William could hardly fill in the finer details of his cloudy memory. He saw himself as a mere child, hugging up to his father’s legs. Perhaps, in his youthful ignorance, he believed that his old man would chase away the horrid truth as he had with all the potential dangers in his life.
He couldn’t reject the terrible nightmare, no matter who he clung to. He could never wipe it from his mind’s eye, no matter how little he heed he paid it or how hard he tried to shove it down where it’d never rise back up again. Among the blank white canvas of the scenery he had long forgotten, grimy, chain-clad men stood hunched in a long line. He couldn’t remember most of the faces. Their eyes, on the other hand, would never cease to haunt him. Each man carried a weight of guilt, regret, and shivering terror in those eyes. A burden that made their chains seem like strings of feathers.
The line marched, ghastly wails of despair and remorse ringing loud and clear. Others took it in stride as best they could, gazes locked forward on the scar-covered backs of the man in marching ahead of them. The memory lasted only a moment before they appeared.
The twins. His brothers.
They traded remorseful glances for a moment. William just squeaked and retreated further behind his father’s legs, pressing his tear-soaked face into the back of the man’s knees. He sobbed uncontrollably, not stopping even after the twins were long gone. It wasn’t until he felt his father’s strong, gentle hand tassel his violet locks did he calm down.
“I’m sorry, son. Your… your brothers did something very, very bad.”
“W-why? Why are they taking them away?” William hiccuped, “Are they ever coming back?”
His sullen expression not shifting, his father shook his head back and forth, “I’m sorry. They… they’re never coming back. They’re going to the Carusu Mines. They have to pay for the damage they’ve caused. But shed no more tears, my boy – if they work hard and redeem themselves, they’ll move onto a better place than this rotten earth.”
Will said nothing. Words failed him. He just clung desperately to his father wanting nothing more than for his brother’s to return to him.
The mist cleared away like a highland wind washed over the blank landscape. Closely packed buildings shot from the ground as it crumbled away, revealing cobblestone city streets under the surface. Bloody red armor seemed to fly and latch itself onto his body, and with a shocked gasp, Will found a bent bow in his hands.
He looked past the arrowhead. A lizardwoman fought valiantly against a trio of his fellow soldiers despite the wounds covering her body. She struck with all the intensity of raging beast, and was just as blindingly fast as wicked hurricane. Yet, even as she drew blood, none of her attacks were lethal.
The phantom pain of his throat tightening rushed back to Will. He took aim, ready to let the arrow fly.
“Do it!” the commanding officer behind him screamed with such force his lungs threatened to burst.
An order was an order, and he couldn’t have asked for a clearer shot at the lizardwoman. Will’s eyes focused in just as the shocked monster spotted him in turn. She froze, realizing she wouldn’t have time to dodge.
Then, she appeared.
A little lizard girl rushed to her mother’s side, tears pouring from her eyes. She caught the attention of all on the battlefield. Will gaped, letting his arrow go slack.
“Millie! I told you to hide!” the mother monster screamed in a mixture of concern and fear. Her blade fell from her scaly hand, the metal not finished ringing before she was cradling her daughter in her arms.
Everything rushed by faster than Will could process. Another man launched a crossbolt at the woman’s back. Her screams filled the air. She was pinned down and clad in chains by even more legionnaires, but her efforts ensured that her daughter ran free. All the while, the archer could only stand and stare, his feet frozen to the street.
He remembered finally being thrown from his paralyze with a kick to his back. He could never forget his superior’s officer’s face, flushed as the deep red of his mail.
And then, like his poor brothers, he found himself locked in chains.
Coward. Traitor. Monster-lover.
Every insult he could imagine and more was hurled at him His countrymen sneered at him, spat on his name. Those who were supposed to be his brothers-in-arms became his wardens. He felt numb, like his body was filled with venom. Empty, like his guts were spilled at his feet.
Was everything he knew a lie? How could he have shot a woman protecting her daughter in cold blood? No one was left to answer his questions. Not a man. Not any god.
He was abandoned to the dark, left all alone.
Light rushed back as Will was yanked from his sullen sleep He coughed, feeling a biting chill run across his skin. His face and chest were soaked in frigid water, and it wouldn’t have taken a lawman to find the culprit – Nathan stood above him with a smirk on his face and a wooden bucket in his hands.
“Sorry, pretty boy. Not exactly the revelry your used to, eh?”
Will only grumbled, not wishing to fight with the cocksure rogue. Nathan clicked his tongue, setting down the bucket and jamming his thumb towards the open door to their room.
“Are… are we ready to do this?”
“Yep. But first comes the most important meal of the day!”
The common area of the small inn was nearly empty. The only two aside from a few bar maidens and sleepy patrons were Val and Aaron. Sitting together at a booth, Aaron tiredly nibbled at a boiled egg, the bags under his eyes evidence enough of his busy night. On the other hand, Val was no worse for wear.
“Mmph?” the hound mumbled through a mouthful of grilled sausage as she turned to meet her mate.
Aaron lifted a slice of bread up, waggling it towards her generous chest, “Toast me.”
