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“Yeah!” Tallie jeered, rattling the cell door again. “Not so tough when somebody actually stands up to you, huh? Somebody oughta—”
While she spoke, Locke rapped her lance sharply with one boot to make it bounce on the stone floor, then deftly slipped a toe under it and kicked it upward into her hand, whereupon she set the tip against the cell door and raked it across the bars, making them ring obnoxiously. And vibrate, to judge by the way Tallie yelped and jerked backward, shaking her fingers.
“Here’s the situation in which you kids find yourselves,” the Sergeant said in a grimmer tone, raking her stare across them. “You flubbed a job and got nabbed. The Sisterhood has no interest in prosecuting illegal arms dealers—in fact, it’s a mystery to me why the Third Legion bothered to raid that meet in the first place. That means your next stop, according to standard operating procedures, is the military police, who are interested in illegal arms dealers.” She let that loom over them for a moment before continuing. “Now, you know and I know that you bumpkins don’t have anything worthwhile to tell them and you’re guilty of, at most, being accessories to whatever crimes were actually committed. It’s honestly a toss-up whether they’d bother to press charges, but they will work you over in the process of verifying that you’re just hapless know-nothing apprentice goobers.”
“That’s a little strong,” Rasha complained.
“But,” Locke said loudly. “I also know a lot about the type of people who seek to join the Thieves’ Guild, and what’s involved in the process. Unless your family’s Guild, you almost certainly are struggling with demons of your own—and I know none of you chuckleheads are legacies, or you’d be sponsored and not getting ditched in a warehouse by the only clown who’d take you on a job. Some of you, if not most of you, if not all of you, are going by assumed names.” She glanced rapidly from Jasmine to Ross to Tallie. “It’s a safe bet you all have good reason not to want the Empire digging into your business—and you’d better believe they would dig, for something like this. Dangerous or no, weapons traffic is a matter of connections. If you’re the only links they’ve got in that chain, they will find out whatever else you’re linked to. And then, once you got out of that, you would have to explain all this to Style. You know what a kind, understanding cream puff she is. I can’t say how much rep any of you kids have, but if you happen to be already in the doghouse, or just without enough established cred, being the reason Imperial Intelligence pays the Guild a visit would be enough by itself to get your butts bounced out into the street.”
The Sergeant fell silent, raised one eyebrow, and studied each of them in turn.
“What’s the alternative?” Darius asked in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.
“Be with you in a moment,” she said, suddenly sounding cheerful again. “You just ruminate on that whilst I deal with some other business. So!” Locke paced slowly down the bars, coming to a stop near the end and turning to face Schwartz, who stood near the wall of the cell with his arms folded, scowling. “What’s your story?”
“I am Herschel Schwartz,” he announced, “fellow in good standing of the Emerald Collegium of the College of Salyrene. I have not broken any laws, my only interactions with the Silver Legions prior to tonight were rendering them aid, and I am exceedingly irate!”
“You tell ‘er!” Tallie crowed.
“SHUT UP!” everyone else shouted at her. She gaped around at them, blinking in awe.
“Herschel Schwartz.” Locke studied him closely, wearing a faint frown. “By that description, you sound like a rather upstanding fellow.”
“Thank you, I try.” Meesie, squeaking pompously, bounced from his shoulder to his head where she stood upright and folded her tiny arms.
“Would you care to explain,” Sergeant Locke asked mildly, “just what you were doing attending an illegal arms swap meet, Mr. Schwartz?”
He jutted his chin out mulishly, now refusing to meet her gaze. “…you’d laugh at me.”
“Schwartz,” Locke said pointedly, “you are in a cell. You are implicated in crimes of the sort that makes Imperial Intelligence open dossiers on people, and keep abreast of their movements for years thereafter. If you get out of this with nothing worse than being laughed at, you’ll be making out very well indeed.”
“Yes, I see your point,” he said sourly. “All right, fine. I was looking to meet and make connections with Eserites.”
“Well, it’s a right pleasure to meetcha!” Tallie said cheerfully. Meesie chittered amicably back at her.
Darius cleared his throat. “Is it too late to deny knowing her? In fact, I’m increasingly willing to testify that this whole thing was Tallie’s idea.”
“I don’t think that’d work,” Jasmine said, deadpan. “She’s met Tallie.”
“Oh, whose side are you on?” Tallie snapped.
“Children,” Locke said firmly. “Hush. And as for you, Schwartz. Any reason in particular you were wanting to connect with the Thieves’ Guild?”
