Tag Archives: Glory

11 – 39

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The carriage attempting to flank them on the left suddenly skidded, veering back and forth as its driver fought for control. There had been no sign of magic used that was visible from within the passenger compartment of Glory’s vehicle, but Schwartz had told them that with so much snow already in the air, manipulating ice to deprive their pursuers of traction would be one of the easiest spells available to him. He was probably responsible for the sliding of that carriage, since he apparently did nothing to prevent the other one from pulling up almost even with them.

Rasha had snatched up one of the wands Glory had distributed and now pushed open the window, stuck it out and fired.

The lightning bolt flew wide, sparking against a tree trunk in passing, but the pursuers fell back slightly, rather than try their luck against random wandshots. The Eserites didn’t have a better angle of fire without opening the doors to lean out, the rear window being fully attached to the frame. Rasha jerked back in, leaving the window opening and ignoring both the snowflakes and icy wind which blew in and Layla’s shriek of protest at them.

“Here,” Glory said in the momentary lull, tugging a piece of the seat beside her. A section of it slid partly forward, exposing a hidden compartment, into which she reached to pull out a gold-hilted Avenic short sword in a glossy leather sheath. She handed this to Jasmine. “Best to be prepared.”

“What in the world is she going to do with that?” Layla screeched. “Has everyone forgotten what century it is?”

“Not much use right now,” Jasmine allowed, “but the plan is to engage them on foot at the end of this.”

“She can do more damage with that blade than you can with a wand,” Glory added.

“Hold on!” Rasha shouted.

The carriage at which he’d fired approached again, this time almost directly from behind, cutting off the view of the truck bringing up the rear; the angle kept it out of the way of wandfire from their windows. All four of them looked back at Rasha’s shout, then braced themselves barely in time to keep their seats as the pursuing vehicle slammed into their back right fender.

The carriage rocked, but Smythe kept it on course, quickly adjusting out of the resulting skid and then accelerating until they were very nearly tailgating Vandro’s carriage up ahead. The dwarves’ vehicle did not fare so well from its attack; it swerved and barely kept from sliding off into the trees, forced to drastically reduce speed to regain control and compelling its own allies to quickly maneuver out of the way. It had lost one front lamp in the impact.

“Falconer traction charms really do beat Dawnco,” Jasmine muttered, still gripping the bench. “I know someone who’ll be smug…”

In the meantime, the carriage first deflected by Schwartz had recovered its traction and was coming up again; Rasha and Glory both shifted to the opposite side, ready to lean out the windows with wands. The window next to the driver’s seat on the oncoming carriage opened as well, and a bearded dwarf leaned partially out, aiming a wand of his own at them.

“Get down!” Jasmine shouted.

Before they could, however, a tiny streak of red struck the dwarf directly in the beard, and while he flailed, bounced into the driver’s compartment of his vehicle.

An instant later, the compartment was literally full of a huge, glowing cat.

Meesie’s roar was audible to them even over the road noise; her sheer bulk popped open both doors on the vehicle’s driver bench. The driver kept his seat, barely, though his passenger was flung out into the road, and immediately run over by the pursuing truck, which rocked alarmingly but did not capsize or lose significant traction. Meanwhile, the carriage with Meesie in it now lit up a fierce gold as multiple occupants channeled huge amount of divine magic. It had the desired effect; the elemental vanished with a bellowing yowl of protest, but that was an empty victory. The carriage itself veered entirely off the road even as she disappeared, spinning about ninety degrees and toppling over on its side, where it continued to skid on the snow until its front fender smashed against a tree.

“One down,” Glory said with grim satisfaction.

“Oh, no.” Layla pressed both hands to her mouth; in the brief time between Schwartz’s arrival at the townhouse and their departure, she had been immensely taken with the tiny elemental. “Oh, poor Meesie.”

“She’s fine,” said Jasmine. “According to Schwartz, if damaged enough to disappear she’ll just come back to—look out!”

The other carriage had pulled forward again; this time, one of its passenger doors swung wide open, and out leaned a dwarf clearly being held by another inside the compartment, considering he had both hands occupied aiming a battlestaff at them.

All four hurled themselves to the floor as lightning flashed past outside.

More bursts of white light flickered through their windows, accompanied by the crack of thunderbolts and the deeper retorts of trees being struck by the discharges, but nothing hit their carriage. After a few more seconds of this, Jasmine warily crawled up onto the back seat to peak out the window.

“He’s missing,” she reported.

“Well, obviously,” Layla said scathingly. “Why is he missing? Did they designate their only blind confederate as the trigger man?”

“The lightning bolts are being diverted away!” Jasmine replied, grinning.

“Bless that witch,” Glory said fervently, lifting herself back into the seat and retrieving her wand, which she had dropped in her lunge to the floor.

“Yeah,” Rasha agreed, peeking warily out beside Jasmine. “The question is, how long can he keep that up?”

Suddenly their carriage shook under the thump of something impacting the roof, and swerved momentarily before Smythe got it back under control.

“And what the blazes was that?” Layla cried.

Perched precariously atop Vandro’s speeding carriage with one hand clutching the edge of the roof and the other holding to her staff, Tallie watched the confrontation behind them with a lot more worry for her friends in the line if fire than her own very immediate prospects of falling to a particularly ugly demise. Heights and unstable footing were downright comfortingly familiar to her. Granted, speeding down a dark highway in a snowstorm was new, but hey, you had to shake up the act now and again or the punters got bored.

She grinned savagely as the first pursuing carriage went down. In the next moment, though, she reflexively ducked, nearly losing her footing, as lightning began to flash around to the side. It kept shooting off to the left of Glory’s carriage, and it took only a moment’s study for her to understand what must be happening. She could see Schwartz, silhouetted in the glare of the truck’s powerful lights, standing upright somehow despite the snow, wind, and motion of the carriage. He was also holding one hand forward toward their pursuers.

Tallie didn’t know a thing about witchcraft, but she knew how exhausting anything that demanded concentration and physical stamina could get. And she knew what would happen when Schwartz’s energy flagged. How far were they from the point Glory had suggested?

The gap between their vehicles had narrowed when Smythe pressed forward to gain room, but now Wilberforce began to accelerate, pushing Vandro’s carriage to a truly dangerous speed in order to create space between them again. The gap began widening, and Tallie came to an abrupt decision.

She didn’t bother trying to get a running start; she could never have kept her balance doing that under these conditions. Instead she slid her body forward, planted one foot against the rear edge of the roof, and kicked off as powerfully as she could without sacrificing her footing.

The moment of arcing through the snowy air above the highway was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating of her life.

She had misjudged the jump slightly—forgivable, under the circumstances—and slipped upon landing, coming down on her knees instead of her feet. The pain was sharp and bright, and Tallie ignored it completely, being fully occupied with losing neither her staff nor herself over the side. Throwing her body flat, she managed to grasp one edge of the carriage’s roof, dig one toe in against the ornate molding lining it (bless Glory’s extravagant tastes), and stop her horrifying slide over the edge. For a moment she clung there, one foot hanging over the windscreen probably right in front of Smythe, before rallying and pulling herself back up to kneel. This position put more pressure on her already-traumatized knees, which she continued to ignore.

Tallie looked up in time to spot Schwartz glancing back at her; he quickly returned his attention to their pursuit, but at least that mean she could speak to him without accidentally frightening him off the roof. He struck her as being of a generally nervous disposition—or at least, had before she saw this performance.

“I thought you couldn’t use an energy shield on an enchanted carriage!” she shouted over the wind.

“Arcane shields, no,” he replied, strain evident in his voice. “Not shielding, anyway, redirecting. Lightning is practically natural, easy to do with my craft… If they’ve got a proper enchanter wand in there, we’re in serious—”

He broke off suddenly, falling to his own knees and holding out his other hand. Only when another barrage of lightning bolts went flashing harmlessly off to the opposite side of the carriage did she realize that their pursuer’s opposite door had opened and another dwarf was attacking them with a wand.

Meesie, who had been too small to be visible from Vandro’s carriage ahead, squealed furiously at Tallie, despite having to cling to Schwartz’s collar with all four paws to avoid being blown away.

“Now,” Schwartz snarled, “would be…a good…time!”

Tallie was already bringing up her staff; she had to creep forward till she was next to him and take aim from right under his arm to avoid the very real prospect of blasting him point-blank, given the way their perch was rocking.

She had never fired a staff before; she’d fired a crossbow, though. This had much less recoil, which seemed ironic.

Tallie wasn’t a great shot, but she managed to rake the side of the carriage, causing the dwarf with the wand to fall out with an audible cry. The carriage itself bucked from the impact, its upper left edge a scorched ruin and actually on fire in a couple of places, but the driver regained control and kept on after having to sacrifice a few yards of proximity. That was still easily within staff range.

Given that only one side in that firefight had any defensive measures, that pretty much decided the matter.

The barrage coming at them from the dwarf’s staff intensified so much that the weapon had to be in immediate danger of overheating; clearly their foe could analyze the tactical reality just as well. Tallie’s second shot punched right through the windscreen, though not on the side where the driver perched. She had been aiming for the driver’s seat, but these were hardly optimal shooting conditions. Her next shot at the driver didn’t hit him, either; their carriage bumped right as she fired, causing both herself and Schwartz to slide terrifyingly backward, and her staff jerked straight down as she fought for balance.

However, that meant the shot blasted one of their pursuer’s front wheels clean off.

The carriage crumpled forward onto itself like a horse with a broken leg, its fender plowing into the highway and causing its back end to reel upward. Too close to avoid it, the following truck plowed right into its ally, the driver managing to swerve only just enough to make the collision relatively indirect. It finished the work of smashing the vehicle, though, and knocking it fully off the road.

The truck came on, now missing one of its brilliant running lamps, but apparently undeterred.

“Nice shot,” Schwartz said breathlessly. Meesie squeaked and nodded.

Tallie grinned at him, not about to argue despite that shot being a complete accident. “Not so bad yourself. Hang tight, though, we’re not nearly out of this yet.”

“I say, is this ominous?” Layla asked nervously, peering through the rear window at the sole remaining lamp of the truck following them. “I mean, it seems odd that we’re doing so well. We are outnumbered, and I learned long ago to be suspicious of anything that seems to be going like a bard’s story.”

“A rider is only as good as his mount,” Glory replied calmly. “Those are cheap, mass-produced vehicles acquired locally for the sake of anonymity. Our carriages were the absolute top of the line even before Webs and I commissioned our various personal enhancements, and both are being driven by Butlers. No, this is proceeding more or less as I expected. The real test will come once we’re off the road.”

A persistent chiming rapidly grew in volume and their carriage swerved to hug the right edge of the road, following Vandro’s ahead, and followed a moment later by the truck behind. Another vehicle shot past them on their left—actually moving far slower than they, but quickly lost behind due to their speed, along with the sound of its driver frantically yanking his alarm bell in panic.

“That’s an important reminder,” Jasmine said grimly. “Storm or no storm, this is a public highway scarcely a stone’s throw from the Imperial capital. It’s amazing there’s not more traffic.”

“What do you want to bet that guy goes right to the nearest police with this story?” Rasha asked. “I mean, even if he couldn’t see the damage to these carriages, he’s about to pass two wrecked ones that have obviously been shot, and probably bodies in the road.”

“All according to plan,” Glory said soothingly, patting Rasha’s shoulder. “Official vehicles will be out soon anyway; this storm came on quickly, but they try to keep up a presence in dangerous weather in case anyone needs help. Secrecy is more than we can hope for. Remember, getting the Empire involved will be to our benefit. It’s the dwarves who attacked first.”

“Which means,” Jasmine reminded them, “they have an urgent need to stop us before the Imperials catch up.”

“It’s that thing I want to know about,” Glory murmured, staring back at the truck through narrowed eyes. “Those little Dawnco rigs didn’t last long, which was no surprise. That one, though… What have they got in there?”

“Why are we slowing—oh.”

Schwartz turned to face forward as the carriages decelerated. Up ahead, lights rose through the gloom, and after only moments longer the forest fell away to both sides.

Imperial foresters kept the immediate surroundings of Tiraas as pristine and natural as possible, a policy established by Emperor Sarsamon, the founder of the Tirasian Dynasty, but this forest was scarcely a century old. Before that, Tiraan Province had been thoroughly settled farming country, but during the Enchanter Wars battles had torn up the landscape, and in the lawless and tax free years which followed, much of the land had been despoiled by opportunistic companies, strip-mining and mass-logging until the once-proud capital stood surrounded by a virtual wasteland. Tirasian conservation efforts or no, however, this was still a populated region; the cities of Tiraas, Anteraas and Madouris stood quite close together, and there were numerous smaller towns and villages in the vicinity. The highway now passed straight through one.

Here, even more than in the capital, people had retreated inside to escape the cold, dark, and the rapidly thickening blanket of snow which had piled nearly a foot deep in only a few hours. It was far from deserted, however. Lights blazed from many windows, and as the quality of the highway’s paving improved with its transition to village main street, regularly spaced lamp posts appeared lining the way.

Two people were trudging along the snow-buried sidewalk, heads down and hands jammed in coat pockets; they ignored the short convoy of enchanted carriages which now passed through the town, having decelerated to a speed that would not garner attention. Another man stood on the corner of a cross-street, however, smoking a cigarette. Or at least he had been; it was blown from his fingers into the slush-filled gutter by an errant gust of wind, which he appeared not to notice, being occupied staring at their procession.

The two lead carriages were both clearly expensive, though Vandro’s also bore the significant scars of its rough treatment back in Tiraas. The hulking delivery truck bringing up the rear had also taken a beating, its front fender totally smashed by the recent impact with the wrecked Dawnco sedan, the lamp on that side torn clean off. Only Glory’s carriage bore no signs of damage. It did, however, have Schwartz and Tallie sitting on the roof, in the snow, he with a cheerfully burning little elemental on his shoulder, she clutching a battlestaff.

In the light of the village’s street lamps, they could, for the first time, see the dwarf ensconced in the truck’s driver seat. He tipped his hat politely to the staring man as they passed.

“We could make a fuss,” Tallie said quietly. “There must be police close to here, either Imperial or House Madouri. Tell ’em what’s been going on…”

“Glory picked out a destination for the ambush,” Schwartz replied quietly. “Jasmine has a plan, and anyway, we’ve got allies waiting for us who will be left high and dry if we don’t show. At least one is a friend of mine. Besides,” he added, directing a scowl at the truck behind, “I think Jasmine’s plans can be trusted, as a general rule.”

Catching his look, the dwarf driving the truck smiled and waved at him. Tallie calmly made a crude gesture in reply.

“Did you know Jasmine before we all wound up in that jail?” she asked him.

Schwartz grinned in spite of himself. “Well, I mean, sure. We were all in that warehouse before we were in jail.”

“You know what I mean,” she snapped.

“Yes, I do,” he said more soberly, not meeting her eyes. “And no…I didn’t.”

“Mm.” Tallie studied him critically, the light fading around them; they were already moving toward the opposite fringe of the village. “And yet, you know something about her that I don’t?”

Schwartz glanced at her, then shifted uncomfortably. Meesie turned to give Tallie a look, pointed one paw at her and squeaked a warning.

“Mm hm,” Tallie said smugly. “Ah, well, people keep reminding me others are entitled to their secrets.”

“It’s probably significant if people have to keep reminding you of that,” Schwartz said pointedly.

“Let’s table this for later,” she suggested. “Sound like it’ll be a fun argument, and right now I just don’t think we can spare it the attention it deserves.”

Up ahead, Wilberforce signaled the end of their reprieve by pouring power into the wheels, his carriage blazing off into the darkness. Smythe kept Glory’s smoothly right behind it, and for a few moments they started to leave their pursuer in their wake. After dropping back until the truck’s remaining lamp was almost a pinprick, though, it began rapidly swelling again. The truck could not match a Falconer carriage for acceleration, but even with the best available traction charms and Butler drivers, everyone’s top speed was limited by what they could safely do in the snow and the darkness. In only another minute, the truck was once again bearing down on them.

Now, however, the vehicle emitted a sudden bang, and the flat roof of its cargo compartment—which made up the majority of its size—suddenly shot into the air, falling to the road behind them.

“Oh, what the hell now,” Tallie groaned. “Look at the size of that thing—they could have a mag cannon in there!”

“You can’t put magical artillery on top of anything running on wheel enchantments, either,” Schwartz said pedantically even as he stared at the truck. There was definitely some kind of mechanism in it; groaning and clacking noises were emerging, loud enough to be clear despite the wind blasting past them. “Mag cannons work by channeling a burst of otherwise standard wandfire through two tiny dimensional portals affixed back to back, which exponentially increases the power using the ambient energy that causes the universe itself to function. Most of a mag cannon’s bulk is the charmed apparatus that safely contains those spells, and even so, unstable portals mess up all kinds of other charms, especially anything designed to be specifically mobile and adaptive. Believe me, the military would love…

“Why in hell’s name does he think I care about this?” Tallie muttered to herself, taking aim with her staff. Meesie glanced over at her and shook her tiny head.

This time, her shot was true and struck the target head-on, but this time, it accomplished virtually nothing. Lightning veered off course, arcing over and into the open back of the truck.

“What the fuck?!” she screeched.

“I say, how clever!” Schwartz exclaimed.

“I thought you said you can’t shield an enchanted carriage!”

“You can’t, the innate wear on shields increases hugely at the speed carriages travel, and more importantly the necessary phasing to allow airflow catastrophically disrupts wheel enchantments—” He noticed her glare and broke off, wincing. “Ah, yes, but anyway, that’s not shielded, it’s got a lightning rod!”

“What the f—I thought those have to be grounded!”

“They do!” Schwartz said enthusiastically. “Which means it’s being redirected into some kind of power storage unit inside the vehicle! If I could only get to it, I could easily overload the thing—”

They both had to drop down and hold on for dear life as the highway went into a wide curve; despite Smythe’s obvious skill at the control runes, the carriage skidded, only righting itself properly once the road straightened out again an interminable few seconds later. At least the same disruption put a temporary halt to whatever was going on in the back of the truck, though the loud ticking and grinding resumed almost immediately.

“Then you’d be in there when it blew,” Tallie pointed out when she felt she could spare the attention for talking.

“Hmm.” Schwartz scowled back at the truck. “I bet I could get Meesie into there, but with no way of knowing exactly what she’d find, it’s impossible to give her the right tools or instructions. She’s not a very adaptive oh come on, are you kidding me?!”

The machinery finally revealed itself, a huge apparatus rising up above the truck’s driver compartment, its wide arms snapping outward and locking into place. It truly was an ingenious piece of engineering, and altogether remarkable that the dwarves had such a thing on hand. Of course, as military hardware went, the thing was so outdated the Imperial Army would have scoffed at it, but in their present situation, there could be no doubt what the ballista would do to their carriage at that range.

A bolt almost as long as Schwartz was tall was already locked into place; the pointed end aiming at them had been machined in a spiraling pattern like the head of a screw.

