Tag Archives: Tricks

16 – 44

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“Why, hello, Juniper,” the Boss of the Thieves’ Guild said pleasantly, wariness in every line of his stance. “Are you lost?”

“Nope, I don’t think so!” she said with as much good cheer as she could muster. Juniper had developed a habit of quiet and calm, helped along both by elven and Omnist meditative practices and a series of traumatic epiphanies that had overshadowed her sunny disposition, but at the same time, she had not failed to notice the difference in how she was often treated these days, as opposed to her first year among mortal society. It was easy enough to put on a smile and a chipper tone of voice; it helped to put people at ease, right up until the moment when it started to make everything worse. For some reason it really unsettled people when she did something scary with a smile. “These are Avenists, right? Those Purist jerks who’ve been causing trouble?”

Tricks glanced fleetingly behind her at the priestesses, two of whom were trying to revive their collapsed comrade. “All due respect, little lady, but this is a private function. Tell you what, how ‘bout we offer you something to eat and a discreet ride out of the city?”

“Oh, thanks, but I’m not really hungry.” There were several audible sighs of relief from around the courtyard, which she ignored. “So I see you’ve got your own thing going on here, looks like pretty important religious business, right? I wouldn’t wanna intrude or anything. I’m just gonna take these three back to the Temple of Avei, then. Don’t mind me.”

“The fuck you say,” Style snarled, stomping forward as Juniper started to turn toward the Purists. “Bitch, I do not care who or what you are, this is the fucking Thieves’ Guild. You do not walk in here and give us orders.”

“Style,” Sweet warned.

“I’m afraid we do have a religious imperative not to be pushed around, Juniper,” Tricks added in a more careful tone. “That, in fact, is the very reason those three are here to begin with. It’s simply out of the question to allow—”

“Yeah, I don’t care about that,” Juniper said blithely. “My friends—you know, the paladins? All three of them?—have been working hard to straighten out the political situation with the Trinity cults and restrain the Church, and what you’re doing here would throw a big wrench in that. So, you’re not gonna, that’s all.”

“That a fact,” Tricks said quietly.

“This reminds me of a funny joke I heard!” Juniper kept her sunny smile in place and undiminished. “Where does a dryad sleep?”

That brought her a few moments’ pause, in which the three Guild officers in front of her visibly reconsidered their position; Glory was gently but firmly shepherding Rasha back toward the other apprentices and out of Juniper’s easy reach. A steady breeze of whispering and muttering passed over her from the thieves on all sides, in contrast the silence in the center. Juniper almost never heightened her senses to anything near an elf’s while in a city, as the noise made it impossible for her to think, but she did customarily keep her hearing more acute than the human norm, and picked up a lot of distinct commentary.

“Don’t even think about it, they’re a threat level eight. Even the Army doesn’t dare…”

“…the fuck does she think she is, comin’ in here…”

“One of ‘em ate my grandpa!”

“Why is it in the city!?”

“By Izara’s bloomers, would you look at the rack on her.”

“Put that away, she’s actually Naiya’s child! You wanna cause a fucking earthquake?”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind that being the last thing I ever saw, know what I mean?”

“Fuck that, anything bleeds if you…”

“Screw this, I’m out.”

“Why do the pretty ones gotta be so scary?”

She kept her eyes on Tricks, still smiling, and pretended she didn’t hear any of it. Somehow, even the (technically) complimentary remarks weren’t exactly flattering, but Juniper couldn’t begrudge the humans their fear. Especially since she was about to specifically lean on it.

Apparently Antonio, even if he couldn’t hear as clearly as she, knew people enough to see where this was going and stepped in.

“In case there was some ambiguity,” he said in a carrying voice, “Juniper is a dryad. If you don’t know what that means, the short version is dryads are the demigod offspring of Naiya, impervious to most harm and strong enough to slap you into a spray of giblets. The only thing worse than getting attacked by a dryad is attacking one; if you succeed in hurting a dryad, you’ve just pissed off mother nature herself. Anyone who survives that gets to explain to the government what happened that caused half the city to be smashed.”

That only intensified the muttering, unsurprisingly, but at least the angrier voices abruptly went silent. Which wasn’t to say that the anger itself was gone, especially right in front of her. Tricks was now studying her through narrowed eyes, the very picture of a man rapidly putting together a plan, but Style took one long stride forward, close enough to lean in and plant one thick finger against the medallion Juniper wore on a braided cord.

“I’m gonna assume you’ve got some idea how faith works if you’re walkin’ around wearing the symbol of one, nature girl,” the chief enforcer grated. “Whatever else we are, we are a faith. Our central tenet is not getting pushed around by people with power. So unless you wanna kick off that local apocalypse Sweet’s talkin’ about, you’d better back the fuck off.”

She got quite a few mutters and several shouts of approval. Juniper just tilted her head, studying the taller woman with her eyes kept deliberately wide in an expression she’d been told made her look childlike and innocent, an idea she found bizarre in the extreme. Here and now, there was an obvious rebuttal to be made to Style’s statement, to the effect that pushing people around was the entire rest of Eserite faith, but getting into an argument here would defeat the purpose.

“It’s Style, right?” she said pleasantly. “You beat up Trissiny one time, didn’t you? Pretty impressive! That’s not gonna happen today.”

She planted her palm against Style’s sternum, and immediately the enforcer shifted the hand prodding at Juniper’s medallion to grab her wrist and attempt some manner of skillful arm twist, which was exactly as efficacious as trying to put a tree in a headlock. In the next second her grip was ripped free of Juniper’s arm along with the rest of her as the dryad stepped forward, straightened her arm, and pushed Style fifteen feet through the air. The chief enforcer crashed into the front rank of thieves, bowling the lot of them over and causing a general outcry around the courtyard.

With Juniper’s strength being a magical effect causing her movements to have the full weight of a tree behind them when she so chose, stepping forward into a movement didn’t add force as it did for most martial artists. On the contrary, Professor Ezzaniel had worked with her extensively to control her strength, mostly by controlling speed, on the principle that force was a product of mass and acceleration. If Juniper hit someone, she could reduce them to pulp. Learning to fight mortals non-lethally had been much harder, and the method they’d developed hinged upon smoothly accelerating from a dead stop after she had already made bodily contact. The timing was tricky, but Ezzaniel had drilled her without mercy until she could launch a watermelon across the quad from a standstill without bruising it through a combination of tightly controlled speed and smoothly increasing her own force mid-motion. Not that it was a perfect art; Style was going to have a badly bruised sternum, and possibly cracked ribs—not to mention whatever happened when she landed on a pile of people—but hopefully it would be nothing a good healer couldn’t fix in moments. And at least she still had ribs.

Obviously, the onlooking thieves didn’t like that one bit. There was a great deal of shouting; weapons were brandished and more than a few people actually stepped toward her, forestalled only by Tricks himself taking a step closer to the dryad, raising both his arms with palms out toward the crowd in a clear order for calm. He kept his eyes on Juniper’s as he approached, and after a couple of seconds, the spectators quieted enough that a mob was less immediately likely. The smell of fear predominated over anger, but Juniper knew that was no guarantee against violence. People in a panic were often more dangerous than people in a rage.

“All right, you’ve made your point, Juniper,” Tricks said once the noise had quieted enough that he could be heard throughout the courtyard without raising his voice. “You okay, Style?”

“Fucking,” Style wheezed, struggling upright and roughly shrugging off the hands that tried to help her. “…gonna…” Sweet had already disengaged from the confrontation, striding over to her and lighting up with a soft glow of divine light. He wasn’t so easy to dissuade, and based on what Juniper had observed of him, was probably aiming to prevent her from retaliating as much as intending to offer healing.

“Style also has a point, of course,” Tricks continued, his gaze holding Juniper’s. “You may be invulnerable, but you’re not alone. Those three you’re so determined to protect from the consequences of their actions are made of soft, squishy humanity. Not to mention that you yourself came here with somebody who I bet is a lot easier to bruise.” He finally tore his eyes from her face to look down at Sniff with a significant lift of his eyebrows, before focusing back on her and indulging in a faint smirk. “Didn’t plan this all the way through before you stepped in, huh?”

Juniper immediately dropped her own smile, ignoring the several indrawn breaths that resulted from her suddenly blank expression. “I guess not,” she answered. “You’re not wrong. And if you hurt my pet, I will tear off your right arm and eat it in front of you.”

The dead silence which resulted was broken only by soft weeping from behind her; the three Purists were not handling this drama very well, despite no longer being the focus of it. Everyone else was just staring at Juniper, with no sign that they didn’t believe her.

Teal liked to say that a threat was, in and of itself, an act of violence. It was Trissiny who’d told her the most effective way to leverage them, which ironically was with the least violence possible. People expected threats to be delivered with passion, and were far more unsettled to hear an offer of terrible harm spoken with calm detachment. Juniper didn’t really understand why, expect that humans inherently didn’t like unexpected juxtapositions. At any rate, the Eserite technique Trissiny had taught her was to make statements, not threats.

And, most importantly, to mean them with absolute sincerity. Which she did. To judge by the chilled silence now surrounding her, it worked.

Tricks, after a moment, dropped his gaze to her chest, and for a change he wasn’t looking at her cleavage, but the golden sunburst medallion resting on it.

“That’s not very Omnist of you, young lady,” he said softly.

Juniper shrugged. “Omnu doesn’t expect perfection. Everyone fails; you just can’t let a sin become a habit. You’ll only be the second guy I’ve devoured alive while he screamed and begged me to stop, and it’s been a few years. I don’t think that counts as a pattern.”

Now people were shuffling backward, pressing each other toward the walls to gain precious inches of space from her. Not Tricks, though; he just held her gaze, and she made herself stare back despite the surge of self-loathing she was now riding out.

Teal, Trissiny and Gabe all had various methods they’d been taught for controlling their emotions and putting on a performance; even Shaeine had described the method of Narisian public face, though that seemed proprietary to the drow and she’d never offered to teach anyone. None of that had made a lot of sense to Juniper. Instead, it was just her own faith by which she kept her own expression even, despite the feelings raging in her. Omnism was big on meditative disciplines, which Toby had patiently walked her through, and practiced with her. What she was doing here flew against everything she had so laboriously tried to change about herself, invoking her own savage propensity to violence as a means of coercing someone; remorse, shame, and grief clawed at her from the inside.

But she acknowledged them, and let them go. Feelings were just that; they did not require a response, didn’t even have to stick hard enough to change one’s expression. Juniper wrapped that hard-learned stillness around herself like a warm coat, allowing her emotions to pass over her unimpeded, including the pride she felt at being able to do this. Just a few short months ago, the practice had been frustratingly difficult.

At any rate, it worked. She could see in the minute shifting of Tricks’s expression that he took her calm promise at face value.

But, as the seconds ticked past and his eyes bored into hers, he still failed to back down. In his squint she interpreted rapid thought as he tried to reason a way out of this. Why was he being so stubborn? All around them, the other watchers had clearly decided she was not a fight they wanted; no one else continued to offer her any resistance.

Juniper finally tore her own gaze off the Boss’s to study one side of the courtyard and the thieves clustered there, and in noticing that they were all watching her and Tricks, she finally realized her mistake.

This was not, as she had first assessed them, a single pack, bound together by emotional closeness and common cause. Of course not, the Thieves’ Guild was too big an institution to be so united. It was more of a…watering hole, a meeting place of multiple packs and herds and lone wolves. She stood amid a meeting of different factions and isolated individuals, all with their own agendas. Personal devotion was the lesser share of what kept Tricks in power; he also could not be seen as weak, or they’d turn on him. She had inadvertently pushed him right into a corner from which he could not do anything except order violence that they all knew would be hopeless.

Well, shoot. The god had asked her to neutralize the brewing conflict, not ignite it twice as hard. Fortunately, her realization of what was actually happening immediately suggested a solution she could still enact.

“You Eserites.” Slowly, Juniper turned in a full circle, dragging her gaze around the room and studying the various thieves disdainfully in passing. “So scary. All the rich and powerful are just so intimidated by your… What? Clubs and brass knuckles? I guess it works for you. ‘Cause after all, you do work in your nice, safe, clean cities, where other people are the worst things you’re ever gonna see.” She completed her revolution, coming back to face Tricks, but let her eyes slide over him, turning again to regard the assembled thieves. “None of you have ever actually come face to face with a real monster, huh?”

She turned further, tossing her hair and staring around at them, this time in an obvious challenge.

From behind her came a muffled curse, and then scuffing footsteps. Unhurriedly, Juniper turned around to regard one of the thieves approaching her with a deep scowl, fitting a set of spiked iron knuckles onto his right hand. Just the sight of him told his story: he was taller than she and far wider, thickly muscled, with a twice-broken nose, cauliflower ear and a scar over one eyebrow.

She turned to face him fully and just stared as he came. In seconds, his expression faltered, and then his steps did.

Juniper made herself see, not a man, but prey. Taking in his size and build, the distribution of fat and muscle, she knew what the meat would taste like, how tough it would be to chew. How much energy it would give her, and how long it’d be before she felt like eating again. She knew the temperature of fresh blood, the smell of it. Where and how to exert pressure to deliver a quick death—or not to, simply incapacitate the prey so the heart kept pumping and the meat stayed fresher and more tender while she began eating.

She was not good at putting on false faces, but Juniper had a real one that could be a thing of horror. A street soldier like this man possessed an animal cunning of his own, instincts that enabled him to sum up people at a glance; they were enough to warn him, when she held those thoughts in the forefront of her mind, that he was not looking at a person. Meeting her utterly dispassionate gaze as it weighed him, he found himself staring into the eyes of an apex predator, and by pure instinct, stopped approaching.

“Uh, Rowdy?” said another voice from across the courtyard, “I really wouldn’t. This may be a good time to mention that dryad was at Ninkabi. Hey, it’s me, Thumper!” he added irritably in response to a round of scoffs from nearby. “You think I’m gonna forget a woman who looks like that? Seriously, I saw her kill a baerzurg demon by punching it. Y’know, one of those big armored ones that’re, uh…invincible?”

Slowly, the now-unnerved looking enforcer began to edge backward. Juniper turned to find that Tricks had also retreated to join Sweet and Style among the crowd. Because she’d accomplished her goal, buying him the opportunity to do so. He hadn’t backed down from her; the entire Guild had. Not one of them was in a position to call him out for it.

Movement caught her eye. Between two heads in the crowd was suddenly Eserion’s face; the god mouthed Thank you, then vanished in a shift of the throng.

Juniper heaved a sigh, shook her head, and turned to stare at the Purists. “Well, all right then, now for you.”

“Please don’t!” one shrieked, covering her face with her arms in a singularly counterproductive survival strategy, while one of her compatriots screamed wordlessly and the other just wept.

“Oh, shut up,” Juniper exclaimed, giving vent to her exasperation. After the last few minutes it felt good to just express what she was actually feeling. “I’m not gonna eat you! If I wanted you dead, why would I go to all this trouble? You three are going back to the Temple of Avei so Commander Rouvad can do some justice on you. After the crap you jackasses have been doing, that’s probably gonna be no fun at all, but it’ll be a lot better than what you were about to get here. Or what would happen if it was up to me. But it’s not, that’s the entire point. You get real justice, from somebody who’s authorized to actually hand it out, and you’re not gonna give me any sass about it. Right?”

All three of them quivered and stared at her mutely, and she sighed again.

“Okay, here’s how it is: dryads aren’t build for sprinting, see? So if you try to run away from me, I’ll have to have my friend here chase you down, and that’ll be a problem for you. Sniff, show ‘em your claw.”

Sniff paced forward, causing the trio to edge away from him, but they wisely stared at the proto-bird as he, fanning his short wings for balance, balanced on one leg and extended his other foot toward them. He had birdlike talons—mostly. One of his claws was considerably oversized in relation to the others, and murderously hooked, a natural weapon designed to rend flesh.

“Thank you, Sniff,” Juniper said primly. “His species evolved so that if they’re chasing something down, it’s to kill and eat it, see? He’s not good with catching things, exactly. So if you try to run, it’ll end with you lying in the street in a puddle of your own entrails. And if you make me have to explain that to the police, I’m gonna be really annoyed! We understand each other?”

“Thank you!” the least rattled of the priestesses blurted. “We won’t—you’ll have no—we’ll go— Uh…thank you.”

“Good.” Juniper nodded once and slipped her enchanted ring back on, changing her coloring to a Tiraan average. She wasn’t built like most Tiraan in the face or figure, but it seemed the majority of humans didn’t look beyond coloration when casually sizing each other up.

She strode past them to the big double doors that apparently opened onto the alley beyond, leaving Sniff to hover around the terrified Purists. Herding wasn’t something she’d trained him to do, exactly, but Sniff was extremely smart and their druidic bond enabled him to pick up on a lot more of her intentions than a normal animal; she trusted him to help chivvy their prisoners in the right direction as needed. For now, Juniper stopped in front of the gates. They were heavy, solid, and locked.

“Any of you wanna help me out here?” she asked, turning to look over her shoulder at the assembled thieves. The crowd was already smaller as some of them had started to sneak off back into the Casino. Those remaining just stared at her, offering no response. “Well, okay,” she said with a shrug. “It’s not my house.”

Juniper had to spread her arms fully to grasp one of the doors, sinking the fingers of one hand into the crack between the two and the other between it and the wall. But with that done, all it took was bracing her legs and pulling. The wood groaned in protest for a moment, and then with a terrible clatter the lock burst open. She’d pulled from both sides, though, and when one of the upper hinges was ripped out of the stonework, she decided to just run with that instead of trying to swing the damaged door normally. Another yank ripped it fully off, leaving the other now-unsecured door to swing a few feet open.

Juniper trotted over to the wall and leaned the towering wooden gate against it, then turned around, dusting off her hands.

“Well?” she said imperiously, staring at the cowed Purists, and pointed at the opening she’d just created. “Go on. Out.”

