
“And how are we finding everything, ladies?” he asked brightly as he slid a small gilt-edged tray onto their table.
“Splendid, thank you,” Rasha replied, already distracted by the tray. It held two oddly tiny cups, no bigger than shot glasses; those held something that glowed.
“I’m so pleased to hear it,” the waiter said with a roguish grin. Indeed, he stood out from the rest of the tuxedoed young men gliding briskly to and fro in the busy cafe, though he wore the same uniform…mostly. The top button of his shirt was open and he had his cravat untied, hanging lopsidedly down between his lapels. Also, in contrast to the clockwork-precise grooming of his coworkers, the man had notably shaggy hair and a five o’clock shadow, not to mention that his manner was cheerfully friendly rather than discreet and diffident like all the rest. “La Chez cherishes your patronage, ladies! It’s my absolute honor to inform you that your visit is on the house today. And I have personally requisitioned one of the establishment’s premier delicacies to finish off your teatime.”
While speaking, he had deftly removed their teacups and the plate which held the crumbs of their lemon cake, and set the tiny cups in front of each of them. Rasha and Zafi found themselves gazing bemusedly down at lightly steaming servings of…something. It was impossible to tell what lay deeper in the little cups, because they were topped by a layer of heavy cream in which a faintly glowing blue substance had been swirled to make a spiraling pattern. On top of that was a rose crafted delicately of spun sugar, the edges of its tiny petals gilded by the minutest tracery of powder which also glowed an arcane blue.
“Is…is it supposed to be glowing?” Zafi asked in apprehension.
“Enchanted foodstuffs are the most cutting-edge trend, madam,” the waiter said proudly. “La Chez has the honor of being the premier purveyor of such rare delicacies, as their popularity among private parties by the nobility took an immediate hit when the noblewoman who debuted them was immediately beaten senseless by a paladin over an unrelated matter. Our very own Arcano Blossom is a unique creation of La Chez’s chef and baristas, and just the perfect finisher for a perfect high tea.”
“Is it…safe?” Zafi demanded, her tone now turned to fascination.
“La Chez specializes in providing sublime dining experiences in the highest Glassian tradition,” he declaimed, bowing to her. “Our mission, it must be said, is to nourish the spirit rather than the body. I can assure you, madam, the magic is better for you than that quantity of sugar. Alas, the Arcano Blossom is an ephemeral treat, as the exquisite candy rose will rapidly begin melting. Thus, we serve them only at the perfect temperature to be drunk in one shot.”
Well, the hint was unmistakable.
“Please relay my gratitude to the chef,” Rasha said dutifully, picking up the tiny cup and holding it out toward Zafi with a grin.
“I shall assuredly do so, madam!”
They clinked the cups playfully together and then tossed them back in unison.
It was a coffee drink, which Rasha wasn’t expecting. She did not much care for coffee, mistrusting the effect it had on her brain and body nearly as much as she loathed the taste. However, this was a truly tiny amount, heavily mixed with milk infused with subtle flavors of vanilla and other spices, and then topped for good measure with quite a dose of pure sugar. It worked; coffee’s acrid bitterness, properly diluted, proved a delightful offset to a hot dessert which would otherwise have been nauseatingly sweet. The delicate little rose dissolved on her tongue, its traceries of arcane powder causing it to pop in delightful little tingles that lightened the entire sensation of drinking such a rich, thick treat.
Sublime dining experiences, indeed. She could tell why they served it in such tiny cups. Too much of that would knock a person right into a food coma.
“Wow,” Zafi said, grinning in delight at Rasha immediately after swallowing. “That was… I’m tempted to try adding some enchanting dust to Legion rations.”
“I urge madam not to attempt that,” the waiter said solemnly. “Such things are best left to professionals; Chef Marcel has the distinction of never having blown anyone up. By accident, that is. I dared to hope it would be an ideal addition to your date, ladies: a bit of caffeine, sugar, and a spark of magic, just the thing to provide the rush of energy you’ll need for what comes next.”
Zafi flushed scarlet and stammered at the implication, but Rasha’s eyes snapped to the man’s face. He didn’t have the tone or attitude of someone pitching double entendres. In fact, he was not looking at either of them, but at the window next to their table, the neatly picturesque little arched frame with the tiny candle-like fairy lamp set right into its sill.
“I took pains to seat you on the second floor balcony with a view across the street, ladies. If I could direct your attention to the base of yonder lamp post?”
All Rasha saw by the streetlamp was a woman in a thick white robe, probably a priestess of Avei or Izara bundled against the cold, but Zafi tensed.
