Well that was one way to kill the mood. So much for a fun night of relaxation beyond duty and desire swept them back into the dangerous game they were playing in. Still, Martella had a point. Whatever else her background had, she was a Lotheed, just as much as he was a Geminus. Now that was an odd thought that needed unpacking later.
Riveh cleared his throat, gathering his somewhat hazy thoughts. The ifrit stared into the empty glass, rattling the long-cold pellet slightly. A very cold shard of ice, that he was not even aware of, rose to the surface.
"I have killed already, in this city." The word were brittle. "Several times. Some human, some not. I have even helped my friends kill. And barely looked back, let alone felt sorrow." To his great surprise a single tear ran down his nose and off his chin.
Riveh shook his head and looked over at Martella, "I hope I do not have to kill anyone." The words sounded very naïve, even in his own ears. "But yes, I suppose it is possible. Not one I relish, even for my enemies. The Lotheeds have committed great injustices against both me....and you. Do you feel it is unjustified if it comes to blows? And that is not even considering the possible weight of the entire Stavian vault on my back."
The pebble rattled again, "Turnabout is fair play. I doubt being spymaster is all roses and late night parties. We both have dark roads ahead."
"Turnabout..." She tasted the word carefully, like a sip from one of their all-new cocktails. It was not to her liking.
At the first sight of Riveh's distress, the trauma of repeatedly both bearing & dealing death welling to the surface from its buried basement, Martella had nearly reached out to him, only to catch herself in the motion. Instead the outstretched hand retreated from its advance halfway across the polished table like a shameful dog. She looked away from him.
"Yes, great injustices," she quietly concurred. "If revenge is what you want, Riveh, then you deserve it. What my family did to you was wrong. You are not unjustified in drawing blood for what should have been your birthright, nor even claiming vengeance. But..." The words were hesitant, as if the woman was unsure whether they merited voicing, and yet once spoken they had all the iron solidity of her machines.
"...But please know that revenge is not why I have done all of this. What I want... is redemption." The ifrit was apparently not alone in sounding naive. "I want to redeem House Lotheed. And the only way to do so is to redeem House Geminus. I can't and won't deny you what you are owed. I just hope..." The request to be faltered somewhere in her throat. "I'm just trying to set things right."
Doing right by the last Geminus, removing the black stain from the Lotheeds that was this heinous conspiracy, unburdening herself of guilt, all the while hoping that there was any family left to redeem by the end of it all. This was quite the tightrope Martella was walking. One he was under no real obligation not to cut out from under her.
An uncharitable instinct that could well flare at her next words.
"Riveh," she began with the sort of measured lead-in that preceded the pole vaulter's jump. "There's something I haven't told you."
The rising shard of ice caught somewhere within him. More? There was more? After all the confessions, all the heartfelt disclosures, was Martella still holding out on him? Seriously now, was the woman just compulsive with her secrets?! Was she capable of honesty? Here he'd thought that they were finally on the level with each other, that they'd finally...
"There will be no turnabout. The architect of the Geminus conspiracy, my father, Count Mercater Lotheed died peacefully in his sleep two days before you arrived in Oppara. My brother Bartleby now rules Meratt."
Riveh processes this with much less alacrity then Factor-12 would have.
The man who engineered his family's demise was dead. Even now his soul was resting in the arms of the Gray Lady or, more hopefully, stuck in one of the hotter parts of Hell. But whatever his ultimate fate, Riveh had had nothing to do with it. Indeed, the Count had probably barely known Riveh even existed. Two years ago he was just a unknown noble on a remote, forgotten estate, just beginning to plan his return.
And now that journey was over before it started.
Riveh places the empty glass down, the lead pebble jumping slightly.
"As always, full of good news, Martella." He says shortly, still processing this. It was a strange thing, considering the Count's death. Riveh had not really known the man himself, the actual person. The young ifrit had hated and despised the idea of the Lotheed mastermind, had spent years creating a shadowy persona to rage against. It was more that fiction in his mind's eye that was his ultimate goal, more then any actual human. But even his made-up mantle needed someone to attach to.
Would Bartleby do?
"What's your brother like?" Riveh said, looking into the middle distance. Part of him hoped Martella would spin a tale of sordid evilness and cruelty. Say that her brother tortured puppies and stole from the temple offering plate. Create a worthy villain for his own heroic rise.
But with a name like Bartleby.....
Martella Lotheed was reading his face like she was an inmate for life and he her holy book. Riveh understood by now that his employer - his mirror, his strange sibling-in-spirit - cared for his happiness; her guilt at, however unknowingly, having in some sense stolen the life that should have been his allowed for nothing else. It was this sympathy that had commanded her to morph a crucial part of the Princess's conquest into the perfect opportunity for his own retribution. And this even if the target of said retribution was her own family.
Elephant in the room, indeed; these were heavy topics his employer had conjured on their little night out. How good then to see her singular smile sneak in at the corner of the painted mouth at his query.
"Who is Bartleby Lotheed?"
An actual grin followed, genuine though dulled by something rueful, like so much of Oppara's statuary and architecture, tarnished by time. Was there anything humorous in his asking about what was likely the primary hurdle to his mission?
"Forgive me, it’s just… There’s a certain class of doe-eyed young ladies who would be aghast at the question. After all, he is considered by some to be the most eligible bachelor in the nation."
What? Was his opponent some sort of heartthrob? "Why, I fancy that my time at the academy would have been a great deal more agreeable if the other girls only knew I was sister to the Bartleby Lotheed. No need for the Princess to shepherd the awkward little black lamb of the school; they’d kowtow to my every whim if they thought I could help them become the future Countess Lotheed." The titter that followed betrayed no particular ill will at her former schoolmates.
"Of course, he would never so much as look their way." So not a philanderer, then? Should the ifrit feel relieved? "He's... distant like that. Aloof. Unattainable. I think that only makes him more attractive to some," Martella mused, as if pondering the mating habits of alien fauna. "People see this quiet prodigy maintaining as wide a berth from everyone else as good manners will allow, and to their mind's eye he becomes a brooding, sensitive, not to mention achingly handsome young nobleman. A tortured poet, even." An amused gust escaped the dainty nose. "Except most poets aren't lord of their very own house. Well, side-branch to the larger, powerful House Lotheed, anyway. And steward to the Crown, lest we forget! Mh, I was about to say something about how there's no accounting for taste, but I suppose there's no real mystery behind his appeal, is there?"
The smile was thin as none of their drinks this evening and Riveh knew it. Though she spoke with humor, there was a current of bad blood running through the woman's every word. Clearly there were no warm feelings between the siblings, and the fact that he could detect as much only let him know that she was speaking from the heart. The ifrit was under no illusion by now; if Martella Lotheed wanted to conceal something from him, she was more than capable of doing so. The Archfiend wished his congregation was half as capable at the art of lying.
And yet; she also wasn't telling him much of consequence. How far they had come, Riveh reflected. There was a time when he might have suspected her of concealing something through minor gossip on the Lord Bartleby, but he thought he could see it now: she was ruminating on something. Gathering her thoughts. It was the same thing she had done with him earlier in the park, prattling about a great deal of nothing before engaging with a sore topic like a swimmer taking a deep breath before a dive.
"What's my brother like, you ask?" The rich brown of her eyes nearly matched the rich mahogany of the bar they were staring into. "I'm not sure you're asking the right person, Riveh. I'm not sure the right person exists. He's a private man, that much is true. But he's no tortured poet. I don't think he's ever brooded on anything in his life. It was always my impression that he's entirely assured on himself, the world and his place in it, stolid as if he was carved out of marble. I just don't think I've ever understood that assuredness, what... fundament his patience rests on. He was always studious. But he never seemed to take any pleasure in study. He was the perfect socialite. But he never kept in contact with anyone. He... I'm sorry, I know this sound overly dramatic, but I can't recall ever having seen him smile. He's my brother. I grew up with him. And I have no idea what his smile looks like."
The noblewoman's finely etched finger played across the rim of an emptied glass, and for a moment the crystal sang of the regret she did not allow herself to voice. "... I'll tell you a story. Bartleby was nearly entering adolescence by the time I became part of the household proper. He was not happy about his new sister. Perfectly understandable. But he never complained, he never spoke badly to me. In fact, he never spoke to me at all. He simply ignored me. He seemed determined to pretend as if his new sibling didn't exist, and circumstances nearly allowed for this. I had my own quarters, my own tutors so as to better hide my existence from the wider world, so the only time we had to see each other was during father's magic lessons. Lessons that I remind you I was magnificently rubbish at. And yet none of the reprimands I received there cut deeper than the glares he would give me."
Another moment of silence followed. "Years passed like this. My every attempt at making peace with the brother I didn't know how I had offended was brushed off, and I learned to live like that. I had some company to offset his absence. My favorite was Ms. Andrus. She taught me the harpsichord." A smirk flickered at some memory, there and gone again like a light at sea. "I was quite bad at that too, but she treated me well. My other tutors were... Well, they understood the circumstances surrounding this secret bastard. They knew to limit our sessions to the strictly professional. Ms. Andrus, though; she would talk with me. Make jokes. Play little games. She quickly became the highlight of my week. I was very fond of her, although now, I think she pitied me." At this, her expression was inscrutable as a sphinx. "One of those games included naming our favorite ornament in the manor. I believe her aim was to lift my spirits by at least appreciating just how golden my proverbial gilded cage was. Her favorite was the amber room, and rightly so: an entire chamber fitted with amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors and garnished with mosaics, nymphs, cupids and angels, inlays, landscapes, and miniatures - all in amber. It's very beautiful. And one day she was found to have stolen one of these fittings."
Somewhere a bell sounded to midnight.
"The theft was completely ridiculous. The fitting's absence was quickly noticed and all the staff's belongings were searched. They found it in her bag within minutes. My father raised a great uproar, it caused a proper commotion. So much so that I snuck out of my quarters to investigate. I saw her there, desperately trying to maintain her innocence. I knew immediately that she was innocent. She couldn't possibly have stolen anything, not my Ms. Andrus. But when her eyes landed on me, I understood that this conviction did not run both ways. She thought I had planted the thing in her bag." Martella's voice was smaller than Riveh could recall ever having heard it. "A reasonable assumption, of course. No one but me knew of her fondness for the amber room. She begged me to confess, asked me to explain why I had done this to her, whether she had slighted me, and I... I could only cry my confusion. It was quite the scene, one my father ended through the guards. I never saw her again." The silence was marked only by Bruno the bartender's careful puttering about. "Afterwards, I was... very distraught. And this is when, while I'm crying in my room, that there's a knock at the door. When I open it, it's Bartleby. This is the first time he has ever sought me out. He looks at me with that implacable expression of his and says, flatly as anything, 'I was me. I placed the fitting in her bag.' He didn't even wait to step into my room. Heh. I was shocked, of course, and demanded - pleaded? - that he tell me why he had done this. I swear he could have been speaking of the weather, so impassive was his voice when he replied, 'I wanted to hurt you.'"
The ifrit had seldom heard as bitter a laugh as what his employer let out at this. "Needless to say, he succeeded. He succeeded. And that was that. I didn't know what to say, and at my silence he simply walked away. I still don't know what one says in that position, nor how he even knew how to do all that; how to hurt me so perfectly."
She finally looked back up to him, and he knew that the nonchalance she wore veiled a great deal.
"I'm not asking rhetorically, Riveh. Really, I want to know: what does one say in that position?"
Suddenly, despite the Sizzler in his stomach, Riveh felt cold and empty. The warm plush seat, the comfortable bar, is all seemed to fade away. Replaced by a chill, inhuman sneer from Lord Bartleby. The ifrit did not even know what the man looked like, but his mind filled in the blanks. Tall, square jawed, gleaming hair, skin pale. The picture of a Taldane nobleman.
Riveh hated him. But then again, Martella told a good story.
The ifrit stood up, unsure of how to answer his employers question. Then an answer came to him, born out of his own struggles. "One does not reply. One survives." A shiver passed through him. "We need more to drink. Maybe something simple and strong."
Not sure if we are sitting at a bar. Even if we are, he stands up, because Riveh felt the hit of that story pretty hard. I presume Bruno, good old Bruno will set us up, this is after.
Sighing, Riveh sat back down, looking closely at his patron. The wily, canny political operator. Spymistress to the Empress. Puller of strings across half the city. And right now, she looked like a scared child, scarred by a story decades old.
The ifrit sipped his drink, "Your brother sounds like will be a dangerous opponent in my upcoming task." Riveh starts, unsure where he is (or should) go with this line of thought. Keep it strictly business? Or was that impersonal to such a private story?
"I had been hoping you'd have a list of vices and weaknesses," Riveh allows, still sort of hoping for such a laundry list.
The two of you are indeed sitting at the bar. I think I recall you moving there when you decided to try your hand at inventing drinks. You're entirely alone, however, and Bruno - a regular old trooper - knows how to be discreet, standing a ways off until he understands he's needed.
His sympathy was if nothing else well received. "Oh, Riveh." Martella looked just a bit amused at seeing the ifrit so affected by her story, though duly appreciative. While the account of Bartleby's cruelty was fresh to him, to her it represented an old wound, long since scabbed and scarred over. Time might not heal all wounds, but it certainly afforded one a growing detachment. The Lotheed bastard's path through life hadn't left her unscuffed, though she bore her marks as well as anyone happy with the destination ultimately reached. What more could one hope for?
Nothing more than a sympathetic ear, perhaps. The fine hand reached for Riveh's arm to squeeze it fondly.
"You're probably right," she replied. "But that's just it. Bartleby never meant to kill. The aim was to maim."
Which was preferable in an opponent, he had to wonder? Mayhap the answer lay in more drink. Bruno's trained ear immediately picked up the wish for more libations and stood ready and waiting before the Geminus could summon him. The noblewoman wasn't quite as game, however.
"Oh no, no more for me. I need to be up and alert tomorrow. And so do you for that matter, Sir. We have a country to save."
Still happy to join him for one last drink, she opted for something called a Sweet Ceasarea, a thick-rimmed glass the steam of which spoke of black tea, oranges, cinnamon and comfort. And not a hint of alcohol. A wind-me-down as opposed to a pick-me-up. Did Martella intend to catch up on her long overdue sleep?
"I had been hoping you'd have a list of vices and weaknesses," Riveh allows, still sort of hoping for such a laundry list.
"Does a childhood fondness of blackcurrant count?"
Riveh caught the edge of a wry smile behind the glass, though the face that emerged was more apologetic.
"Nothing so helpful, Riveh. I'm sorry," came the answer, a touch of the melancholy still echoing in her voice. "As I said, I don't think I ever truly knew my brother. No one does. Publicly, he is a perfect gentleman. Privately, a dutiful son. Academically, he has excelled as can only be expected of a Lotheed while socially... nothing. No spouse, no dalliances, not even a confidant, to say nothing of friends. And as he has just stepped into his position as Lord of Meratt, I have no intelligence on how he fares as a leader."
Not much to grasp onto, was it? Was the ifrit's opponent really such a withdrawn figure that the Princess's spymaster, his own sibling at that, couldn't provide him more than this? Any such frustration was clearly shared by said spymaster herself as she went on: "I can tell you that Bartleby hasn't disowned all things martial in pursuit of the arcane, unlike so many of our house. He is adept with sword and quill both. On that point, though you may hear him spoken of as a magical prodigy, don't be intimidated by this. This is House Lotheed, after all; every Lotheed is billed as a prodigy. The family reputation depends on it." Yes, well, she would know, wouldn't she? Riveh recalled how Martella was supposedly something of a dunce in all things magical. "Even so, he is clever. Make no mistake, Bartleby is very clever." She went on.
"As for interests, at the few social events he cannot avoid, he gravitates towards those with whom he can discuss magical theory, favoring the practical over the esoteric."
Oh great, so if he chose to ingratiate himself to the guy, all it would take was a brief half-decade stint at the nearest wizardly college. Perhaps sensing some misgivings, his employer fixed him with an encouraging gaze. "Hey, relax. You're clever, capable and charming, and Bartleby - he's only human. Not to be underestimated, sure, but only human."
Sense Motive: 1d20 + 3 ⇒ (11) + 3 = 14
Ah. plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
Only human? What a strange turn of phrase. Almost implied....ah well. Probably nothing. Riveh sipped his own Sweet Ceasarea (having followed suit with his employer). A bit cloying sweet for the ifrit but he'd had worse.
"Interesting." he manages when Martella describes her brother. Clever, self-contained, competent with a blade and a supposed magical prodigy. And this was the entrenched noble he was supposed to overthrow? With nothing but Stig and Trant at his side?
Maybe the bards should wait to see how this one went.
"Well, then I suppose you are right. We both have busy days tomorrow." A bit more of the soothing drink. "I have some supplies to buy I think. Can you arrange to have Stig meet up with me somewhere? We should plan... "
Riveh suddenly recalled he had invited Trant along on this little adventure. He should tell Martella of course. It was her mission, after all. Her plan, her design, all backed by the would-be Empress. Riveh really shouldn't keep secrets, it was unwise, rude and probably just plain stupid. Agents didn't just invite along random nobodies on deadly and dangerous jobs for the throne. Did they? No, he should definitely tell Martella.
The ifrit stood up, "Good night, Martella. And I mean it, get some sleep. I think we could both use it."
Not much to really say. I probably have some stuff to buy and sell. Do you still have that spreadsheet? Basically, need to get ready for an overland trip (on foot, I presume?) and maybe some stuff for our mission. Then we can set off. How do you want to RP all this?
