Tag Archives: Rogrind

16 – 51

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Tendrils of shadow rose beneath her, twining together into a great twisted trunk and entangling her legs, and lifted Natchua straight up. She rose to a solid twenty feet in height, balanced perfectly in the tentacles’ grasp, until she judged that a sufficient altitude to do what she needed. Off to the south, beyond the range of human senses, she could see the necro-drake thrashing about and erratically charging in different directions as its new targets teased and tormented it from all sides. The green blotches of elven groves were barely visible to her in other directions—close enough the woodkin shaman would undoubtedly be aware of the large-scale infernomancy that was about to be performed on this spot. Hopefully they’d do as woodkin usually did: duck their heads and wait it out rather than taking action. The last thing she needed was nosy shamans disrupting her casting, to say nothing of what would happen if they appealed to the Confederacy and brought more of those damned Highguard.

Projecting steady streams of fire from her palms, Natchua quickly sketched out two huge spell circles, establishing only the basic boundaries to delineate their overall purpose, then paused to survey her work before getting down to refining the specific—rather elaborate—details this was going to need. For a moment, she considered a third, then thought better of it. Two should be plenty.

Next was supplies. In quick surges of shadow, she summoned from Leduc Manor the extra materials necessary for this that she hadn’t carried on her person: a selection of power crystals, enchanting dusts of three distinct grades, and finally, two bemused succubi.

“What the f— ” Melaxyna broke off and clapped a hand over her eyes. “Well, at least she’s not dead, I was more than half convinced…”

“What kind of bassackward nowhere is this supposed to be?” Kheshiri complained, peering about at the vacant prairie. “You never take me anywhere nice.”

Both demons fell silent as they caught sight of the sprawling circles burned into the ground to either side of their arrival point, the nearby stalks of tallgrass still smoking. In eerie unison, their expressions changed to a matching look of tremulous uncertainty as they recognized what she was about to do and basic pragmatism rebelled at the implications, while their Vanislaad attraction to carnage reveled in them.

“Have you finally lost your last vestiges of sense?” Melaxyna demanded. Kheshiri just began squealing and giggling. After that first moment of uncertainty, they seemed to have taken off in opposite directions, almost as if they’d planned it.

“Enough!” Natchua barked from atop her shadow-tendril perch. “I do not have time to argue; either you trust me or you don’t. I need those circles charged. You both understand the proper lines to augment with enchanting dust and the runic nexi where power crystals will need to be placed. Each of you pick a circle and get to work. Double-check with me if you have any questions, but otherwise no dawdling! We have one chance to save Veilgrad.”

Kheshiri instantly snapped her wings out, snatching up a bag of enchanting dust and swooping off to begin tracing glittering purple lines around the perimeter of one of the circles. Melaxyna hesitated for two full seconds, just long enough Natchua feared the succubus was about to rebel at this. But then she just shook her head, gathered up an armful of power crystals and launched herself at the other circle, muttering under her breath. Even Kheshiri wouldn’t have been able to make out any words at that distance, but Natchua of course heard her clearly.

“Hell with it, either I trust the little freak or everything’s twice-fucked anyway. She hasn’t ended the world yet.”

Natchua forbore comment outwardly, though she spared a moment to hope that remark didn’t prove prophetic. Then she resumed firing jets of flame into the ground, carefully avoiding both swooping succubi and searing the finer details of her summoning circles into place. The Wreath would hold the line for a while, but the clock was ticking.


Despite his dire commentary on their situation, Rogrind seemed in little hurry to remedy it. Of course, as he subsequently pointed out when she complained, they were a short walk from one of the province’s main highways, and with an iota of luck, could there flag down a lift to Tiraas. In the absolute worst case scenario, they’d have to walk to Madouris, which was closer; in nicer weather that would have been merely tiring and time-consuming. At present, it would be a very unpleasant slog through the thick snow, though Rogrind insisted he had enough of his resistance potions to tide them both over. Which did nothing to make the prospect appealing to Rasha, who was already not enjoying standing here in the snow while he fussed over the ruins of his carriage.

She understood his purpose, of course, for all that it was no concern of hers and thus annoying. A custom carriage outfitted by Svennish intelligence contained all sorts of goodies his agency wouldn’t want falling into the hands of anyone who might come to investigate this wreck. Already Rogrind had pried loose multiple concealed devices and made enough of them disappear to reveal he had potent bag-of-holding enchantments on multiple pockets. Including, she noticed with amusement, the vehicle registry plates. Undoubtedly those wouldn’t lead directly to the Svenheim embassy, but Imperial Intelligence would take one look at what had happened to this carriage and begin tracking everything as far as its substantial resources would allow.

“Oh, that’s real subtle,” she scoffed as Rogrind very carefully uncorked a vial from his apparently substantial alchemy kit and poured its contents over a console which had been hidden beneath the driver’s seat. Most of its dials were shattered anyway, but the thing itself must have been distinctive. At least before the metal had begun to dissolve under the potent acid with which he was now dousing it. “I’m more nobody’s gonna have any questions about that.”

“Obviously,” the dwarf replied without looking up, continuing to be unperturbed by her disapproval, “the best technique is to avoid notice entirely. When that fails, it can suffice to ensure that there remains nothing to notice. Alas, this is somewhat more labor-intensive, and less likely to succeed. In the business one must not expect the fates to align in one’s favor.”

“Can’t see, don’t see, won’t see,” she agreed. The dwarf sighed softly but said nothing, and Rasha gleefully filed that away. He didn’t like being reminded that the Thieves’ Guild’s work was very similar to his own. There was more amusement to be leveraged from that, surely. “While we’re standing around making small talk anyway, what are you still doing in Tiraas at all? I’d’ve figured you’d be reassigned as hell after your cover got blown last year.”

“An agent whose identity is not known has many uses,” he explained, still outwardly calm. “An agent whose identity is known in his country of operation has other, specific ones. In particular when one operates opposite skilled players like Quentin Vex, it is vastly useful to have obvious targets for him to follow around. There are no wins or losses in the great game, Rasha, merely changes upon the board. Hm.”

“Something wrong?” He’d stopped pouring, as a faint light had begun to flicker on one of the surviving pieces of the instrument panel he was destroying. Rogrind hesitated before continuing his work, quickly drizzling acid over that, too, and snuffing it out.

“No more wrong than we should expect, I think. Apparently we are being tracked by means of fae magic.”

“Hm,” she echoed, frowning. There were tradeoffs in fae versus arcane divination; fae tracking was all but impossible to deflect or evade, but so inherently imprecise that it was often not more useful than more vulnerable but specific arcane scrying. “Friend or foe?”

“Sadly, we would need an actual practitioner to determine that. The simple ability to detect fae attention via a passive enchantment is state of the art. By your leave, I believe we should adopt a cautious posture, in any case.”

“Leave granted.”

He took great care to re-cork the bottle which had contained acid and wipe it off on the surviving upholstery before stowing it away. Rasha would’ve just discarded the bottle on the grounds that any idiot would be able to discern what had happened here and one more piece of glass wouldn’t tell them anything, but then again, thieves and spies weren’t so similar that they had exactly the same training. Only when that was done did he produce a device made to look like a pocketwatch—a standard deception, Glory had over a dozen enchanted devices set in watch casings—and flipped it open.

Whatever it was, the information it contained instantly changed the dwarf’s mood.

“Hide,” he hissed, already turning and bolting. Rasha’s only instincts were trained enough to set her into motion before she bothered to ask questions. For a dwarf, Rogrind was amazingly agile, but she was still faster, and so managed to beat him to the shelter of one of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the ground last year. Funny how things worked out; for all she knew, this was the second time she’d taken shelter behind this particular bulwark.

“What is it?” Rasha breathed once they were concealed. Rogrind still had his device out; she snuck a peek over his shoulder but couldn’t make heads or tails of the multiple tiny dials set into its face.

“We’re about to have company,” he whispered. “An arcane translocation signal just activated in this vicinity.”

“Scrying?”

“No such luck, this is for teleportation.”

“Shit,” she whispered. It might not be bad; Rasha’s friends would definitely be looking for her by now. Off the top of her head, though, she didn’t know of anyone in her inner circle who could teleport. Then again, Trissiny knew all sorts of wacky people, and Glory knew everyone. She looked at the very clear tracks the two of them had made through the snow right to their hiding spot and grimaced, noting Rogrind doing the same.

He pulled out another vial, drank half, and handed the rest to her. Rasha downed it without asking, and he immediately tugged her arm, beckoning her to follow. They set off to another position behind a large hunk of fallen masonry—this time leaving behind no traces in the snow. That was some good alchemy; thanks to Glory’s tutelage, Rasha had some idea what potions like that cost. It stood to reason an intelligence agent would have resources, but she hadn’t realized Svenheim made such heavy use of potions. That information was worth taking back to the Guild.

Even as they moved, a shrill whine like a very out-of-season mosquito began to resonate at the very edge of her hearing, growing steadily louder. No sooner had the pair ducked behind their new concealment than sparks of blue light began to flicker in the air over by the carriage’s wreck. It was but another second before a bright flash blazed across the ruins, and then over a dozen people materialized.

Rasha did not curse again, though she wanted to. These were not friendlies.

By far the majority were soldiers in crisp uniforms, with battlestaves at the ready; they instantly spread out, forming a perimeter around their landing zone and several detaching themselves from the formation to cover the wrecked carriage and the body of Sister Lanora. Rasha didn’t recognize those uniforms. They were white, vaguely resembling Silver Legion formal dress, but their insignia was a golden ankh over the breast. She’d thought the Holy Legionnaires only wore that ridiculously pompous armor, but one of the other parties present revealed the troops could not be anyone else.

Glory had insisted all her apprentices attend occasional services at the Universal Church, simply for the sake of being exposed to polite society. It was not the first time she had seen him, thus, but his presence here threw everything Rasha thought she understood into disarray. Archpope Justinian never left the safety of his power base in the Cathedral. And why would he? There, he was all but invulnerable, even against the countless factions and powerful individuals he had spent the last few years industriously antagonizing. Yet, there he was, his powerful build and patrician features unmistakable, behind a golden shield which had flashed into place around him the instant he’d arrived.

Rasha snuck a glance at Rogrind, who was staring at the new arrivals with the closed expression of an observant man determined to take in all possible data and reveal none in turn.

“Ugh!” shouted one of the other people with the Archpope, a stoop-shouldered individual bundled up as if against an Athan’Khar winter rather than a clear day in the Tira Valley. “These conditions are totally unacceptable!”

“Unfortunately, Rector, this is what we have to work with,” Justinian replied, his mellifluous voice utterly calm. “I apologize, but I must rely on your skill to overcome the inconvenience. This is the last place Lanora’s spirit existed upon the mortal plane, and distance from it makes the task more difficult. Seconds and inches are precious. Nassir, is that…?”

“Think so, your Holiness,” reported one of the soldiers, straightening from where he’d been kneeling at the very edge of the bloodstained patch of snow. The man’s face was hard, but Justinian’s grumpy companion took one look at the remains of Sister Lanora and was noisily sick into the nearest snowdrift. “No other bodies nearby, and she’s wearing Purist gear. Unfortunately her face is…gone.”

The Archpope, perhaps fittingly, was made of sterner stuff. His expression was deeply grave as he joined the soldier and gazed down at the body, but he did not flinch or avert his eyes. “What terrible damage. I don’t believe I have ever seen the like. It’s almost as if…”

“It looks like something triggered small explosions inside her body,” Nassir said, scowling deeply. “In the head, and look, there in the side. That wound would’ve been inflicted first. The head wound would be instantly lethal, so there’s no point in attacking again after that.”

“Have you seen such injuries before, Nassir?”

“Not in person, your Holiness. I’ve been briefed on the like, though, in the Army. Not sure anything I’ve heard of would’ve done it here, though. Some fairies are known to do nasty things like this, but nothing that lives this close to the capital. And of course, if you see unusually ugly wounds, infernomancy is always a suspicion…”

“There has been nothing of the kind done upon this spot in many years,” Justinian stated, raising his head to slowly direct his frown across the scenery. “At this range, I would sense it even under the Black Wreath’s concealment.”

The soldier nodded. “That leaves arcane attack spells. They exist. Very illegal, though. The Wizards’ Guild and the Salyrites both prohibit such craft.”

A moment of contemplative silence fell.

And then, a hand came to rest on Rasha’s shoulder, causing her to jump.

“Go on, say it,” breathed a new voice next to her. “Ask him.”

She just barely managed to stay silent, turning to gawk at the man who had appeared from nowhere between her and Rogrind: the waiter from the cafe who had warned her and Zafi of the Purist ambush. He was even still in his askew tuxedo, the cravat untied and hanging unevenly down his chest. Now, he was watching the scene unfolding before them with the wide-eyed eagerness of a child at a play.

Then she noticed that Rogrind had slumped, unconscious, to the ground, face-down in the snow.

“What of a Thieves’ Guild hedge mage?” Justinian asked, and the waiter began cackling aloud in sheer glee. Rasha frantically tried to shush him without adding to the noise herself.

“They…would be very hesitant to do such a thing, your Holiness,” the soldier named Nassir answered, his voice slowed with thought. Amazingly, neither he nor any of the others appeared to notice the gleeful hooting coming from Rasha’s hiding place. “The legal authorities would investigate any such thing, and possibly get Imperial Intelligence involved. Plus, if the Guild were feeling particularly cruel, they’d do something that would kill far more painfully and slowly. As deaths go, it doesn’t get much more merciful than the sudden loss of the entire brain. It’s not in their nature to risk official attention for something that gains them so little. Still,” he added pensively, “if I had to list mages who might know spellcraft like this, a back-alley Guild caster would top the list, even if they were hesitant to use it in practice. For example, this could be a vicious repurposing of a lock-breaking spell.”

“Oh, relax,” Rasha’s new companion chuckled, patting her on the head as the conversation over Lanora’s corpse continued. “They can’t hear or see us, I took care of that. Also your dwarf buddy here. Don’t worry about him, he’ll be fine; he’s just taking a nap. We’re about to see some shit that he really doesn’t need to, is all. You’ll have to convey my apologies when he wakes up.”

There were just too many questions; she settled on one almost at random. “Who the hell are you?!”

The man turned to meet her gaze, still wearing a cocky half-grin. And for just an instant, he let the veil slip, just by a fraction.

Weight and sheer power hammered at her consciousness as Rasha locked eyes with an intelligence as far beyond her own as the sun was beyond a candle. It was just for the barest fraction of a second, but it was enough to cause her to sit down hard in the snow.

Before them, Justinian raised his head suddenly like a hound catching a scent, and once more turned in a slow circle, studying his surroundings with a frown.

“Easy, there, Rasha,” Eserion said kindly, helping her back up. “I know you’ve had a pisser of a day already, but stay with me; you really need to see this next bit. Moments like this are rare, and you’ll almost never get forewarning of them, much less a front-row seat. We’re about to watch the world change right out from under us.”


One of the worst things about Natchua was that she was sometimes extremely right.

The Black Wreath didn’t fight; at most they laid ambushes. They contained, and that only after preparing the ground ahead of them to the best of their ability, luring their prey exactly where they wanted it before striking. Whether putting down loose demons, rogue warlocks, or their own traitors, it was simply not their way to engage in a frontal assault. Maybe, occasionally, the appearance of one after setting up the scene with the most exacting care, but actually fighting? Hurling themselves into the fray with spell and weapon and their own lifeblood on the line? It simply wasn’t done. It was not Elilial’s way.

Be foxes, not spiders.

The damnable thing was that their usual approach absolutely would not have worked here. The necro-drake was very much like a demon in how predictably it reacted, but there was a lot they could do about demons. Against this thing, their spells were simply not able to make a lasting impact. The mission wasn’t even to destroy or contain it, but only to keep it busy. There was nothing for it but to fight.

Embras Mogul wasn’t particularly surprised at how satisfying it was to simply let loose with all his destructive skill at an enemy, nor how the other survivors of his cult were clearly finding the same liberating vigor in it. After all they’d been through, it was only natural. He was rather surprised to find out that they were, in fact, pretty good at it.

They knew each other intuitively, with the intimacy of long cooperation and bonds forged in suffering. The Wreath moved in small groups, noting and reacting to one another so intuitively it felt like pure instinct. One trio would vanish as the necro-drake dived at them, and others would pummel it from multiple directions with shadowbolts, forcing the increasingly frustrated monster to whirl about and struggle to pick a target while under attack from all sides, only to be thwarted again when its chosen victims vanished into their own conjured darkness when it even tried to get close.

The poor thing was actually rather dumb. It never improved its strategy, just got progressively sloppier as going on and on without making any progress made it ever more angry.

It wasn’t as if they were making progress, either, but the difference was they were having fun. For once, the shoe was on the other foot: after a string of debacles and defeats, they were the cats tormenting the mouse and not the other way around. Embras kept an eye on the others every moment he could spare his attention from the necro-drake, watching for injury or signs of fatigue, but rather than growing tired, he saw his compatriots having more fun than he’d seen them have in years. Some, like Hiroshi, seemed to have fallen into a trancelike state of flow, concentrating in apparent serenity on their spells and tactics, while others were smiling, grinning with savage vindication as they did what no responsible warlocks ever allowed themselves to do: poured unrestrained destruction at their target.

It was, as Vanessa had said, cathartic. And he was a little afraid of what it might mean for the future, perhaps more than he was of the inept monstrosity trying to slaughter them all. It was going to be…a letdown, going back to their usual ways after this burst of sheer release. If they even could. Was there still a place for the Wreath as it was in the world? And if not, how big a mistake was it to tie their fates to Natchua of all bloody people?

Despite his misgivings, Mogul was having such a grand time shadow-jumping about and hammering the chaos best with infernal carnage that his immediate reaction to the sudden end of the exercise was a surge of pure disappointment. In the next moment, as he beheld the nature of that end, his emotional response felt more…complex.

The sound that echoed suddenly across the prairie brought stillness, as warlocks and necro-drake alike all stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. It was a terrible noise rarely heard on the mortal plane, and always a herald of catastrophe: a low sibilance that was like a hiss, if a hiss was a roar, a sound that was at once subtly slender and deafening.

The necro-drake’s bony face was unable to convey expression, but somehow, its body language as it turned to confront this new threat showed shock, even a hint of fear. It crouched, letting its wings fall to the sides, and lowered its head.

Embras Mogul, meanwhile, suddenly sat down in the tallgrass, laughing his head off.

Vanessa appeared next to him in a swell of shadow. “You know, I think we may have miscalculated, allying ourselves with that girl.”

“She doesn’t do anything halfway, does she?” Rupi added, coming to join them on foot. “Bloody hell, Embras. It’s like a…an infernal Tellwyrn.”

He just laughed. It was all too much.


They were adolescents; she’d made the summoning circles smaller on purpose, simply because full-sized adults would be too large to effectively grapple with the necro-drake the way she needed them to. All they had to do was pin the bastard down so she could step in and deliver the coup de grace. Behind their beaked heads, between their triple rows of crimson eyes and the flared directional fins, they wore collars of glowing crimson light, containing the runes which imbued them with the pact of summoning, restricting their behavior to that commanded by the warlock who had called them to this plane. Such bindings had never been placed on demons of this species before. They floated above her, eel-like bodies larger than a Rail caravan undulating sinuously as they awaited their mistress’s command.

It was with grim satisfaction that Natchua beheld the suddenly cowering necro-drake. Standing on the prairie beneath two captive nurdrakhaan, she pointed one finger at the monstrosity.

“Boys? Sic ‘im.”

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16 – 48

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“Do you realize how infuriating all this is?”

“I can only imagine the depths of your inconvenience,” Rogrind said dryly.

“Oh, to be sure, you and your bullshit are not a positive addition to my day, but frankly? You’re just the icing on the cake,” Rasha informed him. “I am having the most frustrating week. Do you know how many times I’ve been chased, attacked, or abducted in just the last few days? This is ridiculous. I joined the Thieves’ Guild in large part so I would never have to feel helpless and put upon again. The damsel in distress bullshit is getting old fast.”

She expected either a glib retort or silence, depending on whether the dwarf was more inclined to play the freelance adventurer or hardened government agent at this moment. Not that it much mattered; Rasha herself was merely filling the air with an admittedly desultory attempt to deflect his attention while she searched for something she could use to leverage herself out of this new mess. Even so, she was surprised when Rogrind canted his head slightly as if giving her words serious consideration.

“The truth is,” he answered after a contemplative pause, “you are a diminutive specimen of your race, Miss Rasha. If you pursue a religion and career which consist mostly of entering combative situations with established powers, I’m afraid that inevitably means you will be on the back foot, physically speaking, for much of your life. Obviously, much the same is true of your mentor, Ms. Sharvineh, but she is adept at avoiding situations in which she is physically imperiled. That, of course, is the result of years of skilled effort bent toward establishing her secure position. Until you are able to establish such a bulwark, yourself…here you are.”

“Here I am,” Rasha repeated, now peering back at him closely. “Well, since we’re chatting, how would you have avoided getting nabbed, in my position?”

“First of all, don’t wander off by yourself.”

She winced. “Yeah, fair enough. Though in my defense, somebody was supposed to be watching my back. He took a break to get laid.”

“I wondered.” The dwarf’s face melted into an expression of pure disapproval. “How grievously unprofessional.”

“In his defense, it was with a dryad. And if you’d seen her—”

“I did see her, and while I take your point, I don’t consider that a mitigating circumstance. Sexual enticement is one of the oldest ploys in the book to distract an enemy agent; to fall prey to it from one’s own allies is a truly lamentable display. I expect that from newly enlisted soldiers, not field agents, or even established Guild thieves. In any case, aside from not committing rookie blunders, there are preparations you can make to ameliorate your physical vulnerability.”

“The martial arts, so I’ve been told.”

“Formal martial arts require a significant level of mastery to be useful in real-world situations. A Sun Style grandmaster could perhaps have disarmed me from your position, but few others. For practical purposes, the basic Eserite brawling techniques you’ve been taught should suffice for situations in which fighting would do you any good at all. No, by preparation, I mostly refer to equipment, and practice in using it. For example, the style of dress you seem to prefer provides ample fabric in which to conceal quite a variety of devices.” He gestured toward her heavy winter dress with the hand not currently holding a wand aimed at her heart.

Rasha idly lifted her left arm to inspect the sleeve—not the one in which her wand was hidden. “I suppose I could slip a knife in here…”

“Weapons are only the most basic of options,” said Rogrind. “Skilled foes will be prepared for them. Your resources would be better spent on unconventional applications of enchanting, or alchemy. One always has an advantage when one possesses tools and techniques for which the enemy is unprepared.”

Slowly, she lowered her arm, definitely not making the compulsive twitch of her right fingers toward her wand, as they wanted to. A thought had just descended into her awareness, bringing with it a note of embarrassment that she hadn’t made this observation immediately.

He hadn’t searched her.

Rasha was a member of a faction known for carrying concealed weapons—and he himself had just pointed out that she was dressed in a way which facilitated that. Rogrind was a veteran field agent, government trained. He knew better than this. And yet, not only had he failed to make even a cursory check for any such weapons on her person, he hadn’t even secured her hands before putting himself in a small moving box with her.

There was something going on here beyond the obvious.

They stared at each other in thoughtful silence for a long moment. The carriage passed through the busy city in eerie silence, its walls clearly charmed to cancel noise.

“You’re surprisingly free with the advice,” Rasha said at last, “considering I’m pretty sure you’re taking me out of the city to be murdered and hidden in a ditch somewhere. Wasted effort, isn’t it?”

“It’s not often, these days, I get the opportunity to speak as an old professional to a younger one,” he answered lightly. “And on that note, Rasha, a relevant piece of advice one of my early mentors gave me: if you are in a position to ask ‘is this the end,’ the answer is ‘not yet.’ A situation may be futile, but it only becomes hopeless when you decide that it is.”

“You’re…actually encouraging me to keep on fighting you?”

