Tag Archives: Casethin Mournais

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Everyone drifted off into groups when Glory excused herself from the room, but no one felt a desire to wander far. With the exception of Vandro, who swaggered off to prowl around the townhouse, they remained in the grand salon on the top floor. Thus, when the house’s doorbell rang, it was the work of only moments for all present guests to assemble themselves. By unspoken consensus, they did so there in the salon, not moving to meet the new arrival in the front hall.

Glory herself had just rejoined them when, with customarily preternatural timing, Smythe appeared to announce their newest visitor.

“Rumor, bearing word from Boss Tricks,” he said impassively.

She very nearly pushed him aside, striding into the room and irritably brushing snowflakes out of her mussed hair. “Yeah, yeah, I feel so pretty. How about something hot to—oh, thank fuck, here you assholes are. Now I can stop rolling around in the goddamn snow.”

“Uh…what?” Ross asked intelligently.

“Boss is looking for you,” Casethin replied, panning a disgruntled stare across them. “One, two… You’re missing one.”

“Jasmine is fine; she’s here as well,” Glory said smoothly. “Smythe, something warm for our guest to drink, please. You have news, Rumor?”

“And you’re looking for us?” Tallie asked, nonplussed.

“Okay, first things first, chronologically speaking,” Casethin said irritably. “I got back to the Guild just fine with word. The dwarf was telling the truth; they had Pick in their fucking basement.”

“Is he all right?” Grip asked quietly, without expression.

“Hadn’t been roughed up,” Rumor snorted. “Fucking dwarves. Too civilized for such brutish measures, puffed-up assholes. He’s been drugged to hell, though; was practically incoherent. No way of telling what they got out of him, but Vanda and the Boss both think it can’t have been much, or they wouldn’t have been chasing these little bastards as stubbornly as they were. Anyhow, Pick’s secured in one of Vanda’s safe houses, being tended by the best healer she could scrape up. He seems fairly okay; they’re not sure what he got dosed with exactly, but practically anything’ll wear off given time. Too risky out there to try getting him back to the Casino, though, so he’s stuck with our back-alley shaman, but Zephyr knows what he’s doing.”

“Why?” Glory asked. “What’s happening?”

“Will you let me talk?” Casethin retorted with poor grace, even as she accepted a mug of something steaming from a tray proffered by Smythe. “Seriously, I’ll go over everything. This is what I do, lemme work.” She paused to take a sip, then grimaced and turned accusingly to Smythe. “There is no booze in this. What’s wrong with you?”

“Rumor,” Glory said sharply.

“Yeah, all right, fine. I got past a hilariously ineffective attempt to trip me up by what’s left of that dwarven intelligence cell, made it to the Guild and reported in to the Boss. So he’s up to speed. I’m here because he sent me out to locate these junior fuckups,” she pointed accusingly at the knot of apprentices, “and bring them and everybody else on the list into the know. This was the fourth place. Your house was empty,” she added to Vandro, “and I’ve gotta say I’m surprised to find you here of all places, but now that I think of it, I don’t actually care what you’re up to, so kindly don’t explain.”

“How does the Boss have a list of places we might possibly be?” Darius asked, frowning.

“Because,” said Grip, “before I set out after you, we established that list; considering the situation, it seemed wise to have prearranged safe spots to bring you in case we couldn’t get back to the Guild.”

“What, you’re surprised?” Rumor grinned nastily. “You thought little ol’ Grip came to rescue you outta the goodness of her heart? Breaking news: she’s got neither goodness nor heart, and she’s so far up the Boss’s ass—”

“Is there anything else?” Glory asked pointedly.

“Yeah, there is.” Rumor’s expression sobered. “We’ve got dwarven activity out there. Lots of it, widespread.”

“Activity, hm?” Vandro swirled his whiskey glass idly. He was either on another or had just never finished the first. “What sort?”

“We don’t know, and that’s put everything on hold.” Rumor took another long sip of her drink, then stalked over to the nearest chair and plunked herself down with a wince. “Oof, my poor fucking feet… Okay, so obviously, once it got back to the Boss that these fuckers had imprisoned and drugged a member of the Guild, open season was declared upon them. That’s one of the things I’m to spread around; we’re mustering. Every Guild agent in the city who’s able and inclined is to assemble at the Casino for orders, preparatory to ending these assholes for good and all.”

“For heaven’s sake,” Layla sniffed, “why did it take this long? If foreign agents were pursuing his apprentices, I should think the first hint of that was the appropriate time for a preventive show of force.”

“Who the shit is this?” Casethin demanded.

“No one,” Darius said firmly, placing a hand over Layla’s mouth when she opened it to protest.

“Allow me to answer the question, little lady,” Vandro chimed in. “We’re not the Sisterhood, or the Huntsmen; the Boss is basically a glorified housekeeper, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Eserites don’t fall in and march at anyone’s order. But when our own are attacked? That’s another matter.”

“The last time something like this happened was a year ago,” Glory added, “almost exactly. Three Army officers dragged one of our information brokers into an alley and beat her. Every Guild agent in the city mobilized to essentially shut down that entire barracks. Much as we prize our independence, we do not suffer entrenched powers to abuse our people.”

“Uh huh, that’s very nice with the history and doctrine and all,” Casethin said impatiently (despite having taken the opportunity of their conversation to finish her drink), “but I have actually important news. These dwarves have been mobilizing at the same time as we are, which is why Boss’s current orders are to assemble at the Casino and not engage ’em.”

“Wait, mobilizing who?” Rasha asked. “I thought you guys said they couldn’t have many people left.”

“That was Jasmine’s assessment, and it was solid logic,” said Tallie. “It’s not like we know, though. Yeah, mobilizing, who, exactly?”

“Dunno,” Rumor said, frowning, “but lots. We got dwarves crawling out of the fuckin’ woodwork all of a sudden. When I left the Casino—and this was a couple hours back, so no telling what’s going on now—there were three entire carriage-loads of armed dwarves appearing via the city gates, the Svenheim embassy just went on some kind of alert with armed guards at all entrances, and suddenly dwarves have been appearing, just, everywhere. In groups, lots with weapons. Least fifty, that we knew of last I was in the loop.”

“The timing doesn’t work,” Grip said sharply. “If you went right from Glass Alley to the Casino, and then set off to search for us, how the hell do you already have this much detail?”

“Yeah, that’s the scary part,” Rumor said with a grim scowl. “They are very deliberately making it known what they’re doing. These armed groups? They’re popping up in front of known Guild facilities, or at least the homes and workplaces of members. They’re showing us they’ve got numbers and mean business.”

“How can they possibly have that many people ready to mobilize in Tiraas?” Darius exclaimed. “I thought intelligence cells had to be small!”

“Dwarves do not have the same relationship to their government that we do,” Glory mused. “Some may just be travelers and tradespeople who happened to be in the city and answered a call put out in the name of their king. Then, again, at least some were undoubtedly sleeper agents. Every government has at least a handful of those in every foreign capital, at least any large enough to afford it. Or perhaps Svenheim had people in Tiraas for another purpose, and the operatives with whom you’ve been dealing were able to activate them..”

“Doesn’t really matter, in the short term,” Rumor grunted. “They’re out there, armed, and in enough numbers that us crackin’ down on ’em wouldn’t be a crackdown so much as a goddamn battle. Boss is sending people to watch ’em, but orders are it’s to be strictly hands off for now.”

“Hmm.” Vandro sipped his drink. “I have to hand it to the bastards, that is a good play. Have you seen any reaction from the Empire yet?”

“Not when I left,” Casethin said with a shrug and a grimace. “There damn well has to have been one by now, though. There’s no way Imperial Intelligence would fail to notice this going on.”

“And that enforces a detente,” said Glory, nodding. “With the dwarves and the Guild both arming up and the nature of the situation obscured, whoever shoots first will be the recipient of the Empire’s full wrath. Most long-lasting governments treat the Guild with a modicum of respect, but no legal authority will tolerate anything that resembles an insurgency flaring up in its own capital. However, it also starts the clock ticking. It won’t take Intelligence long to get enough details to step in, one way or the other. Whatever they mean to do, they’ll do soon.”

“Damn good play,” Vandro said admiringly.

“This is insanity!” Layla protested. “The Kingdom of Svenheim is not in such a secure situation that they can afford to do this. It’s potentially an act of war, and the Empire would decisively crush any of the Five Kingdoms!”

“The Empire could decisively crush all five together in open war,” Glory corrected, “though actually invading and occupying dwarven territory is tremendously unwise. That may be beside the point, however. I cannot believe the matter of these staves is important enough to Svenheim to risk war. Without doubt, every dwarf responding to this call will have some kind of deniability. The Empire may well know that they were involved in organizing it, but so long as none of these individuals are provably in the pay of their crown and their actions do not cross certain lines, Sharidan and Eleanora won’t react with excessive hostility. They do risk severely undermining the very important trade negotiations going on, however.” She narrowed her eyes in thought. “It doesn’t add up. Why is this so important to them? And if it is, why are they only acting in such force now?”

“Yeah, well, this part’s over my head,” Rumor grunted, getting up and casually tossing the empty mug to Smythe. “I gotta report back to the Boss now I know where you are. And then I’ll probably end up trudging through the goddamn snow all night carrying messages…”

“What about Pick?” Ross asked. “I mean, and Ironeye and the others? If the dwarves are arming up, aren’t they in danger?”

Rumor snorted derisively, already stomping toward the door. “Safer’n any of us. Glass Alley is a killing ground for anybody who takes Vanda on in force. I think these fuckers are too smart to try, but if they do…good.”

Smythe gave Glory a pointed look as he followed her out, prompting her to sigh.

“Well…what now?” Darius asked once they had left the room. “We can’t just sit here!”

“Oh, we’re gonna sit here, all right,” said Vandro. “This is no time to go charging out into the snow. But you’re right, son, we can’t just sit here. The trick is making the right preparations when we don’t know what the enemy intends.”

“No armed dwarves have appeared in this neighborhood, in force or otherwise,” Glory mused. “The constabulary would respond immediately to that, and I am not the only local resident with security wards which would detect such activity. We are, for the moment, as tentatively safe as before we knew of this.”

“Nambini at Traisis Ford.”

Rasha started at the sudden voice, and everyone turned to stare at Jasmine, who was just inside the salon’s rear door, leaning her back against its frame, arms folded. She had been inside long enough that the snow had melted from her hair, though there were still visibly wet patches on the shoulders of her coat.

“Wh—how long have you been there?” Darius demanded. “And what the hell was that jibberish?”

“Long enough to catch the high notes,” she said. “And it was an example.”

“Hmm,” Glory said, a slow smile creeping across her face. “Interesting idea, Jasmine.”

“What idea?” Tallie exclaimed.

“Honestly,” Layla huffed, “didn’t any of you go to school?”

“Darius, I’m gonna punch her,” Tallie announced.

“No, you’re not,” he said firmly, then turned to point at Ralph, who had abruptly jumped up from his seat near the window and taken a step toward them. “No, she’s not! Sit down!”