They hesitated, and then Sniff hissed loudly from his position at their backs. A moment later, their odd little group was leaving the silent Thieves’ Guild behind.

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16 – 43

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“So he’s at least making an effort to keep all this on the level,” Grip explained as they strode rapidly up the sidewalk toward the Imperial Casino looming ahead. “Not gonna commence any proper beatdowns until there’s public confirmation, and that buys us some time while they get Rasha down there to ID her attackers. Hopefully more than some, if Glory’s got the sense to stall this.”

“Glory’s got no shortage of sense,” Sweet agreed. “Rasha’s no fool, either, and they’re both aware of the broader stakes, here. I don’t think Glory will go so far as to try to stymie Tricks outright, though.”

“Yeah, me either, but she really doesn’t need to. Better for us all if Tricks is persuaded to ease up on this, rather than making it a power struggle between him and…hell, anyone. Glory won’t make it any easier for him even if she doesn’t put her foot down.”

Sweet nodded. “So, you’re in the loop on this, Grip. Who else?”

“Pretty much goddamn everyone,” she said grimly. “He’s doing this in public, Sweet. Making a big fucking spectacle. Anybody working at the Guild itself knows, and everybody not actually on shift at the Casino’s come to gawk. At least, the ones who haven’t run to spread the word, and bring more rubberneckers home to see.”

“Shit,” he said with feeling. Grip nodded mutely. Neither felt a need to voice the obvious: the more people were there to watch Tricks put on the show he was arranging, the more pressure he was under not to back down. With effectively the entire local Guild looking on, it might not be possible to talk him down without posing an outright challenge to his leadership.

And the day had started so well, he reflected in resignation. Unless Sweet or someone else managed to come up with something extremely clever on the fly—or, as a dim part of him still dared to hope, Tricks was employing one of his classic fakeout schemes and not doing the damn fool thing he appeared to be doing—this could very well result in him having to topple the Guild’s leadership before lunch.

He didn’t know if it was better or worse that he stood a good chance of pulling it off. Webs and his faction were explicitly behind him, and he was reasonably sure Glory would lend her own influence if it came to a confrontation. Sweet, Webs, and Glory were the biggest players in Tiraas who dealt in networking and influence specifically, so that was as good as cinched. Grip famously disdained politics but her first instinct had been to come get him, which boded will for his support among the rank and file. Even Style, loyal as she was to Tricks, was recently questioning the Boss’s actions, and she had no reason to be negatively disposed toward Sweet. Yeah, he could almost certainly win that contest.

Damn it, he didn’t want to be Boss again. Quite apart from being personally done with the job, he was right now urgently needed in his role as Bishop. Even as they were dealing with this, the paladins were moving into position to launch their political attack on Justinian and upset the entire order of the Universal Church.

Sweet almost missed a step. How had he failed to put that together before now? Could Justinian have arranged this? He didn’t see how, but clearly something was up with Tricks and possibly the Big Guy himself. It was too perfectly timed to be a pure coincidence at the best of times, and where Justinian was concerned, coincidences never seemed to be just that.

“And speaking of rubberneckers,” Grip added after a dour pause, “does she really need to come?”

Sweet glanced back at Juniper, who managed to give him a smile despite being visibly somewhat out of breath due to their rapid pace.

He knew little about dryads, but it stood to reason that a tree spirit wouldn’t fare well moving at speed over a prolonged period. Some kind of metaphysical effect like that was the most probable explanation for her discomfort, as he had spent much of the previous night discovering that Juniper did not lack stamina or the capacity for physical exertion. She certainly wasn’t doing their discretion any favors, as even the jaded urbanites of Tiraas all had to stop and stare at her passing. The dryad was wearing a disguise ring that changed her coloring to a human normal, otherwise they’d be in deep trouble already, but even so, she was walking through the icy midwinter air in a short, elven-style dress with no sign she felt the cold. Moreover, striding along at her side was a hound-sized bird with a tail half again his length, which drew even more stares than her odd attire. Sniff, blessedly, was a well-trained specimen of whatever he was, sticking silently at his mistress’s side and not spooking or lashing out at the startled cries they passed, or the occasional child who unwisely tried to pet him.

“Don’t feel the need to push yourself if you’re having trouble keeping up, June,” he suggested with a kind smile.

“Oh, don’t worry about me!” Her voice was a bit breathless, but she smiled cheerily back and didn’t falter. “This is nothing. I should tell you about racing across half the Golden Sea sometime. That was a trial.”

“Right. Well, we are going to a fairly sensitive Thieves’ Guild…function. Most of the people there aren’t going to be really comfortable involving outsiders.”

“That’s okay,” she said brightly. “I’m with you!”

Sweet turned his eyes back forward, mulling. He didn’t know Juniper well, except in the purely physical sense. Obviously she wasn’t stupid; whatever else it might be, ULR was academically competitive. On the other hand, it wasn’t known for producing politically cunning graduates. There were institutions of higher learning which had that reputation, but Last Rock alumni were more known for being idiosyncratic. He simply didn’t have enough context to guess whether she was just a blithe fairy unfamiliar with human social nuances and failing to pick up the subtext here, or deliberately pretending to be.

Grip, as usual, favored an approach which sidestepped such dilemmas entirely.

“He means this is Thieves’ Guild business, and none of yours,” the enforcer snapped. “You should go back to wherever you came from. It doesn’t concern you.”

“This is about Church politics, though,” the dryad puffed, not slowing. “This whole thing Trissiny and the guys have been trying to straighten out all week, right? I’d better come keep an eye on it.”

Grip’s face settled into a calculatedly mulish stare she used on fools who needed a relatively gentle push out of the way rather than those who posed a significant threat, which warned Sweet that she didn’t appreciate what she was dealing with here. “Listen, you—”

“Grip,” he interrupted, “there’s an old joke about situations just such as this. Where does a dryad sleep?”

The enforcer hesitated, then scowled furiously and turned her own attention forward again, mutely leaving Juniper to trot along behind them. That was another thing neither of them needed to answer aloud:

Anywhere she wants.

This couldn’t be the first time Grip had come up against someone she could neither coerce nor intimidate, but it surely wasn’t a common experience for her. Nonetheless, the situation remained what it was. Sweet himself could possibly (probably, he figured) persuade Juniper to butt out and go about her business, but they simply didn’t have time to deal with the distraction.

So the two thieves and the dryad rushed into the Guild and the very heart of this fresh disaster.


It wasn’t happening deep in the shadowy bowels of the Guild proper, which was both good and bad. Tricks had assembled the thieves and his prisoners in an enclosed courtyard behind the Casino, a space occasionally used for events such as this but more commonly dedicated to receiving cargo for the kitchens. Doors opened on two sides into warehouses and larders, and a huge, sturdy wooden gate on the exterior wall faced a broad alley behind, wide enough to admit trucks and only not a street in its own right because all the buildings lining it faced the other way, with only their own rear delivery portals opening onto it.

This was good because it was a quasi-public space, open to the air in the only part of the district likely to be trafficked by people the Eserites respected—servants and teamsters, not the fancy rich who entered the Casino’s front doors. That suggested Tricks wasn’t planning to do anything which would result in a lot of screaming. It was bad because Tricks’s actions were neither logical nor in keeping with his own customary patterns, and if he was about to make a truly ugly spectacle, the ramifications could hurt the Guild’s perception in more eyes than those of the Sisters of Avei.

Sweet arrived in the nick of time, striding out of the storeroom entrance to find the loading area thronged on all sides with thieves, surrounding the spectacle of their Boss as he stared down three miserable-looking women in the vestments of the disbanded Purist sect. Their swords had been confiscated, obviously, but they’d been allowed to keep their uniforms on, chain mail and all.

Without hesitating, he pushed right through the onlookers to the unfolding drama in the center, where Boss Tricks was already in the process of grilling Rasha.

“Yes, I’m sure,” the apprentice was saying, her eyes on the three Avenists, expression clearly unhappy. “But Boss, I don’t want—”

“Then that’s all we need from you, Rasha,” Tricks said, gently and briefly patting her on the shoulder. It was one of those little touches that reminded Sweet his longtime friend and ally was still the man he’d always known, skilled at offering a bit of comfort where it was called for but mindful of Rasha’s history and how women in her position were often leery of being touched by men. “I’m sorry to have dragged you out here and especially for making you relive that bullshit, but absolute certainty was necessary. You’re welcome to stay if you want the satisfaction, but don’t feel any need.”

“Boss,” Rasha said more forcefully, causing Tricks’s attention to snap back to her face. “Am I or am I not the aggrieved party, here?”

Tricks blinked once, raising his eyebrows. “Well, of course. I didn’t think that was in question.”

“In that case, I believe I’m owed a say in what happens to them?”

The three priestesses clustered closer together; Sweet didn’t know what kind of night they must have had, but he saw none of the backbone he was accustomed to in Avenists. They were hollow-eyed, bedraggled, and at least one had clearly been weeping recently. Gods above, how bad had Tricks made this already? Was it too late to prevent the situation from getting even worse?

A stir went through the crowd at Rasha’s words, Eserites shifting closer in malicious anticipation of watching vengeance unfold even as the prisoners pressed into each other. Sweet came to a stop within two yards of the Boss; Tricks acknowledged him with a glance before again focusing on Rasha, and Sweet took the opportunity to take a quick visual census. Style, of course, loomed behind the Boss with her arms folded, wearing a leather-and-fur ensemble that looked almost Shaathist and a thunderous scowl. Glory herself had actually stirred from her nest for this and also stood at hand, right alongside her apprentice in a clear show of support. He noted her other three apprentices hovering in a knot in the crowd, alongside Jenell, to whose side Grip had just silently returned. Juniper had, fortunately, stopped just inside the courtyard to watch, behind the back row of thieves. Good; Sweet wasn’t worried about her being recognized, but that bird-thing of hers was going to start drawing attention the second somebody noticed it.

Webs was not in evidence, of course, it being his habit to deal with people only from his own secure ground. Thumper and Gimmick, however, were both across the courtyard in the front ranks; both looked right at Sweet and nodded once with significant expressions. He did not nod back, for the same reason he didn’t let out a sigh of sheer annoyance. Honestly, he understood that those two were specialists and not in political maneuvering, but they’d both been on multiple infiltration missions. Had absolutely everybody forgotten the value of basic discretion today?

Tricks was regarding Rasha solemnly, his jaw working as he mulled an answer with care before finally speaking.

“You’re not wrong, Rasha. I will definitely hear you out, and you’ll be accommodated if possible. But this, I’m afraid, goes beyond just you and them. This is a matter for the Guild as a whole. The one thing for which we can absolutely not show the slightest tolerance is the deliberate and knowing assault of one of our apprentices. For this, we require blood.”

An ugly growl stirred through the crowd, accompanied by several louder jeers and catcalls.

“Is blood more important than justice?” Rasha asked, her quiet tone a deliberate counterpoint to the growing intensity of the onlookers. Sweet noted, with approval, Glory’s secondhand techniques at work.

“We don’t deal in justice,” Tricks said with a sardonic little smile. “That’s Avenist business. I know you’ve been taught our doctrines on retribution, Rasha. When dealing with beasts like these, we employ pain, and fear. That’s all they can understand.”

“Yeah, no argument there,” Rasha said, turning to dispassionately regard the three beleaguered Purists. “They look plenty scared already, to me.”

“Not enough,” Tricks stated, his voice cold. “What’s your request, Rasha?”

“Avenist business, like you said,” the apprentice replied. “I want this to be done with, Boss. Roughing these up is going to cause no end of trouble, and just…look at them. Look at these dregs.” she shot the priestesses another look, filled with pure contempt. “They’re not worth it. The Guild shouldn’t be so much as inconvenienced over the likes of them. Send them back to the Temple of Avei. Let these assholes be Rouvad’s problem.”

Glory, now, laid a hand on Rasha’s shoulder, her face lighting up with approval and pride. Sweet was equally impressed; he hadn’t followed Rasha’s progress closely, but Glory had clearly taught the girl how to work a room. In the space of a few sentences, much of the tension had leeched from the crowd, and now a number of the watching thieves were nodding in agreement.

Not the Boss, however.

“I see your point,” he said, already shaking his head, “but on this, we can’t bend. It is an inviolable rule. They went after a Thieves’ Guild apprentice. There has to be punishment. There has to be fear. That fear is the only reason any apprentice of the Guild is left in peace long enough to be fully trained. If the bastards aren’t afraid to come after you…you’ll be cut down before you have a chance to fight back.”

“I also know the Guild’s codes on retribution, Boss,” Glory said, her smooth voice projecting over the stir in the watching crowd. “We retaliate only when it both brings satisfaction and serves a purpose. What purpose does this serve?”

“Seriously?” Tricks replied, shooting her an annoyed look. “I’m pretty sure that’s exactly the thing I just explained.”

“Not really,” she said, arching an eyebrow. “How does beating up these spread fear? They are already terrified witless. The Purists are simple bullies; there’s nothing to them but inner weakness and a pitiful desire to project it onto others. The work here is done, Boss. Going further would be nothing but a provocation against the Sisterhood of Avei, at exactly a moment when we need their support.”

“Ah, yes,” Tricks said, his voice soft but carrying. “Politics. The old bugaboo we can never quite get away from. But there’s a line, Glory. A point comes where principle has to win out. As long as I’m Boss, I’ll decide where the line is drawn, and I draw it at assholes attacking our apprentices.”

The muttering swelled again, once more accompanied by a few shouts. Rasha kept admirable composure, but the wide-eyed look she gave Glory revealed her growing nerves. Glory herself drew breath to continue, but Sweet could already tell that was futile; clever as she was with her tongue, Tricks was equally so, and a contest of verbal acuity was pointless when only one contestant had the authority to order an end to it.

“Where’d you get them, Tricks?” he asked, lightly but loudly.

Everyone turned to look at him, the Boss himself with a faint lowering of his eyebrows. At any other time, Sweet would have assumed it was strictly performative; Tricks was too good to reveal what he was feeling. But then, he could usually tell when Tricks was playing a game, unless he snuck up on him in one of those disguises he loved so much. Now, he had the unsettling feeling his old friend was exactly as close to the frayed end of his rope as he seemed.

“That’s in the category of business you don’t need to worry about, Sweet,” the Boss said brusquely.

“Cos the way I heard it, these were last seen being hustled away by the Huntsmen of Shaath. Right?” Sweet turned to Rasha, who nodded emphatically. “Specifically, the Orthodox faction that’s loyal to the Archpope. The Archpope who we’re within a hair’s breadth of proving set up the Purists in the first place to fuck with the Avenists. The Avenists who got this trouble dumped on them specifically for sharing our position with regard to Justinian’s fucked up shenanigans in the Church.”

“Sweet,” Tricks warned.

“And now I gotta wonder,” he pressed on, “how the hell you got them from Shaathist custody to yours in the space of one night. Did you actually kidnap three hostages out of a lodge, or the Cathedral itself? Because that’d be a feat so incredible I’m pretty goddamn sure nobody in this Guild has the capacity to pull it off.”

Nods from around the courtyard. Eserites did not deal in kidnappings, for both doctrinal and pragmatic reasons. Professional ethics aside, it was messy to steal anything that could think and fight back.

“And the other option,” Sweet pressed on, staring at Tricks unblinkingly, “is that they were given to you. By Justinian’s Huntsmen.”

Silence. The crowd seemed to hold their breath.

“Hey, you’ve gotta protect your sources, I know how it works,” Sweet said with deceptive lightness when Tricks just glared at him. “No worries, I know who else I can ask. Hey ladies! A moment of your time?”

He had actually turned and taken a step toward the captive priestesses when the Boss answered in a much sharper tone.

“Do you wanna be Boss, Sweet?”

At that, he had to stop and turn back to him.

“I’m not challenging you—”

“That is not what I asked you,” Tricks snapped. “Do you want to be Boss again? Because quite frankly, Sweet, I’m pretty sure I enjoy sitting in the big boy chair even less than you did. If you want the job, you just say the word any damn time. We’ll go invoke the Big Guy’s presence and get it done, and that’s a promise. But until you say the word, I am still Boss. I’m the one who has to keep the big secrets and handle the ugly shit nobody else wants to do. As long as that’s the case, you can either fall in line, or shut your mouth. Those are the options, Sweet.”

“This doesn’t need to be a whole thing, Tricks,” Sweet said, facing him fully and not breaking eye contact. “I wouldn’t’ve backed you for Boss in the first place if you hadn’t more than earned my trust. All I’m asking is some reassurance. Tell me there’s more going on here than I know. Tell me you’re not swiping at obvious, low-hanging bait dangled by an enemy of the Guild. Because it looks like you’re letting yourself fall for a brazen con, and I know you’re way too smart for that. Just let me know what else is up, that you’re not about to undo every bit of my work for the last half a year and plunge the Guild into an unwinnable fight for fucking nothing. Come on, Tricks, that’s not much to ask. Is it?”

Tricks stared back at him.

The silence stretched out, until someone else pushed forward into the center.


“Whoof, what a mess.”

Juniper was watching Antonio push forward into the unfolding confrontation, where the Boss of the Guild was grilling Trissiny’s friend Rasha about three miserable-looking priestesses huddled together in the center of the courtyard. She could barely see between the heads of the crowd anyway, even though she was taller than most human women. It was no great loss to turn and regard the person who’d suddenly spoken immediately to her left, and then she had to stare.

He was a scruffy-looking Tiraan man of indeterminate age, wearing (oddly enough) a tuxedo with the neck open and untied cravat hanging down his chest. Sniff flattened his crest, staring up at the man in clear unease. Juniper, for her part, didn’t recognize him, but she could perceive at a glance what he was. Given his presence here of all places, that pretty much told her which one.

“But don’t worry,” Eserion continued in the same low tone, giving her a wink, “I have a plan. Now, thing is, it’s a pretty bad plan. Countless steps, lots of moving parts, no end of people to manage. A whole big thing, know what I mean?”

