Early in the morning, in the pre-dawn fog from the harbor, Aisling and Anastasia stood awkwardly near the front gate to Shatterdown, clutching flasks of mutually poisoned coffee and taking the occasional sip with a wince and shudder.
“Why did you poison yours again?” Ana said at last.
“Would’ve taken too long to make a fresh pot, just took some of yours,” Aisling answered. “…Fiancee, huh?”
Ana blushed and looked away. “It wasn’t my idea. Our families struck a trade deal, and his wanted a marriage to seal the deal. My older sister was going to be up on the chopping block for it, but she ended up eloping with some psychic and joining his mercenary company.”
“How’s that working out for her?” the Scarlet Princess inquired.
“Dunno, whole company vanished into a rogue portal three and a half years back. We get notes in her handwriting but no one knows what the hell they’re saying – even with translation spells they read like gibberish.”
“I’m sorry,” Aisling said quietly.
Aisling took a long pull from her coffee flask and shuddered. “Gods but this tastes like shit. This is why monster venom is not used by assassins. This right here.”
“You might as well say what’s on your mind,” Anastasia replied, turning to look at Aisling. “Not like you to dance around something.”
Aisling was silent for a long moment. “…You really wanna know?”
“I wouldn’t have asked otherwise.”
“Before that messenger showed up, I was going to ask you for a date.”
Anastasia looked away firmly. “That’s…”
“Aaand there’s him now, coming up the road.”
Aisling capped her flask and tucked it into its holder at her belt. “That’s a relief. This conversation was getting to the point where I’d have to punch someone just to make it less awkward.”
“I’m glad I wasn’t the only person thinking that.”
* * * *
The paladin glowed in an almost offensive fashion; his plate armor sheeted white light into the fog around him, and his mount radiated glory into the darkness of the early morning. He was older than Anastasia, though not by much, and human. Everything about him was groomed, from his carefully combed black hair to the polish on his equipment and the pure white tabard on his chest, depicting a gravestone wrapped in chains.
Aisling hated him immediately.
She hated the way he stared at her while he rode towards the gates, as though she were a chore to be handled. She hated his sneer and the way his eyes lingered over her ears. The paladin stopped and raised a hand with his eyes closed, and the Scarlet Princess spat onto the cobbles.
“Be you Aisling of Shatterdown, elf?” the paladin called out. Anastasia’s hand went instantly to Aisling’s shoulder, to hold her back from attacking. Aisling struggled for a moment and then settled down, seething.
“I am Princess Aisling, yes,” the Scarlet Princess answered. “Welcome to Shatterdown, Sir…?”
“Count,” the paladin corrected, dismissively. “Count von Thornholm.”
“Quit being a prat, Marcus,” Anastasia chided, squeezing Aisling’s shoulder. “We’re all friends here.”
“Unlike certain apprentices who need to learn better, I am not friends with those tainted by evil.”
I’m going to hang him by his own intestines here soon Aisling muttered over the telepathic network.
No hanging Sybil said firmly. You’ll break the deal.
Aisling, please. Just tolerate him, as a favor to me. I’ll owe you one Anastasia added.
The Scarlet Princess growled under her breath. “Please, enter. If your mount is mortal, we’ve stables ready. If not…well, we still have stables, with fine feed as my courtesy to it.”
“That will be quite unnecessary. I have my own supplies.” Marcus dismounted and dismissed his horse to the celestial realms, pointedly ignoring Aisling’s furious trembling. “Anastasia, it has been too long. How fares your apprenticeship? Though I rejoice in our mutual calling, I am eager to see it ended, and our wedding date set.”
“It ends when Sir Glasshammer deems me ready, as always,” Anastasia answered icily. “Did you come to observe my treatment and the city of Shatterdown, or are we going to sit here for a day and a night?”
“My apologies, Squire Luxan. Please, show me the sights.”
“It’s Princess Aisling’s city,” Anastasia replied. “I don’t rule here.”
“I sincerely doubt that she rules her either,” Count von Thornholm answered – only to find Aisling in his face. She’d moved through the fog like an arrow.
“You test my patience, paladin,” she murmured into his ear. “Anastasia has asked that I extend you my courtesy and hospitality, but both have their limits. I swear to you, in the name of Odin the Gallows-Lord, that if you continue to throw my hospitality in my face there will be difficulties. Difficulties that would place Anastasia in the position of her oath, her Order’s oath, being forsworn and you taking the blame.”