It was a glorious morning in glorious Oppara. Though just as the red of dawn cleared into daylight, Riveh couldn’t help but suspect that that glory was similarly short to fade. He looked to the dahlia-dyed rooftops of his nation's capital, notably not gilded. What happened when the bureaucratic machine ground to a halt without leadership? What happened when the city’s young were conscripted into war, willingly or otherwise? What happened when all industry was diverted to support said war? Hanging from a second-story window he saw a peaked flag, a remnant of the Exaltation Week celebrations, flutter ever so slightly, the Taldan blue-and-green playing over white-washed stone. Winds of change, no doubt. Exaltation Week - had it really only been a few days? It felt like a different world. For Taldor, it no doubt was about to be. Whether won by Princess or General, Taldor would never be quite the same.
A comfort in these unfamiliar times then that the street outside the Hotel Sub Rosa where he found himself this morning was occupied by familiar faces. They had gathered outside, his entourage, his little party, before embarking on what would doubtlessly be the turning point for his life, whatever the outcome. A handsome and sizeable brougham awaited them, secured by his employer for the occasion. It was at the moment being loaded by the coach and a few able hands graciously lent by the hotel. Their principal load came from Dame Malphene Trant, though no one had the nerve (nor the folly) to equate her hefty luggage with her own prodigious size. The Dame, after an exchange of letters, had arrived in her own carriage with the sort of baggage normally associated with biting into a tart filled with spiders, which was to say that it looked to last someone a lifetime.
Still, it was nice to see that she hadn’t reneged on her promise, spontaneous and ill thought-out as Riveh’s invitation to her had been. She looked her imperious self, tall and regal, blonde tresses set up in a now familiar bouffant only adding to her height. The help worked quickly, instructed by her companion - the moustachioed guard he had spoken with a few times now at the manor - whilst motivated by her gaze. Happily, she nevertheless managed an awkward smile at seeing him. Huh. Was that a new sword? The ifrit spied an occupied scabbard at the Dame’s hip. Its leather holster clashed completely with the dress around which it was wrapped. Extending at least four feet, the scabbard proclaimed a blade considerably longer than the one sported during their Crownsgate venture. It was a testament to its owner’s magnitude that it did not scrape along the ground.
Two of those other familiar faces were busy conversing, somewhat surprisingly so. Martella and Factor-12 of all people, apparently newly introduced, were conferring with each other with the quick efficiency that only an administrative spymaster and literal incarnation of order could muster. The outsider bobbed at her head whilst the Lotheed seemingly instructed it in something or other, holding up papers from a folder that it in turn flashed through. Again, quite literally; flashes emitted from the great lens that made up the machine-spirit’s one eye. Should he be worried about what they were up to, Riveh wondered in strolling nearer to the scene? Although both (probably) had his best interest in mind, they had a way of… working around him rather than with him, to put it kindly.
Actually, the Geminus realized, perhaps he should be more concerned about the one face missing from this tableau. After all, it was the unseen mold that spoiled the pantry. Where was Sir Stig of Stillhall? Nary had he finished the thought before the sinuous form of the cur appeared ambling down the street like a predatory whip cane. If only that face was unfamiliar; the knight’s hatchet features were set in a particularly uncharitable frown this morning, more so than was usual. Some comfort then that his ire wasn’t directed at Riveh this morning.
”You!” he barked at their employer in bearing down on her, ignoring everyone else present including – somewhat impressively – the mechanical orb floating by her head.
”Good morning, Sir Stig!” The cheer in her voice was as practiced as it was false.
”Shut the hell up and explain! The fu*k do you think yer doin’ sendin’ me with the Geminus boy?”
”Sir Stig,” Martella began in what was no doubt to be a very reasonable and mollifying counter that the older man was in no mood to hear. ”No, this is not what I signed up for! I’m here to put the bleedin’ Princess on that bleedin’ throne, not to nanny yer bedwarmer out in the boonies for the remainder of the war!”
”Sir Stig,” she started again, this time with considerably less patience. ”What issit you think I can help the boy with, huh? Am I learnin’ him how to tie his shoes? Teachin’ him his alphabet maybe?”
”Greeting: Good morning, Master!”
The tinny voice of Factor-12 cut through the altercation like the mechanized blare it was. The outsider had noticed Riveh. And the knight was quick to follow. ”Oh, there’s golden boy now. Watch yourself on that bit of pavement. Wouldn’t want you to trip on yer fu*kin’ umbilical cord.”
Perception: 1d20 + 3 ⇒ (6) + 3 = 9
Gods help me. Some things never change
What a sight they must all make, the entire collection. The imposing scion of a noble House, a ill-favored knight with a mouth like a sewer, the charming spymaster, and a floating machine-like orb. Oh and himself, a middling young man with skin far too dark. Riveh idlily wondered what the few morning passerbyes would make of the rather motely crew. Nothing good, he judged.
"Good Morning, Stig." Riveh said, ignoring the insults delivered so far. "You seem in fine form this morning." he turned slightly to the rest of the collection, "Morning, Martella, Trant, Factor-12."
Then, back to Stig voice slightly lowered, "As amusing and far-ranging as your insults are, maybe we shouldn't announce our goals loudly on a public street? We have plenty of time of grammar lessons on the road, since apparently we are going to be best of friends for awhile." Inwardly he sighed. He hadn't expected Stig to enjoy this task but clearly the pungent knight was not going to make this easy.
Then he glanced at the mound of supplies Trant was packing and inwardly sighed. The ifrit opened his mouth and then, suddenly closed it. Actually, if he was supposed to be a returning noble scion, come to claim his rightful place....wouldn't he have such baggage? Trant might actually be their best hope of seeming like the real deal. What a strange thought.
If Riveh expected his sarcasm to be the barb that popped the caustic bladder, he was sorely disappointed. Stig's enmity turned out to be less bubble and more cannonball. The knavish knight actually stepped up to him at the remark, so close he could feel each heavy breath puffing through the oft-broken nose; the cur looked ready to come to blows. This wasn't the general cantankery the ifrit had gotten used to from Stig. The man was genuinely angry.
"Pipe down, pissant. Adults are speakin' and I'm in no mood, so shut yer trap before I take out my belt and hand you every last bleedin' beatin' your dead dad never gave you."
One could be forgiven for thinking that the two had developed something resembling a rapport over the last few days, however shaky, what with fighting alongside each other and whatnot. But at the moment, close enough to count every choleric crease that made up the leathery face, those relations felt chillier than sharp metal through beating flesh. Perhaps worse still than the dig at a companion's late parent was the dismissal that followed; although he clearly held Riveh responsible to some degree (for what, one might ask), the knight's chief ire was still reserved for their employer. He turned on him like one dismissed a child.
Ironic then that the spymaster's response was one not unknown to unruly children.
Martella, unarmed attack vs Stig: 1d20 + 7 ⇒ (5) + 7 = 12
Honestly, the ifrit wondered whether the slap didn't hurt Martella more so than Stig. Even propelled as it was with righteous indignation - and the woman's glowing eyes did look nothing so much like the windows to a caged tiger - Martella's arm was fairly dainty while Stig's cheek was conversely coarse; striking his stubbly beard had to be like smacking a porcupine.
Still, it had what was likely the intended effect: Stig shut up, in stupor if nothing else, which allowed her to get a much needed word in.
"Sir Stig," she began, voice tense as a wire. "I know you to be more measured than this. I realize that you have significant stakes in this conflict, but if you cannot control yourself, then you are as useless to me as every voice I consulted with on your employment assured me you'd be, and I relinquish your services immediately. Am I making myself clear?"
This, more so than the physical blow, seemed to affect the scoundrel. Riveh detected a certain fire beneath the man's bearing being doused, something the spymistress clearly wasn't blind to either. "Good. I appreciate that the notice for this mission was both brief and sudden. Let's call this an unfortunate effect of difficult circumstances, on both our ends. Come along - I'll explain the importance of this mission. Excuse us for a moment, Riveh, Factor-12."
A terse Martella with begrudging Stig retreated a few feet behind the no doubt purely decorative columns beautifying the hotel's exterior, and what followed was, to all appearances, something between a briefing from an officer and an earful from a school mistress. The knight gave bouts of protests, as a matter of course, but seemed to be listening. The young man considered that the Lotheed really must trust their surroundings if she was comfortable detailing their mission, even from some nominal privacy.
"What in Aroden's name was that, Geminus?"
It would be a cold day in Hell - any hell - before Malphene Trant managed to sneak up on anyone. Nevertheless, she had approached so swiftly during the altercation that Riveh only really registered her when she was within reach. Now she glared daggers at the knight, one hand resting on the pommel of her sword. At the very least she hadn't unsheathed it; Factor-12 floated nearer, brandishing a blade of its own. Had they both been ready to defend him should Stig actually have tried something? Huh. Hold on, where had the inevitable even gotten that knife from?
"You didn't mention that you were bringing the flying waffle iron with us," the Dame sighed, her glare venomous enough to poison Stig and Factor-12 both, mechanized body be damned.
"Request: Please define the function of a 'waffle iron' so that I might educate you on your predictable ignorance of my superior Axiomite construction, height deviating one."
This was going to be a long trip, wasn't it?
Longer than Stig and Martella's chat which proved mercifully short. The latter traipsed up to them, visibly donning her usual chipper self after a none too comfortable conversation, whilst the latter ambled behind, grumbling every step of the way.
"Right then!" she smiled briskly. "While I'm in no hurry to see you leave, Riveh, I have a farewell gift of sorts I should give you now." This said, she reached into a pocket and handed the ifrit a fist-sized bundle. Opening it - a strangely difficult feat given the curiously smooth, almost liquid material - he nearly thought it empty. Only when the sunlight glinted in the metal did he see it. Was that a... ladybug? The tiny little trinket was indeed formed like one such, shaped out of brass with a smoothly lacquered bright red shell. It was quite pretty, especially given the fine scale of the craftsmanship. Was this one of...?
"It's my own design." Martella confirmed his thought before he could finish it. It was indeed some sort of clockwork construction. The Lotheed didn't bother hiding her delight; she really did like her toys. "I'm hoping it will prove of some use to you. Just as this other item."
Riveh was momentarily confused. What other item? He'd had enough trouble spotting the minuscule insect in the bundle. There was nothing else in it. Only after looking back to the spymistress did he catch on. She nodded to the bundle itself. He unfurled it, the gray, nearly transparent silk so smooth it threatened to slip between his fingers at any moment. The cloth was little larger than an outstretched hand, though his attention was immediately drawn to the three holes in it he now spied. Two smaller ones, level with each other, and a larger one below. He understood. Two eyes and a mouth - this was a mask.
I'm gonna write this ooc for reasons that will become clear. Firstly, this post is plenty long enough without Martella explaining these items' use in game. Secondly... well, the ladybug is a Clockwork Bug, a neat little surveillance tool. Can't play James Bond without some toys, can we? But the mask is a False Face. Why is Riveh being handed this? Because he's about to go up against some people who will likely recognize him based on ethnicity and age range very quickly. My initial idea was that he could don this thing and basically look the near exact same except not half-Qadiran. But given that this undercover mission covers pretty much the rest of the game and knowing that their PC's appearance often matters to players, I wanted to clear this with you.
To his surprise, Riveh found himself....hurt by Stig's words. The usually caustic man was worse then usual and obviously meant what he said, instead of just the usual casual acid. Being so casually dismissed by someone that Riveh had, somewhat, grown to respect. The nerve of that Knight! They had fought and killed together, save each other lives. And now he was a child?!
A cold anger curdled in his stomach as the young man decided if Stig wanted to be an insufferable jerk, let him. He was done playing the nice guy. It would be a long trip.
His mind was still focused on it as he basically ignored Trant's and Factor-12's interplay, for once not trying to smooth over the waters between the noblewoman and the construct.
Still, he snapped out of it when Martella pulled something out of her bag. However distracted and upset he might be, Riveh would not let his guard down with the spymaster. She was a Lotheed after all....
Riveh looked at the small brass beetle in his hand, which weighed more then it should. A recording device, Martella explained, with many features. It would probably prove useful during the cloak and dagger game coming up. More interesting, at least for the moment however, was the other item. A False Face.
A magical disguise, a staple of stories and legends. The ability to become anyone or anything. What would happen if he put it on, who would he become? Would he feel different, would it changes his perspective? What options might open....The young man slipped on the mask and-
Basically looked the same. Just with lighter skin, slightly lighter hair and perhaps an ever so shifted jawline. Bland Taldane paste slathered over his otherwise untouched features.
"I think both will be very useful." Riveh says, a bit lamely, not sure what to say. What did he say to this woman? There was so much, so much that lay between them it would take a week to say goodbye properly, to correctly unpack the ties that bound them together. This daughter of his foe, this font of his opportunity, this wounded doppelganger...spymaster of a would-be Empress.
"Goodbye, Martella," Riveh finally said, his emotion visible on his face. "Thank you, for everything. It was been....quite a few days here in the city. But they say, all roads lead to Oppara so I look forward to when we can meet again. " A short pause, still unsure what to say, he adds slowly, "Be careful yourself. I think both of us are going to have our hands full very shortly. At least I get a few days off for travel. I assume you'll be leaving here and jumping right into the fire?"
"I think both will be very useful."
"The weaver knows best how to use his thread," she chirped in reply, demurely lessening her contribution whilst aggrandizing himself in a curlicue so coy Riveh knew her to be half-jesting. Especially as it didn't escape him that if her tools were the treads to his needle, then all of the spymistress's many agents - himself included - could just as well be considered the threads to the complicated web she wove.
Perhaps the most generous interpretation of the metaphorical tangle was that every part of the operation had their part to play.
"Oh, do please try it on!" Martella cried as he raised the enchanted cloth to his face, evidently eager to see her toys in action. That, or anxious to do right by the young man she still clearly felt beholden to. "I tested it myself of course, but I do want to see it on... oh yeees." Though his vision went momentarily blurry as the strangely liquid material sank into, or rather became, his flesh, there was no missing the Lotheed's pleased smile. "You look nice. Very dapper. But then it's still mostly you, so there's no reason you shouldn't be. Isn't he handsome, Madame Trant?"
"Who? Geminus?" the taller woman queried, as if she hadn't been following the conversation with an increasingly sullen expression. "You could fling bricks by the half hour in Grandbridge's busiest thoroughfare without hitting one girl willing to look at him without a general anesthetic."
And apparently Trant had decided to join Stig in what he could only assume was some obscure national holiday dedicated to trampling over his feelings. Seriously now, what was going on this morning? Here he thought they had developed some degree of camaraderie. Had he unwittingly done something wrong? Urinated in their drawers whilst sleepwalking, mayhaps? The spymaster appeared taken aback at the reply herself, looking to Riveh for some elucidation before evidently deciding that courtesy dictated it best for her to move on.
"Well... You should take these as well." She handed him a leather dossier, the same folder Riveh had seen her go through with Factor-12. "All the information you should require for your role as newly minted Lord Betony is there along with deeds, documentation and a brief primer on your fellow aristocrats in Meratt. I trust it will make for fascinating reading on your journey. Though I must say, I'm very impressed with your choice of familiar." His what now? Martella looked to the bronze and copper sphere floating above them with admiration. "You should have told me you commanded an inevitable, Riveh. It will be a great asset in managing your hamlet's finances and administration. You're already off to a good start, milord!"
The encouraging, even proud, grin was only slightly lessened by the supposed familiar's tinny remark. "Smug commentary: My master's excellence aside, such operations are indeed best left to those sporting something more efficient than the juice driven meat sponge your kind call a processor."
"You're wearing your face, so you may as well wear your credentials now," Martella continued in handing him what he immediately recognized as a signet ring. Ah, a symbol of his new office. The Betony ring was a relatively simple band in silver; the design that made up its seal was a plain etching upon a flat surface, one the ifrit could only interpret as a shooting star above a mountain range. "And lastly, take this." What was given him was a sealed scroll along with a considerably more serious expression. "A missive with my personal mark. Your world will be defined by duplicity in the coming months, but should you ever have need of proving who you are - where your loyalties lie - then this should go a long way. It will help our allies recognize you as a loyal subject of the Princess. Of course, our enemies will know the same should they get their hands on it. So please, keep it secret. Keep it safe." I couldn't help myself.
This completed, she stood back a bit and put her hands to her hips, her features returning to their familiar half-smirk. For the briefest moment he suddenly felt like a young tyke setting out on his first day of school, proud mother ensuring his ears were clean. Evidently he passed muster. The Lotheed really did look pleased with him. "Right, you should be on your way," she said after a gaze that lingered just one second too long. "You're on a schedule as it happens: Bartleby is hosting a little soiree to mark his inauguration as baron and lord of Meratt. It will be the perfect opportunity to introduce the new Lord Betony and meet your fellow nobles. I have written ahead in your stead and you are expected; every correspondence is in the folder, do give it a quick read. Don't worry, you're not in any particular hurry. The party will take place in a week and your journey shouldn't take more than five days."
Five days in an enclosed space with Stig, Trant and Factor-12. If he managed such a heroic feat, then surely he could win the war on his own? But this was it, wasn't it? This was where the restoration of House Geminus began. No, more so than that, it was where the restoration of Taldor began. The Stavian vault - if he succeeded, if the Princess got her riches, she was spending every copper piece on enabling such reforms that Taldor would be a changed nation. The sleeping lion, reawakened to glory. Alternatively, the General apparently hoped to prod said lion into war with the Qadiran elephant, the Andoran eagle, the Chelish serpent and more. It really was quite a bit of weight on his shoulders, a nation's soul. Probably best not to think on it too much. But boy, if it didn't make taking the next step feel momentous.
And his role in this conflict had all begun, in more ways than one, with the woman standing before him now, Martella Lotheed. What's more, she had given him the means to end it as well.