Tallie fired her staff right at it, with exactly the same disappointing result as before.

Schwartz, however, stood upright and held his hand aloft; after a second’s concentration, a ball of fire burst alight in his palm. Before the ballista could fire, he hurled it directly at the front of the truck.

The fireball missed the driver compartment, but impacted the truck directly on the flat wall behind it. Like nearly all carriages, the truck’s body was made of wood, and whatever lightning-deflecting apparatus it possessed did nothing at all against fire.

The truck’s frame caught as if soaked in oil; clearly Schwartz’s weaponized fireballs were packing more than just fire. Blazing merrily and spewing smoke, the truck kept after them without so much as slowing. And the entirely metal structure of the ballista itself was visible through the flame, still aimed right at them.

Another loud cranking noise sounded from within.

“Dodge!” Tallie screamed at the top of her lungs, throwing herself flat and pounding a foot on the roof of the carriage. “DODGE!”

The sound the ballista made was oddly melodic, though far too deep and powerful to be rightly called a twang.

Smythe got the message; the carriage abruptly swerved as widely as the space of the highway would allow.

Tallie felt the wind of the massive projectile whip past her. If she had not lain flat and if Smythe hadn’t adjusted their course, it would have gone right through her body. The bastards were either worse shots than she, or weren’t even aiming at the carriage.

There came a crash from ahead, followed by the screaming of braking wheels on the highway, and she turned her head to look, horrified by what she might see.

Vandro’s carriage was not a loss, however. The ballista bolt had grazed it, ripping off a chunk of its roof, but Wilberforce fought it back into a steady course even as she watched. Smythe had to decelerate sharply to avoid plowing into his rear fenders, causing Tallie and Schwartz to slide toward the front of their rooftop.

“All right, that is it!” Schwartz growled, and hurled Meesie at the truck.

She transformed in midair, plummeting to the road to land directly in front of it. The truck did not slow.

Its front bumper, what remained of it, crumpled completely upon impact with the huge cat; the truck rode high enough off the ground that she was swept beneath it rather than smashing directly through its body. However, in that form, Meesie was too big for its wheels to simply roll over.

The entire truck bucked off the highway, veered, skidded, and flew into a spin. As their carriages accelerated away, their pursuer was traveling completely sideways when it finally toppled over, smashing the intricate collapsible ballista protruding from its bed, still burning fiercely.

Tallie’s scream of triumph managed to compress a surprising number of obscenities into only a few seconds. In the middle of it, Meesie popped back into existence on Schwartz’s shoulder, herself emitting a shrill tirade that sounded unmistakably of cursing despite containing no words.

“Look!” Schwartz shouted, pointing ahead of them. The forest opened up to reveal a broad field; Wilberforce and then Smythe slowed their respective vehicles, turning through a gate which lead into the middle of it. If there was a road, it was completely buried under the snow. Up ahead, there loomed the landmark Glory had pointed out to Jasmine as the ideal ambush point: an old fortification from the Enchanter Wars, abandoned but left there by the Imperial government as a reminder. Its crumbling battlements covered nearly an acre, with the round central structure rising five stories from its center almost wide enough to appear squat.

“We made it!” Schwartz crowed. “Principia and her squad are in there waiting for us!”

Before she could even reply, the night lit up like noon.

The size of the explosion was such that the century-old fortress dissolved entirely in a column of fire.

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11 – 38

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Behind Glory’s property stood a stable with a walled yard attached, its gated drive leading onto a little side street shared with her next door neighbor, opening onto the street proper. The stableyard was crowded to the point of bustling, now, as the entire household sorted themselves into the two enchanted carriages waiting at idle, their enchantments powered up to warm them before embarking. Both Glory and Vandro drove late-model Falconers, though hers was a smaller, sportier model without as much passenger space. Layla’s horses were carefully bedded down in warm stalls; though Glory herself did not keep animals, she maintained facilities for guests who did.

“Interesting girl, that one,” Vandro mused, watching Jasmine talking quietly with Schwartz and Glory by the door of the other carriage, the girl apparently showing them how to work one of those disruptor staves she’d brought back from the Temple of Avei along with her witch friend. “Got brains and muscle, but clearly isn’t the ringleader of this little pack. Doesn’t wanna put herself forward. No, I’d peg little Miss Tallie in that role—or she will be, when she grows into that bluster of hers. Frankly, those two are the only ones I mark as having a future in the Guild. The boys are sadly unremarkable.”

Wilberforce, sitting beside him on the carriage’s driver bench, cleared his throat softly, directing his face toward Grip, who lounged by the gates, watching him watch Jasmine. Vandro gave her a grin and a wave; she made no response to this, and after a moment pointedly turned her head away.

“I trust, sir,” the Butler said softly, “that you noted Miss Tallie’s remark about the Avenist Eserite mother.”

“Mmm.” Vandro took a swig from a silver hip flask, smiling to himself. “Now, we know damn well from our research that Keys doesn’t have a daughter—or at least, not one that she raised. That business with House Takhvaneh ’bout twenty years back, though… Everybody figured she nixed the pregnancy first chance, but Jasmine’s the right age, and I’d believe from her looks she’s a half-elf. Thrown away by her shiftless mother as a baby, just now trying to reconnect… Why, there’s just all kinds of ways for that to go badly, eh? Especially with the right encouragement.”

“Conversations between her friends have hinted at an Avenist upbringing,” Wilberforce noted. “A possible motivation for Locke to seek out the Sisterhood as she has.”

“I didn’t miss that either, old friend. Keys, it would seem, wants this a lot more than the girl does. How delightfully fraught with possibility.”

“There is also the fact,” Wilberforce added dryly, “on a less optimistic note, that you tend to get along poorly with Avenists.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right,” Vandro said with a sigh. “Well, hell, I’m not too old to make a few compromises. These kids are a lot more interesting than the momentary convenience I thought they were at first. We’ll have to work on cultivating ’em. Assuming, that is,” he added cheerfully, “we don’t all get murdered by dwarves tonight.”

“Hey, uh, Jasmine?”

She paused, having been about to climb into the carriage after making her farewells to Tallie, Ross, and Darius, who now strode up front to join Grip at Vandro’s carriage. The larger and more powerful of the two, it had been designated to carry more of the group. Schwartz was hovering by the rear fender of their own ride, looking nervous.

“Are you all right?” she asked, then winced. “Well, I mean, apart form the obvious. Believe me, there’s no shame in being apprehensive about something like this.”

He actually barked an incredulous little laugh, while Meesie squeaked reproachfully at her. “Oh, no, nothing like… Well, actually, I am quite nervous, that’s true. After Athan’Khar, though, this really isn’t so bad as all that.”

“Athan—wow.” Jasmine blinked. “You’ll really have to tell me that story someday.”

“Actually, I think I really will,” he replied, his expression growing grimmer. “That’s where I first met Bishop Syrinx…among other things. Look, that’s what I actually wanted to talk about, uh, Jasmine. I haven’t found a moment to grab your ear since the temple, and something about that Grip woman makes me think sharing possibly personal information in her hearing isn’t the best idea…”

“You’ve got good instincts,” she said with a sigh.

“It’s just…” Schwartz awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck. Meesie stood up to tug on his ear and point at Jasmine, squeaking encouragingly. “Well, frankly, I think you were a little too hard on Principia. She means well, and that thing with the Bishop… Well, trust me, she is fully entitled to feel hostile. I don’t think you quite appreciate just how…” He paused and swallowed heavily. “Just what Basra Syrinx is like.”

“I have some ideas in that direction, in fact,” Jasmine said quietly, nudging the carriage door fully shut. “That was the whole point of that, Schwartz.”

He blinked. “I, uh…how so?”

“Of the two of them, Syrinx is the one who worries me,” she said seriously. “Locke is…well, she has more than her share of faults, but I know pretty well what they are, and she’s not a danger except to people who deserve it. It was Syrinx I needed to land on to bring her in line. And if I’d done that while going easy on Locke, Syrinx would have made her pay for it later, when I wasn’t there to see. She would almost have to, given the way she thinks. I tried to put them on equal footing to protect Locke, and I’m trusting her to be clever enough to have picked up on that.”

“Oh.” He blinked again, twice. “Oh, I see. Well, um… I quite frankly would never have thought of that.”

Jasmine shook her head. “Neither would I, not so long ago. We really do need to have some longer conversations about this, Schwartz.”

“Right, yes,” he agreed. “But…clearly not tonight.”

She smiled, opening the carriage door. “We’ll just add that to our reasons to be certain to survive, eh?”

After she had climbed in and shut the door behind her, he shook his head and began clambering up to the top of the carriage. “Well, I thought I had plenty of those, but I suppose a bit more can’t hurt.”

Meesie ran a complete lap around the top of his head, chattering her agreement.

Night and the snowstorm had reduced the streets of Tiraas to a lamp-lit netherworld; even more windows than usual blazed with light, as if those within sought to fight back the cold by sheer volume of fairy lamps. Outside, however, the city was nearly desolate compared to its usual level of activity. Pedestrians were almost nonexistent, the few other carriages about moving slowly and cautiously in the snow. Twice on their way to the west gate, they passed carriages that had skidded off the road and collided with lamp posts, one having demolished a row of mailboxes in the process. In both cases, military police and the presumed owners of the vehicles were standing by them, competing to look more put out. Compared to the mess Tiraas usually faced in the winter, this storm was downright gentle; there was little wind and no ice, just thick snowflakes continually tumbling down. After hours of this, though, the snow was accumulating to a difficult depth.

“This could be trouble,” Glory murmured, shifting the curtain with one finger to study the passing scenery. “I expected more activity on the streets than this. If we are caught in an area where there is no one to see…”

“Tiraas is the heart of the Empire,” Jasmine said. “The Tiraan Empire is the predominant nation in the world. The center of human civilization never sleeps. And this city of all places is used to snow; everyone was just unprepared by the mild winter. It won’t be shut down that thoroughly. Look, there are people around, even if only a few, and the police are patrolling more than usual. As long as we don’t venture into side streets like they caught us in last time, it should be fine.”

“This is a main street, right?” Rasha asked nervously. “The one going right from Imperial Square to the west gate?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Glory with a smile. “If Tiraas is the Empire’s heart, this is one of its arteries. Jasmine is probably right; I just can’t help feeling a little nervous. I’m accustomed to sitting in the center of my web and letting the trouble come to me.”

“I am sorry to involve you in all this,” Jasmine said quietly.

“I’m not,” Glory replied without hesitation, absently squeezing Rasha’s shoulder. “This needs to be done, and anyway, I clearly needed to be shaken out of my routine. It’s a terrible sin for an Eserite to grow complacent.”

“They still back there?” Rasha asked tersely.

Jasmine, who was sitting on the front bench facing backward, nodded, her eyes flicking to the rear window. “Still keeping pace.”

“Uh oh,” Glory said suddenly, again looking past the curtain. Layla, Rasha, and Jasmine all crowded over to see.

Another carriage had suddenly pulled up out of an intersection and was keeping pace alongside them, not quite close enough to be menacing. Its driver’s bench had its windscreen and canvas top raised, but as they stared, one of its side windows swung open, revealing the face of a female dwarf, who gave them a pleasant smile and casually held up a wand.

Glory pulled back the curtain entirely, smiled back with equal politeness, and lifted her hand to deliver an obscene gesture. Rasha barely suppressed an outburst of nervous laughter.

“They’re too good to make a mistake like this,” Jasmine murmured. “If they didn’t ambush us before we got out of your neighborhood, they won’t here. We’re obviously making for the gates; much more opportunity outside the city.”

“Unless they know it’s a trap, of course,” said Layla. To the annoyance of virtually everyone, the young noblewoman seemed to find this whole affair to be splendid fun.

“And that’s where our current measures—ah, there we go,” Jasmine said in satisfaction as the current measures went into effect.

Up ahead, one of the doors of Vandro’s carriage had swung open, and Tallie leaped out, catching the lip of the roof with one hand and nimbly swinging herself up top, clearly not encumbered by the full-length battlestaff she carried. There, she dropped to a crouch, aimed the staff directly at the new carriage, and lit up behind a sphere of blue light which sparkled continuously as snowflakes pelted it.

Snow wasn’t as bad as rain, but a personal shielding charm wouldn’t hold up long in this weather. As the seconds passed, it became increasingly clear that what protected her was not an ordinary shielding charm.

Enchanted carriages could be outfitted with much larger and more potent power crystals than they needed, which then could be keyed to any number of enchanted devices carried within range of the carriage itself—such as energy shields. This was military gear, and while its use in civilian carriages was not a criminal offense, it definitely violated the enchanted vehicle safety codes, not to mention any insurance policies on the vehicle in question.

Quite coincidentally, both Vandro and Glory’s personal carriages had these devices installed and ready to run. The carriages themselves, unfortunately, could not be shielded, as for some reason that interfered with the enchantments powering their wheels; even Tallie’s bubble hovered closer to her than normal, to keep it out of range of any important systems it might damage.

Beside their own carriage, there suddenly paced a glowing red lion nearly as large as an ox. Meesie turned her maned head to growl at the dwarves, loud enough to be plainly audible in both vehicles even over the hum of their wheel charms and the sounds of slush being crushed beneath them. Though they couldn’t see it, Schwartz up top would be doing something to show off his magic, too.

The carriage immediately veered to put a lane’s worth of space between them, and fell back to drive parallel to its counterpart a few yards behind.

“Yeah, you’d better run,” Layla said, grinning.

Jasmine gave her a quelling look, which she appeared not to notice, before replying. “If they attack us now, where the police will intervene, we win—they set that up themselves by facing down the Guild the way they have. They’re not backing off because they’re afraid, Layla; they’re encouraging us to stand down our defenses and not attract the military police. No, this is how all cons are structured. You have to present the mark with the opportunity to put one over on you. We’ve made it plain we’re ready for a fight; they don’t know just how ready we are. They think we are riding into their trap, and once we do, we’ll spring ours.”

“And…just how many cons have you run?” Layla asked pointedly.

Jasmine grimaced. “Uh, this will be my first.”

“I see,” the aristocrat muttered. “Well, I suppose our lives are a sufficient stake. Doesn’t the Guild traditionally start apprentices off stealing, I don’t know, pocket change? Fruit from street vendors? Candy from babies?”

“It’s a good grift, regardless,” Glory said firmly. “No plan survives contact with reality, but we are well-prepared to improvise. That is the important thing.”

“I see the gates up ahead,” Rasha reported. “And Tallie’s shield is off again. Just the two carriages after us, still…”

“The gate guards may stop us,” Layla said, frowning.

Glory smiled. “The gate guards aren’t going to intervene as long as Meesie is back to mouse shape and Tallie isn’t showing off a shield that works better than it should in the snow. The sheer amount of traffic in and out of this city inevitably makes it impossible to scrutinize anyone too closely.”

“Traffic’s pretty light,” Rasha said, frowning nervously.

“But habits endure,” said Glory. “Anyway, if we are stopped, we have our cover story. Two wealthy dilettantes and their entourages repairing to our estates in Madouris after a most unsettling encounter with dwarven toughs. Shock, dismay, and so on. Still, I’m quite certain they won’t trouble us. Both these carriages are, if I say so myself, distinctive…”

“Wait, what about highway patrols?” Layla interrupted, watching the gates draw closer ahead. Traffic had, in fact, thickened, though that only meant there were four other carriages visible, none driving close enough together to force anyone to slow down in the snow. “Surely roads are heavily monitored this close to the capital…”

“Actually,” Glory said with a smile, “the capital itself is directly administered by the Silver Throne, but the lands outside it are part of Tiraan Province, governed by House Madouri. Among the new Duchess’s reforms has been the dismissal of most of her father’s rangers and public guardsmen, whose primary skill was taking bribes.”

“Oh, splendid,” Layla huffed, folding her arms. “Then we shall only meet bandits. Well, I’m sure we can handle those.”

“There are no bandits in Tiraan Province,” Glory said, now openly amused. “While the new Madouri guard corps is being trained to her more stringent standards, Duchess Ravana has made a standing contract with the Thieves’ Guild chapter in Madouris. Guild thieves who apprehend highwaymen will be compensated equally to the value of whatever was stolen, plus a bounty, and she prefers that the courts not be burdened with prosecuting such scoundrels when their heads will suffice to prove the cessation of their activities.”

“That,” Jasmine said with a grimace, “is just begging for the worst kind of abuse.”

“For a run-of-the-mill criminal cartel, perhaps,” Glory replied, shrugging placidly. “The Guild acts out of principle, however, and the Duchess has played to that perfectly. Boss Tricks has made it very clear that her offer is not to be abused in any way. Between that and Ravana making sure this arrangement is an open secret in the province, the highways around Tiraas are actually safer than under the old Duke’s administration.”

“She sounds quite the charmer,” Layla said, looking pointedly at Jasmine, who made no reply.

The gate guards did not even flag them to slow. Apparently, two luxury carriages (one with significant physical damage) with armed individuals sitting on top did not warrant closer inspection, a fact upon which Layla commented with some asperity as they eased carefully onto the bridge across the canyon.

“Well,” Glory said idly, “some of us have standing arrangements with gate guards, as I was trying to say earlier. Any Eserite who moves in circles of a certain class, really. I would be astonished if Webs weren’t fully paid up with the local constabulary. He does so love spending his money on bribes.”

“I guess if the dwarves really wanted to put us neatly out of the picture,” Rasha murmured, gazing out the window at the dizzying drop into blackness just beyond the bridge rails, “this would be the place.”

“Oh, what a lovely thought,” Layla exclaimed. “Really, thanks ever so.”

“You have to climb to get off the side of this bridge,” Jasmine said with a smile. “And those walls are more than sturdy enough to absorb collisions.”

“It ends up being tested more often than you’d think,” Glory added. “In fact, the Emperor is rumored to be drawing up legislation governing the use of enchanted carriages, requiring one to pass tests and obtain a license to drive.”

“That sounds like an entirely superfluous administrative burden,” Layla sniffed.

Beyond the bridge was another walled and gated town guarding the approach to Tiraas, and beyond that, the Imperial highway extending forward into snowy darkness. The road forked just beyond the outer gates, heading westward toward Viridill and north to Madouris. The provincial capital was a proverbial stone’s throw from Tiraas itself; each city was visible from atop the other’s walls. From the ground, however, in the dark and in the snow, with a stretch of forest bracketing the road ahead, there was no evidence of civilization once the outlying farms and shops petered off into the dimness.

Both carriages accelerated as they eased past the last fairy lamps into the tree-lined woods, trusting their wheel enchantments to keep them grounded. A few ruts had been carved through the white blanket ahead by other vehicles, but no effort had yet been made to clear the road, and they threw up sprays of snow to both sides as they went.

Behind them, there were now three carriages pursuing. Two were cheap Dawnco sedans of the type which had intercepted them in the city, while another stood taller and more squared in shape; it was hard to tell from ahead, with its lamps shining directly in the eyes of anyone looking back, but it appeared to be a delivery truck.