“During the conquest of the Stalrange,” said Jasmine, “most of the Empire’s military was obviously there. At one point a pocket of Stalweiss guerrillas took to summoning demons behind Imperial lines to disrupt the Army, which caused two Silver Legions to be routed there as support. A single half-strength Legion was left behind to patrol Viridill. At that time, three orcish clans formed a horde pact and crossed the river from Athan’Khar. With Viridill mostly undefended, the Legionnaires under the command of a then Hand of Avei, Nambini Onpomba, retreated to Vrin Shai, gathering up civilians as they went.”

“That’s fascinating,” Tallie said with heavy sarcasm, “but what the hell—”

“Shh,” said Rasha, poking her shoulder. “Jasmine doesn’t talk without a point.”

“I think I see where this is headin’,” Vandro added, grinning. “Go on, girl.”

Jasmine glanced at him expressionlessly, but continued. “The defenders were safe in Vrin Shai, which is virtually impervious to siege, but hiding behind its walls allowed the orcs free reign across the province. So Nambini tricked them. She led a force disguised as feeling refugees out of the city by cover of night, pretended to be accidentally spotted, and fled to the ford at Traisis, where she had sent actually discreet forces to prepare an ambush. The orcs had the superior numbers, but they were baited into a trap and routed. Nambini sacrificed a safe position in order to destroy what should have been a superior enemy on ground of her own choosing.”

“Okaaay,” said Darius, nodding. “I get the point of your enigmatic pronouncement now, and quite frankly, neither the mystery routine nor the history lesson were necessary. I take it you’ve got a slightly more detailed plan than that?”

Jasmine frowned, shifting her focus to the senior Guild members in the room. “How possible is it to move discreetly around the city with all this going on?”

“Extremely,” Grip said immediately. “One or two people can evade notice easily, assuming a modicum of competence. Best way would be to take the sewers. I assume Glory has a sewer access on the premises; every Guild agent with an actual house does.”

“I most certainly do,” Glory added with a smile, “and I appreciate your discretion, Quintessa, but I am also aware that you know where it is.”

“We’re kinda known for using sewers, aren’t we?” Ross asked. “I mean, ‘we’ being Eserites. Won’t they be expecting that?”

Grip smiled unpleasantly. “I’ll come along to guide you, Jasmine. If the dwarves manage an ambush, it’ll be us, in the sewers, with no witnesses. I am pretty sure we can make that work to our benefit. What’s your plan?”

Jasmine nodded and straightened. “Everyone please make preparations to move out as a group. I have a strategy in mind, but I need to go set the trap before we can bait and spring it.”

“Uh, that doesn’t really answer the question,” Darius pointed out. “What is the plan? I mean, didn’t we just hear about how letting this come to a fight isn’t a winning move right now? And here you are talking military strategy…”

Jasmine smiled faintly. “War is deception. We need to think like Eserites; think of it not as a battle, but…”

“A con,” said Vandro, nodding. “And you’re right, kiddo. A good general is the best con artist of all.”

“Where to?” Grip asked, unfolding herself from her chair. “Gonna gather up your buddy Schwartz?”

“I don’t think we’ll have time, much as I’m worried about him,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I really hope he’s safely in the Collegium… But no. We make for the Temple of Avei. Lead the way, Grip.”

“I’ve been in there for hours!” Schwartz hissed as Principia practically shoved him out of the waiting chamber and into the hall, Meesie squeaking a counterpoint to his indignation from atop his head. “Where in the Dark Lady’s name have you been? Didn’t my message express how urgent this is?!”

“Shh,” she said sharply, pushing the door shut. “I’m sorry, Herschel, I only just found out. And you are very lucky I did; believe me, it is not standard practice to hold people against their will when they come warning the Legion of…well, anything. Bishop Syrinx appears to have set preparations to keep you on ice if you came looking for me. I barely got here ahead of her; I really don’t want to think about what would have happened had she managed to corner you in that waiting room with nobody in the know.”

“Those soldiers were just doing their duty,” Ephanie said as she and the three other members of Squad One present fell in behind Principia, who was hurrying Schwartz down the hall. “Covrin aside, she doesn’t bother to personally recruit privates; they’d have known, and been able to tell the chain of command you were here. I doubt she’d have done any significant harm.”

“I make no assumptions and take no risks with regard to that woman,” Principia said darkly.

“You didn’t get any message, did you,” Schwartz said sourly.

“Not yours,” she replied, steering him down a side hall. “I just got word from a friend that you were here.”


She glanced at him sidelong with a faint smile. “Someone who knew you’d come here, knew there was a trap set, and was in a position to both warn me and distract Basra long enough for me to reach you first.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding, “I’m glad Jenoof!”

Principia had jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. “Shut up, boy! No names, respect her cover. Basra is undoubtedly on her way right now.”

“That’s correct,” said a new voice. Nandi Shahai appeared from a side door, beckoning them forward. “And it’s a good thing I was keeping an ear out. We have minutes, Sergeant, maybe seconds.”

Principia glanced rapidly up and down the hall, then said curtly, “In here. What’d you hear?” she asked Shahai as she ushered Schwartz through the door. It led to a conference room of sorts, mostly open in plan but with chairs lining the walls and a blackboard at one of the narrow ends.

“Covrin kept Basra away as long as she could,” Shahai said very softly as the rest of Squad One filed in and fell into a defensive formation around Schwartz and Principia. “Then, in order to avoid blowing her cover and affirm her support, she had to reveal to Basra not only that Schwartz was here, but that you had found him and were taking him away. Both are en route.”

“Ugh, this fucks everything up,” Principia growled, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I had a strategy in place, which is now out the window; confronting her this early will put us right back at square one.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Schwartz said testily, “but none of this was my idea.”

“Not your fault,” Principia assured him, patting his arm. “You did the right thing, Herschel, coming here. And you’re right, if the dwarves are getting this pushy, we need to get word to the apprentices. I just hope you haven’t been delayed too long; if they’re safe in the Casino, good, but the Guild doesn’t like to keep its younglings cooped up. This is important; Basra Syrinx is a nuisance and a distraction, that’s all. I’ll figure out something else to deal with her when I have time to worry about it.”

“Isn’t that good to know,” Basra herself said brightly, striding into the room with Jenell hovering behind her. “Since I’m well aware that you could hear me coming, shall I interpret this as a threat?”

“Much as I enjoy our little dances, your Grace, I’m afraid I don’t have time,” Principia said with a polite smile. “I’ve just received word that our allies in the Guild may be in immediate danger. If you will excuse us…”

“Ah, yes. Hello, Mr. Schwartz.” The Bishop turned her pleasant expression on him, smirking faintly when Meesie chattered a warning and put off a tiny puff of sparks. “How lovely to see you again. Well! Since we are all here and I have, after all, been assigned to this same project, shall we go?”

“Who says you’re coming?” Schwartz snapped, glaring daggers at her.

“I actually can answer that,” Basra mused, “acting as I am on orders from the High Commander, but your question is avoiding the real issue, which is your apparent belief that you get a say in anything I do.” She smiled more widely, showing the tips of her teeth. “Or, for that matter, in anything that goes on in my presence. I had thought I made myself abundantly clear on this issue when we last spoke, but as it seems you are determined to tweak my nose, let me just remind you…” Her smile hardened, and suddenly there was something subtly wild in the set of her eyes. “You are not always going to have Locke’s skirts to hide behind, boy. Your ineptitude and irrelevance is your saving grace. Should you actually succeed, somehow, in irritating me—”

“Touch him and I’ll kill you.”

Total silence fell.

“I’m sorry, Sergeant,” Basra said silkily after a moment, “I don’t think I heard you correctly.”

“You heard me just fine,” Principia stated. The rest of her squad were staring at her with wide eyes, as was Jenell. The exception being Shahai, who merely tilted her head inquisitively. “You’ve been looking for a way to actually hurt me, which you didn’t have before. Well, you found one. Herschel is the child of an old friend and I care about him. Therefore, let me make this explicitly plain: harm him, and I will immediately end your life.”

“Oh, my dear Sergeant Locke,” Basra said, grinning outright. “You needn’t go and make this so easy for me. I was just beginning to enjoy the game.”

“I’ve explained this to you once, Basra. You may not recall; you were rather distracted by being humiliated and exiled that evening.” Principia grinned right back, just as nastily. “This is only a game because I am choosing, for reasons of my own, to play by the Sisterhood’s rules. You are in no way prepared to contend with me if I decide to throw everything to the wind and simply remove you. Push me hard enough that I’m willing to abandon my squad and the Legions, and you’ll be dead within a fortnight. Not immediately, because I’ll need to make certain preparations. You don’t deserve to go quickly or quietly.”

“Locke,” Basra said sibilantly, sliding her sword six inches out of its sheath, “I could spend the evening reciting all the things far deadlier than you which have tried to kill me, and which are now dead. Just in the last year; those have been the best ones, and every one of them frightened me more than you do—which is to say, not in the least little bit. If you want to stop playing politely, by all means, give me the excuse—”


Everyone in the room shifted to stare at the door, in which had appeared Jasmine, scowling in fury. A blonde woman in dark clothes was standing at her shoulder, one eyebrow raised sardonically.

“Here I thought I was fortunate,” Jasmine growled, stalking into the room, “to find two privates who just happened to know where the very people I wanted were. But I get here, and what do I find? Two grown, apparently intelligent, allegedly competent women, loudly indulging in a feud, in front of a Salyrite and their own troops…” She kicked the door shut, barely giving Grip a chance to make it inside. “With the door open, you unbelievable ninnies!”

“Excuse me,” Merry said sharply, “but just what do you think—”

“Lang, shush,” Casey hissed, nudging her with an elbow.

“Excuse you,” Merry snapped, but subsided at a glare from Ephanie.

Basra cleared her throat. “Allow me to—”

“Silence!” Jasmine didn’t even look at her, taking two long strides toward Principia. “Lives are at stake. We have a duty to attend to. I will not have this, do you both understand? If you two are so determined to be up each other’s butts, I promise you in a completely non-metaphorical sense, I CAN MAKE THAT HAPPEN.” She stopped barely a foot from the sergeant, staring her down. “I realize that Commander Rouvad and your captain both indulge your antics to a point because of your usefulness, Sergeant Locke. I am not them. So long as you wear that uniform, you will conduct yourself in a manner which brings nothing but honor and dignity to it. That is the end of the subject. I will not have to speak of this to you again. Understood?”

Principia cleared her throat. “There are—”

She fell instantly silent when Jasmine took another step forward, glaring at her from inches away, now.

“There is exactly one acceptable response from you,” she said in deadly quiet.

“…yes, ma’am.”

“And that will be the entirety of your vocabulary in my presence for the forseeable future, unless you have an unassailable reason otherwise. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Who the hell is this kid?” Merry demanded. Despite her furious expression, she didn’t dare raise her voice above a stage whisper.

“Shut your yap!” Casey hissed back.