“That’s Sister Alieh.”
Rasha’s eyes snapped to the Legionnaire’s face; Zafi was staring down at the priestess, not yet frightened or angry, but clearly on the alert.
“You know her?”
“She’s a Purist. Or…ex-Purist, I suppose. I guess nobody’s a Purist once Avei got done with them.”
“Indeed,” the waiter said, bowing diffidently. “If I could impose further, ladies, I wonder if you might accompany me? There is something you should see.”
He backed away from the table before straightening and turning to lead them away. Rasha and Zafi exchanged a long, questioning look, then Rasha nodded minutely and rose.
La Chez featured an upper dining area which wrapped around three sides of the cafe’s floor and extended over its foyer and kitchens, maximizing its relatively small square footage. The waiter led them straight to the best table in the house, the one positioned right in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows directly above the entrance, providing a lovely view of the small park across the street.
The cafe was quite busy, but that table—the most sought after in the place—was empty. A prickle ran up Rasha’s spine as the waiter came to a stop next to it and turned to them with a bland smile and a bow, waiting patiently.
She had…a feeling. On this, too, Glory had taught her apprentices both theory and practice. The human mind, as she put it, was mostly filled with mechanisms for relating to other people, and that accounted both for the ways it tended to go wrong and those in which it was often uncannily right. Glory warned her apprentices to be skeptical of their own tendency to see patterns and intentions in random events that had none, and not let themselves anthropomorphize inanimate objects or coincidences. But when it came to other people, if they had a feeling, they were to trust and act on it. Those feelings came from mental machinery far more sophisticated than the conscious mind, and were rarely wrong.
Rasha had a feeling, sweeping her eyes quickly around the cafe, and so acted on it.
While making her way toward the window table, she deliberately jostled her hip against a well-dressed woman’s shoulder, causing her to slosh her teacup slightly.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” she said earnestly. “How terribly clumsy of me. I do beg your pardon.”
The woman didn’t look up. Neither did anyone at her table. It was as if none of them were aware of Rasha’s existence, even when physically bumped.
No one in this place was looking at them, and the most desirable spot had been left open for this…unusual waiter to show them something. Zafi gave her another wary look, but they went the rest of the way to the windows, having no better ideas.
The view they afforded was of four figures standing in front of the little park just across the way: two more white-robed priestesses, and two uniformed soldiers.
“Purists?” Rasha asked tersely.
“Can’t tell about the one with her hood up, but yeah, I recognize that one,” Zafi reported, scowling down at the priestess whose breath was misting on the chill air as she spoke to the soldiers. “Don’t know her name, but she’s been around the temple all week.”
“I see they got rid of their little uniforms,” Rasha murmured. “Guess when you get repudiated by your own goddess, its best to go incognito.”
“Most interestingly,” said the waiter, “these are not the only ones. Behind the cafe is a veritable warren of alleys; fairly safe and free of riffraff, this neighborhood being what it is, but the businesses of the rich and fancy require shipments and servicing like any others, and so there are dark, narrow little spaces out back. Most oddly, there are now more priestesses of Avei closing in on this location through those alleys where priestesses of Avei have no obvious business going. It’s almost as if they’re trying to make sure somebody doesn’t succeed in slipping surreptitiously out of here.”
“Shit,” Zafi hissed.
“Okay, don’t panic,” Rasha said, taking her hand. “Look, those are actual police, and they’re clearly checking up on what those women are doing. We just have to give our side…”
Zafi was already shaking her head. “That’s not good, Rasha. Lots of Avenists in the military, and police here in the capital are Imperial soldiers. They will usually go well out of their way to help Sisters, and… Me being in armor is even worse. The local cops always look the other way and let Sisters handle internal Avenist affairs even when they have cause to intervene. I dunno how legal it is, but it’s the done thing. They’re just dressed as priestesses, not Purists, and that means those soldiers will probably remand both of us to their custody. Unless… Can you insist on being taken into Imperial custody?”
“That’s…not covered in the Writ of Duties, no.”
“Um… What if you confess to something unrelated that they’ll have to prosecute?”
“Well, that doesn’t help you, does it? Anyway… This is embarrassing, but I actually haven’t done anything that’d get me arrested. And ironically enough, a false confession is a crime. Well, that’d work, though, and a magistrate might respect the extenuating circumstances. Plus we’ve got Glory and Trissiny to pull strings.”
“That’s a way to go,” the waiter agreed, “if you’re willing to take the pretty steep gamble that they haven’t planned for that. Whoops, moment of truth.”