“I really hope your other allies got themselves into position,” Layla said tersely. “Otherwise our evening is going to be rather more brief than we had hoped.”

“They wouldn’t let me down,” Jasmine murmured, her eyes glued to the pursuing vehicles. “Any of them. They know where to go. We just have to hold long enough to get there.”

Suddenly the lights grew brighter. The two sedans separated to both sides and sped up to a truly reckless velocity, clearly moving forward in an attempt to flank the Eserite convoy, while the truck kept its position at the rear.

Rasha grunted, lifting one of the gold-wrapped disruptors. “And here they come.”

“Well, they have us outnumbered and alone, with no witnesses or support,” Glory said calmly, settling back into her seat, her calm smile illuminated by the flash of hostile carriage lamps accelerating forward. “Those poor bastards.”

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11 – 37

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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 – 34

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The grand upper room of Glory’s house was meant to hold much larger groups, but with all of them gathered the place seemed very much alive even despite the gloom and snow displayed by its large windows. Layla had immediately latched onto her brother, while refusing to express anything but annoyance toward him, which he bore with practiced good humor. Glory had arrived shortly after Smythe seated them in a circle of chairs and sofas around a low table and provided refreshments to take the chill off; by the time she joined them, they were all working on hot cider (and in Vandro’s case, brandy). Layla’s retinue was present as well, though keeping themselves on the periphery as well-trained servants of the nobility naturally did. Ralph seemed quite content to hover in the background, though her footman, Talvers, appeared frustrated by the lack of anything for him to do with two preternaturally efficient Butlers looking after the group.

“So for the time being,” Vandro said following his and Grip’s recitation of the day’s events for their hostess’s benefit, “it comes down to how defensible your home is. And my apologies, by the way, for droppin’ this flaming bag on your doorstep, Glory.”

“No apologies,” she demurred, shaking her head. “We’re protecting apprentices and bringing down predators. No Guild member worth a damn should have to think twice about helping, here.”

“Well said!” Vandro proclaimed, toasting her with his glass.

“To answer the question,” Glory continued, “considering who I host here on a regular basis, this house may well have better protections than the manors of many aristocrats. It matters how desperate they are, however. My defenses are geared toward repelling discreet intrusions, not full-scale assaults.”

“They are desperate,” Grip noted, “and clearly able to enact good plans on the fly. These are professionals. We are not out of the woods yet, not until Style’s street soldiers are hounding them out of the city.”

“Uh, question?” Tallie raised her hand. “What defenses are these, and how are they different from the, uh, full assault type?”

“Well, it’s a matter of defensive philosophy,” Glory said with a vlpine smile. “If one fears organized attack, the enchantments used can be likened to a castle’s walls: designed to prevent anyone from entering uninvited. If one fears spies and assassins rather than armies, however, one tends to favor measures that make an intruder’s life hellish and brief once they are inside.”

“Are you telling us,” Darius said resignedly, “this whole place is booby-trapped?”

“Nothing so gauche,” Glory replied. “I do have basic external defenses using the standard arcane enchantments, but my home also employs fae craft to repel those who enter with hostile intent.”

“Mm,” Jasmine murmured, staring across the room at the fireplace. The hall was heated by arcane ranges, but the fire made an excellent focal point of the décor. “Good… Arcane enchantment is standardized and can be worked around, but fae measures are highly individual. It’s nearly impossible to guess what one is going up against when encountering fairy craft. The problem, there,” she added, turning to Glory, “is that a lot of dwarves can use divine magic without needing to be clerics. That will neutralize fae.”

“And arcane neutralizes divine,” Glory said calmly. “Believe me, Jasmine, I considered all relevant angles when commissioning my magical defenses.”

“So we’re safe, then?” Rasha asked, entering the room.

“Hey, man!” Darius called, grinning and waving. “You look worlds better. How you feeling?”

“Better, yes,” Rasha replied, giving him a tight little smile and sliding onto the loveseat next to Tallie. “I’m not going to be good until this is over, though.”

“Hear that,” Ross muttered.

“And no,” Grip said coldly. “All safety is an illusion.”

“I have it on good authority,” Vandro said with a grin, “that our girl Tessa was very nearly tagged Sunshine instead of Grip.”

“You should consider, Alan, how I’m going to deal with you after we’re not back-to-back against an enemy before you open your mouth at me.” The enforcer shifted her sharp gaze back to Rasha. “I repeat, we are dealing with adaptive, competent people in unknown numbers, with unknown resources. We will not become complacent.”

“However,” Vandro said in a more serious tone, “whether they physically can invade the house may not be the question; I don’t think they’ll try. Too risky and expensive. Supposing they countered whatever witchcraft is protecting this place and got in—then they’d be in the position of endangering someone with multiple friends in the highest levels of Imperial society, not to mention being in an enclosed space with two Butlers and Grip. Plus, y’know, the rest of us small fry. No, that’s not a winning move for them. Grip’s right, though, these bastards aren’t done and don’t seem the type to take defeat lying down. We should be prepared for something a little more…lateral.”

“Agreed,” Glory said, nodding. “But for the moment, there is little we can do but wait. As we are presently confined to a residence which, if I may flatter myself, sets the standard of comfort and pleasure among Tiraan households, I suggest everyone take full advantage and rest. Relax, enjoy yourselves as best you are able! My home is yours and you may avail yourselves of any amenities I have to offer. It may sound shallow, under the circumstances, but having a moment to catch one’s breat can make all the difference at times like these.”

“Truly,” Vandro said solemnly but with a twinkle in his eye, “you are a queen among hostesses, Tamisin.”

“What’d you do to your hair?” Tallie asked, patting Rasha’s head. “This looks awesome!”

“T-thanks,” he stuttered, flushing. “Um, Glory gave me… A little help.”

“We can all do with a little from time to time,” Glory said, smiling.

“You do look nice,” Jasmine agreed with a smile. “Glory… Ah, do you have a garden or anything?”

“Of course,” Glory replied, raising her eyebrows in surprise. “A walled courtyard garden, to be precise. Why do you ask?”

Jasmine cleared her throat, her expression suddenly pensive and slightly uncomfortable. “I wonder… Well, first of all, I assume it’s defensible?”

“As the rest of the house,” Glory assured her. “All the requisite charms on the walls, and all applicable magical measures extend over the whole property.”

Jasmine nodded. “If it isn’t too much trouble, could I have some privacy there for a little while?”

“Of course,” Glory said, smiling again. “As I said, my home is yours.”

“You think it wise to go outside at a time like this?” Layla asked pointedly. “Defenses or no, we are rather under siege, are we not? Or have I misunderstood the situation?”

“Yeah, maybe people shouldn’t be going off alone for any reason,” Darius agreed, frowning.

Grip cleared her throat pointedly. “How important is this, Jasmine?”

“To me?” Jasmine met her stare unhesitatingly. “Quite. Consider it…a religious matter.”

“Ah, yes, our Avenist Eserite,” Tallie said airily, “daughter of the Eserite Avenist. I didn’t realize Sisters had to go outside to pray.”

“People in pursuit of a spiritual path generally seek privacy for such things as prayer,” Glory said smoothly, “and the courtyard is as safe as the rest of the property, from anything except frostbite. I will insist you take a fresh heating charm, Jasmine, in case yours wears out. If it’s not prying, how long do you expect to be?”

“I’m not… Well, not a moment longer than necessary.” Jasmine frowned into the fire again. “There’s just something I need to…straighten out.”

“Well, now, hang on a sec,” Tallie said, her eyes narrowing as she turned them on Vandro. “Before you go off to hide in the corner, we have other business we were going to see to, remember? Like this asshole and just where the hell he gets off planting trackers on us.”

“The girl has a point,” Vandro said easily, swirling his drink with one hand. “You may not want to miss this! Sounds like it’ll be quite a party.”

“Mm.” Jasmine gave him a considering look. “You know, Tallie, if a coyote kills your chickens, you shoot it. Blaming it for doing what coyotes do is pointless, and a more relevant question is who left the chicken coop unlatched.”

“Ah, what a delightfully rustic metaphor,” Layla said, showing teeth in a smile that went nowhere near her eyes. “That should aid her comprehension considerably.”

“Let me just jump in here,” Darius said grimly. “There is not going to be a feud between you two; nobody has time or energy for that crap. If I have to enforce this by knocking your heads together, so be it.”

“I see that you have entirely taken leave of your already basic social skills,” Layla sniffed. Tallie just rolled her eyes.

“My point,” Jasmine said patiently, “is that Vandro hasn’t harmed us, and in fact these measures enabled him to come to our aid. And he didn’t plant anything on us; we accepted free gifts from someone we were repeatedly warned is a manipulator. Perhaps we’re not in a position to point fingers.”

“You are half right,” said Grip. “Hold other people responsible for the shit they pull, Jasmine. But definitely own your mistakes and don’t repeat them.”

“Yes, indeed,” Vandro said cheerily. “You’ve got a sharp little head on you, my girl! I can see why Glory found you so interesting.”

Jasmine gave him an exceedingly cool look. He winked at her.

“I’m still pissed at you,” Tallie informed him, scowling.

“Attagirl,” he said approvingly. “Be pissed when you’ve been played. Make sure you channel that into doing better next time, or it’s so much wasted energy. The three of us,” he gesticulated broadly at Grip and Glory with his brandy, “may seem all wise and awesome, which we are, but we got that way through a long process of fucking up and learning from our mistakes. And that’s after getting fully trained and tagged.”

“The wise mentor thing looks better on Glory than on you,” Rasha commented, gazing flatly at Vandro and earning a grin from Tallie.

“Son, nothing looks good on me,” Vandro said genially. “It’s one of those things you just have to accept when you reach a certain span of years.”

Jasmine cleared her throat, turning back to Glory. “Anyway. Which direction…”

“Smythe,” their hostess said smoothly, “please show Jasmine to the solarium and the courtyard access. And make sure she has a new warming charm.”

“Of course, madam,” the Butler replied; he was already standing right there with Jasmine’s coat. “If you will follow me, Ms. Jasmine?”

“Thank you, Smythe,” she said, nodding to the others and shrugging into her coat. “And, ah, just Jas is fine.”

“As you say, Ms. Jasmine.”

Vandro chuckled at their retreating backs, then turned to grin at Wilberforce. “I don’t recall you ever being that stuffy.”

“Rest assured, sir,” Wilberforce replied with perfect aplomb, “I shall remain faithfully at your side no matter how your memory degrades.”

Vandro laughed so hard he slumped sideways into Ross, somehow without spilling his drink. Ross bore this with visible discomfort, and only slightly more than everyone else present.

The snow was several inches thick, now, and doing an aesthetic favor to Glory’s garden; mild as the winter had been before today, it was still winter, and with the exception of two small evergreen conifers, nearly all the decorative plants here were dead or dormant. Now, under a pristine blanket of snow, everything looked fresh and clean. The courtyard was not overly large, but spacious enough to accommodate groups comfortably; Jasmine wandered to an open spot in the center, surrounded by bare-limbed bushes, and found that the space felt more than expansive even in comparison to the large upper salon in which the others were still talking.

She turned in a complete circle, studying the high walls surrounding the courtyard. On one side was the driveway leading from the street to the carriage house in the back; the opposite wall was shared by the neighbor’s garden, and of course the house stood in front. The walls themselves were nearly two stories tall and lined with spiked iron fences on top. It was a classic Tiraan garden, designed for privacy above all.

With a soft sigh, she reached into her coat, carefully unlatched one of her belt pouches, and extracted the little wooden ocarina.

The instruments were every bit as ubiquitous and simple as the elf had told her in the forest above Veilgrad, once she knew to look for them. She had found one easily in one of the shops in Last Rock, and hadn’t even needed to get lessons from Teal to play it; a few minutes of messing around were enough to grasp the basics. She had used the cheap clay ocarina to practice the lullaby, but since getting that down had now and again found time to hone her musical skills (such as they were) with other tunes she knew. For that, she preferred to use the carved wooden one Kuriwa had given her. In fact, she wasn’t exactly sure where the other was. Probably back in Clarke Tower.

She lifted the ocarina to her lips and very softly began to play the old melody.

Thanks to her warming charm, her face and hands were not growing numb, though she was still noticeably cool. Still, the discomfort faded in concentration. She’d never been a particularly musical person, but found the act of making music to be like combat, in some ways. It carried her away to a space of clarity and focus. At least, now that she had enough basic practice not to be utterly awful at it. She still wouldn’t have performed in front of others, but found her own playing good enough, now, to be pleasing to her, the occasional flubbed note and all.

But the song ended, and nothing happened. She lowered the ocarina, frowning at it in contemplation. Maybe a few missed notes did matter? She didn’t have a deep understanding of fae magic, which was what this had to be. Nobody truly understood fae magic itself, even those who practiced it. By its very nature, it was the hardest of the four schools to pin down. Jasmine sighed softly and lifted the instrument to her lips again. May as well try once more before giving up.

“If I have to visit this city, I quite prefer it this way. Snow is good for covering the sins of civilization.”

Jasmine whirled—of course the woman had appeared behind her. Heaven forbid she get a look at how she did it. Elves.

Kuriwa, looking perfectly at ease in her dyed buckskins despite the snow already accumulating in her black hair, was peering around inquisitively at the garden, but quickly focused her attention on Jasmine. “Are you in danger?”

“No. Well, actually, yes, but that’s—it’s complicated. That’s not why I wanted to speak with you. I hope you weren’t in the middle of something important?”

“I am in the middle of many things,” Kuriwa said with a mysterious little smile, “and at the beginnings and ends of others. I consider nothing currently going on to be more important than family. I am very glad to see you again, Trissiny. That hair dye doesn’t suit you, though.”

“Jasmine,” she said quickly. The shaman raised an eyebrow. “I am…well, playing a role. I prefer not to use any name but my cover for the time being.”

“Jasmine, then,” the elf said, nodding and showing no hint of surprise. “How can I help you?”

She busied herself for a moment tucking the ocarina away in its pouch. “I… Okay, well, I’m in a bit of a situation right now. I am currently enrolled as an apprentice in the Thieves’ Guild. Why is that funny?”

“Forgive me,” said Kuriwa, still grinning. “I am not amused, but merely pleased. And proud. Do you know how few young women in your position would even think to seek out such training?”

“That’s been mentioned to me a few times,” she muttered. “Thanks, I guess. Anyway, I’ve made some friends and learned some few skills, and we have stumbled into an unexpectedly dangerous situation. We’re being hounded by government agents from one of the dwarven kingdoms over… You know what, it doesn’t really matter.”

“You need help dealing with these?” Kuriwa tilted her chin up slightly. “I find it best not to meddle in the Kingdoms’ affairs needlessly, but I will not suffer my kin to be harmed by them.”

“I’m not in the least afraid of them,” Jasmine said with a sigh. “If they manage to push me to the point where it becomes necessary, with the powers I can call on, I could smash through anything they throw at me. The issue I’m grappling with is…whether I should.”

“You seek a solution that does not involve the use of force? I continue to be proud. That’s wise, for one so young.”

“Yes, well, I suppose I’m wiser than I was a year ago,” Jasmine said bitterly.

“As am I,” Kuriwa said with a smile. “But I think you were not done?”

She began to pace up and down, swiftly wearing a rut in the fresh snow. “Obviously, that will put an end to my apprenticeship. I’m only able to be here as long as I’m being discreet.”

“Yes, I can see how the Guild would find it troublesome for someone of your rank to be openly among them. And why they would leap at the chance to gain your favor underhandedly. This new Boss, from what I have seen, is less congenial than the last one, and cleverer by half.”

“I hate to just give up,” Jasmine whispered, eyes on the ground as she wandered back and forth. “But I’m more and more uncertain I’m doing anything good here. I’ve been trained by various thieves… I talked with Commander Rouvad about this, and even Principia. People keep telling me the Guild and the Sisterhood aren’t so inherently opposite at their core, but… I came here to learn specific things that I’m just not. I wanted to know how to plan, to, to scheme. To be able to deal with the likes of the Black Wreath without them running circles around me the way they have every time, without being so dependent on my sword and flinging divine power about. But everywhere I turn, here, they want to make me an enforcer. All the Guild is doing so far is refining my ability to intimidate and assault. That is specifically what I don’t need more of.”

“I see,” Kuriwa mused. “And is that the Guild’s fault, or yours?”

Jasmine stopped pacing, turning to stare at her. After a moment of silence, she trudged over to a stone bench and plunked herself roughly down, heedless of the snow covering it. Heating charm or no, cold immediately seeped through her coat and trousers. She ignored it.

“I think if I knew that, I’d know already whether I should go or stay.”

Kuriwa’s steps were so light the snow barely crunched beneath them; it seemed almost incongruous that she left footprints. She padded over to sit down beside Jasmine on the bench.

“Then, you’ve called on me to seek my advice?”

“I…yes, please. I’m running out of fresh perspectives on this.”

“I’m glad to hear that. It seems, based on what you have said, that you’re concerned with not becoming an overly violent, brutish style of warrior, correct? That you worry for you ability to act carefully and with forethought?”

“That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”

“Then you already fail to give yourself enough credit, I think. Considering my promise to aid you, and the trying situation in which you find yourself, it would seem more immediately useful to ask me to fight alongside you. Instead, you seek wisdom and perspective. That is hardly the action of a brute.”

Jasmine sighed. “Well, no offense, but I don’t actually know how much good you’d be in a fight. Not that I doubt your abilities, but I like to work with understood assets.”

“Mm.” Kuriwa smiled faintly. “There’s a reason I respect the use of assumed names, you know. Perhaps you’ve heard of me under a nickname I’ve acquired since the Enchanter Wars: Mary the Crow?”

Jasmine’s head whipped around and she stared, wide-eyed. “You’re—well, of course you are. And I’m related to you. Because of course I am. Isn’t that great. Suddenly I appreciate Principia more.”

Kuriwa grinned. “I told you any black-haired woodkin is blood to you; I believe I also mentioned the tendency of our family line to be…challenging. Am I wrong, Jasmine, in intuiting that something specific and quite recent has happened to bring these things to a head for you?”

“Well, yes. Today we’ve been helped out by a senior Guild enforcer, Grip. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of her?”

“I have. A dangerous individual.”

“You don’t need to tell me that,” she said bitterly. “She gave us a very close look at just what it means to be a Guild enforcer, and that was more viciousness than I ever wanted to see and not immediately put a stop to with my sword. And this is what they want me to become. It’s left me with this terrible feeling that I’m not just wasting my time here, but actively making things worse.”

“And yet, here you still are, asking questions,” Kuriwa mused. “If the sight was so appalling, I wonder why you did not unfurl your wings, bring Grip to task, and then settle the dwarves and end your affiliation with the Guild in one fell swoop.”

“I don’t know,” Jasmine whispered.

