Session 3: Against the Taxidermists
Sabrina, Wistul and Valya decide that if they want to win the auction for the ophidoscope due to happen in five days, they need to know more about the other potential purchasers.
Wistul heads out towards the District of the Desperate. He knows that Blind Grunsten tends to beg near the Cathedral of the Rusted Lady and indeed, despite the snow that has been falling heavily since the day they explored the Whitefish Mausoleum, Grunsten is seated on the steps of the rusty building with an iron bowl in his hands. His skin is flaked and he looks truly miserable.
- "Have pity on a poor man..." Grunsten says as Wistul approaches.
- "Hey Grunsten, how are things ?" the elf enquires.
- "Who is this?" Grunsten asks.
- "Aww, come on, I know you're no more blind than I am..."
- "Shhh! Will you shut it? Are you trying to destroy my livelihood?"
- "Alright, alright... It's me, Wistul."
- "I know it's you dammit. Let's move out of the way to talk in peace..."
Grunsten heads out hesitantly towards a side alley. Wistul follows.
- "So, how are things?"
- "Good, I guess, although I am concerned that you didn't really make the sewers safer for us. You told me that things in the Panjandra district were still dangerous..."
- "Yes, I'll have to address that soon..."
- "As I think I have hinted at already, the Beggar King will give you an audience if you do secure the area, and he can be a good ally to have on your side..."
- "Yes, that's true. Meanwhile though, I have an urgent need of services you might be able to provide. We'd like some of your inconspicuous brethren to stake out the Cabinet of Curiosites and follow people who visit the shop. There's an object in there called an ophidoscope that I'll describe in a minute. We are particularly interested in people inquiring about that object."
- "How many of my friends do you need ?"
- "Not sure... How about 10 ?"
- "I can provide that, for a price of course..."
- "How about two copper bits a day ?"
- "Two a day? You are trying to destroy my livelihood! I thought you were a friend! No less than ten".
- "Five is my last price."
- "Let's go with five. Ten beggars, inconspicuous, and I want to meet with you every evening at sunset."
Meanwhile, Sabrina goes to talk to... a cat. Intrigued by the presence of granary cats in the sewers, and since she conveniently speaks their language, she spots a large tomcat lounging under a ledge to protect itself from the snow and engages in conversation: "Hello, Master Tom. How are you today?" The cat stretches and meows softly. It opens its eyes and looks at Sabrina.
- "Do you have fish?" it asks.
- "I do have fish! Do you want fish?"
- "I want fish!"
Sabrina takes a small fish from her bag and gives it to the cat who proceeds to munch on it.
- "So, Master Tom, what can you tell me about your brethren in the city?"
- "Nice fish!"
- "As above, so below they say. Why are your brothers walking the sewers?"
- "Do you have more fish?"
As Sabrina takes a second fish from her bag, she notices a little blond girl looking at her with her eyes wide.
- "Are you talking to the cat?"
- "I am. I happen to know their language. What's your name?"
- "I'm Lydia."
- "Well, Lydia, would you and you little friends like to learn how to speak to cats? I can show you the rudiments now, and the we could meet perhaps once every five days for lessons?"
- "That would be fantastic!" the little girl says excitedly.
The next half hour is spent with Sabrina teaching Lydia the fundamentals of the feline language. She explains the hierarchies in Cat society and the necessary respect towards all cats. She also explains that lowlier cats aren't very smart, as demonstrated by the one they are practicing on. Throughout the lesson, Sabrina's chicken repeatedly tries to peck the little girl as if to drive her off.
The next day, the beggars are in place. At the end of the day, they come to meet Wistul at the appointed hour and place. They have spotted one person showing a distinct interest in the ophidoscope. They followed said person, "a nobleman, for sure!" back to what they believe to be his home in the Eastern part of the Panjandra district.
