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

Yeah, I was pretty surprised by that twist. Happy New Year to all of you, as well!

----

Alistair and Dame Brionna quickly made their way to the hobbit midwife’s home. The guards that had been posted to protect her saluted Dame Brionna on her approach, and if they noticed her holding the door open to allow an invisible Alistair to slip in unseen, they would keep their mouths shut.

Midwife Burleytoes smiled at Dame Brionna. “You had a matter you wanted my opinion on?”

Alistair lowered the hood of his cloak. “We need to know whether I can sire children.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding. “I help people with problems like that all the time. Is there any reason to think that there would be a concern?”

“We checked recently with magical means, and his grace has not sired any natural children, but certainly not for want of opportunity.”

Midwife Burleytoes nodded judiciously. “Well then. Let’s have a look.”

Alistair looked at Dame Brionna pointedly. “Ordinarily, I’m not particularly modest, but under the circumstances…”

“Of course, your grace. I will be just outside the door.”

Midwife Burleytoes examined Alistair carefully and cast a spell or two. “Oh, my… You certainly don’t have any problems with fertility-- you’re as virile as a young goat in heat! But… ah, that’s what it is. You may put your trousers back on.” She walked over and rapped on the door to signal Dame Brionna that she could return. “He’s perfectly fertile but there’s a block that prevents him from having any children. It took me a little longer to figure it out because I’ve never seen that sort of block placed on a man before; it’s usually the women who want to avoid unwanted children. And I’ve never seen an anti-fertility spell this powerful before.”

“So it’s magical? Can you tell who placed the curse?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t call it a curse, exactly. It will wear off in a few months. My guess would be that it was your grandmother who placed it, ‘cause it’s a potent one.”

“Except that it takes away my potence,” grumbled Alistair. “Can anything be done to remove it?”

Midwife Burleytoes pursed her lips. “It could be done, but… in order to remove the block ahead of schedule, you would need a caster more powerful than the one who placed it. And as I said, I could never place a fertility block for longer than a few weeks. This one was designed to last for months and months, perhaps even years. If I could cast one like that, even the high court women would come to me for them…”
 

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Baron Opal

First Post
Ahh, Grandma was protecting the line. Probably tired of her son's foundlings popping up and made sure that the likely heir wouldn't have undue consequences. Brava, Archduchess!
 

Yeah, Archduchess Amelia did a great job there. The players were all very amused and pleased by this, much as Alistair was annoyed. :)

----

“This will work out perfectly. By the time you have married, your grace, the block will be gone, and we don’t need to worry about any potential threats to the succession. Her Grace the Archduchess has taken care of another problem for us before it even arose.”

“But she shouldn’t have done it without asking me,” said Alistair. “In any event, nobody else needs to know about this. Midwife Burleytoes, we may need you to perform a similar fertility check when I marry. Princess Kaitlyn of Stormwall seems like the most likely candidate, but we need to check out a few other possibilities first.”

“You intend to marry and have an heir quickly, then.”

“I have no choice. With the stability of the Archduchy at stake, and the continuing assassination attempts… And while we are on the subject, can you confirm paternity?”

“Yes, but the courts would not accept my testimony…”

“That is of no matter. I am the Archduke. When the time comes, we will want to confirm the Ashberry lineage, and I will be able to take any actions that may be necessary.”

“Oh. I suppose you could…”

“Don’t worry. The solutions that I would be able to use are much more humane than what lesser nobles, who don’t have my options, do when they have similar fears.”

Dame Brionna cut in to the increasingly uncomfortable conversation. “Midwife Burleytoes, we would also appreciate your advice on some matchmaking issues.”

She smiled. “One of my most pleasant duties. Are you looking for a husband?”

“No! I have a fiance, and he may yet return… No, I’m thinking about the Archducal family. There are some traits we would like to cultivate in the collateral lines.”

“Ah, you are trying to set up bloodlines with a specific virtue?”

