“Nothing,” Rasha said moments later, rising from where he had been crouched by the door. “There’s no lock, no…nothing. These bars came out of some mechanism in the door frame itself, nothing I can work at with a lockpick.”
“Do you actually have a lockpick on you?” Darius said pointedly.
Rasha scowled and rubbed his palms on his trousers. “Well, it’s sort of academic now, isn’t it?”
“I’m in the back! C’mon through!” said the bait device with disgusting good cheer.
“Shame,” said Tallie from the opposite side of the room, experimentally tugging on the bars blocking off the other door. “You’re pretty nimble with picks, for someone who’s new at it. Or so Flora said. Okay, this fucker isn’t budging. Whatever they’re attached to is in there good. Unless someone with a little more beef would care to have a go?”
“Way ahead of you,” Darius grunted. Rasha had moved aside to let him hook his hands over the scratched and half-decayed wooden frame of the door. It creaked in protest, then shifted an inch. The whole place looked to be on the verge of falling apart. Ross moved up next to him, also getting a grip; at a nod from Darius, he heaved back as well, and there came a crack of splintering wood as the frame was wrenched loose another few inches.
Tallie and Schwartz backed away against the opposite wall to watch; Jasmine, after glancing up at them, busied herself prowling among the dusty bottles of cleaning supplies on the shelves.
Darius crowed in triumph as he and Ross finally ripped an entire chunk of the door frame free, bringing with it a substantial piece of the half-rotten wood of the adjacent wall. His jubilation died almost instantly, and everyone pressed forward, craning their necks to see what he’d found.
“Okay, so, something’s just occurred to me,” Darius said, rapping his knuckles on the plate of solid iron which had been behind the old wood paneling. “The bitch who set us up for this was dressed entirely in…well, this stuff.”
“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”
“Don’t see any seams,” Ross grunted, peering closely at the heavier iron lining the now partially exposed doorway. “The mechanism would be in the bottom… This doesn’t match the building. This is solid.”
“It goes all the way around,” Schwartz said quietly, his eyes closed. “Except the floor, that’s just stone… Um, sensing elemental composition isn’t my strongest suit, but if you give me some minutes to meditate I can look for weak points.”
“What kind of fucking maniac builds an iron room in the back of a disused shop and dresses it up to look all innocent?” Tallie snarled.
“I think you met her,” Darius said wryly. “Remember? The scary-as-fuck one with the lightning and the harpoons and explosives and holy fuck what is going on in this district?!”
“I’m afraid it’s worse than that,” Schwartz said, grimacing and opening his eyes. “I’ve got spells that could easily break us out of an old cleaning closet and possibly an iron cell, but… There’s some kind of arcane circuitry running behind these walls. I can feel it now that I try, but I’m no arcanist; I can’t tell what it does. My fae magic could cause…um, a really bad reaction.”
“Well, maybe that’s our solution?” Darius suggested. “Cause a bad reaction, blow out a chunk of the wall?”
“How about no,” Ross growled.
“Exactly,” Schwartz said emphatically. “Be the subject magic, chemistry, politics or interpersonal relations, the rule of thumb is: if it’s volatile, don’t blindly poke at it.”
Meesie, sitting upright in his hair, squeaked in agreement, nodding her tiny head.
“I’m in the back! C’mon through!”
Tallie clapped a hand over her eyes. “Jasmine, sweetie, while you’re over there…?”
Jasmine had begun sorting the bottles into different clusters; at Tallie’s prompting, she paused, picked up the enchanted device with the voice, raised it over her head and slammed it onto the stone floor, where most of its pieces shattered. Just for good measure—or maybe just for emphasis—she stomped hard on the remains, splintering them further.
“Thank you,” Tallie said fervently.
“My pleasure,” Jasmine replied. “Okay, nobody panic, I think I have an idea.”
“Don’t keep us in suspense,” Rasha said tersely.
“Schwartz, a couple of questions,” she said, turning to the witch.
He held his arms wide in an expansive gesture, smiling ruefully. “Clearly, my time is yours.”
Jasmine grinned faintly before continuing. “First, can you work some of your magic in here if you’re not doing it at the walls themselves?”
He frowned, then turned in a slow circle, peering this way and that at something the rest of them couldn’t see. “Hm. Hmmm… I can’t tell much about the nature of these enchantments, but I think it’s probably just to make the iron resistant to magical tampering… Yes, I don’t find any triggers in there. Something would likely have reacted to Meesie if it was going to.”
“Good,” she said, nodding. “And are there any charms like that on the bars themselves?”