"Goodbye, Martella," Riveh finally said, his emotion visible on his face. "Thank you, for everything. It was been....quite a few days here in the city. But they say, all roads lead to Oppara so I look forward to when we can meet again."
It was the emotion on his face. Even as he spoke, he could see it - how his feelings reached out to the spymistress only to resonate with her own. Like two voices harmonizing in song, it dropped her well practiced veneer to bring out her own emotions and the sly smile faded to make way for something more genuine and infinitely more tender.
"You're very welcome." She swallowed something or another before reaching out for his hand. "No, thank you. You... What you said at the park, it... You'll never know what it means to me that... And I'm so sorry for my... for what I... W-when we see each other again... I'm hoping that we can remain close. I..."
So much left unsaid. It wasn't just him; as he surmised, it really would take a week for them to say goodbye to one another, to untangle the web connecting them. She laughed, a self-chastising little thrill. Shutting her mouth, she elected to let the fingers squeezing his speak for a moment.
"You're more than I ever dared hope for."
He knew that she wasn't referring to his skill as socialite or spy.
You can respond or do whatever if you want to. I'll push us forward in the next post.
Riveh had to agree with the Dame sitting opposite him; his backside hadn't been this sore since he could fit over his mother's knee. The carriage really was a handsome example of its kind, its seats generously padded and their underside even fitted with springs to act as shock absorbents. Alas, three days on the road still took their toll. It had been three days since they had left glorious Oppara behind for the open highways, and said roads - figurative and literal - were wearing thin. Again, literally.
This in itself was more tragic still than the ifrit's tender buttocks, he recognized. Of all of Taldor's wonders, its infrastructure was perhaps its most valuable yet least celebrated. Miles upon miles of perfectly paved road so straight they put a crow's flight to shame. Yet more miles still of canals so wide the nation's armada could deal with highwaymen as well as they did pirates. These crisscrossed the nation end to end. There was a time when Taldor truly was a golden land of civil engineering. When the ancient Taldans encountered valleys, they bridged them. Where they found hills, they tore them down. No rough track or forest trail would do for them, instead building an infrastructure so abnormally level, straight and efficient that it would serve the nation as a boon and every other nation as an envy for the next one thousand years.
Such were the stories Riveh had heard of his forefathers' taming of the very land. Now, having both traveled to and from Oppara, he could only take a different view. Thank the gods that those forefathers had built these roads to last because they hadn't seen any maintenance in those thousand years.
The wheels knocked against something or other, tilting the entire carriage before settling again. "Ooh!"
While the highways and canals leading directly to the capital were well cared for, every other major road he had travelled on was in dire need of repairs, to say nothing of those offshoots leading into the countryside. Their destination, Meratt, was firmly off the beaten path.
Still, the journey hadn't been all bad. It wasn't as if all three of them didn't get to stretch their legs and Factor-12 its... well, it was untrussed from the carriage roof with the rest of the luggage. After so many centuries (millennia?) of regular travel, roadside inns were not just numerous, but perfectly placed to account for a horse's stride. These innkeepers had the art of business location down to a science. Whenever the horizon darkened there would invariably come into view a sizable lodge to relieve their horses - and backsides - for the night. These were places with names such as The Steadfast Bugle or Tarrasque's Fall; typically patriotic Taldan inns serving typically Taldan fare. Touring such tavern might make an enjoyable trip in better times. Sadly, these were not that. Taldans, usually so united in their national spirit, were being divided along with their country. On their first night the group had been given a barely veiled interrogation as to their loyalties from their host before being allowed to stay. On their second they witnessed a bar fight between gentlemen of clearly differing opinion as to who should lead the nation. The people were fracturing as surely as the cobblestones they travelled.
Small comfort then that his travelling companions proved better company than could be feared. Not accounting for her uncharitable slips such as the one immediately before their departure, Trant had been largely amicable on the road. As amicable as her pride allowed her to be, anyway. She took an interest in Riveh's mission, asked questions and on the whole seemed determined to help however she could, an effort that was sometimes hampered by her privileged upbringing. He could tell that the rigors of the journey were wearing on her. As for Stig, well, despite the knight's clear opposition to what he called a 'babysitting job', he had apparently resigned himself to the task. In fact, if the ifrit didn't know any better he'd almost describe the old man as wistful. He really hadn't displayed much surliness these past few days outside of some token bickering with Trant, the two still getting along like snow and summer.
It was almost enough to make one appreciate Factor-12. Utterly unaffected by travel, war or any other silly 'meatbag' concerns, the inevitable carried on like the machine it was. Almost as reliable was their driver, a quiet soul who went by Silas. If Riveh had understood Martella right, the man was all that he appeared: merely a coach driver and completely unaffiliated with any nationwide conspiracies. He had been handsomely paid to take them to Meratt and that was that. Indeed, the older man only addressed him as 'Lord Betony', and reverently so at that. The ifrit couldn't help but reflect at seeing an unknowing pawn of the spymaster; so this was what it looked like from the outside.
"Should be comin' up on Prusa soon."
Stig leant nearer the carriage window, offering Riveh beside him a brief reprieve from his body odor. He wasn't entirely sure where Prusa was, but knew that the knight had to be right; the sun had just about faded outside. But man - this view. The Green Sea. Grass Ocean. Heavensdome. The Tandak Plains had gained a fair few monikers over the years, all of them well deserved the young man could only concede in looking out his own window. Only here did the land seems as vast as the heavens themselves. Stretching from the Inner Sea to the World's Edge Mountains, the plains covered some 70% of Taldor's landmass, though to one travelling them they appeared infinite. The endless expanse only stopped at the horizon, green and blue (the national colors, it hadn't escaped the ifrit) blurring and melding together in the golden sunset, turning the vault below peacock-emerald whilst the dome above peacock-azure. Even as he watched the first stars twinkle into life at the scenery's zenith, he knew that morning would bring corresponding lights below as the first rays would glitter through every manifold dew drop clinging to as many grass straws. 'Beautiful' felt like a very meagre word indeed.
He wondered whether he would see any lions. Another symbol of the nation, Riveh knew that entire prides of the beasts roved the more arid areas of the plains. He had already spied some of the famous wild horses grazing here, but...
"'Hell is that?"
On the topic of animals: beside him, Stig had adopted the lurching posture of a hyena, seemingly listening intently for something and squinting into the approaching night. "If you're seeing grey spots, those are your cataracts," Trant sniped back.
"Shut up, girl! There's somethin'..."
"Confirmation: The decayed one is correct." Even through the carriage roof, Factor-12's metallic blare of a voice was quite easily heard, to say nothing of all the luggage it rested on. "Cayden's cock, if that thing calls me that again, I..."
The knight's mutterings died out to the machine-spirit's next words. "Assessment: There are eight meatbags approaching us at roughly 30 of your miles per hour, stacked onto one another two and two." What? "They will reach us in approximately 48 seconds. The meatbags on top are humanoids whilst my database recognizes those below as some variety of ungulate. Possibilities include antelope, cattle..."
"Horses, you ninny!" Stig bellowed even as he reached for his bow. "Those are bleedin' highwaymen!"
"Annoyed clarification: If you wished for me to list 'horse' first, then you should have made the letter H first in your ridiculous alphabet. Efficiency dictates that..."
Everything lurched as the carriage suddenly picked up speed. "Hold on, milords and lady!" their driver yelled. Clearly he too had spotted the threat. And he wasn't the only one. Riveh heard the beasts before he saw them, massive panting stallions thundering along the road until they were in view. Barreling up beside them was a rider in dark leathers and conspicuously veiled face. They shared a glance, assailant and victim-to-be, as the ifrit saw him ready a bow. He wasn't alone. Oh dear.
Fight! Maybe. Check the battle map regardless. I'll hold off on rolling initiative before you've had a turn as both your companions (consciously or otherwise) are waiting to see what their fearless leader decides upon before taking any drastic action. The bandits meanwhile are going for the driver. You may consider your weapons to be at hand, but I'd guess you would be without armor! Also worth considering is that magic requires concentration checks under such violent motion.
Riveh's mind whirled at the bandit's sudden appearance. It wasn't an unexpected danger but the sheer abruptness rattled the ifirit nearly as much as the bouncing, jouncing carriage did. Trying his best to not bite off his own tongue, he tried to think. Was there any alternative to the obvious?
They were too obviously rich to negotiate. Maybe a simple traveler would only be relieved of his money and let go, but a full blown carriage? The bandits would at, the very least, take the horses and all of their goods. No, that was impossible. And bluffing them was also unlikely considering their lack of guards. Also, trying to state some official purpose would be even more pointless then usual, considering the unsettled state of politics.
No, they would have to fight....so then the next question was tactics. Should they stop and fight, or keep a rolling chase? The wagon hit a rock and nearly threw him out onto the dusty road. The speed was an obvious danger but stopping just put them at mercy of the more speedy armed bandits. No, best to keep moving.
"Keep the wagon moving!" He shouts to the driver, voice barely audible over the thundering hooves.
"Stig, you might want to grab your bow!" Even as he says this, Riveh summons the strange dark powers that dwell just under the surface of his mind. A swirl of unwholesome darkness suddenly shrouds the ifrit, a glimpse of distant stars and dust.
Cast Cloak of Darkness if I can before initiative. If not, then that's what'll do on my turn.
Riveh Init: 1d20 + 7 ⇒ (20) + 7 = 27
Right then! As I recall, I usually roll these with protags first and baddies second, all alphabetical.
Factor-12, initiative: 1d20 + 3 ⇒ (11) + 3 = 14
Malphene, initiative: 1d20 + 0 ⇒ (12) + 0 = 12
Stig, initiative: 1d20 + 3 ⇒ (10) + 3 = 13
Highwayman Blue, initiative: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (8) + 2 = 10
Highwayman Brown, initiative: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (5) + 2 = 7
Highwayman Green, initiative: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (19) + 2 = 21
Highwayman Red, initiative: 1d20 + 2 ⇒ (16) + 2 = 18
There was nothing for it, the ifrit decided. They'd just have to dispatch of these brigands, and speedily. Even if that speed was a concern in and of itself. They were barreling along the uneven road with all the swiftness of... well, metaphors really weren't necessary. Velocity was hard to gauge in the open, empty landscape of the Tandak Plains, but the horses outside made their pace obvious. The dark beast outside, huge and heavy as only the Taldan stallions could be, tore along the pavement, its strong limbs little more than a frenzied blur of percussive blasts, a dozen thunder claps a second. They were all very literally going as fast as a horse could run.
"'Might want' to grab your bow, he says..." Stig growled beside him, already notching an arrow to the weapon and staring darkly out the window at another rider. "One pat on the back and the boy thinks he can tell you what to do now..."
Opposite Riveh the Dame had found her own weapon, although he wasn't quite sure how the sword was supposed to help at the moment. Neither did she frankly, Trant's misgivings about the whole situation obvious beneath her affected bravado. Still, she nodded resolutely to his call for action; she was with him.
As was another, perhaps less obvious, ally. "Request:" the inevitable trumpeted over the clamor, its mechanical tone betraying no agitation at the assault. "Master, you have explicitly forbidden me from correcting the minds of mortals. Permission to dispatch these feeble meatbags?"
Ah, so they had some extra arcane armament in Factor-12 up on the carriage roof. That might be useful with the riders out of reach, Riveh considered as he drew upon his own magical might, carving out a piece of the infinite void to act as his shroud. But who to target? Outside he could see two horsemen and hear at least two more, the former slowly but surely gaining on the heavy coach to approach its driver.
"That's Sir Betony to you.." Riveh says to Stig, before turning to Trant. "Keep your sword ready, who knows where this might lead. We might be tumbling in the road soon enough."
Then the ifrit grabbed his crossbow, trying to load it in the jouncing, close confines of the carriage. More then once he almost impales himself with the bolt as he winds it. Meanwhile Rive shouts up through the thin wooden roof to Factor-12.
"Permission granted, but only at minimal risk to yourself. Don't be a hero." As if the machine had any idea what that meant.
Then it was time for action, Riveh lifted Dignity's Barb and aimed it out the window. Hitting a moving target while being tossed around like a pebble in a cup was no easy feat...
Crossbow: 1d20 + 6 ⇒ (10) + 6 = 16
Damage, doubtful: 1d10 + 1 ⇒ (10) + 1 = 11
Probably going to have to resort to magic
While it wouldn't be fair to call him a country bumpkin (no matter how often others had dismissed him as such in the capital), Riveh's childhood shared more than a few of the humble happenings that made up the rural experience. He wondered, for example, how many of his supposed peers had ever handled chickens? It was a strange thing to think back on now, whilst in a high-speed chase facing off against armed bandits, but he couldn't help it; the crossbow, Dignity's Barb - it was just like holding up a hen. No matter how the carriage jostled and bumped against the uneven road it careened over, the stock of weapon never veered in the ifrit's hands. It was like a fixed point in space, much like the curious and no less amusing ability of a held chicken to keep its head level regardless of how its owner shook it about.
An ability that served him well as he pushed up the coach door's window and fired a bolt - true as Abadar's gospel - straight into the back of the rider barreling past.
Oh, if he only knew. The dark jacket of the highwayman grew darker still with blood, the bolt sitting snugly in his waist, although by how he hefted his own sizeable crossbow Riveh could only guess that his target wasn't out of the fight yet. Their positions and frantic speed of the engagement meant that he couldn't see the bandit's expression, but in the rider approaching from behind he spied a look of surprise above the cloth mask. Apparently these outlaws weren't accustomed to much resistance on their heists. Among that seen and unseen, however, what remained hidden to him were the goings-on on the other side of the carriage.
Thankfully, ever eloquent Stig manned that position. "They're jammin' our damn wheels!"
On the left side of the brougham, one of the riders was quickly gaining on them whilst drawing a hefty javelin of sorts from its holster on his horse - a javelin he, by all appearances, intended to fling into the madly spinning spokes of the carriage's back wheels. The implications of this were as ugly as the knight's mug, his agitation only harshening the weather-beaten brickwork that was his face very much included. The consequences to the carriage's entire framework suddenly snapping to a halt at these speeds were... less than pleasant to imagine.
Fortunate then that this was apparently the highwaymen's fallback plan. Green readies an action... Less fortunate was that their primary scheme was only marginally more palatable.
Red, ranged attack vs Silas the Driver: 1d20 + 5 - 4 ⇒ (11) + 5 - 4 = 12
Crossbow damage: 1d10 ⇒ 10 Oh dear. There's a lot of this max damage going around.
"Stand and deliver!" Riveh heard a man on the opposite side demand over thundering hooves and pulverizing wheels. It wasn't any of the coach's occupants he was addressing; it was the driver. When no answer came, he responded in kind. The ifrit heard the whiz of the bolt and the gasp that followed.
"Assessment: Our vehicle's operator has been impaired," Factor-12 needlessly droned from its vantage point above. "Faults in the guidance system may foll..."
Enough of this. This whole debacle had to be reined in while there was still any chance of doing so.
"Permission granted, but only at minimal risk to yourself. Don't be a hero."
"Exclamation: Master, you wound me!" How was it that the inevitable could go from machine-like detachment to impassioned indignation like... well, like a switch? "To even suggest that my behavior core has been corrupted by such organic compulsions as 'pride'..." (the vocabulator crackled) "... is quite more than one can bear! But very well."
He never saw it, just as the javelin wielding rider never saw it coming. But outside the carriage walls, said rider's eyes went glassy whereupon he - calmly and coolly - swung his leg over his mount and dove for the pavement. The next second he was fifty feet behind them.
Green, Will save: 1d20 + 1 ⇒ (9) + 1 = 10
Fall damage plus another 2d6 just for sheer speed: 3d6 ⇒ (2, 4, 1) = 7
"Evaluation: Meatbag dispatched."
Stig, standing by the opposite door and thus witnessing this poor sap smack into the cobblestones with all the combined force gravity and velocity could muster, gave the sort of amused grunt others might at wholesome humor before deciding to try his hand at replicating Factor-12's feat. Roughly he kicked out the carriage door before drawing his bow taut, aiming for the remaining rider, the one who had already shot their driver.
Stig, ranged attack vs Red: 1d20 + 6 - 2 + 2 ⇒ (11) + 6 - 2 + 2 = 17
Longbow damage: 1d8 + 2 + 2 ⇒ (6) + 2 + 2 = 10
Sure enough, another bandit felt their flesh perforated. Still, the scoundrel remained in his saddle, still galloping alongside them. Rising from her own seat, however, came the Dame, seemingly filling the coach interior immediately and stooping to avoid the roof. Riveh looked to her. Though she still wore her mask of bravado, flimsy as gauze as it was, the underlying emotion had gone from uncertainty to deepest dismay. She took a deep breath. The hard edge he was familiar with by now returned to the eyes, transforming them from stormy seas to cobalt crystals.
"I'm going out there."
Pardon? She moved past him and flung open the carriage door. Right away, the rushing air threatened to topple the careful layers of her bouffant. "I refuse to sit by idly!" Trant shouted into the wind by way of explanation as she made to climb the coach exterior. "That driver is a sitting duck! If we don't..."
And then immediately lost her grip.
Climb, DC 15: 1d20 + 7 ⇒ (6) + 7 = 13 Fortunately one does not fall unless you fail the DC by 5 or more...
The young Geminus hadn't seen the woman wear such a look of abject shock since Filibert drove a dagger into her back. Another sudden jolt in the road saw the whole carriage lurch, and with it Trant lost her grip. She was now wholly outside the coach, feet resting on its step, and if not for a split-second's reaction - the two reaching out for each other - would have been spread out all over the Tandak highway like so much paste. The Dame gripped an ornate fixture on their transport's exterior.