“Trissiny says the best plans are simple plans,” she replied carefully. “She said any plan with more than three steps is a daydream.”

They were speaking quietly, but not whispering, and yet none of the thieves immediately around seemed to be aware of them. It was odd that no one had reacted to Sniff yet. In the middle of the courtyard, the well-dressed woman with Rasha had just interjected, but her voice wasn’t so loud as to drown out their soft conversation in the back.

“Thorn’s a smart cookie,” the god agreed with a pleased grin. “Not one of our best people by far, at least not yet, but she learned from some of the best. Knows her theory. Yeah, this whole business has me really stretching my legs; gotta run around putting out fires, make a million little corrections when shit starts to go belly up. You see how it is. That, now, is another example.”

He nodded toward the drama unfolding up ahead, where Antonio had just interrupted the conversation. Juniper was only following with half an ear, but it didn’t even take that to see the quickly ratcheting tension between the Bishop and the Boss.

“Case in point,” Eserion said more quietly, his expression sobering as he watched the unfolding argument. “That’s a confrontation that needs to happen. But not now, not yet. It gets impossible to keep the timing straight, y’know? Right now, what I need is to put a complete halt to this whole affair, slap a hard wall between Tricks and Sweet and get those damn Purists out of here.”

He turned back to her with an amiable grin.

“So! Can I ask a favor, June, honey?”

“I’m…still very much learning how to use fae magic,” she said carefully. “I’m just a novice. Last night was the first time I felt spirits actually tell me I should do something, but they did, so I stuck with Antonio like they said. Did you have something to do with that?”

“It’s my policy not to mess with Naiya’s little helpers,” he said, winking again. “Honestly, I never really find a reason to, anyway. So long as I’m not up to any bullshit I shouldn’t be, it usually turns out their nudgings line up with mine. That being the case! If you’re willing to do me a solid, how about you go put a stop to all this?”

A chilly silence had fallen; she glanced aside to see Antonio and the Boss locking eyes. Juniper nodded once to Eserion, then turned and pushed her way none too gently through the crowd. So heavy was the atmosphere in the courtyard that few of the discommoded thieves even protested beyond irritated mutters, though a couple cursed as they caught sight of Sniff pacing alongside her.

She stepped out into the center, her sudden appearance causing everyone to turn their gaze on her, and took off her disguise ring.

That prompted a general outcry; enough people knew the basics about dryads to recognize when her green hair and golden skin meant. Juniper had found that even among humans not inclined to get it, her recent preference for elven attire often helped them connect the dots for some reason. Thieves pressed back away from her and Sniff, many cursing or shouting. She could smell shock and fear suddenly rising. And, oddly enough, more than a handful of cases of arousal, interlaced with nuances of scent that her sexual senses parsed as belonging to people particularly attracted to the monstrous and dangerous. Actually, there were a lot more of those scattered around than she’d have expected from a crowd of the general public this size.

Eserites. Who knew?

She strode forward to plant herself in the middle of the space, equidistant between the three prisoners and the knot of Guild leadership who were now staring at her in dismay, and put on her sunniest smile.

“Hi! I’m Juniper!”

One of the Purists fainted.

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16 – 18

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“What the hell, Tricks?”

“Oh, don’t ‘what the hell’ me,” the Boss retorted scathingly. “What’re you suddenly so squeamish about, huh? The Falconers aren’t any of your business, Sweet, and just because you’ve got a paternal streak for Thorn doesn’t mean the Guild owes her so much as a say-so when planning jobs in her vicinity. I dunno what you’re getting so worked up over.”

Sweet stared at him, finding himself at a loss for words. Not for the first time in his life, but it was a very rare condition for him.

“You don’t…know. What I’m worked up over.”

“He’s not that worked up, Boss,” Style rumbled, regarding Tricks sidelong from where she stood against the room’s door. The counting room was busy at this hour, and this was no business which merited the use of Eserion’s inner sanctum, so they were speaking in the map room just off the central training pit.

“Whose side are you on?” Tricks demanded, giving her a grin that took any rebuke out of the question. Style, for once, didn’t respond to it, just studying him in silence.

“Okay.” Sweet held up both hands. “Okay, forget about the politics. Forget the Falconers, Duchess Madouri, Tar’naris, and all the delicate ongoing plots we have with each of them that might’ve been upended by this scheme.”

“Y’know, Sweet, there’s no point in saying ‘forget the politics’ if you just go and recite them all.”

“Trust me, that was the forgetful version; we could go into each at length. But seriously, never mind that. Boss, you sent two of our people to piss off fucking Vadrieny as directly and personally as they possibly could short of playing grabby hands with her wife. And you didn’t warn them she was even a factor! So yeah, I will goddamn well say it again: what the hell, Tricks?!”

“Just because I’m stuck doing desk work now doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew about planning a job,” Tricks retorted. “Everybody I send out knows exactly what they need to. Teal Falconer is the kind of annoying pacifist who— Well, did you know she was actually bullied as a teenager? Girl could’ve had someone killed using just her allowance, and she let the children of her father’s employees push her around. That demon is as good as housebroken and has been for years.”

“Jasper is in the goddamn hospital!”

“Oh, you know Jasper pretty well, huh?” Tricks asked, grinning humorlessly. “Get up to Madouris a lot lately, do ya?”

“What the fuck does that have to do with—”

“Just that this is the Thieves’ Guild, Sweet. If I plan a job that puts somebody in the hospital, you ever consider that maybe they ought to be put there?”

Sweet stared at him for a moment, then pointed at Style. “Isn’t that her job?”

“I cannot fucking send Style to smack every head that needs it, much as she might prefer that.”

“I just…” Sweet rubbed at his temples. “Tricks, you don’t send Guild members into horrific danger without warning them what they’re in for! A job they’re not fully prepared for is gonna fail, that’s basic—”

“Sweet,” Tricks said flatly, taking a step closer to him, “I give you a lot of leeway, because we both know you’ve earned it and you’re worth it. But and the end of the day, you had your turn as Boss. You don’t tell me what to fucking do.”

They stared at each other in silence, Trick’s face expressionless while Sweet frowned in consternation.

“Right,” Style drawled after a few tense moments. “Should I call the twins in here to grow a tree for you two to piss on?”

“Look,” Tricks said in a softer tone, stepping forward again. This time, though, he reached out to grasp Sweet by the shoulder. “You do remember what the job’s like, Sweet. Sometimes you gotta keep people in the dark. There are things I have to do that I can’t explain to people, and the role of Boss sure as hell comes with hard choices to be made. That’s all right there in the job description. I get how you can feel left out of the loop sometimes, I do. But I do what I gotta do, and ultimately? You either trust me to do the job, or you don’t.”

He paused, then lowered his hand.

“Go ahead and take your time deciding which it is, Sweet. I wish I had time to hang out here all day chewing the fat, but just like every day I’ve got a thousand fucking things to be doing right now.”

Tricks turned and strolled toward the door, his gait for once free of the tension he usually displayed. Style stepped aside without comment and the Boss slipped out, leaving the door ajar.

“Style,” Sweet said quietly, staring after him, “is he…”

“Is he what, Sweet?” she asked, a hard edge to her tone.

Sweet frowned at the cracked door for a second longer before focusing his gaze on her face. “Is he okay?”

She worked her mouth once in a chewing motion, then turned her head to glare at the map of the Empire on the far wall. The muscles in her jaw clenched, and then the head enforcer shoved the door closed again with one hand.

“Sweet, what kind of shit did the Big Guy have you do, when you were Boss?”

“Very little,” he admitted. “The Guild more or less runs itself if you prioritize looking after the people doing its business. At least, that was my approach. I know we’ve had this conversation before, Style.”

“Yeah, and I know you know it isn’t like that for Tricks. He’s got… I dunno, Sweet, the Big Guy’s stuff is Boss’s ears only. It’s been like that ever since he took over. I’ve kinda gotten used to him making calls I thought were odd, but they always either worked out so I could see the point in hindsight, or nothing apparently came of ‘em in the end. And nothing ever crossed…this kind of line.”

“So it’s not just me?” Sweet asked almost plaintively. “I know I’m not crazy. This shit is seriously over the edge.”

“Well, he’s not tagged Tricks because he likes to do stuff the straightforward way. The man’s more than earned my trust, Sweet, and I’d like to think yours too.”

“Are you forgetting who put him forward to be Boss in the first place?”

She nodded once in agreement. “If he does something I don’t get, I can live with it and trust it’s going somewhere. He’s never done anything like sending a pair of goobers like Rake and Jasper up against a fucking archdemon, though. And…that last bit at the end, there. That is not the Boss I know. ‘Fuck you, I do what I want’ is not part of his personality. Hell, his vocabulary. At least… I wouldn’t’ve thought so,” she added, scowling deeply.

Sweet heaved a sigh, running a hand over his hair. “Fuck. I don’t like the way this feels, Style. Doing shit behind his back…”

“What shit?” she asked, her tone deceptively mild. “We’re just chatting.”

“Yeah.” He locked his eyes on hers. “You up for chatting about anything else the Boss has done recently that seemed…off to you?”

Style narrowed her eyes very slightly. “Didn’t you say you ran off and left Thorn in charge of a delicate political negotiation? Fucking Thorn?”

“That baby bird’s gotta get pushed out of the nest sometime. Thorn’s got it in her to be as sly as Keys ever was, she’s just spent her life being discouraged from developing that skill. Well, she needs it now, and nobody’s got time for her to practice on small fry. I think we’ve got something just as urgent to focus on here.”

“Yeah, well, that’s as good a starting point as any,” she said, grimacing. “You’re the people guy, Sweet; can you think of any reason for the Boss to send Ninetails to handle relations with the Avenists at a time like this?”

Sweet’s eyes slowly widened. “…why the fuck don’t we keep chairs in here? I gotta sit down.”


“So I hope you’ll understand if I am a tad out of sorts with the Guild right now.”

“I don’t understand at all,” Trissiny murmured, slowly pacing back and forth in front of High Commander Rouvad’s desk. “Ah, not you, Commander, your position is wholly reasonable. I just can’t make sense of this pattern. Now of all times, interfaith relations deserve both careful handling and a high priority.”

“Yes, I would have thought so, myself,” Rouvad agreed, her expression severe. “Nonetheless, here we are. I get more or less the same content from various Guild messengers, but in the last few weeks Bishop Darling is the only one who brings me anything slightly useful. And I could live with empty platitudes, but I am less amused when they come from people who try to start fights with my Legionnaires or generally behave in my presence like feral animals. Are you acquainted with this Ninetails character?”

“Not personally,” Trissiny said, shaking her head and not pausing in her pacing. “I’m not personally familiar with every thief in Tiraas, obviously.”

“Well, I would take it as a kindness if you’d inform Tricks that my patience is not limitless. It’s a delicate political time for the Sisterhood internally, to say nothing of dicey relations between cults and with the Church, and being seen taking a conciliatory stance with disruptive thieves is only going to cost me face within my own cult. Exactly when I can least afford it.”

Finally, Trissiny trailed to a halt, staring at the wall for a moment, then turned to face the High Commander directly. “This may be premature, but I am suddenly starting to see a pattern I don’t like.”

“Do tell,” Rouvad said flatly.

“I was privy to the aftermath of another strange Guild action today: two thieves attacked my friends Shaeine and Teal and tried to steal their dog.”

“Oh,” Rouvad snorted, lowering her eyebrows. “You mean their demon.”

“Hellhounds are from the same plane as the Rhaazke,” Trissiny said patiently. “They are infernally stable and lack the aggression characteristic of demon species native to Hell proper. F’thaan is, for all intents and purposes, a dog with unique magical traits. And for the record, he is a good boy. I’m only bringing this up because it parallels the situation here. There are all kinds of reasons for the Guild not to antagonize them; they are connected to Falconer Industries and House Awarrion directly, and less directly to House Madouri, all institutions with which the Guild has established relationships that should rule out such an aggressive action. And according to the actual suspects, they were ordered directly to do this by Boss Tricks himself. Bishop Darling is off verifying that with the Boss right now, which is the only reason he didn’t come here with me.”

“Where are you going with this, Trissiny?” Rouvad asked, her tone quieter but more serious.

Trissiny held her gaze, eyebrows drawing together in concern. “It may be too early to draw conclusions, but I have a sudden worry. I think… Tricks may be compromised, somehow.”

“Compromised,” Rouvad intoned. “By whom, exactly?”

“Do we really need to keep dancing around this? The cult most solidly behind Archpope Justinian’s agenda has been split by a major religious schism since Ninkabi, and all but neutralized as a political force because of it. Now, we have the first hints of similar schisms brewing within the two cults most directly opposed to him. Do you truly imagine that’s a coincidence? First these Purists, who have obviously been getting significant financial backing and organization from someone, and now an abrupt pattern of squirrelly behavior from Boss Tricks himself exactly when the Guild can least afford it.”

“Do you hear yourself?” Rouvad asked quietly. “An accusation like that, against a sitting Archpope, is not a small matter, Trissiny.”

“Do you believe it’s something I would say lightly?” Trissiny stepped forward and planted her fists on the desk, leaning toward her over it. “Commander, this is not something I just pulled out of my butt this afternoon. Justinian is pursuing an agenda of his own, which is not in alignment with the Pantheon’s, much less any of the member cults. Just this summer, a god of the Pantheon sent all three paladins on a mission to ascertain this fact, and we received aid from several others in the process. We learned definitively that he has been tampering with Elder God artifacts and attempting to affect the nature of the gods themselves. The man is an enemy. Or did you really believe he’s spent an unprecedented span of months blocking the Sisterhood from having Church representation out of personal pique?”

“Do I need to remind you,” Rouvad replied in a near-growl, “that you incited this entire dilemma by going behind my back to uproot Bishop Syrinx?”

“Do you really want to play that game?” Trissiny shot back. “Syrinx was an asset of Justinian’s and for numerous other reasons a major problem for the Sisterhood. We can discuss who caused that problem and who solved it, or we can put it behind us and deal with the situation we are in right now. I know which I’d prefer.”

Both women stared at each other in silence for five heartbeats.

Then, slowly, Rouvad leaned back in her chair. “You realize the story you’re telling me is incredible, Trissiny.”

“It’s more incredible than you can imagine,” she agreed. “You’re only hearing about it; I had to live through the whole thing. I have seldom been so rattled.”

“And rightly so.” Rouvad paused, pressing her lips into a line, and then shook her head. “You are not unstable, or a fool, or a liar, and clearly well within Avei’s good graces. Obviously I have no choice but to believe you, no matter how insane this tale sounds.”

“I appreciate your trust, Commander,” Trissiny said, straightening back up.

Rouvad shook her head again. “I do not care for the way you’ve gone about certain actions, Trissiny. But obviously, the same is true in reverse, or you wouldn’t have done it in the first place. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we are on the same side.”

“And allowing ourselves to forget that is doing the enemy’s work,” Trissiny agreed, nodding.

“That being the case, what is it you suggest doing about this? If being frozen out by the Church is truly a malicious action meant to harm the Sisterhood, outside the usual run of politics…”

“In general terms,” Trissiny said, taking a step back, “the course I’d recommend is to turn the tables on Justinian: freeze him out instead of letting him do it to us. Bishop Darling has been attempting to rally support with the other cults against the Church. It’s not gone well; the Eserites have always held themselves somewhat aloof, and obviously the cults are reluctant to sacrifice their footing with the Church. Matters will be different if we lend the Sisterhood’s weight directly to the same cause.”

“Take our interfaith relations back into our own hands,” Rouvad mused. “Truthfully, I like the notion. My patience with Justinian’s waffling is even lower than my patience for Trick’s antics, and that was before I learned of… Well, this. I already see an issue, though, Trissiny. If the Guild is suddenly a notably unreliable ally, we’d only be isolating ourselves further.”

“Which is exactly why it’s important to bring as many other cults into alignment with us as possible. In the meantime, the Guild’s internal issues are going to have to be dealt with, just as we ourselves need to nip this Purist nonsense in the bud. I’ll work on that if I can; in the meantime, I can get you information on who within the Guild can be trusted. Bishop Darling, for one, and you can reach out to Tamisin Sharvineh for both a steady hand and widespread connections. If you’ll extend a little patience, Commander, I will get you more to work with as soon as I’m able.”

“Mm,” Rouvad grunted. “We’ll see. And you said all that was general terms.”

“I do have a suggestion,” said Trissiny, nodding. “Appoint a Bishop.”

Rouvad barked an incredulous laugh. “What do you think I’ve been trying to do for the past five months? And didn’t you just declare that trying to do business with the Church is effectively useless?”

Trissiny shook her head. “You’ve been trying to work with Justinian—whose goal is obviously to waste time and hamper our movements. I’m saying, cut him out of it entirely. Appoint a Bishop, unilaterally, to take charge of the Sisterhood’s interfaith relations, and the Church be damned. What exactly is he going to do about it? Procrastinate harder? Taking action to render the Church’s voice in our affairs irrelevant is a decisive move that will turn the tables and marginalize him.”

The Commander was silent for a long moment. Then, finally, a smile cracked her reserve. Just as quickly, it faded back into an expression of contemplation.

“It figures. Just as the mission of Squad 391 become urgently applicable, they’ve been shuffled off to Viridill to train adventurers. That kind of mandate… I have to say, it calls for a different skill set and personality than a standard Church Bishop. I’ll have to begin reviewing personnel files anew to find a suitable candidate.”

“Actually, it seems to me an old candidate would be better than a new one. Nandi Shahai did excellent work as Bishop, during her brief tenure in the role. Can you think of anyone better suited for this iteration of the job?”

“Hmm.” A small smile continued to twitch at the corners of Rouvad’s lips. “You’re not wrong about that. Locke won’t like it at all, of course. She relies heavily on Nandi to keep her new band of rabble in line.”

