Shatterdown’s festive air did not quite last; though its citizens still tied ribbons to the buildings, the buzz of activity that had been the search for the ribbon had become a grim series of drills and training, with the Rabble keeping watch over the streets. Contessa’s workshop had flooded with assistants to help the teen produce firearms and ammunition; rifles passed from the shop to the crates, and from there to defensible positions and rooftops all over the city.
All of which kept the Protection Racket mercifully empty while the rest of the Scum had a screaming row.
“You can’t just sit on it, Aisling!” Sybil snapped. “We need to figure out how it’s used, use it, and be done with it! Problem solved, danger over, everyone gets to go home!”
“Speak to her with more respect,” Duke growled. Sybil rounded on him, only to find the flat of Anastasia’s broadsword between the two of their faces.
“Why don’t we let Aisling talk,” the paladin said softly. Her new armor – fitted for her in gratitude by local smiths and dusted with a scattering of protective wards – gleamed softly in the light, though she had not yet had the chance to replace her tabard. Her new helm, open-faced and split by a nose bar, rested on the table in front of her.
Anastasia sheathed her blade as Aisling cleared her throat. “I realize I sound insane,” the Scarlet Princess said quietly, “but I promise you, I’m not any crazier than usual. Jasmine wants revenge. This is her tool for that revenge, but I know her. She’s cunning, sure, but she’s not a tactician or a warrior. She won’t take her prize and flee, because that’d be missing the point. She’ll summon the Fenris Wolf here, in Shatterdown, on the ashes of everything I’ve built. And that’s when we’ll get her.”
Margrave spoke up. “As a lich, Jasmine is very, very hard to kill. But if we can capture her current form, Contessa can trace it back to her phylactery, permitting us to put her down.”
“Additionally,” Aisling cut in, “we’ll break the power of her gathered Wolfbrood, do some good for the region in general, and demonstrate once and for all that Shatterdown can hold its own.”
“Is that worth the lives of your citizens?” Sybil accused. Aisling met her gaze steadily.
“I don’t think destroying the ribbon is going to save them,” the Princess said softly. “I think it’ll just make Jasmine retreat and think of a new plan, one we won’t necessarily have the same intelligence about. And in the meantime it’ll unleash her army of cultists on the general region, and I’m not going to be the asshole that pulls that trigger. I appreciate your concern, I really do. But one of us is the Princess here, and she’s putting her foot down. Duke, go over your plan to defend your district, for the group’s benefit…”
As Duke began speaking, Anastasia looked at Sybil.
Tell me she’s doing the right thing, Sybil whispered in Anastasia’s mind.
I’m not sure there is a right thing here, the paladin said regretfully. But I think it’s probably the least wrong one.
Alright. I’ll buy that for a clipped copper.
* * * *
“Hey! Hey, yer that Bishop, right?”
The half-elf Anastasia saw when she turned around was, for lack of any more appropriate word, crooked. She had crooked teeth in a crooked smile; her head was cocked a little to the side, like a bird, and the weight of her massive pack made her lean as if in a stiff breeze. Her face was dirty with soot and travel dust.
“Nice t’meet’cha,” the half-elf continued, shaking Anastasia’s hand warmly. The two stood in the street, the paladin blinking in confusion and the half-elf’s grin widening, like a salesman’s. “I’m Levie. Levie, ah, Glasshammer, daughter of Undercount Rorek and ain’t that right, just kinda give me a flabbergasted look and definitely don’t scream or nothin’ ’cause I’m on strictest orders not to let anyone else know that last part. I love droppin’ the ball on paladins, your little jaws always work like ye’ve got taffy in yer teeth and then -“
“Tromar is breaking his word,” Anastasia accused in a low hiss.
“Haven’t you heard that a paladin never breaks his word? I ain’t here on Tromar’s orders. In fact, he don’t even know I’m here,” Levie said proudly, taking a deep breath and swelling visibly with pride. “In point o’ fact I’m here on direct orders from His Majesty the King Below, Alviss the Glass Hammer. I’m here to observe, as it were. An’ to lend a hand preserving innocent lives, if such a thing needs doing.”
Anastasia blinked quietly. “And I’m to know this because…?”
“Because it’d be awkward if you found out later an’ were to tell, f’rinstance, Aisling and her Scum about me,” Levie said patiently, clapping the paladin’s shoulder. “Look, I know it’s all odd right now but I promise I don’t mean any ill will to you or yours, or to her or hers, or for the city of Shatterdown, and I’ll promise it on the stone o’ me halls, in the name o’ my clan, on my unsullied honor, and with Thor as my witness, an’ may I be cast into the Halls of Pain if I’m false. Past that, it’s whether or not ye trust me. Whaddya say?”
Anastasia looked Levie in the eyes for a long moment and then, finally, nodded. “I trust you. Clan Glasshammer is welcome here, and I’ll keep your silence.”
“I appreciate it, Bishop. Now, if you’ll ‘scuse me, I’m seein’ some high buildings lacking in lightning rods and I’ma go see if I can’t make a profit while I’m here.”
Levie clanked her way down the street, whistling a mining song. Anastasia grinned in spite of herself and murmured the chorus.