With a wide grin and playful wink, the hellhound compiled and used her forearms to push her breasts together. Her flames danced upwards, a signal of her rise in body heat. Aaron followed suit by slipping his bread into her cleavage until it was totally surrounded by her soft flesh.
A few moments later, Aaron fished the bread back out from between Val’s boobs, smiling as he found it had been perfectly toasted into a golden-brown. He wasted no time in smearing it with jam and butter, giving her a thank-you kiss on the cheek. Her tail thumped happily against the back of her seat.
Coming up to them as stealthily as his profession indicated, Nathan slipped next to Aaron with a tight frown, “I’m not sure if I should be impressed or repulsed.”
“That’s actually a pretty good idea… I usually always end up burning one side when I try to toast my bread.” Will sounded in as he took a seat at the other end of the booth, already starting to peel away at an orange.
“I have my rare moments.” Aaron snickered, taking a slow bite of his toast.
“So, you goobers ready to steal this doo-hickey?” Val mumbled through another mouthful of meat.
Nathan chuckled darkly as he poured himself a cup of coffee, “Sure, sure. I’m more worried about you two.”
Val grinned smugly, “Hmph. I didn’t think you’d care.”
“Oh. Trust me, I just don’t care about whatever it is purple is having you run around for.” Nathan grunted after a quick sip, “But I guess I’d be just a teeny bit glum if Aaron ended up biting it.”
“I’m flattered.” Aaron said, totally deadpan.
Will ate in silence, gradually tuning out the conversation as it devolved into a tired bickering match between Nathan and Valerie with Aaron as the hesitant mediator. With far heavier things weighing on his mind, he grabbed a slice of bread and excused himself from the table.
“Nathan, for the last time, can’t you just- hey, where are you going, Will?”
Will paused at the door, not meeting Aaron’s eyes before he answered.
“Just… getting some fresh air.”
The gray-haired bandit watched the archer leave, unsatisfied by his response. As he continued to watch Val and Nathan exchange scalding remarks, he wearily decided they’d start getting along before he’d figure out whatever it was that was constantly chipping away at William.
Were monsters truly beasts as the Legion constantly beat into him? Will felt his restless gut churn as he questioned his homeland’s integrity yet again. He had lost count on how many times that he chewed it over. He was still as lost for answers as ever.
Even at the early hours he was out, the streets were abuzz with activity. William took a seat on a bench, lazily staring at a centaur and her daughter trot alongside each other. Then, he felt his skin crawl. Who could say if a beast really loved their child?
What he originally saw as a clear-cut line between black and white had melted into a formless sea of pitiful blotches of gray. What was a man to do if he couldn’t discern if actions were heroic and damnable? Will decided it was best to do nothing.
“Inaction breeds pestilence. Pestilence begets evil.” he mouthed the words of the Holy Mother Vedia to himself. Usually, her knowledge brought him a blanket of comfort and security. Now, it only made the ill feeling frosting his veins worsen.
Humans didn’t belong in chains. But monsters weren’t truly human. The fresh memory of him boldly declaring to assassinate the merchant Otha returned to him. He didn’t even know what sort of woman she was, and he already decided to put a stake on her life, all for a sin he couldn’t have even been certain of.
It was then the good mother Vedia finally provided him solace.
A cart with a loose wheel noisily rolled by, catching Will’s attention for a split second. In that single moment as it passed, a humble roadside shrine caught his eye. It was but a small stage with a simple wooden altar, but the sigil of the blue rose crowning it left no doubt as to its affiliation.
Drawn forward like a starving man to a banquet, William tiredly hobbled up to the altar and prostrated himself before the eyes of the Holy Mother. On his hands and knees with his forehead against the wood, the archer quietly begged for answers.
“Please… please? What do you want me to do? I’ve lost sight of what’s right and wrong, O Mother… I’m begging you, be the stalwart breeze at my sleeping sails…”
“’And so the Mother said, ‘Lo and behold, I’d give my very flesh to nourish my children, as I’ve done before. But with all the power in the world, a man who refuses succor will never receive it.’”
Slowly blinking, Will looked up to find a young priest off the Mother’s faith smiling warmly down at him. In his arms he cradled the Mother’s scripture, but he needed not the reference to name the passage.
“The Chronicle of the Lost Son, chapter nine, verse twenty-two. Is there something you need to discuss, friend?”
The archer kept his lips sealed tight for a few moments. But looking at the priest’s bright, friendly face, his accepting ocean-colored eyes, he couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship with the holy man. A bond formed by the iron-clad chains of faith.
“Are… are monsters evil? Everything in my life’s spinning out of control. I can’t tell what’s black or white anymore… and it seems like every time I ask myself why, it leads back to that.”
The priest hummed in consideration, but wore a knowing smile nonetheless.
“I’m sorry, brother. Any opinion I could share on that topic would be a tad biased.”
Just as he had said it, the priest pointed down the road from the shrine. Will caught a long glimpse of a mermaid as he rose. He could do nothing but gawk in disbelief.
