Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The Archbishop sat comfortably on the Imperial Throne, a folder open on her lap. She leafed through some papers and sipped a cup of tea, pausing every so often to make a small notation. At the foot of the dais, a young man coughed politely. She looked up from her papers, then down at him, adjusting the pair of spectacles on her nose. “Yes?”
“An abundance of pardons, Holiness,” the young man said with a deep bow, “but the Council had hoped you might attend today’s session. A vote is being taken on your recent proclamations, and we need you to--”
The Archbishop’s laugh brought him up short. “Vote?” she asked. “Whatever for?”
“Holiness,” the young man said, patiently, “while we certainly appreciate your ruling as Regent while the Empress is...” he cleared his throat, “indisposed, I do hope you are aware that no legislation can be passed, nor edicts enacted without majority approval in both Council chambers. Now, many of our members have taken issue with the harshness of your stance against magicians, but I am sure you can win them--”
“Don’t be ridiculous, um...” she raised an eyebrow. “What is your name again?”
“Julian, Holiness,” he said. “Prime Speaker Julian Katzakos.”
“Julian, yes,” she said with an absent nod. “Well, run along, Julian, and tell your little friends on the Council that they may vote as they like, but my edicts are already law and will be carried out with or without their consent or approval.”
“Holiness,” the Prime Speaker was scandalized, “you cannot mean to rule absolutely!”
“Of course I do,” she said, flipping through her papers.
“But- but,” he sputtered, “the Imperium has not been under the rule of an absolute monarch since--”
“Are you still here?” she looked sternly at him. Two members of the Crimson Order stepped forward.
Julian backed away. “A-apologies, Holiness.” He bowed and began backing out of the room.
“Oh, and Julian?” she did not bother to look up.
“Do me a favor and make me a list of those Council members who have ‘taken issue’ with the ‘harshness’ of my position on the practice of magic within the Imperium.” She looked up then and smiled. “I’d like to have a little chat with them.”
He swallowed hard and nodded. “At once, Holiness.”
“There’s a dear boy,” she said, returning to her papers.
No sooner had the Prime Speaker left then another voice addressed her from the foot of the dais. It was the Empress Regina Maxima, though she was none too steady on her feet.
“Who d’you,” she slurred, “wha’ d’you think... think y’r doin’ my throne?!” The intoxicated empress attempted to storm regally up the dais, but managed only to stumble a few steps before tripping and falling back to the floor.
The Archbishop sighed. With a gesture, she summoned two of the palace guard, who stepped forward to stand at either side of their inebriated sovereign. “Her August Majesty is fatigued,” the Archbishop told them. “See to it she makes it back to her quarters.”
“At once, Holiness.” They stooped to lift the empress to her feet.
Once standing, she shook them off, staggering a bit. “Ge’ off!” she shouted. “Ge’ y’r han’s off me. I’mma... I’mma Empress of... of...”
“Yes, dear,” the Archbishop said, “and we’re all very impressed. Now, why don’t you go lie down? I’ll have the wine carafes refilled and a fresh bowl of canais in your hookah.”
The empress growled deep in her throat, standing tall and only swaying slightly. “Now, you lissen,” she said. “You lissen...”
The Archbishop grinned. “I’m listening, dear.”
“You can’ talk t’me like that!” The empress took a few careful steps forward, but did not try to climb the dais again. She looked blearily up at her usurper. “An’ I don’ like you killin’ alla magish-magiz... alla people use magic.” She drew herself up with great importance, stumbling back a couple of steps. “I’mma pow’rful magic user, y’know.” She belched.
“Indeed,” the Archbishop said. “The legendary Witch Queen.”
“Yeah,” the empress said. “Thass righ’!”
“But you haven’t been able to do much magic in quite some time, have you?”
The empress blinked, thinking hard. “No,” she admitted. “Haven’t...”
“Would you like to know why?” the Archbishop asked. “There’s no harm in telling you now.”