Tallie moved aside, giving him space to examine the bars of the rear door. “Um… It’s faint. Just because there’s less metal, I think. Actually, this I can see close enough to be fairly sure it’s a standard strengthening enchantment. I’m no arcanist, like I said, but arcane enchantment is everywhere, these days. If you’re going to practice the Craft in any capacity, you learn to recognize most of the old standbys.”
“Perfect,” she said in satisfaction. “Here’s what I need: can you whip up a spell to aggressively purify the air?”
“Your allergies acting up?” Darius said snidely.
Schwartz blinked, then frowned. “Um…sure, that’s child’s play. Why?”
“Because,” Jasmine said, turning back to the selection of bottles she had moved aside onto their own shelf, “I’ve got the ingredients here to make a potent solution that’ll dissolve iron. However, it will also put off some extremely toxic fumes which would kill us in about two minutes in an enclosed space like this. So unless you can cleanse poison out of the air, that’s a no go.”
“Uhh…” His frown deepened. “I see. Yes, I can do that. I can also add small charms to each of us to improve our breathing, and depending on what kinds of fumes you’re talking about, I think the more protection, the better.”
“Sounds like a good policy,” she said, nodding. “All right, get to work on that, if you would, please. Everybody stand back from the drain; I need some bottles for mixing, so I’m gonna pour a few of these out.”
“You’re an alchemist?” Tallie said sharply, staring hard at her.
“Oh, goodness, no,” Jasmine replied, kneeling to very carefully pour a faintly shimmering blue solution into the small grate in the floor. “Alchemy is basically chemistry with magically reactive substances. Like chemistry, it’s a whole lot of math and memorizing tables and reactions… I really don’t have a head for the theory. I had a really good alchemy teacher, though. Actually, the man’s a howling idiot, but he does know his subject. He did a whole unit on useful stuff you can make from common household alchemicals. That I paid attention to; I like practical knowledge. This stuff is all old, but what I need appears to be still good.”
“Who are you?” Tallie demanded.
Jasmine hesitated in pouring, then lifted her head to give her a guarded look. “I thought we agreed not to ask questions like that.”
“Don’t give me that,” Tallie shot back. “I told you all my whole story. These two are just a couple of guys, nothing special,” she added, pointing at Darius and Ross.
“Hey,” Ross protested, frowning.
“Just for that, you sleep alone tonight,” Darius said with a smirk.
“Rasha is here because he’s mousy and effeminate and has been picked on his whole life, and the Guild is a religion based on taking down bullies. Sorry, Rasha, but that was all pretty transparent,” she added.
Rasha scowled, but then shrugged fatalistically, saying nothing.
“You, though.” Tallie folded her arms, staring at Jasmine through narrowed eyes. “You insist on being such a mystery. You’re some kind of martial arts savant, trained by the Sisterhood and… What did that guy say? Punaji? Drow? And now this. Jasmine, who the hell has an alchemy teacher?!”
“Anybody who’s been to college,” Ross grunted. “Or had private tutors.”
“There, see?” Tallie pointed accusingly at him. “That isn’t normal!”
“It’s not abnormal,” Schwartz offered weakly.
“You know,” Jasmine said quietly, “you raise a good point, Tallie. I…haven’t really appreciated the advantages I’ve been given. At least, not enough. I think I owe some people thanks, and maybe apologies.” She smiled up at the other girl. “Thanks for that. Sometimes we all need a little kick in the pants.”
“That was not the point!” Tallie shouted.
Meesie chittered irritably at her, pointedly tugging at her long ears.
“Tallie,” Darius said soothingly. “Sweetheart. Baby. Honeypie.”
“Asshole, are you trying to see how much it takes to make me come over there and neuter you with leftover alchemicals?”
“I’m making a point,” he said, “and holy shit, girl, we need to settle on a safe word before getting into that kind of fun stuff. Seriously, though, Jas is right. We’re all here for another start; her past becomes our business when she decides to share it, and not before. Leave it alone.”
Tallie folded her arms, grumbling sullenly.
“Also,” Darius added, winking, “there was subtext, there. You are getting close to needing a kick in the pants if you can’t respect everybody’s privacy.”
“Fine, whatever!” Tallie thew her hands up and began pacing back and forth at the short end of the room, having to about-face every three steps.
A silence fell, in which Schwartz retreated to one corner of the little room and began rummaging in his pockets for spell components, and Jasmine set to work very carefully mixing fluids on the floor by the drain.
“Soooo,” Darius said after a few long moments. “Who wants to tell ghost stories?”
Tallie’s shoe hit him in the face before he noticed she’d taken it off.
