“Everyone’s up to important shit,” Contessa said – continued, really – after a long pull at something pretending to be just one drink so it could lie about containing six. “Duke’s got that cult-thing goin’ on out there in the damn Dunes, and, and whatever else he’s doing, Margrave’s just gone all the time now. Aisling and Ana got married, the fuckin’, the bastards, bein’ happy. Sybil’s always busy, all the time, just constantly, and like, I could, I can talk to her but she always has this sad look in her eyes whenever I try to explain anything and I don’t want pity, I don’t! I don’t – my glass is empty.”
The bartender at the Protection Racket, currently one Ms. Nancy Oak, touched the teen’s glass. “I think you’ve had enough, Maddie.”
The bar froze at the sound of a hammer being cocked back. One of Contessa’s guns tilted Nancy’s chin up; no one had even seen the young woman draw it.
“Ask me if I won’t,” Contessa whispered, her voice harsh. “Ask me if I care.”
Ana’s voice. The gun went back to Contessa’s belt as fast as it had left its holster. Nancy took the glass, firmly, and retreated into the kitchen with it while Anastasia Luxan, Knight of the Tainted Cup, crossed the floor of the Protection Racket.
“Sorry Ana,” Contessa said, without feeling. Her head went down on the bar with a soft ‘thunk’.
Ana put a hand on Contessa’s shoulder. “I’m not the one you just held up at gunpoint over a cocktail,” the paladin said in a soft voice. “I thought we talked about this.”
“Just wanted a drink,” the teen said into the counter. “Been havin’ a hard time.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Should we talk about it?” Anastasia pressed.
Contessa sighed, heavily. “Probably. Sober.”
“I’ll walk you home.”
* * * * *
Kestrel observed the mugging from ten feet up, perched on the roof of a building in Asheholm’s cavernous Dark District. Normally she would have intervened far earlier, but the victim had spotted her and was enjoying himself. Kes flashed a grin when his mugger sputtered in disbelief.
“Whaddya mean, no?” the would-be assailant – human, with a distinct limp and a certain ‘patch it until it falls off your body entirely’ look to his clothes – asked in disbelief. “I’ve got a fuckin’ sword here. Are ya tryin’ to die? There’s places to help with that in this fuckin’ city?”
The victim, a halfling lad currently sporting a grin about his own size, shrugged. “I don’t find your offer compelling. What am I getting by giving you all my money?”
“You’re not gettin’ fuckin’ stabbed!” the mugger pointed out in disbelief. “How hard is that to figure out?”
Behind him, Kestrel hopped down, brown-feathered wings appearing and extending to slow her flight into a silent, drifting fall. The elf laid the flat of her claymore on top of the mugger’s shoulder just before she hit the stone street and laughed, lightly, when he froze up in terror and recognition.
“It’s the bleedin’ Angel, isn’t it?” he asked his victim.
“She’s been here the whole time,” the halfling confessed. “My many thanks, Kestrel.”
“Don’t mention it, Mouse.” Kestrel coughed, significantly; the mugger’s short sword was passed back to her in short order, and he slowly got down to his knees with his hands behind his head. “Fredrick. We keep meeting like this.”
“You wouldn’t if you just killed the bastard,” the halfling – Mouse – said helpfully.
“Walk away, Mouse.”
“Yes ma’am.” Mouse waved and walked past the two of them, going the rest of the way through the alley and back about his business. Once he was gone, Kestrel lifted her blade and, with care, placed it in its sheath across the small of her back. Asheholm’s alleys didn’t lack for garbage bins and locked storage crates, and the elf picked one to sit up on and gestured for Fredrick to do the same. The man stood up, dusted himself off, and found a seat, his head hung low to avoid looking at Kestrel.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Kestrel began, in kind tones. “I don’t want this to keep happening either, though. Meet me halfway here, Fredrick. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I owe people money,” Fredrick said, after a long moment. “Nothin’ you haven’t heard before. I’m sure lots of people owe other people money.”
“I know there’s ships hiring,” Kestrel pointed out. “Who or what do they have of yours?”
Fredrick hesitated. “I shouldn’t say. They’ll kill me, or worse.”
“Fredrick, if we keep doing this, I am going to have to kill you. Or you can tell me what’s wrong, and I can help you fix it. This is my turf, I have promises to the people on it that I have to keep. Don’t make me keep them on top of your body, please.”
Someone shut their window across the street from the alley’s mouth, plunging the already-dim passageway into a grey, stretched darkness. In it, the broken teardrop on Kestrel’s tabard glowed with a faint blue light that rippled on the alley walls like water.