“The canais,” the Archbishop said. “For many many months, long before you’d even defeated your idiot brother, my agents had been lacing your canais, a very potent and addictive blend, I might add, with powdered crystals. The very crystals that rob a magician of their power are coursing through your blood and filling your brain.” She smiled. “I highly doubt you will ever do magic again. It was the loss of your magic that made you turn to drink, wasn’t it? And it was the drink that made it so easy for me to walk in here and take over. Now,” she said brusquely, “you have two choices: you can return to your quarters and live out your days as a fat drunk with a head full of smoke and a bed full of young men, or,” she turned hard eyes on the former ruler of the Imperium, “you can end your life covered in your own filth in the deepest of the Palace dungeons.”
The defeated empress lowered her head. “I’ll... I’ll jus’ go back t’my room...” She shuffled and stumbled out of the throne room, followed by the guards.
The Archbishop chuckled to herself, took a sip of her tea, and went back to her papers. One caught her eye. It was a report of a traveling show. Apparently, a Master Bard and his healer companion had been making quite a name for themselves throughout the western provinces of the Imperium. What was worse, was that they were spreading the legend of the upstart Jax Edison, as well. Pro-magic sentiment was on the rise in all the towns they’d passed through, and the priests she’d sent in to establish missions in those areas were meeting more and more often with open hostility.
“Oh no no,” she said, shaking her head. “This will not do at all.”
Lora Neely paced the small room she’d been given in the headquarters of the Incorporated Guild of Magicians and Spellcasters. She was bored. What was worse, she was frustrated. She hadn’t stolen Jax Edison’s spellbook just so a bunch of idiots in silly robes could spend forever muttering over it. She stormed out of the room and made her way to the main council chamber. The Guild leaders were, as usual, discussing some idiotic piece of minutiae or other, the book open on a large table. They looked up when she entered and an older woman scowled.
“Joran,” the woman said with no small amount of distaste, “please see that your... guest does not disturb our councils. Our work is at a delicate stage.”
“Work?” Lora scoffed. “What work? All I see are a bunch of idiots yammering nonsense! When do we begin our assault on the Imperium? When do we take our revenge on Edison?”
The older woman laughed. “‘We’? There is no ‘we’ here,” she said, haughtily. “There is an illustrious organization of immensely powerful magicians,” she looked down her nose at Lora, “and there is a pathetic little would-be assassin who has greatly overstayed her welcome.”
Lora stared at the members of the Guild, particularly at Joran, who was trying very hard not to meet her eyes. “But,” she said, “I brought you the book. I gave you the most powerful book of spells ever compiled and you...” she fought hard to hold herself together. “You promised...”
The council laughed. “Of course we promised to aid your sad little revenge fantasy,” the older woman said. “Only you knew the location of the spellbook. We would have promised you the Imperium and the Five Kingdoms as well to get it.” She shrugged. “But we have the book now, and suddenly, we really just don’t give a damn what you want.”
“You can’t do this to me!” Lora shouted. “If not for me, you would still be a second-rate magicians’ union! It’s only because of me that you have any real power at all!”
A young man rolled his eyes. “Why are we still having this conversation?” He snapped his fingers, shouted a word of magic, and a small explosion erupted at Lora’s feet, causing her to jump back. “You’re leaving now,” the young man told her. “You can leave on foot or in a box, but you are leaving now.”
Lora glared at him, and at all the members of the council. “Oh, I’ll leave,” she said, her voice like ice. She turned and walked from the chamber. “But I promise I will make you regret this.”
“I doubt it!” the young man called after her, eliciting laughter from his companions.
Except Joran. Of all the council, only Joran wasn’t laughing. He was watching Lora Neely walk away and wondering if they hadn’t just made a very costly mistake.
“Hey, are you alright?”
The question wandered across the black emptiness, not really connecting with anything.
“Miss? Miss, you really need to get up.” The voice cut through the black, leaving swathes of grey in its wake.
“Hurrrgh,” she said. Suddenly, there was more grey than black, and she could feel something against her cheek. It was rough and gritty, and very warm.
“Miss?” The voice was much closer now, and more insistent.
“Whaugh?” She realized she was lying on the ground, which, on consideration, seemed the best course of action.
“Come on, miss,” the voice prompted, “let’s get on up, now.”
“I can’t get up,” she mumbled. “I’ve only just discovered how incredibly comfortable the ground is. If anyone needs me, I’ll just be here, lying on it for, probably, oh, ever.”
“You can’t do that, miss,” the voice connected itself to a body, which had arms that were lifting her up off the ground. She opened her eyes and the world spun sickeningly, so she closed them again.