“After all we’ve been through?” One corner of his mouth twitched upward in a wry little partial smile. “I confess I would be disappointed if you did not.” The dwarf hesitated, his eyes flicking away from her toward the window separating the passenger compartment from the driver’s seat, where Sister Lanora would be partially visible from his perspective. Rasha nearly took advantage of his momentary distraction, but was forestalled by the fact that she didn’t actually have a plan yet, except maybe to tackle him. Which she had tried once before, to a dismal lack of effect, and then they hadn’t been in an enclosed space, nor he armed. The moment passed and he returned his focus to her face. “Sometimes, Rasha, the needs of the mission require us to accept…unwanted company. For a short while.”

Interesting.

She made no comment in reply, mulling. Was he hinting at something? There were enough little indications to indicate this whole situation was more than it appeared, but not enough yet to suggest what. Rasha, clearly, was still in a very dicey situation, and most likely a lethally dangerous one…but not exactly the one she’d thought.

She looked toward the side window of the carriage, noting the soldiers manning the guard post right outside as they passed through one of the city gates. Then she considered, for a second and a half, the hints Rogrind had dropped that his intentions were not as immediately murderous as he had first suggested, and inwardly steeled herself, deciding to take a risk.

Rasha exploded suddenly into motion, hurling her body with as much force as she could against the side of the carriage, grabbing and yanking the door handle.

“HELP! I’m being abducted!”

Rogrind did not move—didn’t even shift his wand hand to continue covering her, just watched in silence. The entire performance was utterly fruitless; the handled didn’t budge, the military police showed no indication they could see her through the windows or hear her shouting, nor her pounding on the door, and even her body-checking the vehicle itself didn’t make it rock by so much as an inch. Slowly due to the pace of traffic but still inexorably, the view outside changed to the walls of the bridge linking Tiraas to the mainland beyond.

This was the west gate, she noted; they were heading into Tiraan Province, not Vrandis. The domain of Trissiny’s Duchess friend, Ravana Madouri. That made absolutely no difference to Rasha inside this carriage, but it might become relevant if she managed to get out of it.

Slowly, Rasha drew back from the window and re-seated herself, folding her hands primly in her lap. “Worth a try.”

“Only naturally,” Rogrind said with a gracious nod of his head and the supreme confidence of one who knew his prisoner had no options.

Rasha had not really expected anything to come of that, in terms of getting out; her goal was to gather information, and she had just succeeded at that rather well.

His lack of reaction proved little, as he’d been aware before she moved that she wouldn’t succeed in escaping the carriage. But Rasha had just learned several interesting things about the carriage itself. One-way darkening of glass was a common charm, and in fact, the only charm she’d just detected which could be called common. The kind of silencing enchantments which could be laid upon windows with common enchanting dusts would bar noise from either side, but not the thumps of impacts directly on the windows themselves, yet the soldiers hadn’t even glanced over when she pounded on the glass. More telling was that the carriage hadn’t rocked in response to her sudden movement. Shock enchantments protected the wheels; it was a heavier-duty balancing charm than was standard that would prevent a vehicle from being shifted by sudden motion within. Rasha was small, but no carriage was that perfectly balanced without some extra enchantments. Then, there was the door itself; the lock hadn’t budged when she’d twisted the little knob. The lack of any further mechanism suggested it, too, was enchanted, and the kind of charm which would key it to a specific person’s touch was both definitely not standard and required its own power source.

This was a later-model Dawnco sedan, the sort of vehicle the Guild commonly used for getaway carriages, and not unlike those the Svennish agents had driven when chasing Rasha and her friends about last year. And it had been modified with serious extra enchantments, which told her two things.

First, this was not some piece Rogrind, a disavowed ex-agent, could have picked up from a dealer. Custom charm jobs were expensive, and charms of this nature drew eyes from the government if they noted them being applied. After last winter’s events, nobody in Tiraas who did this kind of work for the Guild would sell to a Sven for fear of blundering into the latent hostility between Eserites and the Kingdom of Svenheim. Which meant Rogrind’s story about being sacked was a lie. Fired government agents might be lucky to walk away with the contents of their pockets, not expensive major equipment like this. That led to the question of just what the hell the Svennish secret service wanted with her now. That issue with the divine disruptors was long put to bed, and from everything Rasha knew of the dwarves the most believable thing Rogrind had told her was that they would want nothing to do with Purists.

And second, all these extra enchantments needed extra power. Basic carriage design had been part of Rasha’s unconventional training—not to the extent of being able to fix enchanted carriages, but specifically with an eye toward finding hidden modifications in them. She had re-positioned herself in a different spot on the seat, and already noted the difference in vibration. This might be a stroke of luck; beneath the rear-facing passenger seat would be one of the standard spots…

With that, Rasha had a plan. A desperate one with a high chance of backfiring catastrophically, but with the alternative being to trust that this old enemy, who had abducted her in concert with a new enemy, wasn’t really as hostile as he appeared… It was time to roll the dice.


Not exactly time; there were a couple more ducks she needed to line in a row before she could make a move, and of course, that lining up proceeded with terrifying lack of speed while the carriage itself picked up its pace, carrying her ever further from the city, and witnesses.

Rasha did not miss the irony that they were following almost exactly the route of the last winter carriage ride she and Rogrind had taken out of the city: north from the bridge, on the main highway toward Madouris, which at this pace they would reach within the hour, at the absolute most. That had been in the dark of night during a blizzard, which (despite the reckless speed at which every vehicle in that chase had driven) had slowed them considerably. Now, they were making good time on a well-traveled road, which warned Rasha what to watch out for. Once Lanora turned off onto a side road with fewer prying eyes, the end was close.

But not, as Rogrind himself had just advised her, yet at hand.

She’d made a performance of shifting this way and that on the seat, brimming with nervous energy that kept her readjusting her position and sliding back and forth to peer out the windows on both sides. Rogrind watched her, but did not comment or try to interfere, merely keeping his wand trained on her. At one point Lanora, apparently catching sight of Rasha’s constant movement through her peripheral vision, had thumped on the window separating the driver and passenger compartments in annoyance, which Rasha only happened to notice because she was moving at the time and had it in her field of view, as the silencing enchantment covered that window as well. Neither she nor the dwarf acknowledged Lanora’s displeasure. The actual point of all the shifting about had been for her to examine the vibrations coming from under the bench. And bless the thin padding of Dawnco’s economy carriage seats, she’d done it within minutes. Rasha had identified the spot, slightly left of center and directly under the front passenger bench, where the vibrations were most perceptible: the likeliest position for the secondary power crystal keyed to the carriage’s various extra enchantments.

So she finally planted herself as far from it as possible, leaning against the right wall in a position that both maximized her distance and gave her a clear line of sight to the spot, which she’d landmarked by identifying one button in the pattern sewed into the seat cushions. Now there was nothing but to wait for an opportunity, and hope it didn’t come too late.

And since that was too great a risk, Rasha did the properly Eserite thing and set about creating her own damn opportunity.

“I can’t square this geniality with your whole mission of revenge,” she commented.

“Revenge. Is that what you think?” Rogrind raised an eyebrow.

“You pretty heavily implied it. Besides, if you have such a low opinion of Purists, why else would you be helping her? It’s not like you and I have any business, apart from you settling the score after I spanked you last year.”

“That is certainly one way to describe those events,” the dwarf said, smiling faintly. “Another would be that you were in the vicinity when someone actually competent foiled my mission.”

“Yeah, and I note you’re not going after any of them. Bullying, petty grievances, assisting religious fanatics you claim to dislike… I can’t decide which part is the worst reflection on you.”

“You are attempting to provoke an emotional reaction from me,” he said, still with that ironic little smile. “I don’t mind that as such, except that the effort is so halfhearted. One does hate to have a front row seat, as it were, for an inept performance of one’s craft.”

She didn’t need him actually agitated, just to look away for a second; even a relatively minor emotional upset would cause most people to shift their eyes momentarily, but she wasn’t dealing with most people here. Rasha glanced out the window herself and stiffened.

The moment was nearly here. They were turning off the main road onto…

“Well, well,” she said quietly, staring at the scene as best she could from this angle. “Doesn’t this take you back. This was your idea, I take it?”

Apparently the old fortress had been a landmark, an unused Enchanter Wars-era ruin left intact purely for its historicity. After the murderous schemes of Basra Syrinx had blown the whole thing up last winter, the Empire hadn’t even bothered to clean the grounds; the field was now littered with widespread outcroppings of fallen masonry, currently dusted with fresh snow. It made them look oddly serene, a contrast to Rasha’s memory of the violence through which this spectacle had been created. She even caught a glimpse of the angled sheets of rock Schwartz had summoned out of the very ground to shield them from the fallout. Only the wrecked carriages had been removed.

“Not as such,” the dwarf murmured, finally shifting his head to follow her gaze. “It does make for a conveniently isolated spot, though, positioned along this otherwise well-trafficked route. How history repeats itself, hmm?”

She’d started moving the instant his gaze was off her, letting the wand slide gently out of her sleeve rather than flicking it into her palm as she normally would; a slower motion was less likely to catch his eye. Rasha looked over at the button she’d identified, made an educated guess how far down the target would be, and fired.

Moment of distraction aside, Rogrind could not miss the soft hiss of a beam wand discharging at that proximity, much less the light. In a split second he was on top of her, trying to wrestle the weapon from her grip. He only failed because he’d mistaken her intent; the dwarf was much stronger than she, but in gripping her wrist and keeping the wand aimed away from himself and Lanora, he inadvertently kept it pushed in more or less the exact direction she wanted.

Rasha grunted and struggled against him in dreadful futility, managing only to twitch under his weight and muscle. Her shot had achieved nothing save a smoking hole in the upholstery. Now, in defiance of all wand safety, she clamped down on the clicker and kept up a continuous beam. Immediately the handle began to warm dangerously in her grip as she raked it this way and that across the general area of her target, able to move only in minute jerks and hoping that would be enough—


Her vision returned, fuzzy. She could hear nothing but a shrill whine deep in her own head, beyond which the world was silent. Had she actually been unconscious? Everything was so hazy. It was cold. Rasha was…face down? Weakly, she tried to rise…

A big hand grabbed her arm, hauled her upright; she was too dazed to protest. Then there came a stab of pain through the sensory fuzz. She managed to focus on the thing he tossed away as it fell to the snow: a fragment of wooden paneling from the carriage, one jagged end crimson where it had been lodged in…her. Oh, right, that was why her shoulder suddenly hurt. Good, good, her training whispered at the back of her head. Shoulder injuries could disable your arm, but rarely killed you, at least not immediately.

He—the dwarf, Rogrind, she focused on him now, noting his disheveled hair and burned suit—was hauling her bodily away; she stumbled, trying to keep up. What was… Oh, fire. There was burning wreckage. Blearily, Rasha looked back. The carriage was blown perfectly in half, both large pieces burning merrily and a wide spray of charred wood spread around the site. It sat in brown winter grass in the ditch by the road, the nearby snow blasted away by the explosion.

Well, that was one thing gone according to plan, anyway. Shoot the power crystal, disabling the carriage. It had been disabled a little harder than she’d hoped; that crystal must’ve been powering a lot more than the enchantments she’d identified to have had that much oomph in it. Made sense in hindsight, a spy agency vehicle would have all kinds of hidden tricks. Well, live and learn. Which she had, so far.

Suddenly the grip manhandling her shifted. Rasha blinked, trying to focus again on Rogrind as he pressed something against her lips. Glass? A bottle? No, a vial. With his other hand he gripped the back of her neck and made her tip her head up, pouring it into her mouth. Poison? No. She knew this flavor—sour, subtly fruity, tingling with contained magic. Healing potion.

Rasha’s vision and her mind began to clear, and the pain in her shoulder receded along with the shock. Also, the ringing dropped steadily in pitch, descending into a dull roar and then even that faded as her eardrums were mended. She became conscious of a different pain on her other shoulder—right about where her heating charm had been pinned. Ah, yeah, that would’ve burst from being that close to an arcane explosion, and healing potions didn’t work well on burns. Still, she was still alive, and now she could see, hear, and think.

Also, she was cold. Outside in the winter, with no heating charm or even a coat.

“Well, I have good news for you, Miss Rasha,” Rogrind said in a layered tone of aggressive joviality. “If you are so devoted to your freedom as to blow up vehicles while inside them, I can safely predict you will not be a prisoner often or for long.”

“I do what I can,” she said modestly, giving an experimental tug on her arm. His grip shifted not an inch; he was half-covered in soot, his hair and clothing charred and half his coat torn away, but other than that appeared unperturbed. Dwarves were inconveniently sturdy folk.

Something small bonked off the other side of Rasha’s head, and by sheer instinct she tried to catch it. Her cold-numbed fingers didn’t succeed in seizing the object, but she did note as it fell that it was another glass vial. She turned her head in the direction it had come from and met Sister Lanora’s burning gaze.

The Purist had her sword out; she was disheveled and not as badly burned, having been separated from the explosion by more layers of carriage, though blood dropped down half her face from where something had struck her on the temple. It made a perfect complement to her expression.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself, you little monster,” she hissed, bringing the sword up. “That was your last act of defiance.”

Rasha was suddenly yanked away, struggling to stay on her feet as Rogrind hauled her behind himself. “Ahem. This inconvenience aside, the terms of our agreement are met, Sister Lanora. We are in private, and you have the girl.”

“That is not a girl!”

“Whatever you say,” he grunted. “Before this proceeds any further, it is time for your end of the deal.”

“As soon as that pestilential brat is—”

“No.” Even without shouting, he projected his voice at a volume which cut her off neatly. It was a good trick, Glory had of course taught her apprentices that one early on. “You have already unilaterally modified our agreement once, and I have to say I am not best pleased with the results. The documents, Lanora. Now.”

The ex-priestess glared, her grip on the sword shifting, and for a second Rasha thought she might take a swing at the dwarf. Then she produced a wordless, feral snarl and stabbed the tip of the longsword into the frozen earth to free her hands, with which she snatched a bag hanging from her belt and began to rummage inside it. Even Rasha knew better than to treat bladed weapons that way; Trissiny would have… Well, that was the least of what Trissiny would be upset by, here, but it really said something about the Purists as a whole.

“Here,” Lanora snarled, hurling a leather-bound journal at the dwarf, which he neatly snatched from the air. “Take it and get out of the way!”

Saying nothing, he did so. Rogrind released Rasha, stepping aside and immediately opening the book, his eyes darting rapidly across its contents as he began to leaf through pages.

That left Rasha and Lanora facing one another with nothing between them but the chill of winter.

“I don’t think I’ll ever understand you,” Rasha admitted, taking a step back and tucking her chilled fingers into her sleeves. Her wand was lost, but she still had the knife in her other sleeve, right where she’d minutes ago suggested to Rogrind that she could one day start keeping one. “You had an actual message from a goddess. Do you know how many people have only dreamed of something like that? Who cares if it wasn’t what you wanted to hear? You could—”

“Shut up!” the woman shrieked. “Just shut it! I lost everything, do you understand that? I gave my life to Avei and she threw me away like so much trash. And for what?! To make some kind of point? All I have is this, boy. I can’t stick a sword in that bitch goddess—or even Trissiny Avelea, realistically. But at every step, your face has been there mocking me, and I can sure as hell do for you.”

“Well,” Rasha acknowledged, continuing to retreat as the former priestess kept pace, raising her sword. “I have to admit, I have no argument for that. Except to point out that you’re a moron. But then, you know that, don’t you?”

Lanora bared her teeth like a wolf about to pounce and raised the longsword over her head.

Rasha whipped her left arm forward, hurling the knife.

It went spinning away a full yard to Lanora’s right. Her fingers were almost numb from cold.

Lanora barked a mocking laugh and stepped forward, bringing the sword down. Mid-swing, there came another deafening boom from close by. The carriage was already done for; this time, what exploded was Lanora herself.

The left side of her midsection burst, spraying blood and viscera across the snow; she physically buckled as the core of her body was suddenly lacking a chunk of its structure. The sword tumbled to the ground, sinking beneath the snow, as its owner collapsed. She tried to press her hand over the wound, but the hole was bigger than her hand. Staring uncomprehendingly at the crimson stain spreading around her, Sister Lanora slumped fully to the ground.

“General Avelea sends her regrets,” Rogrind said dispassionately. Rasha turned her incredulous stare on the dwarf. He had tucked the black book under one arm and was now holding a… It resembled a wand, but heavier, an iron tube with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism, now emitting smoke from its business end. Rogrind was already tipping a small vial of some powder into it, followed by a little metal ball. “She preferred an amicable resolution. Unfortunately, she is not here. And I like my loose ends neatly tied.”

He leveled the weapon. Lanora stared up at him in dull-eyed disbelief, and then the sound came again. It was thunderously loud, even more so at that proximity than a lightning wand. The Purist’s expression vanished along with her face and the greater part of her head.

Rasha averted her gaze, cringing, and wasn’t ashamed of it. The Guild inured one to violence, somewhat, but that…

Rogrind lowered his weapon with a sigh. “What a mess. If only I hadn’t lost my wand… Ah, well. You are a clever lass, Rasha; I trust I needn’t explain too much of this?”

“You…” She had to swallow and then clear her throat before she could speak properly. “Yeah, I guess after last winter, you did owe Trissiny a favor, huh?”

“Fortunately for us both, Trissiny Avelea is too intelligent to deal in such intransigent currencies as favors and debts,” he answered with a wan smile. “She presented herself at the Svennish embassy the day after our last visit to this spot, and rather than making complaints or demands, arranged for the Silver Legions on multiple continents to be armed and armored with Svennish steel. It all but singlehandedly resurrected our metalworking industry; a masterful exercise of soft power. My King has made his orders clear: what the Hand of Avei wants, she gets. In this case,” he held up the book, tucking his weapon back inside his coat now that the smoke had stopped, “documentation linking the Purists to the Universal Church.”

“You could have told me what you were doing, instead of scaring me half to death with this nonsense! Don’t you think I would have helped?”

“Rasha,” he said patiently, already fishing in his pockets again (what remained of them), “what part of our previous encounters do you think left me with the impression that you could be trusted to hold up your end of a sensitive operation? Not that you haven’t grown dramatically under Tamisin Sharvineh’s tutelage, but I could hardly take that risk. I do greatly regret involving you. Our arrangement was a hair’s breadth from completion on optimal terms—Lanora was about to be taken into protective custody in return for the documents, where she would have been safe, as the Archpope’s influence in the Five Kingdoms is minimal. But alas, you happened to cross her field of view as we were making the handoff, escorting three of her erstwhile companions evidently in custody. And then…” He grimaced. “She demanded your head for her compliance. That ridiculous woman was quite irrationally obsessed with you.”

“Yeah, she, uh, mentioned that.” Rasha glanced at the spreading stain that had been Lanora, then shuffled back; the blood was seeping rapidly through the snow and had nearly reached her own slippers. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just take the book from her at that point?”

“Her bag of holding was spelled to open for no one else; it would take a skilled enchanter weeks to extract it. And a person in her mental state, while easily manipulated, is nearly impossible to coerce. Once a person has nothing left to motivate them but spite, they can’t be forced to do anything. Here.” He had found what he wanted in his pockets: another vial of liquid. The agent downed half of it with a grimace, and then stepped forward to hand the remainder to Rasha. “Potion of weather resistance. It’s no personal heating charm, but it will stave off hypothermia for a while.”

Rasha accepted without hesitation; her fingers were already so numb she could barely tip the liquid into her own mouth, but she managed, and immediately blessed warmth began to spread through her.

“She was a centimark from freedom,” the dwarf murmured, frowning down at the woman he’d just killed. “Protection for herself and any of her comrades we could find. It was a generous deal, and a better ending than she deserved. But she threw it away for a chance at petty vengeance, and now look. This is what vindictiveness gets you.”

“Revenge is a sucker’s game,” Rasha quoted, nodding.

“And now we are stranded in the woods, in midwinter, standing over a fresh corpse.”

“You’re awfully liberal with the complaints, for somebody whose fault all this is!”

“And who blew up the carriage?” he countered, then smiled and held up a hand to forestall her rebuttal. “This is how it goes sometimes, Rasha. We made the best decisions available with the information we had, and ended up needlessly at cross-purposes to our mutual detriment. Such is life. Now, let us put that aside and see what we can do about survival.”

“Yeah, I guess it’d be a shame if Trissiny didn’t get those documents, after you went to all this trouble.”

The spy nodded, his polite smile firmly in place. “Precisely.”

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16 – 47

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“Don’t touch the equipment, obviously. The visual effects are harmless and not interactable unless you’re doing magic, so don’t do magic.” Rector paused, looking up from his instrument panel, a construction of modern enchanting parts and engineered dials and levers around a millennia-old Infinite Order data screen, and leveled an accusing finger at one particular member of his audience. “And for anybody who is a living incarnation of magic, that means don’t even think too hard about magic! No focused intent! Do not subjectivize any physical principles!”

Azradeh raised both of her clawed hands innocently. “C’mon, Rector, you know me better than that.”

A wrench bounced off the bridge of her nose. His aim had been steadily improving.

“I shall be the very soul of discretion and restraint,” she promised. “Demon’s honor.”

She didn’t push too hard; it was enough of a privilege to be allowed to observe this event, which was being held in one of the underground experimental chambers beneath the Church Azradeh had not seen before. She didn’t even know how many of these Justinian had authorized, but like the others, this one was a melange of enchanting and engineering equipment completely inscrutable to her built into and around various priceless relics of the Elder Gods. Azradeh had to wonder whether the Universal Church had always had what was probably the world’s largest collection of that old technology or it was all collected by Justinian for his purposes.

Currently, the equipment wasn’t even the most interesting thing present. In the air all around them swirled shapes and sigils of floating light, representing everything from mathematical equations to arcane sigils, rotating around the room in orderly patterns. Orderly, but fiendishly complex.

“Does anything look familiar to you?” the Archpope himself asked her quietly.

Azradeh turned to him, raising her eyebrows. “Is there a reason it should?”

“All right, fixed it,” Rector stated before he could reply. “Yeah… Good, good, piggybacked a translocation signal off the native displacement waves. Using the Golden Sea as a manifestation portal is never gonna be completely stable, but if you want distance, I got that at the cost of precision of placement. Should spit out the target a good distance out past the Great Plains instead of right on the frontier.”

“How much precision did it cost, Rector?” Justinian asked.

The enchanter shook his head irritably, still scowling at his instruments. “Dunno. This is frustratingly vague. Gotta stay at the controls, steer it in real time. Way too many variables to account for—this is just not proper engineering, gonna be at least somewhat intuitive. How much precision you need?”

The Archpope nodded gravely. “If the manifestation will be at a radius outside the Golden Sea, it must be along the southern half. The entire process will be wasted if the subject materializes inside the Dwarnskolds, or flies off over the Stormsea.”

“Doable, no problem,” Rector said brusquely.

“And it must not appear in the vicinity of Last Rock.”

Rector hesitated. “…shouldn’t be a problem. That’s prob’ly too close to the frontier anyway. Straight line from there down to Calderaas, more or less… Yeah, think I can keep it clear of that range.”

“And,” Justinian continued, noting the way Rector’s shoulders immediately tensed, “if possible, I would rather it did not emerge near Veilgrad.”

In the short pause which ensued, the enchanter actually took his hands off the controls to drum all his fingers on the panel. When he finally spoke, his voice was even tighter than usual. “How important is that?”

Justinian had found that dealing with Rector was quite unlike, say, Ravoud, who obeyed him with implicit trust even against his own better judgment. With Rector, he needed to explain his reasons as clearly and in as much detail as possible, as the enchanter would tend to disregard instructions for which he didn’t see the point.

“The entire point of this manifestation will be psychological. We must create shock, and horror. Apart from the benefits of spreading this widely, the people of Veilgrad have always been somewhat inured to that, and have grown especially so after the events of the last few years. In addition, Veilgrad has recently acquired new protectors of significant potency and as yet undetermined capabilities. I would not wish the creature to be dispatched before the paladins can be brought to face it.”