“You wouldn’t da-“
“You’d be amazed what I’d dare,” Aisling interrupted. “So let’s play nice so you can get the fuck out of my city and lie to your superiors about how awful it is, you shit-eating little bastard. Are we clear?”
Marcus looked from Anastasia to Aisling, clenched his jaw, and then nodded. Aisling whirled with a large, fake smile on her face and beckoned for him to follow.
“Welcome to Shatterdown, Sir Thornholm,” she sang out. The paladin clenched his fist and followed.
* * * *
The problems began almost immediately.
The patrons of the Protection Racket looked at the shouting paladin, who seemed shocked that they all took their eyes off of Duke. The drow knight sat at a back table, not to stay away from others but because it had the best lighting to read by. He looked up from his book with a raised eyebrow and glanced at Aisling.
“Duke, meet Count von Thornholm,” Aisling noted calmly. “Count, this is Duke, one of my Scum. He’s been training Anastasia.”
“He reeks of corruption,” the paladin said with a sneer.
“I think I prefer the dwarf,” Duke said mildly, before returning his gaze to his book. “Which may be the first time in the history of our mutual peoples that a drow has ever said such a thing. Bishop, would you be kind enough to inform your master that I respect his courtesies?”
“Yes, teacher,” Anastasia said politely.
Duke got up from the table and took his things with him. “I’ll be in my room. Anastasia, I’ll see you tonight. Aisling, don’t poison her this time. We’re training with Contessa, and I’d rather not see my student’s throat torn out when she misses her block.”
“Contessa?” Marcus asked. “Where did you dig up all these nobles, ‘Princess’?”
“I entitled them,” Aisling said with a shrug. “You know, the same place everyone else digs up nobles. They take a person, put them in charge of other people, raise them up like they’re special and then kill anyone who disagrees. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to hold court.”
It was, in Aisling’s opinion, almost worth having to deal with Marcus just for the sheer comic hilarity of the look on his face when she sat on her throne and declared court open in the bar.
* * * *
“This entire city is a farce! An insult to tradition, to our families and their heritage! And you sit here defending it to me?”
Anastasia turned her head; she and Marcus walked the marketplace, without the other Scum. The Rabble gave Ana wide smiles and a polite ‘Your Grace’ whenever they saw her, earning return smiles from the red-haired paladin and glares from von Thornholm. “Look at these people, Marcus. You’re not giving them a fair chance. There’s trade here! The people feel safe, happy. They bring their problems to a government who listens and, yeah, maybe Aisling is heavy-handed with punishments sometimes but she listens to reason.”
“She’s evil, Anastasia. She murdered her way to the seat she disrespects and runs this place for her own amusement and glorification.”
“Who the fuck cares?” Anastasia yelled, whirling on her fiancee. “Who cares? Huh? The people who can eat every day? The traders making a profit? The children who have clothes? Tell me who fucking cares, Marcus! Aisling does right by these people and even if she’s just doing it to get off on playing princess she’s still helping them. She’s poured endless time and effort into making Shatterdown what it is today. The fuck have you done lately?”
Marcus gave the redhead a cold glare. “You’ll watch how you speak to me, apprentice.”
“This is Shatterdown. I’ll do whatever I damn well please,” Anastasia answered icily. She walked away, leaving Marcus to sputter in impotent fury while the citizens of Shatterdown stared in surprise at him and at their Bishop.
* * * *
“That was cold as fuckin’ hell, Ana,” Aisling said with a laugh. “Oh man. We’re gonna get so fucked in his report.”
“My Master won’t listen to his…his juvenile bullshit,” Anastasia spat. “I might have my problems with you but that’s why I’m here. To watch. To learn. To decide for myself. He wrote you off before he ever came.”
“…Serious talk Ana, you know you can leave any time you like. I don’t give a fuck about the oath or the deal. I’ll take the consequences if you decide to walk.”
Anastasia gave Aisling an appraising look. “Why say that now? I’ve known that the whole time, ever since you took my threat to leave seriously instead of invoking my Order’s vow. They’d send someone else in my stead, if you were still willing to deal.”
“I dunno, felt the need to say it. And because I appreciate you sticking up for me. You didn’t have to.”
“Yeah, I did,” Anastasia said with a sideways smile. “You’re my friend. And being evil is not a crime, as Sir Glasshammer said. It’s no one’s right to treat you wrong because of how you show up to our powers.”
Aisling gave Anastasia a brief, tight hug. The paladin blinked in surprise for a moment, and then returned it. They separated with smiles on their faces.