The shaman laid one arm around her shoulders. “Jasmine, I can tell you that in my very long life, some of the worst and best people I have ever known were Eserites. But I do happen to know whose house this is, and that tells me the same is true of your relatively short life. All this suggests to me the shape of your problems, and it is not the situation around you.” With her other hand, she reached across and gently tapped Jasmine on the forehead. “But the one within.”

“I kind of want to resent that, but at the same time I think you have a point,” Jasmine said with another little sigh. “Is that… I suppose this is a more complicated question. Can you help me at all with this?”

“In several ways, yes.” Kuriwa smiled and very gently gave her shoulders a shake. “I rather think I could help you work through these issues over the course of several very long, involved conversations. I would enjoy getting to know you in the process, as well. But something tells me that in addition to being a generally practically-minded person, you are in a specific hurry right now. Yes?”

“Uh, yes to both of those,” Jasmine said with a wry grimace.

“I had a feeling.” The shaman smiled again. “Everything is a rush when you’re young. Well. Between Avei and me, you should be quite safe for a short time while unconscious, dwarves or no dwarves.”

“Hang on, what?” Jasmine said in sudden alarm, pulling away from her. “Unconscious?”

“Be calm,” Kuriwa urged gently. “I am not going to do anything to you without your permission. But your answers, as I said, lie within. I rather think you already understand far more than you realize on some level; it only need be brought to light. If you will allow me to, I can indeed help with that.”

Despite her instinctive hesitation, Jasmine did not have to think on that for more than a few seconds before nodding. “I…unwise as it may be…trust you.”

“Good,” Kuriwa said, smiling. “Then close your eyes.”

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11 – 33

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He awoke in an unfamiliar place, and for a brief moment, the confusion spared him the depression.

Memory came back, though, and Rasha groaned aloud, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. This was the single most luxurious bed in which he had ever slept, but right now it felt like a trap. He knew the trap was in his own head, knew it felt the same waking up on a hammock in his father’s schooner or his bunk back at the Guild. Something felt symbolic, though, in the way he seemed to sink into the plus, silk-sheeted mattress.

He’d been left behind. All the uselessness, all the helplessness he always felt, everything he forced himself to push down and proceed despite… Now it had validation. He knew quite well that his friends had been perfectly correct, was able to understand cognitively that they were concerned for his health, not trying to push him away or question his value. None of that, of course, made the slightest difference to the hateful little voice which immediately set about whispering that they had never wanted him around, now that he wasn’t too exhausted to hear it.

Somehow, without even deciding he was going to, he jerked into motion, thrashing against the satin sheets and downy comforter, extricating himself from the bed. Get up, get moving, get the blood flowing. It was a start.

The opulence of Glory’s best guest room wasn’t only in its gilded furniture and fine bedclothes; she also had the best and latest household enchantments. A discreet arcane range set under the bay windows kept the room pleasingly warm, the window glass itself was charmed to prevent ice from adhering or even condensation from obscuring the view. Most noticeably, the fairy lamps automatically ignited when they detected him moving away from the bed, the light level rising smoothly rather than simply flicking on. It was still afternoon, to judge by the light, and snow was now falling heavily outside. The lamps changed the character of the light in the room more than its level, bringing it up from dimness.

Rasha threw his shirt back on and struggled into his trousers, leaving his shoes sitting by the foot of the bed. With that done, he paused in the middle of the floor, feeling helpless and completely out of place. He didn’t belong here, surrounded by so much obvious wealth.

That started up a very dangerous line of thinking again, and with a soft grunt of self-recrimination, he resumed moving. This time toward the door.

The hall outside the room was totally silent, as he discovered upon poking his head out.

“H-hello?” he whispered, immediately hating himself for the hesitation in his voice. Moved by an impulse he knew wasn’t rational, Rasha retreated very carefully back into the room, pulling the door shut as gently and silently as he could. It just felt wrong to disturb the stillness of the opulent townhouse.

He rubbed his hands on his trousers, peering about helplessly. There was another door leading to the attached bathroom; that had already been pointed out to him. Well, there was nothing else here he particularly knew what to do with, so in he went.

Minutes later, feeling a bit fresher for having thoroughly washed his hands and face, and even dampened down his bed-tousled hair to straighten it, he wandered back out into the bedroom. The soap smelled of roses, and now so did he. He liked it far more than he’d ever have admitted.

There was another door in the room. Rasha, after hesitating a moment and glancing at the window, crept over to it. The knob was smooth-polished crystal, cut in the shape of a heart. It appeared to be quartz, pink in its center and fading to transparency toward the edges. Clearly a valuable stone, the kind of thing that would have been a display piece for any family he knew back home, assuming they didn’t just pawn it. Here, it was a doorknob.

He turned it, pulled the door very hesitantly open, and poked his head through.

His room was clearly a guest room; exquisitely, expensively decorated, but somewhat neutrally for all that. This one, in addition to being twice the size, was someone’s home. It was clean and fairly neat, but there were touches of inhabited disarray: expensive cosmetics scattered on the vanity, a fur-trimmed coat hanging by the door, silken scarves draped over the foot of the bed where several had apparently been chosen among and the rest discarded. There were elements which suggested that the owner of this place took personal comfort in a cheaper style of décor than her house reflected overall, especially in the slightly battered wooden chairs flanking the fireplace, a whole collection of oil paintings done in a very simple style of rustic landscapes, and a rug beside the bed which appeared to be simply a tanned deer hide. In pride of place over the mantle hung a glass display case containing a selection of knives, all of them clearly weapons rather than tools, and most visibly well-used.

Of course. He knew Glory’s business, or at least the general style of it as Jasmine had described it. Suddenly, having the best guest bedroom open directly onto her own made perfect sense.

Obviously, the correct thing to do was to back up, close the door, and…

What? Sit in his room? Pace? Sleep more? Go outside, find Glory and Layla, make painfully awkward small talk with a (he had to admit) rather shrewish young noblewoman and a woman who might as well be noble?

Rasha took a step forward, then another, finding himself in her bedroom before really deciding to go. It wasn’t that he had any particular plans, here, just the feeling that his already-brittle self-worth would crack permanently if he retreated in fear from one more harmless silence.

He peered cautiously around, taking in the sight of the furnishings, trying to get what he could of a sense of who she was. The room bore evidence of a contrast, paying its respects both to her wealth and sophisticated tastes, and simpler origins which she still honored. It was a small thing, but somehow it made him like her more.

Wandering close to the vanity table, he gathered the impression that she spent a great deal of time here; at any rate, it was the most cluttered part of the room. Cosmetics were strewn across the wood table under the huge mirror, which had tiny fairy lights lining its rim. Next to the vanity was an enormous wardrobe, standing open and with a brocaded robe of blue satin hanging carelessly on one of its doors.

Rasha crept closer, reaching out hesitantly to feel the fabric between thumb and forefinger. It was… Beautiful. To touch, and to look at.

A moment later he had to step forward awkwardly to catch it, as the robe slid freely from the door’s corner. It had been instinct; it wasn’t as if it would be harmed by hitting the floor. Still, he’d have felt guilty for dropping it, even more than he now did for holding it. Well, it would be the work of seconds to put it back…

His eyes caught his reflection in the vanity’s mirror. Thanks to the lights, he could see himself even more clearly than in the bathroom mirror in the guest room.

Rasha had never been pleased to see his reflection, and carefully did not dwell on why. He had grown used to not dwelling on things; dwelling led to lying in bed, loathing himself and the universe, until it felt physically impossible to move. Now, moved by some instinct he didn’t understand, he slowly lifted the robe to his chin, covering his scrawny frame and threadbare shirt.

It really was a lovely garment, royal blue and embroidered with spiraling patterns in azure which he only discerned after a closer inspection were vines and leaves. Staring at his reflection behind the robe, he took another step toward the vanity. The garment was unmistakably feminine. There’d have been hell to pay back home for messing about with something like this, as he knew from firsthand experience; his sisters had no sense of humor when it came to him touching their things, and his father even less so. They were just so nice. Women were allowed to have soft things, pleasant things, pretty things…

He had absolutely no business being here at all, much less doing this. But…when else would he ever see…?

Rasha lowered his eyes, unable to meet his own gaze in the mirror, but in one defiant motion, threw the robe around his shoulders. It fit rather well; he had always been diminutive and fine-boned. Glory was actually slightly taller, and her shoulders probably about the same size as his. It would hang loose in the bust, of course, or so he assumed. He very carefully slipped his arms into the sleeves, mindful of the expensive fabric and determined not to do it the slightest damage. Yes, the robe was clearly tailored, meant for a woman’s shape; it didn’t hang on him right. Somehow, that brought a pang of disappointment. Still… It was such a pretty thing. He gazed hungrily at the image of himself in the mirror, keeping his focus below the chin and ignoring his own familiar face as much as possible.

“It really isn’t your color.”

Rasha leaped two feet straight up, letting out a squeal, and whirled to stagger backward, his shoulder painfully impacting the edge of the wardrobe’s open door.

Glory smoothly pushed shut the bedroom door which she had opened without a sound, smiling at him and gliding forward. He desperately wished he could spontaneously die.

“I-I-I’m so sorry,” he babbled, cringing and backing away. “I was just, it was, I’m sorry. I had no right—”

“Rasha.” Her tone was firm, but not angry; in fact, he only just then processed the fact that her expression was kind and open, not annoyed in the least. “I don’t know how much time you’ve spent with Lore, but he has a saying that’s always resonated with me: ‘An unlocked door is as good as an invitation.’ Classic thief’s philosophy. Trust me, Rasha, any place in this house where I don’t want you is quite beyond your power to enter. Consider yourself welcome everywhere else.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, lowering his gaze from hers in mortification. The robe seemed to itch, to hang as heavily on him as a yoke, but he felt too terrified to move enough to take it off. “It was just… It started to fall so I caught it, and then…”

“I realize blue is on the Punaji flag,” she mused, placing both hands on his shoulders, “but…mm, it really isn’t your color, is it? Warm tones, I think. Wait just a moment.”

She released him and stepped past, reaching into the wardrobe, and pulled out another silk robe, this one a deep crimson and trimmed in golden thread. Glory held it up below his chin, then made a satisfied little sound in her throat. “Ah! Yes, I think that works much better. Would you like to try this one?”

Rasha swallowed heavily. After a moment, he forced himself to meet her gaze, painful as it was. “I’m very sorry for intruding, Glory. You have every right to make fun of me and worse. I would…very much appreciate it if you’d punish me differently, though.”

Slowly, the smile leaked away from her face. “Oh, Rasha,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “You have it all wrong…” She studied his face for a long moment, then lowered the red robe and asked suddenly. “Do you trust me?”

He blinked. “I… Well… You’ve been more than kind…”

“People are kind for all sorts of reasons, many quite selfish.” Glory tilted her head slightly, still studying him. There was something indefinable in her expression which did not make him feel judged or condemned. That was…amazing. He nearly always felt judged and condemned. “Let’s not dwell upon reasons. Reach for your instincts. Can you trust me enough to take a risk, and be certain that I will not let you come to harm?”

He stared at her in bemusement.

“Don’t think,” she said softly. “Just answer. What does instinct tell you?”

“Yes,” he said, somewhat to his own surprise.

Glory nodded. “I want to try something, Rasha. You may find this…difficult. Probably embarrassing at the very least. I will swear to you up front, however, that I will never, under any circumstances, breathe a word of this to anyone unless you specifically wish it. If it turns out I am wrong, and you don’t like this, then we need never speak of it ourselves, either. It can be as if it never happened. But if I’m right… I think this will do you a world of good.”

He gazed suspiciously at her, finding nothing but kindness in her expression. “What…do you mean?”

Glory smiled. “Do you trust me?”

Very slowly, he nodded.

“All right,” she said, nodding back. “Then I’ll ask you to bear with me; this will take a fair amount of patience on your part. And as I said, if this ends up making you unhappy, we’ll just undo it and forget the entire thing. Now, let’s get that off you.”

Shamefaced, her shimmied out of the blue robe, which she then carelessly tossed in the direction of her bed. Glory then directed him to sit on the stool in front of her vanity, swiveling it so that his back was to the mirror. She had to step around him to select a brush and a small pad of powder from the mess on the table, then knelt before him and began dabbing gently at his face.

“What’s all this?” he asked suspiciously.

“Patience,” she chided with a gentle smile. “Don’t worry, I am very well-practiced at this. It won’t take long at all.”

“What are you turning me into?”

She had already finished applying the soft brush across his cheekbones, and now reached for some kind of pencil. “I can’t turn you into anything, Rasha. And if my instincts are wrong, I’m wasting your time and mine, here. But I don’t think they are; I think I’m going to show you something you need to see. Now, do be still; you’ll want to blink. Try not to.”

That last admonition was very much necessary, as she brought the pencil directly to his eye.

Glory was, true to her word, fast and efficient; she swiftly picked and used her various, mysterious implements, applying pencils and brushes and dabs of paint with her fingertip over his eyelids and lips, stroking at his eyelashes with some tiny bristled apparatus and then swiftly smudging something from a soft pad along his cheeks.

Then she went to work on his hair with a brush and small comb, and Rasha did his best to hold still. Her touch was gentle, but as little attention as he paid his hair ordinarily, it was distracting having his head tugged about.

The distraction was welcome. He had a sinking feeling in his gut about this whole thing, and several times nearly opened his mouth to back out.

But…he had said he trusted her. She’d promised to drop it if he wanted. He somehow hated the idea of disappointing her.

Glory pulled him to his feet and helped him into the scarlet robe with its glittering embroidery; up close, he realized it actually made the forms of dragons along the sleeves, collar and lapels. This garment was barely just a robe—it had shape, its collar rising stiffly to just below his chin and the lapels padded to the point he felt they were more of a physical presence on him than his own thin chest. Finally, with the robe tied into place to her satisfaction, she directed him to sit back down on the velvet-covered stool.

“All right,” she said seriously. “The next part…may be trickier. What I want you to do, Rasha, is to just be honest.”

“Okay,” he said uncertainly.

“That’s harder than you may realize,” she said, her dark eyes holding his own. “You strike me as someone who has been told a lot of nonsense, and had your own inner demons to deal with, besides. Those things can roil around in your head until you can’t hear the voice of your own spirit. When I show you what I’ve done, I want you to silence all that, ignore it, and tell me your truth. What you feel: you, not anyone’s expectations.”

“I… I’ll try.”

Glory smiled with a hint of mischief. “Have you learned the secret to a really good lie yet?”

“Um…what secret do you mean?”

She winked. “The trick is to believe it. That’s all acting is, Rasha; we’re practically Vidians at times. Become the mask. If you don’t feel you can be totally, dangerously honest with yourself, imagine you are someone who can. Imagine what that would feel like, and then…pretend.”

“Lie to find honesty,” he said slowly, then surprised himself by smiling back. “That might be the most Eserite idea I’ve ever heard.”

“It really is, isn’t it?” she said with a grin, then took a deep breath and nodded. “All right, Rasha. Remember—there is nobody here but us, and no one will ever learn of this. All that matters is your truth.”

With that, she took him by the shoulders and turned him around on the swiveling stool to face the mirror.

Rasha couldn’t help gasping. The bottom dropped out of the whole world, leaving him in exhilarating, terrifying free fall.

He knew the lines of his own face, had always been inexplicably dissatisfied with it, and knew how other boys had sneered at his small stature and fine bones. That face, though, was now a completely different one. And yet, the same… It was both. It was as if he was seeing it correctly for the first time.

Huge, limpid eyes stared back at him, with long, dark lashes and just the faintest lining of kohl to make them stand out dramatically against his bronze complexion. Skillful, barely perceptible touches of rouge and contouring had turned narrow cheeks into sweeping angles, framing a graceful little nose and delicately pointed chin. Lips a deep shade of crimson that looked downright natural against that coppery skin were carefully shaped, and made somehow even more fetching by the open shape of startlement in which they were now set. Rasha’s black hair was too short to have given Glory much to work with, but that made its current styling all the more amazing: fluffy bangs swept to one side, the whole mop brushed to a soft shine and with more body than it had ever had. It was rakish, tomboyish, even, and somehow even more feminine for that.

The robe, too… He could see, now, how its shaped lapels, the lines of its embroidery, suggested feminine contours, even argued for them, all without physically changing the shape underneath. It had been more cleverly designed than any ship he’d ever seen.

Rasha stared at the girl in the mirror, unable for the longest moment to breathe.

“There’s no one here but you,” Glory whispered, her fingers coiling on his shoulders. She leaned down till her face was next to that of the strange girl’s, warm eyes watching Rasha’s. “Nothing else matters. Now, Rasha… How do you feel?”

He had never appreciated, before, how feminine his soft voice sounded when it whispered. That fact now underscored the truth it spoke without waiting for his approval.


Glory’s fingers gently squeezed his thin shoulders, her face lighting with a soft smile of approval. “And how does it feel to be beautiful?”

How? That question was just too huge to answer. Perfect? Right? There was no word for finding what had been always missing and yet never missed. But before Rasha’s whirling thoughts could settle into a useful shape, the girl’s sensuous lips moved again, and that breathy voice sounded.


In the mirror, Glory’s eyes practically glowed with satisfaction. “I thought so.”

“But…” Rasha swallowed heavily. It was somehow dissonant, seeing that girl’s face shift in time with his own motions. She was…she was… And yet, he was still… “I don’t…what does this mean?”

“Oh, Rasha.” Glory knelt behind him, wrapping one arm around him and resting her chin on his shoulder. “I can’t answer that. Nobody can, but you. I think, though, you’ll be able to find your answers. If I’m not wrong, you’ve absorbed such a pile of nonsense about how things should be that it’s never occurred to you to look. Is that so?”

Rasha nodded. In the mirror, the young woman he was supposed to be nodded back. It felt like a knife in the heart, but bitterly joyous. If this torrent of emotion didn’t get itself organized soon, he was going to pass out…

“They’re always doing that,” Glory whispered bitterly, clinging to the boy in the chair and the girl in the mirror. “Always with their rules. This is this, that is that, you’re only allowed to be and think a certain few things… And why?” She bared her teeth in an expression that Rasha would have called a sneer on someone less elegant. “As long as huge swaths of normal, healthy, real life is considered wrong, then everyone is always guilty of something. And guilty people are so much easier to control. And if anyone won’t stand for their foot on our necks, well. That’s even better, it gives them an other to point at. A scapegoat. Someone to rally their mobs against, to keep them complacent. And that is why the world needs Eserites.”

“I’m not,” Rasha whispered tremulously, still gazing at the girl’s face, hungry to memorize every detail. “What you’re talking about… I can’t. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I just, I ran away.”

Glory squeezed again, tenderly. “You are wrong, Rasha. You ran, yes—but not away. You ran toward. You came to Tiraas, to the Guild, to the people who could teach you how to fight back.” She bared her perfect teeth again, eyes blazing in the mirror, and Rasha felt something deep in a core he’d never known he had come alive in response. A beast woke, stretched, flexed its claws, and purred a counterpoint to Glory’s voice. “Your whole life, they have tried to make you something they could use. And they didn’t. You left, you came here, you sought out the power you needed. They did not break you. And they will not. And that, Rasha, is why you’re one of us.”

