“Here, hold this.”
Anastasia stopped in the doorway of Contessa’s, for lack of a more accurate word, workshop, and looked at the small metal cube that had been thrust into her hand. Contessa, for her part, moved back to her workbench; the teen perched on the edge of a thoroughly reinforced barstool that was now more metal than wood and peered curiously at the red-haired paladin. Partially-finished projects littered the room in various states of disturbance. Most had been touched or improved upon recently by Contessa, and the sandy-haired teen was sticky with a mixture of oils, powders, and gem dust that covered everything but her hands and eyes.
Contessa compulsively adjusted the goggles that rested at her hairline. “Okay. I’m going to activate it, try not to move!”
“Contessa, what’re you -” Ana’s protest was cut off when Contessa raised a slender hand. The tattoos crawling up her arm glowed briefly, shining through the grime, and the box in Anastasia’s hand began emitting a low, fearful tune, all strings and drums. The paladin looked down in confusion, and the music changed, shifting to a questioning hesitant rhythm.
“What is this?” Anastasia asked.
“Expresses your feelings with music,” Contessa said dismissively, turning back to the work bench. “Thought it’d be cool, and it is. Now I’m done with it. Do you want it?”
“But – I couldn’t possibly -”
“Done then, all yours. Don’t let Margrave touch it, you’ll live to regret that. I love ‘im but he’s a fuckin’ creep, Ana. He’s a creep the way Duke’s an asshole or you’re a puppy.”
“I am not a puppy!” Anastasia snapped hotly. “I am a paladin! Supposedly I’m one of you, too, in case you forgot. Bishop, was it?”
“You don’t like that name,” Contessa said with a shrug. She sorted through her carefully-arranged tools – their clean shine standing out against her soiled clothes – and picked up a hammer and chisel, with which she began to carefully chip at a cobblestone in a clamp. “You didn’t earn it, and you hate that we just gave it to you. It bothers you more than Aisling does, doesn’t it? Picks at your fuckin’ mind. Makes you mad.”
Anastasia stopped, and the box shifted from angry, offended music to something slower, and more thoughtful.
“What’d you come here for anyway?” Contessa asked, favoring Anastasia with a winsome smile. She slipped the goggles down before continuing to carve.
“I’d wanted to ask more about you. And, well, Aisling,” the paladin answered honestly. She stepped into the workshop proper, the miniature orchestra in her hand reflecting her curiosity. “What’s your role in the Scum? In Aisling’s government? And, well, what can you tell me about the Scarlet Princess?”
“The Princess, or Aisling of Shatterdown?” Contessa asked; she chewed her lip while she worked. “They’re very different, except where they’re alike.”
“Why don’t we start with you?”
Contessa paused in her carving and laid her hand on the cobblestone. Light flowed down her tattoos and into the carvings, filling them slowly with a slow blue river.
“Well, my real name’s Maddie,” Contessa began. “I’m wanted in eight different nations. I like building things, and un-building things, and also smashing things. When Aisling came to this place I was mostly just blowing shit up for the hell of it. She offered me full funding! And this lab, and tools, and work that’d really inspire me, and all I had to do was not blow shit up unless she asked or I was defending myself. So I build stuff instead. All kinds of stuff.”
Anastasia paused to look over Contessa’s shoulder. “Such as?”
“The harbor guns – The Sound and the Fury! I had so much fun with those. Or these!” She gestured to the stone beneath her fingers, “We put them in the roads all over the city. When the Rabble say the right trigger word, they summon astral constructs to fight for them! Instant backup!”
Contessa turned on her stool, her hand still on the stone.
“I still miss blowing shit up but Aisling knows what it’s like. I still have fun. Sometimes there’s a demolition project and I hafta get, y’know, clever. Blow just one thing up, you know? Or maybe you don’t.”
“Why the fascination with destruction?” Anastasia asked, her tone low and gentle.
“Everything dies. You, me. My projects, this building, the guilty, the innocent. The gods. Everything dies, and most of it dies horribly, screaming for mercy from a universe that doesn’t care. I’m looking for something that won’t.”