Trissiny folded her hands behind her back, raising her chin and settling unconsciously into parade rest. “I apologize if this smacks of me suggesting how to manage your troops, Commander, but in my personal opinion, Locke’s development as an officer can only benefit from regular reminders that there’s a chain of command and she will obey orders.”

That brought an outright grin from the High Commander, but it faded quickly back into seriousness and she leaned forward again, staring intently at her paladin. “You do know, Trissiny, what happened the last time there was a major split of cults against the Universal Church.”

“This isn’t the Enchanter Wars,” Trissiny said softly. “Archpope Sipasian was a fool who let Magnan the Enchanter lead him around by the nose. Magnan did the same to the Emperor, and the head of the Collegium. Justinian is anything but a fool; he knows precisely what he is doing, and in my opinion, it’s just as urgent that he be stopped. More to the point, his power-grabbing has antagonized enough established powers that there are plenty of allies against him just waiting to be rallied. The Silver Throne would love nothing more than an excuse to push hard against him. We have only to plant a flag and gather others to it.”

“We have to get our own house in order before we can step into that role,” Rouvad warned. “Are you certain the sudden rise of the Purists is Justinian’s doing?”

“I can’t see any other explanation, but no, there’s no definitive evidence yet. I intend to acquire it in the course of removing them as a factor.”

“I’m not one to advocate for inaction, but you need to be careful. This is no time for another outburst like your performance in Calderaas this summer.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, Commander. In fact, I think this has been arranged to capitalize on just such an act, if I repeated that mistake. That’s why I am taking an entirely different approach.”

Rouvad raised one eyebrow. “But no less decisive?”

“If anything,” Trissiny said with a grim little smile, “much more so.”

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15 – 76

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Adventurers?” High Commander Rouvad uncharacteristically slammed the hefty budget request down on her desk, atop all the other paperwork Principia had assembled. Fortunately, they were alone in the Commander’s office—or perhaps unfortunately, as an audience might have tempered Rouvad’s ire, or at least its expression. “Locke, your orders were to assemble an army!”

“Excuse me, Commander, but they weren’t,” Principia said calmly, standing at attention before the desk. “My orders were to assemble a force capable of defeating any extant military power. Leaving aside that I wasn’t given the time or resources to build a conventional army, especially not one up to modern standards, I don’t actually think one of those would accomplish that directive anyway. I found an approach that will.”

“You think you can counter modern military equipment and strategies using assets that were notoriously impossible to control even before they were obsolete?”

“Precisely, ma’am.”

The High Commander stared at her for a long moment in silence, during which the lieutenant just gazed back, perfectly composed. Rouvad finally sighed, and seated herself in her desk chair, notably not directing Locke to do likewise, or even stand at ease. “All right, Lieutenant. I suppose Avei wouldn’t have deliberately set you this task if it was anything that could be done conventionally. Go ahead, let’s hear your reasoning.”

“The Imperial Army is the most powerful military in the world right now,” Principia said immediately, “and not because of its size, but because of its constant embrace of new techniques and strategies. Most armies stagnate if unused for long periods, but the Tirasian dynasty has funded new enchantments and technologies for the Army’s use, had Imperial Intelligence keep regular reports on methods fielded by other nations, and directed the Army to constantly update itself even over the last century of peace. Thus, I began with the approach of hypothetically neutralizing Tiraan units, and settled on a strategy which will be universally applicable.”

“Adventurers,” Rouvad said, her tone utterly flat.

“Adventurers,” Principia agreed. “The Imperial Army’s greatest strength is its embedded magic users. In the field, infantry units deploy in small squadrons, relying on teleportation to obviate the need for supply trains, stay in communication, and even rapidly position themselves on the field. Using specialized mages, a commander can deploy infantry and mag artillery instantaneously via teleportation, and other specifically trained battlemages provide light magical artillery in the form of a standardized catalog of combat spells. The Army still employs its Corps of Engineers to erect field fortifications, bridges, and the like, but now relies more heavily on the Corps of Enchanters to position shield foci designed to be immediately salvageable even if they are broken by enemy fire. Spells and enchantments are also the source of most of the Army’s current use of traps and munitions. They even use conjured water to keep troops hydrated in the field.

“I think, in analyzing the disparity of capability between the current Silver Legions and the modern Imperial Army, it’s far too easy to view the Army’s advanced equipment and methods as an unequivocal advantage. I certainly fell into that trap with my own alternate weapons program. It misses the equally important fact that these advantages come with a critical drawback. Imperial units can be seriously interfered with by a warlock who neutralizes their enchantments, or a witch who causes them to blow up. They could be brought to a complete halt by coordinated action from both.”

“Asymmetrical warfare is Tiraan operational doctrine, Lieutenant,” Rouvad said impassively. “I hardly think you are going to beat them at that game. You will never assemble anything to compete with the Strike Corps out of antisocial misfits.”

“Yes, Commander, exactly. Trying to match the Army’s sophistication and overall power is a losing game. It’s an arms race, a question of who has the most money and warm bodies to throw at a problem—which aside from its practical drawbacks flies against Avenist doctrine. The strength of modern militaries comes from their systems. Technology, spellcraft, organization. And systems have weak points.”

“Those weak points are known and protected.”

“Protected according to structured doctrine and established methods. An army’s strength is organization; its enemy is chaos. Therefore, I propose to weaponize chaos. During the Age of Adventures, it was well known that experienced adventurers were a serious threat to military forces simply due to their ability to create unexpected hazards, target officers, split formations, and so on. In the absence of adventurers, these weaknesses have only grown. Heavy reliance on arcane magic makes them vulnerable to Circle effects, a weakness the Army has not remedied simply because there are no organized infernomancers of sufficient scope to threaten them, and even demons are as vulnerable to lightning weapons as anyone else. They have never faced any serious threat from witches or fairies simply because those avoid modern civilization precisely due to all the arcane magic. Not to mention that there are other ways of dealing with modern charms. I’ve already got one recruit who could neutralize an entire battalion’s energy shields just by making it rain on them.”

“Yes, the dragon,” Rouvad said, shuffling the papers on her desk and pulling out Principia’s personnel file on Khadizroth the Green. “Goddess preserve us, Locke.”

“There are other structural weaknesses created by the modern world of systems and connections,” Principia continued smoothly. “As Avei teaches us, the aim of warfare is to eliminate your enemy’s ability to wage war. Less than that risks defeat, and more abandons morality. The modern reliance on complex machines and charms creates opportunities to neutralized armed forces before combat occurs. A battlestaff is a device orders of magnitude more complicated and expensive than a spear, and you can break it just by getting dust in its clicker mechanism. And did you know there are exactly three factories in the entire Empire capable of producing power crystals large enough to run mag cannons, or zeppelin engines?”

Rouvad slapped the file down atop the others. “Let us say I consider your point valid, Locke. These…these are your recruits? ULR students? A Shaathist offshoot sect? Archpope Justinian and Bishop Darling’s personal hit squads? A gaggle of warlocks and demons led by a renegade drow? And, again, Locke, the dragon!”

“No, Commander,” Principia said serenely, “that is our recruitment pool. I have signed on Khadizroth the Green, the shaman Vannae, Longshot McGraw, Tinker Billie, the Sarasio Kid and Gravestone Weaver. Those names alone are weapons; most of them are modern legends. We both know it was the bards who decided the outcome of the Enchanter Wars as much as any soldiers. I rather think Xyraadi will take up my offer soon, which would likewise be a boon; she is an established ally of the Sisterhood, with a legend of her own.”

“A khelminash demon,” Rouvad said, rubbing her temples. “You do realize there are spiritual factions within the Sisterhood which consider the very existence of those creatures a living insult to Avei.”

“Yes, Commander, and I am also aware that those spiritual factions fixate on khelminash because they never expect to actually see one, and many of their fellow Sisters forcibly prevent them from picking on the women they actually want to bully. If there is any blowback as a result of this, I will requisition those spiritual factions a regulation spoon so they can eat my entire ass.”

“Watch it, Lieutenant.”

“I do not expect this Brother Ingvar or his followers to join up, which is probably for the best, but I do advise cultivating a relationship with them. His sect is half women and appears to be focused on fixing everything objectionable about Shaathism as its entire point. But that’s a matter for the Bishop, not my division.”

“We don’t have a Bishop, Locke,” Rouvad snapped. “Justinian has refused to confirm two candidates already. Given his spurious reasoning, I am pretty sure he means to just forestall the Sisterhood having representation within the Universal Church as payback for that whole business with Syrinx.”

“That’s above my pay grade, Commander,” Principia said pleasantly.

Rouvad leaned slowly back in her chair, staring up at the elf. “I truly, deeply hope that whatever the goddess wants from your presence proves worth the unmitigated pain in the ass you are, Locke.”

“Only time will tell. We must trust in Avei’s wisdom.”

The Commander shook her head and picked up the budget proposal again. “You asked for a facility in Viridill, specifically.”

“Yes, Commander, a remote one. Given the nature of the First Legion I have proposed, a rural headquarters is optimal both for security and practicality. And its location in Viridill will be important to underscore that this is an Avenist venture.”

“Yes, you made mention of that in this personnel request,” Rouvad said, picking up that document with an even more acid expression. “You want your pick of soldiers from First Squadrons throughout the Legions? This is going to make you even more enemies than your winning personality.”

“I much prefer volunteers, actually. At issue is that only Squad One soldiers are going to be of the kind I can even use, and it’s vital that at least half my personnel be gathered from the Legions, or the civilian Sisterhood. Adventurer guilds were still an active force during the first few decades of my career, Commander, and I’ve seen how they operate. Like any social group, each has its own culture and unique values. This thing is being commissioned by Avei, and needs to be specifically Avenist. In order to be effective, I’m going to have to acquire the best talent available, from wherever I can find it. I need at least their number in Sisters and Legionnaires to maintain the culture of the unit. I rather think the squad commanders won’t mind giving up a soldier or two if it’s made clear that we are assembling a support team for Hands of Avei.”

Rouvad’s expression softened almost imperceptibly. “You indicated that, as well, in writing. Your plan is for the First Legion to be under Trissiny’s command?”

“Under the Hand of Avei’s command,” Principia corrected. “Right now, that’s Trissiny, but there will be more after her. Historically, paladins have very rarely acted alone, and I’ve always found it purely odd that the Sisterhood has not had a dedicated support team for its Hands since the Silver Huntresses. With this unit being formed in response to the changing world, it’s only natural. One woman acting alone, sword-first, isn’t going to get much accomplished in this day and age. Trissiny has done an admirable job of absorbing that lesson already. Not to mention that any Hand of Avei is going to be a more qualified commander than I ever could.”

“Your unit’s not even formed and you’re already trying to weasel out of command.”

“I’ve made no secret that I consider commanding a Legion outside my wheelhouse,” Principia said frankly, “but this is the job and I agreed to do it. It’ll be another year and a half before Trissiny’s done at Last Rock, anyway. I wouldn’t suggest this if I didn’t consider it in the best interests of the mission. The Sisterhood needs a versatile, permanent force directly under its paladins a lot more than it needs me in charge of anything forever.”

“I would hardly suspect Trissiny of trying to undermine me,” Rouvad mused, studying Principia through narrowed eyes, “but after that stunt you two pulled with Syrinx, you and Trissiny in combination… There is already a rift between us that I don’t like. Schisms between Hands and High Commanders have happened in the past, and always to disastrous effect. It can be difficult enough to justify the complexities of politics to a paladin without the likes of you leaning on her from the other direction.”

Principia hesitated, then straightened infinitesimally. “Permission to speak freely?”

Rouvad regarded her in silence for a moment, then her shoulders shifted in a minute sigh. “Permission granted.”

“Trissiny understands the importance and the complexities of politics just fine,” Principia said, holding the High Commander’s gaze. “I won’t attest to how good she is at it just yet, but she’s young and learning. What matters is that she comprehends that someone in your position has to make tough calls and compromises, and I think she’s wise enough to recognize and respect when someone more experienced has to take the reins. If her faith in you was damaged by the Syrinx affair, it’s because you made a bad call. The utility of keeping that woman around was never worth the harm she did, and in the end it was Trissiny who had to clean up your mess. You can’t expect her not to have questions about your leadership after that, Commander. It doesn’t mean it’s unsalvageable. Trissiny is also intelligent enough to recognize that even experienced commanders make mistakes. If you want to mend that rift, you should talk to her, and acknowledge what went wrong.”

Rouvad slowly worked her jaw as if chewing the elf’s words, shifting her eyes to stare at the far wall. Only for a few seconds, though. Suddenly brisk again, she leaned forward in her chair, setting down the personnel request. “Your opinion has been noted, Lieutenant. Moving on, when I gave you permission to offer amnesty and the Sisterhood’s protection in order to recruit key personnel, I was not expecting you to make it a blanket offer to an entire assembly of random would-be adventurers. Which, of course, you knew, and didn’t say that was your intention because you were well aware I’d have squashed that.”

“It was not my intention, Commander, just how the situation transpired. I have made it clear the Sisterhood doesn’t have the legal authority to pardon crimes, and its protection has limits. Though it wasn’t my plan exactly, I think it worked out well. This gives me some wiggle room to apply the offer of amnesty to those who are worth it, and discreetly direct the requisite authorities to any other applicants if it’s deemed necessary.”

“Despite everything, Locke, I can’t find it in me to just blithely assume you know what you’re doing. The fact that you always seem to come out on top is not the same quality as being in control of your own life, much less the unit under your command. But… You have earned at least some trust. And there is always the fact that you were put here by Avei. She, I have to assume, knows what she is about.”

Another pause ensued while she studied Principia’s face. Then Commander Rouvad picked up the pen from its holder, dipped it in her inkwell, and began to sign forms.

“Goddess watch over us all.”


It was the same room in which the three of them had had their last meeting, close to two years ago. Being a basement space in the Thieves’ Guild underground chambers used for clandestine interviews, it was never the most wholesome of spaces, but the atmosphere between them the last time had still been particularly dour. Now, it was oppressively grim.

“And that’s it,” Tricks said softly, his tone giving no indication of his feelings.

Thumper nodded once. “Long and the short of it, Boss. I figure you’ll want me to sit down with Questions for the fine points, but I’m pretty sure that covers everything you need to know right off the bat. Whole thing was just a complete fuckin’ waste,” he added bitterly, dropping his gaze to scowl at the floor. “The whole plan to interfere with Justinian amounted to diddly shit, the Keys situation apparently resolved itself before I ever even ran into her, and all I did for two years was get conned and pushed around by every asshole who gave it a try. Omnu’s hairy balls, I don’t think I’ve ever fucked up that consistently or hard in my life. An’ that’s sayin’ something.”

“It matters that you recognize that,” Tricks said mildly. “I more than half expected you wouldn’t.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s worth a whole goddamn lot,” Style rumbled, “but not nothing.”

“And I’m not ready to completely write off the time you spent answering to Justinian and Syrinx,” Tricks added. “Yes, Thumper, you’ll definitely be having regular sessions with Questions until he’s fully satisfied. There may yet be something buried in that head of yours that you don’t even know is important.”

“Sure, however many sessions he needs,” Thumper agreed, nodding. A skilled interrogator had uses far beyond extracting information from the unwilling; one as talented as Questions was employed just as often to tease out details and secrets from the memories of those who didn’t even know they knew anything of value.

“So, you’ve had an interesting couple of years,” Style stated, striding forward. Thumper tensed instinctively at her approach but made no move even when she stopped, looming ominously over him. “Seen and done some real shit, apparently. But before that, there was the assignment the Guild sent you on out to Last Rock. Way I hear it, there are some teeny-tiny details you failed to report on, particularly with regard to your handling of Keys on site. She shared with us, after you left, exactly what you’d threatened to do to…what was it…ah, yes, motivate her. You wanna dispute that account, Thumper?”

He tensed further, shoulders lifting with an indrawn breath, but the enforcer leaned his head back to meet her eyes. “Nope. Sweet told me what she said. Sounds like pretty much how it went down.”

Style’s foot came crashing down onto the front of his chair right between his legs, missing him by a fraction of an inch and causing him to jump.

“And are you fully cognizant, Thumper,” she said in a sibilant hiss, “exactly why conduct like that is not fucking acceptable under any circumstances, but most especially toward a fellow member of the Thieves’ Guild?”

“I wasn’t…gonna actually do it,” he said weakly. “It was just a bit of…motivational theater.”

“Ohh, Thumper,” Style whispered, reaching down with one big callused hand to very tenderly brush his cheek with the backs of her knuckles. Thumper bit down on his lips, going white with sudden terror. “Taking that at face value, let’s just forget about the monumental failure of enforcer technique that is issuing a threat you don’t intend to follow up on. Hell, we will set aside, just for the moment, the fact that even threatening rape is, according to Avenist, Imperial and Eserite doctrine, an act of sexual assault. Let’s just brush all that under the rug for a moment, here, and address the fact that THAT IS NOT WHAT I FUCKING ASKED YOU.”

She seized his hair and wrenched his head to one side, bending down to bellow directly in his ear. Thumper cringed, grabbing the seat of the chair with both hands and going stiff as a board in her grasp, but made no physical reaction aside from that.

“No, Style, I get it,” he said, his voice tight with pain. “I apologized to Keys, for what that’s worth. It was a shit thing to do and I was way over the line.”

Style held him in place for three more heartbeats, then abruptly released his head and stepped back, staring down at her fingers. “Thumper, why the fuck does your hair smell like oranges?”

“Samivir’s Hair Cream,” he said weakly, lifting one slightly trembling hand to smooth his hair back down into a semblance of order. “For the discerning gentleman, it says on the tin. It doesn’t stay this flat by itself, y’know.”