He shrugged, again not meeting her stare. “Well, it’s not as if I’m the sort of person who ordinarily has such connections, is it? Honestly, I have no interest in weapons, illegal or otherwise—except, well, some of those modified wands were rather intriguing, even if arcane work isn’t my field of specialization… Ah, yes, but anyway. That meetup was the only thing I was able to find out about that I could attend, and I was sort of warned against just walking into the Imperial Casino and trying to chat people up. I was willing to buy a staff or something if that’s what it took to make friends, but fortunately for my pocketbook, the Legion interceded.”
“That’s all very interesting,” Locke said, “but it’s not really what I asked you, is it?”
“No, I suppose it’s not.” Finally he raised his eyes to hers, now staring challengingly. “But I do know that socializing with Eserites is not a crime, and in fact cannot be considered evidence of a crime according to established legal precedent. So unless you intend to see me charged with weapons trafficking, which you know won’t stick, I would like to leave now, please.”
“Hm,” Locke mused, and then shrugged. “Welp! You’re not wrong. And as I have been given discretion with regard to what’s done with you kittens, it seems I have the authority to release you.”
“Can you stop with the diminutive nicknames?” Rasha snapped.
“You’re free to go,” Locke continued to Schwartz, ignoring the Punaji boy. “I’ll ask your patience a few moments longer, with apologies; you’re all leaving that cell in just a few moments, toward one destination or another, and I’d just as soon not deal with the rigamarole of extracting one person while corralling the rest. After you’re out of there, though, I’d appreciate it if you’d stick around for a few minutes, Mr. Schwartz. I’d like to have a word with you in private.”
He sighed dramatically. “I’ve told you everything I know about all this, which is practically nothing. I don’t see what else you can possibly want from me!”
“Oh, no,” she said with amusement, “I don’t suspect you of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I meant a personal conversation.”
“Then I understand even less,” he replied, frowning. “I’m pretty sure we’ve not met before—I’d remember a dark-haired elf.”
“We haven’t, no,” Locke said, now grinning openly. “But I’d like to chat a bit about another Mr. Schwartz I know, of whom you are the spitting image, minus about twenty years.”
He blinked. “You knew my father?”
Locke’s grin melted away. “…knew?”
“Oh.” Schwartz sighed. “Yes. He passed on six years ago. A carriage accident. Of all the ridiculous ways to go, after all he did in his life…”
“Hey, can you two maybe talk this out after—”
Darius broke off with a muffled curse as Ross swatted him upside the back of his head, sending him stumbling forward into the bars.
“Have some respect,” Ross grumbled disapprovingly.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you,” Schwartz said awkwardly.
“No. No, I’m sorry.” Locke shook her head. “If I took better care of my relationships I wouldn’t be finding out about lost friends years after the fact… And this isn’t the first time, either. But yes, anyway, I do need to deal with the rest of these first, but…”
“Sure,” Schwartz agreed, looking generally more amenable now. “And yes, I’ll hang around a bit after you’re done.”
“Smashing. So!” Locke turned to the others, raising her eyebrows. “Thoughts?”
“You’re not accustomed to holding prisoners,” Jasmine said critically. “Keeping us in suspense is cheap drama, and the threat isn’t ominous enough to even make it effective. Do you just enjoy wasting everyone’s time?”
“Okay, not with her, either,” Darius announced. “In fact, I disavow any knowledge of all of these fuckers.”
“My, kitten’s got some claws on her,” Locke said dryly to Jasmine. “I bet all the other girls back in finishing school lived in absolute dread of you.”
Jasmine narrowed her eyes to slits.
Rasha cleared his throat. “So, anyway, you were menacing us with threats of Intelligence and whoever Style is. Was there a better alternative?”
Locke boggled at him. “Whoever Style is?!”
Tallie cleared her throat. “He’s new. As in, first night. Hasn’t even got a bunk yet.”
“I’m having an interesting day,” Rasha grumbled.
“You poor bastard,” Locke said, shaking her head. “All right, here’s the deal. There are times when being caught between my various responsibilities is a hardship—but then there are times, like this one, where they all line up perfectly.” She began to pace slowly up and down in front of the bars. “I have a responsibility to the law, which is the least of my concerns here, because we all know you lot aren’t a threat to anyone except possibly yourselves. You might, it is true, become a threat one day if you stick with the Guild, but nobody rational prosecutes potential. I have a responsibility to the Silver Legions to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught criminals. I could maybe just let you all go as an interfaith gesture of goodwill and justify that to my captain as part of my squad’s mandate—”
“Yes!” Tallie said, gripping the bars again and nodding eagerly. “Embrace the mandate!”
