The gates of Shatterdown were open for trade when the paladins arrived. Wagons and people moved in and out of the port city, on various business – trade, adventure, personal errands.

The youngest of the six paladins, a young human woman still apprenticed to the dwarf at the head of the group, frowned in confusion.

“Master,” she commented, as the knights slipped into the line to enter the city. “Shatterdown seems…thriving. Look, some of these people aren’t even armed. Why?”

“That’s an interesting question, Anastasia,” the dwarven paladin replied, resting his hand on the hilt of his finely-crafted sword. “But look there.”

The dwarf pointed at the top of the city’s walls, where the flags flew scarlet in the morning breeze; emblazoned on each was a shattered crown, done in silver and sapphire.

“That’s the symbol our contact reported,” Anastasia confirmed, chewing her lip thoughtfully. The young woman’s chain armor rattled gently as she hustled to keep up with the brisk line of people entering the city. “But that doesn’t add up. If this so-called Scarlet Princess is such a tyrant, why should the city look this way? Where are the thugs, the toll collectors?”

The old dwarf shrugged. “We’ll find out soon enough. Whatever her reasons, this woman – this Aisiling – has overthrown the rightful law of Shatterdown, and must answer for her crimes.”

“Yes, Master.”

The knights moved through the market place, crowded with people but, curiously, not with guards. Anastasia kept expecting to see some manner of shakedown or groups of thugs, but despite a slight increase in the number of people openly carrying weapons, there were no signs of authority whatsoever. Coins changed hands as the business of the day carried on.

“Hey mister!”

A teenage human slipped out of the crowd, grinning excitedly at the paladins. He bounced on the balls of his feet and pointed to the crest emblazoned on the dwarf’s shield.

“You’re knights, right? Didja come lookin’ for weapons? My da, he makes great weapons, sir!”

The dwarf smiled warmly. “No, my son, though I would be honored to come see your father’s work when my business here is done. I, too, am a smith. I made my apprentice’s gear.”

Anastasia stood proudly and beamed, all chain armor and stark white tabard. The young woman’s red hair was tied back in a loose ponytail, hanging just over the shield strapped to her back. The teen looked her up and down with a smile.

“That’s good steel, Sir Knight sir,” he said happily. “If it’s not too bold, what is your business here? Maybe I can give ya directions.”

“We’re looking for the Scarlet Princess,” Anastasia blurted out. Her master shot her a look, which the apprentice paladin missed entirely in her bright eagerness. “We’ve come to liberate Shatterdown from her lawless rule.”

The young man bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet. “I can show you where she holes up! Everyone, they’re here to get rid of Aisiling!” The last sentence was called out at the top of the boy’s lungs. “Everyone to the Racket! They’re gonna fight Aisiling!”

The crowd let out a whoop as the young man gestured for the paladins to follow him, which they did – it was that, or be swept up in the crush of the crowd.

“That,” the dwarf muttered to Anastasia, “was stupid.”

The human blushed. “Sorry, Master.”

“If I die, I’m haunting you.”

“Yes, Master.”

At some point, people ahead of the paladins in the crowd had started throwing flowers in their path. The scent of crushed blossoms mixed with the sharp sea breeze. Anastasia had been happy to see the flowers, until she’d realized they were all white lilies. Now she felt only unease, and a subtle sense of threat.

The winding cobbled roads opened up into a square, where a cheering crowd was already gathered. An inn – three-storied and painted in bright scarlet colors, with a shattered musical instruments painted onto its sign – stood on the opposite side of the square, and in front of the inn stood a woman.

She’s beautiful was Anastasia’s first thought. Her second was, She knew we were coming.

The woman was tall and lean, and golden hair framed her face, covering her ears with thick locks of blonde. She wore red leggings and red gloves, with a fine scarlet coat over a shirt of gleaming mail. One hand rested on the golden hilt of a saber at her hip, and she smiled expansively, as if welcoming honored guests. The paladins stopped some thirty feet from her, hands on their own weapons and wary expressions on their faces.

“Be you Aisiling of Shatterdown, known as the Scarlet Princess?” the dwarf called out.

“Aye,” the woman answered, amused. “I could hardly believe my ears when I heard that no less than six holy knights wanted to speak to me. What have I, a simple monarch, done to deserve such honor?”