“All yaps shut!” Ephanie snapped.

“And as for you, Syrinx.” Jasmine turned to the Bishop, her expression not lightening in the slightest. “I’ve spoken with the High Commander about you at some length.”

“Oh, have you now,” Basra said impassively.

“Your issues,” Jasmine stated, “are not my responsibility. You are not under my command. I can’t give you orders, as you well know. So let me be plain: in no way does that mean you don’t need to concern yourself with me.”

The room lit up with a golden glow of such intensity that most of them had to avert their eyes. The eagle wings which spread from behind Jasmine barely had space to extend themselves.

“Ohhh,” Merry whispered. “Kay, I’m up to speed.”

Schwartz’s jaw dropped.

“You know where the lines are drawn, Syrinx,” Trissiny said, holding the Bishop’s gaze. “Cross them again, and it’s not going to matter how good you are with that sword. Put it back in the sheath.”

After a moment of silence so complete that the faintest chiming of the paladin’s aura could be detected at the very edge of hearing, Basra obeyed.

“And unless you want to learn whether you can outsmart a spear of divine light through your heart, you will henceforth behave yourself no less assiduously than Locke. Have I made myself plain?”

After another beat, Basra incongruously smiled. “Admirably so, General.”

“Fine.” The golden light suddenly winked out, leaving them blinking, and she turned her back on the Bishop and the Sergeant. “Schwartz, I’m really glad to see you’re safe. We were all worried.”

“Aiee,” he squeaked.

Trissiny grimaced. “And…I would appreciate it if you’d keep all of this to yourself.”

“I, um, of course!” He swallowed heavily. “I mean, though, wow, I never… That is, uh, mum’s the word.”

Meesie chirped smugly.

“For the rest of you,” Ephanie added, looking pointedly at Merry and Casey, “that is an order.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the entire rest of the squad chorused, with the exception of Principia, whose face was uncharacteristically devoid of expression.

Trissiny shook her head. “With that out of the way, I came here for a reason. Sergeant Locke, I am activating your squad. I will need you formed up and on the march as quickly as possible. Most of you, that is; designate your most best runner to send a message across the city. There are more reinforcements I need gathered.”

“That’s not necessary,” Basra said smoothly. “Squad One function splendidly at a unit, and are already under strength without being split up. I can fetch whoever else you need, General Avelea.”

Trissiny turned to give her a long, careful look.

“If you’re concerned about my response to being badgered and threatened, good,” Basra continued without apparent rancor. “That’s something you should consider before risking throwing away an ally in the future.”

“Do you really think,” Trissiny said flatly, “after what I just walked in on, you are in a position to lecture me?”

“I am correcting you,” Basra replied, “because I consider you the most promising paladin we have had in the last thousand years. Not one of your predecessors would even have thought to seek out the expanded skill set and mindset you are. But sooner rather than later, you’re going to find yourself dealing with someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and then slip-ups like that will cost you. For now,” she nodded deeply, nearly a bow, “how can I help?”

“Oh, please,” Grip said, dripping scorn. “Tell me you’re not buying that load of crap.”

“Grip,” Trissiny said, turning slowly to face her, “we are standing in the Temple of Avei. I can throw you in a cell just for what I’ve seen you do tonight. And that’s only talking legally; physically, I can throw you anywhere I want. Shut. Up.”

Grip, for some reason, grinned in evident delight, but said nothing in response.

“All right, as for the rest of you.” Trissiny turned back to face the soldiers, the Bishop, and Schwartz. “Here are your orders.”

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11 – 19

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“Nothing,” Rasha said moments later, rising from where he had been crouched by the door. “There’s no lock, no…nothing. These bars came out of some mechanism in the door frame itself, nothing I can work at with a lockpick.”

“Do you actually have a lockpick on you?” Darius said pointedly.

Rasha scowled and rubbed his palms on his trousers. “Well, it’s sort of academic now, isn’t it?”

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!” said the bait device with disgusting good cheer.

“Shame,” said Tallie from the opposite side of the room, experimentally tugging on the bars blocking off the other door. “You’re pretty nimble with picks, for someone who’s new at it. Or so Flora said. Okay, this fucker isn’t budging. Whatever they’re attached to is in there good. Unless someone with a little more beef would care to have a go?”

“Way ahead of you,” Darius grunted. Rasha had moved aside to let him hook his hands over the scratched and half-decayed wooden frame of the door. It creaked in protest, then shifted an inch. The whole place looked to be on the verge of falling apart. Ross moved up next to him, also getting a grip; at a nod from Darius, he heaved back as well, and there came a crack of splintering wood as the frame was wrenched loose another few inches.

Tallie and Schwartz backed away against the opposite wall to watch; Jasmine, after glancing up at them, busied herself prowling among the dusty bottles of cleaning supplies on the shelves.

Darius crowed in triumph as he and Ross finally ripped an entire chunk of the door frame free, bringing with it a substantial piece of the half-rotten wood of the adjacent wall. His jubilation died almost instantly, and everyone pressed forward, craning their necks to see what he’d found.

“Okay, so, something’s just occurred to me,” Darius said, rapping his knuckles on the plate of solid iron which had been behind the old wood paneling. “The bitch who set us up for this was dressed entirely in…well, this stuff.”

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

“Don’t see any seams,” Ross grunted, peering closely at the heavier iron lining the now partially exposed doorway. “The mechanism would be in the bottom… This doesn’t match the building. This is solid.”

“It goes all the way around,” Schwartz said quietly, his eyes closed. “Except the floor, that’s just stone… Um, sensing elemental composition isn’t my strongest suit, but if you give me some minutes to meditate I can look for weak points.”

“What kind of fucking maniac builds an iron room in the back of a disused shop and dresses it up to look all innocent?” Tallie snarled.

“I think you met her,” Darius said wryly. “Remember? The scary-as-fuck one with the lightning and the harpoons and explosives and holy fuck what is going on in this district?!”

“I’m afraid it’s worse than that,” Schwartz said, grimacing and opening his eyes. “I’ve got spells that could easily break us out of an old cleaning closet and possibly an iron cell, but… There’s some kind of arcane circuitry running behind these walls. I can feel it now that I try, but I’m no arcanist; I can’t tell what it does. My fae magic could cause…um, a really bad reaction.”

“Well, maybe that’s our solution?” Darius suggested. “Cause a bad reaction, blow out a chunk of the wall?”

“How about no,” Ross growled.

“Exactly,” Schwartz said emphatically. “Be the subject magic, chemistry, politics or interpersonal relations, the rule of thumb is: if it’s volatile, don’t blindly poke at it.”

Meesie, sitting upright in his hair, squeaked in agreement, nodding her tiny head.

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

Tallie clapped a hand over her eyes. “Jasmine, sweetie, while you’re over there…?”

Jasmine had begun sorting the bottles into different clusters; at Tallie’s prompting, she paused, picked up the enchanted device with the voice, raised it over her head and slammed it onto the stone floor, where most of its pieces shattered. Just for good measure—or maybe just for emphasis—she stomped hard on the remains, splintering them further.

“Thank you,” Tallie said fervently.

“My pleasure,” Jasmine replied. “Okay, nobody panic, I think I have an idea.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” Rasha said tersely.

“Schwartz, a couple of questions,” she said, turning to the witch.

He held his arms wide in an expansive gesture, smiling ruefully. “Clearly, my time is yours.”

Jasmine grinned faintly before continuing. “First, can you work some of your magic in here if you’re not doing it at the walls themselves?”

He frowned, then turned in a slow circle, peering this way and that at something the rest of them couldn’t see. “Hm. Hmmm… I can’t tell much about the nature of these enchantments, but I think it’s probably just to make the iron resistant to magical tampering… Yes, I don’t find any triggers in there. Something would likely have reacted to Meesie if it was going to.”

“Good,” she said, nodding. “And are there any charms like that on the bars themselves?”

Tallie moved aside, giving him space to examine the bars of the rear door. “Um… It’s faint. Just because there’s less metal, I think. Actually, this I can see close enough to be fairly sure it’s a standard strengthening enchantment. I’m no arcanist, like I said, but arcane enchantment is everywhere, these days. If you’re going to practice the Craft in any capacity, you learn to recognize most of the old standbys.”

“Perfect,” she said in satisfaction. “Here’s what I need: can you whip up a spell to aggressively purify the air?”

“Your allergies acting up?” Darius said snidely.

Schwartz blinked, then frowned. “Um…sure, that’s child’s play. Why?”

“Because,” Jasmine said, turning back to the selection of bottles she had moved aside onto their own shelf, “I’ve got the ingredients here to make a potent solution that’ll dissolve iron. However, it will also put off some extremely toxic fumes which would kill us in about two minutes in an enclosed space like this. So unless you can cleanse poison out of the air, that’s a no go.”

“Uhh…” His frown deepened. “I see. Yes, I can do that. I can also add small charms to each of us to improve our breathing, and depending on what kinds of fumes you’re talking about, I think the more protection, the better.”

“Sounds like a good policy,” she said, nodding. “All right, get to work on that, if you would, please. Everybody stand back from the drain; I need some bottles for mixing, so I’m gonna pour a few of these out.”

“You’re an alchemist?” Tallie said sharply, staring hard at her.

“Oh, goodness, no,” Jasmine replied, kneeling to very carefully pour a faintly shimmering blue solution into the small grate in the floor. “Alchemy is basically chemistry with magically reactive substances. Like chemistry, it’s a whole lot of math and memorizing tables and reactions… I really don’t have a head for the theory. I had a really good alchemy teacher, though. Actually, the man’s a howling idiot, but he does know his subject. He did a whole unit on useful stuff you can make from common household alchemicals. That I paid attention to; I like practical knowledge. This stuff is all old, but what I need appears to be still good.”

“Who are you?” Tallie demanded.

Jasmine hesitated in pouring, then lifted her head to give her a guarded look. “I thought we agreed not to ask questions like that.”

“Don’t give me that,” Tallie shot back. “I told you all my whole story. These two are just a couple of guys, nothing special,” she added, pointing at Darius and Ross.

“Hey,” Ross protested, frowning.

“Just for that, you sleep alone tonight,” Darius said with a smirk.

“Rasha is here because he’s mousy and effeminate and has been picked on his whole life, and the Guild is a religion based on taking down bullies. Sorry, Rasha, but that was all pretty transparent,” she added.

Rasha scowled, but then shrugged fatalistically, saying nothing.

“You, though.” Tallie folded her arms, staring at Jasmine through narrowed eyes. “You insist on being such a mystery. You’re some kind of martial arts savant, trained by the Sisterhood and… What did that guy say? Punaji? Drow? And now this. Jasmine, who the hell has an alchemy teacher?!”

“Anybody who’s been to college,” Ross grunted. “Or had private tutors.”

“There, see?” Tallie pointed accusingly at him. “That isn’t normal!”

“It’s not abnormal,” Schwartz offered weakly.