“We’ve had some pretty interesting correspondence concerning you,” Tricks said idly, lounging back in his own seat in an utterly relaxed posture and regarding Thumper with an expression that was almost bored. “Webs vouches for you, because of course he does. Then again, his story about a succubus manipulating your actions has been corroborated, so… There’s that. Also, before you reported in, Sweet has informed me that in addition to the demon you recently had memory-altering infernomancy done on you, and then more mindfuckery by a green dragon. You understand how all this really muddies the waters when it comes to sussing out your exact degree of culpability for your actions.”

“I don’t think Big K would do me wrong,” Thumper said, frowning. “He’s a good sort, for a fuckin’ scary primordial lizard monster.”

“Which is more or less exactly what someone laboring under a magic dragon whammy would say,” Tricks observed. “I’m calling Glimmer down here from Mathenon to give you a good working over, too. I wanna know exactly what’s been done to your brain in as much detail as possible before we go deciding what to do about it. Meanwhile, we have also received a written communication concerning you, from Keys herself.”

“Oh, I think you’ll get a kick out of this,” Style said with grim amusement when he tensed again.

“Keys,” Tricks stated with a faint, bemused frown, “has requested clemency from us concerning your punishment for anything done by you to her and forsworn any intent to seek restitution.”

Thumper blinked twice. “…huh?”

“In basically any other circumstances,” said Style, “that would mean I’d haul her ass in here for an analysis, because that’s the kind of thing victims of abuse are prone to do for somebody who’s got his tentacles worked into their brain. Now, we all know you’re not that specific breed of asshole and Keys would still be three times as smart as you after getting hit on the head by a whole tree full of coconuts, but still, it’d be policy. But this is Keys, she whose industrious labor over the course of lifetimes to be the greatest possible pain in everyone’s ass I have decided I shall respect. In fact, I’ll go so far as to caution you that she is clearly only doing this to get you to join that asshat adventurer guild she’s running for the Sisterhood, and don’t even get me started on that horseshit, because she wants you under her thumb to torment you at her leisure. Hate to spoil a sister’s grift, but it is, as I’ve mentioned, Keys, so if she wants to piss away her right to restitution, fine and fuck her anyway. But that still leaves us, and you, and what it is that we are going to do about you.”

She planted herself directly in front of him and leaned forward, stretching her lips into a psychotic death’s head grin, and said in a saccharine tone, “Would you like to know what we are going to do about you, Thumper?”

He swallowed once before answering. “It’s pretty heavily on my mind right now, yeah.”

“Well, you’ve got a monumental asskicking coming, that’s for goddamn sure,” Style said, abruptly straightening up and crossing her arms to glare down at him. “Sexual harassment of a Guild member, failure to report in when ordered, and a whole ream of shit that flirts with the boundaries of outright treason. Oh, yeah, you’ve got a foot up the ass in your future. But with each new revelation the curious case of Jeremiah Shook has become more layered, like the world’s most obnoxious shit-soaked onion, until what I recently assumed would be a very satisfying case of me stomping you into an orange-scented stain on the floor has turned into a whole ream of goddamn detective work before we manage to sort out exactly how responsible you are for everything you’ve been blundering around in, and how badly your brain has been fucked with already.

“So I have decided, Thumper, that we are going to give this aaaallllllllll the time it needs. You’re gonna spend as long with Questions and Glimmer as they want, and then a little bit longer, and then a little bit longer still, until the both of them are entire sick of your face and my meddling, because I am not gonna leave a pebble unturned in that greasy-ass head of yours.

“And then, once it has been established beyond all possible hint of doubt exactly what the fuck you’ve done and what you deserve for it… Then, and only then, will I kick your ass. And oh, Thumper, the asskicking I shall rain down upon you will be the crown jewel of my career, an unimpeachable masterwork of retribution.” She raised both her arms as if in benediction, gazing at the ceiling with a nearly rapturous expression. “Your culpability shall be known to the most infinitesimal degree, and you shall be stomped with godlike fucking exactitude. I will smite you with an exquisite fucking symphony of fairness, measuring every blow to the tiniest iota of its positioning and force until you have been punished so flawlessly for your two-year parade of shitheadery that not even your self-involved victim complex will enable you to walk away feeling you’ve been mistreated. Vidius himself shall descend from his throne on high to sit at my feet and learn the ways of fairly judging souls, that’s how precisely I’m gonna pulp you. I shall be a cleansing fire of fists and feet, and you shall emerge with the dross burned away to leave only a sore and chastened, but pristine and new, piece of shit of exactly the caliber the gods half-assedly created you. From the divine instrument of flawless retribution that is my size nine boot, you will ascend, born anew by the baptismal asskicking of Style which will echo down through the ages as a legendary arbiter of the very abstract fucking concept of justice.”

By that point, even Tricks was eyeing her askance. Thumper gaped up at the chief enforcer with his mouth slightly open as she finally lowered her arms, planted her fists on her hips, and grinned down at him.

“And I shall do all of this on your behalf, Thumper, not because you matter to that degree, but because I am sick of your bullshit. Now how’s that sound to you, hm?”

He finally shut his mouth, swallowed once more, then cleared his throat. “I… Yeah, okay. Let’s do that. Sounds pretty good, actually.”

Slowly, Style’s grin faded. “Thumper, I get that you’ve been through some shit, but the one thing I did not expect you to acquire from your travels was a sense of humor.”

“No foolin’, Style, I mean it,” he said, now frowning faintly. “I’ve been… I’ve been looking back at all the shit I’ve ever done over the last few days, and I can’t get away from the fact that I just don’t know what’s what anymore. Kheshiri sure screwed with my head, yeah, but it’s from a lot longer back than that. The farther back I think, the more I realize I’ve been fed a mix of real good advice and complete bullshit, and only listened to about half of each, and now all I know is that a lot of what I thought I knew is bullshit, and I’m not even sure which part. It’s like… Y’know when you go up a staircase without paying attention and don’t count the steps right, so you get to the top expecting more stairs and there’s this second where the whole world’s out of balance cos the floor’s not where you thought it should be? It’s like that, except all the time. And it fuckin’ sucks.

“Khadizroth said something to me about punishment, how’d he put it… Yeah, he told me when you’ve done somethin’ wrong, it puts you kinda out of balance with your whole existence, an’ from a state like that taking a punishment you’ve earned can be, like, medicinal. Puts you back in order with the world. Sounded like the dumbest fuckin’ mumbo-jumbo I’d ever heard at the time, but I dunno anymore. I can’t go on stumbling around with no idea who I am or what’s true or exactly why and how I keep fucking up everything. So… Yeah, Style, let’s go for it. You do what you gotta, I trust you to know what’s fair.”

Both Style and Tricks were staring at him, blank-faced. Thumper looked rapidly back and forth between them, then cleared his throat awkwardly.

“So, uh… Not to change the subject or nothin’, but while I’m here bein’ examined and all, am I allowed to leave the Guild?”

“What the fuck do you think, Thumper?” Tricks asked wryly.

He nodded. “Yeah, fair enough. Can I get people visiting me?”

“Depends on the people, but I don’t really see why not,” said the Boss. “Webs has moved his operation to Tiraas; I’m pretty sure he’ll want to chat with you at the first opportunity. Way I heard it, you owe him an apology, too.”

“Gods, I really do,” Thumper grimaced. “So…and I’m just askin’, here…if Sweet was to do his interfaith thing and could find one willing to come, could I get a priestess of Avei to come here an’ chat with me?”

They both stared at him again, now openly incredulous.

“It’s nothin’ urgent,” Thumper hastily clarified. “Just, y’know, spiritual stuff. Sweet’s got more important shit to do, so if it’s a problem don’t even worry about it. I just got some, uh, questions.”

“I think,” Style mused, “this may take even longer than I thought.”

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13 – 51

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The sun set on a city overtaken by festivity. The Punaji so loved a good storm under any circumstances that they were frequently followed by parties, but as soon as this one had faded, hundreds of citizens had descended upon the Rock, quite a few carrying weapons. Even Naphthene’s fury had not been enough to stop the spread of rumor, and it seemed widely known that the castle was under attack. The King himself had addressed the public quickly.

From there, a celebration was all but inevitable. It was a political move to solidify the Crown’s standing in the aftermath of having beaten an enemy, but also a very necessary release of tension which the city badly needed. Soon all of Puna Dara seemed to be partying, though the festivities were centered on the Rock, where the fortress doors had been opened and food and drink brought out into the courtyard. Cracked doors, lightning burns and broken masonry only served to accentuate the celebrant atmosphere; Punaji most enjoyed a party when it felt particularly earned.

The noise and hubbub served another purpose: it provided a distraction and cover in which the Rust could be carefully locked away. Ayuvesh continued to be cooperative and the rest of his people followed his lead; the King and Queen weren’t greatly concerned about them attempting to resist or break out. Rather, it was important for their sake that they be put out of the public eye and securely held, so they did not become the target of vigilantism. Not a small part of the relief spurring the city-wide festival night was due to the removal of the Rust from the streets. Some of its un-augmented members, those driven out of their dockside warehouse headquarters, remained unaccounted for, but a lot of the survivors of Milady’s rampage had been found and brought to the Rock, where it would be determined if they were to be charged with anything.

Of the Imperial spy herself, there was no sign. The royal scouts who investigated the warehouse did report very strange tracks left in the drying blood, which remained unexplained until Ruda happened to mention them to Schwartz.

“You brought a fucking sylph into my city?!” she exclaimed moments later.

“Aradeus is a friend,” he retorted, “perfectly trustworthy. And he was extremely helpful! If not for him bringing us up to speed on the situation here, I doubt we would have made it to the Rock in time to assist the defenders!” Meesie, as usual, squeaked agreement, nodding her tiny head from her perch on his shoulder.

“That’s true enough,” Trissiny added with a smile. “We’d probably still be out scouting. Of course, we didn’t realize when we ‘ported out here in such a hurry that you lot were on site.”

“Oh, sure, it’s only the most infamously dangerous kind of fairy there is, but hey, you’re a special kind of witch! You can keep it under control!”

“Every part of that is more wrong than the preceding,” Schwartz said irritably. To begin with, he had been somewhat overawed by Ruda, who despite standing a head and a half shorter than he tended to fill a room with her personality—not to mention that he’d never encountered royalty before. The effect had faded quickly once she started talking, and cursing. “First of all, sylphs are merely incredibly strong, nearly invulnerable and prone to violence.”

“Fucking merely!” she snorted.

“Which,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “doesn’t even place them in the top ten most dangerous fairy species. More importantly, you do not control a fairy, especially one like that. Aradeus, as I said, is a friend, and I have learned to trust both his judgment and composure. And oh, look, I was right! He helped, he left, and you wouldn’t even have noticed had I not told you he’d been here.”

“Boy, are you talking back to me?” Ruda demanded, folding her arms. “I’ll have you know I am the fucking Princess in this country.”

Behind her, Trissiny was busy ruining the effect with a broad grin.

“Yes, well,” Schwartz said stiffly, “I guess that explains why you so badly needed to be talked back to.”

Ruda narrowed her eyes to slits, and managed to keep that expression for almost five seconds before giving up and letting out a laugh. To Schwartz’s amazement and Meesie’s shrill annoyance, she punched him on the shoulder. “I like this one, Boots! We should take him back to school with us.”

“Ah…well, I’m afraid my secondary schooling is complete,” Schwartz said, a little bemused, “and Last Rock has no graduate program as yet. But I wouldn’t mind visiting, sometime. The things one hears about that place…”

“Aren’t the half of it, I guarantee.” Ruda glanced to the side, and sighed. “Aw, dammit, made eye contact with Mama. Scuze me, I’ve gotta go pretend to be a civilized person for a few minutes.”

She grabbed a random bottle from the nearest table while sauntering off toward her parents, tilting it up and taking a long swig.

“She’s making a good start on it,” Darius observed.

The Rock’s banquet hall was laid out with raised sections along both sides, reached by stairs and partially hidden behind colonnades, clearly designed to facilitate private conversation during large gatherings. Trissiny and her friends from Tiraas had quickly gathered there, being themselves in a much less festive frame of mind than the rest of the gathering. Singly and in small groups, her other classmates had come by to catch up. Ruda was the last, and by that point Tallie and the Sakhavenids seemed to be slightly in shock.

“So…” Tallie ventured after a moment, “what’s that Boots business?”

Trissiny gave her a deadpan look, lifting one eyebrow. “What boots?”

“Oh ho, so it’s something she doesn’t want to discuss.” Tallie grinned wickedly. “I wonder which of your adventure buddies I should shmooze to get the details? Hmm, I bet that Gabriel guy would fall for the ol’ fluttering eyelashes trick.”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla held up a finger. “Down, girl. Dibs, remember?”

“I will not hesitate to dunk your head in a sink until you drop that,” Darius informed her.

“So, you’re planning to visit Last Rock, now?” Principia said casually, strolling up to them from the banquet floor below. “I only caught the tail end of that conversation.”

“You can hear every conversation in the room,” Trissiny stated flatly. “And now that we know which one you were listening to, I have the funniest feeling you could quote the entire thing back to us from beginning to end.”

“Rapid memorization is a neat parlor trick,” the elf said with an unabashed grin. “But sorry, I’m a little rusty. It’s been a good few years since I actually attended a party. Shame, too, the Punaji throw a good one. So! You two still getting along well, I see,” she said casually, lounging against a pillar and glancing from Schwartz to Trissiny. The position she had chosen placed her shoulder to the others, at whom she had not even glanced.

Darius cleared his throat. “We’re here, too!”

“Well, I’d like to think I’m a useful sort of person to know,” Schwartz said, frowning at Meesie, who was cheeping in inexplicable excitement. “So are the apprentices, here—all of them. Besides, when you’ve been through something hairy with someone, it tends to form a bond.”

“Oh, I am well aware of that,” Principia said, her tone suddenly very dry, and turned to the others. “So tell me! Have you lot noticed any sparks flying between these two?”

“Excuse me?!” Trissiny barked. Tallie burst out laughing so hard she had to slump against the wall.

“Uh, no,” Darius said primly. “Come on, she’s like my brother and Schwartz here is pretty much the living incarnation of a book. I think it would make me physically ill to picture that.”

“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed, while Meesie laughed so hard she had to grab his ear to avoid tumbling off his shoulder. It somewhat spoiled the indignant pose he was trying to put on. “This ‘Aunt Principia’ thing you’ve been trying out with me is wearing a little thin! Just because you knew my father does not give you the right to meddle in my personal business! Besides, as you well know, I’m already—”

He broke off, blushing. Tallie, whose laughter was just beginning to settle down, was set off again and this time Darius had to catch her. Layla, uncharacteristically quiet, was studying the rest of them with her eyes slightly narrowed.

“How did you know his father?” Trissiny asked. “Was he involved in Guild business, too?”

“No, nothing like that,” Principia replied lightly. “Anton was a skilled enchanter who had a prairie boy’s disregard for other people’s rules. I met him looking for someone to do some barely-legal charm work that was beyond my skill, and kept him in my address book for more after that worked out so well. Got to where he’d accompany me on a little adventure now and again. This was long after ‘adventuring’ was a respectable pastime, so we didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was. Also, he was your father.”

Total silence descended on their alcove like a hammer. Tallie’s lingering chuckles were cut off and she stared at the elf; only Layla didn’t look visibly shocked, nodding slowly with a thoughtful expression. Schwartz and Trissiny gaped at Principia, then at each other.

Meesie gathered herself, then leaped from Schwartz’s shoulder to Trissiny’s, where she reached up to pat her cheek, squeaking affectionately.

“Funny how things work out,” Principia mused, now wearing a little smile.

“Funny,” Trissiny choked.

“Funny ironic, not funny amusing. I spent the longest damn time puzzling out how to tell you that. I even went out to visit Hershel’s mom, see what she said.”

“You did what?!” Schwartz screeched.

“And after all that,” Principia said with a sigh, “here it is, just dropped into the conversation like a wet fish. But hell, I do know what tends to happen when two attractive young people go through a few life-or-death situations together, and that needed to be nipped in the bud.”

“There was nothing to nip!” Trissiny exclaimed.

“And now there won’t be,” Principia said placidly. “Back in the day, adventurers were an oddly interrelated but private group; you’d see the same dozen or so people over and over again, go through hell and back shoulder to shoulder with them, and then go your separate ways without really learning anything about their lives. And it was like that for enough generations that various people’s kids would run into each other… Well, I’ve actually seen long-lost siblings accidentally hook up more than once. That kind of misunderstanding is only funny when it happens to people I don’t care about.”

“Every time we have a conversation,” Trissiny stated, “I feel like I gain a little more appreciation for you, and a lot more for the woman who actually raised me.”

Principia grinned. “Well, I’ll take what I can get.”

“Yes, that’s the story of your life, isn’t it?”

“I’m already nostalgic for this morning,” Darius said, “when the paladin thing was the big shock. Gods, what is it with you? Paladin in two cults, related to elves and bloody dragons, friend of royalty, and now you’ve even got a mysterious orphan brother. Knowing you is like being in a fuckin’ opera. How long are we gonna be peeling this onion?”

Trissiny heaved a sigh. “I wish I knew. Two years ago, I was an orphan. It was much simpler.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a thing to say right in front of your mom,” a man remarked, strolling up to them and casually rolling a coin across the backs of his fingers. “Hey there, Prin. Heck of a party, isn’t it?”

“Uh, hi,” Principia said, straightening up. “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

Her face showed clear surprise and uncertainty, an unfamiliar expression on her given how she avoided revealing weakness. The others glanced between her and the new arrival uncertainly; she wasn’t alarmed, clearly, just startled.

“Nobody ever expects to see me!” he said grandly, tossing the doubloon back and forth between his hands. “That’s rather the point, don’cha think?” He was, like many members of the Guild, a very unremarkable person, dressed in slightly shabby clothes, with long features, shaggy hair, and a complexion that hovered somewhere between Tiraan and Punaji.