“No no no,” she protested. “No, this whole standing business is a terrible idea. Highly overrated. Come on,” she said, attempting to slide back down. “There’s some really comfortable ground right here...”
“No, miss,” the body attached to the voice lifted her back up. Her stomach lagged a little behind, clearly still very opposed to following her, though it did offer to send some of its contents up to have a look around. She shut her eyes tight and thanked her stomach very much, but if it could just hold onto its contents a bit longer, that would really help the situation immensely.
“Can you stand on your own?” the voice asked her.
“Let’s find out,” she suggested.
The hands attached to the body that was attached to the voice detached themselves from her and she immediately fell down. Suddenly, the ground was nowhere near as comfortable as it had been. She moaned softly.
“No,” she said. “No, I can’t.”
The voice laughed. “My my,” it said, sending its hands back down to help her up again. “You are in some rough shape. What happened to you?”
She considered that. What had happened to her? She tried to remember, and came up blank. “I’m not sure,” she said.
“Yeah,” the voice said, in what she recognized as a commiserating tone. “We all have a rough night now and again. But listen, we need to line up for morning ticket check or we’re in a lot of trouble.”
“Morning what?” she asked. She hesitantly opened one eye. The world lurched a bit, but didn’t spin, so she opened the other. It was very bright, and she shaded her eyes.
“Here.” One of the hands connected to the voice put a wide-brimmed hat on her head. “Found this laying near you on the ground.”
“Thank you.” She smiled at an old man she assumed was the source of the voice, given that he was also holding her up.
“Want to give standing another try?”
He let go of her and this time she didn’t fall. She swayed a bit, stumbled a few steps, but managed to stay upright.
“There we go,” the old man said. “Water?” He held out a bottle.
“Thanks,” she took the bottle and drank. He stomach got very excited, but managed to hold itself together. She passed the bottle back to the old man.
“My name’s Ronas,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Umm,” she wasn’t entirely sure at first. But then, a name crossed her mind. “Jax?” she said hesitantly. The name brought memories with it, and she said, “Yes. Jax. My name is Jax Edison.” She held out her hand and Ronas shook it.
“A pleasure, Jax,” he said. “Now, do you remember how you got here?”
She thought back to the last thing she remembered. She was in her house, there was a spell, a banishing spell. Joran was there, and...
“That bitch,” she muttered. “Yes,” she said. “I remember how I got here.”
“Good,” he smiled. “Do you have your ticket?”
She patted her shirt and pants, checking the pockets of her coat. “No,” she said. “No, I don’t think so.” A thought occurred to her then. “What ticket?”
“Oooh boy,” he said. “That’s gonna be a --”
A loud whistle interrupted him.
“Damn,” he said. “Final warning. Okay,” he fished around in his own pockets, finally producing a small paper ticket. “Take this,” he said, handing it to her. “I was going to sell it, but I can’t just leave you out of line, and you can’t stand on line without your ticket.”
“What line?” she asked, looking around a bit.
He laughed. “What line? The Line,” he said. “The reason we’re all here.” He walked and pulled her after him. “Come on.”
She saw that they were in the desert, headed toward a long line of people that stretched all the way to the horizon. A row of buildings of various types also extended toward the horizon on either side. People rushed from the buildings to take places in the line.
“What is this place?” she asked as she followed him.
“I told you,” he said, “this is The Line.” He took a place almost a mile from the end, indicating she should stand next to him. “You’re on it now,” he said once she’d joined him, “and once you’re on The Line...” he chuckled and shook his head.
“You don’t ever get off.”
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Maryza approached the gates of the Theopolis on foot. No vehicles were permitted within, there was no train station, and horses were required to be led, not ridden into the city. This law, as with most of their laws, honored the prophet Rafel. It commemorated what his followers called the Great Migration, when he supposedly led his disciples across the desert on foot to found the Theopolis, far from the grand cities of the Imperium.
A guard stopped her at the threshold. “Identification and purpose,” he said, holding out his hand.
Maryza reached into a pouch at her belt and withdrew the false documents she’d received from Myselle. “The name is Mar Bardlove,” she said, “of the Westwind Supply Consortium. I’m here on business.”
“What kind of business?”