“But,” Locke continued, ignoring her, “there is also my responsibility as a member of the Thieves’ Guild to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught screwups. So! I believe I know of a happy medium. One which meets all those objectives and gives you a valuable life lesson besides!”
“I hate valuable life lessons,” Tallie grumbled.
Locke stepped to one side and turned to regard those behind her with a sunny smile. The rest of her squad had been standing silently this whole time at parade rest; the Avenist cleric who’d accompanied them in watched the proceedings with interest from the sidelines, as did the sole Legionnaire who’d been left to guard the room.
“I asked your gracious host, Sister Tianne, if there was any significant work that needed doing around this facility—”
“Oh, come on!” Darius groaned.
“—and wouldn’t you know it! This temple has an attached stable, which is slated for renovation to house enchanted carriages rather than horses, the times being what they are. The budget being what it is, no actual workers have yet been contracted to do this, and as this particular temple is mostly a dedicated training facility and waypoint for the Legions on city duty, there aren’t enough permanent staff here to undertake a renovation themselves. So guess what!”
“I hate you,” Darius informed her.
Jasmine shrugged. “It sounds like honest work to me. And a fair enough consequence for tonight’s mess. Considering how this could have gone, I don’t see what your complaint is.”
“Jasmine,” he said in exasperation, “I did not join up with the bloody Thieves’ Guild because I wanted to do honest work!”
“You think thieves don’t work?” Ross asked.
“Everybody works,” Rasha added. “Don’t work, don’t eat.”
“Some of you,” Locke said with visible approval, “have a future in your chosen organization.”
“But it’s the middle of the night!” Tallie protested, again rattling the cell door.
“Oh, you’ve got some pressing appointment? A hot date?” Sergeant Locke arched an eyebrow. “Very well, it’s up to you. Since, if you’d rather not help the good Sister thoroughly clean out the stables, your next meeting will be with the military police. After all, nobody wants to keep them waiting.”
Tallie groaned and slumped forward, clonking her forehead against the bars.
“So,” Locke continued, “once you’re out of there, you’re out. You’ll answer to Sister Tianne until she is satisfied with your results—and Sister, be so kind as to be satisfied only when that place is spotless.”
“It goes without saying,” Tianne agreed.
“And in case any of you are thinking of bolting prematurely, let me just inform you that she will be sending me a full report of your performance, and if I find any complaints in it, they’ll go right to Style.”
“You don’t even know our names,” Darius huffed.
The Sergeant pointed to each of them in turn. “Gangly but hot wiseass, tiny Punaji, handsome yet poorly-dressed meathead, walking wall, deceptively dainty bruiser. Anybody wanna lay odds Style can’t figure out who you are?” She let them consider that for a moment before going on. “Come to a decision quickly, please, kids. I know you’re all eager to put this whole episode behind you, and poor Mr. Schwartz has been cooped up in there quite long enough.”
“Well, I can’t say this hasn’t been rather interesting,” Schwartz commented.
Tallie sighed and turned to face the others. “Well, whaddaya think, guys? Should we make a show of pretending to consider it to save face, or just go ahead and ask where the brooms are?”
“Oh, we’ll get to the brooms before the end of the night,” Sister Tianne said with a benign smile. “You’ll need to start with shovels.”
“I think,” said Rasha, “I’ve made some poor decisions recently.”
Casey was practically vibrating with eagerness as the downcast Eserite apprentices filed through the small temple’s courtyard en route to its attached stables.
“Are we going to stay and supervise this, Sarge?” Ephanie asked.
“No.” Principia shook her head. “They’re on the honor system now.”
“They’re Eserites,” Merry pointed out disdainfully.
“One,” said Principia, “they barely are. Two, they know the consequences of screwing this up; the point of the honor system in this case is to teach them some honor. And three, Lang, shut your hate hole, you dismal termagant, you. Avelea, keep everybody in line, please; the rest of you, stand in the courtyard here looking official until I’m back. You have my apologies for leaving you on the hook while I see to personal business, ladies. I’ll buy you all cocoa tomorrow.”
“That makes it all worth it!” Farah said with a broad smile.
“Sarge!” Casey finally burst out, the last of the apprentices having vanished into the stable. “That girl, the one with the dark hair—”
Principa’s finger was suddenly in her face. “No, Elwick.”
“But Farah and I met her, I’m sure it’s—”
“No, Elwick!” Principia repeated more loudly. “Drop it.”