Anastasia bristled at the mocking tone, but let out a deep breath when she heard her master murmur, ‘check her’. The young woman closed her eyes and reached out, sensing for the presence of evil. The woman she felt immediately, as the scent of smoking steel and the faint taste of blood on her tongue, beneath a pounding beat of anger, a drumming in the bottom of Anastasia’s mind that was both a blow and a whisper – hatehatehatehate. But though the apprentice had expected this, the feeling was not as strong as she’d thought it might be.

And it was only on the woman, on the so-called Scarlet Princess.

“Aisiling of Shatterdown, you have overthrown the rightful governance of this city,” the dwarven paladin was saying, snapping Anastasia out of her trance. “I call upon you to submit to my custody and answer for your crimes in a court of law. There is no need for violence here, Aisiling. Lay down your arms, please.”

Aisiling raised an eyebrow. “Rightful? Interesting idea, that. Some rich asshole bought a bunch of land and now the rules he set up have some kind of universal right behind them?” The blonde woman grinned broadly. “That sounds an awful lot like what I did.”

“Aisiling,” the dwarf warned. “If you do not surrender, we will have to force you into custody. Don’t be a fool. It’s six on one.”

Aisling made a show of mulling it over. “May I say one last thing before I make my final decision?”

Anastasia got a bad feeling, and opened her mouth to say so, but her master was already speaking. “Of course.”

The Scarlet Princess’s next words were a shout that thundered across the square. “At them, you Rabble!

The crowd let out a roar and surged in towards the paladins in a human wave. The paladins at the outside of the group didn’t even get the chance to draw their weapons before they were dragged away into the pitiless tide of the crowd. Anastasia’s master shoved a man back and gut-punched another, doubling his human assailant over.

“Go!” the dwarf yelled. “Run, Ana!”

Anastasia looked at Aisiling. The tall blonde stood in front of her inn, grinning like a fiend as Anastasia’s companions were savagely beaten. The paladin could hear that whispering drum beat in her mind – hatehatehatehate.

Anastasia leapt over a citizen that was charging at her, landed on her feet, and ran straight at the Scarlet Princess. Her blade cleared its sheath in one smooth motion, and the pounding of her boots against the cobbles almost drowned out the sound of her master yelling, “Damnit girl, I said run!”

Aisiling ducked a horizontal slash and danced away from Anastasia’s follow-ups, dipping and weaving with that mocking grin on her face. The paladin let out a growl of frustration and feinted high, only to slash towards the blonde’s knees. Her sword connected – and passed through entirely, unleashing a spray of crimson fluid as the Scarlet Princess turned entirely into a spreading pool of hot, sticky blood.

The paladin blinked in confusion at the blood that splashed across the cobbles, but when it started laughing heartily at her she took a step back in sheer surprise.

“The puppy wants to fight!” the pool of blood called out. “Hold your horses, everyone! Restrain those paladins and make a ring!”

The crowd dragged the beaten paladins out of the square and formed a broad circle of bodies, cheering and calling out like spectators at a game. The pool of blood flowed over the cobbles and into the center of the square.

“You wanna dance, puppy?” the pool called out. Its center rose, forming into a humanoid shape that solidified into the blood-splattered body of Aisiling. She grinned at Anastasia and beckoned.

“Let’s dance.”

Anastasia unstrapped her shield from her back and settled it on her right arm. She glared at her opponent, flicking glances at the crowd to see if they’d interfere. But the ring remained unbroken, and the sight of Aisiling’s confident smile was more than the apprentice was willing to bear.

She charged. The last thing she remembered before she blacked out was Aisiling adjusting the sheath of her saber and saying just one word: “Schadenfreude.” Then something hit Ana in the face, like the fist of a raging demon, and everything went dark.

Aisiling watched the apprentice skid to the ground past her and re-sheathed her saber. The gold she’d spent on a hilt that launched her weapon was paid for, time and time again, in these moments of slapstick comedy. She held up a hand for silence, and the crowd granted her wish.

“Bring the girl up to my room, and make sure she’s comfortable,” she called out to the crowd. Then her attention to the dwarven paladin being restrained by her men.

“You and I,” the Scarlet Princess said confidently, “are going to have a chat over some lunch. Someone heal the knights and then turn ‘em loose. We’ve made our point.”

“…And what will we be discussing, your highness?” the dwarf said warily.

Aisiling shrugged. “I like your puppy. I want her to stick around. Details can wait, though. You are open to negotiate without violence, yes?”

The dwarf sighed. “Aye. I suppose I am, at that.”