And damn it all, if Riveh didn't have worries beyond bullheaded noblewomen. Looking up he saw the two riders push their horses further still, one going for the driver, the other... for himself. Both hefted heavy crossbows.
Blue, ranged attack vs Silas the Driver: 1d20 + 5 - 4 ⇒ (2) + 5 - 4 = 3
Brown, ranged attack vs Riveh: 1d20 + 5 - 4 ⇒ (6) + 5 - 4 = 7
The bolt went sailing over his head to embed itself somewhere inside. Somewhere only narrowly missing Stig's backside, as it happened.
"Oi, does his Lordship need help killin' his f*ckin' hooligans?! 'Cause I'm a little busy over here!"
Technically the riders should be making Ride checks every time they take damage or risk falling off their horses. But the DC is a measly 5 which they literally cannot fail, so I skipped those. Anyway, you're up. See the map for updated positions.
Part of Riveh was surprised the bandits were still coming on after one of their number was roadkill and another wounded by crossbow bolt. Couldn't they give up and wait for easier prey? Then again, this carriage was a fine catch for some random bandits, Riveh knew enough for that. The horses alone were worth many a years wages for a rural laborer.
Clearly they needed more persuasion.
Meanwhile though, first they had to make sure Trant didn't tumble out of the carriage and imitate the fallen bandit. The wheels clattered loudly on the worn cobblestones, heavy iron bands quite capable of turning a human into paste.
But was helping Trant the right call or was dispatching a bandit the smart move? Without the bandits, they could slow...and besides, helping Trant might give a bandit time to stick them both.
Unhappily, Riveh trusts to the larger woman's grip for a moment and focuses on the as yet, unharmed bandit ahead of him. Summoned up a shard of arcane power, he molded it with a single word into a potent spell.
Casting Boneshaker on the Brown bandit
Concentration Check, DC 12: 1d20 + 4 - 2 ⇒ (19) + 4 - 2 = 21
Spell:A living creature has its skeleton rattle within its flesh, causing it grievous harm. The target takes 3d6 points of damage, plus 1d6 additional points of damage per 2 caster levels you have.
In addition, you can move the target 5 feet. This movement doesn’t provoke attacks of opportunity. A successful saving throw halves the damage and negates the movement
Can I use that 'motion' to throw him off his horse? This spell is so OP for a 2nd level spell....
Brown, Fort save: 1d20 + 4 ⇒ (17) + 4 = 21
Boneshaker damage: 5d6 ⇒ (1, 4, 6, 2, 3) = 16 This is sadly halved. And I would have totally let you fling him off the horse with the negated movement too!
It was almost enough to evoke a smidge of sympathy, that look of utter panic in the bandit's eyes. What other emotion was there to feel when one's very bones betrayed you? Moving of their own volition, Riveh saw the target of his spell suddenly and awkwardly sit upright in his saddle, every vertebrae of his spine tensing and twisting against the ligaments that held them imprisoned. Horrid as it was, the magic failed to take hold. The riders were all sizeable and strong lads as near the ifrit could tell beneath their cloaks, and with a great strain his victim seemed to forcibly regain control of his scaffolding, the magic exiting his body in a violent snap through the left arm, damn near tearing the bone from its socket in the process.
Trant, still halfway out the carriage, looked to him as if to ask, 'Was that supposed to happen?' No, the Geminus had rather hoped for more. What was quite possibly worse was the furious cast that sank over the eyes, what little he could see of their assailant's face. Apparently his target had taken this little stunt personally. Wresting control over one's skeleton was rather churlish, Riveh admitted. Stowing his crossbow in favor of drawing a longsword, the man seemed intent on retaliating!
"Assurance: Not to worry, Master."
There was a slight rattle in the inevitable's vocabulator, the tremors of the coach travelling through the metal sphere. "Succeeding where meatbags fail is one of the primary purposes behind my design. I shall dispatch of this aggressor as well."
And lovely as it would have been to see Factor-12 compel another bandit to hop off his own horse mid-gallop, this particular bandit merely appeared confused for a moment before shaking his head with invigorated purpose.
Brown, Will save: 1d20 + 1 ⇒ (20) + 1 = 21 ...Well, this dude is just rolling well.
"... Error: The application failed to initialize."
Drat. How very like the forces of the Great Beyond to be fickle. And there was no help to be had from the knight either, he being busy felling his own target...
Stig, ranged attack vs Red: 1d20 + 6 - 2 + 2 ⇒ (8) + 6 - 2 + 2 = 14 So close.
... an effort that, though he didn't see it, Riveh gathered could be going better by the steady stream of swears steaming from his companion. Also unseen was Stig's target of choice reloading his armament, apparently intent on either killing or threatening an already wounded driver to give up his reins. The ifrit could just about gather as much from what he could see, though: the other highwayman on this side of the carriage, the one carrying his bolt in the back, had now reached their team of horses. There he immediately grabbed the bridle of the team leader with one hand, yanking the head down. Right - neutralize the driver and bully the leading horse; that was the battle plan of these highwaymen. He was attempting to gain control of the pack, albeit without much success just yet.
Blue, Handle Animal: 1d20 + 6 ⇒ (4) + 6 = 10
Was the battle swinging in the aggressors' favor? Riveh had to wonder as the reins of their carriage, literal and metaphorical, were in imminent danger of being stolen all the while a very ornery bandit barreled nearer with sword held aloft. Even so, there was one obstacle said bandit had to breach before reaching the ifrit; Trant was still standing on the flimsy carriage step, shoes inches above the speeding grater that were the cobblestones and hair tussled from rushing wind. She didn't seem overly keen on attempting another climb over the coach. Instead she eyed the oncoming horseman with that same brittle resolution displayed earlier, something derived from need over daring.
Had the ifrit heard that quite right? "Hold me! I need both hands to swing this thing!" Pulling his arm around her middle and trusting Riveh to stand firm, the Dame's own hands were left free. Thusly anchored, she drew her blade from its scabbard, a 4-and-then-some ft. affair that should indeed require two hands to wield. In the face of the approaching rider, she pulled it back as far as the turbulent circumstances allowed. Readied action...
Trant, readied attack vs Brown: 1d20 + 6 ⇒ (11) + 6 = 17
Damage: 1d10 + 8 ⇒ (4) + 8 = 12
Brown, attack vs Trant: 1d20 + 6 ⇒ (7) + 6 = 13
Damage: 1d8 + 4 ⇒ (5) + 4 = 9
It was like seeing the most deranged jousting collision imaginable. And decadent Taldor had dreamt up quite a few variations of that particular game over the millennia. The frenzied panting of the bandit's great beast, now audible over the thunder of hooves and clatter of cobblestone, was sharply cut off by singing steel. Both combatants - Trant leaning out of carriage, the rider leaning in his saddle - clashed in bearing down their weapons, two great arches less metal than blazing fire as both blades caught red in the setting sun. Sparks from the impact only completed the imagery. It was not the only red on display.
"Argh!" both groaned. Neither escaped unscathed, and supporting the Dame from behind, Riveh felt the blow as well. The highwayman's sword had slid down her own, slicing a deep gash into Trant's shoulder, she having foregone any armor in favor of comfort on their journey. But the bandit was looking comparatively worse. He pulled on his reins, disengaged, and in so doing the ifrit saw that his leathers - armor and horse tack both - were slick with blood. This blow, especially combined with his own spell, had left the man in a sorry state. Better yet, he knew it.
"Hah!" he directed his mount, not just pulling back, but turning. He was withdrawing. And up ahead his only two remaining comrades, both bolt and arrow riddled respectively, were sharing hesitant glances. This skirmish hadn't gone according to plan.
You're up! If you want to, that is. Brown is very near death and will retreat on his turn. Red and Blue, also both wounded, are not keen on fighting with their numbers halved come their turns either, so they too will run off. In other words you have a round to play with, but these guys will run off afterwards. Combat over.
Riveh watches as the bandit starts to slow down and turn away. A sigh of relief he didn't know he was holding comes out in a shudder. They had survived, through a combination of blind luck, Factor-12's questionable magic and Trant's rather insane bravery.
Said woman is currently half lying, half sitting in the carriage bleeding rather freely. Frankly, it was impressive she wasn't lying on the road still rushing under the clattering wheels. Not only had she managed to not fall she had actually hit the charging bandit, performing a move seemingly more suited to carnival trick riders. The ifrit noted the seeping blood and jagged tear in her flesh.
"Hold on." Riveh muttered, digging through what packs he could reach. Shortly he drew out the Wand of healing and, doing his best to 'aim' it in the jouncing, bouncing confines, used it on her.
Want me to roll or you?
As the bandits slowly vanish he shouts to the driver, "Silas, you still with us?" He hoped the man was at least well enough to stop the pell-mell hurtle. Because if not, someone was going to have to climb up there and deal with it.
He glanced at Stig, "Nice shooting."
If Silars doesn't say or do anything, time to go full hero again
You can go ahead and roll for Cure Lights, or indeed spell damage, as you please. It's just the actual saving throws of the baddies that I prefer rolling myself. But in the interest of expediency...
Wand of Cure Light Wounds (on Trant): 1d8 + 1 ⇒ (7) + 1 = 8
1 HP away from being fully healed. That'll do.
Even the setting sun couldn't compete. The carriage interior was briefly lit up by the warm light of what scholars called positive energy, sheer life force, as Riveh let his own power flow through the wand. It felt pleasant under his fingers, the magic heating the wood from within. Trant was still crouched half on her seat, half on the floor she had only just stumbled backwards onto, apparently somewhat shaken; she hardly noticed the curative before it had already stitched the ragged flesh of her shoulder into a plain red bruise. But the Dame nevertheless collected herself along with the wound. Such was the restorative power of positive energy, even on the mind.
She looked to her torn frock.
"I know I owe you, Geminus, but if this keeps up, I'll have to insist on you paying my wardrobe expenses."
Humor. A deliberately sardonic attempt at dismissing injury and death. Riveh was getting pretty good at reading the noblewoman, not that she was any good at hiding her emotions. The question of healthy responses to trauma would have to wait, however. They weren't out of the proverbial woods yet. The plains had no such trees to tell him this, but by the continual jostling and beating of heavy hooves, the ifrit knew that they were still barreling along the road at top speed. He checked outside again. Yes, the highwaymen were gone; he only just saw the tail of one of their horses before it disappeared in the dark, even to his able eyes. The danger had passed. Had their driver done the same?
"Still... Still this side of the spire, milord," Silas answered his call, voice strained against velocity and wound. Apparently intending to put some distance between the bandits and themselves, he only eased on the horses after another minute at full gallop, and even then only into a hurried trot. The poor beasts had surely earned their rest today.
And the quicker their pace, the sooner they'd receive it. Riveh understood in leaning out the window; outside, the road was leading them to the rapidly growing walls of what could only be a larger town, maybe even a minor city. Was this the Prusa Stig had mentioned? Regardless, it was a safe harbor in the grass ocean, and Silas wasn't letting up until they had reached it.
He glanced at Stig, "Nice shooting."
Ever poignant, the knight let it be known that he didn't take kindly to what he clearly perceived as condescension, especially from those not half his age. Doubly so when he hadn't actually felled any of the riders. Riveh didn't even catch his eyes, these instead squinting into the dark. He had not let go of his bow.
Outside, the approaching walls had grown to some twenty ft. in height and the carriage - finally, blessedly - stopped. They had reached their rest for the night. They had also drawn some attention. The ifrit hopped out of the carriage onto sparse cobblestone, well-trodden dirt and, very nearly, a crowd. They had halted outside the city walls, a brick affair that though seemingly sturdy had none of the grandeur and artistry of Oppara. Then again, it wasn't sturdy enough to keep the settlement from spilling outside. Not just farmsteads, but houses - entire quarters - leaned up against these walls. All were simple: stone cottages capped with thatch roofs. Wood was conspicuously absent. The residents of these homes, equally simple, gathered where the coach had skidded to a halt, alarmed and wondering what the hullaballoo was about. The bleeding driver certainly added to the commotion.
Said driver was what worried the ifrit as well. Hurriedly...
Climb: 1d20 + 0 ⇒ (14) + 0 = 14 Hey, you didn't make a fool out of yourself in front of a crowd.
... he climbed the coachbox up to Silas. And nearly slipped at the blood. The man was a mess. Pale from blood loss and shivering with exertion, the driver didn't speak a word, instead looking to him pleadingly. A crossbow bolt sat in his gut. Well then. That wand had been a good purchase.
"Aw hells, you look a f*ckin' disgrace, man," Stig cajoled in joining the young Geminus up in the box and surveying the situation. Was that actual amusement, Riveh wondered or...? No, he thought the knight was being consoling in his own way, dismissing the injury's severity. Terrible bedside manners aside, it was heartening to see the thug care at all. If indeed he cared for Silas as anything more than their transport.
"Alright, boy," he went on, grabbing onto the slick bolt to the considerable discomfort of their patient. "Give us a count. I'll pull out the bolt, then you ply your witchery." Right. It did no good to restore flesh around a weapon still embedded into it.
"You still with us, old man?" (Stig and Silas were roughly the same age to the ifrit's eyes...) "Got no drink on me, so prayer will have to do. Jus' pray that I don't pull out yer guts or the boy f*cks up and magics your cock off, and you'll be back to starin' into horse assh*les in no time. We ready, boy?"
"In the name of the Baron, what's going on here?"
From the raptly watching audience stepped a small group of men in distinctive red uniform, the authority in their step leading Riveh to assume them to be the city watch or some such. Willingly or not, he had made a bit of an entrance here in Prusa.
Cure Light Wounds: 1d8 + 1 ⇒ (7) + 1 = 8
Another good roll, and yeah, that will just about do.
Riveh lets out a breath he did not know he was holding when Silas is not only alive but, after a burst of magic, returned to his usual vigor. The ifrit did not know the driver well, but in a sense, the man was his charge, his responsibility. Having his death on his hands, so soon in starting this venture would have been a bad omen, not to mention a moral burden.
For a brief second, Kalbio's face flashes before his mind's eye.
It is banished when a uniformed man starts asking questions.
Know.: 1d20 + 5 ⇒ (4) + 5 = 9
The dice giveth, the dice takenth away
Riveh is unsure exactly what to say. He is still suffering from the effects of the fight, heart pounding, lungs swelling and yet suddenly bone tired. But this was a key moment, one that he must rise to.
"Bandits, I am afraid." Riveh says carefully, standing up, wondering if he should wipe Sila's blood off his hands or not. The ifrit decides not to. "They ambushed our party on the road, not half a mile from here. Horsemen who gave no warning. We fought them off, but they survived the day, I believe."
Riveh does his best noble diffidence to danger and shrugs, but then looks at the uniformed man carefully, "And who am I speaking to?"
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 9 ⇒ (8) + 9 = 17
"Thank you, milord... Thank you..."
The knight had scarcely torn the bolt from its bed of flesh and sinew before Riveh closed the resultant wound with his magic, tissue miraculously assembling to stem the flow of blood. Credit to him, Silas the driver bore this rough operation as well as could be hoped, and now thanked him gratefully. The color returning to the man's cheeks was heartening. The Geminus had seen quite enough death in the capital.
But his attention was drawn back to the onlookers, and not just because of the collective sigh of relief - even a few cheers - that went through them at seeing the driver secure. Someone demanded a word. To the ifrit's eye, they certainly bore themselves like law enforcement officers, this little group of red-clad men. So used was he by now to the proud, even garish, city watch of Oppara with their vibrant colors and plumes, that he had a bit of trouble recognizing these as such. Instead of gleaming breastplate, their uniform consisted of a smart shirt and jacket ensemble, all dyed a bright red. Both were clearly padded for protection, but still a far cry from what other armed forces in the nation enjoyed. And on the topic of arms, axes and shovels were hardly standard fare. All of this was topped with polished wide-brimmed helmets underneath which Riveh felt himself scrutinized.
Nothing to do but answer the call, he supposed.
Though he addressed the man at the head of the group, naturally enough, the first response came from a young officer at the back. "Damn the blaggards!" he said at the first mention of the bandits.
"Composure, Priestly," their apparent leader tutted. "Go check on the driver."
He wasn't the only one to stir at the mention of the highwaymen. Quite a few oaths were heard among those onlookers still milling about. Clearly the attack was not an isolated incident. "Alright, folks," he said, turning to the crowd. "Please disperse. Don't hold up traffic at the gate and move along, thank you. Nothing to see here, they're all alright."
It was only after his little group had spread out to usher the populace back to their daily affairs, that he looked back up to Riveh on his perch to assure himself, "You are all alright?"
Assured that this was the case, the officer - a solid chap with what some would call a foolhardy attempt at a moustache - answered the ifrit's query.
"You are speaking to Senior Engineer Nero of Baron Kustios's Firewatch. And I should very much like to take your statement as to these bandits you met."
"And ehm, who am I addressing? Sir."
He added the honorific rather hurriedly, likely having noted by the young man's clothing and expensive carriage that he might very well be speaking to someone of some importance. "What is your business here in Prusa?"
Know. Nobility: 1d20 + 5 ⇒ (17) + 5 = 22
"Senior Engineer" Riveh says with as much dignty as he can. He almost reaches out to shake the man's hand but recalls a noble of his supposed standing would never deign to such a display. Instead, a grave nod of the head.
"Lord Betony," Riveh says firmly by way of answer, "Passing through on my way home after business in the capital." That part was true enough, at any rate. "The rest of us are unhurt although disappointed that bandits range with such impunity in the Emperor's domains. I would be happy to give a statement to the proper authorities." Which Riveh has no idea if this 'Firewatch' is. An engineer? Was he talking to a local forester?