Less than half an hour later, Tallie tried the handle of the door to the front room of the shop, which was now accessible, the iron bars having been removed and stacked in the corner. Nubs of melted iron remained at the top and bottom of the door, but the solution, despite the acrid fumes it had put off, did not actually heat the metal; Jasmine had warned them not to touch what remained, but at least no warmth emanated from it. The metal floor grate had also dissolved when she poured the leftover solution into it, discarding what remained into the sewers.
At least the place smelled nice. Thanks to Schwartz’s magic, the air in the dingy supply closet was now bracingly clear and crisp, very much like the atmosphere in a mountain forest in the early morning. It even smelled faintly of pine, which he insisted was a coincidence.
The door, though, was still locked. Tallie sighed, rolled her eyes, and turned to Rasha.
“Don’t see a keyhole on that one either,” he said with a shrug.
“Shut by itself, remember?” Ross added. “Must have mechanisms in the hinges.”
“I knew you poured that stuff out too early,” Tallie said accusingly to Jasmine.
“Actually,” Jasmine countered, “without the iron bars blocking it, that’s just a door, I bet. Ross, would you be so kind?”
“Glad to,” he rumbled, backing up a few steps.
The room wasn’t wide enough to give him much of a running start, but Ross was heavy, and a lot of that was muscle. At the first solid impact of his shoulder against the door, it tore right off its hinges, collapsing to the floor in the shop outside and kicking up a veritable hurricane of disturbed dust. The newly liberated apprentices retreated as one from freedom, coughing and trying to wave the resulting smog away.
“Excuse me, I believe this is my venue,” said Schwartz, pushing to the front of the group. Planting himself in a wide stance in the doorway, he raised both hands dramatically.
The blast of wind which erupted forth from his palms ripped through the shop, knocking over bottles, blowing down hanging herbs and stirring up even more dust, even as it carried the rest away. The bell jangled in protest as the front door of the shop was banged outward, rebounding off the wall outside. Schwartz kept up the pressure until the last of the greasy cloud of dust had been expelled fully out onto the street of Glass Alley.
Finally, he lowered his hands, and the wind subsided. Schwartz lifted his nose, smugly surveying his handiwork.
“I say we keep him!” Darius said cheerfully, clapping Schwartz on the shoulder nearly hard enough to make the reedy man stumble. “C’mon, how many thieves have their own wizard? I promise I’ll look after him! I’ll feed him and brush him and walk him every day…”
Meesie chittered reprovingly at him.
“Witch,” Schwartz corrected a little stiffly, adjusting his glasses. “Not a wizard. That’s a different school of magic entirely.”
“Darius, quit pissing people off for five minutes,” Tallie said, shoving him toward the door. “Don’t mind him, Schwartz. He’s a dickhead, but he doesn’t mean any harm.”
“Actually he somewhat reminds me of my little sister,” Schwartz remarked. He seemed mystified when she devolved into gales of laughter at that. Darius opened and closed his mouth, for once at a loss for words.
“Uh, ‘scuze me,” Ross rumbled. “This was a trap. It won’t be ignored. We shouldn’t hang around.”
“Good call,” Jasmine said firmly. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Are we still going to look for that magic shop?”
“Oh, hell yes we are,” Tallie declared, the mirth fading from her features. “After all the bullshit we’ve put up with, I’m not about to drop this now. C’mon, guys, let’s move out. And starting now, we take no prisoners.”
“When did we take any prisoners before?” Darius asked, scratching his head.
“Actually, it was kind of the other way around,” Rasha said helpfully. “We got taken—”
“Move it!” Tallie barked.
Most of Glass Alley had seemed to have a few disreputable-looking people here and there, or so they’d noticed in passing. To judge by the speed with which Schwartz’s attackers had assembled a mob, there must have been more out of sight, alert for the sounds of trouble or opportunity. What these folk did all day remained an open question, but whatever it was, anyone in the vicinity of the trapped apothecary’s shop had clearly taken the explosion of dust and wind from its front doors as a signal to be somewhere else. The usual loiterers were notably absent from the street outside when the apprentices and Schwartz emerged.
With some notable exceptions.
Two women were standing on the sidewalk immediately outside the shop, one of whom they already knew.
“You broke out?” said Casethin, who had acquired a bottle of whiskey in the time it had taken them to reach, get snared in and break out of the shop. “Oh, crap. That’s not good.”
“You’re goddamn right it’s not,” Tallie growled, glaring at her and cracking her knuckles ostentatiously. “And oh, look! Someone without scary armor and magic tricks who’s been sent to see how that little prank turned out. Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe I feel a violent episode coming on.”