In the mirror, the girl’s chin lifted; tears still glistened in her perfectly brushed lashes, but there was a storm in those lovely eyes, now. Iron in the set of her jaw.

“You have the spirit, beneath all the pain,” Glory whispered fiercely. “I know you see weakness in yourself, but that’s the voice of those who’d control you, not your voice. You’ll learn to silence it. The true voice inside you brought you here, and that proves that you, the real you, are clever enough and strong enough to find the help and the power you need. You have the fire that drives you to stand up and make them pay. How dare they? Who do they think they are?” Her grip was almost painful now, but that almost pain was a comfort and a strength; the girl in the mirror raised one slender hand to grasp Glory’s arm in turn. “You have it in you, if you want, to turn on those who would control you, and ram a lesson in humility straight down their throats. And then down the next bastard’s, and the next after that. If, Rasha, you decide that is the life you want. It’s your life; no one gets to decide for you. Anyone who dares will bleed for the temerity.”

Finally, for the first time ever, Rasha knew the truth, heard no crushing inner voice of despair, spoke without a second’s doubt.

“I will,” she vowed. “So help me, I will.”

Glory’s face shone with pride; she pressed her cheek to Rasha’s, and together they gazed at their reflections for long minutes of silence.

“I still have no idea what to do,” Rasha finally admitted, and felt a laugh bubbling up. She let it, not trying to understand.

Glory grinned right back. “Well…there’s time, and it’s a process. You’ve still your Guild training; that will teach you the technique you need to stand and fight back against the abusers and oppressors. And…as for more personal matters, Rasha, I’m afraid our cult isn’t the best suited to help guide you to such answers. There’s no harm in looking outside it, though. The Izarites and Avenists actually have a great deal of wisdom to offer about situations like this, and even the Sisterhood won’t hesitate to help, Eserite or no.” She squeezed Rasha’s shoulders again, giving her an affectionate jostle. “Don’t worry about that any more than you can help. There’s time, as I said, to get your thoughts in order and consider your next steps. For right now… I am still in need of an apprentice. Do you think you’re in need of a home?”

Finally, at long last, Rasha tore her gaze from the mirror to look directly at Glory. “Wh—me? But I thought you wanted someone like Jasmine…”

“The funny thing is, we don’t always know what we want,” Glory replied, smiling broadly. “Much less what we need. I’m glad to count Jasmine as a friend, and I’d have been glad to have her as a pupil. In the end, though, she doesn’t need me. You and I, though… I have a feeling that we have a great deal to offer each other.”

Suddenly there was a soft knock on the door, and it opened.

Rasha tensed up in a blind panic, only Glory’s grip keeping her grounded.

“Pardon me, madam,” said Smythe from the doorway, not entering—in fact, he kept himself fully out of sight behind the door. “Your other guests have returned, accompanied by Quintessa Valaine, Alan Vandro, and his Butler, in a carriage which appears to have been repeatedly rammed. I gather there have been further developments.”

“I see,” Glory said wryly. “Thank you, Smythe; please see that they are comfortable in the upper hall. I’ll be there directly.”

“Yes, madam,” Smythe acknowledged, then gently pulled the door shut.

Glory heaved a sigh and gently stroked Rasha’s hair once. “Ah, it never ends. Think on it, okay? You don’t need to answer right away, and in fact I’d rather you didn’t; this is the kind of thing that requires some deliberation. Just, please make certain it’s you doing the thinking, and not the bitter voice that tries to eat you from within. We’ll work on making that little bastard shut up. For now.” She stood, giving Rasha’s shoulders a last squeeze with her aristocratic fingers. “In my bathroom, in the pink jar to the left of the sink, is a cream that’ll remove makeup. Just wipe it on, then rinse it off with water. Be careful not to get any in your eyes; it stings something awful. If,” she added in a gentler tone, “that is what you decide to do. If not, well, you really do look amazing.” She bent forward to lightly kiss Rasha on the top of her head. “And all we have in this house are friends who’ll accept you for you, and strangers whose opinion doesn’t matter. Don’t do anything you feel unready for, but it’s never to early to start thinking about letting people see your true self. When you decide it’s time.”

With one last, gentle squeeze, she turned and glided to the door, then slipped out.

Rasha remained there, hungrily gazing at her new face. But not for long. As desperately needed as this was…there was work to do. Friends in need. She drew in a steadying breath, then rose and turned toward the bathroom.

There was no little voice saying she couldn’t.

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11 – 29

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“I can handle this,” Rasha insisted at the front door of Glory’s house five minutes later.

“Rasha,” Jasmine said, firmly but kindly. “You are literally swaying as you speak. You haven’t slept all night. It doesn’t make sense to subject yourself to more of this, so long as you have any better option.”

“And I assure you, this is a much better option,” Glory added with a smile, coming up behind him to lay a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’ll loan you the best guest room, right next to mine.”

“I am just so sick of being the weak link around here,” Rasha whispered, clenching his fists. If nothing else, it helped him straighten up and hold his posture.

“Whoah, that’s enough of that kinda talk,” Tallie declared. Having been the first to the door, she now turned and pushed back through the small crowd which had formed in the foyer, elbowing Layla aside with more energy than was necessary. She wrapped her arms around Rasha in a hug, the top of his head barely coming past her shoulder. “You’ve had a shitty night, that’s all. We’re not refusing to let you help; that’s the whole point of this, Rasha. We’re gonna need you soon, and for that, you need to be rested up.”

He sighed heavily, though after a moment he un-clenched enough to hug her back—briefly. Then he pulled insistently away. “All right. I guess. Fine. But don’t be too long.”

“Pfft, what’s the worst that could happen?” Darius said airily. “All we’re doing is traipsing through the suddenly-freezing streets of the city where dwarven spies are plotting to ambush and do horrible things to us, to rescue our witch friend who they’re also going to be ambushing, when we have no idea where the hell he even is. This is a Sunday stroll through the park! Really, Rasha, you’re not gonna miss anything.”

“Whose idea was it to give him talking privileges?” Ross wondered aloud.

“And on that subject.” Darius’s aspect suddenly sobered considerably and he turned to level a finger a Layla. “You are not coming. So let’s get the tantrum and the shouting out of the way right now, because we really do not have time to stretch this out.”

“Honestly, Darius, you’ve turned into the most frightful boor,” she sniffed. “I can see I shall be forced to spend a great deal of time re-acquainting you with the concept of basic manners. Of course I’m not coming; do you really think I’m daft enough to place myself in that kind of danger? You’re the Eserites, here. I assume they’ve taught you something in that Guild of yours.”

“Huh,” he said, staring at her in evident bemusement. “That’s…strangely forward-thinking of you. Are you feeling all right, sis?”

“Feel free to take my carriage,” she said, ignoring that and turning to Jasmine, who so far was the only other member of the group she seemed inclined to address directly. “I would prefer that Talvers remain here, if it pleases our hostess, but Ralph’s uniform has sufficient bundling for the cold, and you may find him useful. Do try not to let him be hurt, but if you are attacked, don’t worry about the carriage. If agents of the Svennish government damage it, I can sue the embassy. I’ve been wanting a new one anyway, and Father has been most obstinate about upgrading to the enchanted variety.”

“I will try to keep all that in mind,” Jasmine said solemnly. Tallie rolled her eyes so exuberantly she nearly tipped over backward.

“And,” Layla added in a quieter tone, “I realize this is a lot to ask, but please see that my brother doesn’t take any needless risks. If it proves possible.”

“Oh, we’ll manage him,” Jasmine promised her with a smile. “Tallie and I have had some practice in the art. There are ways.”

“They’re called boobs,” Tallie added helpfully. “Yours don’t count for the purpose. I mean, or so I would hope. Nothing would surprise me to learn about you nobles.”

Layla sniffed once more, then turned up her nose and pointedly gave Tallie the cold shoulder. “I shall expect to see you back by dinner at the latest, Darius. If I have to chase you down again, I shall be most put out.”

“Well, you heard her, ladies and Ross,” Darius said cheerfully, opening the door. “We better get this done quick-like, or perish in the attempt. C’mon, chop chop.”

Outside on the front step, they paused, tucking hands into coat pockets.

“Brr,” Ross said, peering up at the sky. “Carriage sounds pretty good.”

“Yeah, that’s great,” Tallie said flatly. “Let’s all ride in warmth and comfort and make what’s-his-name sit up top in the cold. Doesn’t matter, he’s just a servant. You’d fit right in with the fancy crowd, Ross.”

“Stop that,” Jasmine said irritably. “Whatever your issue is with nobles, don’t take it out on Ross, of all people.”

“Also, his name is Ralph,” Darius added. “Which you know, and would have remembered if you wanted to make a complaint like that with any credibility. Now seriously, are we riding or not? Because time is going to be a factor, here, and this weather is not kidding around.”

Indeed, the typical cloud cover over Tiraas currently hung lower and heavier than was the norm, clearly threatening precipitation. Given the temperature, anything that fell from above was likely to take the form of snow or sleet.

“No,” Jasmine said slowly, frowning in thought. “No…I think we should stay on foot. To be approachable.”

“Approachable by who, for fuck’s sake?” Tallie exclaimed. “The only people we’re likely to run into who’ll care about us at all are the damn dwarves stalking us.”



“Think about it,” Ross rumbled. “All we can do is go to the Salyrite temple. Dwarves’ll know that; we’re likely to meet ’em. And if they ambush us…”

“Then we’ll see how much they enjoy the outcome of that,” Jasmine said flatly. “Stay on main streets, on public sidewalks, in full view. Ignore any verbal overtures; if they gives us an excuse to claim self-defense, we’ll take it. And any police who become involved will take our side.”

“I like this plan,” said Darius. “Right off the bat I can see half a dozen holes in it, but god damn I am sick of being the mouse in this game. Claws out, let’s do it.”

Tallie shivered and wrapped arms around herself. “All right, well, good, then I hope you’re all carrying the cash Style doled out for Pick’s job. Cos first thing we’re doing if we’re not gonna ride is stop and get some freaking scarves.”

“I just don’t see the wisdom in this,” Schwartz protested. “Or the point, now. I mean, didn’t you only need to gather allies because you were trying to deal with the Bishop alone? And that’s changed now.”

Jenell sighed, her breath making a soft puff of mist in the chilling air. “Yes, fine, I am glad to have allies, but…that was never exactly the point, Herschel. You don’t understand the position I’m in. Alone is part of it; vulnerable is the worst.” She kept her eyes forward as they walked, the expression on her disguised face flat and grim. “There really isn’t anything I hate more than that. Always at someone’s mercy, unable to act, without resources. And even with you all working at Basra, I’m still in that position, don’t you see? All of you are out of my reach, except when I take extraordinary measures to have an hour to myself, like today. Even if I could contact you regularly… You answer to your Bishop and the College. Locke is about as responsive to other people’s plans as a feral cat. And Ami. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ami. But bards…are bards.” She finally shifted her head to look up at him, her expression still controlled, but not so much so that he couldn’t see the heartbreaking hint of pleading she was trying to suppress. “I need resources of my own, Herschel. Something I can use against Basra. Something. Anything.”

He drew in a deep breath, wincing. It was almost physically painful, seeing her reduced to this. “I hear you, Jenell, and I’m doing my best to understand your position. But…these guys. I mean, I rather like them all, myself, but they’re Eserites, and not even well-trained ones. They’ve got the independent spirit without all the skill. Don’t repeat this to any of them, but honestly, this group is not a good peg on which to hang your hopes.”

She let out a low, bitter laugh. “Oh, I know that, believe me. But they’re what I have to work with, and the facts of their situation mean they have hooks I can grab. Look, the point of sending them to the Finder’s Fee was to meet both Basra’s objectives and mine. I have to get them into Basra’s fold to keep her off my back; I need to do it in a way that carefully points out what a horror she is so they’ll be wary and I’ll be able to leverage them when the time comes. That’s a very delicate line to walk, Herschel, and if it was anybody but Eserites—or maybe bards—I’d say it was impossible. This is a really rare opportunity.”

“I still almost can’t credit it,” he muttered. “Why would Bishop Syrinx cultivate contacts in a place like that?”

“Well, she wanted mages she could call on for shifty, extra-legal work. It’s not like she could knock on Bishop Throale’s door and ask for a Salyrite to scry on Locke’s activities, now is it?” She let out another misty huff of annoyance. “Now I have to come up with a new plan. Basra has other contacts, but… Hell, I hope I haven’t burned my bridges with that group anyway. After sending them into what was apparently a trap…”

“It wasn’t your trap, and they all know that,” he assured her. “The mess in Glass Alley wasn’t your fault or theirs. I… All right, look, I can probably get them to meet with you. If you’ve got something useful to offer them, I don’t get the feeling they’re in a position to turn up their noses at it. But it’ll need more. That mysterious routine you tried last time isn’t likely to appeal again. Too much uncertainty already…”

“I know,” she said moodily. “Believe me, I know. All right, just… Please tell them you met me and that I’m interested in helping, all right? I will think of something else. I’ll have to, quickly. It’ll be tricky to speak with you again, I absolutely cannot be found talking to you or Basra will completely flip her shit, but I can get you messages at the Collegium, still. Right?”

“Uh, right,” he agreed, frowning. “But, honestly, Jenell, there are other considerations here besides you. Hasn’t it occurred to you that involving these kids with Syrinx is maybe kind of cruel to them?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said with grim amusement. “Those kids aren’t all what they seem. There’s one in the group whom even Basra won’t dare harm, and also won’t antagonize by harming any of the others. They might be the only people safe around her, at least for the time being.”

“Well, that isn’t mysterious at all,” he said testily. “Just once, I’d like to know the whole of what’s happening around here…”

“Wouldn’t we all,” she agreed, patting his arm. “I’m sorry, Herschel, I’d like to bring you into the loop, but there are secrets here that go way over even Basra’s head; spilling those beans could be more than my life is worth. Just…trust me, you’ll probably be safer with those apprentices than anywhere else, too.”

She stopped suddenly, both speaking and walking. Schwartz trailed to a halt, too, blinking at her in surprise, then followed her gaze up the sidewalk ahead of them. Immediately, he froze as well.

He had followed main roads to the Great Hall, but now, on the way back, he’d let Jenell set their course, which mostly consisted of less-trafficked back streets; she was somewhat justifiably paranoid about being seen by the wrong people, even in disguise. Now they were passing through a block of factories, down a wide side street meant to provide rear access to these buildings for delivery trucks. Even just after midday, there were no deliveries or anyone else about at present. With the heavy precipitation clearly imminent, even the nearby factories had shut down, their crackling antennae dimming to the occasional spark of unformed arcane residue. Tiraas itself was slowing down, as people who had not been dressed for the sudden cold fled into whatever indoors they could.

But someone had just stepped out of an alley directly in front of them, facing the two and just standing there. A short, stocky someone with a red beard.

“Oh, bloody hell,” Schwartz whispered.

“One of those dwarves?” Jenell murmured.

“Yes. At least I think—” He broke off, tensing, as the dwarf had started toward them. Schwartz reflexively stepped forward, planting himself ahead of Jenell and holding out his arm as if to block access to her, and only realizing belatedly how utterly silly that was, interposing his thin frame between the threat and the trained soldier.

Anyhow, physical force wasn’t where his strength lay. He snapped his fingers, and with a sharp pop and a tiny cascade of harmless sparks, Meesie appeared on his shoulder. She immediately bristled like a scared cat, chattering a tiny reprimand at the approaching dwarf.

“Good evening, Mr. Schwartz,” he said amiably. “And to your companion. Companions, I suppose I should say,” he added with a genial smile at Meesie.

“No,” Schwartz snapped.

The dwarf stopped, a few yards still distant, and regarded him with a calmly curious expression. “Oh? No? Forgive me, but in my studies of Tiraan formality, I never encountered that response to a simple greeting. Is there some piece to this ritual I am missing?”

“The piece where you go away,” Schwartz replied. “I’m not interested, and I’m not doing this. Leave me alone.”

The dwarf heaved a sigh. “Honestly, I don’t know where all this obstinacy comes from. I do believe you’re spending too much time around those Eserites, Mr. Schwartz. All I seek, all I have ever asked for, is a simple conversation.”

“Well, you can—” He broke off at the sudden pressure of Jenell’s fingers on his arm.

“We’re alone here, Herschel,” she murmured. “No telling what or who is down these side alleys. And more information always beats less. If he wants to talk politely…do.”

Schwartz hesitated, glancing back and forth between her and the dwarf. Meesie growled a shrill warning.

“What an admirably sensible young lady,” the dwarf said, doffing his hat courteously to Jenell. “Forgive my presumption in pointing it out, but perhaps this is more the style of company you should keep. She does seem to be a positive influence.”

“Fine,” he said curtly. “Speak your piece and have done with it.”

“Very good,” the dwarf replied, nodding to him. “Really, my needs are simple. You were present at the interrupted exchange wherein my companions and I sought to acquire those devices which were then seized by the Silver Legion. The Sisterhood of Avei, unfortunately, is quite impenetrable, which renders them sadly beyond our grasp. Without that option, I have an all the more urgent need to learn what I can of the provenance of those devices. Our only lead is within the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Well, I certainly can’t help you with that,” Schwartz said warily.

“Oh, to be sure, I would hardly expect it of you,” the dwarf agreed with a pleasant smile. “But your young friends can. Eserites, you see, are rather hard on their would-be members. The majority of any group of apprentices to the Guild are going to wash out anyway, for one reason or another. The only thing I want of those young people is their help finding information to which I do not have access, and they may. I am prepared to compensate them most generously, even to the point of shielding them from the Thieves’ Guild, should the nature of our association happen to annoy the Guild’s leadership.”

“And you think you can actually do that?” Schwartz asked skeptically.

The dwarf’s smile widened by a hair. “The Guild has no presence in the Five Kingdoms. That is not to say they have never tried to establish one. Here, in the Empire, we are at something of a disadvantage in dealing with them. Where I am from, that state is decisively reversed.”

“Fine,” Schwartz snapped. “I’ll tell them what you said. Now good night.”

“Ah, yes,” the dwarf said, shaking his head regretfully. “Well, I’m afraid matters have recently become rather more complicated than that.”

“Of course they have,” Jenell muttered. Schwartz noted that she had offered no objection to his protective stance; if anything, she had edged more behind him. Not fear, he realized, at least not for her safety; she could face severe consequences from other corners if she were recognized.

“Your friends,” the dwarf said in a solicitous tone, “have embarked on an unwisely aggressive course. Specifically, it seems they intend to ask you, Mr. Schwartz, to use your particular skills to track myself and my associates. Now, it should go without saying that we take all reasonable precautions, but the nature of fae magic, as I’m sure you’re aware, makes it rather difficult to thwart. So many unknowable variables.” He shook his head. “This could quickly become a very disagreeable situation for us all. In the interests of everyone continuing to get along, I’m prepared to provide you with anything you reasonably request, in exchange for your assurance that you will not do them this favor.”