"The rest of my party can enter without further delay, I trust?" Riveh waves to the rest. In an aside to Stig he whispers, "Keep your eyes open. Who knows if the bandits have friends in town."
It was almost like seeing a log being hoisted onto the man's shoulders.
"My Lord." Riveh had barely voiced his alias before the guard - this senior engineer - sank into a bow, his tone of voice lowering in deference as well. Taldor may have been seen its greatest upheaval since the Tarrasque stomped through its lands, but the citizen's esteem for their betters hadn't changed just yet.
"I would be happy to give a statement to the proper authorities."
Like a drowning man breaking the water surface, officer Nero waved a hand in dismissal as he arose from his bow at this most generous offer. "Oh no, please, Sir," he said, voice as firm as it was apologetic. "Your Lordship is patient, but I won't delay you a second longer. Allow me to escort you to your accommodations for the night. Priestly!"
The younger guard stood at attention. "I'm leaving you in charge. Watch the gate. Standard shift. I'll hear your report at the station."
One military salute later, Nero stood ready to lead them - carriage and all - into the city. An attendant? The ifrit briefly wondered at the power of a title. If only his first days in the capital had been so simple. He still remembered queuing at the Senate. Being an aristocrat came with privileges.
Even if this officer could just as well be spurred by personal repercussions over obeisance to his betters. Riveh had mentioned something about his grave disappointment at bandits roaming the plains, a fact that surely couldn't reflect well on the local law enforcement, if indeed that was what the Firewatch purported to be. Perhaps the senior engineer was merely trying to save face through this gesture.
Whatever the case, lord and knight saw themselves back inside the carriage proper in short order before they entered Prusa proper. Once through the red brick gate, the ifrit found a community in stark contrast to Oppara's splendor. It was clearly a busy place, even now as the stars stirred above, though those people milling about the wide streets and narrow alleyways - both heavily trodden trails of dirt spotted with cobblestones - were seemingly heading home for meal and rest. Said homes were as utilitarian as the industry about them; grey stone and red brick dominated, all crowned with thatch roofs. His earlier impression held true: there was a conspicuous lack of wood in the town. Where it appeared - as with some larger buildings such as inns and the like - it was always used in the construction of a second story, houses being packed tight. Actually, inns were quite numerous. Near the city gate, accommodations for travelers abounded, along with sturdy warehouses and quite a few toll stations. To his eye it all appeared as a waystation of sorts, a harbor in the green ocean to stop at and resupply before setting out afresh, and a popular one at that.
Surely a tempting target for highwaymen.
"Keep your eyes open. Who knows if the bandits have friends in town."
"What, keepin' track of prime targets to and fro?" Stig replied, acknowledging if a bit disinterested. "Eh, I s'ppose. Not our concern though, is it?"
Nero, acutely aware of his station, had not entered the carriage housing, instead riding along on the step outside, standing outside the door as they trotted along the street. He interrupted the surreptitious conversation with all due deference.
"My Lord, if I may," he called through the window, "I would greatly appreciate a brief account of your encounter with these bandits as we ride. But first: have you procured accommodations for the evening? I can recommend suitable lodgings for you. Or would you prefer we head for the manor?"
The manor? As in the Baron's manor? Right, Riveh realized. It was perfectly common, even expected, for a local noble to act host to visiting peers. This was how the aristocracy survived, after all; as an interlinked peerage built on social and familial relationships, some standing on greater rungs than others, yes, but all part of one ladder leading up to the Grand Prince himself. It was an aspect of the aristocracy largely unfamiliar to him, growing up the pariah he was.
He looked out the window. Though Prusa's foundation was as flat as the rest of the Tandak Plains, its walls were apparently built around two hills. On one of them he spied something like a lone estate. Should he take this opportunity to introduce himself to Baron Kustios? They would likely all get a much appreciated bed for the night from the city's leader, but would it be more prudent to avoid attention before they reached Meratt?
Huh. That other hill... It was all forest. The dense crop of tangled trees were among the very few he had seen in the grasslands. His thoughts were brought back to the Firewatch's function. They couldn't exactly be foresters without any forests. But brushfires in the more arid areas of the plains probably weren't uncommon.
The man's abject obsequious manner is off putting to Riveh. Not only is he unused to it, considering his rustic background, it is all t e more jarring due to the sudden onset. Here is a man, probably capable and experienced, forced to act like a servant to someone he has never met, merely because of a title. It made the young ifrit think strange thoughts.
Still, no time now to dwell on the intricacies of Taldan social relations.
Dare I hope?
Sense Motive: 1d20 + 3 ⇒ (13) + 3 = 16
Riveh watches the town around him, a landscape of stone and clay. He is not surprised at the lack of wood this far out on the plains but wonders if there is a quarry near at hand. It would not be fun lugging all this rock over the roads he just passed, even setting aside the bandits.
As they ride, Riveh tells the Engineer of their encounter with the bandit, only leaving out the more exotic spell-casting, both his own and that of Factor-12. Best to keep some things to himself, who knows where this report was going to end up.
But then Riveh is confronted with a much tougher crossroads then the highways around him. An invitation to the local nobleman's abode. Natural, of course. His supposed rarefied kind would flock together, seeking to flatter, intimidate or asses possible rivals. Still, the young man had not thought of this possible danger. Dare he act as he 'should' and risk revealing himself as a country bumpkin?
That said, if he couldn't fool this Baron Kustios, what hope did he have of deceiving the Lotheeds?
"To the manor." Riveh said decisively. Besides, all else failed, Trant really was the real deal. Maybe she could save him from using the wrong fork?
To the manor they went. His word obeyed like the law it was, the carriage trotted on through the city towards its decreed goal without further incident. Well, nearly so. Half-incidents such as the one that almost saw the chief engineer spooked off the moving vehicle didn’t count.
”Driver,” he said, conveying the young nobleman’s order, “to the…”
The shock that went through him at the sudden thoroughly unnatural (and quite annoyed) voice from above was felt though the entire coach. ”Interjection: Yes, I will relay the Master’s orders, thank you and please, meatbag. To the manor!”
The ifrit wasn’t entirely sure if either had noticed that ever reliable Silas had clearly heard him the first time and had already set their course. In all likelihood, neither cared. Decorum was decorum, and Taldor was still Taldor.
Brief though the trek from gate to manor was, facilitated by now mostly empty streets, it did give Riveh some measure of the city. Not from its absent people, but rather from what they had built. The buildings that made up Prusa were nearly all, to a fault, bare and unadorned. Though both sturdy and well kept, this nakedness pervaded the place. It was almost jarring after the pomp, circumstance and very literally gilded roofs of Oppara; the laborer who worked in the heat wearing little but a tan vs. the flamboyant socialite, covered in silk and powders. A sense of practicality weighed on the air here.
The comment – unusually mild, as if not wishing to disturb the silence she remarked upon – came from the Dame sitting opposite him. She too looked out the window. Yes, the ifrit had to agree. The air was quiet too, perhaps uncommonly so for what he was coming to realize was a modestly sized city. It was yet another shift from Oppara which, though ancient and dignified, never slept, as was the nature of metropolises. Riveh was left to wonder whether this stillness came from the character of its people, or strictness of the laws that governed them. A question that would probably be left unanswered. After all, he was only passing through.
At least their rest for the night would be a comfortable one. The manor atop the hill looked mightily appealing to his travel-weary backside. The Kustios estate, compound that it was, encompassed the entirety of the hillock, one of the two he had spied earlier, the other seemingly devoted to a curious little nature reserve. It was ringed by a wall as a matter of course, manned by handsomely dressed guards decidedly not of Nero’s Firewatch. There was no mistaking that bright red uniform. At their approach it was he who disembarked and explained that the honorable Lord Betony hoped to enjoy the Baron’s hospitality. What followed was an exhaustive process, made no less laborious by being hurried: namely certifying this stranger as genuine. Proving one’s identity was rarely a worry for an aristocrat. If, for whatever unfathomable reason, one’s noble bearing, speech and education (to say nothing of riches) didn’t already distinguish a gentleman from the common riffraff, then validating a nobleman was as simple as calling upon another; the aristocracy recognized their own. Theirs was a social structure built upon common interests, civil and professional, and intermarriage. They attended the same parties, the same weddings, the same pastimes, all while their duties intersected like so much patchwork. As such most nobles quite simply knew one another.
And this was the challenge faced by Riveh Geminus. While his cover story of being a long-lost scion – once too often removed – to the Betony name was convenient enough, especially given just how expansive Taldor’s better class really was, he still had to act the part. As such he was under no illusion when the head guard politely engaged him in what seemed some simple pleasantries: he was being vetted. Fortunately, either he or his papers eventually cut mustard. In due time the latter returned from the mansion where they had been taken for authenticating, evidently favorably so. Martella had done her job right. The gates opened for Riveh with entourage, and the deferential guards wished him a very good night.
This included the chief engineer.
”With your permission, my Lord,” he started as the trio of titles – Sir, Dame and Lord – finally disembarked their carriage, ”I’ll return to my regular duties now. I hope you all have a good ni… Ah.” A guard came up to him to briefly whisper some missive.
”I understand the Baron is not in.”
What should have been disappointing news grew more curious. For whatever reason this plain declaration caused him to turn towards the far end of the compound. While the walled hill was dotted with some smaller buildings, two structures dominated it. One was Kustios Manor, naturally. The other faced it on the opposite side, and this construction dwarfed even the baron’s home. Looking at it from a distance, it appeared a monstrosity in marble, perhaps a temple to some celestial lord or another. It was certainly grand enough as to have been transported from Heaven itself. These two buildings were separated by simple gravel paths, currently lit by lanterns, through well maintained plains which Nero now walked with purpose, heading for the shrine.
”What is that?” Trant asked in throwing a no doubt expensive scarf over the torn shoulder of her frock. Perhaps she had a positive first impression in mind. Should Riveh tell her that their high-speed scuffle had turned her layered hair into an utter crow’s nest? She clearly hadn’t noticed. ”Are those… the servants’ quarters?”
Nero actually had to suppress a laugh. ”Oh dear, no, my Lady. Those are the stables.”
It was what?
”Blue-bloods and their f*ckin’ nags…” the knight swore somewhere behind him with the profound weariness of a man entirely done with this world. Hold on now, the ifrit thought to the audible accompaniment of Stig’s spine. Some stretching was warranted after a full day’s journey, but the man’s back crackled like a moss-eaten log being torn asunder. Hold on. The young Geminus, even with his less than elite upbringing, knew that purebred horses were something of a rich man’s hobby, but this… They approached the structure. The brisk walk in the warm night air, scented by rich soil and fresh grass, reminded him that summer was close, and yet such was the nature of what lay before him that he could not concentrate on anything but. Yes, this was completely beyond the pale, for good or ill.
”Welcome to the Hippodrome, Lords and Lady.”
This edifice, for that was what it was, was as monstrous as it was magnificent. An open-aired amphitheater entirely in weathered and yellowed marble, it covered an area large enough to host a minor army in any one of its several levels. Its architecture, all dizzying columns and sweeping arches was as classical an expression of the Azlanti style as Riveh had ever seen, though this was not to say that the place didn’t have an identity all its own. Oh, far from it. Horses. Horses featured everywhere. Statues. Carvings. Murals. The horse in all its permutations, not just as beast of burden or noble steed, but even twisted and morphed into the merely horse-like – strange chimeras and odder beasts still – were seen wherever he threw his eye. The place was massive. And these they called ‘stables’? Taldor had a reputation for excesses among its enemies, and the ifrit knew that this… this superstructure was as likely to elicit disgust as wonder. The line between the grotesque and beautiful could be thin indeed.
”Baron Kustios will be right down this hallway.” Nero led them inside, down high-ceilinged corridors with… Was that a marble pegasus suspended in chains above them? The place was every bit as impressive within as without, though perhaps more impressive still was how it apparently wasn’t all style over function: the space was seemingly well utilized with side-passages everywhere, almost all of which led to sizeable stables, as promised. Riveh’s supernatural sight served him well in this labyrinthian complex, heavily shadowed as it was in the night, and he spied a great many horses in their stalls and even a few tenders still at work. Building on your Know (nobility) roll…: House Kustios’s reputation was clearly well earned. While he wasn’t very familiar with them, they being a small family (and apparently hailing from the middle of the lonely Tandak Plains as he now knew), their renown as horse breeders was second to none. Whatever the sort, to ride a Kustios horse was a mark of prestige and it had been so for centuries. In fact, he had often heard it said that they were the finest horses in the world.
Not all were as impressed, however. His unnatural eye caught Trant wrinkling her nose. Yes, the smell of hay and manure was getting progressively stronger. Stig and Factor-12 seemed entirely unaffected, but they wouldn’t have to suffer any longer. The chief engineer had led them up a level and finally into a large spectator box of sorts. Aroden’s ghost, the Hippodrome’s interior; it was a veritable colosseum, a great oblong field of greenest grass large enough to see a mock army battle. It had enough spectator seats for the purpose as well. And yet only three men stood witness to the sole occupant of the arena, a rider deftly jumping an obstacle course. Of these three well-dressed men, only one of them, the oldest, seemed to be truly watching, the other two speaking to him in a cajoling tone, one at each ear.
”Your Lordship, the Princess already has the support of most of your peers. To throw in your lot with her would only secure your house’s future,” said one.
”My colleague will have to forgive me, but the aristocracy’s support cannot weather the army’s swords. The General commands the majority of the Taldan Phalanx and Horse,” said the other.
”And he would use it to scour our lands before setting sights on our neighbors. My Lord, do not listen to the bluster of warmongers. You know that the only path to peace is through the Princess.”
”Peace? She who openly threatens to upend all our traditions and make us subservient to women? Ply your rhetoric, my colleague, but do not lie to us. Are you so kowtowed by your squawking harpies that you do not believe we can retake the colonies? Baron Kustios, with your beasts leading the charge, no foe will stand in our way.”
”How can we rule the Inner Sea if we cannot govern our own affairs? No amount of…”
The two speakers (for the figure in the middle could hardly be said to be contributing) fell silent. They had noticed the new arrivals. ”Honorable lords; Baron Kustios,” Nero began, announcing the ifrit’s entrance as it behooved a proper nobleman, ”Lord Betony, survivor of the Exaltation Massacre.”
He had apparently been expected, Riveh noted. The baron must have been informed in advance. Now he stood under the scrutinizing gazes of… well, who were these two unexpected men? Persons of some standing, clearly. That much was obvious by their bearing and rich clothing. However, much as he wished to have the situation they walked in on clarified, his attention was more so drawn to the figure in the middle, the owner of the city and his host. Baron Kustios was old, far older than he had anticipated. Though his lordly robes were voluminous, they could not hide the skeletal hands still resting on the parapet of the box, nor the almost vulture-like neck protruding from them. On top of it was a head only halfway turned towards the new arrival; he was still following the rider below. The baron wasn’t so much wrinkled as was he was cragged. His sharp features had the aspect of layered leather, dried, tanned and scuffed over a century which might very well be near his true age. Nestled deep within these were blue pinpricks, intelligent if only cautiously interested in what they saw. Dry raisin that it was, the shock of white hair atop the Baron’s crown was all the more surprising. He looked a ruin, the vestige of something handsome, even heroic.
And he was chewing on a straw.
Riveh, to his surprise, actually found himself enjoying the somewhat stern, spartan city. After the empty glamor and glitz of Orappa, it was oddly relaxing to be in such a workman-like and serious city. It was clean, quiet and well-run. Not the worst example for a kingdom often labeled as decadent and crumbling, with the best years long gone. Perhaps there was hope for Taldor yet from the ravages of old age and decline?
The Hippodrome was...quite another matter. Riveh was, both literally and figuratively, swallowed up the huge structure. It wasn't so much that it was mind-boggingly large (Oppara had plenty of far larger buildings) but the scale in Prusa was quite different. It just seemed...out of place. And yet, at the same time, it did not.
It felt like history. Old and weathered, even the rather unpleasant smell had a legacy trailing after it. There was pride built right into the foundation blocks, ego was the veneer. A family tradition built into an actual standing structure. Not bad, even for Taldor which ran to such things. Riveh didn't know much about horses but he suddenly felt that Kustios stock was the finest on Golarion. What else would be worth such a place? (only a small part of his mind cynically remarked, that was probably the idea).
Such vague meanderings faded away as they entered the spectator box. The lone figure below, despite being at the center of the massive stage, was an afterthought. No, Riveh only had eyes and ears for the three men in front of him.
Councilors? Advisors? Local notables? Whoever they were, it was clear they were both divided and unable to sway their lord. Was it because of disinterest? A lack of respect? Or had the Baron already made up his mind? Still, it came Riveh a strange thrill to hear other discussing the princess, as some political force (for good or evil) and know he had spoken to her, had seen her as a person. The levers of power....
The Baron was nothing like Riveh had expected, although what had he expected? Another over glorified dandy? A dashing cavalryman? Probably. Something other then the hulk of a broken down man far past his prime. Maybe that was the answer to his lack of interest in the political debate? Sliding into his dotage? Yet the eyes....the eyes did no suggest that.
"Baron Kustios." Riveh says slightly loudly, voice weirdly amplified by the acoustics of the viewing box. "If I had known Prusa held such wonders I would have traveled here much sooner." Slightly informal maybe but the hay sticking out of the man's mouth....
"It is an honor to meet you, Lord Baron, as well as to view your fine estate." A slight wave to encompass...well, everything. "I trust we have not interrupted? I forgive the lateness of the hour and lack of announcement, we only just arrived in your fair city."