Illustration by John Grumph, used with authorization
Sabrina and Wistul go there, and ask questions around. They learn that said house is the palace of the Brittleshins family. Viscount Edgar Brittleshins
has a rather better reputation than most nobles in Vornheim: no one knows of any particular cruelty he would have inflicted on servants or lowly neighbours.
Valya decides to pay a visit to Magisterus Putin who is as usual to be found at the Red Library. Putin is pleased to see Valya and particularly pleased to see that he is not in Sabrina's presence. Valya asks him about the Brittleshins family and in particular about any connections between the family and arcane arts. Putin says that the Brittleshins are very respectable, probably too much so: they lack the necessary cruelty and ruthlessness to rise within the ranks of the Vornheim nobility. Nonetheless, they are of ancient stock and amply rich. He doesn't know of any interest they may have in magical matters.
Valya then asks the Magisterus about the Whitefish family, and particularly, about the last patriarch of the family and his passing away. After consulting a few of his genealogies, the Magisterus tells Valya that Reginald Whitefish was the head of the family when he passed away three years ago. Hercule Whitefish, his son then took over the Whitefish mantle. Valya asks if Putin has heard anything about the mausoleum under the Whitefish mansion. "They no longer use it" the scholar responds. "They have brought in a foreign thanatopractor who performs aerial burial rites on a platform at the top of the Whitefish Palace. The family dead are cut to bits and left to the carrion birds."
"And do you know anything about the Undertaker's Ball?" Valya asks. The Magisterus doesn't know anything particular about it. Undertakers have notorious difficulties to find spouses, he explains, and the Undertaker's Ball is a lavish affair designed to attract "marriage material".
Around the middle of the day, one of the beggars assigned to the surveillance of the Cabinet of Curiosities comes to find Wistul. He is visibly agitated, and tells him that a man they recognized entered the shop and yelled at Dwimberg while showing the ophidoscope. The man is Three-Knuckled Porlo, the enforcer of the Taxidermists' Guild.
On the basis of this revelation and suspecting the guild to be the second interested party that Dwimberg mentioned to Sabrina, the three decide to visit a nearby taxidermist and ask for a preserved snake. They find a pleasant shop not too far, and see weasels, pheasants, even a badger, but no snakes. They talk to the shop owner, explaining that they saw a beautifully preserved snake at the house of sir Edgar Brittleshins and would dearly like the same kind of decoration for their home. The owner explains apologetically that no such work can be performed by him, all requests for serpents are to be directed at the Taxidermists' Guild itself. He gives them the address of the head office of the guild.
Sabrina, Wistul and Valya head out there. The office is a small dingy place with a desk and few bits of paper lying around. Sabrina serves the grumpy clerk the same story. The man asks them if they have the serpent, live or dead, in their possession. They answer that they don't, and he tells them very abruptly that the guild does not provide preserved snakes to their customers. He literally pushes them out of the office and slams the door in their face.
Puzzled, the three come down the tower where the headquarters were, and buy some drinks to try and interpret what just happened. This is when they spot the clerk leaving the tower precipitously. They decide to follow him, all the way to the North of the District of the Forked Tongue. There, the clerk starts climbing the stairs up a tower. Sabrina manages to follow, but Wilbur is winded by the quick ascent. Valya doesn't even try. The man takes a footbridge to another tower, and then again another. He doesn't seem to have spotted Sabrina following him, and she manages to see that he enters an apartment high up on a tower she doesn't know. The wizardess commits the place to memory and meets up with Wistul and Valya who have finally caught up.
They then go back to see Grunsten and ask him to stake out the place the clerk just went to and follow whoever comes out of it. They part with a little more cash.
The next day, Sabrina, Wistul and Valya decide to find out more about Viscount Brittleshins. They seek high and low in his neigbourhood for a digruntled servant and finally hear about a man called Mop who was sacked from the household a few months back. They manage to track him down in a grotty pub and offer him liquor to get him talking. It doesn't take much: Mop was fired because he inadvertently left a bar of soap on the floor of one of the washrooms, and the lord of the house slipped and fell on the soap. He didn't injure himself, but it was enough to lead to Mop's expulsion.