“Not much chance of anything but a paladin doing it,” Rector said, un-tensing slightly. “I will…see what I can do. Not promising anything. Aiming this at the southern half of the radius while avoiding the point in the center of that might be all the precision I can squeeze out of it. Upside is, Veilgrad’s one spot. Worst comes to worst it’s just straight unlikely it’ll pop out there as opposed to any other point.”

“Please do what you can, Rector,” the Archpope urged, nodding at his back. “I have faith in your abilities.”

The enchanter grunted, going back to work.

“So, uh,” Azradeh said quietly, edging up next to him, “aren’t those paladins doing politics at you right now? I’d’ve thought you’d put this on hold while dealing with that.”

“This is me dealing with that,” Justinian said, giving her a sidelong smile. “It’s called asymmetrical warfare; attack your enemy with whatever they can least anticipate and counter. The children did this by moving into an arena in which I have up till now decisively overmatched them. They’ll not expect an abrupt shift back into territory in which they are more comfortable.”

“Huh. Doesn’t that…just give them back the advantage?”

“Momentarily,” he agreed, returning his gaze to Rector’s form, still hunched over the controls and jabbing irritably at the screen. “In the moment after that, it will render all their efforts irrelevant.”

Azradeh idly reached up, letting one stream of symbols pass intangibly through her hand. The visible data swirling around the chamber was all focused upon a point in its center, a save ten yards away from Rector’s control station. There, an elaborate construction of magic and technology surrounded the object at the center of the entire effect, keeping it contained, but visible. Theoretically visible; it was difficult to look at directly. When stared at for a few seconds, the black sliver of bone began to waver, as if shifting color to something in a spectrum she could not ordinarily see.

“I appreciate how you’re always willing to explain things to me.”

Justinian smiled at her again. “Gladly. You were known to be quite the strategist in your previous life; I retain hope that thoughts in that vein may yet jar some memory to the surface. I only regret that I do not have more time to visit with you.”

“Nah, you’re busy, I get it.”

“Do you have to chatter back there?!” Rector exclaimed.

“Oops.” Grinning, Azradeh took a series of loud, stomping steps backward. “I’m withdrawing, Rector! Going back to the wall, out of your radius!”

“Do it quietly! I am trying to focus!”

Pressing her back against the wall, the archdemon raised her claws to frame her mouth and bellowed, “IS THIS FAR ENOUGH?”

He made a sound like a prematurely awakened bear and did not otherwise respond.

Behind him, Delilah slipped discreetly over to the Archpope’s side from where she had been hovering by the door.

“Has this personality clash become a problem?” Justinian asked her, softly enough that Rector could not overhear.

The priestess shook her head, answering in the same near-whisper. “I thought it would, at first, but… She’s very careful not to cross any of his hard lines. It took me a while to realize it, but he actually enjoys having excuses to shout and be grumpy at her. Throwing things at someone who can’t be harmed by it is something of a release. She actually may be good for him.”

“How intriguing,” Justinian said, smiling.

Several yards behind them all and out of anyone’s field of view, Azradeh stepped silently forward, reached out with one hand, and tapped a point in midair. Beneath the tip of her claw, a single fragment of incorporeal data, a paragraph-sized equation, froze in its orbit and adhered to her hand. She swiftly shifted it to a different orbit and then withdrew, leaving it to float off on its way.

Smiling aimlessly, Azradeh once more retreated and leaned against the wall again, humming.

“What is that noise!?” Rector exclaimed.

“Oh, not a fan of lullabies? I take requests!”


He had not hesitated in following Rizlith through the Conclave’s embassy, simply because it was so out of character for her to seek him out. The succubus was a presence Ampophrenon tolerated solely to maintain the peace with Razzavinax, a fact of which she was well aware, and wisely kept her distance from the gold dragon. Now, as she had begged his attention on an urgent matter, he let her lead him deep into one of the embassy’s sub-basements. Wordlessly, Rizlith opened a door Ampophrenon recognized and gestured him through with a deferential bow.

He gave her a nod of acknowledgment as he stepped in, and for a single instant when she started to close the door behind him he considered the possibility of some kind of trap—you could never lower your guard around a child of Vanislaas—but then again, with her errand complete it was just as likely she simply didn’t want to be shut in a room with a gold dragon.

Surveying the scene before him, Ampophrenon amended that supposition to conclude the succubus had probably not wanted to be shut in a room with any of what was going on here.

This was one of the “hoard rooms,” subterranean chambers below the embassy which they had enchanted to be far larger than their physical dimensions, so as to let the dragons have private spaces in which they could rest in their larger forms. None of them, of course, kept an actual hoard here, right under the noses of other dragons; that was a recipe for several kinds of disaster. But they were welcome sanctuaries, nonetheless. This particular cavernous chamber was the private residence Varsinostro the Green shared with his roommate.

Varsinostro himself lay stretched along the ground, half-curled in a protective posture with one arm, his tail, and the edge of his wing enfolding the diminutive figure he clutched against his side. Ampophrenon met the green’s eyes and bowed his head once upon entering his personal space, but thereafter focused his attention on the gibbering elf.

“Where is it, where is the light? It was calm it was so—no, no more. Stop! Stop!” Raash sobbed aloud, actually pounding his fists against the dragon’s armored hide, which of course had not the least effect. At least he wasn’t lashing out with magic. “It’s not dark or light, they’re so angry. It’s wrong! It’s wrong! Please, I can’t make them…” Burying his face against Varsinostro’s side, he heaved silently as he struggled to breathe.

“What has happened to him?” Ampophrenon asked quietly. “Our protections have failed, after all this time?” It had taken some trial and error to refine the magic through which they kept the mad spirits of Athan’Khar from driving the headhunter insane, but not even in his worst moments since coming to the Conclave had Raash been this bad. In fact, this was the worst Ampophrenon had seen him since the four dragons had originally rescued him from Athan’Khar after Khadizroth’s escapade in Viridill. Worse, possibly; then, the elf had been only babbling and incoherent. Now he appeared to be in pain.

“The protection stands,” Varsinostro answered, his voice soft even in the booming resonance granted it by his greater form. “It seems we crafted them to be…inadequate. It is the spirits which have changed; they are riled beyond anything we have seen since Raash came home with us.” With one huge claw, he very tenderly stroked the elf’s hair as he wept silently against the dragon’s hide. “I have been forced to intercede with brute power and prevent him from casting magic. Until this subsides, I can do nothing but stay with him and provide safety, and whatever comfort I may.” His expression was nearly as pained as Raash’s as he looked down at the maddened elf Varsinostro had taken the primary role in managing the headhunter’s condition, and the two had become quite close.

“Zanzayed has already departed for Viridill to check for activity in Athan’Khar itself,” said Razzavinax, who stood to the side in his smaller form. His own face was grave; despite the well-earned reputation red dragons carried, Razzavinax was a self-described people person and disliked seeing anyone suffer needlessly, especially the companion of a fellow dragon. “I’m afraid that may be a mockingjay hunt, though, Ampophrenon. This agitation is severe; it has taken all of Varsinostro’s focus to keep Raash from hurting himself, and my own familiarity with the Athan’Khar spirits is much lesser. Still…I strongly suspect they are reacting to an outside stimulus. This is…reminiscent of the agitations observed along the Viridill border during recorded major chaos events.”

Ampophrenon inhaled slowly, mastering his own alarm. “Then Zanzayed’s errand is worthwhile, even if it is only due diligence. If your suspicion is correct…”

“Even our strength means little against chaos,” Razzavinax agreed grimly. “Raash wasn’t with us during the disaster at Veilgrad, but we all remember how that set off the oracles at the time, and…”

“And this is different,” Varsinostro rumbled. “Sudden, and acute. I can only hope it passes as quickly as it has come on. If not…” Raash groaned and began cursing softly in agonized elvish; the dragon gently rested his chin atop the elf’s head.

“While we’re talking of due diligence,” said Razzavinax, “I think it would be a good idea for you to visit your paladin friend, Ampophrenon; Zanza says she might actually like you more than him, anyway. And then the other two. If there is a major chaos incident brewing, they’ll be needed front and center, and we can provide them quick transport to wherever it occurs.”

“Yes,” Ampophrenon said, narrowing his own eyes. “That raises an ominous prospect, however. The paladins are right now—”

“We know what they’re doing,” the red dragon said, his expression growing steely. “And who will be most inconvenienced if they succeed. In light of what is strongly suspected about his previous involvement in chaos events, isn’t that suggestive?”

“Let us be aware of possibilities without borrowing trouble,” Ampophrenon cautioned. “You are right, though, it is perilously suggestive. And should this suspicion be borne out, his decisive removal will become an urgent priority.”

“I’m glad to hear you say it,” Razzavinax replied, his mouth twisting with black humor. “I’m the wrong color to be safely making pronouncements like that toward the Universal Church or its figurehead. For my part, I’m going to go pull at my connections in the city. We need fresh information, and to be positioned as well as possible for whatever comes next. Varsinostro, I hate to leave you alone with this, but I think it would be a bad idea to have Rizlith in here. I’ll ask Maiyenn to come keep you two company, if you don’t object.”

“She would be welcome, if she is willing,” Varsinostro agreed softly. “Your lady has always had a gentle way with Raash.”

Red and gold nodded at him, and then Ampophrenon stepped forward, reaching out to lay a very soft touch against Raash’s shoulder where it emerged above the tip of Varsinostro’s wing.

“Courage, friend,” he murmured. “We will not desert you.”

Raash shifted his head so Ampophrenon could see one of his eyes, but his stare was unfocused and wild. It was unclear whether he could even see him.

Then the two dragons turned in unison and marched toward the door together. The sight of their grim expressions and purposeful stride would have been enough to make the world tremble, if it could see them.


Even after they had spread the population to well-constructed tents around the lodge’s grounds (well-made structures complete with modern heating charms that were almost like temporary houses, provided by Ravana’s generosity), it was still dense enough with lizardfolk refugees that relatively small incidents could create a stir felt by everyone present. The stir currently underway was not small. As such, Ingvar had been unsurprised when Ilriss, a young lizardwoman apprenticing as a shaman, had run to him frantically demanding his presence.

The Elder had made his semi-permanent home in the great hall of the lodge, with his belongings arranged around a simple pile of sleeping furs near the fire, no barriers or concessions to privacy added. Ingvar respected his dedication to making himself available to his people, and while the lizardfolk remained reluctant to discuss their religious rites, he had inferred that this accessibility was related to the fae ritual by which the Elder had divested himself of his very name.

Admirable as that was, it carried the downside that when something was wrong with the Elder, it spread panic. Now, Ingvar and Ilriss had to push their way through agitated lizardpeople as more received word and streamed into the great hall to spectate. The Shadow Hunters had also begun gathering, and were barely managing to keep order.

“He’s been like this ever since it started,” Ilriss fretted as she finally brought Ingvar to the Elder’s bedside. The old shaman lay on his back, eyes squeezed closed and his face contorted in a grimace of apparent pain; his entire body was tense, nearly arching off the furs, as if he were physically struggling with some weight despite his prone position. “It struck us all, but he…he…”

“The Elder has taken it upon himself,” interjected Fninn, the other junior shaman who most often accompanied the Elder, as Ilriss seemed about to succumb to her own worry. “Something has agitated our familiar spirits. Badly. They screamed in anger and fear, and… The Elder has gathered to himself all their voices, so the rest of us are not affected.”

“All fae spirits?” Ingvar demanded, now recognizing the reason for their alarm. Warnings like that usually heralded some world-altering disaster. He knew a bit about fairy warnings, himself. “Has anyone else felt…?”

He looked around at the onlookers, meeting Aspen’s eyes; she held up both hands. “Hey, don’t look at me. Maybe if Juniper was here…”

“I didn’t feel anything either!” chimed Zap, who as usual was flitting about Ingvar’s head in little bursts of nervous energy.

“I think…not all spirits,” said Ilriss, having regathered some of her poise. “Because of our mission, we are more closely attuned to…certain events.”

“The Elder asked for you, Brother Ingvar,” Fninn added.

“A spiritual disturbance, related to you…” Ingvar trailed off, eyes narrowing as his mind raced ahead.

“Sounds like we better warn that Duchess,” said Aspen.

Ingvar shook his head. “Lady Madouri left very specific instructions; she’s not to be informed of any developments like this unless they affect her personally and are critically important.”

“Huh?” The dryad blinked. “But that’s… I figured she’d be way more of a control freak than that.”

“This is about magic, not conventional operational security. The very reason the Elder gave up his name, and the People have moved in secret.” He met her eyes, keeping his head partially turned so he could still peripherally see the beleaguered shaman. “Recognition by and through spirits. Every conscious mind that’s aware of this is another risk factor. We need to be…careful.” Ingvar returned his full focus to the Elder, who despite having apparently asked for him now showed no sign of being aware of anything beyond his inner struggle. “All right. I want people who can blend in to get down to Madouris and Tiraas and see what they can dig up. November, Dimbi… Is Tholi here?”

“Young hunter,” the Elder suddenly rasped. Ingvar broke off and knelt beside him. The old lizardman lifted one hand into the air, his eyes still closed; Ingvar grasped it and his clawed fingers clutched him as if he were a lifeline. The shaman’s grip trembled with the tension wracking his entire body.

“I’m here,” Ingvar said quietly. “How can I help?”

“The guilty are there,” said the Elder, his voice taut with strain. “Something dark comes. Great and terrible… But not the great doom. A weapon to distract and befuddle. It is not time to address the guilty. The innocent…must be protected. They will come here, the dark and light alike. A soul at the heart of the doom, in need of protection. To these wilds of yours…”

His grip went slack and he grimaced, baring pointed teeth. Ingvar waited for a few moments, but apparently there was no more. Releasing the old shaman’s hand, he slowly stood back up.

“Thank you for the warning, Elder.”

“Uh, I don’t wanna be rude,” said Aspen, “but are you sure…?”

“I’ve learned the hard way to respect the messages of spirits and the shaman who convey them,” said Ingvar. “Very well, you all heard the Elder. Ilriss, Fninn, I trust you to look after him until…whatever this is calms down. Shadow Hunters, we have our own duty. Gear up and prepare to move out.”

“What are we moving out for?” November asked.

“For souls in need,” said Ingvar. “This is why we’re here. To keep watch over these lands.”


“This is a prayer room,” Rasha hissed. “In the Temple! Of! Avei! Do you have any idea the hell there’ll be to pay if you’re caught? And that’s just from the Sisters, never mind when Glory gets her claws into you!”

“Rasha,” Darius said solemnly through the crack in the door leading to the small chamber, “I understand fully. All the risks, and all the consequences. There are just some things that are worth it.”

“Are there?” she growled. “Are they?”

He released the door, still staring at her with his eyes wide and pleading, and held up both hands with his fingers spread in a vulgar squeezing motion. “But Rasha, did you see…?”

She heaved a sigh. “Yes, I saw them. They’re magnificent. The stuff about which legends are sung and odes composed. But, again, this is the Temple of goddamn Avei and that is a prayer room and you two—”

“I know what an imposition this is,” he intoned, then reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Rasha, I didn’t want to play this card, but… If our situations were reversed, you know I’d do it for you.”

Rasha stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Juniper’s face appeared over his shoulder, the same earnest plea in her big brown eyes, and Rasha finally sighed again, even more heavily. “You would, wouldn’t you? Damn it, Darius. You’re such a…bro.”

“Always and forever,” he promised.

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“I’ll make it up to you.” He was already edging back, the crack in the door slowly diminishing. “I owe you big for this, Rasha.”

“Too right you fucking do.”

“Thanks so much, Rasha,” Juniper added with a winsome smile. “You’re a good friend!”

“No reason you should be bored,” Darius chimed in the last second before he shut the door in her face. “You can go hang out with Zafi!”

Then it closed with a decisive click.

“Zafi is on duty,” Rasha informed the sigil of Avei carved into the wooden surface. “But then again, so are you, in theory.” She turned to look down at Sniff, who stood silently against the wall, peering up at her. “I dunno how you stand it.”

The bird-lizard-whatever made a soft croaking chirp deep in his throat.

“Well, the hell I’m gonna stand here for… Fuck, I give him five minutes, tops. Still not waiting outside. Hold down the fort, Sniff.”

Sniff raised his head crest in acknowledgment. Shaking her own head, Rasha turned and ambled down the hall.

Darius and Juniper were really pushing their luck; this was perilously close to the main sanctuary of the Temple, which was still roiling like a kicked beehive even with Trissiny’s big address concluded. Rasha was just another woman strolling through the furor, idly half-listening to conversations as she passed, many of which were about the Bishop announcement.

It was odd to find herself at loose ends like this. Thumbing the heating charm hidden under the fur-trimmed collar of her dress, Rasha made her unhurried way to the front doors of the temple and slipped out. The fresh winter air was just what she needed, at least with the charm active.

Imperial Square wasn’t a lot more quiet, between its normal traffic and ongoing agitation caused by the back-to-back paladins’ announcements. Rasha herself had been occupied being debriefed about the captured (and then rescued) Purists, but she likely wouldn’t have been inclined to watch politicians giving speeches anyway. No matter how important, and even with one of the politicians in question being a good friend. Somehow, knowing that Trissiny hated being a politician only further soured an arena of action in which Rasha had no inherent interest. With the Purists finally good and done for, she was looking forward to not having to think about any of this crap for a good long while. Just seeing the effect Trissiny, Toby, and Gabriel had had on the capital with three little press conferences was plenty satisfying to her.

Glory would be disappointed, of course, but Glory lived and breathed politics. Rasha appreciated the education in it she was getting, and didn’t deny the importance of understanding the forces that moved people, but she had already decided long since that she wasn’t going to follow in her mentor’s footsteps, at least not directly. Her own path wasn’t quite laid out, but she had time to consider it.

On the Temple’s front colonnade, she finally found a relatively clear space in which to breathe, all the way down at one end beneath the shadow of one massive column. Rasha wasn’t about to leave the Temple grounds; this was as far as she was willing to get from Darius, despite her frustration with both him and Glory’s insistence that she not go off alone. It was still a crowded public space; she could take two steps in several directions and reach out an arm to touch someone, and the babble of excited chatter washed over her from all sides. But it was a spot, clear and open, where she was in no immediate danger of being bumped into and knocked down. For a moment, she just paused there, people-watching.

A single point of pressure poked into the center of her back.

“Good afternoon, Miss Rasha. It has been some time.”

Rasha did not freeze, or panic. Among Glory’s more esoteric training programs had been teaching her to identify various implements being poked into her back; she knew the tip of a wand when it nestled between her vertebrae. She also knew how to act in such a situation. Rasha breathed in and out once, seizing calm like a shield, and then very slowly, giving no cause for a sudden reaction, turned her head just enough to see who was behind her.

As the proper technique for this maneuver dictated, he was standing close enough to her that his body concealed the wand from the numerous onlookers. She found herself looking at a square, bluff face, framed by red hair and a very neatly trimmed beard. Rasha had to pause and reinforce her carefully maintained calm facade. That was a face she had only recently stopped seeing in recurring nightmares.

“Rogrind. And here I thought I was done having to deal with your nonsense. I have moved on to fresh new nonsense, thank you very much.”

The dwarf smiled thinly. “After the catalog of insults and injuries for which you were directly or indirectly responsible? Only an Eserite could be so arrogant. I see your training is progressing well. Please walk forward, miss, at a steady pace, with your hands at your sides and not in or near your pockets.”

“You can’t be serious,” she said incredulously, glancing to one side. There were two Silver Legionnaires not eight feet away. “I don’t remember you being this sloppy. All I have to do is shout.”

The pressure against her back shifted as he adjusted the wand. “At this angle and at this range, a beam weapon of this caliber will sever your spinal cord and destroy most of your heart. Temple or no, there is not a healer alive who could help you then. Yes, I would receive a swift comeuppance; perhaps it would give you some comfort for your last thoughts to be of that.”

“That’s a bluff.”

“Call it, then. Do you know what happens to field agents whose identity is compromised in the course of creating a humiliating public debacle in a foreign capital? You have a great deal to lose, Rasha, including your life. I? Nothing. Walk forward, if you please.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just goad me into tackling you? C’mon, it’ll be like old times. We can go to jail, reminisce about—”

“That’s very droll, young lady, but my time is short, and thus, so is yours.” He physically pushed with the wand until she had to take a step.

So she did. Keeping her hands still, eyes darting about and mind racing, but moving. Complying, for now. Something would come up; there would be something she could use. There was always something. No situation was hopeless, for a properly prepared mind, and she wasn’t the fresh-off-the-boat kid she’d been when last she’d tangled with the dwarf.

Was he serious? It wasn’t impossible that he was that desperate, but it was also quite likely he was lying. That was the thing about professional spies. They were often both of those things.

“Well, anyway,” she said as they moved in lockstep through the crowd swirling in Imperial Square, keeping her voice even and at a volume he could hear without being loud enough to make him twitchy, “thank you.”

“For?”

“You didn’t misgender me. Or even start to. My own friends took a while to consistently remember.”

“Please. I am from a civilized country; Svenheim solved its Purist problem years ago.”

“Must be nice.”

“It is. I can see it has been an eventful year for you, but if I may say so, you appear to be flourishing.”

“Good of you to notice.”

She could barely hear his soft sigh over the hubbub of the surrounding crowd. “I fear it makes what comes next rather embarrassing, but surely you of all people will understand the exigencies which can force one to accept…unfavorable allies.”

That was nearly as alarming as the weapon pressed to her spine. He had guided her over to one edge of the Square, and in fact up the sidewalk of one of the main avenues opening onto it. Now, Rasha observed that their destination was a carriage, active and idling in wait.

And in the driver’s seat, another familiar but unwelcome face. Rasha looked up at the grin of savage triumph Sister Lanora wore, and let out a hissing sigh through her teeth.

“Fuck.”


It came from the Golden Sea, a living streak of smoke and shadow marring the sky. Shooting outward toward civilization like a missile, it seemed to take shape as it progressed, growing in size, developing visible features, and steadily leaving behind a trail of thick black mist that lingered on the air like an ink stain.

The thing soared over an elven grove, sending several shamans into an uncharacteristic panic as fae spirits screamed in horror at its passing, and for the first time spread its wings. They were skeletal, with none of the membrane between their long fingers that should serve to hold it aloft, had its flight been a matter of aerodynamics.

In fact, it was entirely skeletal, a fact which became more clear as it traveled and continued to form. Black bones were rough, jagged as if every one had been repeatedly broken and improperly healed, and fully exposed. In fact, though its shape suggested a skeleton, it looked more as if it were formed of shards of volcanic glass, haphazardly glued together. Color emerged from the swirling darkness of the thing’s being as its wings began to beat against the air, spraying swirls of inky smoke. Ligaments and tendons materialized, growing more like fungus than tissue to connect its shattered bones. They were purple, glossy as jewels and faintly luminous, what little could be seen of them through the haze of its body. Rather than flesh, the creature formed a steady outward bulk of vapor, a black mist which continued to billow out behind it with the speed of its passing, roiling and only partially obscuring its craggy inner workings.

Mountains rose up ahead, and at their base, a city of spires and terraces perched along a peninsular plateau which extended out over the surrounding plains. As the thing shot toward this landmark, it finally opened its eyes.

They were brightly colored, in a color that made no sense, that was painful to observe and not expressible in the spectrum of visible light. When they opened for the first time, a pulse burst out from the foul beast, flattening a stretch of tallgrass.

It shifted its trajectory, shooting upward with a powerful flap of its skeletal wings, and slowed as it soared higher… Only to descend upon Veilgrad from above, giving the unprepared city just enough time to see it coming.

Wings spread, it landed upon the cathedral, the impact collapsing part of the roof and sending its ancient stone spire tumbling to the streets below in pieces. The wings remained fully extended in an animalistic threat display as screams and alarm bells began to sound in all directions. Drawing its sinuous neck up and back, it opened its angular jaws and emitted a noise that was at once a roar, a hiss, and a scream, an unearthly sound which clawed at the mind as much as at the ears.

