And here is the third installment, which will be the last until we play again. The primary purpose of this segment was to get the disparate characters forged into an actual team. Hopefully we interact more smoothly from here on out, but no guarantees. &-:
Zura wasn’t surprised when Belhrys fell in beside her as she walked towards the duke’s palace for her meeting with him. It was broad daylight for a change, and Zura had her headdress and veil firmly in place to block out most of the sun. That wasn’t the only change, though. Belhrys’s good humor seemed to have gone. “There have been a few changes in the political landscape,” he told her. “For now, I’m calling off the job. You performed admirably, but the political climate is not right for trying again. Not right now.”
“The duke is offering me a job today. Since he’s the one who wound up with the artifact, this could work to your advantage,” Zura said. Belhrys smiled faintly and shook his head.
“Sometime later, perhaps, when the political climate shifts again. For now, no. Still, you performed admirably. Even if you didn’t succeed, I think you’ve more than earned the rest of your commission.” He handed her a sack of coins. Zura gaped at him for a moment before taking it. She had botched the job by letting greed cloud her judgment. Still, gold was gold and she wasn’t going to complain. She decided to change the subject.
“You told me there would be a diversion at the ball. Did you arrange for the Monkeys to attack?”
Belhrys smiled ruefully. “You know, I almost wish I had. But, no. That was a happy coincidence. The diversion I had planned would not have been nearly as effective. Then again, my diversion also wouldn’t have resulted in guards storming up the staircase at just the wrong moment. Ah well. That’s fate for you.”
“Some secret staircase,” Zura muttered reproachfully.
“Come, come. I knew the guards were aware of it, but I had no idea that the countess knew of it as well.”
Zura muttered to herself. If she hadn’t had to waste time opening the secret door, she probably could have gotten out of there without being shot at. Belhrys shrugged, possibly in apology.
“I don’t know when I might see you next,” he said, “but I wish you well.” The duke’s palace was coming into view, and Belhrys seemed to take that as his cue to leave.
“Vedaust,” Zura said.
It was only after he’d gone that Zura realized she’d never told him who the buyer was, and that he’d never even bothered to ask. It might have been an oversight, but something seemed off. She tried to think it through as she climbed the short flight of stairs into the duke’s ballroom and followed a guard to the meeting chamber. Then it hit her. In the port town, she’d met Rhyl’mur’ss right after meeting Belhrys. At the ball, Belhrys had appeared shortly after Rhyl’mur’ss had gone. Coincidence? Maybe. She hoped it was. She rather liked Belhrys and the thought of him associating with the likes of Rhyl’mur’ss lessened her opinion of him. For now, she put those thoughts out of her mind.
When she saw the meeting room, Zura winced. Bad enough that the silly human wanted to meet during daylight hours, he’d also chosen a room with a skylight. Most of the room was bathed in painfully bright sunlight, but there were stuffed creatures in each corner that provided some shade. Zura took refuge in the shadow of a large stuffed reptile, perhaps five feet long with a sort of fin on its back that was at least as tall as the reptile was long. It reminded her somewhat of a riding lizard, but the spine would make it useless as a mount or pack animal. She was the first to arrive, and while she waited she pulled out her hand crossbow and loaded it. She meant to give a lesson in manners if the deva showed up. As luck would have it, he was the next to arrive. She sent a crossbow bolt whistling by his ear, and smiled. “That is how you fire a warning shot,” she said, calmly lowering the crossbow while she waited to see how he would respond. He seemed genuinely surprised. She couldn’t quite hear what he said, something about not intending to warn anyone. Zura shook her head disgustedly. That was exactly the problem. When she was certain he wasn’t going to pull out his own crossbow to retaliate, she put hers back in its holster on her back. She had the impression he was trying to make some sort of point by standing in the brightest part of the room while Zura stayed in the blessed relief of the shade. She shrugged to herself. If he wanted to demonstrate that his eyes were less acute due to constant damage from the damned yellow orb, that was his problem.
They waited in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes, until the elf and the goliath showed up with the duke, and a rather peculiar looking fellow. He seemed to be covered in metallic dust for some reason, and there were odd stains over most of his exposed skin. As for the duke, he seemed quite pleased that all four of the interlopers had shown up again. He carefully closed the door before speaking. Zura didn’t see the point when there was a great big window in the ceiling, ready-made for spying. “My friends,” the duke began, “I am going to share something with you that only a very few people know. I have discovered that there is a traitor among my staff, and a plot on my life. You four are outsiders, so I can be certain you are not in on the plot. I need you to try and learn who is in on it, and who has betrayed me. More importantly, though, I need you to protect and train my son.”
Zura’s mind began racing. A plot on the duke’s life? Could the Monkey attack have been a part of it? Or … or perhaps that had been the original diversion Belhrys had spoken of, the one the Monkeys had interrupted. He had spoken of working for someone else, someone Zura was better off not knowing about. Suddenly she wondered about the timing. He had made certain to meet with her before this meeting, quite possibly to avoid awkward questions. She brought her mind back to the people at hand. The elf asked who stood to gain from the duke’s death.
“Unclear,” the duke said. “The island would likely descend into chaos within a few months, forcing the king to send troops from the mainland to restore order.”
