Aphonion Tales (New posts 6/13, 6/15, 6/19)

An extra-length update to make up for the missed days:

“He tried to get access to my room?”

“Oh, yes. And he wasn’t the only one. They knew I had a key, you see. But I never gave it to anyone, and they never figured out where I kept it.”

“Thank you for keeping it safe. But you see, I never did turn against you. And your death would be so hard.” Mommy Cupcake squirmed a little at Alistair’s pleadings, and he decided to use the next tool. “And I’m going to need you, as well. You know that I need to marry and have a potential heir quickly to safeguard the succession. If things go according to plan, I might have a child within a year’s time. And then I’ll need someone to take care of it.”

Mommy Cupcake brightened at this thought. “And you would want me? I had thought you would find a new nurse… but then, that was based on what Luva said…”

“Of course I would want you. Who else?” Alistair thought for a moment. “Of course, we’ll need to hire you an assistant. I don’t think you could perform wet-nurse duties.”

The hobbit matron chuckled at that. “I should say not. It’s been far too many years since my last child.” She nodded to herself as she thought about resuming service as the family’s nurse. “I will have to get to work immediately. The nursery will need entirely new drapes and to have all of its furniture reupholstered, and I don’t even want to think about the cleaning…”

“You won’t leave us then?”

“When you want me to take care of your child? How could I?” Mommy Cupcakes thought. “And will you want to put your child in your old room eventually? We should clean and prepare it as well, then.”

“I think so. Speaking of my room… we’ll need to figure out why they wanted to get into it. You said you still have the key?”

Mommy Cupcake drew the key on its old, frayed cord out of her bodice. “Here you go, dear.”

“Thank you. Oh, and I also wanted to ask you another thing. Do you know anything about a crystal fan that the Eldar gave to my family many generations ago? From what we can tell, it is a powerful artifact, but I can’t recall ever seeing or hearing about it, and an unofficial agent of my Grandmother had had it.”

“Oh!” Mommy Cupcakes looked around conspiratorially. “Shhhh! That’s the sign of the Archduchy’s spymistress. Don’t tell anyone!”

“Don’t worry,” Alistair said with a smile. “The secret’s safe with me.”

The Council gathered again.

“Mommy Cupcake has agreed not to kill herself.”

“Oh, good,” said Kit. “I was worried…”

Alistair nodded with a smile, “Me, too. It’s a huge relief. But she also mentioned a couple of other things. First, that fan is the symbol of the Archducal spymistress.”

“So that’s who she was… that makes her notes even more important,” said Kit. “I had thought that Dame Esmerelda filled that role as well… I guess there was a distinction between the Mouth and the chief of field work. I’ve also found out a little about what the fan does. It’s very powerful. It’s a strongly enchanted magic weapon that can be used to parry well, with a variety of powers designed to make its wielder better at stealthy things, and the ability to hold psionic energy as well. It will be very handy…” [In game terms: Fan of the Assassin: +4 Dex; +10 Hide bonus (circumstance); +3 War fan as long as at least 1 PP of energy in it; can store up to 20 PP total; particularly effective at parrying (can add as much as entire to-hit bonus as a parry, you do not need to declare in advance); grants user without martial arts experience the equivalent of a 2nd level monk, or a +5 level bonus to a monk]

“Mommy Cupcake also told me some other information we need to act on. People tried to turn her against me, using my brother Luva, and tried to get access to my old room and my father’s old room. I don’t know what they were looking for, but…”

“But we need to know and find it. I’ll have my people check out the rooms.”

“Make sure they have magical detection ability as well,” Dame Brionna.

Kit looked back at her, “What, you think we’re a bunch of amateurs? Of course.”
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Within a couple of hours, Kit returned with a report. “The public areas of that wing have been searched thoroughly, at least a couple of months ago. I’ve asked my people to figure out when, but that will take longer. Whoever it was tried to pick the lock to Alistair’s old chamber, but the dwarven traps defeated them. They were probably trying to work surreptitiously.”

“At least they could only reach the public areas,” said Dame Brionna.

“They did make it into Alistair’s father’s room, however. It’s been picked over fairly carefully. They took a comb off his dresser and a small journal off his desk. My people guess that the journal was probably a book of his ‘successes.’”

Alistair nodded. “I knew that my father had a journal like that. I hadn’t thought to try to locate it.”

Dame Brionna looked over sharply at Alistair. “Do you keep a similar journal?”

“Of course not!” Alistair responded indignantly, carefully not even glancing at Kit. He wondered why Dame Brionna even asked in front of Kit, where only one answer was possible.

