They met in the usual place. Same stone walls, same shelves, same fug of dust and closed interior. It was night, and the room was dark, and quiet except for the ululating murmur of the room's inhabitants, dreaming on their wooden slats.
"So Davenshire is gone, and the invaders fled," summarized Rittermark, leaning against a former bookcase. "An excellent coup, by all reports. Though the Thayan outpost was destroyed in the process."
Bargus shrugged negligently. "I remain glad we decided not to send a force. How are the survivors faring?"
"Rebuilt, up the coast."
"Source of trade?"
"Plans to send an emissary?"
"Not that I've heard of. Travel's a bit risky. Ogre raids along the south road. . . I've ordered one of the Knights Errant to investigate."
"Very well. Keep me informed."
"Any developments in the other settlements?"
"The latest crop reports from Hamley came in today, along with a soil analysis. No word from Hammersong -- though the mountain would have to fall in before the dwarves would admit there's a problem. As for the elves. . ."
Rittermark's expression showed faint disapproval. "You're not still suspecting the Feywood faction, are you?"
"I shall suspect Feywood until I die," Bargus said lightly. "But you needn't concern yourself with my petty prejudices." He paused. "Any word of the spymaster? Ex-spymaster, I should say."
"What about these carvings you found?"
"Noticed by one of the forest-dwellers -- quite upset. People hurting the trees."
"Or a lure, perhaps. Someone who knows our ex-spymaster's symbol might be sowing deception. . ."
"Have you tried to find whoever did it?"
"What are you suggesting we do, Telmoran -- stand in the woods and whistle?"
"I see your point."
"Are you going to order me to arrest her for disfiguring the royal trees?"
Bargus permitted himself a thin smile. "I should think it would be difficult proving which trees fall under the jurisdiction of Steinkreis. Still. I don't like anyone wandering loose who might know as much as she does."
"So you've mentioned. . ."
"Can we have her removed?"
"Telmoran, you can't just execute the woman for no reason. Besides, nobody's seen her since you sent her into exile."
"Well, keep up the surveillance. She'll tip her hand eventually." Bargus reached into a hidden pocket and produced a folded sheet of parchment. "Have these people watched, also."
Rittermark took the page, looking around for a light source. Noticing this, Bargus snapped his fingers, and a sinuous blue evanescence enveloped his left hand. Rittermark unfolded the sheet, squinting in the dim light.
"You could trim the wick," he suggested.
"I think not." Bargus gestured at the sleepers, with an indulgent half-smile. "Mustn't disturb their rest."
Rittermark gave an unimpressed grunt and bent his nose to the list of names. "Orman? He's dead."
"Cross him off, then."
"You want all these people investigated?"
"Every single one of those people met with Kämpfer at some point in his career. He was very open, in that regard. They talked with him, were known to him. Helped him with tasks, or errands. Even the most minor activity may attain great significance. . ."
"But some of these dates go back years! Surely -- "
"The passage of time lends a sense of false security. Sooner or later, someone will slip. New evidence may come to light."
"This is a wicked waste of manpower," Rittermark grumbled.
Bargus' expression was stony. "Then hire more men."
((OOC: this post was originally written in winter 2009 and is provided here for background purposes. It is no way reflects any in-game activities over the past year, nor is intended to affect or comment upon in-game events now. However, if your character is a suspicious sort and wants to feel like they're being watched, have fun. Stealth and/or True Seeing are not required.))
They had watched him walk out, to be sure. Not a word exchanged. Any proper courtier knew their place. No matter how informally they might sometimes speak, it was just not done to question the ruler of the city. At least not outright. In public. In front of everyone else.
And anyway, it would never do to display that one was not fully apprised of all His Lordship's plans. So Bargus said nothing, just watched him leave -- not so very unusual, as Kämpfer had been taking small breaks, of late, saying that his gilded plate-and-mail were chafing, or that his hip was troubling him or he was tired of sitting all day.
He was old. Surely the old are allowed a few small indulgences.
But now it was night and the throne sat empty, the three advisors standing around it with the distinct air of those who just aren't quite sure exactly what to do.
The emissary from Hammersong -- Dom Tunnelwalker, a doughty dwarf -- was first to comment, shifting from boot to boot. "Where's his nibs?"
A tiny sound, suspiciously like a sigh, prefaced that elven woman's reply. "Perhaps he returned without us noticing, and went up to bed."
Such a remark, Bargus reflected, had to be deliberate stupidity. Both the front and back entrance led straight into the throne room. There were no secret doors. Anyone coming in or out -- even if they swam up through the privy -- would have to pass by.