“Finalizing a trade deal.”
“Mm,” the guard grunted, examining the identification papers. “Bardlove,” he muttered. “That’s an odd name.”
“We’re an odd family,” Maryza replied.
“Mm.” He handed back her papers and waved her in. “We don’t care for oddities here, Ms. Bardlove,” he warned. “I’d advise you to stick to business.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, tucking the papers back in their pouch as she entered the city.
The first thing she noticed as she walked through the city was how clean it was. Since horses were stabled near the gates, rather than ridden through the streets, there were no piles of droppings strewn about as in other cities. No vehicles meant no smoke from the chimneys of steam carriages, and as Maryza made her way toward the center of town she noticed men and women dressed in official livery moving up and down the sidewalks with brooms and sharp sticks. As it was, there was little for these street cleaners to do, as the citizens of the Theopolis made every effort to clean up after themselves.
There were also, so far as Maryza could see, no taverns or other drinking establishments. This suited Maryza just fine, as she lost her connection to magic she’d come to depend on once she passed through the gates, and certain urges had begun to make themselves known. Oddly enough, the Theopolis appeared to support a rather thriving community of whorehouses, which surprised her somewhat, given Rafellans tendency toward piety. Some small, half-forgotten memory surfaced in the back of her mind, offering as explanation the fact that Rafel himself had had quite the fondness for whores. Indeed, it seemed no shameful thing at all for a man, woman, or even what appeared to be a married couple, to patronize one of the numerous brothels that proliferated about the city. She shrugged. Such things weren’t to her taste, but she wasn’t one to judge.
Something else that was plentiful in the Theopolis was technology. Not the primitive, cobbled-together machines found elsewhere, but new and advanced devices were seen wherever she went. Many of them were electronic in nature, which was rather new to Maryza, who had lived her life around magic, a force quite anathema to electronic technology. On every corner there was a mounted screen, and around each screen citizens gathered. On the screens, men and women offered news of the day, sermons and readings of scripture, and even some light entertainment. She found a teahouse with outdoor seating not far from a screen broadcasting news, bought a cup, and listened.
A well-groomed man looked out on those gathered. Maryza understood enough of how such things worked that she knew he couldn’t see his viewers, though he addressed them directly.
“...with the Metropolitan still in seclusion. Turning to news of the outside world,” he said briskly, “our brave ambassador to the sinful empire of witches is hard at work converting province after province to the teachings of Rafel. With the Empress herself recanting the wickedness of magic, and all foul sorcerers purged from the legions, it is expected that there will be no magic users left throughout the whole of the Imperium by year end. While some cities and towns are resisting conversion, many quite violently, the ambassador herself is quoted as saying, ‘right shall prevail’.” He smiled, folding his hands on the desk in front of him. “I’m Avebury Cribbins, and this has been your news moment.” The picture changed to something else, and Maryza stopped paying attention. She stared down at her teacup, idly stirring its dregs. She’d learned one thing, at least. This ‘Archbishop’ was not acting alone. She had the support of the Theopolis behind her.
Maryza stood and walked away, pondering the situation. The newsreader had never used the title of ‘Archbishop’, referring to her only as their ambassador, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Though it could. Her mission may have official sanction, but it was possible the Archbishop planned to carve out an empire of her own to rule, rather than expanding the territory of the Theopolis. Maryza continued toward the center of town, wondering how to prove, and, ideally, exploit that. Most of the official buildings were in the town center, including the Prime Temple, allegedly built by Rafel himself with his bare hands. Maryza considered ways to get inside. She needed more information before she could act. She sighed. This would be a lot easier if she could use magic.
A young woman talking into a small device held next to her ear nearly knocked Maryza down, seemingly without noticing. Maryza stumbled out of the woman’s way, and heard the sound of music coming from an open window. She looked in, and saw a man laying on a couch. No musicians were present, and the sound seemed to emanate from a small box covered in dials and blinking lights. Maryza stood a while, transfixed by the odd melodies, and pondered the sorts of instruments that could have produced them. Eventually she realized that she was just standing in the street gawking at someone’s window and moved on. She forced her thoughts back to the matter at hand, and the fact that she was dangerously hampered by the lack of magical energy available to her.