“Whoah, keep it in your pants!” Casethin raised the hand not occupied with her bottle soothingly; she didn’t retreat or seem particularly upset by the threat, however. “Kid, I don’t have any stake in this. You can bust out, stay in jail, take over the Guild or die of the pox for all the difference it makes to me.” She paused to take a long swig before continuing. “That was a sympathetic ‘oh, crap.’ Now you’ve gone an’ flouted Vanda’s authority, and damaged her property. She is gonna be pissed.”
“I’m not at all certain how much I care about that,” Schwartz said loftily, folding his arms. On his shoulder, Meesie imitated the gesture, squeaking in agreement.
Darius cleared his throat. “Um, I think I’ll care about that a little if I have to discuss it with her. Let’s haul ass to someplace else so we don’t have to care about it. I dunno if you guys remember, but that didn’t strike me as a lady we ought to screw around with.”
“Smart boy,” said Casethin.
“Now that’s something I bet you don’t get called often,” Rasha remarked.
“There’s a time and a place, Rash,” Darius retorted.
“I know what I said.”
“The Finder’s Fee,” Tallie said shortly, still glaring at Casethin. “Where is it.”
The redhead raised an eyebrow and had another drink. “Really? You’d follow my directions there? Not quick learners, are you?”
“What I’m thinking,” Tallie said, “is that since Ironeye’s apparently already gonna be pissed with us, it won’t make things much worse to haul you there by the scruff of the neck and bounce you off a few walls if it turns out to be the wrong place.”
“Child,” Casethin said condescendingly, “I am a fully trained and tagged member of the Thieves’ Guild. You kids are already gonna catch a whoopin’ from Style when Vanda finishes complaining to her. Style hates listening to complaints, but Vanda’s not somebody she can just brush off. So guess who that’ll get taken out on? Sure, you can prob’ly kick my ass, some of you look pretty scrappy. I was you, though, I’d be thinking about what happens after that.”
“The Finder’s Fee is reached directly by a side alley which starts just around the curve of the road,” said the other woman suddenly. She was Sifanese by appearance and had traces of that accent, as well as a husky quality to her voice which hinted at an old throat injury. “It is between a red brick structure and an old Army supply depot, currently condemned and barricaded.”
There was a pause while everyone shifted their attention to her, including Casethin, who for some reason looked annoyed.
“And,” Darius prompted, “you are…?”
“Gimmick,” said the Sifanese woman with a faint smile. “Also a member of the Guild. Not a member of Vanda Frost’s little…clique.”
“No, you’re here representing another clique,” Casethin said sourly. “I may just take a vacation. Somethin’ tells me Vanda’s gonna be breaking furniture tonight, what with one thing and another…”
“All right,” Tallie said warily, studying Gimmick as if for the hidden trap in her helpful tip. “Thanks. Would you mind accompanying us there? I’m a little tired of getting lost in this district.”
“Oh, Sparkler will not see you,” Gimmick said languidly. “Rumor, here, has made certain of that.”
“What rumor?” Rasha demanded.
“Yo.” Casethin raised the hand clutching her whiskey.
“In fact,” Gimmick said smoothly, “you will find that any individual or establishment in Glass Alley worth visiting has either been warned about you, or will be by sundown. Ironeye’s displeasure is not worth risking for those who must live and work here.”
“I believe I’m starting to actually hate that woman,” Tallie said, tilting her head back to stare up at the thin sliver of sky visible between the tenements surrounding them.
Casethin snickered. “Yeah, you do that, kid. Best of luck with it.”
“Jasmine, please punch her.”
“I will not,” Jasmine stated, folding her arms. “Don’t go around beating people who annoy you, Tallie. Beat people who threaten you.”
“Yes, yes,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Like a good Eserite. Fine.”
“So…all this was just…wasted?” Schwartz looked like he didn’t know whether to be crushed or furious. Meesie patted his cheek consolingly.
Gimmick coughed discreetly. “Actually…”
“Oh, here it comes,” Casethin groaned, rolling her eyes.
“I do not know what you were seeking in that magic shop,” Gimmick continued, ignoring her. “However, there is another ranking member of the Guild who would like to speak with you.”
“Um,” Schwartz said nervously, “I’m starting to think not getting involved in any more Eserite politics would be best, at least for me…”
“Not just you,” Ross muttered.
“Hang on,” Tallie said, holding up a hand. “Who the hell wants to talk with us?”
“For such a new group of apprentices,” Gimmick said smoothly, “you have generated an inordinate amount of rumor and attention from members with established reputations. Attracting Glory’s notice, being coached by Grip and Silence, interacting with the ever-difficult Keys, and now antagonizing Ironeye. With respect, you are already involved in Eserite politics, in a depth which I very much doubt you comprehend. It would be wise, in your position, to seek out more allies. One is now reaching out to you.”