“You know,” Jasmine said quietly, “you raise a good point, Tallie. I…haven’t really appreciated the advantages I’ve been given. At least, not enough. I think I owe some people thanks, and maybe apologies.” She smiled up at the other girl. “Thanks for that. Sometimes we all need a little kick in the pants.”

“That was not the point!” Tallie shouted.

Meesie chittered irritably at her, pointedly tugging at her long ears.

“Tallie,” Darius said soothingly. “Sweetheart. Baby. Honeypie.”

“Asshole, are you trying to see how much it takes to make me come over there and neuter you with leftover alchemicals?”

“I’m making a point,” he said, “and holy shit, girl, we need to settle on a safe word before getting into that kind of fun stuff. Seriously, though, Jas is right. We’re all here for another start; her past becomes our business when she decides to share it, and not before. Leave it alone.”

Tallie folded her arms, grumbling sullenly.

“Also,” Darius added, winking, “there was subtext, there. You are getting close to needing a kick in the pants if you can’t respect everybody’s privacy.”

“Fine, whatever!” Tallie thew her hands up and began pacing back and forth at the short end of the room, having to about-face every three steps.

A silence fell, in which Schwartz retreated to one corner of the little room and began rummaging in his pockets for spell components, and Jasmine set to work very carefully mixing fluids on the floor by the drain.

“Soooo,” Darius said after a few long moments. “Who wants to tell ghost stories?”

Tallie’s shoe hit him in the face before he noticed she’d taken it off.

Less than half an hour later, Tallie tried the handle of the door to the front room of the shop, which was now accessible, the iron bars having been removed and stacked in the corner. Nubs of melted iron remained at the top and bottom of the door, but the solution, despite the acrid fumes it had put off, did not actually heat the metal; Jasmine had warned them not to touch what remained, but at least no warmth emanated from it. The metal floor grate had also dissolved when she poured the leftover solution into it, discarding what remained into the sewers.

At least the place smelled nice. Thanks to Schwartz’s magic, the air in the dingy supply closet was now bracingly clear and crisp, very much like the atmosphere in a mountain forest in the early morning. It even smelled faintly of pine, which he insisted was a coincidence.

The door, though, was still locked. Tallie sighed, rolled her eyes, and turned to Rasha.

“Don’t see a keyhole on that one either,” he said with a shrug.

“Shut by itself, remember?” Ross added. “Must have mechanisms in the hinges.”

“I knew you poured that stuff out too early,” Tallie said accusingly to Jasmine.

“Actually,” Jasmine countered, “without the iron bars blocking it, that’s just a door, I bet. Ross, would you be so kind?”

“Glad to,” he rumbled, backing up a few steps.

The room wasn’t wide enough to give him much of a running start, but Ross was heavy, and a lot of that was muscle. At the first solid impact of his shoulder against the door, it tore right off its hinges, collapsing to the floor in the shop outside and kicking up a veritable hurricane of disturbed dust. The newly liberated apprentices retreated as one from freedom, coughing and trying to wave the resulting smog away.

“Excuse me, I believe this is my venue,” said Schwartz, pushing to the front of the group. Planting himself in a wide stance in the doorway, he raised both hands dramatically.

The blast of wind which erupted forth from his palms ripped through the shop, knocking over bottles, blowing down hanging herbs and stirring up even more dust, even as it carried the rest away. The bell jangled in protest as the front door of the shop was banged outward, rebounding off the wall outside. Schwartz kept up the pressure until the last of the greasy cloud of dust had been expelled fully out onto the street of Glass Alley.

Finally, he lowered his hands, and the wind subsided. Schwartz lifted his nose, smugly surveying his handiwork.

“I say we keep him!” Darius said cheerfully, clapping Schwartz on the shoulder nearly hard enough to make the reedy man stumble. “C’mon, how many thieves have their own wizard? I promise I’ll look after him! I’ll feed him and brush him and walk him every day…”

Meesie chittered reprovingly at him.

“Witch,” Schwartz corrected a little stiffly, adjusting his glasses. “Not a wizard. That’s a different school of magic entirely.”

“Darius, quit pissing people off for five minutes,” Tallie said, shoving him toward the door. “Don’t mind him, Schwartz. He’s a dickhead, but he doesn’t mean any harm.”

“Actually he somewhat reminds me of my little sister,” Schwartz remarked. He seemed mystified when she devolved into gales of laughter at that. Darius opened and closed his mouth, for once at a loss for words.

“Uh, ‘scuze me,” Ross rumbled. “This was a trap. It won’t be ignored. We shouldn’t hang around.”

“Good call,” Jasmine said firmly. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Are we still going to look for that magic shop?”

“Oh, hell yes we are,” Tallie declared, the mirth fading from her features. “After all the bullshit we’ve put up with, I’m not about to drop this now. C’mon, guys, let’s move out. And starting now, we take no prisoners.”

“When did we take any prisoners before?” Darius asked, scratching his head.

“Actually, it was kind of the other way around,” Rasha said helpfully. “We got taken—”

“Move it!” Tallie barked.

Most of Glass Alley had seemed to have a few disreputable-looking people here and there, or so they’d noticed in passing. To judge by the speed with which Schwartz’s attackers had assembled a mob, there must have been more out of sight, alert for the sounds of trouble or opportunity. What these folk did all day remained an open question, but whatever it was, anyone in the vicinity of the trapped apothecary’s shop had clearly taken the explosion of dust and wind from its front doors as a signal to be somewhere else. The usual loiterers were notably absent from the street outside when the apprentices and Schwartz emerged.

With some notable exceptions.

Two women were standing on the sidewalk immediately outside the shop, one of whom they already knew.

“You broke out?” said Casethin, who had acquired a bottle of whiskey in the time it had taken them to reach, get snared in and break out of the shop. “Oh, crap. That’s not good.”

“You’re goddamn right it’s not,” Tallie growled, glaring at her and cracking her knuckles ostentatiously. “And oh, look! Someone without scary armor and magic tricks who’s been sent to see how that little prank turned out. Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe I feel a violent episode coming on.”

“Whoah, keep it in your pants!” Casethin raised the hand not occupied with her bottle soothingly; she didn’t retreat or seem particularly upset by the threat, however. “Kid, I don’t have any stake in this. You can bust out, stay in jail, take over the Guild or die of the pox for all the difference it makes to me.” She paused to take a long swig before continuing. “That was a sympathetic ‘oh, crap.’ Now you’ve gone an’ flouted Vanda’s authority, and damaged her property. She is gonna be pissed.”

“I’m not at all certain how much I care about that,” Schwartz said loftily, folding his arms. On his shoulder, Meesie imitated the gesture, squeaking in agreement.

Darius cleared his throat. “Um, I think I’ll care about that a little if I have to discuss it with her. Let’s haul ass to someplace else so we don’t have to care about it. I dunno if you guys remember, but that didn’t strike me as a lady we ought to screw around with.”

“Smart boy,” said Casethin.

“Now that’s something I bet you don’t get called often,” Rasha remarked.

“There’s a time and a place, Rash,” Darius retorted.

“It’s Rasha.”

“I know what I said.”

“The Finder’s Fee,” Tallie said shortly, still glaring at Casethin. “Where is it.”

The redhead raised an eyebrow and had another drink. “Really? You’d follow my directions there? Not quick learners, are you?”

“What I’m thinking,” Tallie said, “is that since Ironeye’s apparently already gonna be pissed with us, it won’t make things much worse to haul you there by the scruff of the neck and bounce you off a few walls if it turns out to be the wrong place.”

“Child,” Casethin said condescendingly, “I am a fully trained and tagged member of the Thieves’ Guild. You kids are already gonna catch a whoopin’ from Style when Vanda finishes complaining to her. Style hates listening to complaints, but Vanda’s not somebody she can just brush off. So guess who that’ll get taken out on? Sure, you can prob’ly kick my ass, some of you look pretty scrappy. I was you, though, I’d be thinking about what happens after that.”

“The Finder’s Fee is reached directly by a side alley which starts just around the curve of the road,” said the other woman suddenly. She was Sifanese by appearance and had traces of that accent, as well as a husky quality to her voice which hinted at an old throat injury. “It is between a red brick structure and an old Army supply depot, currently condemned and barricaded.”

There was a pause while everyone shifted their attention to her, including Casethin, who for some reason looked annoyed.

“And,” Darius prompted, “you are…?”

“Gimmick,” said the Sifanese woman with a faint smile. “Also a member of the Guild. Not a member of Vanda Frost’s little…clique.”

“No, you’re here representing another clique,” Casethin said sourly. “I may just take a vacation. Somethin’ tells me Vanda’s gonna be breaking furniture tonight, what with one thing and another…”

“All right,” Tallie said warily, studying Gimmick as if for the hidden trap in her helpful tip. “Thanks. Would you mind accompanying us there? I’m a little tired of getting lost in this district.”

“Oh, Sparkler will not see you,” Gimmick said languidly. “Rumor, here, has made certain of that.”

“What rumor?” Rasha demanded.

“Yo.” Casethin raised the hand clutching her whiskey.

“In fact,” Gimmick said smoothly, “you will find that any individual or establishment in Glass Alley worth visiting has either been warned about you, or will be by sundown. Ironeye’s displeasure is not worth risking for those who must live and work here.”

“I believe I’m starting to actually hate that woman,” Tallie said, tilting her head back to stare up at the thin sliver of sky visible between the tenements surrounding them.

Casethin snickered. “Yeah, you do that, kid. Best of luck with it.”

“Jasmine, please punch her.”

“I will not,” Jasmine stated, folding her arms. “Don’t go around beating people who annoy you, Tallie. Beat people who threaten you.”

“Yes, yes,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Like a good Eserite. Fine.”

“So…all this was just…wasted?” Schwartz looked like he didn’t know whether to be crushed or furious. Meesie patted his cheek consolingly.

Gimmick coughed discreetly. “Actually…”

“Oh, here it comes,” Casethin groaned, rolling her eyes.

“I do not know what you were seeking in that magic shop,” Gimmick continued, ignoring her. “However, there is another ranking member of the Guild who would like to speak with you.”

“Um,” Schwartz said nervously, “I’m starting to think not getting involved in any more Eserite politics would be best, at least for me…”

“Not just you,” Ross muttered.

“Hang on,” Tallie said, holding up a hand. “Who the hell wants to talk with us?”

“For such a new group of apprentices,” Gimmick said smoothly, “you have generated an inordinate amount of rumor and attention from members with established reputations. Attracting Glory’s notice, being coached by Grip and Silence, interacting with the ever-difficult Keys, and now antagonizing Ironeye. With respect, you are already involved in Eserite politics, in a depth which I very much doubt you comprehend. It would be wise, in your position, to seek out more allies. One is now reaching out to you.”

“Purely out of the goodness of his little heart, I suppose,” Darius sneered.

