Anastasia walked towards the Protection Racket with her hand resting on her sword hilt; her training with Duke was set to begin in twenty minutees, and –
The front window shattered as Aisling and Duke flew out of it in a tangle of crashing fists and spat curses in half a dozen languages. The paladin took a step forward when Sybil’s voice shouted stay out of it! into her mind. Still, her eyes roamed the crowd to make sure the civilians were getting away from the fight and found, to her mild surprise, that the citizens of Shatterdown were forming a ring around the combatants. Anastasia moved quickly to get a good view.
Duke aimed a vicious punch at Aisling’s face, only for the Scarlet Princess to turn into a spreading pool of blood and slip free from his grip entirely. The drow let out a frustrated scream and leapt to his feet, bellowing “WEAPONS!” into the crowd. Aisling reformed on the other side of the ring and was handed her sheathed saber; on his side, Duke was passed his shield and longsword, and strapped the former to his right arm. Aisling buckled her sword to her belt and folded her arms.
“When are you gonna give this up, Duke?” the Scarlet Princess asked. “You haven’t beaten me yet. If you hate me so much, leave.”
“Never,” the drow snarled. “You took my honor from me, elf witch, and I will have it back.”
Aisling’s distant expression instantly twisted into fury, and the two combatants charged at the same time. Duke’s shield raised for an impact that never came – Aisling exploded into a wave of blood that formed back into an elf behind her opponent, and she stomped her boot into the small of the drow’s back, sending Duke sprawling.
“Never call me that!” Aisling screamed; lines of blood opened up down Duke’s face, making him growl in pain. He rolled to avoid a vicious stomp and hopped to his feet; the drow barely managed to get his shield up in time to block Aisling’s launched sword hilt. The Scarlet Princess caught her saber by the hilt and slashed. The blade erupted with crimson light that spread past Duke’s parry and burrowed into his skin.
Anastasia winced when she saw that Duke’s movements were like fighting his way through water.
Aisling sidestepped a slowed-down slash and kicked Duke’s shield aside before laying his cheek open with a backhanded slash. The spray of blood fell just short of the crowd, which stepped back in shock. Duke tried to jump back, but Aisling raised her hand and pulled; the red glow surrounding Duke was mirrored between her fingers, and the drow found himself teleported into a slash that slid between the gaps of his plate and let out a gout of blood from his ribs.
Duke staggered back and went down to one knee, then hit the ground when Aisling kicked his jaw so hard that it broke.
“Like it or not, I am your rightful fucking ruler, by your own twisted, backwards laws,” Aisling snarled. Duke tried in vain to reach his sword; the Princess broke his wrist when she stomped on it. “The next time you speak to me like that, I’ll put a necklace of adaptation on you, then drop you into the fucking ocean. I hope we’re clear.”
Duke tried to say something, and when he couldn’t, nodded instead. Aisling tore his throat from ear to ear with an idle flick of her blade.
“SYBIL!” Aisling shouted, as she walked away. “Make sure this ingrate doesn’t die. No one fuckin’ bother me.”
Anastasia watched in mute shock as the crowd parted to let Aisling, still splattered with her subordinate’s blood, walk into the Protection Racket – and to let Sybil run out of it to save his life.
* * * *
Miles away, on the night seas, the Fetch cut its way through the waters. It had been three weeks since Margrave was sent out, and now he had the information that Aisling required. He stood at the helm, surveying the sea even this late at night.
Margrave did not sleep much any more. One of Contessa’s more curious gifts to hm had been a meditation aid that let him go without the practice without harming his mind. He slept when he had a mind to dream, and on days sacred to his god, Morpheus.
“Captain Margrave!” the lookout called. “Vessel to starboard! Looks like a merchant freighter. She’s heavy on the water, sir.”
“Slaver?” Margrave asked.
“No sir,” the lookout answered.
Margrave thought for a long moment. “Change course. We’re going to take her.”
“Sir?” Margrave’s second mate, Anka Moonhallow – a tiefling he’d hired for a song and dance routine some twenty years ago – asked from next to him. “Princess Aisling’s orders -“
“Aisling will forgive us when we bring in the plunder,” Margrave said with a curt motion. “Battle stations! Mister Greene, the wytch-shroud if you’d be so kind.”
The deck of the Fetch crackled with energy for a moment, and then the ship, and her crew, vanished from sight and sound of the sea around them.
“We can afford to indulge,” Margrave said with a wicked grin.
* * * *
Anastasia stormed into the common room of the Protection Racket, where Duke was recovering; the drow was propped up in a chair, an angry scar across his throat.
“You want to tell me what in the unholy fuck I just watched?” Anastasia demanded. Duke looked up, and instead of anger there, the paladin saw shame and sorrow. The utter defeat in Duke’s eyes drained her fury and slowed her stride.
“It is ancient law,” Duke murmured. “My people are never taken alive. Never captured, only slain. A knight of the surface spared my life, and I revenged myself upon him. I encountered Aisling in the wilderness, and we did battle. She defeated me, and spared my life. For fifteen years I have tried to regain my honor, since before she came to this accursed city, since before she was the Scarlet Princess. Fifteen years and I have never come close.”
The drow sighed. “Go away, paladin.”
Anastasia sat down instead and took a deep breath. “No.”
“Why?” Duke spat. “Why should you care? I was beaten and done. Have you come to mock my pain with your human pity, girl? In other circumstances you would gut me and feel less remorse than cleaning the evening catch for dinner.”
“Maybe,” Anastasia answered with a shrug. “But in this circumstance you’re my teacher, and…” she hesitated for only a moment. “My friend. It occurs to me that I don’t know much about the drow.”
Duke gave Anastasia a look caught somewhere between curiosity and anger. “…My culture is unusual amongst the dark elves. We are the favored of Set, the Lord of Night, and make war in His name.”
“Tell me about them,” the paladin insisted, gently.
There was a long silence, but in the end, Duke started, for the first time since the dark elves fell, to tell another race of the ways of his people.
* * * *
The Fetch glided alongside the merchant freighter – the Spinning Coin – cloaked in the power of the wytch-shroud. Margrave’s crew stood ready, weapons easily to hand and cannon crews prepared, though the guns weren’t loaded. If everything went right, they wouldn’t need to be.
“Prepare yourselves!” Margrave called out. He set his hand on a crystal focus set into the main mast. He closed his eyes and tasted of the minds around him, seeking out those on the Coin. Slowly, but surely, his power moved through the crystal and wormed its way into their minds over the course of long minutes.
“Drop the shroud!” Margrave called, and in the blink of an eye, the Fetch was in view once more.
This is what the crew of the Spinning Coin saw.
The Fetch‘s rotting timbers were washed with a mixture of blood and ash, and the charnal stench of it assaulted their noses. A greasy film spread from the ship into the sea around it, illuminated by sickly green witch-lights that displayed the crew – each and every one of them the mutilated corpses of the spouses, brothers, or children of the Coin’s crew. And standing near the mast, cloaked in black and bearing a chain of bones that writhed in its bony fingers, was Death Itself, staring silently at the Coin.
As one, the crew of the freighter screamed, clutching at their skulls and sobbing. Their last thoughts before they blacked out were of mind-searing terror.
Then two warships faded into view on either side of the Fetch with their colors raised.
“It’s a trap!” Anka called, pointlessly. The crew didn’t panic, and neither did Margrave.
“Hard to port!” the pirate captain shouted. “Load the kinslayer rounds!”