“Yes. Some of the Archducal family has the sight, and we would prefer to see that it did not die out.”

Midwife Burleytoes nodded. “You’d be wanting to talk to the Order, then. They specialize in that sort of thing. I set up matches to make happy marriages with healthy children, but they do more advanced things. I wonder… His Grace’s grandmother looked into having a master breeder sent over but wasn’t in the mood to put up with them. There was some trait that Amelia wanted preserved and was afraid was dying out.”

Dame Brionna nodded. “That would have been her considering the same issue-- trying to preserve the sight. What do you know about this Order of breeders?”

“The Order is based on Khamista. They specialize in helping noble houses breed desirable characteristics.”

“Are they aligned with the forces of good?”

“I can’t say that I know for sure, but they seem good-natured. I haven’t heard of anything to make me think they might be evil.”

“Do you know hew to contact them?”

“Yes. I’ll make sure that somebody comes to call on you, Dame Brionna.”

“Thank you.”
 

“His grace is very worried about the assassins, isn’t he? That’s the only reason I could imagine a lad like him being in such a hurry to start a family.”

“Yes. The harlequin assassins, in particular, are powerful and dangerous. They’ve disappeared, but they’re not gone.”

Midwife Burleytoes nodded. “I don’t believe the fancy boys have run very far. They’ve gone to ground. I’ve heard rumors…” the hobbit matron leaned in close to Dame Brionna and whispered, only a little theatrically. “If I were you, I would check the houses below Pottersfield. The women’s houses.”

“Really?” asked Dame Brionna. “What makes you suspect the brothels?”

“The madams have too much money for people in their position. Two of them have left the City altogether. And it can’t be their business-- the girls have not been coming for their herbs of late. I’ve also heard things from other women. One was saying that her paramour has become unhappy of late, and she has had to deliver more than she usually had to. And from what I hear of the boys, they don’t have a place to stay anymore… Taking it all together…”

Dame Brionna nodded. “Thank you, Midwife Burleytoes. That insight may be more valuable than all our intelligence work.”

The hobbit smiled affably. “I’m happy to help, in any small ways I can. I’m just an old woman, but if I can do my bit.”

“We all learn great wisdom from our elders.”

Dame Brionna gathered up Alistair, who had wandered off and was amiably helping himself to the fine spread of food that Midwife Burleytoes always kept available for guests, and returned to the palace.
“His grace is very worried about the assassins, isn’t he? That’s the only reason I could imagine a lad like him being in such a hurry to start a family.”

“Yes. The harlequin assassins, in particular, are powerful and dangerous. They’ve disappeared, but they’re not gone.”

Midwife Burleytoes nodded. “I don’t believe the fancy boys have run very far. They’ve gone to ground. I’ve heard rumors…” the hobbit matron leaned in close to Dame Brionna and whispered, only a little theatrically. “If I were you, I would check the houses below Pottersfield. The women’s houses.”

“Really?” asked Dame Brionna. “What makes you suspect the brothels?”

“The madams have too much money for people in their position. Two of them have left the City altogether. And it can’t be their business-- the girls have not been coming for their herbs of late. I’ve also heard things from other women. One was saying that her paramour has become unhappy of late, and she has had to deliver more than she usually had to. And from what I hear of the boys, they don’t have a place to stay anymore… Taking it all together…”

Dame Brionna nodded. “Thank you, Midwife Burleytoes. That insight may be more valuable than all our intelligence work.”

The hobbit smiled affably. “I’m happy to help, in any small ways I can. I’m just an old woman, but if I can do my bit.”

“We all learn great wisdom from our elders.”

Dame Brionna gathered up Alistair, who had wandered off and was amiably helping himself to the fine spread of food that Midwife Burleytoes always kept available for guests, and returned to the palace.
 

When the Council had reassembled, she began without preamble. “I’ve heard reports that the harlequins may be hiding out in the brothels below Pottersfield.”

“We’ll have to check that out to see if we can confirm their location,” said Alistair. “Do we have any good ways to find out more information?”