“But I could see you recognized—”
“Elwick,” the sergeant snapped, “as soon as we’re back at base you will give me five laps of the parade ground at full run before removing your gear.” She took a step closer to the suddenly silent private, glaring. “And nothing that uninteresting, completely random Guild apprentice chooses to do is any of your business until and unless she tells you otherwise. I will not have to repeat any of this to you. Ever. Am I understood?”
Casey swallowed heavily. “Yes, ma’am.”
Principia held her gaze for a moment before withdrawing. “Good. Now I’m going to go have a quick word with Mr. Schwartz, and then we can be on our way back home.”
She nodded once to them, then turned and strode off into the temple proper, through the door Schwartz had earlier been shown by a resident priestess.
“Asking what the deal is with that apprentice is just gonna get me added to the shit list, isn’t it,” Merry said wryly.
Nandi Shahai glanced at her from behind her helmet, then at the door to the stables, and then after Principia, remaining silent.
Jasmine took the opportunity to glance at the sky as she pushed a wheelbarrow filled with the sludge and unspeakable smells of countless horses out to the courtyard, where she had been instructed to pile the refuse to be collected later and transported out of the city, there being ordinances about what could and could not be just tossed away in Tiraas. The island city had to regulate some things with exceeding care, lest people find themselves wading ankle-deep in pollution. It was hard to tell through the city’s omnipresent glow, but the sky didn’t appear to be lightening. What with one thing and another, she had completely lost track of time, but it was surely past midnight by now.
Straightening up after tipping the barrow over, she paused to scrub a sleeve over her sweaty forehead and glanced around the courtyard. Squad 391 were still present, lounging around at ease; clearly they didn’t find the apprentices to be much of a hazard or a responsibility. Not that she could blame them. In fact, one was leaning against the wall quite close by, which drew a second glance from her. The woman had her helmet off, revealing she was an elf. A blonde elf with horizontal ears, not another dark-haired wood elf, but still. There weren’t so many elves in the Legions altogether. It was quite odd to find two in such a small unit.
“Don’t take it as a rejection,” the elven Legionnaire said suddenly as Jasmine turned to push her wheelbarrow back inside for another load. “Locke’s enlistment was under the specific condition that she not go near you except at your invitation. She’s not overly fond of rules in general, but she can toe the line when necessary.”
Jasmine had paused, hands on her burden, to peer at the woman sidelong without turning to face her. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Of course. My mistake.”
She pushed the barrow another foot and a half before letting it come to a stop. “Your sergeant claims to be a member of the Guild.”
“It’s not a claim,” the soldier—a corporal, by her insignia—said with a smile. “The Legion knows her history and credentials quite well.”
“Are you sure she’s trustworthy?”
She cocked her head to the side in thought. “Complicated question, isn’t it? The chain of command seems to mostly find her a nuisance…but her own soldiers are quite loyal to her. I would say fiercely so, in some cases. That’s a particular type of officer who bears watching. In war and other dangerous times they have a way of saving us all; in more peaceful times, they cause the most horrendous trouble.”
Jasmine frowned slightly, then opened her mouth to speak again.
“Oi!” Tallie bellowed from within the stable. “Having a nice break out there?”
With a sigh, she picked up the wheelbarrow’s handles and pushed back into the stable.
Schwartz’s rented room wasn’t quite dark anymore by the time he got back to it. Not fully light, either—it was still before dawn—but even without flipping on the fairy lamp, he could see clearly by the pale glow of the windows. Well, good; one less thing to do. He was so tired…
He stepped in, shut and locked the door behind himself, and turned to make his way for the bed. He could afford an actual apartment but considered it wasteful; this small loft had all the space he needed for his books and magical supplies, and keeping a bed tucked into a far corner suited him just fine. Only halfway there did he realize someone was present, lounging in his armchair.
“Oh!” he said, stopping and blinking in surprise. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you…”
“Good morning, Herschel,” Ami said sweetly. “How was your evening?”
“Ah, well, you know. Long. I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but it’s so late it’s early and I’m really—”
“WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?!”
Despite her usually dulcet tones, Ami Talaari’s voice had been trained for power as well as precision; she could project at a porcelain-cracking volume in an enclosed space. He actually staggered backward, Meesie squealing and puffing up in alarm.
“Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” the bard raged, surging to her feet and stalking toward him. “The last thing I heard, you’d gone haring off to some godawful hole full of all manner of thugs, to make friends, of all the ludicrous things! And then you don’t come home all night? I thought you were dead! I pictured you being tortured! I feared you were in jail!”