Mop is torn between resentment and a lingering admiration for Edgar Brittleshins. When asked to share scandalous gossip about the nobleman, he finally confesses that their was a rumour he'd heard about during his employment, but that he simply could not accept was true: it was murmured that Lord Brittleshins had an unnatural fondness for the intimacy of goats. A few weeks ago, he saw some scribblings on the wall of the gents at the Pickled Gibbon to that effect, but he still can't believe it's true. "I do remember seeing one morning some hoof tracks in the kitchens after some flour'd been spilt", he adds in a slur, "but that was probably just a goat..."
After Mop collapses in a drunken stupor, the two wizards and the elf make their way to the Pickled Gibbon. They have been careful not to drink too much, but they are tipsy. Valya heads out straight to the gents, and amongst multiple scribbles and graffitis, he finally locates the piece of slander that Mop mentioned:
'Lord Brittleshins Shags Goats!
' it says. 'And if you want proof, go check the children's footprints at Mrs Dandyspleen's Finishing School where his daughter is taught.
It's the middle of the afternoon, when children who are lucky enough to attend school generally go home. The band walks out in the snow again, and stakes out the entrance of Mrs. Dandyspleen's Finishing School on the eastern edge of the Panjandra district. Once the little girls and their governesses have left, they examine the footprints left in the snow, and indeed spot a set that looks distinctly like hooves.
They follow the governess and the little girl that seems to create those prints. The little girl looks perfectly normal. "Do you know much about Illusions?" Valya asks Sabrina. "Not really my area, I'm afraid", the wizardess responds. "You?" Valya shrugs.
They decide to distract the governess so that one of them can have a chat with the girl. Wistul overtakes the girl and the woman and, running back in the opposite direction bumps into the governess who falls into the snow with a squeal. Sabrina rushes to help her up. Meanwhile, Valya goes towards the little girl and speaks to her:
- "Are you OK ?"
- "Yeeeees", she answers. Her voice is nasal and furiously reminds him of a bleat.
- "Is this your governess?" Valya asks gently.
- "Yeeeees"; the bleat again.
- "Are you coming back from school?"
- "Do you like school? What did you learn today?"
- "I like it a loooot. Today we learned our humanities. Aaaaand we had a greeeeeat big laugh in Manners claaaaass."
- "What was so funny?"
- "Mrs Dandyspleeeeeen had to bow down to pick up a piece of chaaaaalk, and her corset ripped open! It's to smaaaaaal for her!"
- "That is funny!!!"
The governess is finally back on her feet, and after thanking Sabrina for her help and cursing these damned foreigners with no manners, she turns back to the little girl. She thanks Valya as well, and the two of them walk home towards the Brittleshins Palace.
Once Sabrina, Valya and Sabrina are back together, Valya simply says: "The girl bleats."
- "Don't you think", Sabrina muses as they secure themselves in the warmth of yet another tavern, "that Lord Brittleshins might only require the ophidoscope for a one-off operation? What if he's trying to cure his daughter of some affliction?"
- "Or finalise her transformation..." Valya objects.
- "Well, not that we'd care. Either way, he might only need the ophidoscope to decipher one snake skin. Once he's done with that, we could buy it off him on the cheap..."
- "But how do we know he'll be the one to win the auction?"
- "How about we pit him against the Taxidermists before the auction?"
That evening, Sabrina finds a taxidermist and buys a stuffed crow. In the middle of the night, the group heads towards the Brittleshins Palace, with the intent of nailing the crow to the door, as a "warning" from the Taxidermist's Guild. The idea is that hopefully this will generate animosity between the two other bidders for the ophidoscope and maybe cause one to pre-emptively eliminate the other.
As they arrive in front of the palace, though, they spot several militia men in front of the main door. One of the side windows is broken. Valya walks to one of the guards and casually asks what is going on. The guard says that masked men have broken into the Palace, but they were gone before the militia arrived. At this moment, a man with a prominent nose and deep black hair walks out of the Palace and starts examining the ground in front of the broken window.
