Point of Honor

Vérella

* * * *

"I didn't cause this mess," Arvid Semminson said to the group of thieves crammed into a small back room above a weaver's workshop, two hands of days after the paladin had escaped alive. "But I may be able to get us out of it." He polished the dagger he held with scrap of silk, turning it to catch the light as if to be sure no speck marred it.

"You!" The speaker was the tallest of the group, a heavy-shouldered man Arvid knew had led the local guild's rougher members. "You never been around Vérella that much. I don't know anything about you. How do we know it's not all your fault?"

Arvid smiled. "You don't know me because I was Guildmaster Galin's appointment." Galin, who had died four years before, supposedly of a fever. Arvid had his doubts. Galin had been an orthodox follower of Simyits, the traditional patron of thieves, not Liart the Bloodlord. His successor, the late—and by Arvid unlamented—Terin, had welcomed the red priests and their Horned Chain symbol. It would not be the first time a Guildmaster was killed by someone who wanted his position. "I collected accounts due the Guild all over Tsaia," Arvid said. He blew on the tip of the dagger, and smiled over the blade at the others.

"You're the enforcer!" said one of the women. "I heard about you." She was a plump, motherly woman and the best pickpocket in the city; street boys learned from her. Arvid had learned from another much like her.

"The senior enforcer," Arvid said. "And, at the moment, the man you most want to be Guildmaster." There it was, his reason for being in the city at all.

" I'm the ranking member left," the tall man said. "Harsin Gnadsson. I was thirteenth in line from Terin Guildmaster; Galat there can vouch for it. If the books hadn't burned—"

Galat nodded. "S'true," he said. "But them others was caught and killed."

"Interesting," Arvid said. Though he could imagine the burly man killing another to gain a rank or two, he doubted Harsin had killed them. Many thieves died the very night the paladin's torture ended, for the Girdish had stormed the underground hall barely a ladyglass after the pledge was redeemed. More since, in the scouring of the city. He ran his thumb along the dagger blade. "And what would I find if I slit your shirt below the waist, Harsin? Is there by any chance a Horned Chain tattoo just there at the small of your back? Or is yours lower down?"

Harsin paled. Right now, in this city full of angry Girdish Marshals, the merest rumor of a Horned Chain tattoo would lead to arrest and discovery...and death.

"You wouldn't," Harsin said. "Thieves' honor—"

"We are all thieves here, are we not?" Arvid said. He slid that dagger into his boot, drew another from his sleeve. "And among thieves, loyalty to the Guild is our first duty, is it not?"

"Yes..." came mutters from them all.

"Then of course I would not betray one of us to the Girdish. But at this time, friends, we need a Guildmaster who has—if not the favor, at least the tolerance—of the law. And I, having saved their paladin's life—"

"Why was that?" asked Harsin. He did not sound the respectful. "Why bother with her? Because you fell for her yellow hair two or three years ago in some country town? What was she like in bed, that you risk the Guild—"

Arvid moved so suddenly that the flat of his alley blade—five fingers wide, two handspans long, sharp both edge and point—was against Harsin's throat before anyone else moved. The man could not even swallow without cutting himself. "Because I foresaw that Terin Guildmaster's plot would fail, that allying the Guild with the Horned Chain cult was stupid and would, at some point, have exactly the result it did—exposing the Guild to the Girdish and getting most of us killed. Saving her proves thieves are not all Horned Chain, and it is service done. Their law is part gnomish; they will give service for service."

Without looking away from Harsin's eyes, now white-rimmed with fear, he said to the others, "Either you accept me as Guildmaster, because I am wiser than Terin and also have at least some tolerance from the Girdish, or I will leave you all here to be hunted down as the others were—the Girdish have not exhausted their anger yet—and go to a place where the Guildmaster is not a fool."

Harsin blinked in the thieves' code for Your lead . Arvid stepped back, shifting his grip on the alley blade to the ritual position for accepting obeisance, point toward them all.

"Do you then accept me as your Guildmaster?" he said to Harsin.

Harsin swallowed, nodded, and then knelt, both knees thudding on the floor. Arvid hoped no one but the weaver was downstairs to hear. "I, Harsin, master thief, formerly thirteenth in rank to former Guildmaster Terin, accept Arvid Semminson as Guildmaster of Vérella, and to him swear obedience and loyalty. On my honor as master thief."

Arvid held out the blade; Harsin nicked his left thumb with the tip, swiped blood on the upper half, and then kissed it. The others quickly followed, one by one kneeling—more silently than Harsin—drawing their own blood, kissing the blade, making their oath. Finally Arvid nicked his own thumb, rubbing his blood into the marks made by theirs, and then wiping the blade clean with another square of silk, this one white so the stain showed.

"By this blood, we are agreed," he said. "I am Guildmaster, and you are my people. Obey me, and I will see you safe, to the last drop of my own blood. Honor among thieves; deceit to our enemies."

"Aye, Master," they all said.

Arvid looked them over: the fourteen women, the six men. A finger of the hand the Guild had been in this division of the city; the situation was as bad everywhere, he knew. And yet, he had now been proclaimed Master in more than half the divisions. He had won. He sliced the bloodstained cloth into fragments with the same blade they'd sworn on and gave a piece to each, folding the rest carefully and tucking it in his belt-pouch.

"So," he said. "Now we get to work. Harsin, I choose you first for this division, and may choose you my second overall if you please me this next tenday." Harsin nodded. He must know that Arvid did not trust him wholly; he would soon show whether he was loyal or not. "We must find you all safe lodging," Arvid went on. "Our weaver friend is like to be discovered if there's too much traffic here."

"A new Guildhouse?" Harsin asked.

"Eventually," Arvid said. He pulled out coins from his pocket. "This should feed you for a few days; send but one to market, and all must be purchased honestly." Harsin nodded again, and handed the money on to the motherly pickpocket.

Later, in his comfortable room at the Silver Bells, Arvid pulled out the alley blade and looked at it thoughtfully. Everything had gone very smoothly, all things considered. Paks had said Gird might have a use for him—might care about the Thieves' Guild. Surely it wasn't Gird who had made it so easy to take over...surely it was Terin's stupid alliance with those fiends of the Horned Chain...he shuddered at the memory. Thieving and killing and even a spot of scaring the fools who didn't pay their Guild dues was nothing like what they'd done. But he could despise torturers like the Horned Chain without changing himself...couldn't he?

Maybe.

The word came from nowhere and made no outward sound, but in his head the voice was that of a man used to command. His skin pulled up into gooseflesh as if someone had poured a mug of cold water down his spine. No. He was not listening to any voices. Not now, with a Guild chapter to manage. Even if it was...what that paladin had said, even if becoming Master of the Vérella Guild was some kind of reward for saving her, that was the most it could be. Gird had no use for thieves and killers; his past protected him from any demand that he be...try to be...good. He shrugged his shoulders, rammed the alley blade back into its sheath, and went downstairs. A good hot meal and a mug or two of mulled wine would ensure a good night's sleep with no bothersome thoughts.

Maybe .

The End