Schwartz stared at him, then turned his head to look at Jenell’s eyes. Meesie growled again.

He could see the same thought on her face that was ringing in his own skull. Foreign agents, the kind of people willing and capable to oppose the Guild, owing him a favor? What he couldn’t do with that. Odds are these people could manage to threaten even Syrinx’s carefully laid schemes.

Then Jenell’s expression closed down, and she shook her head almost imperceptibly. Schwartz gave her a tiny nod of agreement.

It was just too risky. They knew too little about these people. The whole problem with Syrinx was the multiplicity of parties and agendas involved, preventing them from knowing what was happening, what anyone was up to, what they could do without incurring retaliation. Adding another wildly unknowable variable to the mix could tip the whole thing into disaster.

“I am not,” he said carefully, “going to make you any promises. I do not trust you, and quite frankly, I don’t like you. Now if you will excuse us.”

The dwarf sighed softly. “Now, Mr. Schwartz, I’m afraid you are being both obstinate and disingenuous. That is tantamount to a declaration of your intention to inconvenience me, and we both know it. I’m certain you mother did not raise you to behave this way.” He smiled, again, just as pleasantly as always. “Of course, it must be hard, raising two children alone. I’m sure she has an easier time of things now, with just your sister to think of. And Melody will be of an age to move out on her own soon enough.”

Meesie burst into flames, screeching in fury. Jenell had gone pale, even behind the already-pale face of her enchanted disguise.

Schwartz, though, felt a sudden and total calm descend over him. Somewhere deep beneath it, his heart was thudding in his chest, but it was a strangely distant thing. Unbidden, his senses expanded, taking in the magic around them. The spirits, the currents of life, all the perceptions which made up the realm of the fae.

“Have you ever been to Athan’Khar?” he heard himself ask evenly.

The dwarf blinked. “Forgive me, but I don’t see—”

“I have,” Schwartz continued. “You should visit sometime. Just so you can appreciate how very much you don’t scare me, you contemptible little piece of shit.”

He snatched Meesie off his shoulder, the flames wreathing her not so much as singeing his fingers, and hurled her forward.

An explosion of fire occurred in midair halfway between Schwartz and the dwarf, and in the next moment, his quarry had been bowled over backward, a pony-sized leonine creature wrought from pure crimson flame landing on him.

Meesie opened a maw filled with fire-sculpted fangs and roared directly into the fallen dwarf’s face. The paw planted on his chest, already the size of a plate, flexed, revealing blazing claws which ripped five perfect rents in his suit.

Wreathed in an awareness of the currents of magic around him, Schwartz felt the life force of the second dwarf who darted out of another alley behind them, sensed the enchanted objects he wore which made his approach silent.

He reached out through the link with his familiar spirits, finding them in total accord with his purpose. Upward he stretched with his mind, to the towering antenna of the dormant factory behind which they stood. Dormant, with only the faintest residual flickers of energy along its length—but even residual flickers along a four-story coil made a torrent of destructive power when seized and directed.

Lightning arced from the antenna, scarring the side of the factory as it snapped downward and blasted the approaching dwarf off his feet. He fell without a cry and skidded another yard across the pavement before falling still, smoking in the cold air.

Schwartz stepped forward, coming up beside Meesie, who was snarling at the pinned dwarf and demanding his full attention. He laid a hand on the seething flames that made up her mane.

“If you attack my family,” he said quietly, “you’ll find that my mother is even less afraid of you than I am, and considerably more willing to resort to violence. I’m assuming, here, that you think yourself in a position where you don’t have to care about the fallout of assaulting an Imperial sheriff, so you’d better think about what kind of woman is given that position in a frontier town. If you ever threaten my family again, though.” He leaned forward, holding silent until the dwarf tore his eyes from Meesie’s burning fangs to meet his gaze. “I swear on Salyrene’s name, I will make you beg before I finish you.”

Without straightening, he flung out a hand, grasping at the natural cold in the very atmosphere. Moisture congealed out of the air itself, solidifying into a cluster of horizontal icicles hovering beside him. With another thought, he called up a blast of wind, ruffling everyone’s hair and clothes and causing Meesie’s fire to flicker, and most importantly, sending those jagged shafts of ice at the mouth of another alley as fast as bolts from a crossbow.

The dwarf who had poked her head out around that corner, taking aim at him with a wand, fell back with a shriek of pain, pierced in five places by spears of ice.

“I’m glad…Lucy…suggested we have this talk,” Schwartz said, finally drawing himself back up to his full height. He had been within a hair’s breadth of addressing her properly, but Jenell definitely didn’t want her real name used here. He made a mental note never to tell her Lucy had been his first dog. “I think we understand each other a bit better, now. C’mon, Lucy, let’s get out of here.”

He waited for her to catch up to him, eyeing the snarling Meesie and the pinned dwarf as she passed. Jenell didn’t speak until they had moved a dozen yards further up the street at a long stride.

“You’re just going to leave her there?”

“She’ll hold him long enough for us to get away,” he said quietly, chancing a glance back. The dwarf, sensibly, seemed to be offering Meesie no resistance. “She can’t hold that form but for a few minutes. Shorter if anything damages her; if he pulls a wand and shoots her at that range, that’ll be the end of it.”

“Ah,” she said tersely. “And then she’ll reappear with you.”

He looked at her in surprise. “How’d you know that?”

“I remember. From Athan’Khar. That monster.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Imperial Square is just a few blocks up,” she said quickly, managing to lengthen her stride further. Schwartz, whose legs were longer anyway, had no trouble keeping up. “That’s public enough we should be safe; we have to split up there. Disguise or no, I cannot be seen with you.”

“I understand.”

Again, she looked uncertainly up at him. “What’ll you do next?”

“I should go…” He trailed off. Where? Back to the Collegium? To the Guild? Either of those places would be safe, assuming the Guild would let him in… He had to find the apprentices and warn them.

“Go to the Temple of Avei,” she said when he failed to produce an answer. “I’ll take a side entrance; you go in the front. You can get through the temple to the Legion fortress in the back. Warn Locke. She can get word to the Eserites without being in nearly as much danger as you.”

“Ah. Right. That’s good thinking.”

“I’m not just a pretty face,” she said grimly. “…you know, if you want some real certainty, you could have Meesie finish him off.”

Schwartz grimaced and shook his head. “No. I can’t.”

“Herschel, if things keep going the way they have been, I don’t think you’re going to have the luxury of being this squeamish.”

“I know,” he said curtly. “But it’s not just that. The bastard threatened my family, Jenell. He’s part of a group, and he didn’t just do that on a whim. They’ve researched me, they know who I’m connected to. I need one of them left alive to explain to the others what a very bad idea that is.”

They speed-walked in silence for nearly a minute before Meesie suddenly reappeared on his shoulder. She squeaked eagerly, bounding onto Schwart’z head and squirming down into a little nest in his hair, nose pointed forward. By unspoken consensus, Schwartz and Jenell both increased their speed until they were nearly running.

“After this,” she said after another long moment, slightly out of breath, “I’m even gladder to have you along, Herschel.”

“Thanks,” he panted, not bothering to try voicing his full feelings. Glad he was along? That made one of them.

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11 – 28

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Schwartz shivered and rubbed his upper arms once he made it inside. Late as he was, a moment to let the warmth of the restaurant soak in was necessary; the temperature had plummeted quite suddenly, as if Tiraas had been abruptly reminded what season it was supposed to be. Luckily—or perhaps deliberately, warm winter or no—two large braziers flanked the entryway, doing a great deal to cut the chill that drifted inside.

The Great Hall served Stalweiss food, and its décor was clearly meant to be evocative of the Stalrange in all its mostly mythical barbaric glory. Set up to resemble a warlord’s feast hall, it was decorated with tapestries and stuffed heads, the tables hewn from coarse-looking wood, the waitresses dressed in furs that were far more flattering than practical. Schwartz wondered offhandedly, as he scanned the lunch crowd for his “date,” if this wasn’t all rather offensive, ethnically speaking. He himself was Stalweiss by blood, but like a lot of such nowadays, had his roots in the prairie and little real affinity for the old country. Still, the “barbarian” mythos that clung to the Stalrange didn’t do its inhabitants any favors. Even now, a century after Horsebutt’s disappearance, those were still the poorest provinces in the Empire.

“G’day, sir,” said the young woman in a low-cut dress behind the hostess’s desk. “Table for one?”

“I’m, ah, actually meeting someone,” he said, still shuffling his feet to restore the blood to them. He wore the heavier version of his cult’s robes, but no actual coat. If it kept up this way he’d have to use spells to make it back to the Collegium without getting frostbite… “Have you seen a—”

“You’re late.”

He blinked in confusion at the blonde girl who had slipped out of the crowd and taken his arm, frowning up at him. That voice…

Of course. Embarrassingly, it had taken him a couple of seconds to catch on, but now, looking closer, he could perceive the disguise spell. Commercially available, that; even not being an arcane specialist, any Salyrite would be able to recognize the most common enchantments. The voice matched, though, as did her eyes. Jenell had brown eyes just the faintest bit lighter than usual, like molasses swirled with a hint of honey…

Her cheeks colored slightly under his intent gaze—really, that was a good charm she’d picked up if it conveyed that, a lot of the cheaper ones blunted such subtle changes—and she tugged at his arm. “I have a table and tea. Haven’t ordered food yet; I was starting to fear they’d throw me out before you showed up. Where’ve you been?”

“I’m sorry,” he said with a wince as she led him to a secluded corner table. This place wasn’t terribly well-lit, and its booths seemed to have been designed with privacy in mind. He was beginning to feel depressingly familiar with all the places in Tiraas that offered such discreet nooks, what with one thing and another. “I had a, ah, bit of a mishap with a spell I tried… Ami had to fetch one of my superiors to straighten it out, and then she insisted on dressing me down for being careless before she’d let me go. Um, she being Archon Stross, not Ami.”

Jenell had slid into the bench opposite him while he spoke, but had frozen. “Ami?”

“Oh, right, I guess you didn’t know…” He smiled feebly. “She’s, um…helping.”

“Helping…with what?” she demanded.

Schwartz made a helpless gesture. “Everything? All this? What I, you know, assumed you’d want to talk about…”

He watched her disguised face closely, but her expression gave nothing away now. Of course, he had forced himself to assume all this was about Syrinx, but a large part of him refused to abandon the hope that she’d just wanted to see him.

After a moment, Jenell sighed, seemingly forcing herself to relax.

“All this. Right. Well.” She raised her eyes to his again, and now the very faintest smile appeared on her lips. If he wasn’t imagining things, it seemed almost as hesitant as he felt. “So…how’s Meesie?”

“Meesie is fine,” he said, grinning in spite of himself. “Not much keeps her down. I’m a little surprised you’d ask, though. Your message specified not to have her out when I came…”

“Herschel, I’m trying to be discreet, here,” she said with fond exasperation, and he felt his hopes climbing again, despite his better judgment. “Meesie is…attention-getting. Of course I don’t have anything against her, she’s adorable. Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to tell her so in person.”

“I would like that,” he said, then made an effort to control his foolish smile. “I mean, uh, I’m sure she would like to see you too. She misses you.”

Jenell actually blushed again, then straightened her posture and cleared her throat. “Well. Um. I actually did want to talk to you about more serious things than catching up. Herschel, the information I have is thirdhand, but it says you’re pursuing some kind of vendetta against Bishop Syrinx. Please tell me I have it wrong?”

Schwartz felt the smile slip away from his face. “I… Well. I prefer not to think of it in those terms. Revenge has never much appealed to me, you know? But…yeah, I guess that’s a word.”

Again she sighed, more heavily this time. “Herschel. Why the hell would you try something like this?”

He stared at her. “How can you even ask me that?”

The silence which followed was painfully awkward. Fortunately, it was soon interrupted.

“Ah, he arrives!” the waitress said cheerfully, materializing next to them with a sunny smile and a pencil poised over her notepad. “What’re we having, friends?”

“Roast quail,” Jenell said immediately and a little abruptly. Schwartz opened his mouth and only belatedly realized there was a menu lying on the table, now under her hand. Well, there had probably been nothing else to read while she’d been waiting for him. “And the peppered potatoes.”

“Good choice!” the waitress said cheerily. “That’ll feed two—anything you want to add, sir?”

“Actually, no, that sounds rather good,” Schwartz said lamely. He didn’t eat out much and had definitely never lived in a style that involved people serving him; ordering food from waitstaff was sufficiently unfamiliar to feel awkward.

“And anything stronger than the tea to drink? Or a fresh pot?”

“No, thank you,” Jenell said primly. “That will be all.”

“Very good! I’ll be back before you know it.” The girl smiled quickly at them both, then sashayed out of sight. Schwartz let out a soft breath of relief.

“Herschel,” Jenell said quietly, staring at him, “I don’t think you have any idea what you’re doing. Basra Syrinx is dangerous.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t,” she snapped. “You have no idea what she’s capable of.”

“Excuse me, but in fact, I do. I didn’t just come haring off to Tiraas to try and poison her toothbrush or some such nonsense; give me credit for a little sense!”

“Very little,” she said skeptically.

“Look,” he retorted, nettled now, “if I’d done anything to attack the Bishop, you would know. And yes, that probably would have ended quickly and poorly for me. Don’t forget, I have seen her in action. I am being careful, Jenell. All I’m doing right now is making preparations.”

“Preparations to do what?”

“Well…that’s the question, isn’t it?” He shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m gathering information, skills, and allies. Ami was already after Syrinx—apparently the whole reason she stayed with us in Viridill was to study the Bishop in action. She was only pretending to be fooled by Syrinx’s explanation of their last encounter; being strung up for Huntsmen wasn’t an experience she was going to forget quickly. And I’ve been making friends in the Thieves’ Guild, not to mention Sergeant Locke.”

“Oh, yes,” she said darkly. “That. Herschel… The fact is, if you were ready to play this game, you wouldn’t be casually spilling these details to someone you know works for Basra. How can you be sure I’m not going to go straight to her with all this?”

“Principia has told me things,” he said quietly. “About how you helped her squad before. She says you can be trusted. But…maybe you’re right, or at least in what I think you’re driving at. I do trust you, Jenell. And…maybe just because I choose to, not because it makes sense.”

Again, she blushed, then quickly cleared her throat and pressed on. “I do not need to be rescued, Herschel.”

“I know,” he said simply.

“Then why are you doing this?”

Schwartz heaved a sigh of his own. “I guess… I do want to help you, Jenell. Not to sweep you away or anything, I know you have your reasons. You wouldn’t be putting up with the Bishop otherwise. But… Look, I don’t know the details, but with what I do know, I can read between the lines. Syrinx was in Viridill as some kind of punishment for something, wasn’t she? Maybe what she did to Ami and Principia and the others, I guess the timing would be about right. Fixing that mess was how she earned her way back here. And I helped her do it. Whatever she does next…I have some responsibility there.” He raised his eyes back to hers, squaring his shoulders. “Don’t worry, I don’t have any delusions about being some kind of hero. Principia is a lot smarter and a lot better at this stuff than I. For that matter, so is Ami, and I get the feeling so are you. I’m just…helping. Because I need to. I owe…everyone…that much.”

She was quiet for a long moment, staring at the table, before lifting her head to meet his gaze. “All right. Okay. I…” Jenell paused to swallow heavily. “Ami’s smart, that’s true, and she’s a bard; I know a bit about what they teach them. Locke… Basra has files on her, things she pulled for some project of the Archpope’s some time ago and brought out again the first time Locke started causing her trouble. Honestly, Herschel, I’m not sure how you got mixed up with Principia Locke, but that woman just might be more dangerous than Basra.”

“She was a friend of my father’s,” he said. “And—”

“And she’s useful to know, and she has plenty of reason of her own to want Basra taken down,” Jenell said, nodding. “Just…be careful. You never know what’s going on between those pointy ears. You do know that Basra’s aware you’re after her?”

“Yes, that’s all according to plan,” he said quickly, another smile breaking across his face. “Principia said she put that out in front of Basra to make me seem harmless, so I can maneuver around without having to worry about being spotted. If I am, she’ll thinking nothing of it. Plus, if she does anything to me, for any reason, she’ll be called down for it by the High Commander. I do say it was all rather clever.”

“It is, at that,” Jenell mused. “Yes…I see how having Locke in could be a help. I’ve never been able to approach her, even when she offered. Basra doesn’t give me that much leeway, and Locke is close enough to the Sisterhood I felt it wasn’t worth the risk… All right, all this could work out. With the lot of us working together, perhaps we can bring her down. And between you and Ami, maybe I can actually coordinate with Locke…”

He nodded eagerly. “Yes, that’s what—”

“But.” Jenell’s gaze snapped back to his, and there was something purely ferocious behind her eyes. “I want it clearly understood, by all of you. I will be the one to finish this. When the time comes, she’s mine.” Her hands on the table clenched into fists, nails digging into her palms. “I’ve damn well earned that.”

Schwartz nodded. “I…um. Yes. I’ll back you up on that. And I’ll tell them.”

“Good.” She drew in a calming breath and let it out slowly, relaxing her hands. “All right…good. Now, more practically speaking, did you visit the magic shop I told you to in my note? I also sent some Eserites there who you’ll find it useful to know, but I guess it’s too much to hope they came by at the same time…”

“Oh, um, well, actually…” He grinned weakly. “I did meet them! Those are the Eserite friends I was telling you about. But, um…none of us made it to the shop.”

She stared at him. “What?”

“Well, there was a bit of a…an altercation, you might say. The Guild underboss for that district got involved, and that got us mixed up in Thieves’ Guild politics, and what with one thing and another… We, uh, never actually got to see the Finder’s Fee. And, um, all of us are effectively banned from Glass Alley now.”

Jenell clapped a hand over her eyes. “Those idiots!”

To no one’s particular surprise, having Layla along dramatically increased the amount of pleasantries and formalities involved in the whole process. Upon arriving at Glory’s townhouse, she had swept to the head of the group and insisted upon taking the lead conversationally as well, directing the Butler to announce them formally. Despite the general disinclination of Butlers to take direction from anyone but their contract holder, he seemed to approve of this. At any rate, he bestowed upon Layla a very subtle smile of approbation, mild enough not to be a departure from protocol but still clear—really, Butler training must be something else—and obliged her by announcing all six of them, by name, in the order in which they arrived.

Layla had made a point of introducing her brother by full name and title; he rolled his eyes and grimaced, but didn’t bother arguing.

The wide upper room of Glory’s house in which they were received was clearly the space in which she held her larger gatherings, and the lady of the house greeted them as gracefully as befit her position, perhaps picking up Layla’s cue. At any rate, there was no hint of mockery or condescension in her voice or bearing as she made an especial point of welcoming the Lady Layla. There followed what seemed like absolutely no end of small talk.