“It’s them Twist Street Boys,” he said at last. “The newcomers, yeah? They got my books all locked up, the ones I scrimped and saved for. I borrowed from ’em, to put my daughter through an honest education over in Shatterdown. She’s outta their reach, but those books, those’re hers, I gotta send ’em for her schooling. It sounds so stupid…”
Kestrel crossed the alley in a flutter of wings and set a hand on Fredrick’s shoulder. “How much do you owe?”
“A clean thousand crowns, plus interest,” he answered, miserably.
“Mm. Alright, let’s go get your books back, and anything else they’ve got over people. We’ll need to stop by the Money Pit first.”
“You’ll just pay off my debt?” Fredrick asked in disbelief.
* * * * *
Getting the morose teen home had been easy enough. Anastasia told the Reeve, who helped administer Contessa’s Downwind District, that his mistress was indisposed.
“I am unsurprised,” the half-orc man sighed. In Ana’s arms, Contessa made a half-hearted attempt to slug him on the arm, which ended in the paladin stopping her from falling flat on her face. “Madeline, we’re all worried about you. You haven’t changed clothes in a week, or left this workshop except to drink. You have responsibilities -”
Contessa barked out a bitter laugh. “You have responsibilities. My ‘rule’ is a fucking joke and you know it. You all, you all know it, nobody really thinks I run the Downwind, you can’t play that card on me.”
“Is she always this angry when she’s drunk?” Ana asked, worried, while she escorted her friend towards the cot which, by virtue of not being piled with projects, supplies, or books, had to be Contessa’s bed. Coaxing the young woman into it was easier than Ana had feared it might be.
The Reeve pulled up one of the workshop’s many reinforced bar stools and sat, heavily. Seneschals, viziers, and other seconds-in-command the world over could lay claim to many innovations, but the Reeve might just have been the first to invent formal wear with blast padding. He dug a wooden case out of one of the many pockets of his long jacket and shook a cigar from it; Anastasia politely declined his offer of one with an upraised hand.
“Usually,” the Reeve admitted, striking his match. He lit his cigar, brown eyes watching as Contessa drifted off towards an uneasy sleep. “…She is like your wife in some ways. She tries to get mad instead of sad, and ends up both.”
“Fuck you guys,” Contessa mumbled, blearily. The girl offered no resistance when Anastasia turned her over on her side. “Carin’ an’ shit, I didn’t…I didn’t ask you to care…fuckin’…blanket…”
The paladin pulled the blanket bunched-up at the foot of the cot up over the teen’s shoulders, leaving only her small head and its mop of gray hair (still glowing at the tips, which smoked faintly – a trophy from the Wolfbrood attack a little more than a year ago) visible.
“She’s getting worse,” Anastasia murmured.
The Reeve exhaled a long cloud of smoke and nodded, after a moment.
* * * * *
The Money Pit had three rare commodities in a port-city inn and tavern: relative quiet, quality drinks, and single-digit deaths per year. Some of that had to do with the fact that Kestrel lived in and operated out of it. Most of it had to do with the proprietor’s shotgun and the fact that he’d spent an entire human lifetime learning to be done with people’s shit. Rowdy customers got hit with a rock salt round as a warning. Actual killers, or anyone dumb enough not to realize Jack was being nice, got lead slugs.
“There’s a guest for you, Kes,” Jack said the moment she crossed the threshold into his tavern. “They’re -”
“Going to have to wait, Jack, I am very sorry. I need the diamond bag if you’d be so kind.” Kestrel whapped Fredrick with a wing (the appendage faded as fast as it had appeared) when he went to sit. “We’re not staying, Fredrick. Also, Fredrick, Jack, Jack, Fredrick.”
Fredrick had thought himself old by Asheolm standards and quickly revised his worldview. Jack was worn and grey, scarred from a violent youth, and had to be pushing eighty if he was a day. “Um. My pleasure, Grandfather,” he said, with an uncertain half-bow.
“I think I like this one.” Jack chuckled. His hand hunted under the counter for a moment before coming up with a plain leather bag, which he tossed. Kestrel caught it, peeked inside, and nodded. “What’s going down?”
“The Twist Street Boys are running a racket,” Kestrel answered. “I’m going to go see about it.”
“I’ll have a bath drawn, then,” Jack said. “And inform your guest that they’ll need to wait.”
“Who is it, anyway?”
“You don’t want to know right before a fight.”
Fredrick looked from one to the other with an expression of vague shock, but Kestrel was already leaving. He hurried to catch up to her. “A fight? Then why the diamonds?”