* * * *
Anastasia’s breath left her lungs in a painful burst when she hit the wall at full force. Duke gave her no reprieve; the drow knight followed up by driving his shield into her body, crushing her between his charge and the unforgiving bricks. He held her there for a moment and then took a single step back. Anastasia fell to her knees, stars bursting in her vision as she gasped for air. It was nearly midnight.
“Again,” the drow commanded pitilessly, as he walked away. He turned to face her across the square and resumed his fighting stance, with his shield high and his sword ready. Ana forced her way to her feet and shook her head at Sybil’s concerned look. The paladin muttered a brief prayer and laid her hand over her chain mail, wincing as her healing power undid the damage.
When she had first met Duke, he had spat in her face. Now he trained her just as hard as Sir Tromar ever did, with patience that belied his brutality. The drow favored blackened mithral plate armor and a broad kite shield, neither with ornamentation of any kind. His equipment had a stark quality that was an aesthetic of its own; nothing the drow owned did not have an entirely practical use.
“What’d you do wrong?” Duke demanded, when the paladin settled back into her own stance.
“Footing was wrong, sir,” Anastasia answered obediently. “I did not meet your charge correctly.”
“Good. Come and get me.”
Anastasia hesitated, and at the sight of her doubt Duke roared and pounded his shield with the flat of his blade. The paladin charged, in a near-flawless imitation of the maneuver that had so recently abused her ribs, and Duke met her charge with fearless grace. Their shields met with a crash that echoed through the streets and both combatants bounced away from each other. Anastasia parried Duke’s follow-up blow and stepped into his guard to shoulder-check the drow. Duke staggered back with an appraising look.
“Bleed me and you can leave early tonight,” the drow offered. Anastasia mulled it over, and then she nodded. Both warriors circled each other warily, snapping out quick, safe strikes to test each other’s reflexes.
As if on an unspoken signal, both attacked.
* * * *
Contessa took her hand from the cobblestone and turned to face Anastasia with her full attention. “What’d you want to know about Aisling?”
“I -” what did Anastasia want to know? The paladin found herself at a loss for words, and she chewed her lip uncertainly while her music box played a jangle of discordant notes.
“Not exactly your idea of a tyrannical warlord, huh?” Contessa prompted. Anastasia nodded.
“I just. Shatterdown had a government before, an elected government. If the people were unhappy with it, why didn’t they change it?”
Contessa shrugged. “Fear. Corruption. Divisions. But Aisling didn’t care about any of that. She wanted to be a princess, and she needed a princedom for that. So she took it. If people wouldn’t cooperate with each other, she forced them to. If they fought her, she killed them or drove them out. And now that she’s got it, she wants it to be a nice place to live, and work, and visit, and be.”
“Why? Why not just feast on the misery of her subjects like so many others would after they fought and bled to have their…their glittery barstool.”
Contessa looked thoughtful at that. “Does Aisling seem happy with who she is?” the teen finally asked.
“No,” Anastasia answered without hesitation.
“Ever think maybe she’s trying to be someone else, but doesn’t know how?”
* * * *
Anastasia’s blade met Duke’s in an echoing clash. She ducked a punch from his shield and rose with one of her own, a vicious uppercut with the targe on her arm that streamed holy energy. The drow screamed as the purity burnt his flesh and sent him staggering back, clutching at his jaw and cursing in six languages. A trickle of blood leaked from his lips.
Sybil got up from the crate she was sitting on to examine Duke’s wound and healed it without comment. The drow set down his shield and glared at Anastasia.
“Good,” he complimented, at last. “You have valor, good reflexes. You learn. If the half-wits of my house had this much potential, maybe I wouldn’t be trapped in this festering pit. You are free to go.”
Anastasia took a long drink from the waterskin at her belt, but didn’t move from her place. “Why are you stuck here?” she asked, after several deep pulls.
Duke scowled. “If you were not my student, I would kill you for that question, Your Grace. But since you are, I will say that I am bound to permit Aisling to be slain by no hand but my own.”
“Will it ever happen?”
“At this rate,” Duke muttered bitterly, “she will become a lich and I will be trapped here until the end of time.”