She was clearly a monster. Yet she wore the holy vestments of a female bishop all the same. She rolled towards the shrine whilst mounted on a specially-constructed wheelchair, her teal hair perfectly complimenting the blue of her robes. Her sunshine-smile only widened as she saw the priest pointing towards her. She raised waved one hand back in return, and in the morning rays, Will saw a golden glitter upon her finger.
Looking back towards the priest, William noticed the holy man was sporting a matching ring.
“Well, of course. Happily for five years and two lovely daughters. The Mother didn’t want her children to live in isolation. Even her servants are allowed matrimony!”
“N-no. I knew that.” William stuttered.
“Oh? Then were you shocked by the fact she’s inhuman?”
“Just a bit.” Will admitted wearily. He doubted a priest would be as so bold as to attack him in a public square for a slight against his wife. Still, those weren’t waters William desired to tread deeply into.
“Our Good Mother has always made a point to judge others on their merits, not on superficial differences. My wife saved me from a sinking ship and I’ve been falling even more deeply in love with her ever since…”
The priest sighed dreamily, staring off towards the puffy clouds and rich blue sky. But he jolted back to focus as he realized he still had a professional standard to live up to.
“Anyhow, that’s what I believe at any rate. I’m not going to claim all monsters are good or evil. Just that they deserve as much respect and dignity as any human.”
“I was in the Legion, you know. They don’t have an official religion, but most follow one or all of the old gods. But… even the few brothers and sisters I talked to there… they said the Mother hated monsters.”
The priest’s smile faded just a bit. Clutching his scripture to his chest, he breathed evenly and spoke with all the charisma one would use to address a crowd, “’As wicked men twist the tongues of their brothers, some would dare claim to act as my apostle, use my words as blade to cut rather than a salve to heal’. The Parable of the Virtuous, Chapter three, verse five. There will always be those who abuse the Mother’s influence to their own ends. The only advice I can give you is to follow what you know is right in your heart of hearts, friend. While it’s never healthy to rebel for the simple act of rebellion, you should never blindly march to another’s tune. That goes double if you don’t believe it to be just.”
Will felt his body tremble with an unknown grief. Biting his lip, he locked eyes with the priest and choked out one last question.
“But what if the only way I can set something right is by killing someone I don’t even know? How could the Mother ever forgive me if I misstep so far?”
The priest’s smile was gone. But the warmth in his eyes remained.
“Some fiends can’t be reached with words. Some won’t even bear to have them reach their ears. If you really must soak your blade with blood to prevent even more from spilling, I doubt the Mother would judge you any more harshly than the scores of other men who’ve been forced to do the same.”
Will felt the great weight crushing his soul lighten. As if he could feel his words going to work, the priest’s pearly grin returned.
“Thank you, father. I’ll make sure to keep your words close to my heart.”
“Always a pleasure to talk to a fellow child of the Mother. Oh, I never caught your name?”
“William. William Highwind.”
The priest beamed like torchlight off of fresh snow, “And my name is Dmitri Sarnoff. My wife and I travel the continent, aiding the needy and passing on the Mother’s teachings. If Vedia is willing, perhaps our paths will cross again one day… for now, I wish you the Mother’s blessings.”
Dmitri turned away, watching his wife wait patiently at the base of the shrine for him, bidding Will adieu. Giving his wife a quick kiss on the cheek, he handed her his scripture and wheeled her away somewhere new. Will watched silently, still chewing on what the priest had imparted to him.
“Yo, buckethead. Did your drill sergeant wack you across the dome too many times, or did you forget we have a job to do?”
Will wasn’t sure if he had let time slip by or his turbulent thoughts had blinded him to his surroundings. Either way, Nathan had crept behind him without so much as a peep and gave him a few hard pokes in the back.
“A-ah! S-sorry… just saying some prayers before we leave.”
“Well, better start putting a few in your pocket. I wanna scout the place out before it gets dark and Otha’s party starts.”
“Right. Lets go.”
Even as they left for the manor, Will felt his fingers dig into his palm, clenching as tightly as they could. No innocent man deserved to wear the shackles of a beast. Even the foggy memory of his guilty brothers being chained and marched to their death made his blood boil and stomach churn.
Even if it was pointless, even if it didn’t mean anything in the end, he would be sure to break at least one or two of those chains.
The manor was more than impressive. That much both Will and Nathan expected, as it was not only the laboratory of the mage Wes, but the homestead for the merchant responsible for funding Hog’s Way in its entirety. The opulence certainly showed.
The property took up countless acres of land. And past the local villa and church, it was sprinkled with sprawling gardens, swimming ponds, and small fruit orchards of every sort. They even spotted a brewery or two on their way. Drunken and fat guests could be found at every corner, relaxing and laughing boisterously under the shade as servants tended to their every need. The sun sank like a capsized ship, splashing the clouds with dusky oranges and soft reds.
The two were perched in the thick branches of an apple tree, staring upon the rolling scenery. Only one had a greedy grin on his face. The other bore a look of absolute apprehension, his brow tightly furrowed and mouth knit into a small frown.
“Having second thoughts, purple?” Nathan tauntingly asked Will, twisting an apple away from the branch he was squatting on.
“N-no… I want to stop all the terrible things going on at the Hog’s Way. Taking out the head of the slave trade might do the trick.”