He craned his neck to survey the chamber, twisting to look behind him.
"Returned, you say?" His staff cast a jagged black shadow across the vaulted ceiling. "Our lord must have been under some very powerful concealment, to pass undetected. I would never have guessed a man wearing formal armor could move so silently."
"Stow it," Dom suggested. "He's not back. Holed up in some tavern, which is where I'd like to be. Drinking away the day's cares. Not like that's possible in this burg, with the elf piss they try'n pass off as ale. . ."
Dom's tone was jovial, but there was an affronted gasp from Lady Luelve'for.
Bargus felt his own nose wrinkle in distaste. "Your crude manner ill becomes your station, dwarf."
"Ahh, what, the beer's swill. Not that you'd know, as you'd never drink it. Mayhap he walked to Hammersong for a proper pint!" Dom laughed.
Bargus' eyebrows met over his nose. "This levity is inappropriate. We had best summon the captain of the night watch and initiate a search."
"Aww, leave the man alone. If he's not in his cups he's enjoying a nice warm bed, if you catch my meanin'. . ."
"You seem awfully confident of his whereabouts, Tunnelwalker. Would you care to share with us where, exactly, he might be?"
The dwarf shrugged. "That's his own business, innit? He don't need you butting in."
"I have the welfare of our lord at stake," Bargus began stiffly. "And this city, which is my home as much as yours."
This was greeted with a derisive snort from Dom. "Home! I wouldn't be spendin' five heartbeats here if it wasn't for duty."
Lady Luelve'for interrupted, her tone perfectly correct. She always sounded perfectly correct, Bargus admitted disgustedly, even as she was making malicious little gibes. "Perhaps a scrying might be in order. If our friend Bargus is up to the job."
Up to the job. She never missed a chance to belittle his powers.
"Perhaps you would care to track him, instead." Bargus allowed his upper lip to develop the merest trace of a sneer. "Your time in the forest must have given you ample practise following paths of dung through the dirt."
"I can't quite interpret your rustic Common, I'm afraid," she demurred. "Is that intended to be a jibe at me, or a remark on the state of our lord's boots?"
"I should think they'd be clean enough, with you licking them," Bargus said.
She gave out one of her tinkling laughs. "I am not some common toady, such as yourself, without antecedents. I am an official emissary of the Feywood Council, and -- "
"Not the Council!" Dom interjected. "Do you gotta bring 'em in to everything? You can't speak without mentioning 'em, even in things that weren't never their area of specialization. . ."
"You're not beginning that business with the riftstones again." Lady Luelve'for was far too elven to betray anything like anger, but the stare she shot Dom would have inflicted poison damage.
"He's quite right," Bargus conceded. "You have shown many deliberate attempts to advance the interests of your home Council when. . ."
"Oh, stow it, fancy-pants!" Dom bristled. "I don't need you sticking your puffy white hands in to protect me from an elf!"
And that was it. Years of working together, the strain of city business and regional politics, all the dislike and distrust, came boiling to the surface. She said -- what? Bargus couldn't hear. He was dimly aware of raised voices, pointed fingers, one of the guards reaching cautiously for his blade. Dom was shouting at everyone in sight, the elven woman was snapping at Dom, Bargus had said regrettable things to them both, and then in strange unison, the collective accusation rang off the stone arches:
Mustering wagonloads of ore and grain between Hamley and Steinkreis was no simple feat, even under the best conditions. The oxen moved slowly and the hills were all but impassible whenever it rained. But Geralt was a stalwart, patient man. He delivered his wares and kept his team out of trouble and if he didn't split a wheel plank or break an axle, he counted himself lucky.
But after the last incident, outside the mines -- Geralt still didn't like to think of it. They had been shoveling rocks into the wagon, him and Sven. Geralt had just leaned down to grab the wine skin hanging from the footplate, when an arrow whizzed past and thunked into the wagon seat.
"Attack!" Sven yelled.
The strangest thing was how silent the mine guards were. Not a word, not a gesture, nothing but the clicking of the winches as they wound their crossbows and fired at the oncoming Iron Clan raiders.
But Sven -- poor Sven -- jumped off the tailgate, screaming, brandishing his shovel like a weapon, and swung it at the first warrior he saw. A massive, orange-skinned, squash-nosed, leather-plated fiend, with spikes and a halberd taller than Sven was. Geralt roared for his apprentice to get back, but the lad cleverly tripped the charging hobgoblin and swung the edge of his spade into the back of its neck.
His triumphant yell was blotted out, however, by the ogre's club descending -- and then the Knights had drawn their greatswords and Geralt had to crawl under the wagon and be sick.