“What about through the Manumistian clergy?” asked Dame Brionna. “I wouldn’t ordinarily approve, but they are part of the Ecumenical Alliance, and if any of the madams are Manumistian they should be able to find out what is happening.”

“No such luck,” replied Alistair. “My grandmother grudgingly tolerated the Manumistian caravans, but refused to give any licenses to Manumists to run permanent brothels. I think it offended her religious sensibilities. What about the thieves' guild? Do they have any control over the brothels?”

Kit shook her head. “The brothels are licensed businesses, not criminal enterprises, so the guild doesn’t control them directly. And in terms of protection rackets and similar matters, the brothels are one of the least penetrated businesses.”

“I would have thought that they would be important for intelligence gathering,” said Alistair.

“They could be, but your grandmother did not encourage that sort of work,” said Kit. “We’ll need to look into developing more resources in that regard, especially in foreign lands but even here for security purposes. But that will take time.” She looked at Alistair. “What about approaching it from the other direction? Do you know some people who frequent the brothels who might be able to investigate?”

Alistair nodded. “Let me think for a moment about who a good person to ask would be. We need someone who’s smart and reliable, who will seem perfectly plausible, and who isn’t linked to the Archducal house in any obvious way.” He drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair for a few moments. “Ah, I think I know who to ask. Dame Brionna, could you ask Lucas to come to the palace quietly? He’s one of the younger cousins of the Earl of Southworth.”

“And you know he would not stick out at the brothels?”

“Yes… I never spent a lot of time in the Pottersfield area, but I did go a few times. Lucas was part of the group of young nobles that I traveled down there with on several occasions.”
 

Alistair met Lucas in a private audience chamber. Dame Brionna showed the young gallant in. As Lucas looked Dame Brionna over, Kit read his mind from a concealed hiding place.

<<Is that his girlfriend?>> Lucas thought, clearly thoroughly intimidated by Dame Brionna. Kit could not quite tell whether he feared or envied the idea of a girlfriend like the captain of the guard.

“Lucas!” said Alistair, happily, rising from his throne to approach his old friend.

Lucas genuflected appropriately, although the effect was somewhat marred by a broad smile. “Your eminent grace.”

Alistair noted approvingly that Lucas was thinner and more attractive than he had been when last they met, and that he now sported a fine rapier in an elegant holder. Alistair clapped his hands on Lucas’s shoulders. “I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to see you until now. Things have been difficult since I returned.”

“Not to worry, Ali… your grace,” Lucas corrected himself with a quick glance towards Dame Brionna. “I’m just glad to know that we are still friends. I worried that I had done something to offend you.”

“And I’m sorry for that. I hope all has been well with you?”

“Aye, it has, although I haven’t had any experiences as exciting as your travels,” he said a hint of envy in his voice.

Alistair smiled. “I think I may be able to find you some adventure closer to home. The Archduchy has some things that need looking into, and I was hoping that you could help.”

“Of course, Alistair. Just tell me what you need.”

“Think carefully before you agree, Lucas. I need to send someone I trust, but this will be dangerous, and I can’t promise that we’ll be able to keep you safe if something goes wrong.”

“Don’t worry about that, Alistair. I can take care of myself these days,” Lucas lightly touched the hilt of his rapier, “and I’m happy to take a few risks to help you and the Archduchy. Just tell me what you need me to do.”
 

“Very well. You remember the sporting houses we used to go to below Pottersfield?”

Lucas blinked at the apparent non sequiter. “Sure. I haven’t been to them in a while; it’s probably been two years since I last went there. There’s a girl at Madam Mimi’s in the uptown district who’s much prettier than any of the Pottersfield girls.”

Alistair nodded. “I understand, but your going to need to go back to the Pottersfield houses. You’ll probably want to be looking for something special and kinky, so anyone who knows your habits will think that you’re heading to Pottersfield for something Madam Mimi’s girls won’t do. We need you to look around the Pottersfield brothels.”