“Good grief, you’re gullible.” Nathan sighed, taking a moment to take a messy chomp out of the fruit, “It won’t stop jack shit, bud. The entire operation isn’t going to crumble just because you plucked the top banana. Someone’s going to come along and fill the power vacuum, y’know.”
“W-well… then maybe it could at least give every girl trapped in a cage a chance to escape in the chaos.”
“Maybe. It’d be a moot point, but maybe.”
Will shifted his gaze towards Nathan, now more peeved then cowering, “Why are you even helping at all, Nathan? All I hear you do is insult me and go on about how everything not involving money is pointless.”
“Aaron’s my best friend.” Nathan explained easily through another bite of his apple, “We’ve watched each other’s backs ever since we were kids.”
“But he said you guys grew apart a while back, right? After moving to Graeme? Do you want to rekindle your friendship or something?”
Nathan smirked with his juice-stained lips, tossing away his half-eaten snack, “Nothin’ like that. He just gets tunnel-visioned. Real bad, actually. I’ve always been fine with watching the sides while he charges headfirst… I can’t very well go leaving him on his lonesome now, can I?”
Will smiled cordially, “Ah. So you just want to make sure he doesn’t get into too much trouble?”
“That Valerie-mutt’s too focused on his ass to watch his back. And you, well… I don’t exactly know what your deal is. Looking to share meat with the dog?”
The archer’s face burst red like a splattered tomato. He nearly flung himself out of their treetop perch as he rapidly waved both arms and head to each side. Leaves stirred around him like a whirlwind.
“O-of course not! I-I mean, not that I have a problem with anyone into those sorts of things. A-and not that I’m insinuating-”
“Calm down, purple.” Nathan interrupted. He wanted to slap the stuttering archer back to his senses, but he was afraid that would send him tipping right out of the apple tree, “All I’m saying is that it’s pretty clear that you’ve got some… issues to work out. I don’t know why you’re following Aaron, and I don’t care as long as you don’t try to snipe him in the back of the head.”
“L-like I said. I just want to help him for saving me… thats what a real man would do.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever you say, purple. You need a refresher on the plan?”
Will nodded affirmatively, wanting to ensure not a single detail was missed. He knew little about subterfuge or infiltration, but he had enough sense to know that any carefully laid plan needed every single piece to run smoothly. If not, their entire operation would go up in smoke, and they would both most likely have their heads set on platters by the night’s end.
“Okay. Like I said, we’ll dress up like a master and servant and attend the party they’re having tonight. That part should be easy enough; I’ve already got a forged signature. The fella you’re impersonating owes me a favor anyway; he shouldn’t mind us borrowing his name for a bit.”
“Right… but how’d you get that again?’
Nathan gave a cheeky smirk and quick shrug of his shoulders, “Nothing fancy. I just did him a few favors.”
“What kind of favors…?”
“Y’know… the stabbing people kind?”
“Nathan! That’s nothing to smirk over!”
“Right. Try not to judge me to hard, buckethead. Specially since you’re only here to kill some bitch.” Nathan grumbled, the smile wiped from his face, “Anyhow, we’ll sneak in easy. What comes next will take a bit more tact. After you slip the poison to Otha, I need you to keep Wes busy and away from his lab during dinner and whatever comes after. Sweet talk him, spill wine on him, suck his dick, whatever. Just gimme an hour and I should have swiped what we need.”
“And if you haven’t?”
“Then hightail it outta there. Don’t worry about me; I’ve had more than my fair share of experience cheesing it out of tight spots. Speaking of which, take these…”
Grabbing at his open hand, Nathan dropped three small satchels into Will’s palm, along with a vial of a thin black liquid. Will knew well what the vial contained – it was the satchels that had him staring curiously, wondering just how they factored into any escape plan.
“Those have flash powder in ‘em. Just squeeze your eyes shut, face away, and smash one against the ground. It should blind everyone in the room for a good minute… you should have more than enough of ‘em if things start going south.”
“Right. Thanks, Nathan.”
“Don’t mention it… just remember to keep your chin up and act like a pompous snob. I’m actually sort of glad Aaron chose to stay outta this one… the man can lie well enough, but he has all the acting talent of a retarded mule. Not to mention that the mutt would wanna tag along. Having that dumb broad with us would just muck up things right to hell.”
“Got it.” Will nodded in complete agreement. His mauve eyes stared past the verdant film of the leaves around them, setting with on the distant manor with a steadily growing determination, “Let’s do this…”
The bleak oppression of the cloudy night did little to sully the grandiose nature of the manor. Even as it smothered the moon and stars and tried to blanket the landscape, oil torches and lanterns at every corner drove it back, excited and rambunctious chatter from an assortment of highborns and business moguls driving away the silent solitude it attempted to enforce. At the manor’s gate, they stood in a long line, winding along on top of the stretch of the road.
Somewhere near the front, Nathan and Will stood together, the one more accustomed to subterfuge looking far more comfortable than the other. Sighing, Nathan gently nudged William’s ribcage.
“Relax. All your fidgeting is gonna give us away.”