Sven's mother had spat on him, and wept all through the laying-out and the burial, and then walked into the spider forest and never returned.
No, Geralt was sticking to the main road, from now on. Never mind if it meant paying a toll over to the thugs at Raven's Watch. He could earn more coin, after a trip or three. He couldn't buy a life back.
The road was dry, the wagon rolled more easily, and it was simple enough for the three out-of-work woodcutters he'd hired to put down the few wolves that dared to leap at the oxen. The sun was warm and the team went willingly, for once. Geralt could sit up on the seat, like a proper drover, instead of dragging them along by the nose-rings like some peon.
The crossroads where they'd take the turn to Steinkreis was visible in the distance, when suddenly the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
Geralt would never know which god inspired him to grab the knife he always kept in his belt, but his hand found the haft just as a wave of dull green rose out of the grass and rippled towards the road. Sid dropped, an arrow through his throat, while Egil laid about like a man scything grain, until a war-dog with a goblin perched atop its shoulders charged into him from behind, knocking him off-balance. Geralt watched in horror as the goblin hamstrung the man, who toppled screaming into the chattering, slavering mass of scaled raiders.
The normally stoic oxen were snorting and bellowing. Geralt leaped off the wagon seat and goaded them to speed, but they were unable even to trot, being yoked to five or six times their own body weight. He was struggling with the wagon's lynch-pin when he felt the first cold, cruel stab above his right ankle.
The worst part, he thought later, was their eyes. . .
"My dear, I'm too amazed to find you had the courage to visit. Everyone's been keeping off the roads these days. Sherry?"
"Thank you, that would be most refreshing. Is this new?"
"New, and dry, and dear. Came in on the last boat. I won't tell you how much it cost, but I think the captain was gouging me -- Sandburrow isn't that far."
"Everything's more expensive, though. I stopped at the fletcher's and she said she couldn't get any of the feathers I wanted -- "
"My dear, I have feathers! I'm wounded you'd even think of asking anywhere else. Look you here -- magnificent pheasant tail. All the rage, stuck into a roasted bird, but they'd do for any kind of ornament really. I had promised them to Lady W— for her banquet party, but I could let you have them for. . ."
"Oh no, I couldn't possibly afford it. And anyway it's for a commission, a very particular shade. I needed feathers from a Hamleydale Red, and you can guess where they come from."
"Hamley, right? Well you won't be getting your feathers, then, until the roads can be secured."
"I had rather hoped to find an enterprising wizard to give us a summoning spell. I'm going to call round at the mages' school before I leave, and see if someone might help me."
"My dear, don't you know anything? The school left months ago. It's in Greenvale now."
"Greenvale?! Well, I never!"
"You have been buried in Webster's, haven't you? They left ages ago. I don't envy you the trip if you dare to travel there. You do know there's bandits? And you'd freeze to death crossing the mountain. But then, you always had pluck -- I'm positively flummoxed that you made it this far. Weren't you dead from fright the whole way?"
"Not especially -- we had a decent concealment, and six men with swords, in case of trouble."
"Hiring six ruffians off the docks would give you trouble of a different sort, I should think. But I tell you what -- next shipment I get, I'll send the man around to you. The cost shouldn't be too great if we can split it between us."
"That's very kind."
"In these tough times we merchants have to stick together. More sherry?"
A report of the Steinkreis survey and assay division, to the attention of the Regent:
This much is known. . .
I. There was an explosion just after the fifth watch had started its patrol of the perimeter walls. The point of origin was a house in Uptown, believed abandoned after an infestation. City files show a permit issued to one Lomir Kelmont, approving use of the structure as a magical laboratory, though no city official remembers granting same.
II. Blast damage was fairly localized. The building itself was reduced to rubble and is unsalvageable. No survivors found.
III. Several large pieces of stone were projected over a considerable distance, causing damage to adjacent buildings, including the curtain wall of the city Keep. The concussive effect of the blast collapsed a section of wall around the city menagerie. One creature is thought to be missing.
IV. The explosion is thought to have been caused by a large quantity of goblin powder (residents report a strong smell of sulphur and carbon). The subsonic combustion resulted in deflagration. Though Steinkreis is mostly of stone construction, thatch and timber are also used, particularly in the residential districts.
V. The resulting fire was not fully mundane (possibly due to elements in use in the laboratory? - awaiting analysis of ash collected post-blaze). The city policy of trusting in stone walls and proximity to water for fire prevention resulted in lack of an organized response to a widespread emergency. Fortunately the extensive distributon of the guardian mineral distributed through the Stone Circle Temple, along with magical wards purchased by residents anxious to avoid plague, saved most of the local businesses and larger dwelling-places.