Lucas’s eyes widened as he realized that this was the task that Alistair had mentioned. “What am I looking for?”

“I don’t know, exactly. Have you heard of the strange people in clown make-up, distributing candy and coin in the poorer parts of the City? They’re deadly assassins, sent to kill me before the coronation, and we believe they’re hiding in some of the brothels. We need to find out where, specifically, and any details we can about their defenses or what they’re planning.”

Lucas smiled. “You can count on me.”

“Be careful, Lucas. The people we want you to scout out are very dangerous. Don’t take any chances, and remember that you’re just there to get information.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it, none the worse for wear.”

“If you need any resources…”

“Alistair… we’re just talking about a low-class brothel. I can pay for it myself.”

“Thank you. We won’t forget this service, just as we would never forget your friendship.”

After Lucas left, Alistair said glumly, “I hope I haven’t just killed a friend. I never wanted to endanger my friends, but …” He looked at Kit in particular.

“Don’t worry, your grace. Even if he is killed, you could have him raised.”

“If the body is intact.”

“And we all know the chances we’re taking,” said Kit. “It’s what we need to do.”

“Can you have someone keep an eye on him?”

“Already on it. He’ll be tailed, but never know my person’s there, unless he’s good enough that we probably don’t need to worry anyway.”
 

A runner in the livery of the City Guard entered, saluted Alistair, and then approached Dame Brionna, tugging at his forelock.

“Yes? What is it?”

“Begging your pardon, Dame Knight, but I’m from the North Gate. Commander Strawberry thought you should know: the delegation from Ko Re Pek has arrived.”

Dame Brionna looked over to Alistair. “Your grace? What do we know of Ko Re Pek?”

“Not a great deal, I’m afraid. My grandmother never had any significant dealings with that country. But ‘country’ is sort of the wrong word, anyway-- Ko Re Pek is a mountainous area with a few tenuous paths leading to and from it. It’s inhabited by a changing mix of strange humanoid peoples, none of whom are ever seen outside Ko Re Pek except when they hire out as mercenaries.”

“Did we expect them?”

“No… they don’t ordinarily send emissaries to anything.”

Dame Brionna turned back to the runner. “What are the specific emissaries?”

He consulted a note. “Two chelliks, a pachak, a rappa, and some sort of strange caterpillar man.”

“Do we know if they are evil?”

“They are not. We had a paladin posted at the gate, and he checked them all.”

Alistair commented, “Chelliks are occasionally hired as guards; they’re four-armed humanoids, somewhat orcan, but potent warriors and disciplined to the hilt. I don’t know what the other types he mentioned are.”

“Pachaks are monkey-like, but with a third hand at the end of their tails,” added the runner. “Rappas are vulture people; they look frighteningly like vrocks, your grace, but they’re not evil. The final one was like a centaur, but with a giant caterpillar body instead of a horse’s body. They also had an enormous wrapped package with them.”

Alistair shrugged. “I suppose we need to invite them to a dinner. They’ve honored us by coming at all, and it wouldn’t do to offend them in response. Where are they now?”

“They’ve gone to an inn, your grace.”

An invitation to dinner was quickly prepared, and the runner carried it over. When he arrived, the one chellik who could read laboriously made his way through the invitation, sounding out individual words, and then drew forth an enormous piece of parchment. He carefully wrote out a five-word response: “Thank you, we will come,” and then signed it. The other emissaries attached their thumbprints, and he carefully folded the parchment up before breaking a wax candle over it for no apparent reason and handing it to the runner.
 

Later the same afternoon, Lord Ocelot attended upon Alistair.

“You wished to speak with me, your eminent grace?”

“Indeed. I wanted to inform you of a matter of grave mutual interest. One of our armies engaged a force of twenty heavily armed and equipped warriors in the forests to the northwest of the capital. The warriors were more like what you would expect from adventurers in ability and magic than common troops, and they inflicted fairly serious casualties on our army. The reason this concerns you as well is that they all bore a tattoo depicting a vulture.”