They were both dressed far more sharply than their usual dusty traveler’s garb. While Nathan wore a more simple and classical butler’s attire, William had been painstakingly fitted for the role. A fine doublet, a ridiculously thick, gold-buckled leather belt, and silken high socks did their best to make him feel as out of his element as possible. He tugged at the cravat around his neck, trying to find the right balance of tidy tightness and regular function of circulation. The only part of the silly getup he could rally behind was the cap atop his head, sporting a quill the same rich purple as his slicked hair.
“Remember, you’re not Will, and I’m not Nathan. You’re Arnold Sid Galot, a famed salt merchant and entrepreneur from Rulip City. I’m just your humble childhood friend and loyal vassal Topaz, some starving desert boy your parents were kind enough to pick off the streets of Misr.”
“R-right. Got it.”
The line proceeded with speedy efficiency one would expect from highbrows. Chatty blue bloods and the distant neighs echoing from the nearby carriage yard filled the silence between the two men until their turn came. Stepping up to the manor’s gate, an older gentleman armed with a guest list scrutinized the two like they were faulty merchandise. Two armored mercenaries acting as guards flanked him on either end of the gate’s opening, uniform only in their fierce appearance and menacing aura. The gent’s beady eyes were nimble, his round nose upturned, his upper lip so stiff it could withstand a rockslide.
“And who might you be, good sirs?” he asked evenly, Will and Nathan just barely able to pick out the slightest hints of distrust in his tone.
“A good night to you, sir!” Nathan explained with the widest grin his cheeks would allow. He folded one arm across his chest, folding the other behind his back, then bowed his head to the elderly doorman. Will quickly followed suit, but continued to let the rogue do the talking.
“I’m called Topaz. And this is my master, Arnold Sid Galot.” the Misrian man cooed in a tone far sweeter than his default, “While it doesn’t behoove my master to crash parties, he has a business proposition for Lady Otha that she simply must hear.”
“Ah. Well met, sirs.” the doorman mewled back, his tone softening to match. He bowed his head to both of them in return, “While it pains me to do so, I simply must request you show my proof of your identity. I can’t let just anyone in, now can I?”
“Of course you can’t,” ‘Topaz’ chuckled, digging into a pocket of his tailcoat, “Not to worry, good sir. I have an official seal from the Hazel Hare Merchant Guild. Have a gander.”
The doorman did as Nathan handed the seal over, using the assistance of the torchlight and a pair of ludicrously small reading glasses. Smiling at what he found, the old man gingerly folded the seal back into place and returned it to it’s supposedly proper owners.
“Ah, the Hazel Hare. Fine lads, they are. Not a trouble maker among them.”
Nathan’s grin curled every so slightly. But the subtle sign of treachery went totally unnoticed by the withered gatekeeper.
“Go on in, gents. And have yourselves an unforgettable night.”
Grinning to each other and the old man, Nathan and Will strode right past the gate, leaving the inept fogy checking off the next in line. The thief and the archer advanced towards the Otha’s den of decadence, sitting in the inky, uncaring blackness as a pulsation of life and light.
They had almost managed to slip in without incident. It wasn’t until they were at the front doors that Nathan’s cheap grin crumbled away, Will’s having already fallen from nerves. The rogue stomped the archers foot, making sure to grind his heel into the other’s toes.
“Ouch! What the hell was that for?” Will whined, barely keeping himself from hopping backwards.
“That fucking sucked, man. You were just standing there like a statue!” Nathan spat, jabbing a finger into the ex-legionnaire’s cravat.
“H-hey! You told me to let you do most of the talking…”
“Yeah, most. Most. You’re supposed to be a bigshot merchant, remember? I dunno what kind’ve backwater barn your mother shit you out in, but in case you didn’t know, they jabber their fucking heads off. It’d look fishy enough just keeping your trap shut until spoken to, but standing there like some slack-jawed idiot is going to land us five miles up shit creek!”
“I… I’m sorry, Nathan…”
“Ugh! I thought you said you could act?”
“W-well… I did play pretend with my friends a lot when I was a kid, but…”
Nathan nearly socked Will and called off the mission right then and there. Right when the rogue was about to cock back his fist, the doors swung open, letting blinding light spill out and chase away the enshrouding night. There stood two more servants, pretty maids from the looks of them. They motioned for both Will and Nathan to come in. Under fear or the threat of suspicion, they did so without any further prompting.
Will’s awe surged in his chest. Eggshell colored walls stretched higher than thrice his height. The floors were a distinguished mix of ivory and ebony stone, arranged into alternating squares like a massive chess board. Torches lined the walls, glowing with not flames, but some sort of odd blue light. The chill of night was gone completely, driven away by a heat far more encompassing than a simple boiler system could provide.
The archer’s heart was thumping. He was a soldier,, but he had never actively went out to assassinate someone, even someone as vile as a slaver. He threw himself forward with weak knees. He was stuck in a loop – he knew if his facade shattered, he’d die, and that only made him more nervous. Of course, it was that very same fear that spurred him so hard to keep his act together. A lurking fear told him that his entire mask would crumble like sand the moment even a single crack appeared.