“Of course not,” Gimmick replied with the barest hint of disdain. “You train with the Bishop’s apprentices, yes? Flora and Fauna? Have you learned anything from them about Sweet’s operational philosophy?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” Rasha piped up. “He was Boss for a while. All about connections, doing favors…”

“Exactly.” She smiled thinly. “You are being offered a favor. You will doubtless be expected to repay it, should you accept. However, it will cost you nothing to listen, and in your position… Perhaps taking on a small debt is the lesser evil, yes?”

They exchanged a round of dubious glances, mostly looking confused and mistrustful. Casethin simply watched them in silence, wearing a sardonic expression and idly swirling her bottle of whiskey.

“So,” Tallie said at last, fixing her gimlet stare back on the redhead, “shall I assume that whatever we decide here will go right back to Ironbitch?”

“Mm hm,” she drawled. “Along with the fact that you called her that.”

“Well, then, gang, I think our course is clear and obvious!” Tallie said brightly, turning to smile broadly at the rest of them. “Let’s go dig ourselves in deeper!”

“I wish you’d found another way to phrase that,” Jasmine muttered.

“Oh, and one more thing!” Tallie said, holding up a finger as if just having remembered something. Abruptly, she whirled and drove a fist into Casethin’s stomach.

The redhead dropped her bottle, folding to the sidewalk with a pained wheeze.

“Tallie!” Jasmine protested.

“Oh, that is gonna bite us on the ass,” Darius muttered, slapping a hand to his face.

“Hey, I’m a thief, not a saint,” Tallie said cheerfully, then turned and bowed to their newest acquaintance, who was watching all this with a nonplussed expression. “Lead on, oh gimmicky one!”

Gimmick was dressed in a nondescript and slightly shabby fashion, doubtless so as to avoid undue attention in Glass Alley. The enchanted carriage to which she escorted them, however, was of a late model and clearly high quality. Parked safely outside the seedy district in a locked and gated lot (to which she had a key), it was a converted delivery truck, the cargo space fitted with benches and the barrier between that and the cab removed.

She drove them to a sufficiently nice neighborhood that it was perhaps just as well she parked the truck discreetly behind the townhouse which was their destination; their clothes would have stood out here, possibly to the point of drawing the constabulary. That would have been true even before they had been knocked to the pavement and trapped in a dusty back room.

Gimmick led them through the townhouse’s back door, and straight through the kitchen onto which this opened. She came to a stop in the finely-appointed hall beyond, the apprentices and Schwartz clustering nervously behind her. Their progress was barred by a stately gentleman with neat gray hair, wearing a Butler’s uniform and a supercilious expression.

“Good afternoon,” he said serenely. “You are, of course, expected. The master will receive you in the drawing room. This way, please.”

Gimmick half-turned to give them an inscrutable look before following him. They trooped obediently after her, Tallie once again taking the lead.

The drawing room into which they were led was a handsome and somewhat rustic space, its wall paneling a dark-stained oak, dominated by a huge fieldstone fireplace with a mounted unicorn’s head above the hearth. A matching armchair, loveseat and sofa of burgundy leather were arranged haphazardly around a low table.

Beside the hearth, in which a low fire smoldered, stood a tall man who was still powerfully built, though he was growing portly with age. His graying hair had begun to recede, and his complexion was ruddy with an apparent combination of windburn and alcohol, to judge by the cocktail glass in his hand. He turned to grin at them, though, and his eyes were as sharp as his shoulders were still broad.

“Well! So these are the little rascals I’ve been hearing so much about. No trouble, I hope, Saduko?”

“I was not able to enter Glass Alley unnoticed, unsurprisingly,” she replied, folding her hands behind her back and lifting her chin. “Rumor followed me almost from the moment I arrived. I kept your name out of it, but it’s not as if she does not know…”

“Ah, well, water under the bridge,” he said lightly, gesticulating with his half-drunk cocktail. “If Frost wants to come down here and smack me around, I suppose that’ll be that. She won’t, though. Did Rumor follow you out?”

“She was occupied regaining her breath,” Gimmick said dryly, “after the young lady, here, punched the wind out of her.”

Their host threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Ah, now that’s music to the old ears! I knew inviting you kids over was the right idea. Had a feeling from the beginning. All right, everybody, don’t be shy! C’mon in, have a seat, make yourselves comfortable!” Grinning, he gestured them toward the sofa and chairs. “Settle yourselves in, and let’s talk about what ol’ Alan Vandro can do for you.”

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11 – 18

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The group hesitated, clustering instinctively together and peering around, almost like a single organism with five heads. Then Tallie squared her shoulders and stepped forward, toward the redheaded woman with the bottle.

“Hey there! Sorry, but—”

“Nnnnnnope,” the woman drawled, swirling the liquid about in her bottle and regarding them out of the corner of her eye. “What’s this look like, a tourist spot? You don’t know where you’re going, maybe you shouldn’t be here.”

“Well, that’s the ol’ rock and hard place, isn’t it?” Darius said with a flirtatious grin. “How can we know where we’re going if we don’t ask? If we can’t ask, how would we ever learn?”

“Okay, whoah.” The woman held up a hand, palm toward them. “I am way too sober for philosophy. Just a sec.”

She raised the bottle to her lips and tilted her head back, throat working convulsively while the group stared. In seconds she had drained the last of the liquid, and then casually tossed the bottle into the street, where it shattered loudly. In fact, there were a lot of broken bottles in the street here, mostly drifted into the gutters like jagged little snowbanks, but fragments of glass were strewn here and there across the center of the road and the sidewalks, as well. Glass Alley’s name began to make more sense.

“Hmm,” she slurred. “Nope, di’n’t help. Not int’rsted. Piss off.”

“Let’s try this again,” Jasmine said firmly. “We’re with the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Oh, really?” At this, the redhead shifted to lean against the wall with her shoulder, facing them directly. “Makes two of us. Uh, I mean four of us. Uh, six…” Squinting blearily, she held up one finger and appeared to try to count them, giving up after a few moments. “Eh. Lotta that goin’ ’round, ‘swhat I mean.”

“You’re in the Guild?” Rasha said incredulously.

“Hey, fuck you,” she replied without rancor. “Least I’ve got a tag. Eat my fuckin’ bloomers if you little shits’re more’n apprentices.”

“Prob’ly telling the truth, if she hangs out here,” Ross observed. “People don’t falsely claim to be Guild.”

“At least not twice,” Darius agreed.

Indeed, she did appear to be slightly less disreputable than anybody else nearby, aside from being drunk at this hour. Her clothing was sufficiently rumpled to have been slept in at least once, not to mention stained here and there, but seemed to be of decent quality. She also had a short cudgel hanging from a loop on her belt.

“S’risly,” said their new acquaintance, blinking with her eyelids slightly out of sync. “Maybe you should run along. ‘Bout to be some fuss an’ noise right aroun’ here.”

“Look, all we need to know is where the shop called the Finder’s Fee is,” Tallie said. “Do some newbies a favor and point in a direction, yeah?”

Suddenly the woman’s gaze sharpened, to the point of suggesting she wasn’t nearly as inebriated as she acted. “Huh. You too? Why’s that place so popular today?”

Tallie opened her mouth to answer, and at that moment the door of the shop behind them blew off its hinges.

The apprentices leaped reflexively away as the door rebounded off the wall and a man came staggering out backward, accompanied by a blast of wind. He reeled into the street, where he landed on his behind, luckily far enough out to avoid the worst of the broken glass.

“Too late,” the redhead said fatalistically, and began edging away from the whole scene.

There came a flash of reddish light from within the shop, followed by a shriek and the smell of smoke. A woman rushed out, arms covering her head, and plowed right into the man in the street, sending them both to the ground.

A moment later, a man in neat robes which made him look wildly out of place here stepped out of the shop. He wore glasses and had a faintly glowing rat-sized creature perched on his shoulder.

“I did ask nicely,” he said. “Repeatedly.”

“Hey, it’s that guy!” Darius exclaimed. “Schmidt, from the jail!”

Herschel Schwartz turned to stare at them, then blinked in surprise. “Oh. Oh! Wow, this is… I mean, fancy meeting you lot here!”

“And the coincidences keep piling up,” Rasha muttered.

“Yeah, no offense, but you look like you belong here even less than we do,” said Tallie.

“An’ that’s sayin’ somethin’,” the drunk woman muttered from a few feet away. No one acknowledged her.

“Well, I was looking for a magic shop, actually,” said Schwartz. “The local residents seem deucedly unfriendly. I don’t suppose you guys happen to know where the Finder’s Fee is?”

“Hmm.” Tallie folded her arms. “I think maybe we should talk.”

“Later,” Jasmine said curtly. “Trouble.”

The two Schwartz had blasted out of the shop were on their feet, and not looking terribly intimidated after their rough handling.

“You son of a bitch,” snarled the man, while the woman produced a pair of throwing knives from inside each sleeve.

“Honestly, I just asked for directions,” Schwartz exclaimed, the little fire-mouse on his shoulder chittering furiously. “If you don’t want to help, that’s fine, I’ll wish you good day. Do I need actually light you on fire?”

The two each took one step forward, glaring, and began spreading out as if to flank them. For a pair to attempt this on a group of six looked very odd.

“Really?” Schwartz protested. “I do? In case it wasn’t already apparent, that was not a euphemism.”

“Hush,” Jasmine murmured, positioning herself near him and slightly in front. As she spoke, Tallie, Darius, and Ross all instinctively shifted themselves to form a perimeter around the witch, leaving Rasha to scuttle somewhat belatedly behind them. “Thugs like this are cowards at heart; they shouldn’t be this aggressive toward a large group, and especially not with magic user.”

“That’s what I thought!” he said.

“She means,” said Darius, “they’re either dangerously crazy or they know something we don’t—oh. Speak of the Dark Lady.”

Feet crunched on glass shards as the half-dozen onlookers stepped forward from the alleyways and door frames in which they’d been lounging. More followed, appearing from deeper within the alleys, stepping out of just-opened doors, and in one case, climbing down from a second-story window. In contrast to the pair Schwartz had already dealt with, who were visibly furious, they mostly looked…hungry.

“Ah,” said Schwartz, dipping both hands into his pockets. “Well. This could be a problem.”

“You think?” Rasha hissed.

“I’ve faced much scarier than this,” the witch replied quietly as sixteen thugs crept forward, forming a wide semicircle around their group. “But… I mean, the force I’d have to use here… Somebody’s going to get seriously hurt.”

“Gonna be one of us if you don’t get over those hangups right now,” Tallie said curtly. “I don’t see what looks like a leader. Everybody find the biggest, meanest one you can see, and hurt ’em as loudly and messily as you can manage.”

Not all of them were even armed. Most were, with everything ranging from broken bottles and chair legs to daggers and even a couple of short swords. None of the toughs appeared to be carrying energy weapons, thankfully. They now had the apprentices and Schwartz completely encircled, and stopped. It was as if they were waiting for a signal, fingering weapons and staring.

Suddenly, Darius laughed.

“Yeah, figured it out, haven’t we?” he said, loudly and with apparent good cheer. “Somebody’s gotta go first, eh? Okay, c’mon, we don’t have all day for this. Whichever one of you heroes wants to get flame-broiled and beaten into the pavement so your buddies can have a better chance, step forward!”