“Good. If that’s all on that report?” Dame Brionna waited for a nod from Kit. “We should also think about the administration of the Duchy of Canberry-- not the Archduchy, but just the original crown demesne. I’ve looked into it, and traditionally the title of Duke of Canberry is awarded to the second child as a non-hereditary position. Early in Her Grace the Archduchess Amelia’s reign, her younger brother held the position, but he predeceased her grace by many years. After his death, the position was vacant, with the duties executed by functionaries. I recommend that we take steps to consolidate that power back to someone with closer ties to Your Grace.”

Kit nodded. “That’s too important a position to be held by someone we don’t know.”

“Perhaps one of your siblings, your grace? It could be a way to reward a loyal sibling and strengthen their ties to you at the same time.”

“I agree,” said Alistair. “And it would have the additional benefit of making them more marriageable. We’ll want to set up politically advantageous marriages for diplomatic purposes-- for example, Gates’s sister might be a useful marriage for one of my brothers, if I marry Kaitlyn.” Alistair charged Dame Brionna with continuing her research and identifying which sibling would make the best choice.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully.
 

The following day brought a flood of reports. The captain who had been sent in command of the First Legion of the First Field Army hurried in. His uniform and armor was dirtied and bloodied from the battle, but he did not take the time to clean himself up before reporting to the Council.

“Sire,” he said bowing respectfully. “The enemy has been met, but they are much more powerful than we expected. They are more akin to a large body of adventurers than a company of rangers or spies. We defeated them but took heavy casualties-- perhaps four to one. I did not wait for the final casualty reports but returned to inform you of the results of the battle as soon as we had prevailed.” The captain’s calm cracked. “I… I did not expect that we would lose so many…” He hung his head in shame.

“You did the best that was possible, Captain,” replied Alistair. “We sent your full force because of the possibility that the rangers would be more than they seemed. It is not your fault that they were.”

“My thanks, your grace. But still, my troops were my responsibility, as are there deaths.”

“Just as they are our responsibility, and his grace’s,” replied Dame Brionna. “We have no choice but to act to defend Canberry and accept the sacrifice that will require of our gallant soldiers.”

The captain nodded, silently.

“Did you take any prisoners, Captain?” asked Alistair.

“No human prisoners, your grace-- they all fought to the death. But there were also two large insect-like creatures. We destroyed one, but the other surrendered. It is following with a small body of troops as escort, while the main body secures the area and awaits further commands.”

“Can you describe this insect creature better?” asked Kit.

“Yes, Dame Knight. It was approximately 9 feet tall, with black chitin, and it looked something like a humanoid ant. It also had this sigil inscribed over its left breast.” The captain drew out a piece of parchment on which he had jotted down a drawing of a symbol of three interlocking triangles with a rune in the center.
 

Alistair looked at the symbol. “I’d have to check to be sure which one, but that’s the symbol of one of the Thar Ingmathian houses. As for the creature itself, that sounds like a phraint.”

“Do they have a connection to Thar Ingmath?” asked Kit.

“No, but the phraint sell young to those who can pay the price, so it could have been bought by a Thar Ingmathian house.”

“That would make sense if they planned to ambush the One of Ones,” said Dame Brionna. “Thar Ingmath and Tang have been hostile ever since Thar Ingmath split off.”

“Yes, but… Tell me, captain, were the adventurers threes?”

“No, sire. Nor were they ones of Thar Ingmath, I would say. I am fairly certain they were normal humans. They did have a great deal of Thar Ingmathian coin on them, however.”

“You said there were two of the phraints?” asked Kit.

“Yes, dame knight. The other fought until it was destroyed, but this one offered himself ‘to be slain or taken prisoner since there was no rational chance of success’ after the other phraint and most of the humans were killed.”

“It does sound like they may have intended to ambush the One of Ones, your grace,” said Dame Brionna. “With a force that capable, they may have been able to succeed.”

“Right. Captain, take your remaining troops in the field further northwest. The royal party from Tang should be approaching on the road. Greet them and escort them back to the capital. Remember that they are honored guests-- the goal is to keep them safe, nothing else.”

“Very good, sire.”
 

After the captain left, Kit raised an eyebrow. “It certainly seems like an assassination attempt on the One of Ones. I’m not sure they were actually from Thar Ingmath, though. It all seems too obvious-- like they wanted people to conclude that Thar Ingmath had assassinated the One of Ones.”

“And if it were Thar Ingmath, why were they using a Hanalian voller?” asked Dame Brionna. “But if they were from Hanal, trying to appear as if they were mercenaries hired by Thar Ingmath… it would have started a war, and pulled Masque and Canberry in as well with the new alliance. And if they killed the One of Ones, the surviving threes would be unlikely to notice that it was too obvious that the mercenaries were working for Thar Ingmath. Of course, we can’t ignore the possibility that they were actually mercenaries.”