Illustration by John Grumph, used with authorization
- "Who's that?" Wistul asks.
- "Oh, he's the big guy at the militia right now. It's a new role, although he's the only one who has it. Calls himself a 'de-tective' or something like that. Name is Rulius
. He thinks he can find the culprit of a crime by looking at where it happened or something..."
- "Ha!" laughs a nearby militia man. "Everyone knows that you find the culprit by cracking heads together until someone tells you they did it..."
Meanwhile, Wistul is approached by a begger from Grunsten's team who tells him that four men left the place in the Forked Tongue that the beggars were staking out and came here, broke in and left a few minutes later apparently empty handed. Porlo was not amongst them.
Later that night, once the militia has gone, Sabrina slips a letter under the Viscount's door. This is how it reads:
We do not know each other, but for the sake of transparency, let me just state that I represent one of the parties interested in the ophidoscope that the dwarf Dwimberg will offer at auction in two days.
I have information on the third party. It was this party that broke into your home last night. If you want to know more about this and discuss a mutually beneficial arrangement concerning the ophidoscope, we will be at the Cup and Moon tomorrow evening. Look for a small and pretty woman, a tall, pale elf and a club-footed man.
The next evening, Sabrina, Wistul and Valya arrive at the Cup and Moon early. They settle on a table that is away from prying ears but still visible from the entrance. As they look around the place, Valya notices a customer whose face looks familiar, but he can't quite place him. He points the guy to Wistul, who immediately says: "that's Rulius, the detector guy. He's badly disguised..." Valya and Sabrina think he's rather cleverly disguised, but do not comment.
A little while later, Lord Brittleshins walks in, escorted by two bodyguards. He walks to the table and sits down, looking a little puzzled and a little apprehensive. They wait for food and drinks to be served, and then Lord Brittleshins says:
- "What if you told me what this is all about?"
- "Well", Sabrina responds, "let us be transparent with you. We need the ophidoscope, and are willing to put a lot of money and effort into obtaining it. But we do not believe we can outbid you. However, we were wondering if you needed it for the long run or just to solve an immediate problem."
- "Go on..."
- "If you need it for good, then fair play to all, we will bid tomorrow and may the best man (or woman) win. If however you only need it to decipher one particular skin, we could come to an arrangement and share the costs..."
- "Let's say I agree to that, how can you guarantee that the third party you mentioned in your note doesn't outbid both of us?"
- "The third party is the Taxidermist's Guild. They are well known for their criminal activities even though there is a legitimate front. I don't know what they want it for, but they broke into your house, maybe to discourage you from participating. I'm thinking that we should be able to convince Dwimberg not to let them bid considering they attacked your property to try and rig the game..."
- "That may work..."
- "So you agree?"
- "Let me see if I have it right: we go to see Dwimberg together first thing tomorrow morning. We explain to him that the Guild has been trying to intimidate me into not participating in the auction and argue they should be barred from it. I believe he will trust me on this, and as a reliable dwarf he may even agree to it. But then if we associate to purchase the device, he loses potential revenues. Would you agree to a higher price of say fourteen hundred crowns, split halfways?"
- "Yes, that would be agreeable, I believe. There is one last thing. We need the ophidoscope in 6 days and not one more. Can whatever you wish to perform be done in that timeframe?"
- "I... hoped to have more time... I don't have all the elements necessary at hand to interpret the..."
- "I read ophidian fluently", Valya interjects. "I will happily assist you in your endeavours for the sake of expediency, and also to satisfy my own curiosity about the device and its workings."
- "That would be... extremely useful" the viscount says, looking greatly relieved.
- "So it's agreed then", Sabrina concludes. "See you tomorrow morning at the Cabinet of Curiosities."
Edgar Brittleshins stands up and puts his coat on.
- "By the way", Valya adds at the last minute. "Will you please pass on our salutations to the good detective?"