Tallie barked a laugh in response, a sound that was far more caustic than Darius’s, and clearly less genuinely amused. “Rubes. It’s always the same. So brave in the pack, but every one too chickenshit to be the one to step up.”

Schwartz removed his right hand from his pocket and held it up at chest height. With a flash and a fwoosh of heated air, a fireball sprang into existence in his palm.

A couple of the encircling toughs shuffled a half-step back, glancing at their fellows. Not one retreated further than that.

Then, something about the size and shape of a bottle arced over them, tumbling end-over-end, to land in the gutter right in the middle of the open space between both groups.

A deep sound like the boom of a cathedral bell erupted, accompanied by a wall of sheer kinetic force that slammed the apprentices back against the wall and sent the thugs reeling in all directions, peppering everyone with trash and bits of glass.

“The fuck?!” Darius wheezed, having barely caught himself against the wall and avoided a tumble to the pavement. Only he and Jasmine were still on their feet, she having regained her balance and landed in a fighting crouch.

Amid the chorus of groans and curses, glass crunched under booted feet approaching from down the street.

“Oh, dear,” Schwartz murmured. “Is this as bad as I fear it is?”

“Yup,” Ross said tersely, hauling himself upright and dabbing blood from his forehead, where a fragment of glass had struck him.

Finally, the surrounding toughs began to climb to their feet and attempt to scatter away from the four figures who had just arrived.

“Freeze,” said the woman in the lead, her voice echoing unnaturally. She was instantly and universally obeyed.

The leader was flanked by two men in tailored suits, incongruous in the squalor of Glass Alley—one towering and enormously muscular, the other wiry, with an eyepatch of red leather and a coiled bullwhip hanging from his belt. A third man trailed along behind them, a tall, lean fellow wearing dark robes very much like a warlock out of a chapbook, his expression as supercilious as any nobleman’s.

Leading them, though, was a figure who wouldn’t have been immediately taken for a woman had she not spoken. She wore a blood-red hooded cape, marred by burns in several places. Under the cape was a leather trench coat dyed the same shade of deep red, and under that a completely concealing suit of armor, the color of old iron and heavily dented and scratched. It was also decorated with bulky protrusions of uncertain purpose; they looked heavy, and incorporated a few visible pipes and wires like dwarven machinery. Covering her face was a plain iron mask, its only features a pair of eye slits which glowed a cold arcane blue. She wore a broad belt made, apparently, entirely of the silver gryphon badges worn by Imperial officers. Most were charred, dented, cut, and in a few cases, partially melted. A sheathed longsword with an elaborately wrought hilt hung from her trophy belt.

“The hell is this?” Rasha whispered fiercely.

“Big trouble,” said Darius, his voice completely lacking his customary bluster.

The new arrivals came to a stop at the edge of the scene, studying the spectacle before them. Their faces were as expressionless as their leader’s mask.

“Ellis,” she said in her bizarrely resonant voice, “remind me to thank Wilhelmina, and apologize for my skepticism. That thing performs remarkably well.”

“Still not your secretary, Vanda,” said the lean man with the eyepatch.

“You’ll do,” she replied, shifting her head slightly to look directly at Schwartz and the apprentices. “All right. Who wants to explain this to me?”

“Uhh,” Schwartz began, then broke off with a grunt as Darius put an elbow into his ribs.

The huge man to the armored woman’s right cleared his throat and pointed at the man and woman whom Schwartz had thrown from the nearby shop; both had frozen at Vanda’s command in the process of rising.

“Why, if it isn’t Lord and Lady Shroomfiend,” she said, fixing her unnatural stare upon them. “Casethin’s message said I would find you two here, at least. The rest of this is an unpleasant surprise. Cass,” she added, raising her voice, “you had better still be nearby.”

“All right, all right, keep your heavy-ass pants on,” grumbled the redhead from earlier, slouching over toward them from the nearby alleyway in which she had taken shelter. “Bout time you got here, Vanda. If that boy hadn’t been some kind of caster he’d be a filleted corpse now.”

Vanda shifted her head again to look at Schwartz. “Yes, and what a loss to the world that would have been, I’m sure.”

“Excuse me?” Schwartz said, clearly affronted.

“Tarniq,” she said, ignoring him, “it’s not as if I credit you with a great deal of sense or restraint—hence this entire embarrassing spectacle—but I begin to be personally affronted by you attempting to collect the Unwary Tax in my district. I’m almost positive that I recall telling you not to.”

“I didn’t!” the man protested in a frightened squeal. “I never-we weren’t! He was actin’ all high an’ mighty, putting on airs, we was just—”

“Silence,” she said calmly, and he immediately snapped his mouth shut. “Let’s hear from what I’m sure is the only reliable witness here.”

“By that, do you mean the drunk one?” said the robed man behind her in a languid tone. Casethin made a rude gesture at him.

“While we’re young, Cass,” Vanda prompted.

“Right, well, Tarniq’s not lying; they weren’t trying to shake down the kid, at least at first. He came looking for Sparkler’s shop, asked ’em where it was, they started growling an’ yapping like mutts instead of giving a straight answer, because, well, you’ve met ’em.”

“It wasn’t like that!” Tarniq protested. “You saw, he tried to—”

Vanda calmly extended her left arm and tilted her hand upward; from the hefty gauntlet under her wrist, a long metal dart shot forth and impaled his leg through the calf, trailing a metal cable back to her arm. Tarniq broke off with a shrill scream, clutching at his leg.

“Don’t touch it,” Vanda said without inflection, and he flinched, whimpering, but obeyed. The woman with him pressed herself close to his body, wrapping an arm around his shoulder and staring up at Vanda in obvious terror.

“Holy shit,” Rasha whispered. The apprentices clustered closer together around Schwartz, those who had been cut by flying glass not even touching their wounds anymore. Even Schwartz looked rattled, now. Meesie was silent but practically vibrating with tension.

“Continue, please,” said the woman in armor.

Casethin sighed. “Right, well, they decided to get clever an’ he decided to get dumb. Shia told him this place was the shop an’ ushered him inside. I can’t absolutely swear they were gonna shake him down, but honestly…”

“Yes,” Vanda mused, turning to stare at the couple on the ground before her. “Honestly. The rest of these animals I understand,” she added, waving languidly at the surrounding thugs, several of whom flinched. “Who are these?”

“They seem to know Castypants, here,” Casethin said with a shrug. “Wrong place, wrong time thing; they weren’t expecting to meet him. Claim they’re Guild.”

“Ah, so? That makes all of this much simpler. And here I thought I was dealing with the complication of people who don’t know better than to start trouble in my district.”

“Ah, excuse me?” Schwartz said somewhat tremulously. “I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here.”

“That appears to be your problem in a nutshell,” Vanda agreed. “And now, I have to decide what to do about all this.”

“P-please,” Tarniq whimpered. Blood generously soaked his ragged trouser leg.

Vanda turned to stare at him for a silent moment, and then minutely adjusted the position of her left hand.

Lightning arced down the cable connecting her glove to the shaft of metal through his leg, and ignited into sparks and flashes of electricity limning both Tarniq and Shia, accompanied by screams of pain. It lasted for only a couple of seconds.

In the shocked aftermath, Vanda calmly pointed her right fist at the man who had broken from the group and pelted away down the street; the projectile which flew from her heavy gauntlet screamed like a firework rocket in flight—which, apparently, it was, to judge by the way it exploded upon striking him in the back. Shrieking in pain and shock, he tumbled to the street, where he at least had the presence of mind to roll about and put out the fire blazing on his jacket.

A moment later, she shifted to aim the same fist at Jasmine, who had surged forward at this. Jasmine froze, and then was pulled roughly back by Darius and Ross.

“Do you imagine,” Vanda asked Tarniq in perfect calm, “that I am so hard up for things to fill my day that I enjoy coming down here to correct your behavior? You may consider this the final expiration of my patience with you two.” There came a soft click, and the metal cable tightened. The long dart was ripped from Tarniq’s leg, prompting another scream from him, and the whole thing abruptly reeled itself back into her glove. “You will leave Glass Alley and not return.”

“Please, miss,” Shia whispered. “We’ve no place better to—”

“You have had more opportunities than you deserve to better yourselves, and I am not your caretaker. If you have not left my district by sundown, you never will. Am I understood?”

They huddled together, offering no response beyond terrified stares.

Vanda shook her head in disgust, then turned to the apprentices. “You. Explain yourselves.”

“Who do you think you are?” Jasmine snapped. She was immediately dragged bodily backward, again, by Ross and Darius, who this time tried to place themselves in front of her. She shrugged them off, glaring challengingly at Vanda.

“You must be new,” said the armored woman, a sardonic note audible in her eerie voice. “I am Ironeye by tag, and Glass Alley is mine. Any Guild activity taking place here goes through me. No sponsor would have sent you here for training, which means you lot are fooling around on your own time, and thus, dealing with you is at my discretion.”

Casethin cleared her throat loudly. “Uh, if it helps? They were lookin’ for the shop, too, an’ didn’t come here to cause trouble. When Professor an’ Missus Shit-for-brains, here, started in on their buddy, they moved to help out. Can’t fault ’em for that.”

“Mm,” Vanda mused, turning to pan her eerie stare around at the others on the ground. Most of them visibly flinched. “Fine. Which leaves…this lot. I suppose it’s not worthwhile asking what you cretins were thinking.”

“They smelled blood,” the robed man said idly, inspecting his fingernails. “Rather like sharks. Vultures. Or any other animal with starkly limited brain functions.”

“Very well, then. Since it’s such an unseasonably fine day, you can all take a little time to reflect upon your actions.”

Vanda slipped one armored hand behind her back; what she did with it was hidden by her cape, but that hand was clutching a faintly luminous blue sphere when it emerged. There were several cries and a few more people tried to run, but before they could get more than a step, she hurled it to the ground.

A blast of frigid wind erupted outward, accompanied by a dense flurry of snow, and suddenly everything in a five-foot radius was encased in a heavy coating of ice.

“Silence,” Vanda said, immediately cutting off the cries which resulted from this. Everyone nearby was, at minimum, dusted with frost; most of those nearest the point of impact, including Tarniq and Shia, found themselves physically held down by solid ice. The apprentices edged back, having been just far enough away to avoid the worst of it, though they did have to brush frost and snow off their clothes.

The armored ruler of Glass Alley took a moment to survey her handiwork in silence, then turned to leave.

“Wait!” Rasha said abruptly. “Excuse me!”

He wriggled out of the group, avoiding their grasp and ignoring their hissed warnings. Vanda paused, turned, and stared down at him in silence.

“Can you tell us where the Finder’s Fee is?” Rasha asked. “Please. Uh, ma’am.”

In the short silence which ensued, the chattering of several sets of teeth was audible.

“I mean,” Rasha said awkwardly, “I figure…if anybody knows this district, it’s you. If, um, it’s not too much trouble.”