She knew the magic was there, but that the vast store of crystals beneath the city were storing it within themselves, not allowing it to flow naturally as it normally would. Maryza also knew, from talking with Jax, that freeing the magic from its crystal prisons was a simple matter of exploiting the flaws and imperfections all gemstones have. She needed to meditate on the crystals, reach out to the magic stored within them, and through that connection, find those flaws. It was then a matter of attempting to draw the magic out through an imperfection, which would result in the complete destruction of the crystal itself. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she shattered every crystal under the city at once, or if she even could, but decided it would be unwise to try.
A thought occurred to her then. Perhaps she didn’t need to destroy the crystals. Maybe there was a way for her to draw the magic out of them, slowly, a little at a time. She closed her eyes slightly as she walked, reaching down deep under the city to the magic-hoarding gems hidden there. She focused on one, reaching for the magic she knew was inside it, and was rewarded with a weak and very tenuous connection. She smiled. It wasn’t much, and it would be a while before she could do anything with it, but--
“Here now,” a voice broke her concentration and she lost the connection. “What’s this?”
She opened her eyes and looked around. So lost in her meditations was she, that she’d failed to notice when the street narrowed to little more than an alley between two towering buildings. She was surrounded by an armed gang of what she assumed to be street toughs. As she dropped into a defensive stance and took their measure, more emerged from the shadows within the gloomy alleyway. A young woman with a thick scar along her jaw stepped forward.
“You lost, Miss?” she asked with mock-deference. “Maybe we help you find your way.”
“I’m fine,” Maryza answered, looking the girl over. She was young, and in perfect physical condition. Maryza was a skilled fighter, and in fine shape herself, but she wasn’t quite sure of her chances against so many. “I can find my own way,” she said.
“Aww, now, come on,” the young woman said, beginning to circle around. “We’re just trying to be helpful.” She nodded at Maryza’s clothes. “You from out of town.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’ve been here before,” Maryza answered. “I’m visiting a friend.” At this, the gang laughed.
“No one in the Theopolis has friends outside,” the girl, who appeared to be their leader, said. “Nah,” she grinned. “We know why you came.” She pulled a knife and the others hefted their weapons. “Too bad we got other plans for you.” Maryza began to suspect that this was more than a simple street gang robbing a tourist. Laughter echoed up the alley, mixing with the sound of heeled boots on stone.
“Maryza,” a woman said from the shadows. “Former Lady Commander of the Twelfth Legion, former heir to the illustrious House Martene, current disciple of radical magician and ostensible prophet, Jax Edison.” A woman dressed in black stepped into what meager light made its way through the alley. Though she was not dressed in her robes and veils of state, Maryza recognized her immediately.
The woman smiled. “You remember me,” she said. “I can’t help but be flattered.” She gestured, and the gang put their weapons away. She strode forward, coming to stand before Maryza. “So tell me,” she said, still smiling. “You wouldn’t happen to be interested in overthrowing a government,” she asked, her smile growing wider, “would you?”
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
It was midday when Ralf and Nikki arrived in Riversport, an ancient trading city at the point where the Indovan and Mirlun rivers met to form the Imperius River. The city had begun as a small merchant post nestled in the “Y” of the rivers, but had, over the centuries, spread out over the banks. Boats came and went from the docks of numerous trading companies, many of which had added sky ship docks in recent years. As the bard and his faerie companion stepped off the boat, he looked around for the closest inn or tavern, while she was fascinated by the varied styles of architecture and the different types of people.
“Why is that woman wearing a bird on her head?” she asked as Ralf led her through the throng of people gathered on the busy docks.
“She’s from up north,” he said, making a beeline for what appeared to be an upscale waterfront inn, pulling her behind him. “Stuffed birds have been a fixture in ladies’ hats for years there. Do you have your bag?”
“Yes, Ralf,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I may not be used to large towns, but I’m not a child. And that’s horrible!”
“That woman’s hat!”
“Of course it is,” he said. “Just look at the hideous thing. But then,” he added, “I never claimed to understand women’s fashions.”
“I wasn’t criticizing her fashion sense,” Nikki retorted as they made their way toward the inn, “though, yes, it is atrocious looking.” She shook her head sadly. “That poor bird! To do such a thing to an animal, simply for the sake of ornament!”