It was just such an honor for Layla to have the opportunity to call upon Miss Sharvineh, oh but not at all, it was she who was honored by an unexpected visit from such an esteemed young lady, and Layla simply must join one of Glory’s parties in a few years when she was old enough that this wouldn’t cause a scandal, and of course Layla would be simply delighted beyond words to oblige, and so on, and so forth. Moments became minutes, and the apprentices’ patience began to fray. Darius, perhaps prompted back into old habits by the sudden presence of his sister, managed to look bored and annoyed, yet too well-bred to reveal that he was bored and annoyed. Jasmine had fallen into a parade rest stance, then immediately shifted out of it and into a deliberately casual pose that just made her look more uncomfortable. Tallie, Ross, and Rasha were left to peer around at the rich furnishings and generally feel awkward.

“Please, everyone, come in,” Glory said smoothly, finally finding what she deemed a suitable segue from Layla’s effusive introductions. “I’ll not have guests standing around uncomfortably. Smythe, some tea, please. Will you say for lunch?”

Rasha cleared his throat suddenly, pushing himself forward past Tallie. “Uh, ma’am, I’m Rasha… I was the one in jail, that your lawyer got out. I just wanted to say thank you. Really, thank you. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me otherwise, or why you would help, but…I appreciate it. Very much.” He paused to swallow heavily. “I, uh, don’t know when I’ll ever be able to pay you back, but I won’t forget.”

“Now, wait just a moment, there,” Glory said with a warm smile. “Who said anything about paying?”

Rasha squared his shoulders and raised his chin. Even visibly haggard from lack of sleep, he found a spark of Punaji independence to fan alight. “I don’t like being in debt.”

“Now that is what I like to hear,” she said approvingly, smoothly tucking a hand behind Rasha’s arm and steering him toward an arrangement of sofas and chairs around a low table. With her other, she beckoned the rest of them to follow. “It’s a very Eserite mindset. You should also consider the nature of debts, though. If there were some form of agreement or contract in place, well, that would be another thing. In its absence, any good turn done for you is a favor, nothing more.” Smiling playfully, she tapped the tip of Rasha’s nose with a finger before nudging him into an overstuffed armchair. “Get used to abusing generosity, Rasha. Not so you can abuse it, exactly, but to prevent it being done to you. People will try to trap you into paying them debts you don’t owe them; leaving a fingerhold for that kind of ploy is very risky, for a thief.”

“I see,” he said slowly, frowning in thought.

“We all appreciate you helping out, Glory,” said Tallie. “So please don’t think I’m being ungrateful, because I’m not, at all. But I have to wonder why you would spend the money and effort on it.”

“That is also good,” Glory replied, nodding to her. “Question everything, and be especially wary of unearned generosity. To answer your question, there are multiple factors at play.” She settled down into a chair at the head of the little formation of furniture, languidly crossing her legs and draping her arms over the sides in a way that subtly emphasized her figure. “On a basic level, it’s expected that Guild members will look after apprentices up to a point. On a slightly less basic one, I’ve developed a friendship with our Jasmine, here, and thus I consider myself to have at least a slight interest in what befalls her friends.” She winked at Jasmine before continuing. “But what you want to know about is my ulterior motive. I do have friends in the Guild who keep me up-to-date on interesting events. That, of course, is how I learned of Rasha’s predicament—and how I’ve learned of other things that have befallen you recently. I’ll refrain from laying out all the sordid politics of the situation, but in brief: it seems that any favor I don’t do for you, Alan Vandro will. And I object, on principle, to him gaining footholds.”

Ross sighed heavily. “Man, these politics. I don’t even understand what these factions want.”

“Oh, I don’t have any objection to Webs’s political or religious philosophies,” Glory said sardonically. “Quite frankly, he has some excellent points. But the man, personally, is a sleazy, manipulative abuser. I don’t know why he is back in the city; he had allegedly retired to Onkawa some years ago to be Toss’s problem. Whyever he is here, so long as he’s in my city, he does not need to be gaining influence.”

“I don’t get that,” Ross said, still frowning. “He was nice to us. Even gave us those charms.”

“He wants something from us,” Tallie retorted. “This is not the first time we’ve heard to watch ourselves around that guy, either. I’d say that’s starting to sound like good advice.”

“Sure,” Ross agreed, “I’m not stupid. But we’ve got nothing but people’s word for anything. What’s he ever done that’s so terrible?”

“I’ve been pondering that too, since this morning,” Jasmine said slowly. “Bird Savaraad said he was a misogynist. Honestly, I’m probably more sensitive than most to that attitude in men, and I didn’t see it from him.”

“Apparently, his head henchman is even a woman,” Darius added.

“Vandro is nothing if not a professional,” Glory said, grimacing. “And not all misogynists are cut from the same cloth, Jasmine. A man can have the basic self-control to work with women, even speak respectfully to them, and still think of them as inherently lesser. It comes out in small ways, no matter how carefully he behaves—and sometimes, in not so small ones. I don’t know what sort of hold he has on Gimmick, but I would under no circumstances wish to be in her shoes.”

“Honestly,” Layla sniffed, giving Darius an accusing stare. “Have you deliberately sought out the worst possible people with whom to associate?”

“Yep,” he said dryly. “That’s exactly what I’ve done. Just to piss you off, Layla.”

“Kindly keep a civil tongue in your head,” she snapped. “Remember we are in good company and you represent our House!”

“I assure you,” Glory said with clear amusement, “my sensibilities are not so easily ruffled. Quite frankly, I’m finding you kids rather refreshing. It’s been…well, more years than I will admit since my own apprentice peccadilloes. Though I must say you’ve managed to attract more trouble and faster than almost any group of young people I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah,” Tallie sighed. “It’s a gift.”

“Webs, if anything, is the least of our worries,” said Jasmine. “We’ve apparently made an enemy of Ironeye…”

“Yes, so I’ve heard,” said Glory. “That may cost you, but so long as you stay out of Glass Alley, she is unlikely to trouble herself with you any further.”

“We’re a lot more concerned about dwarves right now,” Rasha muttered.

“Ah, yes,” Glory said seriously, then smiled at her Butler as he set down a tray on the table and began pouring tea. “Thank you, Smythe. It’s not only the Guild to which I pay attention; my primary activities do keep me in the know with regard to all manner of important issues concerning the Empire and the world as a whole. I am glad you all came to see me in person; there is something that I think you should know, and consider.” She accepted a cut of tea from Smythe, still gazing at them seriously. “When I contacted Bird and outlined the situation, she indicated that in her professional opinion, these dwarves pestering you are likely to be government-affiliated actors.”

“She said the same to us,” Darius said slowly.

“Well, surely that’s a good thing, is it not?” said Layla. “I mean, representatives from one of the Five Kingdoms will doubtless be more civilized in their behavior than any group of random layabouts.”

A tense silence fell.

“She’s kind of adorable,” Tallie said after a moment. “Annoying, sure. But in a cute puppy kind of way.”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” Layla said haughtily.

“Government agents,” Glory said quietly, “are among the absolute worst people to have after you, Lady Layla. They are totally without scruple or restraint, and are backed by the greatest powers possible short of a major cult. If persons answering to one of the Five Kingdoms—and actually, it is only likely to be one of three—are pursuing you, then the only powers which will or can protect you if it comes to a contest of force are the Guild and the Empire. And therein lies the problem.”

“One of three?” Ross said. “I don’t get it.”

“Ah, well.” Glory’s face lightened and she leaned forward, speaking now in a tone animated by interest. “The Five Kingdoms really aren’t at all monolithic. Of them, three would certainly take an interest in those very curious weapons the Silver Legions confiscated from you, but two have not suffered all that badly from the Narisian Treaty and its aftermath, and would be more inclined to stay the course and not provoke the Empire. The more depressed states have little to lose and a desperate need to reposition themselves, but matters in Rodvenheim and Isilond are far more stable. Isilond produces crafted goods far more than raw minerals, and with the shake-up in the metals market they have, if anything, prospered. The few native Isil mining operations were bankrupted, but they are now able to buy their raw materials at quite a discount. And Rodvenheim has always been the most magically-inclined of the Kingdoms; their trade with the Empire has continued unabated, minerals not having been as much a part of their economy. Additionally, Rodvenheim is positioned very close to Puna Dara, and as per the Empire’s treaty with the Punaji, no Imperial tariffs can be imposed on trade crossing overland from Puna Dara to Rodvenheim and vice versa. They are the only dwarven state on the continent heavily involved in maritime trade, which has also bolstered their economy.”

“This is all quite fascinating,” Rasha said wearily, “but I think we’re wandering off the point…”

“All things are interconnected,” Glory replied, giving him a look of amusement. “The high and the low. The fact is, you kids are very immediately and personally affected by these issues of global economics, and had better start paying attention. Specifically, the Empire is in the middle of trade negotiations right now with representatives from Svenheim and Ostrund, both of whom are attempting to draw Stavulheim into the deal.”

“Trade negotiations?” Darius straightened slightly in his seat. “What do they have that we want?”

“Metal,” said Glory, “the same as they have always have. Part of it is an attempt to repair relations between the Kingdoms and the Empire. They are not militarily a match for Tiraas by any means, but there are innumerable reasons it is better for nations to be on good terms with those bordering them. Also, one effect of the Narisian Treaty is that the Imperial economy is heavily dependent upon Tar’naris. I’ve heard whispers that relations with the drow are cooling—faint enough that I don’t place any stock in them, but it may be beside the point. It is simply wiser policy to diversify one’s options. The Silver Throne is looking to begin importing sizable quantities of metal from the dwarves again, both to put directly into the economy and to stockpile against some future trouble. The Empire is very prosperous right now, which makes it a good time to invest and hoard non-perishable resources.”

“Oh,” said Darius, wide-eyed. “Oh, shit.”

“Darius, really,” Layla exclaimed.

“Uh…” Tallie glanced at Darius, then at Glory, and then at Jasmine, who also looked alarmed. “Okay, I’m still lost. What’s all this got to do with us?”

“If the Empire feels a need to placate the dwarves,” Jasmine said quietly, “and the dwarves after us are representatives of their governments… The Empire is not going to side with a handful of scruffy would-be thieves if all this escalates into an incident.”

“Exactly,” Glory said, nodding. “What’s worse, they may very well side against you, should anything which befalls become public enough to force an official response. In fact, things being as they are, I would advise you to prevent, if you can, matters from coming to that point. If the Empire begins to actively consider you a nuisance that needs to be silenced…”

“Whoah, now, hang on,” Tallie protested. “We’re Guild. Just apprentices, but still! The Guild exists to fight unjust power. If they tried something like that…”

“Then,” Glory said grimly, “Boss Tricks would remember, and see to it that the specific parties eventually suffered for it. Whether he would be able to protect you is another matter. The Guild has not thrived for thousands of years by charging blades out at every power which showed a hint of corruption, Tallie. And specifically, the last time the Guild openly assaulted Imperial interests was during the Enchanter Wars, when we acted in concert with an overt military action by the Sisters of Avei and a widespread propaganda campaign by the Veskers. And that was when the Empire itself was already reeling and more than half broken. Now? Tricks would have to be very careful indeed. The Empire would not risk moving in force against the Guild, there are too many other factors at play. A lot of those factors would be silenced, however, if the Guild seemingly struck first and Imperial Intelligence bloodied its nose in response. And trust me, if the instigating issue was an apparently unrelated squabble between dwarves and you, it would seem that the Guild struck first.”

“What you’re saying,” Rasha said in a tone of soul-deep exhaustion, “is that we’re on our own with this.”

“That is probably taking things a little too far.” The look Glory gave him was nearly as concerned as Tallie’s. “This is a situation, not a doom. There are still avenues to exploit. I just want you to understand all the facts before you act. It’s your best chance to avoid a blunder you can’t afford.”

“Well, we’re doing what we can,” said Jasmine. “As I mentioned, we know the name of one of those dwarves now. It’s probably a fake name, but our witch friend Schwartz may still be able to track it back to something.”

“Yeah,” said Tallie, grinning aggressively. “And ol’ Rogrind did not like hearing that.”

Glory abruptly straightened in her seat, setting aside her teacup. “You said this in front of this Rogrind?”

“Not deliberately,” Jasmine replied. “He came up behind us during it, though.”

“And this Schwartz. Did you mention him by name?”

Jasmine paled. “I…yes, I did.”

“Ohhhh, crap,” Tallie whispered.

“I think,” Glory agreed grimly, “you had better find your friend Schwartz. Quickly.”

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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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11 – 10

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It had ended up being a fairly early night by the time they all got back to the Guild. Between that and the previous night’s disruptions, she had slept early and well, and been awake at her habitually early hour. In fact, by the time she made it to the mess hall, they were only just beginning to serve breakfast, and so some minutes later, she was stepping into the pit, fed and ready to begin the day, at an hour when hardly anyone was about and most of the other apprentices were still sound asleep.


She stopped and turned. Pacing toward her was the older man who had been with Grip the day before, studying her through slightly narrowed eyes. Graying hair and the lines of his face alone betrayed his age; he was straight-backed and trim of build, with an incisive gaze set currently in a pensive expression.

In each hand, he carried a stick about a yard long; as soon as she turned to him, he tossed one in her direction, which she caught reflexively.

“Spar with me.”


Before she could squeeze out a second word, he surged forward, stick upraised, and instinct took over. She deflected his probing strike, then the next, and then directly blocked the third to test the strength of his blows.

It was considerable.

His sharp, contemplative expression never changed as he continued pressing her. The pattern he established was immediately familiar; he was testing her abilities, probing her defenses, gauging the speed of her reflexes and the precision of her movements. Jasmine, mindful of her place as an apprentice in the Guild, endured this patiently for a few rounds, allowing him to push her backward, before suddenly striking out more aggressively.

At that, even as he gave ground under her assault, the man permitted himself a slight smile.

Attempting to probe him in return was unsatisfying, to say the least; his every movement was precise as dwarven machinery, evading and deflecting each attack with exactly the force it demanded and no more. She sensed immediately that this was an opponent whose martial skill outstripped hers by far, even when he was refraining from demonstrating it. This kind of pure, unharried control in the face of her efforts reminded her of sparring with the Avenist blademasters who had trained her initially, and more recently with Professor Ezzaniel.

Then, he abruptly switched to attack again, pressing harder than before—so hard she was suddenly forced to seriously exert herself. His strikes remained eerily perfect in placement, but they came faster, and from unexpected angles, and hit harder to boot. She swiftly realized that meeting him head-on was a losing strategy, and switched to evasion. Still he came, forcing her to spin aside ever more rapidly.

Without warning, his entire body surged forward following what she had initially mistaken for an exploratory prod at her defenses, and her answering evasion allowed him to slip behind her. She spun, then spun again—it was as if he had disappeared.

No—he was behind her, and stayed there no matter how she twisted to face him again. Then, as she finally bounded forward to gain distance, he was suddenly there again; his stick came down on hers from above with numbing force, sending it clattering to the ground, and an instant later it halted an inch from her eyes, the strike that would have bowled her over backward reined in at the last possible instant.

Jasmine stared at the shaft of wood from far too close, only now becoming aware that she was breathing heavily and sweating. She took one careful step backward, and he lowered his weapon at the same moment.

“So,” she said cautiously, “you’ve done this before.”

At that, he favored her with a small smile, then lowered his fighting stick to his side and bowed from the waist. “I am Silence.”

She returned the gesture. “Jasmine. But you seem to know that.”

“One of my old pupils identified you to me. Suggested I should examine the level of your skill.”


He nodded once, again studying her consideringly. “What an interesting life you have led.”

“I beg your pardon?” She frowned, unable to keep the wariness out of her voice.

“You are very good for one your age,” he replied, still contemplating her in perfect calm. “The Eagle Style is distinctively recognizable; even Grip said you were clearly trained in it, though yesterday, what I saw you demonstrate against that boy was a classic Sun Style evasive pattern. That is the intriguing blend I see in you. Intensive training in the martial art of the Sisterhood, but with the most unlikely additions. Omnist fighting, but you also employ a Narisian saber form when evading, and those lunges are distinct to Punaji fencing—power and the illusion of wildness, remaining under perfect control.”

“Yes. Well.” She absentmindedly shifted backward half a step. “I suppose I had a rather privileged upbringing; I’ve only begun to really appreciate that since coming here. I had teachers from all over—”

“No.” He contradicted her flatly, but without ire or aggression. “You were trained in the Eagle Style alone, and trained to incredible competence. The rest are mere tidbits in comparison, things you have picked up here and there as you encountered them. It is most unusual to see someone so young who has so mastered the Eagle Style’s dueling form; almost all of what is taught to the Legions and the girls raised in Avei’s monasteries is phalanx fighting. There are plenty of blademasters among the Sisterhood, of course, but they are older women who have studied it in their own time. In this day and age, single combat is little more than a performance art, having scarce application in war.”

“That is…creepy,” she said frankly.

At this, he smiled again. “It’s little more than a parlor trick, in truth. It is said that fighting styles are as individual as faces; I happen to have devoted my life to them, and to their understanding. It is not boasting to say that few others would perceive in your attacks what I do. Hardly anyone has a need. There are many paths in Eserion’s service, and I have found mine chiefly as a teacher of the martial arts.”

“I see,” she said carefully. “Then I thank you for the lesson.”

Silence studied her mutely for a moment longer, then stepped forward, producing a small envelope from a pocket of his coat and extending it to her. “This is an invitation for you, from Glory. She wished me to offer it if I judged your level of skill commensurate with her needs.”

Jasmine frowned at the envelope, making no move to accept it. “Who is Glory?”

“A thief,” he replied, still holding it patiently out to her. “One who commands immense respect, both in the Guild and in the city at large. She does not have the power, explicitly, to give orders to me or even to you. But a request from Glory is one you would be well advised to take with the utmost seriousness.”

Finally, she reached out to take the envelope from him. “All…right. Thank you.”

“Her address is written within,” Silence said. “She will be available for you to visit any time before noon today.”

He bowed to her once more, then took two steps back before turning and climbing the stairs to the upper level, where he vanished from sight.

Jasmine frowned at the envelope in her hand, turning it over, and only after a close inspection opened it to study the scented sheet of parchment within. After a moment, she made her own way toward the steps, barely paying attention to her path as she read and re-read the missive.

Thus distracted, she paid no mind to the very few apprentices and senior thieves currently present in the pit, though all of them were now watching her closely. Including Tallie, who leaned in the doorway to the dormitory with her arms folded, studying Jasmine through narrowed eyes.

Glory’s address was in a row of large townhouses in a very expensive district, where Jasmine’s clearly secondhand coat drew contemptuous looks and a number of outright sneers, which she ignored. She did have to pause in front of the gate to peer upward at the house, and then double-check the address on the invitation. This place was bigger than Bishop Darling’s house, and its front garden was not only twice the size but looked like it would have been lavish if it were not midwinter; the desiccated state of the shrubbery and the lack of snow to obscure it were unfortunate.

She passed through the gate, crossed the path as quickly as possible, and rang the bell. No sense beating around the dried-up bush.