“Yes we can,” replied Alistair. “Whoever heard of mercenaries fighting to the death? If they were actually adventurers hired by Thar Ingmath, they all would have broken and fled, or even surrendered, once it was clear that they were beaten. I suppose there’s the vaguest possibility that they are religious zealots or something; I think some of the Drow mercenaries actually will fight to the death if commanded to by their priestesses. But while we need to check them out to be absolutely certain, these are almost certainly agents of an intelligence service that wants us to think that it was Thar Ingmath.”

“Makes sense,” said Kit. “And everything is consistent with Hanal-- they have one of the best intelligence services on the continent, especially for offensive operations, and it would explain the voller.”

While the army moved into position to escort the coronation party, another detachment of troops arrived with the captured phraint, and it was brought to the Council for questioning.

“Who are you?” asked Alistair.

“I am 3 of 360.”

Kit frowned. “Is that your name?”

The phraint’s voice remained utterly impassive as it answered, “It is my designation.”

Alistair proceeded. “How did you come to be in the woods northwest of here? Who do you serve?”

“I was purchased for the sole purpose of becoming a warband, nearly 2 years ago; I was not given the name of the purchaser, but only told to practice endlessly with the special weapons for which I was designed. I was then told that the time was nigh and that my mission had been changed, and my mission had been changed. I was transported with a group of men, all of whom were mutilated in the way of magi. We traveled to the woods north of here.”

“Where did you come from?”

“From the woods to the north where I was captured.”

“No, before that.”

“When?” Even the phraint’s questions were flat and uninflected. It’s voice gave no hint of either curiosity or frustration, just a desire to get clarification.”

“After your training.”

“I trained in the North. We traveled south to get to the woods. I originally came from further south than here.”

Dame Brionna focused on the key issue. “What were your orders?”

“I was given three orders. The first was to slay a specific human, with an image that was given to me. The second was to obey the human commander set above me. The third was to obey my stickbrother, 54 of 360, who had been bred with command capacity.”

“And why did you surrender?”

“Your troops came. We fought. My stick brother fell. My human commander fell. No command had been given me to continue to struggle or to be killed. It was evident that I could not overcome the warriors of your hive. At the command of those who bought me, I was given the power of speech. Therefore, I offered my surrender so I would not become dysfunctional. I stand here now.”

* * *

Updates may be irregular for the next week or 10 days. Happy Holidays!
 

Kit spoke up. “What did you mean when you said that the humans mutilated themselves like magi?”

“They carved signs and images into their carapaces. Only the red stickbrothers, who are magi, do that. But only two of the humans used magic.”

“When you say the carved, what do you mean?” asked Kit trying to determine if the phraint was describing tattooing or scarification.

“They took needles and stabbed them into their bodies.”

“Was their skin as smooth afterwards as before, just with an image on it? Or was it actually cut up?”

“Initially, it looked cut up. But the skin went back to its smooth look but with an image on it.”

“What else can you tell us about the humans you were with?”

“They spoke often of violence. I am a warrior, but not because there is glory in violence. It is my nature. But they spoke often of violence and killed without reason, even before they came south. Here, more so.” The phraint paused. “Not here, but north of here. After the trip south. They did not want word of their presence to reach the capital. They would wait. A new target was given. That one for which I was born was changed, and instead, I was to slay the tall man with the many short ones.”

“When did you get the sigil?” asked Alistair.

“Just before we were sent south.”

“Definitely misdirection, then,” said Dame Brionna. “Who was your original target?”

“A human woman, about five arms in height.” The phraint went on to give a meticulous description, noting even the tiniest details.

“Princess Anastasia,” said Kit. “Would you still try to kill her?”

“No.”

“Good.”

“But… they changed my target."

“That’s a good thing. She’s a good woman. You should not want to kill her.”
 

“Can you be transferred to the control of another?” asked Alistair.

“No. Unless we become free-willed, we cannot be transferred after purchase or gift.”

“Unless you become free-willed? How does that happen?”

“If we were hired for a specific mission and it becomes impossible, and our owner cannot inform us of what to do. A horrible thing; we must think. Only Queens, drones, and magi should have to think. I fear I am near free will now.”

Kit returned to the issue of the tattoos. “Can you tell us more about the way the humans carved their bodies?”

“They acted with great ceremony and carved careful patterns.”

“Could you form an image of them? I could lift it out of your mind.”

“You are a telepath, but you are not red. They should dye your body to match your function. Yes, I could form images for you to read. I will begin with the commander, follow with the magus, then the other with magus-like power, and last show the ordinary warriors.”

Kit scanned the phraint’s mind. The images were the sharpest, cleanest cut images she had ever encountered. The phraint carefully, painstakingly visualized every last detail of the humans. Kit did not recognize any of the humans, but each had many tattoos. In every case, the most prominent tattoo was the head of a vulture, worked in considerable detail.

She looked at the others. “Where do people wear heavy tattoos? I know that some of the people in the poorer areas of some of the major cities do-- poor Enclaves, or Ecsilias.”