They stopped outside the inn. The wooden sign identified it as “The Tipsy Mermaid”, and came complete with a painted carving of a voluptuous mermaid holding a large flagon of mead. Ralf adjusted the guitar and pack slung over his shoulders. “Come on,” he said, “surely you’ve seen worse than that in your travels with Jax.”
“I have,” she admitted. “But sometimes it’s the casual cruelties that seem the harshest.”
“Mm,” he agreed. “That’s a fair point. Now, remember--”
“I know,” she said. “You talk to the innkeeper.”
“It’s just that I have more experience with--”
“I understand, Ralf,” she said. Then, affecting a thick drawl, she said, “Us simple woodsfolk don’t cotton much to your fancy city ways, but don’t worry, I don’t figure on shamin’ you terribly with my rustic manner of behavin’.”
“Funny,” he said. “Maybe you can warm up the crowd with some jokes before I perform.”
“Can I?” she said, feigning delight. “If I do a really good job, will I get a dead bird hat of my very own?”
He laughed and opened the door to the inn. Inside, “The Tipsy Mermaid” seemed just as respectable as the outside suggested. It was clean and tastefully decorated. The surfaces were all hardwood, brightly polished to show off their dark stain. It was early in the day, so the bar area was nearly empty, with only two stools occupied, no one seated at the tables, and a solitary bartender cleaning glasses behind the bar. She looked up as Ralf and Nikki entered.
“Welcome,” she said, smiling. “Can I get you folks anything?”
“Pint of ale,” Ralf said, sitting at the bar and placing his bag at his feet. He kept the guitar on his shoulder. Nikki sat next to him and ordered water.
The woman behind the bar poured Ralf’s drink and placed the glass in front of him. “Four coppers for the ale,” she said. She looked over at Nikki. “Water’s free, but I gotta say, I wouldn’t drink it myself. Filters are acting up. It’s barely fit to wash with, if you don’t get it hot enough.”
Nikki smiled. “I’ll risk it.”
“Suit yourself,” the bartender shrugged. She filled a glass from a faucet and placed it in front of Nikki. It had a definite discoloration to it, but Nikki took a long sip.
“Thank you,” she said.
Ralf tossed a silver piece on the bar. “Any chance you have rooms going?” he asked.
The bartender picked up the coin and examined it. “Frontier piece,” she said, noticing the village mark.
“I hope that’s good here,” Ralf said casually.
She nodded, putting the coin in a pocket of her apron. “Coin is coin,” she said. “Hells, frontier money is probably more pure than what comes out of the capitol these days.”
Ralf said nothing, simply nodding and sipping his ale.
“And yeah,” the bartender said, “we have a few rooms available.”
“Can we get one for two nights?” Ralf asked. “Preferably one with two single beds.”
“I think I can manage that,” she said. “That’s five silver, up front if you don’t mind.”
Ralf handed over a gold piece, and the bartender raised an eyebrow.
“For incidentals,” he said.
She chuckled and shook her head. “Not sure I want to know what you consider ‘incidental’,” she said. “Anyway, I’ll just make sure your room is clean. When you’ve finished your drinks, I’ll send someone to show you up.”
Ralf nodded. “Thanks.” When the bartender walked away, he turned to Nikki. “That really does look disgusting,” he said, gesturing at the half-empty glass in her hand.
She smiled. “To you, it would be. Honestly, it would probably kill you. Well,” she reconsidered, “it would make you sick, at any rate.” She held up the glass. “It’s mostly bits of soil and, hm,” she glanced over at him, “let’s call it ‘organic waste’. All manner of bacteria swimming around in there.”
Ralf looked at her, a quizzical expression on his face. “Bac-what-ia?”
Nikki laughed. “Just think of them as very small animals,” she said. “So small, you can’t even see them, but they’d do you a fair bit of damage if you swallowed them.”
“But not you?”
“Oh, no,” she shook her head. “This is like a full-course meal for me.” She finished her glass and patted her belly. “Just what this growing baby girl needs.”
Ralf looked down at her belly. “Yeah,” he said, “about that. How long will you be...”
“Pregnant?” she asked. “A few more months, give or take. She won’t gestate as long as a human baby, but I’ll need to carry her longer than I would a pure Faerie child. Don’t worry,” she said, “the pregnancy won’t get in the way of anything for a while yet.”