Very slowly, she raised one arm. Everyone on the ground who had arms free ducked and covered their heads as best they could.

Vanda merely pointed up the street, however, in the opposite direction from which they had come. “About two blocks, on the other side. You want a shop with a green door and a display of bottles in the window. Don’t bother knocking; Sparkler is usually cooped up in the back with his experiments.”

With that, she turned and strode away. Her three escorts tarried for a moment to look speculatively at Rasha before following. Casethin just shook her head, slouched backward against the wall again, and pulled a silver flask from her pocket.

“Well, uh,” Schwartz said awkwardly, “So! Why are you lot looking for the Finder’s Fee?”

“Hey, here’s an idea,” Tallie said tersely, flicking her gaze across the shivering street full of thugs currently trying to pry themselves out of the ice. “Walk and talk.”

“You’re sure?” Schwartz said a few minutes later, frowning as the group proceeded down the sidewalk. “It was Jenell Covrin?”

“She said she was the Avenist Bishop’s aide,” said Tallie. “You know her?”

“Yes, I do,” he replied, his frown remaining in place. Meesie climbed atop his head, where she began soothingly trying to straighten his hair, cheeping worriedly. “I wonder if she’s the one who sent the message… There was no name, but it came though the Salyrite temple here in the city, directing me to the Finder’s Fee in Glass Alley.”

“Gotta be,” Ross grunted.

“It makes sense,” Rasha agreed. “Too many agendas going around for me to believe in coincidence. I still don’t know what the woman wants, though. It’s weird she would send us all out here without explaining her point…”

“I think we’re a bit past the point of worrying about traps, don’t you?” Darius remarked.

“I wasn’t there, granted,” said Jasmine, “but assuming you told me what happened accurately, it makes sense to me. Covrin has her angle to play, and she needs us to trust her to do it. A good start is proving her usefulness by setting us on a lead to how these dwarves are tracking us. On the other hand, this makes me leery of what she’s going to eventually want. If it were something small, she could just ask.”

“Think we’re here,” said Ross.

They straggled to a stop, studying the store in front of which they now stood. It certainly matched Vanda’s description: the wooden door was cracked and flaking, but plenty of its original green paint remained, and behind the iron bars over its display window a dusty collection of bottles was visible. There was no sign.

“All right, then,” Tallie said, cracking her knuckles. “Let’s get this crap over with as quickly as we can.”

She pulled the door open and stepped through, the others trailing in slowly after her.

A bell sounded from above the door as they entered, followed seconds later by a muffled voice from the rear of the shop. “I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

Inside, it didn’t look much like a magic shop. Alchemy, possibly, or an apothecary; the shelves all along the walls were full of bottles of various unknowable substances, and bunches of dried plants hung from the ceiling. The whole place was cluttered, disorganized, and liberally coated with dust, to the point that Rasha sneezed immediately upon entering. There was nobody present but themselves, though the voice had emerged from a door behind the counter at the far end, directly opposite the entrance.

“Guess it’s this way, then,” Tallie muttered, again leading the others. They all filed after her, around the counter and through the door, being careful not to touch anything. Aside from much of it being precariously stacked, almost everything was dusty if not actually grimy.

Behind the main room appeared to be a cleaning closet, to judge by the mops and buckets piled in one corner, and the shelves full of common household alchemical supplies along one wall. The floor was stone, with a drain set in the center. Its entrance was in one corner, with another door in the opposite corner, positioned that they couldn’t see anything past it except the lamplight streaming through.

Tallie crept closer to this, peeking around the corner.

Abruptly, the door slammed in her face, prompting her to jump backward with a squeak. At the same moment, the door to the front of the shop likewise shut itself, physically bumping Rasha forward, where the bounced off Ross.

Immediately following that, iron bars slid out of the door frames, blocking both entrances off like cell doors.

“Wait, what?” Schwartz, exclaimed, trying to spin around to look at both doors at once. On his shoulders, Meesie stood upright, fur bristling, squealing in alarm.

There came a soft crackle from nearby. Positioned among the cleaning supplies was a cobbled-together device with two small power crystals and a tangle of inscrutable wires and an inset vial of enchanting dust. As they all turned to stare at it, the crystal flickered faintly with light, and it emitted a voice.

“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”

“Okay, Rasha?” said Darius. “New plan. Let’s not ask evil overlords for directions.”

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11 – 17

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Glory’s solarium was a beautiful room, far bigger than the small parlor in which she had received Jasmine previously. Perched on the top floor of her townhouse, it had a wall almost entirely of glass, looking out over the city and supported only by stone columns. Above, this changed into an angled glass roof, so that half the ceiling was a single skylight. The floor plan was open, with a large fireplace at one end surrounded by cozy chairs, and other seats and tables scattered about with artful randomness. In the center of the long side wall there was a raised dais, upon which sat a grand pianoforte.

This was clearly the space in which the lady of the house held her famous parties.

“Do you play?” Glory asked as she casually performed a soft prelude on the keys.

“Not…that,” Jasmine replied, standing a little stiffly off to one side. “I have an ocarina. I’m…not even very good at that. Only been practicing a while; I have a bard friend who showed me the basics.”

“I have only been practicing for a while,” Glory corrected with a smile. “Remember, diction is all part of the presentation, and thus another weapon in your arsenal. Suit your style to your surroundings. Talking like a back-alley shoulderthumper in a place like this is making a belligerent statement which I don’t believe you intend.”

“I…sorry,” Jasmine said warily. “Thank you for the advice.”

“I certainly cannot fault your sense of respect,” Glory said, glancing up at her while continuing to play. “If you can find the time and access to an instrument, I really would suggest taking up the pianoforte. Harpsichords are easier to come across, but so much of the benefit to this instrument is in the fine control it teaches you, as you must vary the pressure of keystrokes in addition to placing them precisely. So many professions render our hands either nimble or strong, one trait at the expense of the other. A pianist, if so motivated, could pick your pocket or throttle you.”

“Well, I can certainly see the utility of both.”

“I perceive,” Glory said softly, her eyes on the keys, “that you know the gist of what I asked you here to say.”

“Grip was kind enough to explain the basics,” Jasmine said more stiffly. It was later in the day than she had come the last time; no hour was specified in the invitation, but she did remember that Glory preferred to receive visitors earlier in the morning. Well, what with one thing and another, she was feeling somewhat mulish, and had chosen to prioritize research at the Temple, arriving here an hour before noon. Now she got to see the courtesan in her full armor, as it were: a formal and surprisingly modest silk gown of deep midnight blue, decorated tastefully with seed pearls and silver thread. Her hair alone was a work of art held in place by mother-of-pearl combs.

“Ah, Grip,” Glory murmured. “An old acquaintance of mine. I cannot say we are friends, but we find one another mutually useful to know. Enough to be worth the extra measure of politeness that averts an otherwise inevitable clash of personalities.” She paused, bringing the piece to a soft conclusion, and then carefully pulled the lid down over the keys. She did not, however, immediately turn on the bench to face her guest. “It was Grip who directed my attention to certain…facts. Regarding the current Hand of Avei.”

“I’ll just bet she did,” Jasmine said flatly.

Finally, Glory swiveled around to gaze up at her. “Of course you understand, this necessarily colors my thinking. I mean an apprenticeship to be a long-term relationship; it simply will not do to enter it with someone whom I know plans to leave the Guild after a fairly short time. By the same token…I cannot imagine you are too terribly disappointed by this.”

“You…are correct,” Jasmine said, choosing her words with great care. “I was definitely flattered by your consideration and I certainly mean no disrespect. But I don’t think this would have worked out, anyway.”

“And yet, you came to see me, as I asked,” Glory observed. “Twice.”

“I hardly think it’s useful or right to be rude to people. At least, not without a good reason.”

The thief smiled, stood from the bench, and approached her. To Jasmine’s surprise, Glory took both her hands and held them; after a moment’s stiff hesitation, she allowed it, and did not pull back.

“That said,” Glory said quietly, gazing at her eyes, “I think what you are doing is possibly the best piece of news I have lived to hear. You’ve had a rather sheltered upbringing, have you not? For the rest of us at large in the world, at least those who make it our business to keep abreast of events, the state of things has been quite troubling for some time. First the lack of paladins, and then the sudden appearance of two, along with hints from the gods that these are meant to be a change. Then, when paladins in the past have always been sent straight into the fray, as it were, these two are hidden away to receive an adventurer’s education from none other than Arachne Tellwyrn. And most recently, a Vidian paladin—and a demonblood, at that. The world is tilting away beneath us.” A broad, seemingly genuine smile blossomed across her features. “I took it as an extremely optimistic sign that Trissiny Avelea’s first public act was to intervene on behalf of a district full of drow and various half-bloods. And then, even better, to launch her initiative with the Silver Missions.”

She paused, studying Jasmine’s face.

“And now this.”

Jasmine shrugged self-consciously, finally pulling her hands away. “I suppose it must seem very optimistic to an Eserite, me seeking training from the Guild…”

“I have to say that would not have occurred to me,” Glory replied, stepping back to grant her some space. “It would have been just as well, I think, had the Hand of Avei sought teaching from, say, the Veskers or Izarites. What matters is that you recognize that there is more than one way to view the world, and to act within it. Very few people of any age manage to take heed of that fact, and fewer still who are of a religious bent. You will only be the second of your calling from any faith; I had thought Laressa of Anteraas an anomaly, as did most historians and theologians. This… Fills me with hope for the world.”

To Jasmine’s surprise, she curtsied deeply, lowering her head in a gesture that seemed almost discordantly deferential on this proud woman.

“I will reaffirm and strengthen my previous offer…Jasmine. First, you have my assurance that no secrets or plans of yours will reach any other ears from my lips. My home is available to you, should you need anything—and I want you to know that you have at least one friend in Tiraas. If there is any way I can be of help to you, just ask.”

Jasmine drew in a deep breath and let it out, trying to force some of her tension out with it. “I appreciate that very much. Especially after my conversation with Grip… I’m afraid she had rather the opposite intention.”

“Oh?” Glory’s gaze sharpened.

“Well,” Jasmine said sourly, “to cut a long story short, she’s blackmailing me. Grip wants me to be her apprentice, and if I don’t go along with it, she’s going to reveal who I am to the whole Guild.”

“Hm. Hmmmm.” Glory folded her hands demurely at her waist, a gesture which contrasted with the suddenly predatory cast of her eyes, even as they drifted sideways in deep thought. “How very interesting.”

She stepped down from the dais, beckoning Jasmine with a gesture, and led the way to a pair of gilded chairs by the wall of windows, flanking a small table.

“The important thing you should understand about Grip,” Glory began as she seated herself, “is that she is a creature of principle, odd as that may seem. Whatever she is up to, she believes it to be in the best interests of Eserion and the Thieves’ Guild. If you cannot see how she arrived at that conclusion, then you understand what you must learn in order to grasp her plot.”

“Plot?” Jasmine asked, sitting down as well. “You think there’s more to this?”