The chaos dragon howled its challenge to an unprepared world.

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11 – 40

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Both carriages careened to a halt, Vandro’s skidding slightly. Tallie and Schwartz both had to cover their eyes against the sudden brightness; the roar of the explosion was enough to blot out even Meesie’s screeching.

One of the passenger doors on the front carriage swung open and Vandro himself stuck his head out. “What the hell—”

Wilberforce leaped from the driver’s seat, pivoted even as he hit the ground, and lunged back into the passenger compartment, dragging Vandro bodily with him.

“DOWN!” Schwartz tackled Tallie right off the roof before she could recover her equilibrium. Landing was instinctive to her, though it got a lot harder with a gangly witch coming down on top.

“Oof!” She pushed him away. “Have you lost your—”

“DOWN DOWN DOWN!” he bellowed, grabbing her by the shoulders and shoving her bodily at the side of Glory’s carriage. “All of you STAY IN THERE!”

Schwartz dashed to the open space between the two carriages, braced his feet, and made a double-handed lifting motion as if hoisting something heavy above his head.

Shafts of rock burst out of the ground at a steep angle, hurling clouds of snow into the air; more followed as Schwartz continued to gesticulate, grimacing, until after a few seconds he had drawn up a serviceable barricade extending up at a forty-five degree angle and blocking the ruined fortress from their view.

He was barely in time.

With a roar that put the initial explosion to shame, debris plummeted down in a massive wave, peppering the entire landscape with shattered masonry and old timbers, several of them on fire. Schwartz’s improvised rock barrier took a pounding; several large chunks broke off and one of the stone spires was broken entirely, falling to crush one fender of Vandro’s already-bedraggled carriage.

Tallie’e yelp of terror was lost in the noise; she wiggled under Glory’s carriage, arms reflexively over her head, and did not peek out again until the quiet which followed had held sway for a few seconds.

“Is it over?” Rasha asked tremulously from inside.

“Should be,” Schwartz said breathlessly, “for now. But stuff doesn’t just blow up. Somebody did that, and they have to be nearby.”

“Thanks,” Tallie said to him as she dragged herself out by one wheel. “How’d you…know?”

“It’s called fallout. My job and my religion involved being around a lot of experimental magic,” he said wryly, reaching up to soothingly pet Meesie, who was scampering back and forth along his shoulders in agitation. “Believe me, I know my way around explosions.”

“Fine work, my boy,” Vandro stated, emerging from the carriage and peering around at the damaged rock barrier.

“Hell yes!” Darius added more energetically, bounding out after him. “I told you we needed to keep this guy around! How ’bout sticking with us permanently, Schwartz? I don’t have the means to pay you a salary, but I can incentivize. You need any favors done? Pockets picked? How’d you like to marry my sister?”

“I can hear you, you preposterous oaf,” Layla snarled, leaping down from Glory’s carriage.

“Enough,” Glory said firmly, descending after her. “We are still in a predicament, here. This was our rendezvous point, and I think we have to assume we’ve just lost our reinforcements.”

Tallie gasped, turning to Jasmine, who had just emerged from the carriage and rushed to the edge of the rock barrier, staring at the burning ruins with a hollow expression. “Oh, Jas…”

“No time.” Jasmine shook herself off, turned and strode back to them. “Glory’s right; we’re now on the defensive. I suggest we pile back in and keep going. Whatever thinning of their numbers we have done tonight, it’s best to assume they have more—someone had to have done this, as Schwartz pointed out, and I’ve no way of knowing which if any of the help I called for got here…” Her voice caught momentarily. “Or survived.”

“Well, we may have a problem, there,” said Vandro. “Little did I know our boy Schwartz could do this kind of defensive magic; soon as we saw that tower go up, Wilberforce activated the shield charms on my carriage.”

“Whoah, wait, what?” Schwartz turned to frown at him. “You can’t shield a moving carriage—how’d you get around the magical interference?”

“That’s just the point, son,” Vandro said, grimacing. “I didn’t. Turning that on fried the wheel enchantments.” He patted the carriage’s abused fender. “I’m afraid this old girl isn’t going anywhere else tonight.”

Grip sighed, flicking a glance across the whole group as the lot of them finally piled out of the carriages. “Well, staying here isn’t a prospect. We’re sitting ducks in a snowstorm. Stay together and head for the treeline, the forest will hamper pursuit.”

“What if we went into the fortress?” Layla suggested.

Darius sighed. “The forest it is…”

“Oh, hush,” she said crossly. “It’s not as if they’ll expect that, and it can’t be as dangerous as who knows how many armed dwarves!”

“Too late,” Glory murmured.

The others followed her line of sight and turned to face it at varying speeds, Jasmine and the senior Eserites fastest. A line of squat figures had appeared in the darkness just ahead; thanks to the still-falling snow, they were nearly upon them before being visible, the crunch of multiple sets of feet not audible until the last moment thanks to the wind across the open space and the sound of fire raging not too far away in the ruins.

By the time they were close enough to be seen clearly, it was apparent that more than half were carrying wands.

One figure near the middle removed his hat and casually tossed it to the snow behind him with one hand, clutching a wand with the other. The face thus revealed was familiar to several of them.

“Quite the exciting evening,” Rogrind said flatly. A hint of the jovial politeness he had always displayed to them remained, though it was a clearly strained veneer over simmering anger, now. “You know something, I do believe my greatest regret about all this is that I won’t have time to sit you ruffians down and make you understand just how much harm you have caused over the course of these events. Well, second greatest. You’ve manage to kill some good people tonight.”

“The harm we caused,” Tallie snapped, “by refusing to roll over like—”

“Young lady,” the dwarf growled, “shut up. You were seen bringing several of the modified staves which started all this idiocy into those vehicles. Despite everything, I am willing to offer you terms: hand them over, and we will leave without doing any further harm to anyone, because we are still—still!—the civilized parties here.”

Grip slowly panned her gaze across the assembled dwarves, then caught Jasmine’s eye and tilted her head at them significantly. There were fifteen present, all garbed in inconspicuous winter attire, an even mix of men and women. Eight had wands pointed at the party. Jasmine nodded once in acknowledgment of Grip’s point: only four had the same calm, alert aspect as Rogrind. The rest were visibly nervous, uncertain, in at least two cases seriously frightened by all this. Civilians, somehow drafted into his campaign. Dwarven sturdiness or not, this was an army that would break at the first sign of significant threat.

Wands shifted as Schwartz made a sudden gesture with his hands.

“Stop!” Rogrind barked, too late.

Whatever he released spread outward from him like ripples in a pond, causing luminous butterflies of multiple colors to appear in the air around them, as well as illusory stalks of greenery popping up through the snow and an incongruous scent like sun-baked grass and flowers in the summer.

One panicked dwarf fired her wand at Schwartz, followed by another. No one else tried, as both weapons sparked ineffectually, the first actually igniting its owner’s sleeve and causing her to drop it with a shriek and tumble over, burying her arm in the snow.

“Those of you with wands, don’t fire them,” Schwartz said aside to his companions before turning his gaze fully on Rogrind. “I see you didn’t take our little discussion to heart. I’m afraid I was quite serious.”

Meesie leaped down from his shoulder of her own volition, actually vanishing deep into the snow and leaving a rat-shaped hole in it. An instant later, snow was hurled everywhere as she burst up into her much larger form, shook her mane, and roared.

Three more dwarves tried to shoot her; all ended up dropping suddenly-hot wands that wouldn’t fire, one also having to roll in the snow to put himself out.

“Good boy,” Grip said, stepping forward with a truly unhinged grin. She had somehow slipped on two sets of iron knuckles and produced a brass-studded club the length of her forearm from one of her pockets. Jasmine paced forward in unison, both Butlers positioned themselves pointedly in front of the group, and Meesie crouched, wriggling her hindquarters in a clear gesture of imminent feline attack.

Two of the dwarves turned and ran; most of the rest shuffled backward, looking around in alarm, and incidentally placing the hardened professionals among them on the front lines.

“Have it your way,” said Rogrind with a clear note of belligerent satisfaction.

As the two fronts collided, there came a sharp retort like a small explosion nearby, and Meesie howled in pain, vanishing from her lion form instantly. That was as much time as Jasmine had to notice the others before Grip was fully occupied dealing with two hard-eyed dwarves, and she found herself face-to-face with Rogrind himself.

He suffered one slash from her sword across his chest, and she realized her misjudgment a moment too late. First, he had some kind of armor under his coat, and second, he was good at personal combat. Stepping into her swing as it raked him, he positioned himself perfectly and slammed his fist into her ribs just under her sword arm. She managed not to drop the blade, but he hit like a mule’s kick; she staggered sideways, gasping for breath and in pain. Years of training and her innate agility kept her from losing her footing entirely, even in the snow, but Rogrind continued to defy the stolid dwarven stereotype. He pressed her, striking bare-handed; she gained a few feet of breathing room by dodging to one side and stabbing him in the upper arm. He bared his teeth in pain, his left arm suddenly bleeding profusely and hanging useless, but was too disciplined to let it stop him.

Despite the past few seconds’ education in his surprising level of combat ability, she was still unprepared for his speed. He bulled forward as swiftly as a pouncing cat, using his weight and lower center of gravity to tackle her bodily around the midsection and bear her to the ground. Jasmine twisted, trying to bring her blade back into play, but he caught her wrist. It was with his injured arm, but thanks to the famous dwarven sturdiness, he had strength enough to keep her pinned down. She clawed at his eye with her other hand, but he turned his head aside even as he slipped a stiletto from his sleeve, and a moment later she had to grasp his descending wrist to protect her throat.

That close, in a wrestling match, he was considerably stronger than she. Her arm strained to hold it off, but the blade descended inexorably.

She gritted her teeth and reached for the light inside her. There was a time to break cover, after all.

“IYAAAAIII!”

Rogrind jerked his head up, then released her and tried to stumble back, not quite fast enough. The lance that flashed down at him nailed him directly in the shoulder. It didn’t penetrate deeply enough to stick, falling out as he continued to reel backward, but left him gushing blood and with two injured arms.

A second later, Principia’s boots sank into the snow on either side of Jasmine’s head, the elf landing protectively over her from what had to have been a long leap. She surged forward, drawing her short sword and slamming her shield against Rogrind. He was too heavy for the slender elf to physically force back, but she was a whirling storm in Legion armor, pounding with her shield, jabbing and slashing with the blade, and he had no choice but to retreat after his only counterattack, an attempt to grab her shield, ended with a stab through the forearm that put his right arm fully out of commission.

More boots crunched in the snow, and then Squad One was surging past her, forming themselves into a phalanx with their sergeant at the tip. She still didn’t have her lance, but held her blade at the ready.

“Right face, shield wall!” Principia barked, and they seamlessly formed up, allowing Rogrind to scuttle away in the snow and shifting their arrowhead formation to a solid line of shields, bristling with lances, and facing the rest of the dwarves. At this development, the two who were harrying Grip also released her, backing away.

“Wait!” Rogrind said, weakly holding up his left hand, the only one he still could. “Wait! We have no argument with—”

“CHARGE!” Principia roared, and the squad raced forward.

That was too much for most of the remaining dwarven conscripts, who scattered in all directions, leaving only the few who were engaged in melee with the other Eserite apprentices, none of whom appeared to be very effective. Jasmine rapidly assessed the battlefield and bit back a curse; the Butlers, easily their best physical asset, were hovering protectively over their charges rather than contributing on the front lines. Meanwhile, golden shields of light had flashed into being around the dwarves still standing their ground.

An instant later those shields vanished, prompting exclamations of surprise. Glory and Rasha were leaning out the door of her carriage, each with a disruptor still aimed.

Six armored women collided with seven dwarves, who would have proved heavy and braced enough to break their charge completely, had they not been running spears-first. Four of the dwarves went down, so thoroughly impaled that in falling they wrenched the weapons from their owners’ grip. The rest reeled backward in disarray.

Rogrind, though, had found a moment to reach into his coat with his weakened left hand. Jasmine could make no sense of the small object he withdrew and held out, but an instant later it produced a puff of smoke, a flash, and an explosive crack just like the one which had sounded before Meesie was felled.

Merry Lang screamed as she was flung backward out of formation, spinning around to land on her side in the snow.

“Not. Another. Step,” Rogrind snarled, twisting to point his mysterious device at Principia.

Another crack sounded, this one a familiar wandshot.

More dwarves, nearly a dozen, paced forward out of the swirling snow, grim-faced and armed. They came from the direction of the road, and several were clearly injured or with disheveled clothing, as if they had limped away from wrecked carriages.

“Where do they keep coming from?” Schwartz muttered, Meesie again perched on his shoulder. He held a fireball in his right palm, balanced to throw.

“I have had enough of this,” Rogrind panted, turning to the others. “You may fire at—”

A blast of wind hurled a wall of snow over him and directly into the faces of the newly arrive dwarves. Two more wands were discharged; the bolts flew wide of the Eserites, though several of them dived to the ground anyway.

Suddenly, as if the wind had been a signal, it stopped snowing. In the absence of the thick fall of flakes, a line of six people were visible, approaching the group from the north. On the left end of their formation was Kuriwa, just now lowering her arms after calming the storm.

In the center, sword in hand, behind a glowing shield of gold, stood Basra Syrinx.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said with a satisfied little smirk, “I believe you can discern friend from foe? We do not require prisoners. Destroy them.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” drawled the man on the opposite end of the line from Kuriwa, an older gentleman of Western descent carrying a mage’s staff and smoking a cigarillo. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But I do believe the Sisterhood’s doctrine of war requires a clearly overmatched enemy be offered the chance to surrender?”

Basra gave him an irritated look past Joe, who stood next to her, but nodded. “Yes, in fact I believe you are correct. Very well. Your attention, miscellaneous dwarven rabble! I am Bishop Syrinx, of the Sisterhood of Avei and the Universal Church. With me are my very good friends the Sarasio Kid, Tinker Billie, Gravestone Weaver, Longshot McGraw and Mary the Crow. Ah, good, I see you understand what those names mean.”

The dwaves, indeed, had whirled to direct their aim at Syrinx’s reinforcements, now completely ignoring the Eserites, and even the cold-eyed professionals among them were visibly alarmed. One of their few remaining conscripts appeared to be weeping softly.

“If you do not instantly drop your weapons and surrender,” Basra continued pleasantly, “you will be scoured off the face of the earth with both efficiency and relish. And if, by some unthinkable miracle, you insist upon a firefight and manage to win, be assured that my goddess’s attention is fixed upon these events, and you are meddling in matters you do not understand.” Her eyes flicked rapidly from Principia to Jasmine and then back to Rogrind.

Nandi and Ephanie were both kneeling in the snow beside Merry, who was alive and monotonously cursing despite the crimson stain spreading through the snow around her. Principia had eased backward out of the remains of Squad One’s formation to hover near Jasmine.

“Win here,” Basra said, her voice suddenly as icy as the night air, “and there will be nowhere for you to hide. You may be able to bamboozle Imperial Intelligence, but you are not a match for Avei. If those weapons are not on the ground in the next five seconds, everyone dies.”

“How the hell,” Tallie hissed at Jasmine, “do you know all these people?!”

Jasmine shook her head. “I only know Joe. Guess we should be glad he has friends, too.”

“They…are not surrendering,” Darius muttered.

“Well, this is altogether unfortunate,” Rogrind said with a sigh.

“They’re government intelligence on a sanctioned op,” Grip whispered. “Shit. They can’t be taken alive. Everybody down!”

She was right; the dwarves, in unison, raised their weapons again. Joe, Billie, and Weaver did likewise.

And then the whole earth shook.

He dived down so rapidly they didn’t even hear the wind of his approach until he struck the ground hard enough to knock several of them right off their feet. The whole assemblage turned in unison, gaping in awe up at the enormous blue dragon suddenly standing a bare few yards away from them.

He swiveled his long neck around to lower his angular head directly into their midst, and bared rows of arm-sized teeth in a truly horrifying smile.

“Good evening. Nice night for it, eh?”

“By the way,” Principia said to Jasmine, “in addition to not positioning my squad in that fortress where Syrinx knew we were supposed to be, I took the liberty of calling in some additional reinforcements of my own. I apologize if this disrupts your plans.”

“Ah!” At her voice, the dragon twisted his head around to face her from a few feet away. “Prin, there you are! I must say, you throw the most terrible parties. Why is it, cousin, I only ever see you when people are getting shot in all directions?”

“C-cousin?” Jasmine’s voice jumped an octave in the course of one word and then cracked.

The dragon turned his sapphire eyes on her. “Hmph. That sounded like an exclamation of surprise. Been keeping me a secret, Principia? A less charitable person might think you were embarrassed to be related to me.”

“Well,” Principia said glibly, “I guess a less charitable person might have met you. How is she?” she added, turning away from the dragon.

“I have rarely seen anything like this injury,” Kuriwa replied. Somehow, in the intervening seconds, she had moved from across the battlefield to Merry’s side, and now paused in working on the fallen Legionnaire. “It is not excessively difficult to heal, however. Here. This was lodged in her arm.” She handed a tiny object to Principia, then lifted her head to smile at the dragon. “And hello, Zanzayed. It is a great pleasure to see you again.”

The dragon shifted to stare ominously at her. “Oh. You.”

“Since we are both in the vicinity,” she said calmly, returning her attention to Merry, “I hope you will find time to catch up. We so rarely get to talk anymore.”

He snorted, sending a blast of air over them that was hot enough to make the snow steam and smelled of brimstone and, incongruously, spearmint.

“Well,” Zanzayed huffed, “this has been fun, and all, but I’m just the transportation, here.”

He lowered his body to lie in the snow, revealing for the first time a man in a dark suit perched astride his neck, who had been hidden by the dragon’s wings. Now, he slung his leg over and slid to the ground, where he paused to straighten his coat.

“Uh oh,” Principia muttered, her eyes widening. “I didn’t order that.”

“Good evening,” said Zanzayed’s passenger, striding forward. “I am Lord Quentin Vex, head of Imperial Intelligence. With regard to this matter, I speak for the Emperor.”

He paused to sweep an expressive gaze around them, at the dwarves, the Eserites, the Legionnaires and the adventurers, all of whom had gone silent and still, staring back in alarm.

“His Majesty,” said Vex, raising an eyebrow, “requires a god damned explanation.”

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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.”

“Exactly.”

“What?”

“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 – 25

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“Still sore?” Jasmine asked sympathetically.

Tallie immediately removed her hand from her midsection,which she had been rubbing while wincing. “Eh. I’ve been bruised a lot worse after falling off stuff.”

“If you’re worried about Style, I have it directly from her own mouth that Mesmer was full of it.” Jasmine pointedly touched the now-unbruised side of her face. “We can find a temple or an alchemy shop…”

“It’s not bad enough to be worth the effort or time,” Tallie said quickly. “Let’s just get to the station before something even worse happens to Rasha.”

“Can’t walk much faster,” Ross pointed out, “or we’ll be knockin’ people over. Then he won’t be the only one in a cell.”

“Honestly, I’m rather disappointed,” Darius said to Jasmine, grinning. “I thought you went out and got your face fixed specifically to tweak Style. This is a big wrench in my plans, you know. I was gonna sell peanuts to your next go-round, make myself some quick pocket change.”

“Boy, are you in the right cult,” Jasmine muttered.

“Aw, aren’t you sweet to notice!”

They didn’t have very far to travel; Rasha had apparently been arrested right outside the Casino, and consequently taken to the nearest police station. The military police in Tiraas being what they were, the building was actually a fortified barracks which, they observed upon drawing closer, had actual mag cannons positioned on top of its corner turrets. Soldiers patrolled the battlements and stood at attention outside. Their eyes followed the four apprentices, but none of them looked particularly shifty—or particularly interesting, being generally dressed like working-class young people. They blended easily with the crowd streaming in and out of the broad doors.

Inside, the place looked less military and more like a government office. People milled about the marble-floored open space inside the doors, talking with one another and in one case shouting at an unimpressed-looking soldier with a battlestaff leaning on his shoulder. Two more troopers were escorting a woman with a black eye toward a rear door; based on their scowls and her limp, the way she accommodatingly followed instructions was a recent development.

Tallie immediately led them across the room to the first open desk they saw; the entire side wall was lined with counters behind which stood a row of soldiers, positioned so that they were at least head and shoulders above those in the main floor. They were behind iron bars with small windows cut out, and behind them stood a couple of other soldiers, conspicuously carrying firearms and watching the lobby closely.

“Help you?” offered the woman Tallie had selected in a weary tone which suggested she was nearing the end of her shift.

“Yes, hello,” Tallie said briskly, placing her hands on the counter and ignoring the way the fresher-looking soldier in the back immediately turned his stare on her. “We’re with the Thieves’ Guild.”

The corporal behind the bars just heaved a long-suffering sigh and gave her an expectant look.

“A friend of ours was arrested last night,” Tallie continued. “His name’s Rasha. We’re here to see him.”

The woman sighed again and shook her head. “What else you got? He have a last name? What’s he arrested for? Basic description? Kid, I’m gonna need details if you want me to dig this guy up. You have any idea how many knuckleheads pass through here in chains?”

“He’s a Punaji boy,” Jasmine said hastily as Tallie scowled and opened her mouth to argue. “We were told he was in for assault…” She glanced at the others. “…possibly of a dwarf?”

“Now, hang on,” Darius protested. “We don’t know anything about that…”

“Who else?” Ross grunted.

“Oh, I remember that guy,” the corporal said before the conversation could degenerate further. “Little fella, looked almost too depressed to walk. Didn’t give anybody a second’s trouble. Yeah, he’ll be in the Tank—double doors on your right, there, follow the hall straight to the main desk and the sergeant on duty will know where he is. Visitation’s allowed.”

“Thank you, Corporal,” Jasmine said politely, stepping back and pulling Tallie gently by the elbow.

“What’d you tell her we were Guild for?” Darius asked as they followed the soldier’s directions into a wide hallway beyond the main lobby. “That had to make everything more difficult…”

“Actually, probably made things easier,” said Ross. “Guild’s got strict codes for dealin’ with cops; Guild thieves are prob’ly a lot less trouble than shroomheads and drunks. ‘sides, you don’t wanna be more difficult with the Guild than you have to, or they come back with more.”

“What he said,” Tallie agreed. “Honestly, Darius, what do you hear when Lore talks to us?”

“The soothing sound of rain on a tin roof.”

“I’m telling him you said that.”

“You’re a bad person, Tallie.”

She made no answer. They had arrived at a T intersection in the hall, which continued on ahead, but the side hallway branching off to the right was lined with cells. Tallie picked up her pace, dashing past the desk in the intersection behind which sat another officer, to grasp the bars of the first cell across the way.

“Rasha! Are you okay?”

He was very much as the corporal out front had described. Sitting on one of the thinly-padded bunks in the cell, he slumped with his head down, as if trying to collapse inward into a puddle. At Tallie’s voice, he shifted slightly, then only after a long moment raised his head. His face was haggard, eyes bloodshot and set in darkened pits.

“Oh. Hey, Tallie. Hi, guys.”

The others filed carefully past the desk, watching the other people present, whom Tallie had ignored. The sergeant behind the desk was observing all this with long-suffering patience, and the other soldier at this post had just resumed her position near him, having started to lunge for Tallie upon her rush to the bars and been called back by her superior.

Also present was a well-groomed, if somewhat tired-looking, redheaded dwarf with a neatly-trimmed beard, watching them with a smile which could only be described as smug.

“Are you hurt?” Tallie demanded. “Are they treating you all right? You haven’t been abused, have you? YOU!” She stuck her whole arm through the bars, pointing at Rasha’s cellmate. “You better not have laid a finger on him!”

“HEY,” barked the uniformed woman by the sergeant’s desk. “Get the hell out of that cell!”