The ifrit turns to slightly, "Allow me to introduce the others. This Sir Stig of Stillhall, and Lady Trant, daughter of the esteemed Senator Trant." Better then the bitter old man deserved, by far.
"Oh, and Factor-12, a servant." he added offhandedly, knowing it would bug the machine.
Rive feel silent, either giving Trant a chance to speak on her own behalf (or Stig, not that it was likely) or to allow the Baron to reply. If he would....
How was it Martella had put it? That she wanted to employ him for his "Geminus charm"? Whether the spymistress had been true or false in this instance, Riveh certainly subscribed to discretion being the better part of valor and went to work.
Happily, his charms seemed well received. The young man's praise for the baron and his city elicited respectful bows in greeting from the two men - so like in their aspect; courtiers of some description, Riveh was sure of it - while the lord mayor... Well, frankly, it still took him another few seconds to sway his sunken eyes from the solitary showman below. Still, he had the baron's attention. And his acknowledgement.
"Well, thank you," the venerable lord crowed in a voice made harsh not by its tone, but rather the slow decay of the organs producing it. The man did not sound well. Not feeble, merely defiant of death. "That's mighty kind."
A simple reply to his own informal greeting. Was the ifrit to take this as a sign of the baron's character? He did detect hints of a rural drawl in his accent... Or was the nobleman merely responding in kind? Riveh knew that he and his were certainly being appraised. The blue pinpricks, nestled deep in their beds of lined leather, didn't seem judgmental exactly, but somewhere behind them all four arrivals were surely being gauged.
"Lord Betony," he sounded again, speaking not so much through phlegm as if a wad of sandpaper was lodged in his throat. "Taldaris take me, are the lords getting younger or am I getting older? Don't answer that. I know all too well. Still..."
The hay straw bobbed about the cleanshaven face before the baron settled into another bout of assessing silence. "You'll have to forgive me,", he went on, not particularly apologetically. "You and your little entourage are of course welcome here, I've beds to spare. And no, you aren't interrupting anything. Nothing important."
The barb in the comment, all the rougher for its bluntness, was as obvious as the stars above them. The two aides appeared less than pleased, though they at least did a better job at hiding their disappointment. "But you're right. It is late. Gentlemen," he said, addressing the two, "forgive this old man and let us conclude these conversations for now, yeah? I'm sure even you get tired of talking. I know I am."
"Go on back to the manor house. We'll resume this tomorrow. No, I'll follow," he insisted glibly as one made to help him walk. "Honest, I'll be right behind you. Just going to say goodnight to these young people and maybe watch the end of my grand nephew's run. Go on now."
Dejected, disappointed, maybe even defeated, the two courtiers did as they likely felt they had to and left, though not before giving Riveh another respectful bow in passing. "An honor to meet you, Lord Betony," one said, deep brown curls cascading before his broad face. "My deepest sympathies and admiration for your trials in the capital."
And with that they were gone. Difficult as it was to read, the ifrit saw some relief in the baron's weather-beaten face at this, cragged surface growing just a tad smoother.
"Allow me to introduce the others. This Sir Stig of Stillhall, and Lady Trant, daughter of the esteemed Senator Trant."
The features sank back into their furrows. Riveh had traveled with the Dame long enough to see that it was quite impossible for her to go anonymous. Her singular stature drew gazes if not outright stares wherever she went, few of them kind. They weren't unlike in that regard. Baron Kustios had at the very least restrained his reaction to a slight raising of a white eyebrow, but now he took on a significantly more critical aspect, looking the part of old curmudgeon.
"... Your father - is he well?"
"He... Yes, your Lordship." Her eye flickered towards the ifrit. "He is hard at work ensuring our house's future."
"... Good. That's good. I'd heard conflicting reports from the capital."
Although his displeasure might just be disapproval of an unwed woman of standing gallivanting around the country with a young man. That was entirely inappropriate.
The confrontation - for so it felt like - didn't last long, the baron himself breaking his glare to turn a softer look back to the arena's sole rider, just now clearing a hurdle with some elegance. "Do you care for horses, Lord Betony?" he coughed. "Or perhaps just willing to indulge me? Because I'd like to see this routine finished before retiring for the night. You can tell me how you came to be Lord of Meratt and... how your journey fares."
So Kustios knew Meratt by name? That wasn't true for all noblefolk.
Riveh was not sure what he had expected but Baron Kustios, so far, was not quite it. The man seemed oddly...rustic. The voice, the mannerisms, the interests all bespoke of a very different way of life then the urban elites Riveh had just been hobnobbing with in Oppara. This was not a man who ate spiders at his dinner parties.
Riveh does his best to give a polite nod to the dismissed courtiers. Not enough to compromise his noble bearing, but some acknowledgment. Politics may play a larger role here then one might expect, and it would do not good to burn bridges before they are even surveyed.
Sense Motive, dare I hope?: 1d20 + 3 ⇒ (8) + 3 = 11
The ifrit watches the careful exchange between the Baron and Trant without quite understanding. The man seemed to hesitate slightly before giving his respects. Maybe the man didn't care for the Elder Trant? A good sign, if anything.
"Alas, I am not very familiar with the finer details." Riveh says when asked about his equine knowledge. "Certainly no experience with anything approaching the quality of your stock, Baron. I would not mind at in the slightest, your stud lines are legendary after all." Riveh peers over over the great green expanse, a faint whiff of the greenery reaching his nose.
"Your grand nephew, you say? He rides well, from what I can see." That should be polite enough, yes?
When the Baron gently probes for information, Riveh mentally girds himself, as if he was entering an arena. He chuckles then, looking around at the vast amphitheater that swelled around him. A fitting venue for his first real foray as a noble.
"Through the usual way, Baron. The death of a relative and the slow work of our patient scholars in the capital. I am the closest relative of old Lady Aliss Betony, who passed away some time ago. I must confess, I thought I was further away on the family tree. The notice was a bit of a shock. I was in Oppara, reviewing the land records and such when....well, the troubles struck. Horrible." No lie there. Blood on the marble, knives in the dark....
"The journey went well except for bandits just outside the town, I am afraid. The local official seemed to indicate they are a known problem?" Riveh asked, hoping he didn't sound too aggressive in questioning the Baron's job to protect the roads. "We were lucky to escape without any permeant damage, although my driver was severely wounded."
Riveh's praise of the horse lord's horses was met with a phlegmy grumble somewhere within the patriarch's thin throat. Neither acknowledging or displeased, the grunt had all the commitment of a succubus. He didn't even turn to look at his young guest. Was this how those two courtiers had felt earlier? Either Kustios had dismissed him entirely at the first mention of not being an equestrian, or he didn't care for flattery.
That, or perhaps he really was just that taken with the rider's performance. The ifrit considered the roving eyes, squinting out behind deep furrows less crow's feet than nests. He thought he looked just a bit... doubtful, though why this should be, he couldn't say. Below them, the rider was completing the course with aplomb, or so it appeared to his - admittedly untrained - eye. The course was lit with torches at every hurdle, every one of which he cleared deftly. Striding smoothly in and out of the darkness from these pockets of light, the illumination was such that man and beast were little more than shadow themselves. In fact, such was the effect of light, darkness and sheer speed, that they would blend into some alarming amalgamation, a chimera only the most depraved of arcanists would dare imagine. Perhaps this impression should be credited to some superior skill of man or mount. To ride like one was an extension of the other was impressive. And still the baron seemed skeptical.
Then again, maybe Riveh just wasn't reading him right. Reading that weather-beaten face was not unlike interpreting shoe leather. Well, if that was where his interest lay...
"Your grand nephew, you say? He rides well, from what I can see."
"Great grandnephew, as it happens," the old man now clarified, tearing his gaze away from the green long enough to regard the ifrit. "But that's an awful mouthful, so I avoid it. But then that follows. Everything's a hassle when you reach my age."
Riveh had trouble discerning whether Kustios meant this ironically or factually.
"The grandnephew was his father, of course." Was? "And yeah. He rides well."
And yet that doubtful expression remained. Clearly there was something here - whether on the court or in the baron's mind - that the ifrit wasn't privy to. Happily this stony demeanor was not to last. A chuckle, labored and strained, coughed its way through the straw in his mouth. It was not the laughter of a healthy man, but was made all the more benign by its struggle. Like seeing candlelight through the cracks of a decrepit house, it was heartening to know that life remained in this ruin.
Curiously, it arose at Riveh's mention of how be came to be a lord of Meratt. "Heh. The last living relation of Lady Aliss, huh? Well, I won't hold it against you." Oh? Had Baron Kustios known the previous Betony matriarch?
"Oh no no. Now, don't misunderstand," he went on. "Near as I know, Aliss Betony never hurt a fly. Not without paying for its funeral, anyway. That said... You never met her, did you?" The young heir could only affirm that he had never been afforded the pleasure, no. "You wouldn't know then. Doesn't matter. It's just that the old girl was madder than a court of fey. Always was. Some of the things she'd spout. Honestly, I've driven out goblins more coherent than her."
Although seemingly damning, this verdict was delivered with a clear fondness, the centenarian's harsh features softening as if the flesh followed the mind into decades past. "Good looking woman in her time, though. Good looking woman." Riveh supposed that she must have been if she could leave a smile like that on an admirer's face so long after her passing.
"Pardon. I shouldn't be speaking ill of the dead. Especially as I'll be joining them soon enough."
As if to punctuate this dire portend, Kustios cleared his throat and in doing so produced a sound not unlike the unloading of gravel. It was almost enough to make one flinch. Even so, the lord of Prusa didn't seem unhealthy, exactly. To Riveh's eye, he was, if anything, far fitter in both body and spirit than most his age. But there was no outrunning time. Not even with a Kustios horse.
The shift in mood saw the smile - along with its host of furrows - fade, especially at the mention of the Exaltation Massacre. "Yeah. Horrible."
My, but if fiends looked half as grim, no one would dare pass death's door. "I was advised not to attend. There were concerns I wouldn't survive the journey. Now... Hmph. If this is what they call irony, I don't appreciate it. Fate has a rotten sense of humor." What was that supposed to mean? "I shouldn't ask, but... I gather that there aren't many Betonies left. Did you lose anyone in Oppara?"
The question saw the baron turning away again to observe the rider, now finishing his course. He looked less a mere sport spectator, however, than a weathered part of his great colosseum, cracked and cast in marble like the rest of the architecture. Something weighed on the old man.
"The journey went well except for bandits just outside the town, I am afraid. The local official seemed to indicate they are a known problem?"
"A known problem. Yeah."
And that was all Kustios had to say on that. Once again Riveh got the impression that he was speaking to a statue. Strange. Just as with the courtiers, it was as if there were topics the man refused to engage with, stonewalling them. The highwaymen were apparently another such topic.
Stranger still that he, after a moment's pause, asked: "This driver of yours - is he alright?"
Most of the byplay about Lady Aliss Betony goes over his head and judging by Kustios' internal, inward smile, it wasn't much meant for him anyway. The remark about his supposed relative being entirely mad was interesting though and probably useful. It meant few people might ask about his supposed connection, and facts would be in dispute anyway.
Hopefully any supposed romantic connection between Lady Aliss Betony and Baron Kustios would be.....un-explored.
Riveh's mind is quickly changed when the ancient seeming man near him asks about the Massacre. Had he lost anyone?
"A friend.." Riveh says, surprised that even already Kalbio's face is dim and vague in his mind's eye. He had not known the gifted weaver long and so much had happened since then....the cold terror of the Mad Emperor's face is still clear as crystal. "Just...a friend."
He shook his head to clear away the memory. In passing he notes the reference to the bandits. Clearly a sore sport with the old man, or something he is tried of discussing. One of the privledges of lordship, the ifrit supposes. No one can force you to talk about anything. Probably not a lesser benefit either.
Riveh is surprised when the Baron asks about the driver. Most nobles wouldn't have bothered to care, let alone ask. Then again, he was attacked by bandits on a local road. In a sense, it is Kustios's responsibilty, not that Riveh (or anyone else) would be so crass as to put it that way.
"I have some skill with minor magics." Riveh says carefully, "I was able to heal him before the damage became irreversible. Still, it was a nasty injury. " A pause and then, to fill the space Riveh says.
"As I stated, I have never been to Prusa before. So I confess my curiosity. The land around us is generally flat and tree-less, except for that other hill in town. It seems entirely wood covered. What is it? Some sort of communal woodlot? A druidic gathering place of some kind?" Riveh wonders if he sounds hopelessly romantic at the last suggestion. Still, it seemed a safe topic of conversation, for a Baron to discuss his city?
The eyes being the windows to the soul was a common enough idea, and one that held some truth at that. Of course, its premise accordingly supposed that people were like houses. But the baron was swiftly proving himself less than common, and his countenance was no house, but a fortress. His hide was weathered like castle brick, his hue beaten like a wooden palisade, and, naturally enough, his eyes were no windows; they were arrow slits, wary, unknowable and - perhaps - hiding some lethality, past or present.
So it was heartening that Riveh thought he saw a flicker of sympathy within the deep-set eyes at the mention of loss.
"My condolences," the centenarian nodded after a moment's pause. "Awful thing; seeing the young die before they get the chance to live."
"It gets easier."
Who but the lowlife knight? Stig's callous comment was only made worse by a distasteful clearing of the throat with accompanying spit. Or rather, beneath the disapproving gazes drawn, he caught himself and chose to refrain, instead swallowing whatever foul matter he had dredged up from the curse engine he called a gullet. This wasn't much preferable as sights went. He looked annoyed. Trant looked ready to smack him.
"Reins never get lighter, Sir." Kustios did not sound offended, however. "Hands just get more calloused."
No, his low crowing merely carried some measure of curiosity at the insensibility displayed, although Riveh was near enough the lord to notice the white brow, already so heavy with age, sink just a bit further: he definitely did not approve. Perhaps a change in topic was prudent.
"I have some skill with minor magics." Riveh says carefully, "I was able to heal him before the damage became irreversible. Still, it was a nasty injury. "
"Good. That's good then."
Their host's gaze did not stop at the ifrit in its ponderous journey from Stig back to the sparsely lit arena. The young Geminus had some trouble discerning whether his reassurance as to Silas's health truly meant anything to the baron; he seemed to be withdrawing inside himself again. He supposed the question was whether he did so because the present company bored him, or because something really very pressing demanded his attention within the venerable mind.
Still, at least he had thought to ask? Riveh decided that he might as well ask a question of his own. A certain city feature had piqued his interest.
And just like that, he had managed to draw the patriarch back out. He looked to him now with the muted puzzlement, almost alarm, which was all his ossified features allowed, as if... well, as if the ifrit was about to explain to him the latest fads among the youngins, something divorced from him by generations. Then he smirked. The straw bobbed playfully at the motion.
"Heh. You'll have to excuse me. I forget the fancies of the young. Druids, huh? No, there are no druids in Forest Hill." Kustios shifted, settling against the marble parapet of their spectator box.
"Do you know your history, Lord Betony? I wasn't much for books at your age, but once a man passes a certain decade, I think he starts living more in the past than the present. Anyway... They tell me that there was a time, somewhere back far enough dates lose all meaning, when the Tandak Plains were all forest. When the Verduran reached all the way from the Five Kings to Star Bay. You're fresh off the plains now; hard to believe, isn't it?"
That Verduran Forest once covered practically all of Taldor? Yes, this was difficult to fathom. During the past three days, Riveh had spied no vegetation on the open plains taller than a reed. The Grass Ocean had certainly earned its moniker.
"Empire building is intensive work, I suppose. All those Great Armies of Exploration weren't crossing no oceans in reed boats." That wasn't condemnation heard creaking in the old man's voice. Not exactly. But there was certainly something questioning. "Once chopped down, the forest left behind good soil. Except that too was worked hard - land was drained for all its power. And so, over centuries, the settlements moved farther and farther north chasing the shrinking forest edge and farmland. That's how I'm told the plains came to be, and while they might not be good for much, they're good horse land. The herds moved in as people left. They say my kind have done a decent job rearing them ever since."
This last simple statement set the ifrit's eye to rove the Hippodrome's interior, this superstructure, an institute and shrine to everything equine. He hadn't noticed before, but the support struts holding their box were the marble horns of full-sized unicorns rearing below. Yes, he supposed that the Kustios had done rather well at this whole horse business.
"Anyhow, Forest Hill is a remnant of those ancient woods. Some forefather of mine - so far back I can't be bothered to remember who - preserved it. Made it a little, I don't know, nature reserve. Probably had more sentiment than sense. Lumber is precious in these parts." Kustios coughed. "There'll be no logging there, though. It's the only forest you'll see before you reach your own Meratt, and a public park now. Though I should think you're more likely to find any greenbeards there. You're practically neighbors."
"Addendum:" piped Factor-12 suddenly. "The Treaty of the Wildwood established in 3841 Absalom Reckoning opened cooperation between the druids of Verduran Forest and your empire of Taldor after centuries of skirmishes between the two."
The baron, undaunted but clearly less than comfortable with the mechanized outsider, gave it an acknowledging nod. Right, Riveh reckoned: Meratt bordered the, apparently much diminished yet still massive, Verduran Forest. He wondered briefly whether his politicking there would extend beyond the local aristocracy.
His attention was brought back to the here and now by the venerable lord, quite abruptly waving or motioning at the green with a vigor belying his age. Oh, the rider had finished the obstacle course. The ifrit could see him far below, just barely outlined by a torch and looking to them, seemingly waiting for instructions. Was Kustios signaling him? "Well then!"
Somehow Riveh immediately recognized the new tone in the man's voice. It was the polite firmness of a host whose guests had just overstayed their welcome. "It's late and you've had a long day on the road. Chief engineer." Behind them, Nero snapped to attention. "Lead my young guests to the manor house, yeah? The help will set them up. Sir Stig, Dame Trant and your Lordship Betony, a pleasure meeting you all. I will see you off in the morning."