“This was a private conversation until very recently,” Layla observed. “Lieutenant Locke, would you care to introduce us to your acquaintance?”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” he said with an amused grin, “how’s about you make the introductions? And then you kids can just follow me. Strictly speaking I only need her Paladinship, here, but I bet the rest of you will wanna come along.”

“Come along to fucking where?” Darius demanded. “Who is this clown?”

Principia cleared her throat. “Hey, keep it in your pants, kid. This is the Big Guy.”

There was a beat of silence, broken by Schwartz drawing in a deep, sudden breath.

“Wait, wait,” Tallie protested. “I must be remembering wrong. I thought Big Guy was what they called the god.”

“They do it because I hate the term ‘god,’” he confided, winking. “It’s one of those words that just encourages people to place too much stock in it and not do for themselves. That is not how I want you lot carrying on, see?”

“Yes, Tallie, you’re correct,” Principia said warily. “Big Guy is what they call the god. And stop making faces at me,” she added in annoyance to the divine subject of her faith. “You also don’t like people to pussyfoot around and not call things what they are.”

“Ehh…except in certain circumstances, but fine, I’ll grant you that,” Eserion replied cheerfully. “Now come along, kids! We don’t wanna be late. It’s rude to keep people waiting, don’cha know.”


They followed him through the corridors of the Rock in awed silence, a marked contrast to the god himself, who chattered on amiably at the head of the group. Principia strolled at his side, seemingly un-intimidated and bantering right back. Periodically they would pass soldiers or castle servants, but aside from a few curious looks, no one troubled them. Eserion’s outfit was as scruffy and out of place as the three apprentices’, and Schwartz as always drew stares in his Salyrite robe with a ratlike fire elemental on his shoulder, but it seemed Trissiny and Principia in uniform lent the group enough credibility to pass unchallenged.

The general course they took led upward and in, and through corridors that grew increasingly rich the longer they went on; the Rock was a militaristic fortress through and through, not given to excess or indulgence, but the farther they walked, the more frequent tapestries, carpets, and ornamental touches became. Finally, Eserion brought them to a wide door in the center of a currently unoccupied hallway, threw it open with a grand gesture, and swaggered inside. The rest followed with a bit more circumspection.

It was a bedroom—a very large and rather lavishly appointed one, whose décor ran heavily to old flags and weapons. The group barely glanced around at it, though, being more focused on the people waiting for them.

Style was pacing up and down with even more than customary annoyance; on their arrival, she turned to face the door, folding her brawny arms and glaring. Boss Tricks was busy rifling through a chest of drawers and scarcely glanced up at them. Bishop Darling stood near the foot of the huge four-poster bed, juggling three brass wine goblets. Empty ones, fortunately.

“Uhh…” Darius leaned around Trissiny to stare. “Is this one of those things where I’m supposed to ask the obvious questions to move this along, or is it a ‘shut up and listen’ kind of thing?”

“Lemme see if I can guess the first two!” Darling said airily while Eserion shut the chamber door behind them. “This is the personal bedroom of the King and Queen, and we are here for the same reason all of you are: because the Big Guy felt our presence was important.”

“Yeah,” Style snorted, “because none of us have any fucking thing important to be doing right now!”

“Oh, un-clench ’em for half a second if you can manage, Style,” said the Boss, pulling out something crimson and silken from a drawer. “This is the only vacation we’ve had in years. Why, Anjal, you saucy vixen!”

“You cut that shit out immediately,” Style barked, crossing the room in two strides and smacking him upside the head with nearly enough force to bowl him over. “If you’re gonna steal, steal—otherwise, keep your greasy little fingers out of a woman’s underwear drawer. That is creepy as fuck, Tricks.”

“Gotta side with her on this one, Boss,” Sweet added. “And not just because I’m more scared of her than you.”

“All of you, put that crap back where you found it,” Eserion said. “You, too, Sweet. Anjal and Rajakhan are good sorts, the kind of leaders we should encourage, not punish.”

“Excuse me?” Layla raised a hand. “What, if I may ask, are we doing in here, then?”

“It’s tradition!” Eserion proclaimed, turning to her with a broad smile. “This ceremony is always held in illicit quarters. There’s not much in the way of sacred ground for the Guild; we perform this rite someplace illegally broken into.”

“Uhh…rite?” Tallie hadn’t stopped peering around since she’d come in. “What rite?”

“A graduation ceremony,” Principia said softly.

“Indeed!” Tricks said, still rubbing his head as he ambled over to join them. “For obvious reasons, it’s usually just the apprentice and trainer—but hell, this is a special circumstance. I guess the Big Guy figured it was an appropriate occasion to make an exception and bring family and friends.”

He nodded across the room, and they turned to behold a fourth person waiting, a tall woman in an Imperial Army uniform with no insignia. Despite her imposing height and figure, she was surprisingly unobtrusive, standing still in a shadowed corner and observing without comment.

“Who’s that?” Darius stage whispered to Tallie, who shrugged.

Trissiny and Principia both came to attention, but the woman shook her head at them and raised a hand. “At ease.”

“So…graduation?” Layla asked, turning back to the Boss.

“Indeed! The question is…for whom?” He grinned at them and perched on the edge of a dresser. “Here’s where we stand. You kids have been around for about the length of time and learned about the level of skill we mandate for apprentices. Somebody who hasn’t picked up a permanent sponsor for more in-depth training at that point is usually required to either join the Guild as a full member, or leave the apprentice program. Style says your progress is such that if you want to be tagged and join up, we’ll allow it today. But! I’m sorta giving away the surprise, here, but while we were putting our own house back in order after you lot poofed off to Puna Dara, Glory announced her intention to take you on as apprentices, if you were all willing.”

“Wh—all of us?” Tallie demanded, blinking. “But she’s got an apprentice. Hell, Rasha’s a perfect match for Glory. I dunno what the hell she’d want with any of us.”

“It’s not traditional,” Tricks agreed. “And that tradition does exist for a reason: a single apprentice gets more focused attention and a better education. Glory’s argument, though, was that you lot are good kids and good prospects for the Guild, and the reason you haven’t been picked by anyone is politics not your fault and beyond your control. I happen to think she’s right on all points, there. And besides.” He winked, grinning. “If there is one thing we are not, it’s excessively bound by rules.”

“Not totally unprecedented, anyway,” Style grunted. “Especially with this one, recently.”

Sweet did not quail under her stare, but shrugged. “Hey, my girls come as a set. I don’t think I’d have had the heart to split ’em up, even if I thought that was remotely possible.”

“That leaves us another case, though,” said Eserion, his expression finally serious. “Our girl Trissiny isn’t fated for a long apprenticeship with a full Guild member. And after the events of today, putting her back in with the general pool of apprentices is…probably not the best idea. So that brings us to this crossroads. Style, you are the closest thing she’s had to a trainer, in your capacity as overseer of the general apprentices. It’s up to you to decide if she’s ready.”

Style stepped forward, eyes fixed on Trissiny and her expression unreadable. The rest of the group instinctively shuffled away, clearing a space for them to regard one another. Principia stepped over to stand next to Sweet, gazing at Trissiny with the intensity of someone barely controlling a strong emotion.

“I’ve had to fill this role for a lot of prospects, over the years,” Style said. “Mostly little fuckheads who couldn’t cut it with a real sponsor. There’s always a reason; we’ve had a few I just barely considered worth keeping in the Guild, but also some who were just plain unlucky, like you little bastards. Shit happens; some folks just don’t get a fair shake. This…is one of the second kind.” Eyes still locked on Trissiny, she nodded slowly, and folded her arms. “Her skills aren’t great, but she’s always impressed me with her eagerness to learn more. A good thief never lets up on that; practice doesn’t end when your apprenticeship does, that’s when it gets started in earnest. No, the only question was always her attitude. I understand she came to us specifically in search of our mindset, our philosophy. It takes some good self-awareness to realize you need that kind of change, but even so, I spent a while doubting she was ever gonna get that through her head.”

She paused, narrowed her eyes for a moment, and then, incongruously, grinned.

“But fuck me if she didn’t manage it. What’d you learn, girl?”

“Don’t call me ‘girl,’ you big ape,” Trissiny shot back immediately, earning a round of grins and chuckles from the senior Eserites present, including the one she’d just insulted. “I’ve learned a lot… But if you’re asking about the big questions, mostly the skill of watching, planning, thinking. Acting through maneuver instead of force. Supposedly I learned that lesson growing up; the Sisterhood takes it as an aphorism that war is deception. All conflict demands strategy.” She glanced aside at the uniformed woman, who just nodded in encouragement. “The Guild made it real to me, though. And…that’s given me perspective, too. At first I thought I’d come here to learn a new way of thinking, but really, what I needed was to truly grasp the way I always should have been. I was brought up to think the Guild and the Sisterhood were at cross purposes, but I’ve come to understand how very alike their aims are. And these differing ideas about how to reach those aims aren’t an accident. Both orders have their blind spots. It’s inevitable; there’s just no escaping that.” She paused, then smiled. “All systems are corrupt. And that’s why we have a goddess of war and a god of thieves in the same Pantheon; so we can watch each other’s backs. Society needs justice, and sometimes, justice needs help from the shadows, because where there’s a system, there’ll be someone who’s found a way to exploit it.”

Style nodded, her eyes glinting. “Yeah, you’ve done fine, kid. Now, there’s no litany or ritual, here. Almost all of the Guild’s actual rituals are performative—things we do to remind everybody else that we’re here, that we’re watching, and that they’d better not fuck up around us. This, here, is about you; nobody benefits from either trainer or apprentice reciting lines memorized by rote. You have to understand who and what we are as Eserites, and you have to express that understanding in a way that’s true to your own identity. As your trainer, I judge you ready—or ready enough. Are you ready to swear your oath to Eserion and his Guild?”

Trissiny nodded deeply. “Whatever happens here, even if you’d decided to throw me out, I plan to live my life fighting of what the Guild and the Sisterhood believe.”

“Good. And what do you swear?”

She straightened up, resting her left hand on the pommel of her sword. “To fight whoever needs fighting, to protect whoever needs protecting. To uphold the spirit of justice, but to recognize that laws don’t have all the answers. To watch closely, and think carefully, and do my best to act in the right way to achieve the results I need. I have already sworn to oppose corruption and evil in all its forms as a soldier. I’ll promise you, now, to always remember that I am an enforcer. That standing against the darkness isn’t always enough; sometimes, you have to make sure the darkness is too afraid to make the first move. That, I will swear. The darkness will fear me.”

Style tilted her head up, regarding Trissiny down her long, twice-broken nose. One corner of her mouth twitched slightly in the ghost of a lopsided smile. “Eh… It’ll do.”

Principia lost the battle, letting a huge grin of fierce pride spread across her face.

“What’s her tag, Style?” Eserion asked.

Style studied the paladin thoughtfully for a long moment before speaking. “Kid, you have been an unrelenting thorn in my ass from the moment you marched into my Guild. Until you have to be responsible for a whole organization I don’t think you’ll ever realize how truly obnoxious that is, having somebody underfoot who just never fucking stops. I’ll admit, there were times I was strongly tempted to try and beat that out of you. But that stubborn, irritating persistence isn’t a flaw—it only looked like one because you had some stupid ideas cluttering up your brain. We’ve made a start on fixing that, enough that I’ve come to trust you’ll still work to keep fixing it. And meanwhile, I trust that you’ll keep doing what I saw you do today: never fucking stop. You won’t win all your battles, and no matter how much power you’ve got to swing around, there’ll always be someone you just cannot take down. But what I know is that you won’t be walked over. Every son of a bitch who tries to stomp on you is gonna hurt for it, and hurt every moment that you’re digging at them. That’s what I expect from you, Trissiny: win or lose, you will never let the bastards forget you’re there, or walk away without paying.”

She paused, then nodded deeply and intoned in a suddenly sonorous voice. “Kneel, Trissiny Avelea.”

“What?” Trissiny frowned. “Kneeling doesn’t sound like—oh, screw you, Style.”

Sweet let out a delighted cackle; Principia’s grin widened to the point that it looked painful.

Style just smirked. “You’d be surprised how many fall for that. Ah, well, I guess it was too much to hope for. Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild in truth, Thorn.”

Trissiny pursed her lips. “…I am never going to be able to escape thinking of you talking about your ass, now.”

“Remember, this is your very identity we’re talking about,” Eserion said. “Your trainer plays an important role in this, but them picking your tag is a tradition, not a law. If you really hate it, you’re entitled to decide how you’ll be tagged.”

“No.” Trissiny nodded at Style, her mouth twisting up in a slight, sardonic expression. “No, you know what? I like it. Thorn. Yeah, I think that suits me just fine.”

 

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13 – 34

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Such a procession drew attention and created a ripple of rumor that quickly swept across the city. It was early afternoon by the time they reached the wealthy district in which the Imperial Casino lay, and by that point, the news of their coming had preceded them. Well-dressed men and women had gathered on the sidewalks to stare, but mostly had the decency to remove their hats and lower their eyes in respect as the group passed. The street was also thronged with silent, grim-faced thieves of the Guild, waiting.

Trissiny walked in the front in full armor, her expression closed and eyes straight ahead, leading her silver-clad warhorse by his reins. Arjen followed with his own head lowered, surrounded by four young people, two men and two women. Only Schwartz stood out visibly, in his Salyrite robes and with Meesie riding on his shoulder. He, Tallie, and the Sakhavenid siblings kept pace with Arjen, each with one steadying hand on the carefully-wrapped bundle lying across the huge horse’s saddle. Though fully swathed, it apparent even without the presence of obvious pallbearers that it was a body.

Four Silver Legionnaires followed them, in uniform but helmetless and conspicuously absent their weapons, shivering in the winter air and looking a great deal more nervous than Legionnaires usually did in public. At the end of the procession walked a fifth soldier: Covrin had her helmet on, shield in hand, and lance held menacingly as if she intended to prod the woman in front of her at the slightest provocation. Beside her, also bare-headed and with an expression promising retribution, was Bishop Syrinx, her golden eagle-wrought sword drawn and ready.

The broad avenue terminated in a broad cul-de-sac before the steps of the Casino itself, the space now lined with quiet onlookers. Dozens of civilians murmured and jostled each other to stare, most of them in the expensive attire of the Casino’s usual clientele, but none tried to push past the perimeter of cold-faced Guild thieves enforcing a clear area in front of the steps.

Everyone stood where they were as Trissiny led the group straight toward the front doors of the Casino, with one exception. She had been standing on the top stair, watching up the street, and now as they approached, Style strode down and through the crowd. Only thieves had placed themselves in front of the steps, and so nobody had to be pushed bodily out of her way. They all knew better than to impede her.

Trissiny finally came to a stop near the center of the plaza. Style strode right up to and then past her, seeming not to notice anyone standing there and not the least bit impressed by the divine warhorse. Darius yielded his position and she came right up to Arjen’s side.

All muttering and coughing had utterly ceased among the onlookers by the time Style slipped her brawny arms, bare even in the cold, under Ross’s body and lifted him from the horse’s back. Despite his size, she did it with no apparent effort, but it was not her physical strength that held the watching enforcers silent. Everyone knew Style’s capacity for brute power, but rarely had they seen the towering chief enforcer’s face as it was now, crumpled with pain as if she might begin weeping any second.

The Hand of Avei stood to the side, head lowered, while Style carefully laid Ross upon the paving stones, and with amazing gentleness, folded back the white quilt with which they had covered him to reveal his face. He was already too pale to be merely sleeping.

At no apparent signal, every Eserite ringing the plaza silently raised their right fist defiantly to the sky.

“Lest the mighty grow complacent.” Lore’s voice was not raised—in fact, he spoke barely above a murmur from the top of the Casino’s steps. In the silence, though, he was clearly heard by all present. “Be warned: a thief can die, but the fight cannot.”

“WE ARE STILL HERE.”

Hundreds of voices, even in a respectfully soft tone, were deafening when they spoke in unison. The sounded from the enforcers circling the plaza, from the alleys and windows and rooftops all around. At this, finally, some of the civilian watchers began shuffling away, trying carefully to move up the street from the casino without creating a disruption that might draw attention. These were rich people, the kind the Thieves’ Guild existed to humble. It was one thing to play with danger by idling in the thieves’ own casino; being surrounded by the Guild in this mood was a horse of a different color.

Several enforcers came closer, forming a smaller, less precise ring around the group—not so much delineating space as making it plain by their presence, turned outward to stare flatly at the crowd, that no one was welcome to approach. Around them, though some stubborn rubberneckers remained to gawk, the crowd was beginning to stream away with enough speed that its sounds quickly grew loud enough to cover conversation. They were encouraged along by thieves turning from the scene in the middle of the plaza to give pointed looks at those who remained, several toying idly with weapons.

Style carefully folded the quilt back over Ross’s face. Still kneeling over him, she paused for a long moment to draw two steadying breaths before straightening back up to her full, intimidating height.

“All right,” the chief enforcer said simply. “Who did it?”

She turned to stare at the four disarmed Legionnaires, all of whom drew closer together in alarm and would have tried to back away had Covrin not deliberately planted the tip of her lance against the back of the sergeant’s breastplate.

“None of them,” Trissiny said evenly. “The murderer preferred death to justice. I…failed to apprehend her. That’s on me.”

“I’ll assume that’s the armor talking,” Style said shortly. “Avenist justice may be complicated, but as far at the Guild is concerned, if you killed the killer, that’s settled. Now I want to know what role this lot played, and why you brought them to me.”

“These are accomplices,” Trissiny said, turning to give the four a cold look. “They are guilty of abducting Ross, and also Schwartz here, but none of them did him any harm beyond that. Private Ulster, there, broke from them and raised steel on her comrades when Ross was shot. I don’t think they wanted anything to do with murder, and that one at least had the spine to take a stand, even if it was too late to be useful. We brought them here because they need to be debriefed and held until the Imperial investigators rounding up this conspiracy can finish their work. And right now, the Sisterhood of Avei is not trustworthy. I don’t want any more fish slipping the net before Commander Rouvad gets her house in order.”