VI. The undead problem has been exacerbated by the blast, though the rats seem to have fled the blaze. No new cases of plague have been reported.
VII. The execution order for Lady Granol remains outstanding. She cannot be located; presumed fled.
VIII. Losses are still being calculated. Considerable property damage occurred due to looting and similar lapses of public restraint.
((actual live in-game burning of the city postponed; consider this the official retcon ))
"A system of governance by the people, in which -- I beg your pardon, are you ill?"
"Pray forgive me -- I suddenly felt as though I might laugh. Do go on."
"A sort of formal association, of common citizens, who endeavour to oversee the city."
"So they can collectively fail at satisfying the whims of their fellow residents, I suppose," Bargus' tone was sour. "And when they do fail, what then?"
Rittermark cleared his throat. "Well, then the people would pick new candidates, presumably. The main themes seem to be co-operation and equality."
"How sentimental. And ridiculous. Equality! Why would a prosperous noble wish to consider himself the equal of some donkey-prodding peasant? I daresay it's attractive enough if the positions are reversed -- every commoner would like to see the mighty levelled, and believe themselves as worthy as kings." Bargus shook his head. "Alas, it works both ways. Men of intellect and good fortune would have to call every feculent beggar and slobbering halfwit 'brother'. I can't see it catching on. Even the lowliest gutter-scourer has his self-respect."
Rittermark frowned. "It certainly sounds demoralizing, put that way."
Bargus leaned back in his seat, steepling his fingers. "And what if the gutter-scourers and curb-sweepers were to rule? Have they experience of taxation? Of overseeing public works? Can they manage the military? Dispense justice to the condemned? Have they the wisdom or the patience for the myriad petty concerns voiced by every plebian who can find his way to their doors?"
"You seem to be managing well enough," Rittermark interjected dryly.
Bargus offered him a wry smirk, and Rittermark chuckled.
"I had the privilege of observing Kampfer for many years," Bargus said, after a pause. His tone was modest. "I try to emulate his good example. But where he was labelled a coward, for refusing to waste men in futile confrontations, I am branded a tyrant."
That word again. Rittermark sighed. "Should more leaflets appear, do you want them suppressed?"
"I think not." Bargus' voice took on a faint lilt of amusement. "Forbidding people to discuss implausible things would be -- gods forfend -- tyrannical."
Aaron Lyonaler and the Bastions of Light are hereby authorized to apprehend and arrest one Nasmat, priestess of Bane. Anyone attempting to defend her will be recognized as an Enemy of Steinkreis. Any resistance shall be answered with appropriate force. . .
"We could bring her in ourselves, you realize," said Rittermark, watching Bargus write.
"Why, Felden, I thought you'd be grateful -- Aaron volunteered the Bastions to apprehend the woman. Now the families of your Knights and Knaves cannot fault me for risking their enlisted loved ones outside the city walls."
Rittermark leaned against the wall of the study. "You're all heart, Telmoran."
Bargus dipped his quill. "The welfare of their subjects is every good ruler's first concern."
"You've been reading Kämpfer's letters again." Rittermark smiled briefly beneath his beard, but his forehead remained creased. "Do you really think the Bastions will be able to capture her? A lone cleric may not seem too great a threat, but you said that she surrounds herself with, what was it again? "Deluded lackeys"? Is there any idea how many she might muster?"
Bargus paused in his writing to rifle through the paperwork covering his desk. "Not at present. Which is why I took the liberty of suggesting that any Knights or Knaves not on duty might consider themselves free to offer whatever aid they feel confident providing." He picked up a closely-written sheet and held it out to the commander. "Here are the particulars, should you choose to issue formal orders."
Rittermark took the page with a nod. "What of her husband, Paydon, and his threats against the city?"
Bargus bent over his writing again. "Paydon seems to have absented himself, but Aaron and his chaplain, Amadom, told me they have experience of this "beast" Paydon threatened us with."
"After hearing their report, I have full confidence they will be able to handle it", Bargus said mildly.
Rittermark tried not to look astonished.
"You think I am gambling with the city's safety," Bargus said equably, after a pause. "You may be right. But we can no longer allow Nasmat to range outside our control. If the evidence presented to me is legitimate, she will stop at nothing to destroy Steinkreis. The woman is implacable -- possibly insane," he added.
Bargus' characteristic lack of inflection lent a peculiar ring to the understatement. Was he joking? But the gaze he turned on Felden contained no trace of merriment.