“Perhaps, but not necessarily. I cannot immediately divine her intent, as I don’t truly know her mind that well. We are opposites in many ways, you understand; I work with the gentlest touch possible and heavily favor honey over vinegar in enticing my prey. Grip acts through force and fear. I am not so self-absorbed as to impugn her intelligence, however. A brutal thug does not rise to the prominence she has; she has a clear knack for making plans, and seeing them put into effect.”

“I said as much to her at the time,” Jasmine said disgustedly. “I can’t see the sense in this. Unless she’s trying to make an enemy of me…”

“I cannot imagine how that would benefit her, either,” Glory mused. “I suppose if she harbors some antipathy toward the Sisters of Avei, antagonizing you and driving you off would be a good way to drive a wedge between the two cults. That’s unlikely, though. Enforcers with that kind of grudge seldom last long, and as you have surely been told before, the Guild feels no institutional hostility toward the Sisterhood. No…I suspect this is about her, and about you.”

She leaned forward, eyes intent upon Jasmine’s face. “And I can share one insight that may help you unravel her intentions. If she is truly seeking to have a hand in forming your skills, she doesn’t truly want you to submit to blackmail. No enforcer—no Eserite of any kind—submits to anything.”

“You think she’s trying to provoke a reaction,” Jasmine said thoughtfully.

“Perhaps. Or to gauge the depth of your understanding when under pressure. Whatever the specific goal, I do think she is testing you—brutally, perhaps, but that’s how Grip does everything. And I don’t think she means you any real harm. Such would not be characteristic of her.”

“I appreciate the insight very much,” Jasmine replied. “Maybe if I can suss out what she wants I can deal with her and not bring this whole thing down around my ears.”

“Let me give a piece of advice,” Glory said with a thin smile. “You seem to have fallen into the trap of relating to Grip as an apprentice to a fully vetted member of the Guild. That may be true, but that is a fleeting circumstance. In more absolute terms… She is a fearsome creature of power and menace. You are everything she is, at least twice over.”

Jasmine’s eyebrows lowered. “I didn’t come here to learn more about intimidating and assaulting people. That’s not what my calling is about.”

For an extended moment, Glory just stared at her. Then the thief drummed her manicured nails on the table once, before leaning back in her chair and folding her hands in her lap.

“It occurs to me,” she mused, “that growing up in a temple as you did, under the strictest Avenist tradition, you may have a perspective that doesn’t quite match that of the general public.”

“How so?”

“When Grip looks upon the Hand of Avei,” said Glory, “she sees, in essence, a kindred spirit. An enforcer. That is what most of the world sees, Jasmine. And for a good many people, it will be all they see.”

“It’s an aspect of the calling, certainly,” Jasmine agreed. “But not the whole or even the half of it. A paladin is a protector, an icon of principle.”

Glory’s expression now was thoughtful, and even a little worried. “Jasmine… What did you learn of Tarsha of Mathenon? Or Sharai the Hammer?”

Jasmine frowned at the apparent change of topic, but answered. “Plenty. Tarsha was a Hand of Avei who lived three centuries ago; she put an end to the last major plague of undeath by personally standing against the undead hordes and wiping them out before they could spread out of N’Jendo. Sharai was thought to be a demigoddess, perhaps an actual daughter of Avei; she fought in the Third Hellwar and thereafter was a major player in the War of the Scions. She actually followed one of Elilial’s generals into Hell to destroy him, and made it back alive.”

“Tarsha,” Glory said quietly, “wiped out the undead plague by wiping out everyone who had it. Not those who had perished of it and risen. Everyone. In fact, in an age when there was no alchemical or divinatory means of testing for infection, she took the extreme measure of destroying everyone exposed. The woman single-handedly depopulated an entire region of N’Jendo. Whole villages. Men, women, children. The sick, the healthy…everyone. Her actions undoubtedly saved the world. They involved her chasing down fleeing villagers on her divine mount to trample or behead them, though.”

Jasmine had stiffened, her fists clutching the fabric of her trousers. “That isn’t—”

“What you were taught?” Glory smiled sadly. “Sharai the Hammer caused the War of the Scions by executing the demigod son of Sorash, and then his mother, the god’s consort, in an action which set the followers of the two gods of war against each other. Sorash was never going to defeat Avei in any kind of prolonged conflict; he was a god of violence and conquest, while she was the goddess of strategic war. But Sharai did not consider diplomacy, or even strategy; she saw a demigod getting above himself as nothing but a monster, and killed him. When his mother inevitably came after her, she killed her, too, apparently without a thought for the magnitude of the insults she was committing against Sorash in Avei’s name. When that ended as it inevitably did, she not only never sought diplomatic solutions, but never allowed them. Her scorched earth tactics and no-quarter terms were holdovers from the Hellwar, when she had fought demons, not fellow Pantheon worshipers. The Hammer’s decimation of Sorash’s cult is now understood as the primary reason the Black Wreath exists today. The Third Hellwar itself was a front for Elilial to bolster and expand her cult; with the demons pushed back, the Sorashi and Avenists alike had been at work seeking out and purging them. By turning those cults against each other, she gave them the time they needed to go to ground and establish bases of power. Huge swaths of the continent were ravaged in the War of the Scions, and no one has since managed to completely dislodge the Wreath from this world.”

Jasmine was staring at her in frozen horror, now; Glory just shook her head, looking weary and saddened.

“I meant it when I said it brought me hope, seeing Avei’s new paladin showing restraint and compassion. Even Laressa of Anteraas banked on the reputation of her predecessors to terrorize people into backing down from her. We know from the writings she left that she did it to avoid violence, and that she agonized over it. But she did it, nonetheless. She understood something that I think the Sisterhood, in its idealism, failed to teach you.”

Glory leaned forward, her gaze intent. There was compassion and empathy in her eyes, but she did not shrink from laying out the hard truth.

“People fear the Hand of Avei.”

“Hey! There you are!”

Jasmine paused in descending the steps into the Pit, raising an eyebrow at Tallie, who was waving almost frantically as she crossed toward the stairs. Darius, Ross, and Rasha all followed her more sedately.

“Here I am,” she agreed, resuming her descent. “Something up?”

“Yup! Stop, no more coming downstairs; now you’re here, we need to go.”

She stopped, blinking. “Excuse me?”

“Apparently there’s a development,” Ross grumbled. “More dwarves. She says—”

“Ha bip bip bip!” Tallie said loudly, cutting him off. She met Jasmine halfway up the stone staircase, taking her by the arm. “Come on, I wanna get this shit done with as quickly as possible. I’ll explain everything on the way.”

“On the way where?” Jasmine demanded, but allowed herself to be pulled back up the steps. Behind them, the boys had hastened their stride, and caught up by the time they reached the top level.

“We’re going to get some answers!” Tallie said with a kind of grim exultation. “And for that, apparently, we have to go to a magic shop in Glass Alley.”

“A magic—wait, where?” Jasmine glanced helplessly back at the others; Darius rolled his eyes and Ross shrugged, while Rasha just looked tired and frustrated. “What’s Glass Alley?”

Glass Alley was the worst place in Tiraas, apparently.

A sad little cluster of tenements and the seediest of shops crammed right under the shadow of the city’s wall, it was among the poorest districts, as those nearest the walls usually were. Unlike Lor’naris and the Glums, it at least wasn’t built into an old quarry, but the three- and four-story structures crammed haphazardly together made for a lack of natural light, certainly not helped by the fact that the city-installed street lights tended not to last long here. Even now, at midday, it was dim. The district itself was of average size, but anomalous in that its central thoroughfare was a winding street that twisted back and forth all the way through, rather than one matching the curve of the circular outer wall, as most cross-streets in Tiraas were.

It was also filthy, run-down, and not a safe place to be after dark. Or before dark. At any time at all, really.

Tallie had explained all this with a kind of dark glee after she explained to Jasmine what had happened to the rest of the group that morning.

“I see,” Jasmine said grimly, looking around as they turned into the Alley itself. The street wasn’t broad, and the buildings were crammed together and towering on both sides; it was very much like stepping into a narrow canyon. The fact that its erratic curve hid what was only a dozen yards ahead did not help the place’s sullen aspect. “And do you know where in this place the shop in question is?”

“It’ll pretty much have to be on the main street,” Darius said cheerfully, strolling right in as if he owned the place; the others, having paused to consider Glass Alley carefully, now followed. “All the shops are; everything down side alleys is either places people live or the kind of shit even we don’t want to stumble across.”

“What’s that mean, even we?” Ross muttered.

“Means we’re thieves, Ross,” Tallie said, turning to wink at him. “We’re the trash and riffraff of this city. Get used to it.”

“We are going to get beaten, mugged, and left to die,” Rasha mumbled, hunching in on himself and huddling close to Jasmine.

They were, indeed, getting some very speculative looks indeed from those they passed. Glass Alley’s inhabitants were uniformly poorly dressed, dirty, and frequently showing scars. Not a one of them appeared to be engaged in anything constructive; those out on the street were just standing, sitting, or lounging in the mouths of tiny alleyways. It wasn’t hard to imagine they were waiting for prey.

“Oy, cut that shit out,” Darius said, scowling back at him. “We’re Guild, here; nobody’s gonna try it on with us.”

“Place like this, dunno how much that counts for,” Ross growled.

“All the more reason to straighten up, Rasha,” Darius said pointedly. “It’s instinctive. It’s primal. If you act like a victim, somebody’ll step up and make you one.”

“Well, there’s five of us, anyway,” Tallie said, seemingly unconcerned. Behind her, Rasha made an effort to relax his posture, though his eyes still darted rapidly about at every little movement. “We may have to beat somebody down in order to get left alone, though.”

“’We’ means me, doesn’t it,” Jasmine said resignedly.

Tallie grinned at her. “Well, if the shoe fits…”

“Anybody else notice a lack of signs?” Ross said.

He was right; most of the storefronts they passed had boards over their windows. Some of those had fairly crude logos painted on them, but for the most part, the establishments here didn’t bother to identify themselves.

“That,” said Darius, “means everybody looking to do business here knows what they’re after.”

“And that the business in question isn’t wise to advertise,” Jasmine added with less cheer.

“That, too,” he said brightly.

“So our plan’s just to…wander up and down until we happen across this place?” Rasha demanded. “When we probably won’t even know what it is from looking?”

That brought them all up short. They had already progressed far enough into the district that the broader thoroughfare on which they had approached was lost to sight around the curve.

“I guess we’ll just have to ask for directions,” Tallie said.

In unison, the others turned their heads to look around. Half a dozen people were within eyeshot, all of them filthy, ragged, and staring hungrily at the apprentices. Nearest was a lean woman with tousled red hair, working on a bottle of whiskey; she was notably less dirty than everyone else in the vicinity. Catching Tallie’s eye, she smirked, raised her bottle as if in a toast, and had another pull. Based on the level of liquid left, she’d been working on it for a while already.

“Think I’ve found a flaw in your plan,” said Ross.

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