They were taken through the manor at a brisk pace, falling under the sideways glances of the party-goers lounging about. Through the great hall, where a countless amount of coin was displayed in the form of lavish art and decorations. Merry music and telltale sounds of revelry grew louder and louder as they drew near.
Past the billowing smoke room and vast library, they came to the crowded dining room. The maids bowed to them, scattering and returning to their previous tasks. Will just barely stopped himself from gaping.
To call the room spacious would be severely underselling it. It was nearly fifteen meters from from front to back, and an even more preposterously long table stretched from one end to the other. Gathered around like maggots picking at the carcass of a great beast, nobles stuffed their faces with the endless array of delicacies stacked atop it.
Every sort of pie was baked and laid out; every sort of beast roasted or fried. Fruits and vegetables he had never seen or even heard of were stacked high in bowls and set out for their gluttonous hands. Wine and liquors flowed like water, and maids and butlers alike rushed around in a frenzy to keep Otha’s guests entertained. Unending chatter and the clinking of silverware against porcelain became the backdrop to the merry song the minstrels in the corner were belting.
Keeping his bearing intact, Nathan let out a low whistle. He nudged Will forward. The two went about the rim the table, approaching the head.
“Remember to introduce yourself. Stay calm and cool. Nothing good ever happens if you lose your head.” the rogue reminded the archer, dodging around a butler carrying three beer steins in one arm and glass of vintage wine in the other. Nathan gave a quick, singular nod.
They heard her gnashing and gulping before they saw her beyond the swarm of gaudily dressed highborns; although, it was a wonder how such a mind-bogglingly massive woman hadn’t been their immediate focus.
Even the heavy, cushioned, oak chair she seated herself in buckled under her weight. Her puffy black dress could’ve easily been mistaken for a quilt. Even her own feathered cap looked like it could serve as an effective umbrella. She was fat, simply put. And the heavy layer of makeup she wore served only to accentuate her disgusting image.
Suddenly, the Hog’s Way seemed suddenly far more aptly named.
Will’s heart exploded with all the more intensity. The thought of assassinating someone still made him wracked with nerves. He thought meeting his target face-to-face would make that all the more difficult, and even as he found her outward ugliness matched her vile heart, that fear still bubbled to the surface.
Stopping himself from cringing was the most ambitious challenge of Will’s night thus far. Nathan kept his poker face with only a bit more difficulty than usual.
“Now. Introduce us.” Nathan urged just as they watched her thick neck swivel their way.
Will smiled raggedly. That nearly broke entirely as Otha’s gaze fell upon him. Holding a fat leg of turkey like a teacup, she savagely ripped nearly half of the tender meat from the bone with a single bite. Sucking it into her wide maw, she chewed it up as she appraised the two men. She gulped it down with a smile, but Will couldn’t have been certain that was because of the pleasing taste of her meal.
“I’m sorry; do I know you gentlemen?” she cooed, a voice that might’ve once sounded sweet and high rolling out deep and rumbling.
“W-we haven’t had the pleasure, my Lady.” Will caught himself from stumbling over his own words. He spoke as clearly and confidently as he could, “My name is Arnold Sid Galot. The man behind me is Topaz. He’s served faithfully since my childhood.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance.” the supposed-butler murmured, placing one hand to his heart and bowing. His false master acted with a similar gesture; placing his hat against his chest.
“The pleasure is all mine.” Otha laughed boisterously, extending one of her fat, meaty arms, “Aren’t you forgetting something, Mr. Galot?”
“W-what would that be?” Will stuttered, placing his hat back atop his head.
“Kissing my hand. It’s the gentlemanly thing to do, after all~”
Will laughed. Even a child would be able to tell he was uncomfortable. He tugged at his cravat, hoping it wouldn’t be stained with his sweat. He could practically feel Nathan’s furious eyes burn into the back of his head.
On paper, it should’ve been a hurdle leaped with ease. A simple kiss on the back of the hand. He would roll in his grave for the rest of time if he got both himself and Nathan killed over such a trivial matter. But his lips refused to pucker. They just went dry as he looked down at her hand. Her hand, puffy with fat, topped with a fat, hair-speckled mole…
“Ohohohohoh~ just joking, dear.” Otha guffawed in return, “I do loathe stuffy, ancient traditions.”
“H-hah! Of course. I do as well, Lady Otha.”
“Then why not have a seat, Mr. Galot?” she offered, motioning to an empty seat directly across from her own. A spot reserved for whoever had the burden of socializing with her – or blessing, if looking at the chore from a purely business-slanted angle. Will was certainly there for business, but not the sort involving trade embargoes and bank investments.
Will nodded slowly but with a veil of confidence. He could only pray the rotund woman didn’t see through his ploy. Both Will and Nathan passed a butler toting a bucket full of bottles of wine as they circumvented the stretch of the table.
He took his seat, Nathan standing dutifully behind him. The archer felt the scrutiny of imminent aristocrats the second his ass hit cushion. Obviously, seasoned visitants measuring him down to the last errant twitch, slavering for just a single flaw they could latch onto and exploit. He could do nothing but hold up his mask of a cool, confident smirk, praying the flimsy thing didn’t shatter under the weight of their judgment.