"My lord?" Nero pondered after a moment's hesitation. "Are you not retiring for the evening?"
"No, I've some business to see to."
Offhanded as the remark was, the baron saw that it awoke some alarm only too late. Even shackled by station and propriety, the chief engineer appeared just a bit worried. Riveh's companions looked similarly dubious. Was it entirely... right to leave an old man in these dark halls, good health be damned? Kustios recognized the concern momentarily. "I'll be just fine," he chuckled. "I don't intend to climb any stairs on my lonesome. My nephew will be with me in just a minute. Go on now, git."
Well, this was rather sudden.
As a Taldane (at least my upraising if not wholly by heritage) Riveh had an innate respect for old lore, ancient books and even elderly people. So the young ifrit didn't entirely dismiss Baron Kustios claims but it was hard to believe. This had all once been a mighty forest? The endless undulating plains had been stripped and transformed by mere Men? Riveh privately doubted but saw no purpose in arguing with the Baron about his own lands.
Besides, maybe he was right.
Riveh was slightly disappointed that the forested hill was only a mere park, a relic of some other age instead of a sacred shrine or something. Might have been worth a visit in that case but just some old trees? He had seen plenty of those in his life.
Then, rather abruptly, they were summarily dismissed. The portcullis of the man's face and mind dropped against them, servants hastening to bustle them away. Clearly the old Baron wished to be alone (or as near alone as such a noble got). But Riveh was not so easily sent about.
It was a fine clear night, warm for early spring. Despite the fires lit to light the massive arena, the sky was dark above them, velvet blackness dotted with stars. For the first time in quite awhile the young ifrit turned his eyes skyward, searching out the patterns.
Stargazer: 1d20 + 7 ⇒ (10) + 7 = 17
"Akiton is bright tonight." Riveh says, ignoring the obviously impatient Engineer. "Some would say that portents war and struggle." He pauses, then shrugs, "Hardly takes a mystic to guess that, I suppose." Riveh looks again at the rearing horses around them, part of strong pillars, woven into friezes, worked into the very stone floors.
"A good time to be a Horse Lord." Then Riveh bows, "Goodnight, m'lord. May you sleep well. I am sure I speak for all my companions when I say, we appreciate your courtesy. "
"Lead on Engineer Nero." Riveh tells the man, nodding slightly.
Though his eyes remained fixed on the red glint that was distant Akiton, Riveh felt every other eye present focus on something more terrestrial, namely himself. Astrology was a very particular pursuit, of course, normally the purview of the most scholarly of scholars or maddest of madmen, two groups that, if rumors held true, were known to overlap at that. Small wonder then that everyone present was just a bit taken aback at Lord Betony's rare expertise.
All except the baron who him gave him an acknowledging, if bemused, nod. The man had just spoken of the departed Betony matriarch's eccentricities, and in his mind, this merely confirmed the budding lord's relation to old Aliss. Madder than a court of fey, indeed.
Not that he seemed to hold this against the young man. Kustios was very near ancient and must have seen a great deal of noblefolk rise and fall in his time; hereditary oddities were surely familiar to him. This appeared the case as he amicably returned Riveh's adieux with a mild smile of his own.
Right until he didn't.
"A good time to be a Horse Lord."
The lines about the mouth grew more pronounced, the smile strained. "Yeah. Good time."
Pleasantries exchanged, Nero stood ready to lead his charges to their well earned rest. Left behind was the venerable lord, his bent back turned towards them. From a distance, he really appeared what he truly was: a figure from a different time, weathered, cragged and blending in with the rest of the tarnished majesty of the Hippodrome. And just as weighty, skeletal frame be damned. This was the last impression afforded the ifrit before following the chief engineer.
He was reacquainted with the horse lord's aspect surprisingly quickly.
"Oh! Good evening, sir!"
Bounding up the stairs in leaps, a youth nearly with the group descending them. "No no, forgive me, my lord Marcus! It is I who should have stepped aside."
Nero was ever quick to abase himself before his betters, even one as young as this one. The child - for in truth he was little more - was dressed in full riding gear, and tall for his age; to Riveh's eye he couldn't possibly be more than fifteen, yet he stood nearly his own height. The bloom of childhood was still evident in his face, rounded cheeks and all, but the nose - that sharp profile was surely inherited from Baron Kustios.
At the moment, the boy didn't look nearly so shrewd, however. "Uhm..." Thick brown ringlets waved to and fro as he looked from these unknown visitors and back up the stairs, awkward and clearly conflicted. Did decorum demand he greet them properly or did his patriarch's wishes come first? "E-excuse me! Good night!" He chose the latter, bolting up the steps before another word could be shared.
The chief engineer managed to wish his next liege a good night before turning to the ifrit. "If you permit, I apologize on the young lord's behalf, Lord Betony," he said with all due deference. "He is young. But he will learn."
So he probably would. An aristocrat's education was thorough as anything. But had that been a singular straw Riveh spied in the junior Kustios's hand?
"What're the odds the beds here are half as f*ckin' hoighty-toighty as the gods damned stables? F*ck me..."
It was testament to how long their day had been that even Stig's tirade felt tired. They stood before Kustios manor, a large but surprisingly homely affair all in wood. The warm light from within promised warmer beds and no doubt a late meal if one so desired. The chief engineer had left them at the doorstep, citing overdue duties, though not before gifting them wishes of a good night and promises of what a great honor meeting them had been. A trooper through and through.
The ifrit was approaching the front door, himself hoping that their rest for the night matched the extravagance enjoyed by the Kustios horses when he heard Malphene's voice behind him.
"What is that?"
The simple query was voice to the woman's bewilderment, a state Riveh soon shared with her. Trant was looking back towards the marble edifice of the Hippodrome. There they saw... flashes. Bright flashes. The whole building had been darkened during their visit, only lit with the odd torch where tenders milled about. Now, however, there were bursts of wholly unnatural light, light that shouldn't be possible in the dead of night. Not without magic, certainly. These flashes were so sudden and strong that he half expected to hear the rumble of thunder next, it following lightning, but all was still. This was no thunderstorm, never mind the fact that it was clearly localized within the structure. A particularly strong flash followed, briefly shearing radiant rays into the dark sky above before that dome was whole again.
Beside him Stig grimaced in puzzlement. Factor-12 clicked and whirred as the glints reflected of its eye lens. Neither had any answer. What in Aroden's name was that?
Sense Motive: 1d20 + 3 ⇒ (19) + 3 = 22
Wait, what? I can click a spoiler!? I'm not even sure how.
Riveh almost missed the old man's hidden anxiety at his rather casual remark. The ifrit had thrown it out mostly as a pleasantry (although he still had a vague vision of Martella's and the Princesses face if he somehow brought Baron Kustios into the fold). But clearly something about it was nagging the elderly man. Concern for the upcoming violence? Regrets about choices already made?
Or just an old man whose joints were hurting him in the night?
They passed Lord Marcus on the stairs, the youth nearly bounding past them. Whatever else, at least this member of the Kustios family seemed to look forward to meeting patriarch. A good sign probably. I doubt Trant's face ever held such a smile, even a child, for an audience with her father.
Later, Riveh stares out into the dark where strange lights had been flashing. What could it be? Magic obviously. The ifrit instantly thought of danger, but checked himself. Not necessarily. For all they knew, this was a regular event on the Kustios estate. Could the Baron (or young Marcus) have magical abilities? Riveh himself could, if he desired put on a light show , if not quite so impressive. Yet, still, it seemed unwise to just shrug and go back to bed.
"I...I have no idea." Riveh answers honestly, as the silent flashes leap and dance. "But maybe we should find out. I'll be back, stay here."
Alone Riveh leaves the lodge-like building and heads outside, the warm night playing on his face. The grass is slightly dewy, well-tended here. Above the stars shine like scattered jewels, slightly colored, but Riveh had no eyes for them now. Instead he sought out a guard and would ask about the lights.
A mystery had presented itself and being the curious sort, Riveh wanted it solved. Finding someone to ask seemed the most sensible, speedy, not to mention straightforward solution. Sadly, his companions rather disagreed with his suggestion to simply hail a guard for that purpose. Specifically, they didn't appreciate him going off on his own.
"What? Absolutely not!"
"Negatory: The Master's safety is my first and three quarter priority."
"I wouldn't trust you to pop down the local pub without tripping on your own sword, you pissant."
It took another full minute to assure them that he wasn't exactly going far; while the estate grounds were fairly large, they had seen perimeter watchmen themselves just earlier when first entering. This would only take him a minute. And indeed, it wasn't long before he spotted one.
Once away from the glow of the manor house, the ifrit's long steps progressed from the gravel crunch of the footpaths to the muffled thuds of recently shorn grass. He was jogging towards one of the outbuildings, no doubt a servants' quarters. More particularly, he guessed at it being the guards' quarters as his supernatural sight had caught a man dressed as such leaving it just now. Here was someone to provide him with answers.
"Milord?" the watchman asked, somewhat taken aback. "May I help you?"
He was a young man, not much older than Riveh, solidly built in body and anxious to please in mind. Nevertheless, the ifrit noted a clear discomfort come upon him at the question of the lights.
"The... the lights?" Their gazes both flickered towards the Hippodrome. The silent flashes there continued, strong as ever, albeit with less frequency. If there was a pattern to them, he couldn't discern it. "Well, uh, those are preparations for the big celebration. It's the Baron's 100th birthday next year. I understand they are preparing a light show of sorts."
Bluff: 1d20 - 1 - 5 ⇒ (15) - 1 - 5 = 9
Sense Motive: 1d20 + 3 ⇒ (10) + 3 = 13
A light show? Really, that was the best the guard could up with it.
"Indeed." Riveh said evenly, still looking toward the silent cascade of lights. The searing white made the edges of things leap into sharp view, strobing the entire landscape. Trees, walls, even people seemed to leap into being with a flash, only to vanish into utter darkness the next.
Still, even while lying (badly) the guard gave Riveh some useful information. Clearly this wasn't an unknown occurrence, the guard wasn't worried. It was not an attack or strange arcane cataclysm. It was something seen before. Baron Kustios's own eccentricity?
He was of half a mind to simply go back to bed. It was none of his business and if the hired watchman wasn't worried, it probably wasn't actually dangerous (at least in general). A man was allowed to have private amusements, even if they included summoning up silent thunderstorms.
At the same time, he was curious of course. Just what was going on over there? Just because a servant was accustomed to something did not make it good. A noble who savagely beat a man every night could be acceptable in some circles but probably something a guest would wish to know of their host. Visions of insane divine rituals ran through Riveh's mind, tavern tales of cults and preverse worship. Honestly though, it was hard to imagine the elderly aristocrat up to some evil purpose.
It was mostly just plain curiosity plus a nagging concern that perhaps this would give him an angle to leverage the Baron regarding the war. Perhaps this 'light show' was relevant in some way? Connected to the old man's semi-hidden concern?
Sneaking around held appeal but if he was caught....losing the respect of the old man was the least of his problems. They were in the Baron's own domain here. Gods only knew what might happen. Alas, better not risk it.
"Thank you by good man." Riveh said easily, "Nice night out, eh? I suppose I better head back inside and leave the party planners to their work?"
"Quite, milord! Quite," came the halting reply, though whether the simple guard was stumbling over an unfamiliarity with speaking to his supposed betters, or the prospect of lying to them, Riveh couldn't say. A bit of both, he suspected. Regardless, the man didn't appear alarmed at the 'light show'. What was he to conclude from this? Perhaps nothing more than that he was free to rest his travel-weary body; whatever was going on at the arena, it wasn't likely to end the nation tonight. Going poking about in the night and getting caught, however; that was entirely likely to see him barred from that warm bed graciously offered by their host.
It was this faultless logic that saw the young Geminus make his way back to the manor house and the cradle within that called to him as surely as any siren.
*knock knock knock*
Now if only he was actually allowed some sleep. Riveh hadn't gotten so far as to dive beneath the thick duvets of his comfortable guest room. He was standing by the window, eyeing a now decidedly unlit Hippodrome. Whatever the nature of those most coruscating lights, they hadn't lasted long. He couldn't see the equine edifice as anything more than a dark dome against the darker night sky. Nothing stirred now.
As well nothing should at this late hour. So who was at his door?
*knock knock knock* "Hello?"
This seemed one mystery willing to solve itself. From behind the wooden door (carved with yet more equestrian imagery, as it happened), a voice was heard in that most oxymoronic of inflections, the whisper-shout. "Beg your pardon, my lord Betony, but are you still up?" The speaker was apologetic and just a bit awkward, clearly aware of the inherent paradox of his mission: ascertaining whether a man was awake whilst risking waking him.
"This is Ernst Manigold, we spoke briefly when you were introduced to Baron Kustios."
Who? Riveh was quite sure he didn't recognize this name. And for that matter, the only people present when they first met the baron were... Hold on, was this one of those courtiers from earlier? The ones who had tried to sway the old man with all the success of a fart felling a redwood? He supposed it must be. But even as he deduced this much about his nightly caller, the ifrit heard soft footsteps from behind the door, growing fainter. This Manigold must have concluded that he was asleep.
Well, it was nice of him to allow him his rest.
For a long moment Riveh pauses and looks at the large, rather comfortable looking bed. It would be so easy to walk over to it, fall down, and go to sleep. After all, it had been quite a day. Traveling, fighting bandits, a ride through town, the strange 'interview' with Baron Kustios, not to mention a mysterious (and unsettling) 'light show'. Hadn't he earned some sleep?
A sole candle, lit by some servant, set a warm and tempting glow. Shadows danced on the walls, reminding Riveh of horses cantering across dream-like plains, tumbling off into unknown regions.
Horses? Gods, this place really was getting to him.
But no, he couldn't sleep. Not if Ernst Manigold was about. This could be important. So, with a distinct effort of will, Riveh moved quickly toward the door and opened it.
Hissing toward the retreating courtier. "Master Manigold? I am awake." Riveh only takes one step into the hallway however, not wishing to actually run the man down. It would be unbecoming of a noble to actually chase after such an underling.
Unless he has to, of course.
The courtier was all a whirl of deep brown curls as he turned back at the young lord's call. Riveh briefly had to wonder whether anyone with such a coiffure could afford nightly liaisons; surely there were some hair irons anxiously waiting for him in his own quarters. But evidently this - whatever this was - took precedence as the man shuffled up to him as quickly as propriety and the late hour allowed.
"Ah, a thousand pardons for intruding at this late hour, my lord. I am glad to see I did not wake you."
At this latter comment, he made a brief nod with his clean-shaven chin towards the ifrit's clothes. Yes, he hadn't gotten so far as to change into nightwear yet. Neither had the courtier for that matter. His broad frame was richly appointed, though Riveh had by now gotten enough practice amongst the aristocracy to recognize his fashion as almost strategically well-dressed: frilly enough to mark him as a man of standing, but not so opulent as to compete with his betters. Whatever did this Manigold want with him, especially at this hour?
"Ehm, may I?" he muttered, looking past the Geminus into the room.
Right, why stand here whispering like two smugglers over a crate of flayleaf? They could speak more freely behind closed doors. It was with this in mind that the ifrit stepped back, allowing his caller to enter. Misgivings aside, this way he could at least figure out what this was all about that much quicker. And in the unlikely event this should be an assassination attempt (gods only know why), then - well, Manigold was a stout fellow in the prime of his life, but he frankly looked like he'd never seen anything more bloody than a medium-rare steak.
Not like Riveh.
"Thank you so very much for this late audience, Lord Betony," he began, now unhindered voice practiced and good-humored. And trimmed with a capital accent unless Riveh was much mistaken. "You are gracious. But I shan't delay you your rest! My duties merely demand I introduce myself at the earliest opportunity."
Introduce himself? This courtier had interrupted his sleep simply to introduce himself? How did that serve Baron Kustios whom he had already spoken to?
"I am Ernst Manigold, envoy to Prusa on behalf of her Majesty, Princess Eutropia Stavian, rightful heir to the Lion Throne. If there is anything at all I can do for you during your stay here, please do not hesitate to call upon me."
He... Ah. Apparently the courtier was no courtier at all. At least, not in Kustios's court.
"her Majesty, Princess Eutropia Stavian, rightful heir to the Lion Throne. "
Sense Motive: 1d20 + 3 ⇒ (13) + 3 = 16
Several things fall into place for Riveh as he ponders those words. The furtive sneaking, the obvious nervousness, the general evasions. This man is a political agent. The scene at the amphitheater makes more sense. It wasn't the Baron dismissing two courtier aides but instead a meeting between a local noble and two outside emissaries...
"And your counterpoint, the one I met in passing before, he works for..." The other side, obviously.
"You travel fast, then." Riveh says, returning to Ernst and looking at him carefully. "You say you represent the Princess and rightful ruler? Yet the Massacre only happened recently and I spent most of it traveling here. The Princess must have dispatched you most promptly. Is Prusa that key of a post?"
Riveh holds back his own questions, concerned that Ernst Manigold might not be what he appears. In fact he may not be an agent for the Princess at all. Surely the Mad Emperor (or more likely, the military junta) has agents aboard? Could this be some way to smoke out Riveh's allegiances? Concern for possible rivals?
"And your counterpoint, the one I met in passing before, he works for..."
Like a disturbed bed sheet, a new crease appeared between the envoy's eyes at the mention of his 'colleague'. Or so Riveh thought. These things were a bit hard to see by the soft light of the room's oil lamp. Perhaps Riveh just had sleep on his mind. Oh, the joys of a fresh bed sheet.