“I beg your pardon, little missy,” the old man in the cell answered in an affronted tone while Jasmine and Darius dragged Tallie away from the bars. “Just whaddaya take me for? I’m in fer vagrancy an’ loitering! Ain’t never harmed so much as a flea!”

“That’s for damn sure,” the sergeant said dryly. “We’ll be pickin’ ’em out of that cell for weeks. And you’re in for trafficking, Cletus. As usual.”

“Bah! A man’s gotta make a livin!” He looked like a homeless person—filthy, dressed in layers of ragged old clothes, and as he demonstrated by grinning at the sergeant, with his few remaining teeth stained blue by glittershroom use.

“So you’re friends of our terrifying, monstrous back-alley strangler, eh,” the sergeant continued, eyeing them all over without shifting from his seat. “Good thing you came along. We were afraid he was gonna bust out of there. Just bend the bars apart and smash his way out of the station through a wall.”

“Sergeant Prynne is having a little jest at my expense,” the dwarf said blandly.

“I don’t get it,” Jasmine replied, staring him down.

“Well, you see, Jas,” Darius explained condescendingly, “this asshole here would be the person Rasha assaulted—”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Rasha’s shroom-trafficking cellmate raised a finger warningly. “Allegedly assaulted! Don’t never admit nothin’ to the fuzz! Ain’t you kids never been arrested before?”

“We’re rusty,” Tallie muttered. “It’s been a couple of days.”

“I can’t believe this is even happening!” Jasmine exclaimed. “Dwarves are almost the sturdiest people in existence—Rasha’s not physically capable of harming him! Look, he’s not even scratched!”

“Yes, Jasmine, that would be the joke,” said Darius. “Glad you could join us.”

“Be that as it may,” the sergeant said flatly, “I have two witnesses who saw Mr. Rasha-with-no-surname physically attack Mr. Rogrind. Being non-inducted employees of the Thieves’ Guild, they are considered trustworthy witnesses, as the Guild has and enforces very strict policies against lying to law enforcement. Which I suspect you know. The lack of any significant injury done will doubtless be reflected in his sentencing, but that’s up to whatever magistrate has to deal with this waste of time. A credible charge of assault has been brought and the accused is being held as per the law.”

“In the Tiraan Empire,” the dwarf explained pleasantly, “the victim of a crime has prosecutorial discretion. Charges will be pressed by default—unless, of course, I should decide not to press them.”

“Let me just stop you right there,” Tallie snarled, stomping up to him. She towered over the dwarf, who tilted his head back to look up at her without the slightest indication of unease. “The answer to your next insinuation is, as always, fuck off!”

“Actually, young lady, I had intended to discuss the matter as frankly as possible,” he said politely, taking a step back. “Too much insinuation, I feel, has led us into this series of misunderstandings. And are you sure you should speak for your companions?”

“I am perfectly okay with that,” Jasmine said grimly, folding her arms. Ross grunted in approval.

“Ehhh…” Darius made a waffling motion with his hand. “I feel that rejection didn’t contain nearly enough obscenities. But I’ll give her points for the spirit of the thing.”

“Honestly,” said the dwarf—Rogrind, apparently—with a disarming shrug, “your obstreperousness is amazing to behold. You kids have never even indulged me in a proper discussion.”

“Are you saying you’ve been repeatedly told by these people to leave them alone and have refused?” Sergeant Prynne cut in dryly. “Because that verges on harassment.”

“He’s a blackmailer!” Tallie said shrilly, pointing at the dwarf. “Arrest him!”

“Whoah,” Darius said, coming up behind her and placing his hands on her shoulders. “Let’s not go telling soldiers in their own police station who to arrest, kay?”

“I would be careful, Miss Peuterschmidt,” Rogrind said with a smile. “Bringing false charges is a punishable offense under Tiraan law.”

“The burden of proof on that is virtually impossible,” Prynne noted. “You would have to prove that the accused knowingly and deliberately acted with malice aforethought. In twelve years working municipal law enforcement, I’ve never once seen that successfully prosecuted.”

“Yeah!” Tallie shouted, dramatically brandishing a finger inches from the dwarf’s nose. “Suck on that!”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Rogrind said wryly.

“Pleasure,” Prynne replied with a sunny smile. The uniformed private standing by his desk made a half-hearted effort to repress a smile.

“In fact,” the dwarf added, “forgive me, but I seem to have noted a general pattern of hostility toward me from the moment the accused was brought in. Is this, perhaps, a racial issue?”

“No,” the sergeant said evenly, “it’s an issue of you bringing me a member of the Thieves’ Guild and adamantly refusing to drop charges. You either don’t comprehend the headache you’ve insisted on dropping on my desk, or don’t care. Neither prospect predisposes me positively toward you.”

“There’s a reason we housed him in the end cell, there, by the exit,” the other soldier added with a grin. “Makes what comes next generally a lot less fuss and bother.”

“Oh?” Rogrind said dryly. “If I am not mistaken, the laws of the Tiraan Empire trump the influence wielded illicitly by the Thieves’ Guild. What is it that you believe comes next?”

“They don’t have Guild chapters up in the mountains, Sarge,” Darius confided. “Bear with the old sot, he’s new at this.”

“Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long,” Prynne complained. “I had a moment of hope when you kids turned up, but you’re clearly not the right professionals, no offense. Never thought I’d be glad to see one of those sharks, but this whole goddamn thing is a waste of my time and cell space.”

“Aw, hell, I don’t mind!” Cletus said cheerily. “Politest roommate I ever had!”

Rasha sighed heavily, again staring at the floor between his feet.

“Sharks?” Rogrind arched one bushy eyebrow. “I was under the impression you act, in this context, backed by the full force of the Imperial government. What Guild shark are you—”

“THAT WOULD BE ME.”

The woman who appeared on the scene arrived like a storm, strewing loose papers from the bulgingly overstuffed folder tucked under her arm. She wore an expensive leather duster over a rumpled but tailored men’s suit, with spectacles perched precariously on her nose and her hair coming loose from what had at one point been a tidy bun. In her other hand was a large thermos, which she brandished upon skidding to a stop in the intersection, having arrived at a dead run.

“Oh, great,” Prynne muttered. “This one.”

The new arrival slammed the thermos down on the corner of his desk and flung out her hand at the startled dwarf; with a flick of her wrist, a business card manifested in her fingers, and was then flung contemptuously at Rogrind.

“Bird Savaraad, attorney at law,” she barked at such a rapid pace that her syllables nearly blurred together. “On retainer for the Thieves’ Guild of Tiraas and thus responsible for this nonsense right here that you’re doing and you may thank whatever the hell it is you people worship that you’re dealing with me and not Guild personnel proper and may I respectfully suggest in a strictly personal and non-professional capacity that you drop this shit before it gets to that point.”

She paused to snatch her thermos off the desk, slapping down the thick folder and tilting it up to drink deeply from whatever was inside.

“Bit early in the morning, isn’t it?” Darius said, raising an eyebrow.

“Not for coffee,” Bird Savaraad chattered. “Never too early, too late or too anything. Now then!” After rummaging in her open folder for a moment, she whipped out a long sheet of paper which had become inadvertently dog-eared where its upper edge stuck out of its housing on the way over. “It is my understanding, Mr. Rogrind if that is in fact your real name, that you intend to press charges against one Rasha, apprentice of the Thieves’ Guild, for the alleged crime of assault?”

Rogrind, who had been staring at her in apparent bemusement, at this turned to the other apprentices with an expectant expression.

In unison, all four folded their arms and glared at him.

“Hello!” Savaraad snapped, flapping the paper at him. “Yes? No? Maybe? This requires your input! If you fail to render a position it shall be assumed that you decline to press charges!”

“You can’t actually do that,” Prynne commented.

“Silence, minion!” the lawyer barked at him. He rolled his eyes.

Rogrind cleared his throat, regaining her attention. “Yes, I intend to press charges, Ms. Savaraad.”

“That’s great, fine and dandy, finally we can move on with this. I am authorized by my client to extend to you a compromise under the following terms: instead of pressing charges, you will not do that, and we can all go home. Do you acquiesce?”

“No, I don’t believe so,” Rogrind said sardonically.

“Splendid!” She grinned wolfishly, had another swig of coffee, set her thermos back down on the desk and advanced on him with the paper upheld in both hands. “I have here, Mr. Rogrind, a notarized affidavit from multiple credible witnesses who for reasons of fear for their personal welfare choose to remain anonymous but whose identities and contributions have been documented and will should this come to trial be presented confidentially to the magistrate overseeing proceedings stating that you, Mr. Rogrind…” She paused here, nearly doubled over, and drew in a loud gasp of air, before continuing at the same breakneck pace, “have been observed engaged in activities including but not limited to trafficking in illegal weaponry, assault of Imperial citizens, trafficking in drugs, animal cruelty, sale of pottery without a duly issued municipal permit to conduct commerce, tax evasion, loitering, jaywalking, arson, pushing an old lady into traffic, and negligent defenestration.”

“Is this…some manner of joke?” Rogrind demanded, turning to the soldiers, both of whom were grinning broadly enough to provide an unspoken answer to his question. “Those charges are entirely spurious, and frankly absurd!”

“And what the hell is negligent defenestration?” Darius asked in a fascinated tone. Tallie reached up to put a hand over his mouth.

“Let me break it down for you, my little lost lamb,” Savaraad barreled on. “I’m a lawyer for the Thieves’ Guild. In one hour, if I so desire, I can have a notarized statement signed by ten noble witnesses that they saw you murder the Empress. Not that would hold up in court, of course, and bringing something like that before a judge is asking to get charged with contempt, but Imperial law being what it is, standards for prosecuting offenses are very different from those required to file certain papers.”

“Hey, now,” Sergeant Prynne protested. “Let’s please refrain from discussing committing fraud right in front of me, Bird.”

She whirled on him, flapping the notarized list of accusations against Rogrind menacingly. “Don’t even think about it, buttercup! The preceding statement was clearly hypothetical and not to be construed as either a threat or offer of services, and any attempt by you to press the issue will be met with a lawsuit for wrongful prosecution at the end of which I will have your badge, your pension, your apartment, and just because I’m a vindictive asshole, those crisply-pressed slacks!”

Prynne sighed and leaned his head over the back of his chair to stare at the ceiling. “Would you kindly just get on with this and get out?”

“Gladly.” Savaraad whipped back around to point menacingly at the increasingly baffled Rogrind. “I have all the requisite paperwork drawn up and ready to be handed of to the requisite Imperial functionaries, at which point an investigation of your activities will begin. Considering some of the specific charges involved, the quality of the witnesses and evidence I have arranged will result in a direct and thorough perusal of your person, residence and activities byyyyy…” Again grinning unpleasantly, she leaned forward until her eye level was almost the same as his, and her nose inches from his face, and spoke in a menacing drawl totally unlike her previous rapid delivery. “Imperial Intelligence. All up in every. Little. Part. Of your personal business.”

Bird held Rogrind’s eyes for another moment, then abruptly straightened up and turned to the fascinated apprentices. “Y’see, kids, all systems as they say are pretty much corrupt. Laws in the Empire, as in basically every advanced society, are structured such that people who can afford the services of individuals like me can avoid trials where they will inevitably be found guilty of something simply by pushing papers around, which is why there’s a vast catalog of motions which can be filed to stall legal proceedings. Of course, in this case we don’t really need to stall, just to bring the eyes of the Empire directly onto this guy, whereupon they will discover things which while irrelevant to our business will result in him no longer being the Guild’s problem, or yours. Well?” She turned back to Rogrind, folding her hands behind her back and twisting her upper body coquettishly. “How ’bout it, big guy? What’s the word?”

Rogrind was staring at her quite evenly now. Another beat passed, wherein his seemed to consider his next words. Then he cleared his throat and turned to the desk.

“Sergeant Prynne, upon consideration, I have decided not to press charges against the accused.”

“Yyyeaaaaahhh,” Bird drawled. “I had a feeling.”

“Welp, you heard the man, Private,” Prynne said with a smirk. “Let the kid out.”

“Well, butter my butt an’ call me a biscuit!” Cletus cackled, slapping his knee, while the soldier unlocked the cell and beckoned to Rasha. “Now that there’s a perfessional! Darlin’, I’d ask you to represent me, but a body gets tired a’ bein’ told by women that he cain’t afford ’em!”

“I know what you mean,” Bird said sympathetically.

“Rasha, are you okay?” Tallie said worriedly, rushing to him as he was brought out of the cell. He shrugged.

“Hey.” Jasmine placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed until he looked up at her, then smiled. “Not your fault. Okay?”

“Course it’s his fault,” the lawyer scoffed. “Goddamn it, I realize you kids are new, but don’t attack people in front of witnesses! Now c’mon, we’re not going to discuss this in front of the yokels. Come on! Shoo shoo march let’s go!”

“Always a pleasure, Bird,” Sergeant Prynne said, waving languidly as she snatched up her effects and ushered the five of them back up the hall. Rogrind simply stood with his head slightly tilted, watching them go.

“All right, I’m an independent contractor, not strictly Guild, so I can’t do a thing about what Style does to you over this,” Bird continued as she harried them across the lobby toward the station’s front doors, her chatter nearly drowned out by the noise and press of humanity they passed. “But for now, you’re off the hot seat legally, and my retainer here covers legal advice, the bulk of which I just gave you, but just to repeat because it bears repeating, pick your battles, dammit!”

She had come to a stop on the steps outside the station, and turned to scowl at Rasha.

“Hey, go easy on him,” Tallie said, taking his shoulders from behind. “He’s had a rough—”

“Would you stop!” he burst out, shrugging her off. “Dammit, I’m not a pet, and I’m not a kid! I fucked up, all right? As usual.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Darius said. “Ease up there—on her, and on yourself. So the fucker baited you into making a mistake. I’m getting the impression this is not that guy’s first rodeo. He’s probably gonna be trying this on all of us, and I bet he knows exactly what runes to push. Okay?” He stared firmly around at the others. “Rasha had the bad luck to be first, but this isn’t over. We need to remember that.”

“Exactly,” Bird said approvingly.

Rasha heaved a sigh, shrugging his shoulders. “Well. Guess after Style gets through punching the shit out of me, I can look forward to lawyer fees being tacked onto my apprenticeship debt.”

“Actually I wasn’t summoned by the Guild,” Bird corrected. “A private individual paid for this. Far as I’m concerned you kids are off the hook; I wasn’t instructed to discuss payment with you, and were that an issue I probably would have been.”

“Oh, just let me guess,” Tallie sighed. “Alan Vandro?”

Bird wrinkled her nose. “Vandro? Ew. That arrogant misogynistic wart? Please, I’d sue him into a puddle of remorse just for making eye contact with me. No, I was contracted by Tamisin Sharvineh, whom you may also know as Glory.”

Jasmine blinked. “Really.”

“And I heartily recommend you all toddle over there at your first opportunity and express effusive thanks,” Bird added. “For now, whatever it is that dwarf wants with you, here’s a word of warning: he’s almost certainly a government agent.”

“Wait,” said Darius, frowning. “Why would a government agent be intimidated by Imperial Intelligence?”

“Every part of that question is wrong, you doorknob,” the attorney said in exasperation. “Everyone is intimidated by the goddamn secret police, especially functionaries who live and work right within their easy reach, and I didn’t mean our government! Look, culturally speaking, dwarves think of thieves the way people in the Empire do of warlocks. The Theives’ Guild is the kind of horror with which they threaten their children when they won’t eat their vegetables or go to sleep on time. Most of the dwarves active in the Empire and especially the capital are either permanent residents or merchants, the kinds of people who don’t make waves because they cannot afford to. Of the relatively few organizations in the Five Kingdoms which are active in the Empire, there are none besides government spies and the Order of the Light who would be willing to go toe-to-toe with the Guild, and this is not how the Order operates. You kids are a soft target, relatively speaking, which has to be why they’re after you so relentlessly, but they have to know that if they push it, the Guild will push back, and the Guild is not known for pushing gently. That man is indisputably a highly skilled, hardened professional who will stop at nothing to achieve whatever his goal is, and has the resources of at least one of the Kingdoms backing him. Watch your asses, clear?”

Ross let out a low whistle.

“Well, there y’see?” Darius patted Rasha on the back. “You got played by a professional spy. Could’ve happened to anybody.”

“Somehow,” Rasha said in a strained voice, “that doesn’t help!”

“Calm,” Jasmine urged. “This has been a mess, but we’ve actually made progress today.”

“Such as?” Tallie asked skeptically.

Jasmine smiled. “We have a name. Rogrind.”

Bird cleared her throat. “Well, with our business here concluded I really need to be shoving off, but in parting let me just verify that there is no possible way that’s his real actual name, and you know this, right? Right?”

“It doesn’t have to be,” said Jasmine. “For mundane detective work or even arcane scrying, it’s practically nothing to go on, true. But it’s a name he uses, and for the purposes of the right kind of fae magic, that’s a connection that can be followed back to him.” She grinned. “In addition to visiting Glory to pay our respects today, I say we head to the College of Salyrene and find our friend Schwartz. I’ll bet he can help us narrow this down to something we can tell Boss Tricks.”

“An interesting approach,” Rogrind said, joining them on the steps with a smile. All five jerked back from him, Ross momentarily losing his balance on the stairs and having to be steadied by Darius. “Let me just remind you all that up to this point, I have made every effort to gently illustrate my capability to get results, and tried to offer you more than fair restitution for your help in gaining what I need. I still much prefer those terms, and I think you’ll find that I can offer you a great deal. If you insist on making this confrontational, you should take care to be very certain you know what you’re getting into.”

“Carefully phrased,” said Bird, “but still a threat. Welp, I’m not paid enough for this. Cheerio, kids.”

She took off down the sidewalk at a brisk walk, still dripping papers from her thick folder.

“I hope none of those are important,” Darius mused, watching her go.

“She’s right, though,” said Jasmine, staring at the dwarf. “He’s threatening us, now.”

“I’m sure you misconstrued what I said,” Rogrind demurred with a pleasant smile. “And I’ll remind you that we are standing in front of an Imperial military police station, and any violent action—”

“Oh, shut your fucking gob, you piece of shit,” Rasha snarled. “Lesson learned. Next time we have to shut you up, you won’t see it coming and there won’t be witnesses.”

Rogrind sighed. “You kids really are out of your depth, aren’t you? Now, that was a threat, and right in front of—”

“How did you know my last name?” Tallie asked quietly.

The dwarf gave her a mysterious smile. “One picks up interesting bits and bobs here and there. All it takes is listening.”

“Yeah,” said Rasha. “He was also vague after he talked about my sisters.”

“Ohh, that is not a game you want to play,” Darius whispered.

Jasmine snorted. “Please, track down my family. I wish you all luck with it.”

“Ah.” Rogrind looked past them at the street. “Well, speak of the Dark Lady, as you Imperials say. A pleasure as always, my friends. I’ll talk to you soon; for now, I should leave Darius to attend to family business.”

“What?” Darius barked, whirling. “What are—”

He fell silent, staring at the street, where an expensively lacquered carriage had just pulled up to the curb in front of the police station. Rogrind strolled down the steps and away along the sidewalk, but they weren’t watching him anymore. The carriage wasn’t enchanted, but drawn by matching black horses groomed till they glowed, and had a House coat of arms on its door.

“Aw, hell,” Darius groaned.

A footman had dismounted from the rear of the carriage and approached its door, but before he reached it, the door burst open and a girl of no more than sixteen leaped out, heedless of her expensive dress.

“Darius!” she shouted, pointing accusingly at him.

He sighed heavily. “Hi, Layla. Let me guess, a dwarf told you I’d be here.”

“I don’t even want to know what manner of unsavory people you’re associating with now,” the girl seethed, stalking up the steps to him and utterly ignoring the bystanders who had stopped to gawk at her and her carriage.

“Hey,” Ross protested, and was ignored.

“Have you any idea how worried we’ve been?” Layla demanded, jabbing Darius in the chest with a finger. “Mother is positively beside herself! You shall be lucky if Father doesn’t disinherit you entirely!”

“Guys, this is my little sister, Layla,” he said resignedly. “Layla, may I introduce—”

“I refuse to become acquainted with your pack of guttersnipes!” she seethed. “Lord Darius Ahmad Sakhavenid, you will stop this nonsense and come home this instant!”

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11 – 23

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They couldn’t avoid speculative eyes forever, of course, but fortunately it was faster to get to the apprentice dormitories from the infirmary without passing through the Pit, so at least the group postponed their inevitable march through the gauntlet of stares by a little bit. As they neared the rear barracks door, the one near the bathrooms, there were more and more people about, and at least a few gave them speculative looks, though nobody stopped them. Right outside the doors themselves were three other apprentices, chatting and laughing, who ignored them entirely.

“Man, what time even is it?” Darius grumbled. “I know it’s after dark and all, but I really do not feel like sleeping.”

“Nothing says you gotta,” Tallie replied. “There’s still folks up and around; head to the Pit and practice something if you’re too charmed-up to sleep.”

“Think I’m gonna see if they still have food out,” said Ross, then shrugged defensively at their raised eyebrows. “Sandwiches and cookies were pretty small. Didn’t wanna ask for more; we were guests.”

“Why, that’s only fair!” Darius said cheerfully, patting Ross’s somewhat protuberant belly. “You’re a growing boy, after all!”

“You’re lucky I’m tired of seein’ people get beat on tonight,” Ross growled, then shouldered past him and headed into the dormitory—and, presumably, through it toward the cafeteria on the other side.

“D’you think…” Rasha trailed off when they all turned to look at him.

“What’s on your mind?” Jasmine asked quietly.

He glanced at her and couldn’t entirely repress a grimace; the bruise growing on the side of her face was an increasingly alarming sight. At least her conservative style of dress concealed the rest of the bruises she had to have.

“I just…” He swallowed and tried again. “I’m not too much afraid of getting cuffed around the ears. Gods know I’m used to it; where I grew up, that’s just how you kept your kids in line. And I have older sisters, so, y’know…” He glanced up at Jasmine and again averted his eyes. “I never saw someone get…beaten like that, though, not in the name of discipline. That kind of pummeling would be a fight. Or possibly a murder attempt.”

“I’m still…unpacking what I think about all his,” Jasmine said, absently probing at her bruise with a fingertip. “I don’t think that was at all appropriate as a way to enforce discipline. But, on the other hand, I keep being reminded that I don’t fully understand the mindset of Eserites. And that’s exactly what I came here to learn. I’m trying not to pass judgment on things until I have more familiarity. On the other hand, I’m also trying to be wary of losing my own sense of…right and wrong.” She winced and lowered her hand. “It’s getting increasingly dicey.”

“I dunno,” Tallie mused. “This is gonna sound ungrateful and I’m sorry, Jas, but you kinda messed up my chance to figure out how bad it is by jumping in. I mean, I got a punch in the gut, a smack to the head and a yank on my hair. Way I was raised, that’s a fair enough comeuppance for some kid who did something like assault…uh, say, a friend of my parents. The, uh, comparisons kinda fall apart when I try to relate them to my own experiences.”

“I know that feeling,” Rasha grunted.

“Point being,” Tallie continued, “if that was gonna be that, well, I don’t feel hugely put-upon so far. If she was gonna continue beating me down, then yes, that would be excessive and frankly I’d be thinking about leaving right now. Since you hopped in at that point, I guess I’ll never know. What happened to you, though—”

“Was different,” Darius interrupted, hands in his pockets. “You and I got smacked as punishment. Jas was directly challenging Style’s authority. That wasn’t about disciplining apprentices, it was about maintaining status.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Jasmine said, “though Rasha’s original concern still applies, if this is the kind of place where authority is maintained through beating.”

“You made it about beatings,” he said, then shrugged when she scowled at him. “C’mon, I was there. You were offering her a straight-up fight, and she tried multiple times to talk you out of it. She’s a Guild enforcer, and it was right in front of everybody whose respect she needs to keep. Tallie or I might have sassed her instead, and maybe that would’ve gone differently. But…there it was.”