After a very short span of time, the door opened inward, revealing an expressionless blond man in his thirties, wearing a suit identical to that which she remembered seeing on Darling’s Butler, Price.

“Good day,” he said, the two words a masterpiece of pronunciation. Just the faintest upnote in the phrase, coupled with an infinitesimal movement of his left eyebrow, subtly challenged her prerogative to be here. The effect was unmistakeable, and yet went nowhere near crossing a line which would have justified any complaint on her part.


“Good morning,” she replied, proffering the violet-scented invitation. “My name is Jasmine; Glory asked me to come.”

“Of course,” the Butler said, smoothly stepping back and opening the door for her. “You are expected. Please, come in.”

“Thank you.”

She tried not to gawk, but couldn’t help peering around in fascination as the Butler led her across a marble-floored entrance hall, up a curved staircase with gilded bannisters, through a short hallway draped with crimson velvet hangings, and into a sunny little sitting room. The décor in this place was…striking. Expensive, yes, which was hardly surprising given the size and location of the house, but in terms of taste it ran heavily to reds and golds, dark woods, and golden marble. Cases of worn-looking books were interspersed with equally well-used weapons both hanging on walls and displayed behind glass. If she had to put a word to the overall aesthetic, it would be “masculine.” That is, until she reached the little sitting room on the second floor, which was done in shades of blue and mauve that really seemed they should have clashed but did not, accented by touches of lace and oil paintings depicting mostly pastoral scenes.

The Butler showed her to a seat in a dainty armchair and bowed out of the room, assuring her the mistress of the house would be with her presently. Upon his departure, she drummed her fingers on her knees, peering about with a sensation just short of nervousness. More than anything, she was curious about this Glory, but the house itself made her feel keenly out of place.

Luckily, she was not kept waiting long before the door opposite the one through which she had entered opened, and her hostess stepped in.

“Ah, the famous Jasmine!” Glory said with a broad yet sly smile, and Jasmine began to have a sinking feeling about this. Glory was a strikingly beautiful woman who could have been anywhere between twenty-five and forty, and at first glance appeared just to have awakened. At any rate, her dark hair hung unstyled down her back, and she wore a brocaded robe over…apparently nothing. Upon closer inspection, however, Jasmine noted that the hair in question was freshly washed and had been brushed to a luminous sheen, the robe was artfully opened at the neck to display a generous hint of cleavage that couldn’t possibly be so pert without hidden support, and her lovely features showed subtle but clear cosmetics. Also, upon Glory’s arrival, the same scent of violets which suffused Jasmine’s invitation wafted into the room.

“I don’t know about that,” Jasmine said diplomatically, rising politely to greet her hostess. “It’s a mystery to me why anybody seems to know who I am.”

“And is that not intriguing?” Glory replied in a tone which could have been accurately characterized as a purr. She stepped forward, offering her hand in a position that left Jasmine no clear option except to take it gently and lay a kiss on her wrist, like a courtier in a chapbook.

She let a beat of confusion pass before sliding her own hand under Glory’s, gently wrapping her fingers around the woman’s wrist in a warrior’s handshake, and delicately yet firmly turning their grasped hands to a more normal orientation. Rude, possibly. She was aware that she lacked understanding of the etiquette at play here, and equally aware that she was being baited. Better to make it plain up front that she wasn’t going to play along. If that resulted in a quick expulsion from the house, well, she didn’t really know why she was here in the first place.

Glory, if anything, seemed mightily amused by Jasmine’s little display, and made a point of dragging her fingertips flirtatiously along her wrist when disengaging from the handshake.

“Please, sit down, be comfortable,” she said pleasantly, suiting the words by lowering herself smoothly into a similar chair opposite the small serving table from Jasmine’s.

“Thank you for inviting me over,” Jasmine said carefully, seating herself again. “I apologize if I seem…blunt…but I am really not educated for, ah…high society. I mean no disrespect. And I’m puzzled as to why you wished to speak to me at all.”

“Well, my dear, etiquette is what it is,” Glory said idly, lounging back in her armchair and daintily crossing her legs, the pose subtly suggestive without being too bold. “A long list of little customs which must be memorized to be observed. Overrated, I think. Blunt or no, you show respect and consideration in your manner, and that counts for far more in my estimation.” She paused, smiling with that same bare hint of mischief, before continuing. “As for why you are here… Tell me, what have you heard about me?”

“Nothing,” Jasmine said honestly. “Only your name, and that only this morning. From Silence, who I had also never heard of before.”

“I see.” For some reason, this answer seemed to amuse and delight her hostess. “Well! I am Tamisin Dinara Sharvineh, also known in Eserion’s service as Glory, and if I might be forgiven for flattering myself, a somewhat unusual creature. You are doubtless acquainted with some of the more common paths we Eserites tend to tread as we rise through the Guild. The con artists, the enforcers, the sneak-thieves, the purse-cutters. There are as many variations on these themes as there are people to practice them; ours is a faith which firmly discourages blind adherence to custom. Beyond that, though, many choose to find more unique ways of living Eserion’s faith. Silence is one; Lore, who I shall presume you have met by this point, is another. Such as they are a vital part of the Guild’s structure. Others dwell more on the outskirts of the Eserite sphere, no less esteemed or important for being unique. I am one of those.”

“Is that so?” Jasmine said politely.

Glory’s smile widened almost imperceptibly. “I am… Well, as a concept the profession has largely disappeared from civilized society, thanks chiefly to the influence of Izara and her priests. The most applicable word would be ‘courtesan.’”

Jasmine opened her mouth, then shut it after a moment, failing to find a single safe thing to say in response. She was keenly aware of the flush rising in her cheeks, especially under Glory’s knowing smile.

“From what I understand,” she murmured, “you must have been raised by Avenists, to have drilled in their combat styles as much as Grip and Silence believe you have. Tell me… Would that be Jasmine Avelea, or are you simply the daughter of devout parents with means?”

“Excuse me,” Jasmine said, finding somewhat safer footing in rejection, “but with all due respect, I am not interested in discussing my personal history.”

“Oh, but of course,” Glory said languidly, waving a hand—whose fingers, Jasmine noted for the first time, had their nails immaculately painted. For heaven’s sake, it wasn’t even midmorning. “You must pardon me—I am inquisitive by nature, but you will find I do not in the least lack respect for privacy. It is a vital trait in my profession, after all. But I have brought you here to explore possible answers to intriguing questions. And I can only imagine you must have several of your own.”

“I…” Jasmine had to pause to clear her throat, which seemed to amuse Glory. Her annoyance at that helped to ground her. “Frankly, I don’t understand what that has to do with stealing.”

“Stealing is a means to an end, Jasmine,” Glory said. “Nobody steals just to steal; those who claim they do are in it for the rush, for the thrill. Eserion is the patron of thieves in much the way Avei is looked to by lawyers, judges, and police. Not because the deity is of those things, but because their defining concept encompasses them. Eserion, young lady, can be best understood as the god of defiance.”

“I see,” Jasmine mused, frowning. “That’s…hm. I appreciate the insight; I haven’t had the chance to learn much actual Eserite theology yet. But, um…my question stands.”

“Oh?” Glory raised one immaculate eyebrow, sculpted as much by brush and pencil as by genetics. “I suspect you have made some erroneous assumptions. I am certainly not a whore; I do not rent my body, or my attention. It is through less direct and more powerful means that I accumulated all this.” She gestured idly around the tastefully expensive sitting room. “Try to understand the mindset of the very rich, and very powerful. Almost anything they want, they can buy, or take. It diminishes the value of having; human beings are meant to work, to earn. We take sadly little pleasure in pleasures that cost us nothing, and so much of the misery of acquisition is rooted in everyone’s failure to understand this. Were I for sale, well…what would be the point of me? Anyone wanting sex can simply walk into a temple of Izara—or, if they have somehow offended even the Izarites, go to a brothel. A few such do manage to exist.”

She straightened up slowly, leaning toward Jasmine in a way that displayed more of her cleavage, though her now-serious expression was arresting enough to hold her guest’s gaze. The same might not have been true of someone interested in ogling another woman’s bosom, but Jasmine was, in spite of herself, now too interested in Glory’s explanation to think on such things.

“Men and women do not come here looking to buy my affection. Oh, they bring me gifts, this is true. Lavish gifts, generally, though even that does not fund the lion’s share of my lifestyle. I operate a kind of…salon, here. It is a lively establishment, most evenings, where I hold court among the rich, the bored, the powerful…the lonely. We discuss all manner of things. Art, history, enchantment, politics, war… I am fully conversant in all the topics that are bandied about in the halls of the Palace itself.” She smiled coyly, somehow not losing the intensity of her gaze to it. “It is a rather less restrictive environment, of course. All of my guests are free to let their hair down—not enough that my home embraces bawdiness, but enough to grant them a tantalizing liberty they are denied in more acceptable settings. And I, of course, rule my tiny kingdom with just the right touch of flirtation, the merest hint of sensuality, to keep them intrigued, and always coming back. Each relationship is a thing I cultivate carefully, and with sincere appreciation for the individual which whom I share it.”

She shrugged disarmingly, now shifting to lean against the arm of her chair in a way that dramatically emphasized the long curve of her waist and hip. “And many do manage to spend a night, here and there, in my arms. Not all—perhaps not even most. The promise, the possibility, is always there, however. That is what keeps them intrigued by me. Anything else in this world they can reach out and take at a whim. They cannot buy me, however. To have me, they must earn me. And so they spend countless hours and fortunes in my company. That which must be sought, charmed, quested for, is so much more valuable than that which can be merely bought. No one feels cheated, or is cheated, by dancing in my circle, even if they never attain the ultimate prize.”

“I…see,” Jasmine murmured, well aware that her posture was visibly stiff and uncomfortable.

“Perhaps you are beginning to,” Glory said, again with that sly smile. “You are still overburdened by the hang-ups disguised as morals your upbringing inflicted upon you.”

“Is it worth it?” Jasmine asked quietly.

Glory’s expression immediately sobered. “For me? More than worth it. I would not suggest this life to anyone who did not have the inclination. I love it all, though. The conversation, the politics. The games, the emotions, the people. And yes, the love, both physical and otherwise. It is for each person to discover how they are best served by their sexuality; I am immensely gratified by sharing myself with a variety of Tiraas’s most fascinating people. I rather suspect that you would not be. Many wouldn’t.”

“I’m still not sure I understand, though. How is this stealing or defiance?”

Glory shook her head, smiling again. “Child, the most powerful people in the Empire circulate through my home, my life, and my bed. They do it by talking, and by competing for my affection. My true trade is in secrets, and in favors. Nothing happens in this city that I cannot learn just by asking; there is very little that I cannot cause to happen by whispering the right words in the right ears. It’s an influence that must be wielded with the utmost subtlety; nothing would destroy all I have built faster than overreaching. But provided I don’t get greedy—which I do not—I am positioned to provide that which the Guild needs most of all.”

She shifted again, back to her original pose, leaning back in the armchair and smiling knowingly.


“I see,” Jasmine said again. “I…actually begin to think that I do.”

“Yes, you would not be here if my friends thought you too dense to grasp it,” Glory said pleasantly.

“Why am I here, though? You said it yourself; this kind of thing is not for me. And I’m definitely not the sort of person who can contribute to your…enterprise.”

“Ah, so now we come to it,” Glory said solemnly. “The truth is, Jasmine, I am looking for an apprentice.”

Jasmine shot to her feet before realizing she was going to. “I will never—”

“Sit down.”

She obeyed instantly, reflexively. Glory had neither raised her voice nor roughened her tone, but there was in it the absolute conviction that she would obeyed which Jasmine had been taught from the cradle to respect.

“Dear girl,” Glory said, shaking her head, “of course you’re not the type to pursue my path in life. I told you as much; I really don’t see it in you. Besides, the nature of a Guild apprenticeship isn’t just in following a sponsor’s footsteps; it matters how you fit into your sponsor’s life and career while you are there. It would utterly wreck my methods to have someone around who served as competition. No… I need very specific things in an apprentice, and I have had my friends in the Guild keeping their eyes open for a likely prospect. You are the first such who has been brought to my attention. I am, you see, exceedingly particular.”

“Why me?” Jasmine asked warily.

“What I require,” Glory explained, “is a counterpoint. Someone calm and decorous where I am vivacious and flirtatious. Someone martial and dangerous where I am soft and pleasing—and as able and willing to demonstrate his or her skills as I am my own. Someone who can contribute, converse intelligently and be a positive presence in my salon. And finally—and this is most important—someone who will benefit from my teaching.”

She straightened, for the first time assuming a simple, upright posture, regarding Jasmine with a serious expression.

“Someone who needs to learn what I can teach them about subtlety, careful influence, and the uses of a light touch. I am, here, making my most presumptuous guess yet, but… That is the thing you came to the Guild to learn, no?”

Slowly, Jasmine nodded.

Glory nodded in return. “What made you break with the faith of Avei?”

“I haven’t.”


“I…” She glanced away. “It’s a little difficult to… The truth is, I am something of a brute. I’ve realized it fairly recently. I still value Avei’s principles, but it’s becoming more and more clear to me that you just can’t get anywhere in the modern world with the attitude that every problem is an evil to vanquish. The Sisterhood are right about a lot of things…but they aren’t right about everything. I came to the Guild to learn other ways of… Of acting, but also of understanding.”

Glory’s answering smile was simple and honest in a way that none of her previous expressions had been. “It may be that you are exactly what I seek. And that I am what you seek.”

Jasmine shrugged, slumping back into her own chair. “I, um… Maybe. The thought is so weird to me I’m having a hard time looking at it objectively.”

Her hostess smiled in pure, friendly amusement. “Well, let me pose a question to you, Jasmine. What is your greatest passion in life?”

“Justice,” she said immediately.

Glory nodded. “And why is that?”

Jasmine gaped at her. “I—that—well. I mean, it’s justice?”

“That is your upbringing talking.” Glory pointed a manicured finger at her. “In fact, I have known a good many people in my time who were driven by a passion for justice. Interestingly, most were either Avenists or Eserites. And every one of them, without exception, could tell me exactly the thing which ignited that passion within them. In every case, it was a painful encounter with injustice which left them compelled to seek out and destroy that monster wherever it lurked. You, though? You are following a path laid out for you by those who came before. And that will lead you nowhere.”

“Just because I haven’t suffered the way others have doesn’t mean I’m not sincere,” Jasmine said irritably.

“Sincerity isn’t passion,” Glory retorted. “Oh, don’t mistake me, you need a lot more than passion to get ahead in life. There’s a great deal of skill and technique that goes into building a meaningful existence. But without passion? Without something that drives you? You have no place to begin. Unless you are driven from within, you will be driven from without—either by the randomness of the world, or by clever people who would exploit you for their own gain. What drives you, Jasmine? Forget Avei, forget Eserion, discard all systems and ideologies. What is the thing inside you that burns, that pushes you forward to make a better world, and a better you?”

Jasmine stared at her, not even aware that her mouth was slightly open.

Glory studied her thoughtfully for a few long seconds before speaking again.

“I will have to think on this, Jasmine. I suggest you do as well. You…intrigue me. I see possibility here. But…whether it is the possibility we both need, I am not yet sure. Are you?”

Jasmine swallowed heavily. “I’m…less sure of everything than I was when I walked in here.”

Glory’s answering smile was sympathetic. “I don’t say this to many people, but… Whether or not we decide to proceed together, my door is open to you, whenever you need it. Best that you visit me in the mornings; something tells me that without specific coaching, you would mix poorly with the guests who are usually to be found in my home in the evenings. But when you have a need, you may come to me. I think that, whatever else befalls, you and I can help one another.

“For now, though, I thank you for this extremely enlightening visit, and must bid you good day. The preparations for my night’s work are more involved than you would perhaps believe.”

Outside the opulent townhouse, she came to a stop just past the gate, staring at the rich houses across the street and not seeing them.

Passion? Nothing in her early upbringing had covered that. If anything, Avei’s faith encouraged comprehension, restraint, discipline. Avenist fanatics existed—she had recently shared a campus with one—but there weren’t many and they tended not to get far in the cult. Most Avenists found them rather uncomfortable to be around.

Passion was no part of her University education either. Tellwyrn’s program emphasized rationality even more heavily than the Sisterhood did, and with even less patience for foolishness.


Something was tickling at the back of her mind. Something which seemed connected to her increasing frustration with this whole enterprise, but also to her hope for what she wanted to achieve. This was another piece of the puzzle… But it suggested more pieces which were still out of her reach.

How to connect all this? She couldn’t figure a way to make the disparate fragments of her understanding fit together. If anything, her slow education in the ways of the Eserites was only pulling it all apart.

She had an idea, of course, how to proceed, but…

“Miss? Are you lost?”

Jasmine snapped back out of her inner world, finding herself confronted by an Army patrolman. He stood directly in front of her, his face and posture neither aggressive nor sympathetic. All at once, she remembered that in her casual clothing and slightly scruffy longcoat, she did not in any way look like the sort of person who had any business standing around in a neighborhood like this.

“Actually, yes,” she said, suddenly seizing on an idea. “Can you direct me to the Imperial botanical gardens? The sheltered one, in the glass dome. I was sent in this direction but I can’t even see a building like that over the houses…”

“I’m afraid you’re extremely turned around, miss,” the officer said, lifting his eyebrows. His tone didn’t quite express suspicion, but hinted that he wasn’t buying this story. “That’s in the northeast quadrant of the city, very near the center. You’re in the southwest and about four blocks too far toward the walls.”

She sighed heavily and rubbed at her forehead. “That’s just…fantastic. Really. Ugh… I’m sorry to be a bother, but if it’s not too much trouble… What’s the best way to get there you can suggest for someone with the Empire’s worst sense of direction? I started out from the old spice market and…”

At that, he smiled, if only very faintly. “Well, it’s actually fairly simple; if you’re new to the city, I wouldn’t try getting directly from one point to another. The trick is always to start at Imperial Square, which is right in the center. You can find it from anywhere, and you can get anywhere from it. In this case, you’d just take the northeast street out of the square, and the gardens will be barely a block along on your right.”

“Thank you,” she said feelingly. “Really, that’s good advice. Always from the Square, right. And from here, that is, uh…” She stood on tiptoe, craning her neck.

“That way, miss,” he said, pointing up the street to her right. “This avenue is leveled out, but if you look around you can usually manage to see the general slope of the city. Imperial Square is always uphill. When you run out of uphill to go, you’re there.”

“Thanks so much, officer, you’re a lifesaver,” she said, bowing to him.

“Ma’am,” he replied politely, nodding in return. At least he seemed less suspicious now.

She set off in the direction he had indicated. All that had mostly been to avoid a confrontation, and she was sort of proud of herself for coming up with it on the spur of the moment. She was already thinking more like a thief. The idea itself, though…

Well, it was probably a bad idea. But it was the only one she had at the moment, and it certainly wouldn’t be the worst one she’d ever had.

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