Lord Ocelot’s equanimity broke, and he quickly began, “Your grace, I cannot believe…”

Alistair held up a hand. “We do not think they were from Masque. However, we believe that whoever their true master is wanted us to believe that they were.”

Lord Ocelot nodded. “That makes sense. I was confused at first. The Vultures are a huge order, but they are a lousy order. I cannot imagine that they would have been able to stand against your troops in battle.”

“Do they receive the Vulture tattoo upon initiation?”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s another reason to believe that these were fake Vultures. They received their tattoos immediately before the mission. Although I suppose they could have been experienced adventurers who had newly joined the Order…”

“All but impossible, your grace. The Vultures could not recruit skilled adventurers. The dreams that Vultures have are small dreams. It is the nature that every nation must deal with those within their culture who are less driven. The Vultures are ours.”

“They were, we believe, intended to assassinate the One of Ones of Tang. Whoever is behind this sought to start a war, at least between Tang and Masque, and possibly with us as well because of the new alliance. We thought that you would be as interested in uncovering the truth as we are.”

“Of course. We will help you as well as we can, but our spies are not very effective at infiltrating foreign lands.” Lord Ocelot moved one hand so that, without directly pointing at it, he alluded to the mask on his face.

“I understand,” replied Alistair. “Our principal suspicion is that Hanal was behind it. They left clues pointing to Thar Ingmath directly, and then more subtly pointing to Masque.”

Lord Ocelot nodded. “I know something of Hikbar’s organization, probably as much as any other great power would know. Tang and Thar Ingmath both have difficulty conducting any external intelligence operations for reasons similar to, but even worse than, our own.”
 

“We have an image of the master that the adventurers served. Perhaps you can recognize him?”

Kit projected the image.

“While it would be easier with color, that is an Archibald of Pandahee. I do not know which one. And he may be in service to Hikbar Arkihebe, the head of the Hanalian intelligence service. He is definitely of Hanal.”

“An Archibald of Pandahee? What does that mean?”

“The Archibalds are privateers. They may not have actual naval vessels or be captains, but they pirate under letters of marque from the Hiercov of Pandahee.”

“What’s their air fleet like?” asked Dame Brionna.

“They have a small air fleet, some boats. Why do you ask?”

“The operatives were dropped from a fast, human-made voller. The voller was much faster than most human countries besides Hanal could have.”

“Ah. Well, Hanal does not sell its best technology, but the Hiercov of Pandahee could easily access ships of the rest of Hanal, even if he did not personally possess airships of that quality. Pandahee is a Hanalian great house, after all.”

“What can you tell us of Pandahee’s politics?” asked Alistair. “I’m afraid that we are not as well informed about the Hanalian great houses as I would like.”

“Pandahee is one of the old great houses. It is common knowledge that they are less than happy that Princess Anastasia has chosen a different house to ally with in marriage.”

“So they would not back her claim?”

“They would prefer one of the other heirs. And they could try to take the throne if none of the Queen-Empress’s children can succeed; they have a collateral line, although there are no direct lines outside the mainline.”

“I thought the Hanalian imperial family was strictly matrilineal and that new monarchs traditionally kill their sisters,” asked Dame Brionna.

“It is, but where there are males in the house, there are byblows, and such lines do exist. In the absence of a legitimate heir, the throne could pass to a niece or cousin outside of the imperial family. They are not of pure blood, but children of teen-aged males survive in several of the duchies, the hiercovates. If I had one of my servants prepare a glossary of terms and houses, would that be of help to you?”

“We would consider that a great service,” replied Alistair.

“You would not be offended if one of the maskless in my service left my chambers?”

“They are free, I presume?”

“Of course, your grace. We understand your land’s prohibition on slavery and would not presume to violate it.”

“Then it would be acceptable.”

“Excellent. I’ll have my servants coordinate with your scribes.”
 

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