“So… what is it you do exactly, Mr. Galot?”
“I deal in the salt trade, more-or-less.” Will answered without missing a beat, already having rehearsed potential inquires of his vocation whenever he had a free moment.
“Mmh.” Otha nodded, focus more on the butler handing her a thick slice of roasted salmon than on her guest, “Very interesting. Regretfully, I’m afraid my associates’ work might just put you out of business, Mr. Galot.”
“W-whatever do you mean?”
Otha stuck her fork into her mouth before she answered. And when she did, it was by slowly pulling the utensil out and aiming it’s prongs at the unassuming man sitting by her side. He was a weaselly sort, disheveled clothing and baggy eyes making it clear that he was one woefully unacquainted with a proper sleeping schedule.
“Introduce yourself, deary.” Otha urged him, tasseling his messy auburn hair, “Don’t be rude, now.”
He slowly looked up from his meager meal of sprouts and beef, a good portion of his face hidden behind a thick set of spectacles. Sniffing, tapping his fork impatiently against his plate, he looked in Will’s vague direction.
“My name’s Linstrum. Wes Linstrum. Pleased to meet you, I suppose.”
“You suppose?” Will cautioned slowly, surprised to find someone more socially awkward than he was around monsters.
“I’m afraid social gatherings aren’t my forte… as you might’ve guessed.” Wes said with an uneven smile and unnerved laugh, “Sorry. I actually hate large crowds. And parties more than that. The food’s too fatty. I’m not a heavy drinker. This music is too loud; and my back is starting to hurt…”
“Why don’t you tell him about your research, Wes…?” Otha interrupted, sounding more than a bit upset at his long spiel.
Linstrum seemed to perk right up at that. Putting on an arcing smile, he motioned his polished fork all around the room, “Noticed anything strange about this manor, Galot?”
“I… I suppose, Mr. Linstrum.” Will replied slowly, “The… the torches. And it’s an awfully pleasant temperature in here. Not too cold, not too muggy…”
Wes leaned forward, snickering as he did so, “That’s all me. I study and renovate relics, yeah? And I’ve made several advancements in household technology. Air conditioning and filtering devices, lights that can perfectly set a room with the flip of a switch, refrigeration systems that can help keep food persevered long before it rots…”
At his last boast, he waved his skinny arms down the table, unsubtly suggesting that the massive feast was a direct result of the fruits of his labor.
“Ah. Interesting. I still don’t think that people can ever go entirely without salt, though.” Will breathed in quick retaliation, praying that he sounded convincing.
Wes’ smile didn’t fade as he leaned back into his chair. He folded one arm over the other, “Oh, I agree. My technology is extremely pricey. It might be hundreds of years before it’s reasonably mass-produced and distributed. But when it is…” he snickered, the white-blue light from his automatic torches dancing across the frames of his spectacles, “Well, who’s names going to be all over the historical texts?”
“Yours, my dear!” Otha laughed boisterously, patting poor Wes on the back with such force he was crushed against the table, “And my name will be right beside it, the selfless philanthropist who funded the research all out of her own pocket!”
Will, once again, had to fight back the urge to cringe at the woman. Still, the thought of murdering her still didn’t sit right with him. But this was his only chance to do so. She would wolf down anything in her way. Spiking it would be the trouble. His fingers lowered, reaching for the vial of poison in his pocket… but he found nothing.
The archer’s eyes shot wide. Fortunately, the reaction was hidden underneath the wide brim of his hat.
“Excuse me, dear sirs. If I may be so bold, may I offer m’lady some wine?”
William looked over to Nathan. With a quick wink, Nathan dropped the empty vial of poison in Will’s lap. With the other hand, he held forward a bottle of dark, vintage wine. One of the many bottles one of the servants was carrying that they passed by.
“Why, thank you.” Otha cooed, the gluttony flashing in her eyes, “I can never resist a good glass of red wine~”
It didn’t take long for Will to calculate the sudden turn of events. He was more impressed with how quickly Nathan was able to operate without so much a wayward glance of suspicion. His mission was nearly complete. All he had to do was motion for Nathan to pour the swine a glass and keep his nose clean for an hour or two.
He bit his lip as he looked to the grinning blob of a merchant. She was disgusting and despicable in every sense of the word… but what if what the slaver-auctioneer Basile said was right? What if monsters really didn’t mind to terribly about being treated like property as long as they ended up with a half-decent husband at the end? Aside from that, he couldn’t see her as anything other as just an opportunistic narcissist. Not pure by any stretch, but certainly nothing to assassinate over.
‘No hesitation. No hesitation.’ he sang to himself like a mantra. He licked his dry lips.
“Just one question before that, my lady. I hear you deal in the slave trade. Don’t you think it a bit barbaric?” he blurted out before he realized what he was asking.
There wasn’t time for an awkward air to develop. Responding immediately with a throaty chortle that carried all of her gusto, Otha answered him with a certain kind of dauntless egoism.
“Yes, yes. I’m an avid follower of the Hyacinth Orthodoxy.”
