“You still have friends in low places,” Aisling said to Margrave, at the edge of the pier. On the Fetch, Margrave’s crew was finishing the last of the preparations he’d need to embark. “Find out what you can about the Wolf cult and get back as soon as you can. The bad ones always burn out pretty fast.”
“Anything to watch out for on the seas?” Margrave asked, courteously.
“Depends on if they’ve got the favor of one or more Serpent cultists, but chances are, no. If you get attacked by a huge fucking sea dragon, well, try to scream the information loudly before you die.”
Margrave chuckled to himself. “As you command, your Highness. I’ll return home safely.”
“One more thing,” Aisling noted, mildly. Margrave turned back around to face her and caught a punch to the face that laid him out on the docks. “You don’t play your head games with Ana,” the Scarlet Princess continued; she rubbed her knuckles with a disinterested air. “If Sybil tells me that you’re fuckin’ with her just for your own sick entertainment even one more time, I’m going to keelhaul you on your own ship, and then I’m going to break every bone in your left arm, one by one. We clear?”
“…Yes, Princess,” Margrave answered, at last. “I overstepped my bounds.”
“You did,” Aisling agreed. “Safe journey, Margrave.”
The pirate picked himself up as Aisling walked away, prodding at the bruise blossoming beneath his eye. After a moment, he ascended the gangplank.
* * * *
“How’s morale?” Aisling asked Sybil. The two sat up in Aisling’s room, playing chess with a leisurely air.
“Steady,” Sybil answered. “People are worried, obviously, but the increased patrols have helped, as have the efforts at educating citizens on magical threats. Honestly we should have done that earlier.”
“Yeah…you don’t think about it until it comes up,” Aisling admitted. “Adventurers learn it the hard way.”
Sybil made a move and lapsed into companionable silence. The Rabble were on the case, after all, and there was little she, personally, could do to help. Aisling had paid for the funeral for Joreth and his family, and had spoken for the man herself, in tones of respect. The other Scum had been surprised.
“So,” Sybil said at last. “I notice you’ve been spending a lot of time with Anastasia. Care to share?”
“You can take your implications and shove ’em up your ass,” Aisling replied with a shrug, moving a piece. “She’s a friend.”
“Uh-huh. And that’s why the Consorts Royal, famous for keeping everyone on your floor of the inn up half the night with their royal duties, haven’t been in your room since she got here.”
Aisling’s face turned bright red. “I – look, the girl’s had enough problems adjusting without me throwing that in her face. Paladins get -“
“Some paladins,” Sybil corrected with a too-sweet smile. “She’s a servant of the Aesir. Did you really think sex was going to shock her? Look, teasing aside, I’m worried about you. You’ve been more tense than usual, and speaking as your friend, you’re usually really tense.”
“Life’s been tense lately,” Aisling dismissed.
“It probably doesn’t help that you haven’t been enjoying your usual hobbies. You know, wine, women, song?”
“I don’t wanna, alright?” the Scarlet Princess snapped. “And you can quit with that thing you’re doing. I’m not infatuated with the paladin.”
“Did I say that?” Sybil said serenely. “Though now that you mention it -“
“Even if I was,” Aisling said, cutting the prophetess off, “is this really the time? Or even fucking plausible? She’s a paladin. I’m a warlord. You might notice this large gulf in our lifestyles? It’s not my fault if she’s acting all sympathetic towards some other person she thinks I am.”
“She knows exactly who you are,” Sybil answered in serious tones. “Aisling…the entire world does not live in a persistent hallucination. You aren’t as bad as you think you are.”
“Uh-huh. I literally show up as evil when investigated with magic, Sybil.”
“And you brought hope to the hopeless, justice to the oppressed, and peace to a city gripped by suffering. Maybe you did all that for selfish reasons, but do you think the people out there care? The parents that can feed their children now? The girls you helped off the streets? The people you protect without question?” Sybil shook her head. “Aisling, you’ve got your problems. You really do. But if you were the soulless bitch you try to sell yourself as, I wouldn’t still be here. And neither would Anastasia.”
“So what?” Aisling leaned back in her chair with a petulant sulk. “She leaves in nine months. Even if she doesn’t, she’ll just grow old while I stay the same and then die, like everyone else does. Why put myself through it?”
Sybil laughed. “I’d better call Duke and let him know a shapeshifter is impersonating you. I never thought I’d see you so scared to lose something that you wouldn’t try to have it in the first place.”
The Scarlet Princess turned red; her mouth opened and closed silently, and she finally looked away.
Sybil moved a piece. “Checkmate. Think about it, alright? I can’t say for sure, but I think you might have better odds than you’re giving yourself. You brought Anastasia here because you thought she could offer something to Shatterdown that you can’t. Maybe that something is what you need too. Worst thing that happens is you don’t work out. Best-case scenario is a lot better than that.”
“Why do I keep you around again?” Aisling muttered, blinking in bewilderment.
“Because if anyone else called you out on your bullshit, you’d beat them into a quivering pulp,” Sybil said, as she stood. “Have a nice night.”
Aisling was up for a long time after Sybil left, walking a gold coin over her knuckles with a thoughtful expression.
* * * *
Aisling found Contessa perched on the massive barrel of the Fury, staring out over the sea. She handed the teen a flask of cold coffee and took her own seat.
“Any sign of him?”
“Not yet,” Contessa answered with a wistful sigh. “…I hate it when you send him away. One of these times he’s not coming back, Aisling.”
“He’s a big boy. He can take care of himself,” the Scarlet Princess answered. “What about your project?”
“You’re right. There’s something else here, but I can’t put my thumb on it. Its power was masked by our defenses. Shatterdown’s become so permeated with magic and psionic energy that you could probably hide a dead god here if you buried it deep enough.”
Aisling sighed. “Well, that’s…pleasant. Don’t worry too much, Contessa. He’ll be back.”
Contessa took a sip of her coffee and smiled out towards the sunrise. “Thanks, Aisling. You’re a good friend.”
Aisling was quiet for a long moment before she spoke. “Yeah…I’m tryin’.”