“However,” she added, “I may need your help toward the end of it, especially if we haven’t met up with Jax.”
“Okay,” he said, nervously. “We should meet back up with Jax soon, though, if all goes to plan.”
“Yes, well,” Nikki grinned, “Seeing as Jax’s plans tend to be made up as she goes along, I try not to expect much from them.”
Ralf laughed and took a drink.
“Speaking of plans,” Nikki said, “what might yours be?”
“We settle in,” he said, “then give the place a bit of a looking over.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Listen,” he said. “I’m not going to blow into a place like this, demand a spot on their stage, and start singing the praises of the Alchemist, all before we’re even in our room.” He gestured to indicate the bar area. “Tonight this place should be pack full of people. We come down here, get some dinner, take in their entertainment, and observe.”
“Everything,” he said, “and everyone.” He finished his ale and gestured to the bartender, who nodded and called someone over. Ralf hefted his bag and looked over at Nikki. “I don’t have a bag of magic tricks, or a pair of guns, to get me out of trouble if I get into it. That’s why I don’t make it up as I go.” He nodded to the young man who approached them, saying to Nikki in a low voice, “We wait, and we watch, and then we act.”
She nodded. Further conversation was prevented by the arrival of a footman, who offered to carry their bags up to their room, and they made their way upstairs in silence.
A few hours, a brief nap, some washing up and a change of clothes later, and Ralf and Nikki were back downstairs. Nikki was unused to wearing proper clothes, but Jax had suggested it before they left. She didn’t want people knowing Nikki was a dryad, and a garment made of living plants was a bit of a giveaway. The common room had quite a bit more people than the last time they’d been there, but it was not at all crowded, and they had their pick of tables. Ralf chose one against the wall facing the small stage, which gave him a view of the room, as well as the door. A young waitress came to take their order. Ralf ordered a half-pint of ale and their special, without asking what it was, and Nikki asked for water again.
“Just water?” the girl asked.
“You know it’s disgusting, right?”
Ralf smiled up at her. “You’ll have to excuse my friend. This is a very special week in her religion, celebrating the five days of trials in which her people crossed the northern wastes, surviving on nothing but marsh water. To honor their ancestors, her people spend this week fasting and drinking dirty water.”
The waitress tried to control her expression, with limited success. She looked as though she’d just drank the glass of water Nikki asked for. “No offense meant,” she said, “but that sounds like a terrible religion.”
“Well, this week isn’t the best,” Ralf admitted, “but their harvest revels are legendary.” He winked at her, and she smiled politely before heading back to the bar to place their orders.
Nikki giggled. “My religion?”
He shrugged. “First thing I could think of. A port city like this has more religions than it does people. No one could possibly keep up with them all.”
The waitress returned with their drinks. Nikki smiled up at her when she put the glass of dirty water in front of her.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling up at the young woman. “May the blessings of the All-Mother keep the swampmen from your bathhouse.”
“Um, thanks,” the waitress stammered. She turned to Ralf. “Your special will be right out,” she said, before hurrying away.
Ralf burst out laughing once she was gone. “‘Keep the swampmen from your bathhouse’?”
Nikki grinned. “What,” she said, “I’m not allowed to play?”
Ralf shook his head and took a sip of his ale. “I think I’m going to like traveling with you, Ms. Bones.”
She saluted him with her glass. “Likewise, sir.”
He clinked his glass against hers, and they drank.
Later, while Ralf was halfway through his meal -a thick, meaty stew- an older man called to him from the stage. He’d been standing there in tense conversation with a pair of younger men, the bartender, and an older woman for the better part of a half-hour.
“Oi!” the older man shouted, walking toward Ralf’s table. “You there, with the odd wife!”
“I’m not his--”
“I don’t care. Listen,” he said to Ralf when he reached the table, “I don’t mean to interrupt your meal, but we’re in a bit of a bad way, entertainment-wise, and I was led to believe you’re something of a musician. Is this true?”
Ralf took a long pull of his ale to wash down a mouthful of stew, shot a quick grin at Nikki, then smiled broadly up at the older man. “Indeed I am, sir. Ralf the Master Bard and wandering minstrel at your service.” he held out his hand.