“Well, you heard the General.” Boss Tricks materialized from the crowd as if he had teleported, pacing up to the group with an uncharacteristically dark expression. “We’ve got some guests, people. See that they’re comfortable.”

Several of the surrounding enforcers stepped forward, two hefting cudgels and Grip, at their head, toying pointedly with a long knife. The soldiers drew into an even tighter knot, eyes widening, and the sergeant finally found her voice.

“Now, just a minute here. High Commander Rouvad specifically said Legionnaires aren’t to be held by—”

Trissiny crossed to them with astonishing speed for someone in armor, her sword clearing her scabbard as she came; Schwartz barely got out of her way fast enough to avoid being run over. Sergeant Raathi broke off with an undignified squeak when the edge of the paladin’s blade came to rest against her throat.

“Rouvad,” Trissiny said icily, “is not here. I am. If I were to take your head off your shoulders right now, Sergeant, who among those present do you think will raise a whisper of complaint?”

Bishop Syrinx twirled her own sword, the flash of motion intended to catch Raathi’s attention, then deliberately sheathed the weapon, folded her arms, and smirked. Raathi’s throat moved abortively, as if she had started to swallow and then changed her mind.

“You will cooperate with the Guild,” Trissiny continued after enough of a pause had stretched out to make her point plain. “You will answer any questions you are asked and cause no trouble, and if I receive a favorable report of your conduct, I will make certain it’s considered at your trial. Do otherwise and I won’t do anything at all, and you can learn for yourself how far Commander Rouvad’s say-so goes among the Thieves’ Guild. Do I make myself plain?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Trissiny held her gaze for a moment longer before lowering the sword and turning her back dismissively on the four. “Boss, I’m trusting that they won’t be mistreated here.”

“No call for that, I don’t think,” Tricks said, studying the armored women dispassionately. “Long as they do what’s asked of ’em, it’s better for the whole business if they have no cause to complain about their treatment when it’s time for trials and sentencing. We do know a thing or two about handling the justice system, after all. In fact, we can consider that my official verdict on the matter.” The Boss raised his voice and subtly shifted to direct his words to the crowd at large. “The law is already closing in on this conspiracy, and seems to have most of ’em in hand. If it does so, fine; the Guild won’t contest the right of way with the Empire. But. These bastards have killed one of our own—an apprentice. There will be no more mercy offered. I officially no longer give a shit about interfaith procedure. Any member of this conspiracy who is not safely in Imperial custody by sunset will be found hanging in the doorway of their own temple by dawn. Be they altar boys or High Commanders, I don’t care. Eserite blood is never the last to be spilled. I have spoken.”

He received a round of sharp nods, and almost every Guild thief present who was not already moving to escort the four Legionnaires into the Casino turned and began melting away into the shadows and alleyways.

“Why have I got the strangest fucking feeling,” Style said grimly, folding her arms, “that you kids aren’t done making a goddamn mess.”

Darius cleared his throat. “Style, none of us are in any mood. If you even suggest what happened to Ross is our fault, I’m gonna come over there and smack you one.”

She raised her eyebrows fractionally. “Boy, you have to know I can demolish you with one hand.”

“I surely do, and I’ll do it anyway.”

“The defiance is good, Darius, but keep it pointed where it deserves,” Tricks said firmly. “No infighting, not right now. Kids, I expect great things from all of you, and believe me, I know what it feels like to want retribution. You all know our doctrine of revenge, though.”

“You…have a doctrine for that?” Schwartz asked hesitantly.

“Revenge should only be sought,” Tallie recited in a quiet monotone, “if it serves both a strategic and personal goal. Strategic in that it will dissuade the target or others from committing more actions that demand retaliation. Personal in that the target must understand by whom and for what they are being punished, and be unable to prevent their comeuppance, because only in that circumstance will it bring satisfaction.”

“That is disturbingly insightful,” he muttered.

“And the killer is dead,” Tricks stated, glancing at Trissiny. “which takes that off the table. The people responsible for the whole debacle are being rounded up by far more effective agents than you. This is not a situation where you can help.”

“Not more effective than her,” Tallie said defiantly, also turning to Trissiny.

“And,” Layla added, “it seems the one person most responsible is in no position to be rounded up.”

Tricks shot a look at Syrinx, who still had her arms folded and was now listening without expression.

“If you kids are thinking of trying to rough up the Archpope, so help me I will put you all in cells until you cool down. I don’t care whose Hand any of you are.”

Arjen turned to stare at him, laying his ears back, which the Boss ignored.

“Excuse me, I’m not even in your cult,” Schwartz said testily.

“I think it’s pretty significant we didn’t even have to say who we’re all talking about,” Tallie said dryly.

“And no,” Trissiny added, “no one’s talking about going to the Cathedral and attacking Justinian. No one here is stupid enough to think that would work.”

“Yo.” Darius raised his hand. “Totally that stupid, for the record. That’s why I let my baby sister tag along all the time, she’s the plan person.”

“I take full credit for his survival to date,” Layla said primly.

“It seems,” Trissiny continued, “the events of this week in Tiraas are just one part of something that has parallels in Last Rock and Puna Dara. While Justinian’s name has been brought up a lot, the truth is we haven’t absolute proof that he is the one orchestrating all this behind the scenes. Which means that both justice and revenge can be best sought without attacking him directly. Whoever is responsible for this, I mean to go make certain they get nothing they want today, and that they see who wrecked their careful plans.”

Style swelled like a bullfrog, but then released the air in a heavy sigh. “And so you’re thinking of taking my apprentices and charging off to Last Rock to help your little adventurer friends?”

“She’s not taking us anywhere,” Tallie stated, glaring at her. “We’re going with. You can dish out whatever punishment you want when we get back, Style, but this is fucking well happening. Live with it.”

“And no,” Trissiny said before Style could retort. “Last Rock is a monster that eats overweening fools; anybody who wants to try their luck with Tellwyrn and my classmates is welcome to have at it. But Puna Dara is not prepared for the kinds of trouble someone like Justinian can unleash, and I have a good friend who will never forgive me if I turn my back on the Punaji when they need help. That is where I’m going. And as far as I’m concerned, everyone here has the right to come if they choose to exercise it.”

“I swear,” Style muttered, shaking her head. “A thorn in my ass to the very end.”

“You realize, kid,” Tricks said quietly, “that not everybody is secretly a paladin. The kind of trouble that you exist to stamp down gets regular people killed. How many friends are you looking to lose today?”

“If you can persuade them not to come,” she whispered, “do. Please.”

“We’ve had this out already,” Tallie said, much more firmly. “This isn’t the big bad paladin ordering us to fight. We’re Guild, Boss; nobody orders us to do jack shit.”

Style cleared her throat pointedly.

“What’re you grunting about?” Darius snorted. “It’s true and you know it. You complain about it often enough.”

“Historically speaking,” Layla added, “paladins do not operate alone; they have usually been the focus of adventurer teams. Three thieves and a witch makes for pretty good backup, I’d say.”

“Apprentice thieves!” Style grated.

Tricks shook his head, but held up a hand. “Technically, I do have the prerogative to forbid you from going.” He gave Style a long, pensive look. “But…we’re not big on technicalities here, are we?”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she said incredulously.

“A great doom is coming,” the Boss murmured. “Shit’s going down, Style. I’ve heard from the Big Guy himself about our pet paladin, here. The word is to give her space to do what she wants, unless she gets into something we specifically cannot support. This is Guild retribution of exactly the kind our very few doctrines support. If any thieves want to have her back, apprentice or no… They’re cleared to go.”

Style turned her back, cursing monotonously under her breath.

“But you,” Tricks said grimly to Trissiny, “just keep in mind that raising a fist in defiance is the why but not the how of Eserion’s people. You assess the situation, you act with strategy, and you don’t take needless risks with our people’s lives.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” she replied, “but I appreciate that you did, nonetheless. I don’t plan to lose anybody else, today.”

“Yeah?” he shot back. “Did you plan to lose Ross?”

“Okay, that was not necessary,” Schwartz snapped. Meesie hopped onto his head and chittered angry agreement.

“It’s not wrong, though,” Trissiny said quietly. “Anything could happen. In war, people die.”

“You gotta trust us on this, Boss,” Tallie said, wearing a grim little smile. “I’ve been thinking on it all the way over. The biggest advantage of having our very own paladin isn’t even her capacity to break shit: it’s that with her riding at the head, nobody’ll even see us coming.”

Tricks heaved a sigh, rolling his eyes. “She said, in the middle of the street.”

That prompted a round of winces and glances around. Actually his concern might have been overstated; most of the onlookers had left, either voluntarily or shooed away by enforcers, and nobody who remained was within earshot. What was left of the crowd was again generating enough typical city noise to cover their conversation.

“Hey, give her a break,” Darius said reasonably. “After all, we’re just apprentices.”


“How’s it look out there, Sanrachi?” one of the gathered soldiers asked merrily as their soaking-wet comrade entered the barracks.

“Fucking glorious,” she replied with the same good cheer, settling onto one of the benches close to the fireplace and picking up a rag from the supplies laid out there. She began removing, drying and oiling her gear as she continued, not seeming to mind the rainwater that plastered her own clothes and hair. “It’s one of Naphthene’s own rages out there. I can’t believe you lazy sods are sitting around in here instead of out playing in the rain.”

“Yeah, well, you can go back out when your shift is over,” the lieutenant presently in charge said, looking up from his book and raising an eyebrow. “We’re all on standby. If that means missing a really good blow, well, life’s hard.”

“Not me!” another man called. “I haven’t missed a really good blow since I met Apta’s—”

“Yeah, yeah, my sister’s a whore, we’ve all heard it,” a fellow soldier grunted, tossing a boot at him without raising his attention from his game of chess. “You need some new material.”

The small barracks was on the second floor of the Rock’s southern gatehouse, set inside the massive outer wall of the fortress itself. This was not the main troop housing, but served as a common area where soldiers stationed on gate watch gathered. At times like this, the policy was to have enough troops on the ramparts to keep watch over the city, but more in reserve below not being distracted and tired out by having to remain alert in the middle of a storm. As much as Punaji enjoyed stormy weather as a rule, manning the top of a wall during a tropical gale as fierce as the one now raging could wear a person out. Sanrachi’s replacement had already gone above to relieve her, and another swap would take place in half an hour. With the weather this bad, the twelve soldiers patrolling the gatehouse’s towers would be rotated constantly, so there was always someone with fresh eyes on the city.

In theory, the Rock should have nothing to fear from the people of Puna Dara, but the very fact of the Punaji affinity for storms meant that watchers on the walls could not trust the weather alone to keep the gates clear, as might be the practice elsewhere.

“All quiet out there?” the lieutenant asked, then had to pause for a particularly loud clap of thunder. “…you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sanrachi said, grinning. “The usual. Some folks out in the street, but not a sign of these Rust bastards. I guess their name’s not a complete coincidence, huh? They seem shy about getting wet. So, uh…” She glanced curiously at some of the new arrivals, whose silver armor stood out strikingly among the Punaji uniforms. “What brings you out here, Sisters? I heard you were honored guests of the royal family.”

“That’s the theory,” Ephanie said lightly, “but we’re letting our LT hog all the honor. Honestly, you know how it is. We all complain about the digs we’re assigned, but put me on plush carpeting and silk sheets and I’m afraid to touch anything. I have no idea which one’s even the shrimp fork.”

“Shrimp fork’s the one you use to stab the shrimp who complains about what fork you’re eating with!” shouted the man who’d made the crack about Apta’s sister, earning a round of guffaws.

“Well, you’re welcome in here,” the lieutenant said, smiling warmly at her. In fact, Ephanie in particular had been the focus of a fair amount of attention from most of the men and several of the women stationed in this gatehouse. “Good company’s always appreciated. We don’t even mind you sharing the rations; we don’t go hungry around here.”

“Aw, we wouldn’t wanna be a burden,” Casey said cheerfully. “That’s why we keep Lang around! Someone so terrible at cards can’t help but make us friends.”

Merry scowled at her, slapping her handful of cards down on the table amid the laughter of the rest of the poker players. Indeed, her stack of pennies was the smallest by a wide margin. “I fucking knew it! That’s it, soon as we’re back in Tiraas I’m putting in a requisition for come compensation.”

While the joking and laughter carried on, Ephanie politely extracted herself from the lieutenant’s attention and went to join Nandi, who was standing by one of the windows, staring out at the storm with a slight frown.

“All right, Shahai?” she asked softly. “I’ve never known you to be bothered by a little thunder and lightning.”

“It isn’t that,” Nandi said slowly. “I can almost hear…something.”

Ephanie’s eyebrows drew together pensively. “Can you be a little more specific?”

“I wish I could, Avelea. I cannot pick it out, but I have the sense that there is a background sound that…” She trailed off, then finally tore her eyes from the window to look at Ephanie directly. “Elven hearing is a matter of focus. Discerning as many sounds as we do, we’d go mad from over-stimulation if we did not learn to tune most of it out. There is an art to hearing almost everything in one’s vicinity and deciding, subconsciously, what is important. Sometimes the fact that this is art and not science works against us. Something is nagging at me, and I cannot fix my attention upon it. The storm and the soldiers, obviously, do not help.”

“I’ve never seen you do that, either,” Ephanie said, studying her. “You have a great deal of experience to draw on, Shahai. Is this ringing any bells at all? Anything you want to tell me about?”

Nandi’s eyes had narrowed in concentration, tracking to the side as she listened, but at that she fixed her gaze back on Ephanie’s. “It’s nothing I would be comfortable initiating action based upon, but… My experience has been that when I have this sensation, it means someone nearby is attempting to be very stealthy, aware that an elf can hear them. Stealthier than a normal human is capable of being.”

Ephanie nodded slowly. “All right. Thanks for the warning; I’ll discreetly notify the others to be on the alert, but I don’t think we want to spook the local troops just yet.”

“No…tell their lieutenant, at least,” Merry said, having abandoned the last of her pennies and joined them in time to catch the latter part of their exchange. “We’re not the big damn heroes here, that’s those Last Rock kids and possibly Locke. We came here to support the Punaji; I think it’s a bad idea to have the attitude that these troopers are yokels who can’t be trusted to take care of their own city. We should share intel that might be important. Uh, I mean…ma’am.” She finished weakly, belatedly noticing Ephanie’s very pointed stare.

“Mouth off like that in front of anyone, Lang, and I’m gonna have to land on you,” Ephanie said dryly, “but with that said, you are dead right and I thank you for the reminder. Just learn to watch your tone. Most of the Legions do not share Locke’s idea of military comportment.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said contritely.

Ephanie nodded to Nandi. “I’ll go have a discreet word with their LT. I’ve been getting the vibe he’d be happy enough to speak with me in private. It should be his call what to tell his troops, if anything, and if he doesn’t believe me, that’s that.”

“I find human soldiers are often impressed by ‘elf stuff’ to an almost superstitious degree,” Nandi said, her grave tone somewhat spoiled by the twitch of her lips. “Don’t hesitate to mention the ears.”

Ephanie grinned and patted her shoulder. “Back shortly. Keep those ears perked and let me know if you can pick anything important out.”

“Will do.”

Not even an elf could have heard the distortion of candle smoke, or even the movement of air as it was displaced by an invisible body in the rafters; with all the noise of the storm and the boisterous soldiers present, the hidden figure above managed to creep from beam to beam all the way to the stairwell door without drawing further attention.

Rather than risk opening it herself, she had to wait for the next shift change and slip out after the soldier who went to relieve his counterpart upon the battlements. It was a simple enough matter to trip him while he was opening the heavy wooden door, providing her with an opportunity to squeeze past and scamper almost silently up the stairs.

At the top, troopers were hunkered down against the battlements themselves, lifelines tied to their belts in case of someone being blown over the edge. With the wind roaring as it was, Kheshiri didn’t even try to unfurl her wings; she’d have been instantly picked up and hurled halfway to the Stalrange. Flattening herself against the floor and as close to the inner wall as she could, she made her way carefully across, mindful of both storm and soldiers, heading for the other gatehouse—the one not currently inhabited by an elf.

This delay had cost her time. The others would be getting impatient; Shook could only take his frustrations out on her later, but if Khadizroth feared she had been intercepted he might go and do something unfortunate. She would have to move faster to get the gate open, which meant creating an opportunity rather than waiting for one.

The thought was enough to set her tail waving in anticipation.

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11 – 22

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“This looks…complicated,” Tallie said skeptically a few minutes later, watching the Guild’s currently on-call healer work. “Can’t you just, y’know, make with the whoosh and the flash and fix everything?”

Mesmer wasn’t a man who’d be taken for a medic at first glance. He was dressed like a shabby street tough, in an old suit that had been of middling quality at best before being worn threadbare and ripped in multiple places. He was handsome to the point of dashing, though, and both his perfectly-trimmed hair and handlebar mustache had clearly been oiled into place with far more care than he took with his wardrobe. He had the healer’s attitude down, though, as he now demonstrated by ceasing his careful work on Jasmine and turning to Tallie, arching one supercilious eyebrow.

“Would you like to try?”

“This is normal,” Jasmine said hastily and a tad thickly; she still had some bleeding in her mouth where her cheek had cracked against the floor, as evidenced by the ugly, blossoming bruise spreading across half her face. “You never just inundate someone with divine magic. You can fix bones or organs in the wrong place, which means a slow death at worst.”

“Well, I’m glad at least one of you has cracked a book at some point in her life,” Mesmer said more affably, turning back to her and resuming what he’d been doing. This consisted of closing his eyes, laying one hand on her forehead, and gently applying very small sparks of golden light to her abdomen with the other.

“And she knows how to do divine healing, as well,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Let me guess, you’re also a priestess.”

Jasmine started to sigh, as well, then winced. “Ow. And…no. I am not a priestess.”