The soldiers had just stepped away from the priestesses, and were now striding across the street toward La Chez.
“This way!” their waiter said briskly, turning on his heel and heading toward a narrow service door with long strides.
Rasha and Zafi exchanged another, much shorter look, then both hurried after them.
Behind the narrow door was an equally narrow stairwell which descended into the kitchen; the scruffy waiter led them right through the bustle of pastry cooks and waiters moving with the precision of drilling soldiers, and not a one spared a single glance for the interlopers in their domain. It was just like the diners above, but more noticeable.
Don’t see, or won’t see? No, Rasha decided, can’t see. There was something going on here beyond the Purists and whatever vindictive stunt they were trying to pull.
“Just who are you?” she demanded as the waiter came to a stop beside the kitchen’s rear door.
He grinned at her and pushed it open, admitting a blast of frigid winter air which the kitchen staff also didn’t seem to notice.
Then he produced a doubloon from seemingly nowhere, rolled it across the backs of his fingers, and made it disappear again. It was very neatly done; Rasha hadn’t even spotted the characteristic finger movements through which the coin could be plucked from the sleeve and then hidden there again, and she had worked on that religiously.
“Now, I can’t be solving all your problems for you, Rasha,” he said cheerfully, “but let’s just say I’ve got a vested interest in you coming out on top in this one. ‘Sides, you’re an apprentice; we’re allowed to lend a helping hand to those still in training, right? I’m afraid there’s no time for chitchat; you’ve gotta make tracks if you’re gonna evade the net.”
“So…there’s a clear path through them, out there?” Zafi asked. She had at least recognized the Eserite coin trick and could infer what it meant, but Rasha wasn’t sure how much of the other weirdness going on here Zafi had noticed. There was no Guild craft she knew of that could just make people invisible, or even unnoticeable. That was more like Vidian ritual magic.
The waiter (if he actually was one) shook his head. “’Fraid the noose is already too tight; you’re not gonna get out without encountering some of ‘em. You’re gonna have to work out for yourselves how to get through. I recommend moving fast and trying to run the blockade rather than engaging them. But listen: stick to the left and the turns will take you on the fastest route back to a main street, and I’ve taken steps to arrange for some help to meet you coming from that direction.”
Rasha drew in a breath, turning to meet his eyes. Now off the cafe floor, he was wearing a characteristically cocky smirk she recognized from countless Eserites she’d met. That, of course, raised the question of why he couldn’t come with them and keep helping, but instinct and reason both warned her that pressing for answers would lead nowhere.
“Assuming you’re not sending us into another trap,” she said, “thank you.”
“Never assume that, but also never let it stop you,” he instructed, stepping back and gesturing toward the open door. “Get moving, girls, the clock’s ticking.”
They both strode out into the alley without another word.
Zafi had left her shield back at the temple, as it was awkward to carry around indoors, but she still had her regulation short sword buckled at her waist. Now she drew the blade, reaching out toward Rasha with her other hand. Rasha grasped it; the metal plates of the gauntlet were already growing icy in the chill air of the alley, and their edges pinched her fingers. She didn’t let go.
“Left,” she said tersely, leading the way. Hand in hand, they went in that direction at a dash.
They made it until the first point where the alley crossed another one before encountering Purists. Two of them stepped out of the side passage, also in white Avenist robes without any of the trappings of their sect…except for their heavy longswords. Both of them had those.
Rasha tried to keep going, but Zafi’s differently-trained instincts prompted her to stop and raise her blade. Rasha had to tug, causing them both to stagger, but despite the blunder costing them seconds they were immediately running again, now with pounding feet and the sound of shouts behind them. She didn’t chance a look back, it being hard enough to run through a cramped, trash-filled alleyway with patches of black ice on the ground without falling, but it sounded to Rasha like the two of them were pulling ahead.
And then there came different shouts and a clatter as the pursuing Purists slipped on something, followed by a joyfully derisive laugh from Zafi, and in the next moment they were leaving their tormentors in the dust.
Right until the next turn they took, whereupon they had to slam to an awkward stop. Another Purist stood right in front of them.
This one, Rasha recognized: Sister Magden, one of the higher-ups in the sect, and the only one of their number skilled enough with the longsword to have fought Trissiny on something approaching equal terms. One of those who had cornered Rasha herself in the temple sanctuary alongside Sister Lanora at the start of all this. She held her sword in hand now, rearing back as if surprised by their sudden appearance, but then she narrowed her eyes and raised the weapon to point at them.
“There you are.”