“They aren’t diamonds.” Kestrel tucked a strand of white-blonde hair behind her pointed ear. “They’re glass. I don’t like racketeers, Fredrick, but I give most people a chance to realize that Asheholm is changing for the better. The Twist Street Boys can be part of that, or they can make another choice.”
“…And the fake diamonds?”
“I used real diamonds once and never saw them again. Glass is cheap.”
* * * * *
Contessa woke slowly, to the sound of soft conversation and a faint click of wood-on-wood.
“It still amazes me that you play,” Anastasia said. “I would have thought chess was too slow for you.”
“Sybil got me into it,” Aisling said in turn. “Back when we’d first met and we were having a…you know, no, ‘having a fling’ is probably the wrong thing. We had somethin’, though, for a little while.”
“What happened?” Ana asked, her voice all curiosity. Contessa opened her eyes and managed not to regret it; her workshop was dim, and Aisling was playing chess with her wife by the small light of a single candle. “And why is this the first I’m hearing of it?”
“Ana, my love, light of my life, if you want the list of everyone I’ve ever dated or slept with we’ll be here for the next year. As for Sybil, we both realized that we were better friends than lovers and left it at that. Maddie’s awake.”
“How do you always know?” Contessa groaned from her cot.
“It’s the way your breathing changes when you wake up and realize you’re hung over.” Aisling got up from the board and brought over a cup from the table. “Water. Willow’s been steeping in it, so you might as well get it over with.”
“I think I might rather die.”
“Not your shot to call, Maddie.”
Contessa sat up slowly, took the cup from Aisling, and sighed. After a moment the teen pinched her nose and downed the contents in one go. She shuddered while she handed the cup back over to her friend. “Thanks. I guess.”
“You threatened my bartender last night, Maddie.” Aisling pulled her stool over so she could sit in front of Contessa. “You wanna tell me what that’s about?”
Contessa looked away from Aisling and stared at the floor instead. “Just been having a rough time, I guess.”
“I can tell, but that’s not an answer. Everyone’s worried about you, Contessa.”
“I’m sorry, okay!” Contessa snapped. “Don’t you have a moonlit walk on the beach to go have or something?”
“You wanna be this way about it, take your best shot,” Aisling warned in a low, hard voice. “And then when I’m done whipping your ass up and down this town, we get to have this conversation anyway.”
Contessa’s hand strayed to the handle of her gun for a moment. Aisling tensed up in turn.
Contessa looked behind the Scarlet Princess and caught the look of worry and sorrow on Anastasia’s face, and the anger drained out of her in an enervating rush. The teen hung her head, tears standing out in the corners of her eyes. “I don’t like being like this, alright?” she whispered. “…I don’t. And I don’t know how to stop. Everyone I’ve ever explained my shit to has just gotten all sad and angry. I can’t blame ’em either…”
“Maddie…what would you think of taking some time off?” Aisling proposed. “I’ve been talking to Margrave, who has…you know, personal experience. He thinks the chance to spend some time away from Shatterdown, away from your responsibilities, maybe take in a change of scenery, might be good for you. He’s shipping out to Asheholm tomorrow, and you can get anywhere from there.”
“You want me to leave?” Contessa asked, eyes snapping up in shock and disbelief.
“Yeah, and then come back. I do like you, y’know. Even on your bad days.” Aisling brushed some of Contessa’s hair out of her eyes. “You’re gonna light your damn fool head on fire if you don’t take care of yourself, Maddie. You know that?”
Contessa bit her lip. She looked from Aisling to Anastasia, then at her workshop. “I wanna talk to Margrave about it. I’ll go do that now. Right now.”
“Good plan,” Aisling agreed. She watched as Contessa went straight for the door, without bothering to change clothes.
“Are you sure this is the right thing?” Anastasia asked, once Contessa was gone.
“She’s gonna kill someone by the time this is all said and done.” Aisling sighed and dragged her stool back over to the chessboard. “I’m inclined to trust Margrave where Maddie’s concerned. And what else are we going to do? The kid’s had a shitty life. We can try to help her get better and accept that she’s gonna fuck up along the way, or we can put her down. You willing to be the one to do that?”
“No,” Ana admitted, uncomfortably. “She deserves better than that.”
“Yeah. Moral dilemmas are a bitch when you get to know people.” Aisling moved one of her knights on the board. “Going back to earlier, incidentally, you haven’t told me much about your dating life before Shatterdown. Obviously you play both sides of the board, same as me.”
“What? No I don’t.” Ana gave her wife a curious look.
“…You were engaged to a man, Ana.”
“Well, yes, for my family’s honor.”
“Gods in Asgard, you are going to drive me into an early grave.”