“Purely out of the goodness of his little heart, I suppose,” Darius sneered.
“Of course not,” Gimmick replied with the barest hint of disdain. “You train with the Bishop’s apprentices, yes? Flora and Fauna? Have you learned anything from them about Sweet’s operational philosophy?”
“Quite a bit, actually,” Rasha piped up. “He was Boss for a while. All about connections, doing favors…”
“Exactly.” She smiled thinly. “You are being offered a favor. You will doubtless be expected to repay it, should you accept. However, it will cost you nothing to listen, and in your position… Perhaps taking on a small debt is the lesser evil, yes?”
They exchanged a round of dubious glances, mostly looking confused and mistrustful. Casethin simply watched them in silence, wearing a sardonic expression and idly swirling her bottle of whiskey.
“So,” Tallie said at last, fixing her gimlet stare back on the redhead, “shall I assume that whatever we decide here will go right back to Ironbitch?”
“Mm hm,” she drawled. “Along with the fact that you called her that.”
“Well, then, gang, I think our course is clear and obvious!” Tallie said brightly, turning to smile broadly at the rest of them. “Let’s go dig ourselves in deeper!”
“I wish you’d found another way to phrase that,” Jasmine muttered.
“Oh, and one more thing!” Tallie said, holding up a finger as if just having remembered something. Abruptly, she whirled and drove a fist into Casethin’s stomach.
The redhead dropped her bottle, folding to the sidewalk with a pained wheeze.
“Tallie!” Jasmine protested.
“Oh, that is gonna bite us on the ass,” Darius muttered, slapping a hand to his face.
“Hey, I’m a thief, not a saint,” Tallie said cheerfully, then turned and bowed to their newest acquaintance, who was watching all this with a nonplussed expression. “Lead on, oh gimmicky one!”
Gimmick was dressed in a nondescript and slightly shabby fashion, doubtless so as to avoid undue attention in Glass Alley. The enchanted carriage to which she escorted them, however, was of a late model and clearly high quality. Parked safely outside the seedy district in a locked and gated lot (to which she had a key), it was a converted delivery truck, the cargo space fitted with benches and the barrier between that and the cab removed.
She drove them to a sufficiently nice neighborhood that it was perhaps just as well she parked the truck discreetly behind the townhouse which was their destination; their clothes would have stood out here, possibly to the point of drawing the constabulary. That would have been true even before they had been knocked to the pavement and trapped in a dusty back room.
Gimmick led them through the townhouse’s back door, and straight through the kitchen onto which this opened. She came to a stop in the finely-appointed hall beyond, the apprentices and Schwartz clustering nervously behind her. Their progress was barred by a stately gentleman with neat gray hair, wearing a Butler’s uniform and a supercilious expression.
“Good afternoon,” he said serenely. “You are, of course, expected. The master will receive you in the drawing room. This way, please.”
Gimmick half-turned to give them an inscrutable look before following him. They trooped obediently after her, Tallie once again taking the lead.
The drawing room into which they were led was a handsome and somewhat rustic space, its wall paneling a dark-stained oak, dominated by a huge fieldstone fireplace with a mounted unicorn’s head above the hearth. A matching armchair, loveseat and sofa of burgundy leather were arranged haphazardly around a low table.
Beside the hearth, in which a low fire smoldered, stood a tall man who was still powerfully built, though he was growing portly with age. His graying hair had begun to recede, and his complexion was ruddy with an apparent combination of windburn and alcohol, to judge by the cocktail glass in his hand. He turned to grin at them, though, and his eyes were as sharp as his shoulders were still broad.
“Well! So these are the little rascals I’ve been hearing so much about. No trouble, I hope, Saduko?”
“I was not able to enter Glass Alley unnoticed, unsurprisingly,” she replied, folding her hands behind her back and lifting her chin. “Rumor followed me almost from the moment I arrived. I kept your name out of it, but it’s not as if she does not know…”
“Ah, well, water under the bridge,” he said lightly, gesticulating with his half-drunk cocktail. “If Frost wants to come down here and smack me around, I suppose that’ll be that. She won’t, though. Did Rumor follow you out?”
“She was occupied regaining her breath,” Gimmick said dryly, “after the young lady, here, punched the wind out of her.”
Their host threw back his head and roared with laughter. “Ah, now that’s music to the old ears! I knew inviting you kids over was the right idea. Had a feeling from the beginning. All right, everybody, don’t be shy! C’mon in, have a seat, make yourselves comfortable!” Grinning, he gestured them toward the sofa and chairs. “Settle yourselves in, and let’s talk about what ol’ Alan Vandro can do for you.”