The older man shook it, smiling in relief. “Oh, thank all the gods,” he said. “I hope I’m not imposing, sir, but if you could favor us all with a song or two, I would consider it a great kindness. I’d hired a full troupe of entertainers for the week, only to discover at the last moment, that they’d had a falling out on the road, which led to several of them stabbing most of the others.”
“That’s terrible,” Nikki said.
“I know,” the man Ralf and Nikki assumed to be the innkeeper said solemnly. “I’m out a week’s entertainment.”
“I meant that they’re all dead.”
Nikki rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Well now,” Ralf said, kicking her under the table, “I know plenty of songs, and can keep your patrons entertained from now until closing,” he assured the innkeeper. “What are you offering by way of compensation?”
“Your meal is on the house,” the innkeeper said, “and I’ll refund what you paid for lodging.”
Ralf nodded. “That will do for the night,” he said. “We can discuss the rest of the week tomorrow.”
“Rest of the week?”
“You’re out a full week’s entertainment, right?” Ralf said. “Give me a day, and I’ll put a show together that will pack this place night after night.”
“You do that,” the innkeeper said, “and you can name your price.”
“Wonderful,” Ralf said. He stood and smiled. “But for now, let’s just get through tonight. Give me a moment to get my guitar.”
“Of course,” the innkeeper said, beaming. “And thank you so much again.”
“My pleasure, sir.” Ralf said. He winked at Nikki on his way out of the bar.
The evening went on, and Ralf was definitely a hit. He played numerous regional favorites, most of them popular drinking songs, during which he encouraged the progressively inebriated patrons to sing along, along with a selection of love ballads, and an epic saga about an ancient Indovinare warrior-king. It was just before the saga, toward the end of the night, when he reached for his pint glass -only his second of the evening- and knocked it from its small table on stage. He grabbed for it to try to catch it, overcompensated, and wound up breaking the glass. A long shard punctured the palm of his hand and he cried out, blood streaming down his arm. The innkeeper rushed onto the stage and examined Ralf’s hand.
“Oh, this isn’t good, lad,” he said sadly. “That glass has torn up the inside of your hand something terrible. Can you move your fingers?”
Ralf tried, managing a weak spasm of just two.
“Ah, son,” the innkeeper said, “I think your guitar playing days are through.”
“N-no,” Ralf said through grit teeth. “My friend...” he nodded toward Nikki, who had risen from their table. “She’s a... a healer.”
The innkeeper shook his head. “It’ll take more than bandages to fix this. I don’t think--”
Nikki approached. “I’m not that kind of healer,” she said. Gesturing to Ralf’s injured hand, she asked, “If I may..?”
The innkeeper backed away slightly, remaining on stage to see what would happen next. By this time, the crowd was rapt with attention. Nikki bent over Ralf’s hand, both to examine the wound and speak privately.
“Did you do that on purpose?” she whispered.
“I... may have,” Ralf said, panting from the extreme pain.
Nikki shook her head. “Well, so long as you’re still thinking things through before you act.” She grabbed hold of the shard with her fingers. “This is going to hurt,” she warned.
“It’s going to hurt more,” she amended. Then, without further warning, she pulled the glass from his hand with a spurt of blood. Ralf howled and the audience gasped. She held his bleeding hand between her own, and felt the wound slowly knit itself together. In a few moments, she stepped back and Ralf held up his hand, wiggling his fingers. He smiled at the crowd, who cheered.
“The Amazing Nikki Bones, ladies and gentlemen!” he announced. He slung his guitar around and ran his previously crippled fingers along the strings in a perfect scale. The crowd cheered louder. He bowed to Nikki. “Ms. Bones,” he said.
She returned the bow. “Master Bard,” she replied, then returned to her seat, seemingly ignorant of the people staring and whispering as she passed.
Ralf performed the saga, which told the tale of Athuul Culainn, the legendary hero who conquered the initial territories of the Imperium in the days following the Awakening. The crowd loved it. He ended with another quick drinking song, closing down the bar with its rousing chorus.
Later, as Nikki helped him gather up the coins that had been tossed onstage by the enthusiastic audience, she said, “So, I take it this begins our propaganda campaign?”
Ralf grinned, shaking his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “This was merely setting the stage. The real show starts tomorrow.”