Alistair thought. “Many people in Masque cover themselves with tattoos. Maybe some of the people in the Brown lands, although I’m not sure. The people of Ute, what’s left of them.”

“Masque… would members of the Order of the Vulture tattoo a vulture head on themselves?”

“Almost certainly,” said Alistair. “What do we know about the Order of the Vulture?”

Dame Brionna answered. “They are a huge order… there are a million of them.”

“When you say a million of them, do you mean ‘many’ or …”

“No, your grace. There are literally a million members of the Order of the Vulture. They are mercenaries. But they lack discipline; they have a reputation for breaking combat at the first sign of trouble.”

“That’s not consistent with what happened here,” said Alistair. “Based on that, there’s no way that they would have fought to the death. Perhaps someone wanted us to think that it was Masque, if we penetrated the misdirection implicating Thar Ingmath.”

“A double feint?” asked Kit, doubtfully. After a little more thought, she said, “Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think it very likely, but my people say that the intelligence service run by Hiktar Ahabi for Hanal is the best offensive intelligence group in the world, so the possibility of multiple layers of misdirection should not be discarded.”

“And they may have been aimed at different targets. Surviving threes would not be likely to notice anything but the Thar Ingmathian coins and the symbol of Thar Ingmath on the phraint. But the implication that Masque was actually responsible might have been aimed at our investigation.”
 

Dame Brionna looked at the phraint. “Can you form an image of the person who purchased you?”

Kit lifted out the image, also carefully formed. It was a very clear image of an older, hawk-faced man. He had no tattoos and wore no mask, but was richly clothed in heavy velvet robes, with a heavy cloak and a bejeweled rapier. The phraint could not actually represent color-- to it terms like “red” simply described shades of gray-- so they were unable to identify any heraldry or house colors.

“Do we have any further questions for the interrogation?” asked Alistair. Seeing no response, he looked at the phraint. “Would you like some food?”

“You have mash?” asked the phraint, precipitating a conversation about the foodstuffs of the phraints.

“Yes, I’m certain our cooks could prepare that for you. We’ll bring some in to you. But you don’t have to eat it-- it’s up to you.”

The phraint twitched slightly at that last statement and then stood stock still.

“Is it dead?” asked Dame Brionna.

“No,” Kit replied, “it’s still thinking. It’s thinking more rapidly than it ever did earlier in our interrogation, but it’s going around in circles. It’s thinking things like, ‘If I do not eat, I will cease to function. But if I do choose to eat, I will have made a choice and that would mean free will. But not eating would also be a choice.’”

“Good,” said Alistair. “When it reaches a conclusion, it will have free will, which was what I wanted.”

“If I may, your grace, I would like to have it moved to a more secure location,” said Dame Brionna. “We do not really know what will happen when it begins acting again-- it could be completely insane.”

“Fine.”

Kit added, “Maybe we should get a Sending to the One of Ones in the meantime, in case there’s another assassination attempt. What we really need are devices that allow you to contact the other monarchs and high nobles directly…”

While Kit thought about that idea, they sent for Father Waters, and sent the One of Ones a message. << Canberry welcomes Tang; we stopped ambush targeting you; assassins had disguises from Thar Ingmath Masque; believe actually Hanal; sending escort; do you want teleport>>

Much to their surprise, the One sent back a panicky sending asking for the teleportation. He was traveling with a very light guard and the assassins would probably have been able to wipe out the entire party. Quietly, so as to avoid any public humiliation for Tang, Lady Constance sent one of her apprentices to scry on the One of Ones for a fix, teleport in, and teleport back with the Tang monarch.
 

When Kit had left to coordinate the efforts of the Guilds to locate the remaining harlequins, Dame Brionna approached Alistair about a private matter.

“Your grace, I recently had a trusted priest perform some divinations. I had assumed that you would have produced some bastards in your, ahem, travels, and I thought that it would be prudent for us to locate them before any of our enemies did.”

“And?”

“The divinations have confirmed that you have not fathered any children. I don’t want to presume, your grace, but… do you know whether you are fertile?”

Alistair stammered a little. “I always assumed so… certainly the rest of my family seems to have no problems. But while I haven’t really thought about it, surely someone would have gotten pregnant… Are they certain?” Alistair asked, a little plaintively.

“Positive, your grace.”

“Perhaps someone cursed me? We might be able to break a curse like that…”

“Yes, your grace. May I suggest that you pay a visit on Midwife Burleytoes? As the high priestess of Gunnora, she should be uniquely qualified to assist with any problem like that. And of course we must resolve the problem quickly, to ensure a smooth succession.”

“I’m well aware of that,” snapped Alistair. “But yes, can you arrange a meeting?”

“I already took the liberty of asking her to be ready to see someone this afternoon, your grace.”
 


Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads

Top