“I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go…”
* * * *
Anastasia met with Duke for her evening lesson, just as the sun fell. The drow had asked her to meet him in the silence of one of Shatterdown’s parks, and there the paladin found him, waiting quietly with a solemn expression on his face.
“You have proven to be one of my most talented students,” Duke said quietly. “You fight with ferocity, cunning, and zeal. And, maybe more importantly, you have taken what I’ve taught you and made it your own. You did not become my mirror, nor did you permit me to shape you by childishly defying me at every turn. I wish my sons had your backbone.”
“I…you have been a good teacher, Duke,” Anastasia said shyly.
“Time will tell if that is true,” the drow said simply, standing straight. “You have graduated past being merely my student. Aisling’s accounting of your valor in the dragon’s tomb places you well beyond the station of a squire or apprentice. Kneel, Anastasia Luxan.”
The paladin sank to one knee, her gaze on Duke’s solemn expression. The drow drew his broadsword and laid its flat across her shoulder. “Lord of Sands,” Duke said formally, “witness now the rise to power of one taught by my hand. Though she is a stranger to You and to Your power, in my own name and on my unsullied word I vow here, in Your night and with You as my witness, that she is possessed of valor, to defend her cause, fury, to smite her enemies, conviction, to follow her path, and cunning, to fulfill her ambitions. Anastasia Luxan, do you crave the glory of knighthood, the power of the sword, and the sheltering embrace of your shield?”
“I do,” Anastasia answered firmly; the paladin could feel a sense of reverence, and of the night watching her, somehow. Duke drew his sword back and sheathed it; he knelt formally before Anastasia and drew a dagger from its sheath on her belt. He made a series of cuts on her left cheek, and then her right, too swift and sharp for the pain to register immediately. Anastasia felt red blood flowing before she felt the sting of the cuts themselves.
Duke took her hand in his own, the knife held in his other hand with the point down. “Then rise a knight, Lady Luxan.”
The two stood and looked at each other for a long moment. And then, Anastasia pulled her mentor into a tight hugs.
“Try not to make Aisling kill you,” the paladin said, her voice tight with emotion. “There’s so much more I want to learn from you.”
“I can make no promises,” Duke confessed; he tried to return the hug, though his embrace was awkward and unpracticed. “The mark on your cheeks is called the was. It is a symbol associated with Set, and in this context will mark you to the drow, to my people, as one who is recognized as one of us. It entitles you to the legal rights and dangers of being a drow, with all that implies.”
Anastasia’s blush made the fresh cuts on her cheeks stand out. “You honor me.”
“You earned it.”
* * * *
The bait is set, Aisling said to Sybil, as she walked to Contessa’s workshop. You’re sure you can track it?
As sure as I can be, Sybil answered. Contessa’s device appears to be sound.
Don’t lose sight of the ribbon. I’m going to ask Contessa a few questions.
The door to the workshop was ajar, and Aisling pushed it open slowly to avoid disturbing the teen if she was in the middle of something delicate. But the teen wasn’t; she sat on one of her workbenches, tears running down her face, and looked up at Margrave with a pleading expression. The maenad pirate looked sorrowful, and he held Contessa’s hand in his own.
“Why not?” the girl whispered.
“Maddie,” Margrave said softly. “You haven’t done anything wrong. You’re a wonderful, intelligent girl. You’re dearer to me than my own heart, and I’d die for you without a second thought or a word of regret. My life is better for knowing you, but I do not love you the way you want me to. You deserved to know the truth of it, and I am sorry that it is not what you wanted to hear. I…I hope you know the full extent of my meaning when I say that nothing scares me more than the thought of losing your friendship.”
Contessa bit her lip and nodded. She tried to hold back a sob, but when Margrave drew her into a quiet hug the teen cried openly, her shoulders shaking with it.
“I am sorry,” Margrave murmured.
Silently, Aisling backed out of the doorway and drew the door nearly closed behind her.
* * * *
Kestrel never saw it coming.
The Ragged Angel lounged in a tree, reading by lamplight and tied into her sleeping roll. It’d been a long day, but Kestrel was feeling more welcome in Shatterdown, and it was nice to see her sister around people that could make her smile. It’d been so long since they really talked.
The elf had just turned her page when she heard something below her snap. Her eyes flicked down, just as a needle hit her in the neck. She had just enough time to pull out the dart and note the sheen of poison on its tip before her vision went blurry.
“Leave her,” a hollow voice ordered, as Kestrel faded into blackness. “Lord Fenris will destroy her on the morrow.”
* * * *
Aisling swept into the common room of the Protection Racket with a purpose, making a beeline for Anastasia’s table. The paladin stood, a look of concern on her face; she’d scrubbed the blood from her cheeks, leaving behind the scabbed cuts. When Aisling pulled her close and kissed her, the sheer shock of it made the paladin’s face blush scarlet and left her stammering wordlessly.
“I love you, you confusing, infuriating, wonderful little puppy knight,” Aisling murmured, before letting Ana go and turning away just as fast as she came.
The common room was deathly silent after Aisling vanished upstairs.
“I,” Anastasia said slowly, still in a daze. “I should go after her?”
As one, nearly three dozen people nodded at her.
“Right. I’ma. I’ma go do that.”