“Hm,” she grunted, again touching her face. “I suppose. Maybe. I’m still withholding judgment.”

“That’s probably better than leaping to a judgment,” Tallie said, gently patting her shoulder.

Rasha heaved a deep sigh. “I think…I’m gonna take a walk, guys. Clear my head a bit.”

“Okay…” Tallie gave him a worried look. “Just…don’t go outside, all right? Not alone. Those assholes are still out there, and apparently they can tell when we leave the building.”

“Yeah,” he agreed absently, sticking his hands deep in his pockets and turning to slouch off up the hall. “I know. See you guys later.”

“I need to take care of something, too,” Jasmine said quietly after they’d watched him go in silence. “This…hopefully won’t take too long.”

“Grip?” Darius said, raising an eyebrow.

She gave him a faint smile. “You know, Darius, you’re not nearly as dumb as you act.”

“Hey, who’s acting?”

Jasmine shook her head, but her smile remained in place. “I’ll talk to you in a bit.”

“Sooo,” Darius drawled as she strolled off down the other hall. “Whatever shall we do in the interim? Hmm? Hmmmmm?”

“Hey,” Tallie said brightly, “you know who hasn’t seen their fill of violence tonight?”

“Ooh, is it me? I bet it’s me, I—ow! Dammit, woman!”


The number of places apprentices were truly not allowed to go was, in the end, rather small. Once above the Guild proper and into the realm of the Imperial Casino, there were far more areas where scruffy people in general were not welcome. That description applied to more apprentices than otherwise, so they ended up staying out of the Casino’s passages as a rule. However, as Rasha found while prowling through the back halls, there was some leeway. By far the majority of the Casino itself was occupied by its mostly open main room, which itself was the size of a cathedral’s sanctuary. Apart from a few smaller gaming parlors and private rooms of various kinds for the patrons, the rest of the aboveground structure was the realm of the staff who kept it all running.

There, too, he found that the back rooms themselves were mostly off-limits to the likes of him, or so he came to assume after being forcefully shooed away from several. That only made sense; a lot of money was collected and counted in a casino this size, and they wouldn’t want any unnecessary personnel mucking about. For the most part, though, no one bothered him if he just walked the halls. They didn’t even give him much in the way of funny looks; he blended in with the staff about as well as he did with the apprentices.

As such, Rasha found it more comfortable to stretch his legs in the Casino’s back passages than the Guild’s, given the number of people down below who were studying him thoughtfully, as if he were a puzzle box containing a stack of decabloons. Thus far, nobody had tried to corner him, but he figured that was only a matter of time, and resolved to stick closer to his group of friends in the future.

Up here, though, he was left alone. He knew a lot of Guild personnel were involved in the Casino’s running, and in fact had been told that quite a few apprentices worked the more menial jobs here; it had been mentioned to him as an easy way to pick up some pocket money if he lacked a sponsor and an income. And of course, there were plenty of fully accredited Guild thieves about. Despite Tricks’s warning, though, none of the topside personnel seemed to find him interesting.

Or maybe they were just better at concealing their interest. Yeah, he’d definitely try to avoid running around without his group, at least until all this blew over. For now, though, he felt the need to stretch his legs and clear his thoughts. This was a far cry from the familiar back alleys of Puna Vashtar, even when he scrupulously avoided the carpeted and decorated halls which indicated they were public areas in the Casino, but it sufficed for now.

He found himself wandering near the kitchens, though he didn’t step inside after the last upbraiding from the master cook. With his luck, it would be the same man on duty, and Rasha was starting to notice that Eserites in general displayed a mean streak when they had to state their directives more than once. Of course, who even knew whether the cooks of all people were actually affiliated with the Guild… But after the last few days, it wouldn’t surprise him. His idea of what constituted a thief had been significantly expanded as he slowly grew to understand the Guild’s mindset, and the innumerable ways its rebellious philosophy could be worked into all walks of life. Besides, he wasn’t going to assume anything at this point.

The kitchen was skirted by wide passages, though, so he could be within earshot of its hustle (definitely not winding down for the night; the Casino’s patrons would be wanting their meals and snacks until deep into the small hours) without actually getting underfoot. Moved more by curiosity than anything else, he carefully edged along a side hallway, keeping close to the wall to avoid a waiter carrying a laden tray and then a busboy pushing a cart of dishes in the other direction. At the far end was a set of double doors, and Rasha made for this simply because that was the direction in which he happened to be going.

Once through them, though, he paused nervously, finding himself outside. Tallie’s warning sprang instantly to mind. This was one of the Casino’s smaller side entrances; it was an alley, if a broad one, and there was nobody about except a few of the staff.

A young man in a splattered cook’s uniform stood puffing a cigarette and talking quietly with a cocktail waitress. Both glanced curiously up at him, and for a moment Rasha froze awkwardly, fearing he had disrupted a lovers’ assignation. Then movement caught his eye, though, and he glanced across the alley, where a teenage boy was perched on a crate with a bottle of beer beside him, reading a newspaper by the fairy lamp affixed above the Casino’s side door.

“Hey there,” the girl said amiably. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around; you new?”

“Oh, uh, no, but… Actually yes, but…” Rasha stopped, feeling a blush rise to his cheeks, and drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly. The reader had only glanced at him before returning to his paper, but the other two were regarding him with bemusement. “Sorry, I’m a bit out of sorts. I am new, but I’m not staff. I’m apprenticing in the Guild.”

“Ahh,” she said, nodding with a knowing expression.

“If I’m not supposed to be here, I can…”

“Hey, relax, join us,” the cook said lightly, picking up a bottle from the stack of crates next to him and holding it out. Rasha noticed, now, that there were several beer bottles about—all either being worked upon or still sealed. Clearly they did not throw their trash to the ground in this alley. “This is a Guild facility, after all; if you were someplace you weren’t supposed to be, somebody would have an arm around your neck by now. Just don’t get in the way and nobody in the kitchens cares where you go.”

“That’s not the impression I got last time I went through the kitchens,” Rasha muttered.

The young cook laughed. “Oh, yeah. Let me guess, Arfeld was in charge at the time?”

“I…honestly have no idea.”

“Could’ve been any of them,” the waitress said reprovingly, swatting the cook on the chest. “You’ve just got a bug up your butt about Arfeld because of that reaming out he gave you. Yeah, don’t go in the kitchens unless you’ve got specific business there,” she added to Rasha with a grin. “Everything’s got a place and everybody has a purpose; they hate loiterers. But nobody’s going to mind if you hang out in the vicinity.”

“Provided,” said the young man, puffing his cigarette, “you don’t cause any trouble.”

“I’m good at not causing trouble,” Rasha agreed. He found that he had stepped aside of the door and leaned his back against the wall. Was this wise? He was outside the Casino, technically… But, he reasoned, just barely so. The door was right there. Nobody could threaten him here.

Nobody not already in the Guild, of course…

“I was an apprentice myself, for a while,” the girl said, smiling at him. Rasha glanced nervously at her companion; in his experience, men who’d cornered young women in semi-privacy could be very tetchy at being interrupted, but the fellow just placidly worked on his cigarette, pausing occasionally to sip a beer. “I get how you must feel, a little bit. Still slinging drinks here, even after I washed out. I mean, there’s a limited number of things a girl whose best asset is her looks can do to earn a living, and at least here the tips are good and I’ve got the most dangerous bastards in the Empire watching out for me. Beats the hell out of getting fondled in some dive. Or going back to Saddle Ridge and admitting to my mother she was right,” she added with a grimace. The cook grinned around his cigarette.

“Why’d you quit?” Rasha asked, then flushed again. “Um, sorry, that’s kind of personal. You don’t have to answer.”

“No, I getcha,” she said. “I remember being new… Pretty damn overwhelming, isn’t it? No, I…didn’t exactly quit.” She sighed, and scowled at her feet, then kicked at the ground. “You know, you don’t strictly have to be Guild to be Eserite?”

“Not this again,” the cook said with a groan.

“Oh, shut up,” she snapped. “You don’t. It’s a religion and a philosophy, you can believe in it without being actively a thief!”

“Sure,” he said, shrugging lazily. “But if you try acting on that philosophy without the Guild’s backing, you’ll wind up in jail or dead. And believing in it without acting on it isn’t the kind of thing Eserion has much patience for.”

“Pff, what do you know? Not like you ever apprenticed!”

“No, but I work here,” he said mildly, blowing a stream of smoke out over her head. “I know the basics. Everybody who’s been around here more’n two weeks knows the basics, Maisie.”

The waitress heaved a heavy sigh, glaring, then pointedly turned a cold shoulder to the cook, who grinned in amusement. “Anyway. No, I didn’t quit, I just wasn’t very…well, good. I’m quick and I can handle the politics and the social parts just fine, but there’s a big physical element to getting certified in the Guild, and I was just…” She shook her head, shrugging. “Well. I’m Maisie, by the way. As you just heard.”

“Rasha,” he replied with a smile which, to his surprise, was unforced.

“Daoud,” said the cook, waving lazily, then again held out the bottle. “Want a beer?”

“Uh…” Rasha winced. “Thanks, that’s really generous, but I’m kind of abstaining for a while.”

“Ooh.” Maisie winced. “Bad experience?”

“You could say that,” he grumbled.

“Ah, c’mon, it’s one beer,” Daoud said idly. “What could it hurt?”

“Oh, listen to you,” Maisie huffed. “You sound like the villain in an Omnist morality play. He doesn’t want to drink, what’s it to you?”

“Just being hospitable,” Daoud said, grinning around his cigarette. “Hey, isn’t it your job to get people to drink?”

“And I am on break,” she replied, tossing her head. “So, anything in particular on your mind, Rasha?”

“A lot,” he said, slumping back against the wall. “I just… Sorry, I don’t want to sound rude, I’m just not in the mood to talk about it.”

“Hey, we respect that,” Daoud said easily. “Don’t we, Maisie?”

“Of course,” she retorted, frowning up at him. “I just said I’ve been there. No worries, Rasha, you’re always welcome to loiter in the filthy alley with the rest of us gutter trash.”

“Sez you,” Daoud retorted. “I have an actual trade.”

“You’re a cook, you great oaf.”

“Yeah, but I’m a good cook. I’m going to be a chef. With some experience under my belt and a few references, I’ll have a cushy job making fancy pastries for some noble family.”

“You’re way too prideful to get along with nobles,” she said with a grin. “They’d have your head off inside a week.”

“What year do you think this is? Aristocrats in the Tiraan Empire don’t treat employees like serfs.” He shrugged. “Them with the money get to be assholes if they want. That’s the world; I can keep my head down and behave when it suits me.”

“Uh huh,” she said dryly. “Weren’t you the one just talking about how being Eserite meant taking action?”

He snorted softly. “Said I understand the philosophy, not that I subscribe to it. Like you said, I was never an apprentice. This is a job.”

Across the alley, the reader suddenly laid down his paper, shifting to stare in the direction of the front of the building. The others, noticing his movement, followed his gaze, Daoud and Maisie breaking off their argument.

Rasha immediately felt as if he’d been doused in icy sea spray.

“Good evening,” the dwarf said genially, strolling up to them as if his fine suit didn’t mark him as wildly out of place in this dingy alley.

“I’m sorry, sir, this is a staff entrance,” Maisie said politely. “There are entrances for guests in the front and rear of the building.”

“Of course, my dear, of course,” the dwarf replied in a pleasant tone. Rasha had never seen a dwarf in person before this week, but that neatly trimmed reddish beard was familiar even if the general configuration of their wide, blunt features might have confused him. “I just happened to notice a friend back here and thought I’d have a word. How’s apprenticeship treating you, Rasha?”

The cold feeling intensified. He was sure he’d never said his name to any of these people. Of course, he’d been drunk the first time… Had one of the others addressed him by name in front of them? With his blood suddenly thrumming in his ears it was impossible to concentrate on the memory.

“Excuse me,” he said, quietly enough it seemed the pounding in his chest should have been audible over it, “I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”

“Oh, not formally,” the dwarf replied, smiling benignly. “But surely we’re past formalities at this point, you and I. You know, Rasha, your sisters are very worried about you.”

Rasha bolted upright before he could restrain himself, fists clenching so hard they vibrated. “What the hell would you know about my sisters?”

“You might say I’m in the business of knowing things,” the dwarf said, still a very picture of well-mannered calm. “Please, there’s no call for hostility; I assure you, I intend you no harm. In fact, there are a lot of ways we can help one another, I believe.”

“Fuck off,” Rasha spat. “Fuck all the way off back to whatever hole you crawled out of. Stop following us around!”

“I wonder how you’re being treated by these people you are so eager to defend,” the dwarf said pointedly. “Perhaps—”

“Excuse me!” Maisie broke in, planting her fists on her hips, and scowled down at the dwarf. By this point, Daoud had tossed aside his cigarette and straightened up, and the busboy was staring alertly at the dwarf, one hand on his half-empty beer bottle. “He asked you to leave. I think you’d better do it, sir.”

“Is this how you address moneyed patrons, young woman?” the dwarf replied, turning to her with a knowing little smile. “Perhaps I should speak with your supervisor.”

“You are not a patron!”

“No, Maisie, he’s right,” Daoud said tersely. “This isn’t how we do things. Go get an enforcer.”

She instantly snapped her mouth shut, turned, and darted back through the doors.

“Rasha,” Daoud continued, keeping his eyes on the dwarf, “whatever this is, maybe you’d better head back in, too.”

“Of course, you needn’t act as if I’m going to bar you from doing as you like,” the dwarf said pleasantly. “I’m fairly certain my point here is made, Rasha. By all means, go enjoy the rest of your evening. We will resume this conversation at some point. I’m a big believer in not putting things off, but I’ll not tell you how to live your life.”

“You know what I’m a believer in?” Rasha whispered.

The dwarf raised his bushy eyebrows in an expression of polite curiosity. “Do tell.”

“All systems are corrupt.” His heart was pounding, breath trying to catch in his throat. He took a step forward, desperately wanting to turn and flee. He had fled too many times, though, and knew it. Once more and he’d never stop. “All governments and all laws exist to benefit those in power.”

“Please,” the dwarf said with a little sigh, holding up one hand. “Refrain from reciting the whole thing. I’m growing rather tired of thieves and their nonsense, as I’m sure you can understand. None of you are as full of surprises as you like to think.”

“Oh, really,” Rasha said, and startled himself by laughing. “Think so, do you?”

The dwarf shook his head. “Young man, I am perfectly content to—”

That was as far as he got before Rasha struck him in a flying tackle.


Somewhat to her own surprise, Jasmine wasn’t kept waiting long.

“Just so you know,” Grip said as she rounded the corner, “I’m not one to come when called. But after all, I did ask you to speak with me again, so I’ll make an exception.”

“And so,” Jasmine murmured as she turned to face the enforcer, “I also learn that you’re watching my movements.”

“Ahh, she’s beginning to watch and consider,” Grip said with a grin, coming to a stop before Jasmine in the dim corridor. It was the same spot in the Catacombs to which Grip had led her previously, still lit only by the faint light of torches around the bend. “Of course, that’s something you should have assumed anyway, but I have been gratified to see you making progress.”

“Yes, progress,” Jasmine said quietly, staring at her. “I’ve considered your proposal, and I have an answer for you.”

Grip smiled, lifting her eyebrows expectantly.

“Thank you for your consideration,” Jasmine continued. “The implied compliment is appreciated. However, I don’t believe you and I are a good professional match, so I’m afraid I must decline to become your apprentice.”

“Well, I’m afraid that’s—”

“And so that’s where the matter ends,” Jasmine stated, staring into her eyes. “It’s now dropped, and you aren’t going to so much as whisper a word of it to anyone.”

The enforcer’s posture did not shift, but there was an unmistakable threat in her sudden stillness. It was the poised tension of a coiled rattlesnake about to strike. “Child, I think you’ll find that giving orders like that to Eserites generally won’t get you anywhere. Giving them to me will get you places you do not want to go.”

“So you’ve been watching me,” Jasmine replied in the same tone. “I assume you saw this evening’s action.” She dragged her fingertips along the ghastly bruise stretching from her temple down past her cheekbone. “Do I look like someone who’s afraid of pain?”

“Maybe I’m misremembering things,” Grip said with a mirthless grin, “but I’m pretty sure I never offered you pain.”

“No, you just offered to make my life difficult,” Jasmine replied. “I’m making it clear, now, that if my secrets come out, I’m going to assume you were the one behind it. And then you’re going to learn exactly how little I fear any pain you’re capable of inflicting.”

“Keep digging, girl,” the enforcer said icily. “You’re not thinking ahead. Someone with as many connections as you have to other people needs to be mindful of them when making enemies.”

“You’re not my enemy, Grip,” Jasmine replied. “You are nowhere near my league. You’re going to threaten my connections, really? Please, please do that. Go to Last Rock and look the wrong way at one of my classmates, I dare you. If you’re particularly lucky, the kicking of your ass which follows will be over before Tellwyrn feels the need to step in. Go to Viridill and get yourself on the wrong side of Abbess Darnassy, see whether you’re resourceful enough to get out of the province alive. In fact, march yourself right down to the Temple and start something with Locke. Really, go on. I’ll wait here; I bet that’ll make a story I won’t want to miss.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Grip retorted, baring teeth again. “But that’s a fallacy, and you know it. You’re good at making friends, Jasmine. Why, you’ve managed to make some far less dangerous ones here, haven’t you?” She slipped one hand into a pocket, widening her ghastly grin subtly. “Right where I have access to them.”

“Ah. Yes,” Jasmine said softly. “Yes…there is that.”

Dazzling golden light blazed through the tunnel, and Grip reflexively attempted to leap backward, despite being momentarily blinded. Not fast enough to escape the moving wall of solid light that caught her up and slammed her against the stone behind her. She was both nimble and sturdy, and was only off guard for a moment, but that was all the time it took.

Before she could bounce back off the wall, Jasmine had stepped in front of her, a trident made of pure golden light blazing into being in her hands. In the next second, she had driven it straight at Grip’s throat; the widely-spaced prongs captured her whole neck and then sank into the stone wall behind, pinning her against it.

“Something was recently made clear to me,” Jasmine said coldly, “something I hadn’t fully appreciated.” Golden wings flared out from behind her, filling the passage, and she pressed, sinking the trident an inch deeper into solid stone, until it pushed on Grip’s throat hard enough to impede her breathing.

“People fear the Hand of Avei,” Trissiny snarled. “So let me make this explicitly plain, Grip. I’m done with your nonsense, and done with you. You have pushed me right to the brink, and one more nudge will be the end of it. Make me come after you again, and it’s not going to be you against another fighter. It’ll be wild, disproportionate, absolutely ridiculous overkill. It will be every power I can bring to bear on you, and every asset I can leverage to hunt you down if necessary. Do you think you can hide from valkyries?” She pushed another fraction of an inch, and Grip drew a rasping gasp of protest, clutching at the trident. It sparkled where her hands gripped it, where its tongs dug into the wall and where it pressed on her throat. Hard-light magical objects were well known to be degraded by physical contact with solid matter, which was why energy shields didn’t work in the rain. This one, though, did not so much as flicker, a testament to the enormous power flowing through it. “I’m talking about a piece of you in every mailbox in Tiraas. The world will know not to get in my way, Grip, and no one from Boss Tricks to the Emperor himself will dare call me down for it. So you can either make yourself useful to me as an object lesson… Or you can back. Off.”

She held the weapon in place for another few heartbeats, just to let it sink in, and then quite abruptly released it, along with every spark of magic she was channeling. The corridor was plunged back into darkness, and Grip slumped to the floor, clutching at her neck and coughing.

“Don’t make me repeat myself,” Jasmine said calmly, then stepped past her and walked back toward the exit.

She paused at the rasping laugh which followed her.

“That was all I wanted, you know,” Grip said hoarsely, dragging herself upright. “You’re here with this idea you need to be a con artist or something. You’re not. You’re an enforcer, and in the end, Eserion and Avei are on the same side. I just had to know you’re going to do—”

“Grip,” Jasmine said curtly, “I do not care.”

She walked away.

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11 – 16

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“Will you relax?” Tallie said with open amusement. “You look like you’re walking to your execution.”

“Sorry,” Rasha said automatically, not relaxing. It wasn’t as if he could just do so on command.

“Hey, man, your personal welfare aside, there’s a strategic issue at play, here,” Darius remarked. “You go walking up to a potential mark looking like you’re terrified of getting arrested, and what do you think is gonna happen?”

“Well, I’m sorry!” he snapped. “I’ll get used to it; this is my first time out, after all. It’s not like I’ve ever stolen anything before!”

“Stolen?” The two elves were walking at the head of the group; Fauna turned to raise an eyebrow at them. “You’re not about to steal anything, either.”

“Uh, what?” Tallie asked. “I thought were were gonna be out practicing.”

“Practicing, yes, but not stealing,” said Flora. “Picking a pocket is the smallest kind of job, but it’s still a job.”

“And nobody here is a fully ranked member of the Thieves’ Guild,” added Fauna.

“Which means us pulling an actual job is asking for an ass-kicking.”

“You don’t do jobs without the supervision of an actual Guild member. I’m positive you guys have been told that.”

“Well, yeah,” said Darius, “but I thought that’s the reason we were out with you, who are actually just apprentices like us so now I get it and I feel pretty dumb. It’s a warm, comfortable feeling.”

“Good,” said Tallie kindly. “The first step in solving your problems is admitting that you’re dumb.”

“I only said it so you couldn’t,” he retorted with a grin. “Seriously, though, what are we doing out here if we’re not gonna be actually stealing anything? Practicing what, I guess is the question.”

“There’s a lot that goes into rifling pockets beyond the actual doing,” Flora replied. “You’ve got teachers, fellow apprentices, and pocket dummies back at the Guild to practice that; we’re going to be experiencing the factors that involve being out in the environment.”

“Putting them together,” Fauna added, “will, as we said, be done under the proper supervision.”

“To begin with,” said Flora, “target acquisition. Here we are.”

They came to a stop and moved adroitly to the side around a corner, where both elves leaned casually against the nearby wall. It was a smooth and well-practiced maneuver, and would probably have been quite unobtrusive had they not been elves, not to mention one being garbed in ostentatious black leather and the other in a dramatic cloak. Still, the other three apprentices clustered together on the sidewalk corner, doubtless looking even more consciously out of place.

The street they had been following was a minor one, but a straight avenue which formed one of the “spokes” radiating out from the center of the city toward the walls (though that particular street didn’t happen to connect with either). Only a few of the buildings they had passed had doors or storefronts facing it; for the most part, it was used as a route between other streets. Its traffic thus moved more swiftly than that on the street onto which they now stepped, but it was altogether less crowded. This street curved away toward the northwest, vanishing out of sight a few dozen yards ahead, and was thronged by pedestrians, the only vehicles in sight being enchanted carriages parked and serving as stalls or food trucks. In fact, even the storefronts here were partly obscured in many cases by vendor stands. This was a shopping district—and, to judge by the general shabbiness of both the stores and shoppers, a far from upscale one.

“First step in finding a target,” Fauna murmured just loudly enough for them to hear, “is to go where they are. Places like this are good starting points when you’re new.”

“Your more upscale shopping districts have richer marks and better hunting,” said Flora, “but that’s a higher-stakes game. Those folks have a general attitude that they shouldn’t have to suffer inconveniences such as thieves, and the police tend to support that view.”

“On the other hand,” Fauna continued, “poorer districts have the opposite problem. Easy pickings, but often not even worth the picking.”

“Do they always do this?” Rasha muttered. “It’s like watching a vaudeville show.”

“Nah,” Tallie said easily. “Vaudeville’s more fast-paced, and both of ’em would’ve fallen down by this point. Tandem-talk is just a schtick. Positively Vesker, even Vidian.”

The elves chose to ignore the byplay. “Once you’ve settled on your hunting grounds,” said Flora, “then you start looking for targets. Take your time, stroll around, browse. It is not a race.”