“I was!” he protested.
Ami halted her advance, and blinked once, slowly. “Run that by me again?”
“Well, I’m not sure if it was jail in a legal sense,” he said. “The Silver Legion raided the warehouse and rounded up everybody who couldn’t escape—which was just me and some poor Eserite apprentices who hardly seemed to know what was happening. And they let me out, obviously, once things were sorted out, but… Yes, that did take up the bulk of the night, I’m afraid. Sorry, I didn’t know you’d be waiting up. Um…you don’t usually visit at…this hour. How long have you been sitting here?”
She waved that away. “Well, I suppose I can’t entirely blame that on you, then. Did you at least gain any contacts within the Guild?”
Schwartz stepped slowly forward and pulled over one of the chairs at the table, sinking down into it. “Well… Actually, it’s kind of a funny story.”
Ami arched an eyebrow superciliously, crossing her arms under her bosom, and Schwartz was pleased that he neither blushed nor lost eye contact; he must be getting used to her. It wasn’t even that he thought of her that way, really, but she did have a most impressive bust. And she accented it regularly and, he was sure, quite deliberately.
“I’m all ears.”
“You wouldn’t rather wait till later in the day?”
Somehow, that eyebrow rose even higher.
“Yes, right,” he sighed. “Well. It turns out the Legion sergeant in charge of all this is also a member of the Thieves’ Guild. And she knew my father. She said he helped her once with something important and she owed him, and since he’s gone now, she considered it her duty to help me out.”
“Wait. Stop.” Ami held up one hand peremptorily. “Did you really just tell me this Silver Legion sergeant is in the Thieves’ Guild? Is that allowed? Is it even possible?”
“I was rather curious about that, too,” he said frankly. “So were the apprentices. But she had a handful of troops following her, as well as the priestess in residence at the Avenist facility where they took us, and nobody contradicted her. And honestly, if anybody could’ve found the one Eserite Legionnaire in all the world to strike up a friendship with, it would’ve been my dad.”
Meesie squeaked rather mournfully, patting his ear. He reached up to scratch her head with a fingertip. She had only known Anton Schwartz briefly, but the elder Schwartz had been quite fond of the little elemental.
“So,” he went on, shrugging, “in a way, this ended up being a more perfect result than we could’ve hoped for. And now I am really indescribably tired…”
“Hmm.” Ami turned to frown out the window, placing herself in profile relative to him, and he sighed and shifted his own eyes to stare stubbornly at a bookcase. There was no way she didn’t do this on purpose. “Yes, that does sound good, doesn’t it? But also risky. If she’s in the Legion… That’s awfully close to Basra.”
“Yes,” he said wearily, “which is why it’s perfect as opposed to merely great.”
“You know,” she mused, a smile growing over her features, “I do believe you’re right. Very well, then! I shall forgive you for making me worry. We had better get planning on…”
She trailed off, having turned to face him. Schwartz was slumped forward in his chair, emitting a soft buzzing noise from his nose. Meesie climbed up onto his head and squeaked once, pointing one paw warningly at Ami.
The bard sighed and shook her head, but permitted herself a small, fond smile. “All right, then. Tomorrow. There’s time.”
“Good morning, Locke!”
Principia sighed, pausing to salute, the rest of her squad straggling to a halt to emulate her. They were ragged—not that it had been a particularly grueling night, just a very long one. She and Nandi were faring well, but drawing from stores of energy in the event of sleeplessness was an elven skill they weren’t able to share with the squad.
“Morning, Captain,” she said as Dijanerad approached. “You’re up early.”
“No, I’m not,” the captain replied with a smile. “On army time, this is business as usual. You’re out late.”
“Wasn’t my idea, ma’am,” Principia replied. “But it ended up being a good night’s work.”
“And I’m afraid it’s not done yet,” Dijanerad said, her expression growing grimmer. “The High Commander wants you, Locke. Soon as you were back, which is now.”
Principia drew in a deep breath and let it out through her nose. “What could she possibly need at this hour?”
“Well, gee, Locke, I don’t know. I bet if you ask her that, in exactly that tone, it’ll make a perfect ice-breaker.”
“I don’t know if I mention it often enough, Cap, but you’re my favorite.”
“That’s because I’m far too tolerant of your horseshit, and no, you don’t. Best get cracking, Locke. Patience is among Commander Rouvad’s many virtues, but…not so much with you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting again, and turned back to her squad. “Go get some rest, ladies. Except you, Elwick. Five laps. Move it.”