“What other family do you have?” Zura asked. They were always the most likely suspects. “Sisters? Brothers? Cousins?” But the duke was already shaking his head. There was no one else on the island who could claim his position.
“My wife might manage to hold onto power for a short time, but I do not think she would last for very long, and my son is not yet of age.”
Son? Zura cocked her head to one side. “If I were planning this, I would take out your son before going after you,” Zura said. The duke’s face said he was all too aware of that possibility.
“That’s why I need you four to protect and train him,” the duke said when he had recovered. “He needs to know magic and he needs to know how to defend himself. But until then, he needs to be protected. That’s why Noonien Sungh is here with us.” He gestured to the guest who was covered in odd stains. “He is in the process of constructing a war-forged to help protect my son. The project is not yet complete, so until then, I will be relying on the four of you.”
Noonien Sungh took the floor and began describing in great detail the processes involved in creating the warforged. It mostly involved very intricate and technical magic, and Zura had never had much of a head for that sort of thing. While Noonien rambled, she pondered other options. She wondered how close the son was to coming of age. In a drow household, it was almost expected that the First-Daughter would go after her mother’s position when the time was right. She’d heard that humans often stepped down to allow their children to take over, so perhaps this didn’t happen as often in human society. Then there was the wife. Her absence was perplexing. She was the mother of the child they were to protect. She should have a say in their hiring. It was insulting not to include her. Zura reminded herself that surface dwellers had a bizarre habit of coddling females and keeping them from positions of power. Perhaps this one had had enough of being upstaged by her husband and thought she could do a better job. She may even have deliberately fooled the duke into thinking she was incapable to lull him into a false sense of security. From what Zura knew of surface males, mentioning this would probably drive the duke into a fit of rage, so Zura would have to look into it herself, discreetly.
Noonien finally subsided from his technical harangue, much to everyone’s relief. Zura wasn’t going to suggest the duke’s son or wife as suspects without any evidence, but there were other obvious candidates. “What of Belhrys and Rhyl’mur’ss, or whatever their real names are?” Zura asked. “Belhryss is very familiar with your palace layout and Rhyl’mur’ss was willing to carry out illegal business under your very nose.” Zura didn’t count her own attempted heist in the same category. That was stopping illegal business through good, honest stealing. She would have preferred not to mention Belhrys, but the others had seen him as well, so there wasn’t much point in trying to hide him. For now she kept her suspicions of a connection between him and Rhyl’mur’ss to herself. The duke shook his head, though. “I did not recognize the descriptions you provided, and I’m sure that the traitor is someone that I know.”
“Odd that the man in black, your Belhrys, only showed up after the man in red had gone,” the deva said.
“Not that odd,” Zura said, despite her own thoughts in that direction. “He had probably been waiting for me to deliver the package and became concerned when I was late and when the palace turned out to be full of Monkeys.”
“Speculation will get us nowhere,” the duke said. “For now, I want to move on to other business. In addition to protecting my son, the four of you will be sent out on missions to protect the security of my dukedom. You may or may not realize that the Monkey attack on the ball was completely at odds with normal Monkey behavior. They had to travel over a very long distance to get here, a journey that would take more than a full day, and their attack was completely illogical. The Monkey Mage’s speech would have been accurate a hundred years ago, but no one on the island has actively hunted or enslaved Monkeys since before I was appointed duke.”
“What about the Monkeys we knocked out?” the elf asked. “What happened to them?”
“They are imprisoned in a secure facility,” the duke said, “and they are all claiming insanity. This is hardly a surprise, but in this case I am inclined to believe them. They claim that they barely remember the attack, and that all events from the time they left the jungle until they woke up imprisoned are hazy in their minds.”
“Have you tortured any of them yet?” Zura asked, earning a glare from the scholar. Apparently shooting people for no obvious reason was fine, but torturing them for an actual purpose was not.
The duke hesitated for a moment. “Ye-ess… and they told us nothing new.”
Zura nodded, satisfied, though she would have offered her services if the duke had been too squeamish to order torture himself. There seemed to be little else they could do without first gathering more information. The others threw out various theories, each wilder than the next, while the duke outlined their mission. They were to go to the place from which the attacking Monkeys originated and find out what was really going on. Zura looked around the room and wondered if she really wanted to team up with a trigger-happy deva, an axe-happy goliath, and, gods-help-her, an elf. Strangely, she found she so far liked the elf better than any of the others, possibly because he was the only one who hadn’t tried to kill her yet. He also seemed completely indifferent to her drow heritage. Zura would have expected at least a glare or a questioning look—she’d certainly looked askance at him often enough—but it really didn’t seem to bother him. Better not to question her luck, she supposed. Still, she’d seen what they all could do in battle and it was impressive, so long as it wasn’t aimed at her. She’d have to watch her back if she joined forces with them, but that was nothing new to her. Only among her family had she been able to relax that constant vigilance, and even there not completely. She decided that she would join the duke’s team on this mad quest. They clearly needed the guiding hand of someone familiar with treachery and deceit, and who better to fill that role than a drow? She did decide on one small caveat. If the deva ever, ever, fired his crossbow at her again, she was going to slip a poisoned dagger through his ribs while he slept.