And then Marcus opened his big mouth.
“You go too far, elf!” the paladin snapped from across the square, crossing the cobbles with angry strides. “You insult me, you mock my sacred heritage, and now you impose upon my betrothed. I will have satisfaction!” Marcus tore his gauntlet off of his hand and cast it onto the ground between himself and Aisling.
“Marcus -” Anastasia began, but Aisling put a hand on her shoulder and shook her head.
“You want to fight? Fine. I believe I get to dictate the terms of the duel, as the challenged party. If we’re talking civilized rules.”
Marcus folded his arms across his chest.
“Here, now. Weapons to hand. And you’ll be facing my champion.”
“Too afraid to fight me yourself, ‘Princess’?” Marcus sneered.
“No,” Aisling said with a shrug of her shoulders. “I just don’t want to taint my blade with your worthless blood. CONTESSA!”
The crowd immediately retreated to a far distance and put hard cover between itself and the brewing duel. Contessa strode forward with a wild grin on her face, thumbing the wooden handles on her pistols. She stopped in the street with her hips cocked and pulled a cloth mask marked with checker patterns up over her mouth and nose.
“You’d send a child to fight me?”
“I’m a legal adult in every nation I’m wanted in!” Contessa snapped. “You’re just scared of how far I’m going to shove you up my ass, you whiny little shit.”
“You will quit this city when I win, elf,” Marcus snarled.
“And you’ll call off the engagement when you lose, paladin,” Aisling answered, her gaze flinty.
“Deal,” the Count von Thornholm snarled. He hefted his morningstar from his belt and raised his shield.
Please don’t kill him Anastasia pleaded telepathically.
Princess? Contessa asked.
Do what Bishop says. He’s her problem, not mine.
“Be you ready?” Anastasia called out. Contessa pulled her pistols and grinned savagely; every inch of the barrels and handles crawled with glowing lines of psionic power.
“Ready,” Marcus answered, glaring hatefully at Contessa.
Marcus charged forward. Contessa twirled her pistols while her power enveloped her body; she blurred faintly as she took mastery over her personal timeline.
“Catch!” the teen cried, and then the hail bullets began, in nearly a solid wall of gunfire. Marcus was driven back by the sheer fury of it, his armor denting and buckling as he cried out in pain. Contessa’s arms moved like things possessed, squeezing out shot after shot while the human laughed her head off.
Marcus reached for a potion on his belt, only for the glass flask to be shot to tatters. Desperately, the paladin knelt and took cover behind his shield.
“What’s happening?” Anastasia asked, having to shout over the din.
“Contessa’s guns make ectoplasmic rounds. When she fights, she bends her personal timestream so that she can shoot faster and more accurately. Since she never runs out, this is the result.”
“He’s going to die!”
“Then he’d better fuckin’ surrender.”
Anastasia took one look at the sheer savage bliss on Contessa’s face and started yelling at Marcus. “Yield! Marcus, yield or she’s going to kill you!”
“Never!” the paladin snarled. Aisling sighed and quietly turned into a pool of spreading blood.
Marcus looked down when he felt the hot liquid soaking into his shoe, just in time to catch the pommel of Aisling’s saber to his chin. His head snapped up, and he slumped over in a limp heap.
For a moment, silence reigned in the street, with only the stink of phantasmal gunpowder to mar the peace.
“Someone get that caravan master out of the Racket and have him take this piece of shit with him. Ana, can you write a letter for Tromar explaining the situation?” Aisling asked.
“Yes, Princess,” Anastasia said primly. “Right away.”
* * * *
Duke gave Anastasia the night off, and the paladin decided to spend it sitting on the sill of her room’s window with Aisling, their feet on the roof of the Racket. Warm coffee steamed into the night.
“So, is it over?” Aisling asked, after a moment.
“My engagement definitely is. You might’ve broken terms, but I’ll marry a horse before I marry Marcus. Our troubles with him? No. You wounded his pride. He’ll be back, with friends.”
“Well fuck us,” Aisling muttered bitterly.
“Hey, at least one good thing came out of this for you.”
“Like what?” Aisling asked incredulously, still staring out over the city. Anastasia answered by placing a brief, chaste kiss on the tip of Aisling’s ear, turning the Princess’s cheeks scarlet.
“A date sometime sounds pretty nice,” Anastasia answered wryly.
“That…I mean…I -“
The red-haired paladin laughed prettily and held Aisling’s hand. “Just sit back and enjoy your coffee, Princess. We’ve got plenty of time.”