“Haste makes you clumsy.”

“Clumsy gets your ass nabbed.”

“Slow and easy, breathe deeply, make yourself relax.”

“If you’re too stressed, you’re going to make the kinds of mistakes you can’t afford.”

Tallie and Darius turned and looked pointedly at Rasha, who sighed.

“Look around,” Fauna urged. “Who jumps out at you first?”

There was a pause, in which the three apprentices edged closer to the wall, beside the senior two, getting out of the way of foot traffic while they studied their surroundings. The group drew pointed looks from passersby, and all but the most distracted made a deliberate effort to keep out of arm’s reach of them. A couple even crossed the street after eyeballing them once. Whether anyone suspected them of being thieves was an open question, but at the very least, they were a gang of somewhat scruffy-looking youths, led by two oddly-dressed elves. Any city-dweller would instinctively avoid them.

The very avoidance gave them a good vantage from which to study people, though.

“There—” Rasha started to point as he spoke, but broke off when Flora slapped his hand down.

“Don’t do that, dumbass,” she said in an affectionately amused tone that took some of the sting out of the words. “When you’re stalking or just looking for a mark, don’t ever, ever let on that you’re paying them any attention.”

“Uh, right,” he said sheepishly, rubbing his wrist. “That’s…basic common sense, sorry.”

“You’re new,” Fauna said kindly. “Sometime we’ll have to tell you some of the dumbshit moves we pulled in our first week of training.”

“Let’s not,” Flora demurred, grimacing. “Who were you looking at, Rasha?”

“Well—look, he’s almost out of sight now. The guy in the nice coat, holding the package, see? Looks like he already has money, and he’s been shopping. Might have better stuff in his pockets than just coin.”

“Hey, well spotted,” Fauna said approvingly.

“I saw him too,” Darius said with ostentatious hauteur. “I just wanted to give you the chance to speak up.”

“Shut up, Darius,” Flora ordered without heat. “However, Rasha, don’t try to steal from that guy. That’s Lacquer, one of the best at this particular business. Some Guild thieves will generously take the time to break your fingers if you try robbing ’em. That one will simply report you to Style.”

All five of them winced in unison.

“Wait, so he’s Guild?” Tallie said in tones of fascination. “Huh. He looks so posh!”

“Voices low,” Fauna reminded her. “This is somebody’s cover we’re talking about; that’s the next best thing to sacred. Professional courtesy, at the very least.”

“And yes,” Flora added, “I trust you can imagine why looking a little fancier than the general run of the crowd would be useful in this game?”

“Nobody’s gonna be watching for him to be after their purse,” Rasha mused, nodding.

“It’d make you a mark for other pickpockets,” Darius added, “but then again, if any who may be operating know you…”

“The package is a nice touch,” Tallie said, grinning. “Wonder what he bought.”

“Guys like that serve a purpose beyond making their own rent money,” said Fauna. “Non-Guild thieves do exist, and places like this are where they’re most likely to start out. A big part of why the Guild is tolerated by polite society is that we keep a firm lid on that shit. Lacquer does cut purse strings, yes, but he’s also a kind of patrolling enforcer.”

“And so the marks come to him,” Darius noted with a grin. “Damn, that’s a good racket.”

“Man knows his business,” Flora agreed. “Anyhow, Rasha shows good instincts. You’ll get to know faces and tags with time, kids; don’t stress about that too much at this juncture. For now, signs of wealth are a good first indication.”

“There are others,” said Fauna. “You’ll be doing a fair amount of people-watching on excursions like this, and you’ll develop instincts concerning who can and should be targeted. People’s body language can tell you a lot.”

“Such as?” Rasha asked.

“How alert they may be,” Flora replied. “Whether they’re likely to fight, or call for help.”

“But ‘go for the rich ones’ sounds like a generally good plan to me,” Darius said blithely. “They’re the assholes who deserve it, aside from having the money.”

Flora and Fauna exchanged a long look.

“What?” Darius asked, peering back and forth between them.

“Yeah, what?” Tallie added a little belligerently. “Is he wrong?”

“Yes,” Fauna replied firmly. “The short answer is ‘yes.’”

“The longer answer,” added Flora, “is that you’re skating close to some thin ice with that kind of talk.”

“The Guild’s philosophies do predispose us to target people with wealth and power, because those are often the ones who need to be taken down.”

“But ‘often’ isn’t ‘necessarily.’ Start to think the rich invariably deserve a takedown because they’re rich, and you’re in the realm of class warfare. That gets…messy.”

“Have you two had a lot of interactions with rich people?” Tallie demanded, folding her arms. “Because growing up as I did, those were always the ones who picked on little guys like us. And got away with it.”

“In point of fact, we have,” said Fauna. “Working under Sweet, we get to meet all kinds of people.”

“That’s our bias, by the way,” Flora added. “Apprenticing under a sponsor inevitably means you get heavily trained in their methods, and pick up at least some of their worldview. Sweet’s view on the rich is that they’re exactly as likely to be abusive toward others as anyone else, but having resources just means a greater chance of pulling it off without repercussions.”

“Wealth,” Fauna said firmly, “is not evil. Correlation is not causation.”

“The best advice we can share is that you should never get caught up in what other people deserve. There’s really no way you can know; that’s a very big question.”

“Jobs are jobs, and the Guild isn’t in the business of crusading. When we go after someone to administer much-needed humility, it’s for a specific reason, owing to something they’ve done.”

“Not something they are, or have.”

“Hnh,” Tallie grunted, looking dissatisfied.

“Well, how’s about you go first,” Fauna suggested with a sly little grin. She shifted, scanning the slowly passing crowd. It was nearing the lunch hour, and business in the market street was increasingly brisk, to the point that even their little bubble of privacy was diminishing as the press of people meant no one had time to give them especial attention. “All right, don’t stare. Across the street, about six yards north. Guy in a suit and a coat more appropriate for a typical Tiraan winter than what’s actually happening.”

“I see him,” Tallie said, leaning back against the building and stuffing her hands in her pockets. Her eyes cut sideways to fix on the target Fauna designated, though she kept her head shifted slightly the other way.

“All right, first trial,” Flora said in a lightly conversational tone. “You’re to go up—boys, stop gawking at the mark!—go up and touch his coat, just above the pocket.”

“Just touch,” added Fauna, “without drawing his attention. Don’t put your fingers in, and above all do not take anything.”

“Really, that’s it?” Tallie said condescendingly. “You call that a trial?”

“Crawl before you run, kid,” Flora retorted in the same tone. “Go on, get moving. He’s getting away.”

The designated mark, indeed, had finished acquiring a portable meat pastry from the stall and was heading off up the street. Tallie paused only to wink at her group before setting off at a long-legged lope. A few yards up, she crossed the avenue to the other side, and began closing in on her target from behind.

The two elves straightened up and started moving, leaving the boys to trail along in their wake; they kept to an idle, dawdling pace, seemingly peering at stalls and window displays as they passed, and only glancing at Tallie’s progress occasionally and surreptitiously. Rasha and Darius, after exchanging a look, tried to follow their example. To judge by some of the looks shopkeepers gave them, they weren’t entirely successful.

Tallie had begun rooting around in her pockets as she approached her mark, muttering to herself and scowling. Making a show of clear distraction, she brushed against the man in passing by. He halted in bringing the pastry to his mouth to give her an annoyed look; she offered a quick apology and a little smile before pushing on ahead.

A few more yards up the street, sighing loudly in frustration, she stopped in the mouth of an alley and took off her jacket, growling and carefully going through its pockets. The mark gave her a disdainful look as he passed.

Just after he did, Tallie “found” what she’d been looking for—a comb—and paused to straighten out her hair, which didn’t particularly need it. Then she continued on her way at a much more languorous pace.

Another half-block along, she stopped in the mouth of another alley, where the rest crossed the street to meet her.

“Not bad!” Fauna said, clapping her on the back. “Good routine! Most people on their first try don’t think to have a cover; getting close to someone is much easier if you provide a reason they won’t question.”

“I note nobody mentioned that before sending her off,” Darius commented.

“Well, the point is to see what you kids know,” Flora replied with a unrepentant grin. “What’s the use in just telling you beforehand?”

“Yeah, well,” Tallie said with clearly false modesty, “I can’t say I’ve ever tried stealing before, but I know a thing or two about looking more harmless than I am.”

“Ahh,” Darius said sagely. “So only half the things I’ve heard about circus folk are true.”

“Darius, one of these days I’m gonna stab you right in the nuts.”

“You know, honeybunch, you don’t have to keep making up these violent pretexts. If you wanna get your hands on my nuts, all you’ve gotta do is ask nicely.”

“Shh,” Fauna said curtly. “Trouble.” She and Flora had both gone suddenly, rigidly alert.

Before the junior apprentices could get a good start at looking around, the man in the expensive coat came stomping right up to them, pastry dangling forgotten from his hand.

“All right, what did you take?!” he demanded, glaring at Tallie.

Her eyebrows shot upward. “Excuse you?”

“I know what you did!” he snapped. “You’d better hand it over before I go for the guards!”

“Whoah, now, wait a second,” Darius said nervously. “There’s no need for—”

“No, no, this is fine,” Tallie said, folding her arms and glaring at her erstwhile mark. “I don’t know what crawled up your butt today, but check your pockets. Go on, check thoroughly. If you come up with anything missing, I’ll let you search mine. Otherwise, I’m gonna want an apology.”

“Don’t give me that,” he retorted. “You kids are thieves!”

“You accuse everybody you meet of being thieves?” Rasha demanded. He glanced quickly at the two elves; oddly, only the three human apprentices seemed to be trying to deflect their accuser. Flora and Fauna were standing like statues against the wall.

“Is there a problem here, ladies and gentlemen?”

All of them turned to face the new arrival, a man wearing an Imperial Army uniform and a no-nonsense expession.

“Yes!” barked the man with the pastry. “This little wench stole my—um—”

“As I was about to say, officer,” Tallie drawled, “this character just walked up and started throwing around wild accusations. I’ve yet to hear exactly what it is he thinks I stole.”

“I see,” said the guard, turning to study the man in question. “Sir, are you missing any possessions?”

“I—she brushed up against me! She did it quite deliberately!”

“That’s as may be, sir, but it’s not what I asked you,” the guard replied. “If something of yours has been stolen, we can address that. If you’re just going to complain about people brushing against you close to noon in a crowded shopping district, I’ll have to ask you to stop creating a scene.”

That brought the complainer up short. There was an extended silence while they all watched him shuffle awkwardly through his own pockets, keeping the grease-stained fingers of his left hand well out of it. After checking and finding his coin purse and a few other personal items, he finally stopped, looking sheepish.

“I…well, I guess I was mistaken.”

“Uh huh,” Tallie said pointedly. “Now, about that apology?”

The guard cleared his throat. “If there’s nothing else, sir, please move along.”

“Hey,” Tallie protested, while the well-dressed man hurried away up the street with his head down. “I wasn’t done with that guy!”

“Yes, you were,” the guard retorted firmly. “Are you kids apprentices with the Thieves’ Guild?”

They all froze, looking to the two elves for guidance. Flora and Fauna were both watching a point across the street.

“What if we are?”

“You can’t prove that!”

“There’s no law against—”

All three of them tried to answer at once, then broke off, wincing.

“I see,” the guard said dryly.

“Don’t avoid that question,” Flora ordered. “Being in the Guild is not illegal, and denying it is just suspicious.”

“Sorry,” Fauna added to the guard. “They’re new.”

“Uh huh,” he said, plainly unamused. “Regardless, I think you should move along, now. You’ve had enough fun here for one day.”

“Hey,” Rasha snapped, balling his fists. “We weren’t doing—”

“Shut it!” Flora barked. “We’ll continue this conversation later.”

“As soon as the guards are involved, playtime is over,” Fauna said just as firmly. “Don’t argue with them, and there is zero valid reason for you to be making fists in a policeman’s presence. Simmer down.”

“Come on,” Flora ordered, straightening up and beckoning them curtly. “Do as the nice man says.”

The patrolman continued to watch them closely as the elves led them away up the street; this time, they were also followed by the gazes of nearly everyone in earshot. Fair or no, it appeared their practice had indeed been cut short, and not because the guard had told them so.

“Okay, what the hell just happened?” Tallie hissed. “I know that guy didn’t feel me touch his coat—he’d have said something at the time if he did!”

“You’re right,” Fauna said curtly. “You did fine. But we heard someone tell him that we were Guild—same voice that fetched the guard while that guy was approaching us.”

“And systematically informed every shopkeeper in a ring around us while we were dealing with that,” said Flora. “And there he is.”

This time, she made no bones about blatantly pointing.

Directly across the street from them stood a dwarf with a neatly-trimmed reddish beard, wearing a dapper suit. Seeing the elf pointing, he turned to face them directly, offered a knowing smile and politely tipped his hat to them. Then he turned and strolled away up a nearby alley.

“Follow him!” Fauna barked.

Instantly, both elves took off at a run, which carried them out of the way nearly before an outcry could develop at the sight—and aside from the inherent spectacle of elves moving at high speed, Flora’s billowing cloak tended to catch attention. They were swiftly gone, however, each vanishing into another small alley up and down the street, respectively.

“Oh, hell yes,” Tallie growled, stalking off after the dwarf as directed. Darius and Rasha followed, equally grim-faced.

Their quarry was not far away. Despite having a head start on them, he had been stopped just a few yards up the alley. Flora and Fauna had already converged there, but were hanging back; it was not they who had intercepted the dwarf and held his attention.

“Excuse me,” he said politely, his Svennish accent faint but distinct. “You appear to be blocking the path.”

“Yes,” the Silver Legionnaire standing in front of him said curtly. “And you appear to be meddling in things that don’t concern you.”

Flora and Fauna, standing behind the Legionnaire, exchanged a look, their expressions openly confused.

“Young lady, I haven’t the slightest idea what—”

He broke off as she raised her lance, aiming the tip directly at his face.

“We could play that game, but you’d win,” the young woman snapped, “so I’m not going to. You are making life difficult for these apprentices in an effort to put pressure on them to comply with your demands. You then led them into this alley and allowed them to intercept you so you could make your demands in privacy.”

“That’s quite a tale,” he said calmly. “I don’t suppose you have anything resembling evidence to back that up?”

“Shut up,” she retorted. “We’re not doing this. You are going to back down, and think carefully about how I intercepted both them and you on such short notice. You must be pretty confident to risk the ire of the Thieves’ Guild, but no matter who you work for, you don’t want to have both the Guild and the Sisterhood after you. The last political entity to get caught between them was the Tiraan Empire, in a little tiff called the Enchanter Wars. I assume you know how that ended?”

“Are you threatening me?” The dwarf sounded merely curious.

“I wasn’t,” she replied, stepping forward and forcing him to retreat, or get poked in the nose with her weapon. “Now I am. Clear your ass out of here while it’s only got one hole in it.”

“I hardly think this conduct is befitting a Silver Legionnaire,” the dwarf said, moving no further. “I wonder what your superiors would say?”

At that, the soldier grinned, broadly and very unpleasantly. “Well, don’t wonder. Go learn for yourself. I’m Private Covrin, personal aide to Bishop Syrinx. Right now I’m going to let you leave here and drop this little gambit, but if you push me, I’ll go right to the Bishop with this. And by this time tomorrow, you’ll have the full strength of the Guild, the Sisterhood, and Imperial Intelligence pursuing every aspect of your business. Possibly the Veskers, Salyrites, and whoever else owes her Grace a favor, just for shits and giggles. Is that what you want? All those people…examining you?”

They locked eyes, both ignoring the thieves standing around looking on.

Then, oddly, the dwarf cracked a smile. He took another step back, then bowed slightly to her, doffing his hat. “Well. What an intriguing day this has turned out to be. I’ll bid you all good afternoon, then.” He turned and made his way back toward the alley entrance, having to stop after only three steps. “Excuse me, please.”

Tallie, standing at the head of the trio, folded her arms and stared down her nose at him.

“Let him through,” Flora said quietly.

Tallie sneered, but edged aside. Darius snorted and leaned against the alley wall, out of the way; Rasha just curled his lip and refused to budge, forcing the dwarf to edge around him.

Silence reigned until he was out of the alley and around the corner.

“Well, this just gets more and more interesting,” Fauna said pointedly, staring at Covrin. “Not that we don’t appreciate the help, but…”

“But you’ll be wanting to know what the hell is going on here,” the soldier replied distractedly, her attention on the other three. “This group is missing some people.”

“So, uh.” Tallie cocked her head to one side. “You’re with Locke’s squad, then?”

“No,” Covrin said heatedly, then moderated her tone. “No. Let’s put aside the question of me for a moment. In your position, I’d be wondering just how that dwarf managed to be on you so quickly. You haven’t been away from the Casino that long; the Guild is heavily warded against arcane scrying, and it patrols its environs too well for anyone to safely set up watchers at its entrances. So how’d he find you?”

“How did you?” Rasha demanded.

“The same way, I expect,” Covrin replied with a cold little smile. “In Glass Alley there’s a magic shop called the Finder’s Fee. The answers you need most immediately are there; look for a Guild member with the tag Sparkler who works there. I suggest you gather the rest of your group, first, and maybe don’t wander off by yourselves any further. I don’t know who those dwarves are, exactly, but they’re a capable group. You don’t need them picking you off one by one.”

“Why the hell do you kids have dwarves after you?!” Flora exclaimed.

“It’s, uh…” Tallie winced, glancing aside at the boys. “Complicated.”

“Well, no shit,” Fauna said acidly.

“Right now,” said Rasha, “I’m most curious about how you come into this, Private Covrin.”

“Any organization the size of the Sisterhood of Avei,” she replied, “has factions, agendas, schisms… People mistreating power and undercutting each other. All systems are corrupt, or so I hear.” She gave that a moment to sink in before continuing. “Whatever other problems you guys have, you’ve had the bad luck to be caught up in an internal Sisterhood power struggle. Locke is a shifty one who never does anything with only one agenda. And Bishop Syrinx is dangerous in a way that even your trainers probably don’t want to cross. I’ve got a feeling you two may know a little bit about that already,” she added, turning toward Flora and Fauna.

The elves folded their arms and narrowed their eyes at her in perfect unison.

“Still waiting to hear your part in this,” Tallie prompted.

Covrin turned back to face them, her eyes intent and suddenly almost fervent. “I can help you know what’s going on, who’s attempting what, and why. Right now you’re acting blind. If you know who the players are, though, you can play them. Or at least, keep them from playing you. Which you’d better believe they are doing right now.”

“And what do you get out of this?” Darius asked with uncharacteristic seriousness.

“Later,” Covrin said curtly. “Get your friends, go to Glass Alley, find out how you’re being tracked. That’s my offer of good faith. When you know I’m good for it… Maybe I’ll have a favor to ask in return. But don’t take too long about this. None of you are any use to me if you get knifed in alley or carried off by dwarves.”

She turned, paused at the sight of the two elves, then shoved roughly between them. Neither made any attempt to inhibit her, just turning to watch her go with eyes still narrowed suspiciously.

Covrin did not turn to look back as she vanished into the dimness beyond, but her voice carried nonetheless.

“Watch your backs.”

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11 – 9

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“Well, this place and others like it,” Joe said in response to Tallie’s last question. He had integrated himself quite smoothly into the group, aided by the byplay which occurred upon his statement that he didn’t drink. Jasmine had taken that opportunity to carefully dance around an “I told you so,” and Joe had slipped into a seat next to her. “It’s more’n a mite different from playin’ in a frontier town like I grew up in.”

“Bet a lot of things are different,” Ross grunted.

“Ain’t that the plain truth,” Joe said fervently. “Out there, ain’t more’n a few card sharps to go around, and they’re spread out across whole provinces. ‘Less one came to town, I never had anybody of my own caliber to play against, so the winnings were smaller but more consistent. Here? No shortage o’ high-rollers to compete with, once I found out where they like to hang. Means I don’t win nearly as much, ‘less I wanna try cheatin’, which is a good way to get yourself blackballed. Still, I do okay. The pots are bigger, an’ I take enough of ’em to pay my bills.”

“I’ll say!” Tallie replied, waggling her eyebrows. “I mean, just look at that suit! You’re so snazzy!”

“Thanks,” he said dryly.

“Is there an actual living in that?” Jasmine asked.

Joe shrugged. “If you’ve got a gift for it, there can be. Wouldn’t mind tryin’ my hand at somethin’ that gave a little more back to society, but it ain’t like I’ve got any better trade. All I know is poker and shootin’.” He frowned, eyes growing distant. “Same goes. There’s money in that if you’re good at it, but… Card sharping maybe ain’t the most honorable pursuit, but I’ll never kill anybody for such a dumb reason as money.”

“Killed a lot of people?” Ross asked after a pregnant pause.

Joe grunted and folded his arms. “One’s far too many.”

“Well, I think that’s just fabulous,” Tallie enthused. “This is the most precious thing I’ve ever seen. To our new friend, the littlest card shark!” She raised her glass in a toast. Joe gave her a flat look which hinted at the progressive decay of his patience.

“Sorry about Tallie,” said Rasha, pouring himself a second glass of rum. “She’s very sweet and a little abrasive. I haven’t decided if that should be ‘and’ or ‘but.’”

“Whose side are you on?” Tallie asked, affronted.

“Right now, I am on rum’s side.” He drained half his glass in one gulp.

“Slow down,” Jasmine suggested. “We have all evening.”

“I’m fine,” Rasha grunted. “This isn’t as strong as the stuff I was raised on.”

“We gotta go up four flights of stairs to leave,” said Ross. “Nobody wants to carry you.”

“I said I’m fine!”

“Rasha knows his business,” Tallie said, reaching across the table to pat his arm.

“So, you guys are with the Guild?” Joe said, glancing around the table at him. His inquisitive look settled on Jasmine, who didn’t meet it.

“Well, we’re just apprenticing at the moment,” Tallie said airily. “But hell yes we’re with them! You are looking at the four greatest future thieves ever to roll out of that casino!”

“There’s a colloquialism about counting unhatched chickens that I think applies here,” Jasmine commented.

“Oh, you, always naysaying.” Tallie flapped a hand at her face and had another drink of her rum. “You’ve gotta have confidence! Say it like you believe it, until you believe it, and then keep on believing it until it’s true! It’s all in setting the right goals—set ’em high enough, and the sky’s the goddamn limit!”

“Maybe there’s a little more to success than setting goals?” Jasmine said, her eyes on Rasha, who was pouring a third glass of rum.

“Jasmine, I like you and all, but you’ve gotta stop being the voice of reason. It cramps my style. Hey, why do we say ‘goddamn,’ anyway? Doesn’t that kind of imply only a single god? Wouldn’t ‘godsdamn’ make more sense?”

“Phonetically awkward and theologically inaccurate,” said Ross. “’Goddamn’ rolls off the tongue. Last consonant of the first word is the same sound as the first consonant of the second, so they chain together easily into a single word. I’ve heard ‘godsdamn,’ but it’s just harder to say.”

“Hm, yeah, you’re right,” Tallie agreed, rolling her mouth as if examining the flavor of the word. “Slower, and kind of awkward.”

“Also,” he continued, idly toying with his half-full glass, “notions like the Universal Church as an actual center of worship don’t date back much further than the Reconstruction. For most people, for most of history, there was only one god, or at least only one that mattered to each person.” He paused, blinked, and frowned; everyone at the table was staring at him. “What?”

“I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one sitting,” Jasmine explained.

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Stuff like that’s interesting to me. Trained with the Veskers for a while. Might still be there if I wasn’t so interested in stuff like the etymology of cussing.”

“To cussing, dammit!” Rasha said loudly, lifting his own glass.

“TO CUSSING!” Tallie roared, following suit.

“Did…they throw you out?” Jasmine asked hesitantly. “I mean, not to pry. You don’t have to answer.”

“Nah, I don’t mind,” Ross said with a shrug. “There’s room for weirdos with the bards; they don’t really throw you out. But if you’re into stuff they don’t think is appropriate… Well, bards are real good at making you uncomfortable without crossing any lines.”