"You are astute, my lord," Manigold replied through a forlorn smile. "That would be Sir Varinazzo, and yes, he does indeed represent the High Strategos. He is here... Well, we are both here attending the same function, though for opposing purposes: trying to sway the baron to our respective causes."
'Without much luck,' was the sound of the following silence. The phrase needn't be said. Though the man attempted to maintain a practiced cheer, there was no mistaking the stink of professional failure in the air about him. Heck, Riveh had seen the two at work for that matter. Their goading had splintered against the old baron like so many enemy spears against a stone fortress.
But what of this emissary business? Had this Manigold been stationed here at the time of the Massacre? "Oh, no, my lord," he clarified. "I arrived here but two days ago at our Princess's behest. I'm afraid my... rival has one over me on this account; he is practically a local in Prusa. But I remain confident that Baron Kustios will see reason and support our one and true Empress."
Not even the diplomat's trained good-humor could make this statement sound convincing. The ifrit wasn't unfamiliar with that breed of stubborn old-timers who weren't easily persuaded of anything, and Kustios was very old indeed. He was fairly sure Manigold knew this just as well.
Still though. Did this mean that that every noble house of note was - or was about to - playing host to envoys from the General and Princess? Were they both courting supporters to their cause? Martella had said something about 'consolidating forces', that the war hadn't broken out into fighting just yet. Either both sides were still recruiting allies, or they were willing to expend some resources in convincing them amicably before harsher methods were needed. This storm was still gathering.
Was Prusa one such key ally? "I admit it likely won't be what secures the throne, Lord Betony," the man went on, seemingly eager to defend his post. "But the able horsemen the Baron could provide from Prusa and neighboring ranches is not insignificant. To say nothing of the horses themselves! You will agree that there is power in a name, my lord, and among equestrians there is no name more prolific than Kustios. Whoever commands a horse fit for a king appears all the more kingly. Or queenly as it happens... Of course the ruler of the greatest nation on earth should settle for no less than the greatest horses on earth! Why, I happen to know that the General himself rides a Kustios stallion. To snatch the baron away from him... Oh, it would be a great moral victory, a feather in the Princess's cap. To say nothing of the General's corresponding loss of face!"
Manigold appeared visibly exited at this prospect, even a bit nervous, as if daring to slight Maxillar Pyhtareus could summon the war hero to him, greatsword first. But certainly appearances mattered, nowhere more so than in Taldor, and one key ally could conceivably entice others to join the fold.
Which was probably why the stout man deflated somewhat from his excitement the next second with the somber reality that he was yet to persuade the baron one way or the other. And yet the cheer quickly slipped back onto his features like the well-worn garment it was. "I won't be so crass as to question you for your own preferences on the matter, my lord, but I trust you agree that the Princess will make a fine regent."
The pleasant eyes that regarded Riveh appeared just a bit too eager for his reply.
Know. Nobility: 1d20 + 5 ⇒ (11) + 5 = 16
Well, at least Master Manigold was laying it out plainly enough. For a supposed agent of an embattled political faction during a time of barely concealed war, he was very forthright. Maybe a bit too much so?
Still, Riveh remains silent as Ernst not outlines his task but also information of his rival, this 'Sir Varinazzo'. Clearly higher rank then humble Manigold here. Higher rank then his own pretended Betony title perhaps? Then again, Stig was considered 'Sir' by polite society and he picked his teeth with a dagger, so perhaps it meant less then one might suspect.
The stout man goes on to explain the obvious fact that Baron Kustios would be a valuable ally. Riveh had already considered most of this, the valuable horses, the strategic location, the fact that Kustios would probably sway other, lesser nobles just by picking a side. One thing the young ifrit had not considered though had been the symbolism of the horses themselves. Would that really change things? Having a slightly nicer horse? Would have a proud Kustios steed really elevate the Princess to a stronger position?
Maybe. Prestige was real in Taldor.
And then, at the end of the trailing conversation, the agent asks the question that frankly, Riveh would have started with. Did he stand with the Princess or not?
"A bit late to ask that, no?" Rivah says casually, smiling back at the rather pleasant, inoffensive man. Then the ifrit drops it, his face going hard and stern.
"Perhaps I am not." And Riveh stands up suddenly, voice full of iron. "Perhaps I have been sent here by the High Strategos, to remove a pest to his designs? Perhaps even now I have a blade and the will to use it." Riveh lays a hand on the hilt of his weapon. "And clear the way for our own agents? Civil war brews and the horses of Kustios is worth the price?'
Intimidate: 1d20 + 4 ⇒ (15) + 4 = 19
Riveh lets this hang in the air for a long moment before smiling grimly and letting his voice return to normal.
"Happily, I am not. I do indeed serve the Princess Eutropia, and pledged to her. But perhaps you need to change your tone, Master Manigold. This is not a topic to discuss over dinner, or a debate of words. Blood and swords are coming, my friend."
Manigold's eyes went wide as the Tandak Plains. For just one moment - as long as it was terrible - he truly believed the dapper young lord's words; that he had foolishly stepped into the lions' den of his own volition, and that the jaws were about to snap around his neck.
Happily, Riveh's subsequent smirk bared no teeth. The sudden tension left the man's body in a gasping smile of his own. "Yes, right... Quite so, my lord, quite so." He looked down, and the cheery demeanor, the practiced geniality - before the ifrit's sight, it sloughed off him like a snakeskin. Left behind was someone a little humbler, a bit less eager to please. When he peered back up the smile remained, but it was pale as the moonlight streaming in through the window.
"I apologize if I came on a bit strong. You understand that learning where all our noble houses stand in this conflict is key - I am to report any such knowledge to my superiors. Perhaps my lack of success with the Baron made me anxious to rely any bit of good news..." The smile grew paler still. "But I am heartened to know we both serve the same regent, the one true Queen. It is good to meet an ally here, even if your stay is brief."
Manigold drew a deep breath. The slumped shoulders rose to life. "Well!" he said with a touch of the previous good humor. "I shan't keep you up, Lord Betony. You are no doubt weary from your journey and I thank you for your time. I will take your counsel to heart. Still, I am glad for this mission. Blood and swords are indeed coming as you say, but until they arrive at our gates, I cherish the opportunity to fight this war with words. Would that all wars could be won such. Of course, the Baron is proving this a fool's wish. I merely hope... I merely hope, for all of Prusa, that whatever it is the Baron is waiting for, it isn't bloodshed."
The soft light of the oil lamp made the man's outward cheer appear all the more doleful.
"One would think the Kustioses had seen enough blood." He drew a hurried spiral over his chest at this remark, the symbol of the Gray Lady.
Manigold is making to leave. Feel free to move on to the next day if you'd like. If not, he'll of course answer any other question you may have.
Nice try Ernst
Having been deprived of some very well needed rest, Riveh was in no mood to let the agent slink off.
"Wait." Riveh says, voice harsher then he intended, "Stay." The ifrit shook his head, both to clear away the weariness and the lingering taste of aggression.
"But please, Master Manigold, hold on a moment. You say this is a war of words and we are allies. Well, then let's plot some strategy. Tell me everything you know of the Baron and his political leanings. I must confess, I am a stranger here and while I'm only passing through.....maybe we can have some victories if we pull together?"
Riveh goes on, "You already indicate you know something. Perhaps something connected to those strange lights outside? The guard gave me only poorly trained lies but I felt it was unbecoming to investigate too closely. A gentleman is entitled to his privacy, after all. The Baron has been a good and fair host, thus far."
"My lord?" Manigold replied, surprised - pleasantly so - at the idea of pooling their resources. "I was led to believe that you would be departing on the morrow. Are you stopping in Prusa?"
Was he? Riveh thought back on Martella's directions at the journey's outset:
"Bartleby is hosting a little soiree to mark his inauguration as baron and lord of Meratt. It will be the perfect opportunity to introduce the new Lord Betony and meet your fellow nobles. I have written ahead in your stead and you are expected; every correspondence is in the folder, do give it a quick read. Don't worry, you're not in any particular hurry. The party will take place in a week and your journey shouldn't take more than five days.""
Right. The foe he was to topple, his ancestral enemy as it were, Bartleby Lotheed, was expecting him at his inauguration party. It made for the perfect opportunity to introduce the newly discovered Lord Betony. But that date was in another four days and according to travel estimates, reaching Meratt from Prusa shouldn't take more than two. This meant that, assuming things went according to plans, the ifrit had 48 hours to spare in his little odyssey.
Dangerous game that; assuming anything would go as planned. He was on a mission from the Princess herself; her - and accordingly - his time was valuable. Could he spare it on Kustios? Bringing Prusa into the fold would absolutely aid in Her Majesty's campaign, but this wasn't exactly his job: Manigold had been entrusted with this.
Even as the fire-haired head mulled over the logistics of this, the envoy went on to answer his queries. "Do you mean...? Were you not aware?"
Manigold didn't draw the sign of the spiral again, but the same grave expression blotted him. "No, I suppose there's no reason you should be. Who can keep track of the fallen reeds after a storm? The Kustios line - it was all but decimated in the Exaltation Massacre."
Instantly, the raspy voice of the Baron sounded in Riveh's mind, every harsh note like the creaking of a worn wagon wheel well past its time:
"I was advised not to attend. There were concerns I wouldn't survive the journey. Now... Hmph. If this is what they call irony, I don't appreciate it. Fate has a rotten sense of humor."
Kustios's entire family was dead? "The Baron never had children of his own," Manigold continued. "But he was quote close with his nephew who was set to inherit. Why, he had already handed over the mantle of rulership in all but title. Said nephew was lost in the Massacre, however, along with his own family. All that remains is young Marcus Kustios, great grandnephew to the Baron and now next in line. A horrid affair... To see one's own parents be cut down thus..."
This brought some new context to the old man asking whether he had lost anyone at the capital. "As for the lights... Yes, they are rather confounding, aren't they?" The broad face scrunched in consternation. "I saw them the same day I arrived - round about the same time too, now that I think on it... but got nothing more in the way of explanation than yourself: lame lies. I dared ask the Baron himself the morning after. He told me I must have imagined it. He made it clear that that was the end of that conversation... Of course, I asked about town, and as near as I can tell these flashes have been ongoing for at least three months. They're intermittent, but still; people worry. Honestly, I think it speaks of the citizens' love for the man that they haven't demanded action. Kustios is a venerated leader here. Whether the lights only play at night or if they are merely unnoticeable during the day is something I haven't ascertained, but they are wholly localized to the Hippodrome and only when Kustios is present."
Curiouser and curiouser. "But as you say, Lord Betony: a gentleman is entitled to his privacy. I haven't pried further, and the Baron is indeed a good host. Even if he, eh, follows the letter rather than the spirit of courtesy." Oh?
"Let me be clear," Manigold said with some insistence. "I would never criticize Baron Kustios as man or ruler. Among his peers, I understand that he is highly respected for his honorable conduct, and the populace love him as a just and fair lord. Granted, some would point to select... rural eccentricities, but that is his right. However... All I have heard of the Baron paints him as a decisive man, not one to pontificate. This may be the... bucolic streak in him, but he is not know to hesitate. Which is why his manner now mystifies me. Yes, he has been a gracious host, taking in both myself and Sir Varinazzo as envoys to the Princess and General. He even arranges regular opportunities for us to meet and speak on the matter of the next regent. Anything else would be churlish of a gentleman. And yet I don't believe that he has ever truly listened to either of us. I am as ignorant now of where he leans as when I first arrived, whether he prefers the Princess or High Strategos. He will simply let us ply our rhetoric only to assure us that we have given him much to think on, and that we should reconvene the next day. Every time is the same. He is... Lord Betony, he is simply placating us."
Manigold was visibly frustrated, though whether with the Baron or his own failure was hard to say. A bit of both, probably.
"I am inclined to say that he only means to postpone us, almost as if he's waiting on something. What, I cannot imagine."
It was a fair question. What was there to wait for in this conflict? One either supported Eutropia or Pythareus, and that - as they say - was that. One or the other would rule, that much was already certain, and whoever won, they weren't likely to look favorably on those who didn't support them when it mattered. It was a binary issue where neutrality netted one nothing. So why hesitate? To better ascertain the winning horse in this race? Surely that couldn't be excused for long.
"And what's worse," the man sighed, "is that I fear Varinazzo has one up over me in this contest."
With sudden clarity the Baron's pain sliced into Riveh like a knife, sharp as those wielded in the Senate not so many days ago. The old man suddenly finding himself alone in the world, lives and connections cut away. Like a great old tree left alone while the grove beneath it, offspring all, clear cut away.
Riveh was alone too but even his plight was not so dire. The ifrit was, after all a young man. Assuming he lived, there was time to restart the line and carry on. For Kustios....the time had run out.
Riveh shook his head, although was it at the old man's loss or to free his thoughts?
"Maybe he is waiting. Could be anything. The results of the first battle? The best offer to come his way from higher up?" But the Baron did not strike Riveh as that type of man and besides...what future remained for him? "Maybe he simply waits for the Gray lady to come and claim him."
Who knows what might drive a man such as the Baron. But he didn't seem despairing either....
"Well....how does he had an advantage?" Riveh said heavily, wishing Ernst would get to the point of matters quickly. He was very, very tired. "Does he have a better offer? or just a better title."
“Oh, he is of gentry,” Manigold clarified on the question of his opponent’s status. “Whereas I am merely of money.”
Something sardonic played at the man’s lip at this assertion, a pen stroke of genuine feeling amidst his canvass of practiced pleasantry. “But no; happily, the Baron is not one to dismiss a man for his title or lack of one.” He had good reason to be pleased. The interplay between the old bloodlines and nouveau riche had led to profitable dalliances and infamous clashes both, the latter especially when the supposed status seekers forgot their place. More than one merchant or banker family had been undone by perceived slights or very real dangers to the entrenched powers. Taldor did not look kindly on threats to the status quo.
This of course made the Princess’s rise all the more impressive.
“He’s a practical man,” the envoy went on, “which is precisely the problem; Varinazzo has a practical proposition to offer which I cannot beat.”
With a sight, the soft man sank a bit into his billowing clothes. Riveh got the picture of a failed soufflé. “I told you that our rhetoric runs off the Baron like water off a duck. Assurances of rewards from the future regent fare little better in convincing him as neither can promise anything too dissimilar: restoration of the roads, better prices for his horses and so on. As negotiators, our persuasive arsenal is near identical but for this: Varinazzo has pledged an immediate fix on a problem plaguing all of Prusa - the bandits.”
And so it came full circle. The highwaymen? The same robbers who had assaulted the ifrit with co. on the way to the city were what would secure it for the General?
“They say there's no war uglier than civil war, but...” Manigold appeared positively rueful. “You see, there was a small platoon of the Taldan Horse stationed here at Prusa. This is often the case with the more remote cities, the crown providing troops to ward off ne'er-do-wells and protect trade. But with the outbreak of war, well... they defected. Although I'm sure they did not see it as such; in their eyes I'm sure it was only natural to defer to their supreme commander in any time of crisis. Regardless, they declared their loyalty to the High Strategos and departed to join him in the south. This left the city's defenses severely diminished. And I understand you have already seen the results first-hand.”
Indeed he had. The situation here was becoming clearer to Riveh. So the highwaymen had become emboldened at the local military's abandonment. “As you likely already know, General Pythareus has the lion's share of the nation's dedicated military in his fold, naturally. The Princess matches him, however, in private armies of noble houses pledged to her and auxiliary forces from the colonies.” Right. Former colonies like Andoran supported the Princess's claim too. “But this does give Pythareus an edge in (how to put it...?) sheer mobilization. All power being centralized on himself and the army ready and present in the nation makes his force more immediate. Varinazzo has leveraged this by promising the immediate deployment of a fresh platoon here at the Baron's word. They will drive off the bandits, safeguard Prusa's trade and people, and all will be well again. All at the cheap cost of the Baron's loyalty.”
Outside, a cloud passed over the moon, dimming the room in accord with Manigold himself. "Is is an offer I cannot match. Not yet. I know Baron Kustios cares for his people's wellbeing. In our discussions, it is the only argument that has given him pause." He looked to Riveh, glum if determined in his duties.
“Well, Lord Betony? One loyalist to another, what are your thoughts?”
Riveh's respect for Ernst Manigold rose somewhat, as the rather nondescript man described the situation. Varinazzo's offer was a good one, doubly so in these uncertain times. A promise of immediate military aid was hard to turn down and yet the Princess's agent had managed to keep the Baron from throwing in his lot with the General.
Or had he? Did the Baron have other reasons for his delay? Perhaps he suspected who just may have ordered the Massacre? Still, it was just speculation rolling in the young ifrit's head.
"You played a bad hand well, Manigold." Riveh offered with a smile toward his fellow loyalist. "Sometimes holding the enemy off is the best victory you can achieve, and you did that here. "
Still, Riveh didn't want to settle for that. So, the bandits were the problem, eh?
The ifrit rubbed his chin and sat back in his chair. "Well, maybe we can trump Varinazzo. He promises prompt military action? I can do one better, we'll offer myself." Seeing Ernst's raised eyebrows, "Not as sacrifice, but as help. I have some small skill with a weapon, and so do some of my companions. Besides, those bandits attacked us. It is somewhat personal."
Riveh nodded to himself, the plan taking shape in his mind, "Yes, could be doable. I will offer to help with these bandits, right here and now. And not even in exchange, but as an offer of goodwill. "
"Assuming we aren't killed horribly by the bandits, such a gambit might succeed, yes?" Riveh nodded, "And if we are, well, you'll be back on your own I suppose."
I'm ok to move this along till morning. Will we breakfast with the Baron?