"It certainly could be construed as reckless," Rittermark conceded, warily.
"And if I played safe and did nothing, I would be accused of cowardice." Bargus signed the warrant and scattered sand on the page. "I am not an expert on military stratagems, Felden, but I find, in adhering to a strict defensive policy, I have become like a duelist who circles ever backwards, always parrying, never making a decisive stroke."
Rittermark fought the urge to roll his eyes. "Defending a city is hardly the same as duelling."
Bargus shrugged. "The time has come for action, to free ourselves from this threat. Do you not remember when Kämpfer led the troops against the bebilith?"
Rittermark offered a grave half-smile. "I do."
"Well, then," Bargus said, as though that concluded the matter.
Rittermark watched the Regent use a summoned point of blue flame, no longer than a fingertip, to melt wax onto the arrest warrant. The city seal was impressed, then Bargus' own insignia.
"What do you intend to do with her if she's captured?" Rittermark wondered whether his deliberate use of "if" would be noted, or taken for insolence.
Bargus picked a fragment of cooling wax from the edge of the stamp. "Would you believe I intend to question her?"
"For now. Which is why I wrote arrest and not execute." The corners of Bargus' mouth turned up, ever so slightly, as though attempting a smile.
To call the night's venue "decrepit" would have been charitable. It was little more than a root cellar that had been dug out and expanded. Someone had attempted to wall the place using scraps of mismatched lumber, but run out of either materials or ambition halfway up. The result was a roughly square pit about the size of a corncrib, shoulder-deep, with a meandering fence of crooked planks holding back the dirt.
It had rained recently, so muddy trickles of runoff were oozing slowly through the slimy, algae-smeared boards. There was a distinct smell of rot. Tonight's spectator was spending a lot of time trying to reassure himself it did not could have come from the various tiny grave-mounds, heaped up right at eye-level in the dirt across the wall. Crude lettering daubed on broken bricks or empty bottles served as markers for "One-eyed Jack", "Long-tooth Tommy", "Micky The Fleet", and other well-loved names.
The ring had been carefully marked out by an urchin boy with a bag of pounded chalk mixed with lime. The onlookers crowded its edges like the crust around a bad case of ringworm, clutching pets, pipes, betting-tickets or tankards of the thin, scummy ale being doled out in the corner by a fat wench with a tarnished brass ladle. Her red brocade bodice was so tightly laced that her generous chest had been squished out into her armpits. The effect was of a ribbon tied too tightly around a bag of fresh suet.
He'd never liked red anyway.
The squire straightened his velvet doublet and pulled his hat more firmly over his ears. It was impossible to hide -- the place was too crowded, the crowd too seedy. Any hopes of blending in among some drunk and slumming toffs were dashed as soon as he'd descended the rickety, split-log ladder into this place.
In the world of competitive fighting, you started at the bottom. Except it looked as though this place might be several ranks below where the legitimate "bottom" might be. Sub-basement, looking up. He couldn't even tell who the organizer was -- bets seemed to be given and taken by any man who could hold a pencil.
The first fight was brought on -- a sewer rat in a pink leather fighting harness, against a ferret named "Ferrus". (Originality was about as sharp as the carpentry skills, in this place.) The ferret forfeited, escaping up a pillar and through a hole in the planks overhead. Then Micky the Rat (no relation to the Fleet) went a round with a dwarf who didn't give his name. Their fistfalls made the pit shake but it was a clean fight, no spells or sly blades. The dwarf won, and collected his purse -- coins tossed into the ring, which were picked up by the urchin boy and put into a carved two-handled tankard with "WINNR" in silver paint along the base.
It was almost touching.
The evening wore on. The smoke and the smell got thicker. The floor deteriorated into muddy slop from spilled ale, spilled blood, and animal droppings. A patron was thrown out for vomiting, though in the squire's opinion his mess didn't make much difference. A stout orc with a bushy blue beard and pince-nez spectacles arrived, to shovel off the floor and throw down sawdust. As the patrons shuffled out of his way, the squire glimpsed a robed, cowled figure standing in the very farthest corner.
The crowd ebbed and swirled around him, but the hooded head stayed fixated on the pit, where a scruffy white terrier was ripping the hell out of somebody's summoned snake. One charcoal-draped arm cradled a crate -- ironwood, from the sheen of it, with mithral caps on the corners, and air holes punched in a fancy curlicued design.
It was all wrong. Strange hooded men bearing fancy critter-carriers didn't turn up in scum-sodden back-alley cellars. The squire felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck as, without a nod or a gesture, the man disappeared.
The squire decided he'd better look for a different starting place.