“Really, they were that upset about your study of cussing?” Tallie asked, grinning broadly.

“Eh.” He shrugged again. “Really didn’t get bad till I talked with my language tutor about my hobby. Historical figures with names that turn real embarrassing in Tanglish.”

“Like who?” Tallie demanded avidly.

“Horsebutt the Enemy, for one,” Jasmine said dryly.

“Nah, Stalweiss honor names don’t really count,” Ross said, straightening up and putting his glass aside. He looked more animated than they’d yet seen him. “That’s just a different culture’s ideas what makes for an impressive portmanteau. Horsebutt, for example, makes perfect sense if you’ve been around horses; you’d know damn well which end of the horse not to mess with.”

Tallie burst out laughing so hard she nearly spilled her rum. Ross carried on despite that.

“It’s mostly orcish heroes, though there’s a few others in other human cultures. But the orcs are where the real gold is at. Like Warlord Buddux, or Slobbernock the Wise. That one’s old enough he might’ve been apocryphal. Modern orcish tends to go for shorter names.”

Tallie, by this point, was laughing so hard she was having trouble staying in her chair; even Joe and Jasmine were grinning in amusement. Ross didn’t go as far, but his expression was more relaxed than usual. He clearly enjoyed the attention.

“Yeah, well, the bards didn’t find it as funny,” he admitted with a shrug. “Bards’re big on respecting culture and language. Wasn’t like they were mean to me, I just… Y’know, didn’t feel I fit in, exactly. So, trying something else, here.”

“To the etymology of cussing!” Tallie crowed, lifting a glass which she didn’t appear to have noticed was now empty.

“And gaining new outlooks,” Jasmine agreed more soberly, nodding at Ross.

“Think it’s funny?” Rasha asked more quietly. “Laughing at people because they’re different?”

“It’s kinda mean,” Ross agreed frankly. “Not arguing that. But these people are long dead. And they didn’t think of themselves as what the names sound like to us. Just phonetic coincidence. That’s what makes it interesting to me.”

“It’s just a bit of fun, Rasha,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Nobody’s being wronged.”

He grunted, topping off his glass and raising it to his lips.

“Hey, are you okay?” Jasmine asked mildly, reaching across the table to slide the jug of rum out of his reach. Rasha either didn’t notice or didn’t react to this, polishing off his fourth glass of ale and thunking it back down onto the table, whereupon he stared accusingly at it.

“I’m s’posed to be,” he said bitterly. “That’s the whole point of all this, right? New place, new life, new…everything.”

“New skills, new friends, new connections,” Tallie agreed, still chipper but now not as exuberant, seeming to have caught some of his mood. “C’mon, Rasha, you’ve been here two days. This stuff takes time to do!”

“What if it doesn’t work?” Rasha asked in a plaintive whisper, clutching his empty glass in both hands and staring into it. “I can’t keep going like… I can’t. I’m here to become somebody who’s… Who doesn’t have to…”

“Take anybody’s crap,” Ross rumbled, nodding. “That’s what Eserion’s about.”

“Don’t care about anybody,” Rasha said, his lip trembling. “I’m sick of my crap.”

“Rasha,” Jasmine said gently, scooting closer to him. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m wrong.” Tears began to slide down his face, his thin shoulders shaking slightly. “I don’t fit, and I feel wrong all the time, like I’m not supposed to even be like this. I’m the wrong…wrong person, and life, and…” He squeezed his eyes shut, scrubbing the back of his sleeve across them.

“Okay, this is the most insensitive thing I’ve ever said, an’ I’ll apologize to him when he sobers up enough to appreciate it,” said Joe, glancing casually around at their surroundings. “But this really ain’t the place to break out cryin’. Some o’ the folk in here are just watchin’ for an excuse to jump on anything they see as weakness.”

The others followed suit, surreptitiously peering at the Den. Its noise and crowd seemed to be working in their favor; nobody appeared to have noticed Rasha’s inebriated breakdown, or to be paying them any attention at all.

“Yeah, so,” Ross mumbled, pushing back his chair. “This was fun, let’s do it again sometime. Good time to head home, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed, rising smoothly and laying a hand on Rasha’s shoulder. “C’mon, Rasha, let’s move out.”

Despite the lack of any direct opposition, not one of them questioned Joe’s warning. New they might be to the Thieves’ Guild proper, but they were all people who knew how the rougher element thought, and behaved. Rarely would anyone else seek out the service of Eserion.


“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed. “We are not in league with—um. That is, I mean… Basra who?”

“Herschel,” Principia said kindly, “hush.”

“Please,” Ami muttered.

“A good number of times in my life,” Principia began, “in fact, just about every time I found myself in a helpless position at the mercy of someone I didn’t like, they took the opportunity to make a speech about how much cleverer they were than I. Okay, not every time, but enough to notice a pattern. It is wholly obnoxious, but it looked like fun, so I’m gonna try it. Besides, you kids clearly need to be taken down a peg right now, for your own good.”

She folded her hands on the table and smiled pleasantly, keeping her body subtly angled to include both Schwartz and Ami in the conversation. Only the bard was physically hemmed into the booth by her presence; Schwartz could have simply stood up and left, but he just scowled sullenly, making no move toward the aisle.

“The last time I saw Ami, here, she was quite literally up to her neck and beyond in Basra’s schemes. Now, I realize you’re a Vesker, Ami dear, and not subordinate to her. Also I understood you were informed of exactly what she nearly did to you, and anyway, you no doubt have a life of your own. Just seeing you again doesn’t necessarily form any connection to the Bishop. However.” She turned her focus to Schwartz, who swallowed heavily. “Making the assumption of Basra’s place in this explains everything so very perfectly that I’m going to have to run with it.”

She rested an elbow on the table to point at him. “You, you claim, have an enemy—someone keeping your would-be turtledove in an abused position. My gods, Herschel, you’re talking about Jenell Covrin? I would never go so far as to claim anyone deserves the kind of shit she’s getting from Syrinx, but that girl could benefit from a few sharp slaps across the mouth in general.”

“Hey!” he barked. “I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head about—”

“And that’s confirmation,” Principia said smugly, cutting him off; he immediately looked abashed. Ami rolled her eyes. “So, you’ve linked up with Ami, here, another individual who’s suffered from Basra’s excesses, and the two of you are building a base from which to take her down. Oh, she’s a rotten piece who absolutely needs to go, but you can’t deny that for both of you there’s an element of personal revenge in this. Have I left out anything important?”

Again, she folded her hands, raising an eyebrow expectantly.

Schwartz and Ami exchanged a look, and then the bard sighed.

“Well, you seem to have covered the basics,” she said snidely. “Are you pleased with yourself?”

“You know, that is rather satisfying,” Principia mused. “I begin to see why all the villains in bards’ tales do it. I must start outwitting people more often. All right, you two, while I’m the last person who will ever argue in favor of Basra bloody Syrinx getting to wander around at liberty, doing whatever the hell she likes, I am strongly tempted to nip this thing in the bud right here. Largely because I can handle her, and I very, very much doubt that you two can. What I’m entirely confident of is your own belief that you’re capable of slaying the monster and rescuing the princess. You are, respectively, in love and attached to a faith which thinks the world runs on narrative. And you’re both barely out of your teens, which makes you invincible in your own minds.”

“My, she’s a condescending one,” Ami said archly. “Even for an elf.”

“Jenell is not a princess,” Schwartz muttered, “and she doesn’t need rescuing. She needs…backup.”

“Hm.” Principia drummed her fingers on the table. “That, at least, is evidence of some sense on your part. Jenell is somewhat trapped in her situation, but not because she has no possible exits. I’ve offered her one myself, and it wasn’t even the best option available to her. No, she’s there for the same reason you two are doing this foolishness; she wants to be the hero who brings down the villain. Well, there’s a lesson with that: heroes and villains aren’t a thing, and acting this way usually ends up with you firmly in your enemy’s clutches. Much like she is now. Right now, I am heavily inclined to go right to both your cults and tell them you’re plotting against the Avenist Bishop, just to get you two safely collared and out of harm’s way.”

“Are you quite done?” Ami demanded.

“No.” Principia sighed and shook her head. “Omnu’s balls, I’m starting to sound like Arachne. Damned Legions, making an officer of me… All right, listen. I have two questions, and the answers may—may, I say—prompt me to change my mind. I want to hear how you two got hooked up together in the first place, and I want to know who it is who’s been telling you,” she fixed a gimlet stare on Schwartz, “to befriend Eserites in preparation for taking on a creature like Basra.”

“Why?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because that’s very good advice. If you’ve been getting guidance from someone who knows what they’re talking about and is trustworthy… Well, that’s significant. So spit it out. Or shall I go straight from here to Bishop Throale’s office?”

Schwartz drew in a long, slow breath, his shoulders rising with tension, and then let it out carefully, most of the ire fading from his face.

“Abbess Narnasia Darnassy told me to seek out the Eserites,” he said finally. “She also told me to go to an elven grove and ask what anth’auwa means, which I’ve done, and to prepare myself with magic to combat a divine casters. Which…I am working on.”

Principia gazed thoughtfully at him for a long moment, then slowly leaned back against the wall of the booth.

“Narnasia,” she mused. “Yes…I can see it. She wouldn’t be fooled by Syrinx. And she doesn’t suffer evil for political advantage like Rouvad is willing to. All right, consider me…tentatively interested. I still have another question, if you’ll recall.”

“Well,” Ami said, tossing her head, “since that one calls for a story, I believe I shall take over from here, Herschel. If you’ve no objection?”

“Oh, by all means,” he said, waving a hand wearily. “Be my guest. I’m a little surprised you’re that willing to trust her, though.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she chided. “She has enough figured out on her own that it hardly matters, after all. And anyway, this isn’t an entirely unexpected development.” A feline little smile tugged at the corners of her sculpted lips, and she glanced coyly at Principia. “After all, we’re due an ally and mentor. It’s about that time in the story.”

“Oh, gods,” Principia groaned. “You kids are so dead.”

“Well!” Ami said, her tone suddenly airy and bright. “You know some of the lead-in, so I shall cut to the proverbial chase. It began for us in a townhouse in Vrin Shai…”


A place like the Den naturally had multiple bolt-holes; all of its entrances and exits were admirably discreet, and fortunately, Joe knew most of them. The group exited by a path which provided a somewhat gentler climb (albeit a longer and more roundabout one), and a less public exit than the one through the floor of the Stock Exchange. When they emerged into the alley behind the Exchange, the sky had darkened; at this time of year, night fell early, and despite the unseasonable warmth the air was sharp.

“All right, gimme a sec,” Ross said, carefully leaning Rasha against the wall. Jasmine and Tallie had both helped pull and push the drunken Punaji along, but Ross had taken on most of the effort. Rasha, who was sober enough to stand, but not to move consistently in any direction, had objected so loudly to Joe touching him that their new acquaintance had quickly backed off and not offered a second time.

“’m fine, gerroff me,” Rasha growled, trying to shove at Ross and succeeding only in tipping himself sideways. Tallie, fortunately, was hovering close enough to catch him.

“You were asking me why I don’t drink?” Jasmine said wryly to her. Tallie gave her a look, but didn’t reply.

“Gonna be a fun walk back to the Guild,” Ross grumbled. “Least it’s clean here. The hell kind of alley is this?”

“A discreet one,” said Joe. “Lots of junk piled at either end, with just enough space to slip through, but we ain’t the only people to make use of this exit. C’mon, it’s just gonna get colder from here, an’ it’ll probably rain before too much longer.”

“Doesn’t really look like rain,” Jasmine said, peering upward. The stars were invisible thanks to the city’s light pollution, but the sky didn’t appear to be overcast for once.

“It’s Tiraas,” Joe said pointedly. “It’s always gonna rain, unless it sleets instead.”

“Fair enough.”

“I’m sorry,” Rasha said tearfully, now leaning against Ross’s huge shoulder. “I runed th’whole night…” Ross sighed and patted him heavily on the head.

“No, you didn’t,” Tallie said. “Although, for future reference, we’re gonna have to limit your drinking. Can’t believe we let you down four glasses of that stuff. You’ve got the body mass of a starved squirrel, boy.”

“Don’ call me small!” Rasha flared up, flailing his arms so ineffectually it was impossible to tell what he was actually trying to do. “I’m not a boy! I’m not gay!”

Ross, again holding him upright, rolled his eyes.

“Alternatively,” Tallie mused, “we could let him finish getting drunk enough to go nice and unconscious. That might be easier. Did anybody think to grab the jug?”

“Easier for you, maybe,” Ross grumbled. “Something tells me you won’t be the one carrying him.”

“Good evening.”

All of them reflexively went still, even Rasha. Ross pressed him back against the wall with one hand, shifting his body in front of the smaller boy; Tallie and Jasmine both widened their stances, and Joe carefully shifted one side of his coat, his hand hovering near the wand holstered on his right hip.

Four figures had materialized out of the surrounding dimness, two from each direction. None were any taller than Jasmine’s shoulder, all where broad and blocky, and all were covered from head to foot in obscuring brown robes that appeared almost clerical. The one who had spoken was on their left, and moved a half-step in front of his nearby companion, continuing in a light Svennish accent.

“I hope the night finds you well,” he said politely. “We wish to have a brief conversation with you.”

“This isn’t the best time,” Tallie said warily, glancing back and forth. The two pairs of dwarves simply stood, the only menace being their obscuring costumes and the fact that they were completely cutting off the exits. They could get back into the Den, probably, but not without turning their backs on the dwarves to finagle the hidden doorway; it wasn’t even visible from this side, having swung shut behind them. “We’re taking our friend home. He’s had a couple too many, as you can see.”

“I think we c’n take ’em!” Rasha blurted, trying to stumble forward. Ross planted a broad hand in the center of his chest and shoved him back against the wall.

“Oh, this need not take long,” the lead dwarf said pleasantly. “You were present last night when an exchange of goods was disrupted by the Silver Legions. We require information regarding that.”

“We don’t have any,” Jasmine said evenly. “We’re just apprentices. We were just keeping watch and carrying boxes.”

“That is, of course, possible,” he said, his shrouded head bobbing once in a nod. “It is also possible that, in keeping with your thief-cult’s general pattern of behavior, you are lying. Either for specific reason or from a general desire to be troublesome.”

“Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren’t,” Tallie snapped. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? We’re done here. Excuse us, we need to leave.”

“Excuse us,” the dwarf replied, still politely, “but we will have to insist.”

As one, all four of them took a step forward, markedly shrinking the space between them and the apprentices.

Joe, in response, paced forward to stand next to Jasmine, facing the dwarves on the left while she faced the others.

“Gentlemen,” he drawled, “I haven’t the faintest idea what this is about; I’m clearly just in the wrong place at the wrong time, here. What I do know is that you have no idea the gravity of the mistake you’re makin’. Now, kindly step aside so we can leave.”

“Young man,” the speaker replied, “there is absolutely no reason this cannot be a perfectly civil exchange. If, however, you are determined not to meet us halfway, I will remind you all that no one knows where you are, and you are none of you important enough to your Guild that they will expend much effort to find you. Now, then—”

He broke off and tried to jerk back when Joe’s wands came up, but not fast enough. The beams of white light were almost blinding in the darkness of the alley, though they flashed for only a second. In that time, the other dwarves surged forward, producing cudgels and long daggers from within their robes, only to stop when Joe shifted his stance to point one wand in each direction, covering both groups.

The first dwarf was now clutching the remains of his robe, which had been neatly sliced along his outline by the wand beams and was trying to fall off him in pieces.

“Pardon my lack o’ manners in not tippin’ my hat, but as you can see, my hands are occupied,” Joe said grimly. “Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins, from Sarasio. You mighta heard o’ me.”

“Hooooo-leeee shit,” Tallie whispered, gaping at him.

The dwarf had given up on his robe, letting it fall to reveal a well-tailored suit covering his stocky frame; he contented himself with clutching the remains of the hood over his head, managing to mostly obscure his features, aside from a reddish beard trimmed just above his collarbone.

“You are a long way from Sarasio, young man,” he said curtly, “and have thrust your wands into matters well above your head. We are not here alone, and our disappearance will be noted—and responded to, swiftly and severely.”

“This is gettin’ to be oddly traditional,” Joe muttered. “Every good-sized city I visit, I end up shootin’ some nitwit in an alley. Buster, you’re standin’ here threatening members of the Thieves’ Guild. That does not say to me that you represent a particularly savvy organization.”

“And you are completely backwards in your thinking,” Jasmine added grimly, “if you believe the Guild won’t react to the disappearance of apprentices. Eserion’s people aren’t in it to steal; we’re training to humble the abusive, the powerful.”

“Damn right,” Tallie added, stepping forward. “You go picking on the Guild’s younglings, and there won’t be a place on this earth for you to hide.”

“Well,” the dwarf said in apparent calm, “that being the case, it does appear to be against our interests to let you leave here, doesn’t it?”

He shifted one hand to his belt; Joe’s wand snapped to cover him, but an instant later his fingers touched the shielding charm attached to the buckle, and a sphere of blue light flashed into being around him. The others immediately followed suit, the bubbles of arcane energy fizzing and crackling where they touched one another.

“All right,” Joe murmured, “gotta say, this could be trouble. I can burn through those shields, but not quickly, an’ takin’ on four dwarves hand-to-hand ain’t a winnin’ move.” He eased backward into Jasmine’s line of view and gave her a pointed look.

She sighed heavily, and clenched her jaw. “Understood.”

Before she could say or do anything further, however, the pounding of multiple booted feet sounded from their right. The dwarves on that side moved in an obviously well-trained pattern, one keeping his face to the apprentices while the other shifted to his back, facing that way.

Three Silver Legionnaires approached out of the darkness, un-helmeted but in armor. Four yards away, the elf in their center barked, “Form line!” Instantly, they shifted to a crouch, shields forward and lances aimed. It was a trifling size for a phalanx, but did effectively block the whole alley. And it was, after all, a shield wall bristling with spearheads.

“You,” the elf announced in a ringing voice, “will immediately deactivate those shields, turn, and depart this scene. You will do this to avoid the bloodshed which will ensue if we are forced to take you into custody.”

A beat of silence followed. The dwarves’ leader, still holding his severed hood, shifted his head minutely, studying the apprentices, Joe, and the Legionnaires. In the next moment, however, he took a step back, bowed politely, and touched his belt again. His shield flickered off, followed by those of his comrades.

“A pleasant evening to you all,” he said courteously. “We will continue this discussion another time. It is my fervent hope we can do so on the politest of terms.”

He and the dwarf beside him began backing away; the other two edged along the wall in front of the apprentices, urged by the continuing advance of the Legionnaires. Once both groups met up, they turned and departed as rapidly as they could without breaking into unseemly haste.

“Holy shit,” Tallie breathed, “I can’t believe I’m glad to see Legionnaires, after last night. And holy shit!” she added to Joe. “You’re the freakin’ Sarasio Kid!”

He sighed. “Miss Tallie, I was hangin’ around in the roughest dive in this city, clearly too young to be drinkin’, an’ dressed in a suit that cost more’n the places most of those galoots live. And yet, nobody even thought too hard about hasslin’ me. You didn’t happen to wonder why? No disrespect intended, but based on the Eserites I’ve known, you may wanna start talkin’ a little less and thinkin’ a lot more if you mean to advance in their ranks.”

“Wow,” she muttered. “I guess I’ll just shut up, then.”

“Stand at ease,” the elf said, and the Legionnaires straightened, lowering their shields and weapons.

“Hey,” said Ross, frowning, “you’re the ones who arrested us.”

“Thin’ we c’n take um,” Rasha burbled, slumped against his shoulder.

“Actually, a different squad arrested us,” said Jasmine, studying the soldiers closely. “These were from the squad who came to hand out punishment. What was it? Interfaith initiative? I’m finding it a challenge to believe that you just happened to be patrolling this alley at this time.”

“As well you should,” said the elf. “I am Corporal Shahai, and we’ve been looking for you. I believe you should consider how it was those dwarves managed to find you.”

“How did you manage to find us?” Tallie demanded.

“Persistence, luck, and elven hearing,” Shahai replied with a thin smile. “They, whoever they are, have only one of those advantages, and I am extremely suspicious of luck. Odd enough that we should have it in such quantity; that they should as well defies belief. That group is extremely well connected, and it would seem, extremely curious about those weapons they were attempting to buy.”

“Let me guess,” Tallie said slowly.

Shahai nodded. “The Sisterhood currently has custody of them, and are likewise very curious. It has proved impossible to tell, so far, what they do. Our squad hoped you could shed some light on the subject.”

“Not tellin’ you nuthin’!” Rasha blustered, pointing off to her right.

“Rasha, go to sleep,” Ross said wearily.

“We’re not tellin’ you nothin’!” Tallie added, pointing dramatically at Shahai.

“Tallie, shut up!” Ross exclaimed in exasperation. “Ma’am…uh, I mean, sergeant.”

“Corporal,” she corrected with smile.

“Right. Well, we don’t know anything about what those were, but we need to look up the guy who set up the trade and lean on him for our own reasons. We’ll find out what we can, and be glad to tell you whatever we learn.”

“What!” Tallie squawked.

“Connections,” Jasmine said quietly. “Not just in the Guild. Right?” She turned to fix Tallie with a firm stare. “We’re supposed to be building connections. Do you really not see how allies in the Silver Legions could be incredibly useful to us? In general, but also, apparently, right now. They aren’t the only interested party who thinks we know something about those staves.”

“And the other party are a lot less friendly,” Ross added in a low rumble.

“I…well…oh, fine,” she huffed, folding her arms. “I guess. I’m still watchin’ you, though!” She leveled an accusing finger at Shahai.

“Noted,” the corporal said mildly. “Your willingness to help is greatly appreciated; I have limited authority, but I’m confident our sergeant will fully reciprocate.”

“Is she actually in the Guild?” Ross asked, frowning.

“Yes, she actually is, and that creates complications when it comes to dealing with Eserites. You may not see her directly very much, but Sergeant Locke has our implicit trust. You can find us most of the time at the Third Legion barracks behind the Temple of Avei. How can we reach you, at need?”

“Uh…” Ross turned to the others. “That’s a good question. How can they reach us?”

“We can leave word at the Casino that any Legionnaires who come asking for us have legit business,” said Tallie, still looking miffed. “I dunno how much weight our say-so has, though. Something tells me the average thief’s urge to mess with the Legions weighs more.”

“It might generally be better if you wait for us to contact you,” Jasmine said wryly.

“So noted,” Shahai replied in the same tone.

“And corporal,” Jasmine added, “try firing one of those staves at a divine shield.”

Shahai fixed her with a sharp stare, and after a moment, nodded slowly. “Very well. I will pass that along to Sergeant Locke. Thank you, Ms…?”

“Jasmine.”

“Ah.” The elf nodded again. “Well met. With that, perhaps you would allow us to escort you out of this alley? I doubt you will be accosted again on the well-lit main streets, but…”

“That is an excellent point,” said Ross, picking Rasha up bodily and hoisting him over his shoulder.

“I dun’ need one!” the Punaji burbled ineffectually.

“Hey, uh…” Tallie turned hesitantly to Joe. “Those creeps know who you are now, too. Will you be okay? I mean, I know, that sounds kinda silly, you bein’ the Sarasio Kid and all…”

“Not silly at all,” Joe murmured. “The more complicated a situation, the less likely you can just shoot your way out of it. But I’m not without friends of my own. Tell you what, though, I believe I may just pay y’all a visit here pretty soon.” He glanced at Corporal Shahai. “Both groups.”

“You would be welcome,” she said with a smile.

As the motley group straggled back up the alley toward the busy street beyond, Nandi half-turned for a moment to look back and up.

Perched in a windowsill of the Exchange overlooking the alley, Grip grinned widely and waggled her fingers at her. Nandi turned without acknowledgment and continued on her way.

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