“It’s not like that’s some kind of clerical secret,” Mesmer said without opening his eyes. “Like I said, kid. Books: not just for propping doors open.”

“All right, then, doctor—”

“Whoah, whoah!” He broke off his work again, turning to scowl at Tallie. “The tag is Mesmer. I did not cleverly avoid eight grueling years of medical school to run around being called doctor, thank you very much!”

Tallie blinked at him in bafflement, but Jasmine grinned, showing blood in her teeth.

“Okay,” Tallie resumed after a moment, in which he returned to what he was doing. “What’s all this, then? Why just heal a little bit at a time? And what’s with the hand on her face? You did it to me, too; is it only the girls who get fondled?”

“I’d actually feel better if you let him concentrate,” Jasmine pointed out.

“Nah, it’s fine,” Mesmer said absently. “Could do this in my sleep; you’re not a complex case. The hand on the head is one of the lesser-used aspects of divine magic. It’s akin to telepathy, gives the caster a sense of a person. With enough skill, it’s a crucial diagnostic tool. With more skill, you can actually get into their minds, which is creepy as all hell and consequently I’ve never studied the method.”

“So it’s like divination,” said Tallie.

“Sure. In that it only works on people and only if you’re touching them and thus is in no way like arcane divination, yeah, it’s exactly like that. As for the little bits at a time part, I’m scanning for and fixing major issues. Concussion, loosened teeth, organ damage, internal bleeding, all that good stuff. And actually I didn’t find any, but I’m healing some internal bruising anyway, because you do not mess around with that crap. The rest, you get to keep, you lucky duck, you.” Apparently finished, he lifted his hands from Jasmine, then grinned and playfully tweaked her nose. “Since you got this collection of bruises from Style, they are considered an object lesson. Letting ’em heal the long, slow way is all part of your education.”

“Well, that answers my next question,” Tallie muttered, absently rubbing at her own stomach where Style had punched her. Upon their arrival, Mesmer had placed a hand on each of their heads, then told Tallie she was fine and set to work on Jasmine.

“And on that note,” the healer added, “while you can nip out and buy yourself a healing potion or just walk into any Omnist temple and get a thorough cleansing, I advise against it. Soon as Style sees you without your hard-earned bruises, she’ll just put ’em right back.”

“Well, that may not be an issue,” Jasmine said with a sigh. “Since I guess I won’t be around much longer.”

“Why, you’re quitting?” Style snorted, striding into the curtained-off examination room from the open lobby beyond. “I thought better of you than that, kid.”

Jasmine met her with an unfriendly stare. “Well, after all that, I expect to be kicked out. Right?”

“For what?” Style folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. “Standing up to authority? Defending someone weaker? That’s exactly the entire fucking point of everything we do here, Jasmine. You just did it in the wrong way, at the wrong time, over the wrong issue. Teaching you how to pick your battles and win them is the point of you being an apprentice.” She grinned mirthlessly. “Kicking the shit out of you when you fuck up as badly as you just did is meant to deter you making the same dumbshit mistakes twice. The technique I can teach, kid; instilling someone with the drive to take action like you did is a lot harder.”

“Hmp,” Jasmine grunted noncommittally, probing at her bruised face with her fingertips.

“Oi!” Style turned to shout back through the curtain. “The Boss told you three to come with. What’re you doing lurking out there?”

“He said to stay out while girls were being examined!” Rasha protested rather shrilly from outside.

Style turned to Mesmer with a scowl. “I can’t help but notice a complete lack of anybody with their shirt off in here. Why would you even need them undressed if you can do that creepy brain thing you do?”

Mesmer, who had stepped over momentarily to a nearby cabinet, now shrugged placidly before handing a bowl and a bottle of water to Jasmine. “I just hate being crowded when I’m working. Here, swish and spit. You look like a vampire with a goat’s table manners.”

“Get your butts in here!” Style barked.

The boys trooped single-file through the curtain, all three looking uncharacteristically nervous. Tallie gave them a smile; Jasmine waved, while obediently swishing water around her mouth. The space was not exactly cramped, but it was beginning to fell that way, with so many bodies present.

“The Boss said he’d want to talk to you,” Style said, giving them all the gimlet eye. I doubt he’ll want to shout back and forth across a curtain. This is as good a place as any for a chat, so you all just sit tight.”

“Uh huh,” Mesmer said dryly, taking the bowl and bottle from Jasmine and stepping over to the nearby sink to pour and wash them out. “Sure, fine, whatever. Just so you know if another injured dumbass comes in, I’m kicking you all out.”

“Oh, are you,” Style drawled.

“Let me put this in terms you can understand,” he said, turning back to her with a grin and placing a hand on his own chest. “Me medic. You thug. That means in the presence of a patient, I outrank you, Tricks, his Majesty, and the Big Guy himself. Savvy?”

“Actually she’s rather loquacious,” Ross commented. Everyone turned to stare at him, and he shrugged defensively. “Aside from the cussing, I mean.”

“One of her more charming qualities,” Tricks said breezily, striding in, and paused to wink at Rasha, who had jumped. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on ya. Though maybe I should install curtains all over this place. They’re great for dramatic entrances.”

“Ooh!” Darius said brightly. “What about those bead curtains that form a mosaic? Stylish, dramatic, and they make a pleasant rattling sound!”

“Hey, now that’s using the old noggin!” the Boss said, grinning and pointing at him.

“Boy,” Style said darkly, “I can deal with you shooting off your yap in front of the mortal head of our faith, because that’s practically a divine obligation in this cult. But so help me, if you start giving him ideas, I will use you for a toilet plunger.”

“That’s extremely flattering, ma’am,” Darius said sincerely, “but Tallie has dibs.”

“All right, cool it,” the Boss ordered. “I do enjoy a spot of banter and you kids seem talented, but as usual I have far too much crap to do, so let’s proceed directly to the point. Mesmer, I think one of your other rooms could use some tidying up.”

“Excuse me,” Mesmer declared, “but every facet of my infirmary is in flawless order as always. Really, Boss, if you want me to go the fuck away, you can say so without insulting—”

“GO THE FUCK AWAY!” Style roared, pointing at the door.

Mesmer heaved a dramatic sigh and flounced out. Tricks waited for the sound of the outer door closing before he continued.

“So! What, pray tell, is all this I’m hearing about dwarves?”

There was a beat of silence, in which the apprentices glanced nervously at one another.

“None of this is our fault!”

“That guy Pick—”

“I think the Silver Legions—”

“They’ve been following us around since—”

Style slammed a fist into the cabinet hard enough to rattle some of its contents loose, to judge by the muted crash that occurred within.

“How about this,” she said flatly. “Pretend you can communicate like human beings.”

“Only half-human,” Jasmine said, raising a hand. She shrugged, unperturbed, at Style’s furious stare. “For the record.”

“You’re the talker, right?” Tricks said calmly, winking at Tallie. “How about you give it to us from the beginning?”

Tallie drew in a deep breath, wincing and placing a hand on her belly, then nodded. “Uh…okay, sure. Guys, feel free to chime in if I skip anything. All right, so, a few days back Darius here got us a job doing grunt work for Pick at that weapons swap…”

She actually did not forget anything, efficiently running through the whole thread of events which had followed from the warehouse, and how they had quite accidentally come to be involved with the mysterious dwarves, the Silver Legionnaires, the gang running Glass Alley, and finally Alan Vandro and Gimmick.

“And then we got back here and Style went apeshit on us,” Tallie finished, then shrugged. “I figure you guys remember that part.”

Style, by this point, had narrowed her eyes to slits, but it was a thoughtful expression; even as new to the Guild as they were, they had learned to watch for her displeasure. The chief enforcer turned expectantly to Tricks, who was gazing pensively into the distance, slowly tapping one finger against his chin.

“Well, now,” he mused after a long moment of contemplation. “What a goddamn interesting week you kids are having. Felicitations and condolences both.”

“Thanks,” said Ross. Style shot him a look.

“Since you didn’t mention our Ms. Jasmine’s excursions to visit Glory,” the Boss continued, “I gather that was unrelated?”

“I would be amazed if Glory has anything to do with Pick or dwarves,” Jasmine answered, “and probably very little involvement with the Legions. I’d been planning to talk to her about all this after today, though. She ended up not wanting me for an apprentice, but she said I could visit and seek advice. She’s certainly smart enough to make it worthwhile.”

“As smart a cookie as was ever baked, that one,” Tricks agreed.

“I like the sound of that,” Tallie added. “Gotta say, not that I didn’t appreciate the sandwiches and the lift, but I’m less than comfortable with our main source of info and connections being Vandro.”

“Good,” Style grunted. “Trust those instincts. And while we’re at it, whatever else you end up doing about all this, you watch your ass if you have to deal with Principia Locke any further. In fact, I’d say just don’t, if you’ve got any better option.”

“Why?” asked Rasha.

“Webs is a schemer,” Style replied. “He’s a pile of agendas and he will use you in them, but that doesn’t necessarily have to bring you harm. Hell, he’ll probably go out of his way to be helpful to apprentices. Keys, though, is just an asshole. Her career path has been to ruin everyone’s day who has anything worth stealing, and her hobby is to piss off fellow thieves whenever one is unfortunate enough to meet her. The fuck if I know what she’s doing in the Legion, but if it ends up with her in a noose, which I more than half expect, not a fucking soul alive will shed a tear. She will string you along into trouble just because she thinks it’s funny.”

“Not me, she won’t,” Jasmine said simply.

Style gave her a long look, then frowned and glanced at the others. “What, is this not a secret?”

“I asked her for advice,” Jasmine said with a shrug. “They asked me why. It didn’t seem worth concealing. Anyway, I’m not banking on our relationship to ensure Locke deals fairly with us. If she gives me that kind of trouble I will go down there and beat her into the ground, and she knows it. I’ve already seen the inside of one Silver Legion cell this week and frankly it wasn’t all that uncomfortable.”

“Damn,” Darius said, grinning. “And I thought my family was messed up.”

“I’m absolutely sure they are,” Tallie assured him.

“Hn,” Style grunted, then smiled almost grudgingly. “Kid, you’ve got the makings of a top-notch enforcer. Assuming I don’t have to literally kill you in order to beat some common sense into that skull.”

Jasmine’s expression fell at the back-handed compliment, and she averted her eyes, fidgeting.

“Anyway, that’s our deal,” Tallie said, now frowning at Tricks. “Look, I get that we’re expected to solve our own problems here, and we’re working on it. But you cared enough to ask about all this, and now you know. So…what’s your plan?”

“You have an unknown party stalking some apprentices,” Darius agreed. “Surely the Guild has a stake in that.”

“Mm hm,” Tricks mused. “Too right, we do. But if you’re expecting me to come swooping to your rescue, here, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.”

“I…” Rasha glanced quickly around at the others. “…don’t think anybody’s actually going to be disappointed, then.”

“Good man,” Tricks replied with a grin, though his face immediately sobered. “There are factors that restrain me a bit, kids. First of all, all these dwarves appear to have done is track you. That’s creepy and borderline hostile at least, but the truth is, being followed around is a fact of life for Eserites. Law enforcement is just the beginning; potential marks and past marks, those who have the resources, will often stalk thieves. Avenists and Shaathists tend to do it just on general principles if they happen to learn what cult you’re in. For that matter, there’s a great deal of competition within the Guild itself, and some of the prank-playing barely toes the line short of infighting. Your fellow thieves will frequently make it their business to know what you’re up to. Dealing with this, and countering it, is something you’ll be expected to know how to do. Nobody in this Guild is going to rally to your aid just because someone is keeping tabs on you.”

Ross sighed heavily; none of them found anything to say in response.

“Now, granted, there are some mitigating factors there,” Tricks continued. “You’re apprentices, which means we don’t expect you to have the same capabilities, and you get a measure of protection. And this stalking is pretty obviously a forerunner to the real show, whatever that is. Depending on what it is, we may end up having to intervene after all. For that reason, I’m glad to be in the loop on this, finally.”

“Sorry,” Tallie muttered. “We didn’t figure you’d…”

“No worries, it’s only a few days in,” he assured her. “Whatever crisis this is leading to hasn’t happened yet, and now I’m forewarned. That’s what matters. Second problem, though: I’m constrained from rushing to your aid over a minor problem by the fact that you’re all plotting against me.”

Tricks let their babbled protestations of shock and innocence carry on for a few seconds before holding up a hand for silence. When silence did not immediately ensue, Style helped.

“SHUT IT. And you.” She turned her scowl on the Boss. “I know you like your little jokes, but leave the kids alone. Some of ’em aren’t that bright.”

“Hey,” Darius protested. “What’d she mean by that?”

“Tell you when you’re older,” Ross rumbled.

“All right, fair enough,” Tricks said easily. “Relax, guys, you’re in no trouble with me. And Style’s right, that was a little joke on my part…somewhat. But the fact is, after today, you’ll be associated with Alan Vandro’s camp in the eyes of those in the Guild who care about such things, and that is a potential issue.”

“Camp?” Rasha said shrilly. “There’s a camp? Nobody told us about any camp!”

“We probably wouldn’t have stumbled into it if he had,” Tallie said sourly. “Which would be why he didn’t.”

“Exactly,” said Tricks, nodding. “Innocent or not, though, that’s where we stand. How this looks is one of the bullshit things I have to think about in order to lead the Guild. If some of our apprentices are in some kind of danger, then sure, protecting them with all necessary resources is just part of the job. If I move to aid a group of Vandro’s underlings just because they’re in an uncomfortable situation, that’s different. It means I’m either insecure enough to try to woo away members of his faction, or overtly hostile toward him in a way that’ll start sparks flying, as people who support him, me, or other parties take the cue to get more aggressive.”

“That is horseshit,” Rasha spat with uncharacteristic vehemence. He then paled slightly and hunched his shoulders, but a moment later forced himself to straighten up again, glaring at the Boss.

“You’re completely right,” Tricks said with a sigh. “It’s politics. And the really shitty thing about politics is that you don’t get to abstain from it. Not just me, because I have to consider these things in order to get anything done around here, but everybody. It happens, and it’ll roll right over you if you don’t pay attention to it and involve yourself. It’s obnoxious as hell, but…there it is.”

“What are these factions, though?” Darius asked. “I mean, what’s everybody after?”

“There’s not really any competition for power in the Guild,” said Tricks. “Competition for jobs, credibility, and just because we like to compete, sure. But in a religion whose central premise is that people who seek power are not to be trusted, we just don’t have all that many positions of authority, and they always end up getting kind of thrust on people who don’t really want them. Anybody in one of those positions who started acting like they enjoyed it too much would find themselves…” He grinned, dragging a finger across his neck. “Retired.”

“We have joined a cult of crazy people,” Tallie said wearily. Style grinned at her.

“Point being,” Tricks continued, “most Guild members really aren’t interested in factional politics at all, and those who go in for it do so over doctrinal issues—how they feel the Guild should be run, and how Eserites should behave. Webs isn’t aiming for my job; I know for a fact he doesn’t want my job, and very few people do.”

“He keeps trying to fob it back off on Sweet,” Style added, smirking, “who is far too slippery for that to work.”

“What Webs wants,” Tricks said, giving her a sour look, “is change within the cult.”

“What change?” asked Ross.

“That’s actually a good thing to ask about and something you should know,” the Boss replied, “but it’s a diversion I really don’t have time for. Find Lore at your earliest opportunity and ask about all this; teaching you the Guild’s codes and philosophy is his job, after all. For now, we have the issue at hand to finish addressing.”

“The issue being,” Tallie said bitterly, “we’re fucked and you won’t help.”

“There you go, jumping to conclusions,” Tricks said with a gentle smile. “Here’s the core problem: who are these dwarves? What’s their agenda? What organization do they represent? What are some of their names? Where do they live?”

He let the silence stretch out, smiling knowingly, and then winked at them.

“And without knowing any of that,” the Boss finished, “what is it you expect me to do?”

“All right, that’s fair,” said Jasmine, shifting on the exam table and then wincing. “We—errh—need to find all that out, anyway.”

“Just get me a starting point,” said Tricks in a more serious tone. “Bring me anything. Because while politics may constrain me from acting overtly in your favor, I want to have people looking at these dwarves as soon as I have a direction in which to look. There’s a potentially important factor here that you guys seem to have missed.”

“Oh?” Darius raised his eyebrows inquisitively.

“Style.” Tricks turned to his head enforcer. “Last info I had, Pick is still AWOL and hasn’t paid this group for the work they did?”

“And that’s still correct,” she grunted. “I had my people do a quick sweep of the city, which turned up nothing, so I put out the word to all our chapter houses to watch for him. Didn’t bother with a thorough search, though; he’s small fry on his best day. Why, you want me to crack down on him?”

“Not necessarily,” Tricks said, frowning. “Pick has a somewhat infamous record; we’re all so accustomed to thinking he’s a useless little shitstain that when he turned up missing just as the apprentices he ditched needed to be paid, well, there’s a pretty neat and obvious little narrative there, huh? However, it’s now turned out that we have some outside faction aggressively pursuing these same kids over business related to that deal and those weapons—business that Pick was knee-deep in. I don’t actually know who he was working with or where the hell he got those gadgets, so he may be the only person who can answer those questions. And just as the dwarves start moving in, he’s nowhere to be found.”

“Holy shit,” Darius breathed, going pale. Style’s face, by contrast, reddened, an she clenched her fists in fury.

“Now, nobody go and do anything rash,” Tricks warned them. “We need answers before taking action; we’re dealing with smart people, and just about the worst thing you can do when smart people are moving against you is lash out. But if it these dwarves have managed to disappear a Guild member…oh, you’ll get your support, kids.” He smiled coldly. “They really hate thieves up in the Dwarnskolds; it’s one of the few places where Eserites have really no presence at all. So maybe it’s time we reminded all of dwarfkind that you do not fuck with the Thieves’ Guild.”

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