“And the Good Mother forbids treating your brothers and sisters as property, no matter the circumstance.” William added, just barely managing to leash his biting anger.
“Oh, I see you’re enlightened to the Mother’s words as well… however, I wouldn’t exactly go as far as calling those deranged whores my sisters!” Otha snorted in laughter, slapping a fatty hand against the tables. A good few of the aristocrats around them joined in. Will stayed totally silent for the duration. Calming down, Otha went on, “You see, monsters have always been nothing but beasts. Simple-minded animals, really. In the past, it was their lust for blood and death that drove them. Now, it’s a lust for man’s seed. What’s changed, really? They’re still foul things bound only by their desires.”
‘You’re one to talk, you disgusting hog!’ Will screamed within the safe harbor of his mind, but wisely kept his opinions put. He just barely managed to crack a smile in a facade of agreement.
“You’re absolutely right, Lady Otha. I think that twisted creatures should be put down, however.” he cooed gently. With a flick of his wrist, he motioned Nathan to pour the hog a glass of the poisoned wine, “Please, have a drink.”
Nathan did as ordered, filling Otha’s empty glass with such a smooth grace it would be impossible to tell his vocation was a meer act. The dark crimson drink filled the glass neatly. As Nathan pulled the bottle away, Otha gingerly lifted the glass to her nose and took a short few sniffs.
“Mmm. I’d say this is… an Esperian brew. Most likely aged for a good three years… funny, I just bought a good few barrels of this myself~”
Will froze, his bowels turning to water. He wasn’t able to tell if Otha was bemused by the supposed coincidence or she was just prodding him after catching him in the face of a lie.
“I suppose the master and you both simply have a knack for choosing superior vintners, Lady Otha.” Nathan swooped in like a falcon.
Otha’s grin widened, “Yes. I suppose we do.”
Without any further hesitation, she downed the glass. If the poison had any noticeable taste, she gulped it down with too much gusto to pay it heed. She may have tried to put up a veneer of a sophisticated lady of fine taste, but a sommelier she was not.
And no longer would she be heading her evil trade.
“Sir. I believe we have another gift for Lady Otha waiting in the cart. Shall I go fetch it?”
The assassination had gone off so seamlessly that Will was left stupefied for a moment. He looked back to Nathan, bowing respectfully towards him.
“Ah. Yes. Thank you. Go and do that, Topaz.”
Will glanced towards a grandfather clock tucked away neatly into one corner of the dining room. It’s hands told it was just past eleven. Nathan gave one last respectful bow before turning on a dime, desplaying a class that Will never could’ve expected out of the otherwise brash man.
“Ah~ do be quick about it, deary!” Otha cheered him on with a wave of her richly scarlet handkerchiefs, “I might just be willing to pour some coin into your salt mines depending on your generosity…”
Nathan looked back at his alleged master for just a fraction of a second, for the sake of simple acknowledgment. He bent over, whispering a quick tiding in his ear.
“Remember, if I ain’t back by the stroke of midnight, bail. I can handle myself… if I can’t, well, you wouldn’t have a snowflake’s chance in an oven. No sense in both of us dying.”
And like that, Nathan had made himself scarce.
Having nothing else on his mind but how Nathan’s mission might’ve been going, Will excused himself from his seat and stood in rigid silence. He occasionally glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner, but it seemed dead set on not budging past a quarter past eleven.
Realizing time was too important to give ground just for his sake, Will set himself to aid in any way he could. With a gaze sharpened from countless hours of time on the archery fields, he studied the dining room.
The poison was finally starting to effect Otha. Nothing terribly drastic, but a thin sheen of sweat began pearling across her pale, lumpy skin. She swayed ever so gently back and forth, a distant look in her glossy eyes. She’d be excusing herself to her chambers soon enough.
The only other immediate obstacle in Nathan and his path was Wes. The mage stood in an empty corner of the room, looking completely disinterested with all life had to offer as he gently sipped on tall glass of fine liquor. Something suddenly clicked in Will’s mind. Wes was likely only staying put because Otha demanded it of him. When the hog felt ill enough, she’d leave. When she’d leave, the obligation for Wes to stay out of his lab would be gone…
Then, he remembered his secondary task of keeping Wes busy. Before he knew it, Will’s feet began a steady march towards the mage. He’d be sure to keep Wes distracted until Nathan returned with his ill-gotten goods.
“Heyo~ have I seen you before, young fella?”
Will abruptly found his feet welded to the floor. He knew that voice. That slick, sly, slimy showman’s tone. Glancing to the side, Will’s heart dropped as he saw the slave-auctioneer Basile fast approaching.
“C-can’t say we’ve ever met.” Will answered quickly with a purposeful deepened tone. He pulled the brim of his hat down a smidgeon, trying to further disguise his face with shade.
A reflective hum rumbled from Basile’s lips. He took a moment to adjust his nearly comically large bowtie, then went about tapping his bejeweled cane against the polished tiles below. With each nerve-wracking thump, Basile circled further in front of William. The archer felt like a wounded seal atop a craggy shore, watching helplessly as a dark fin pierced and encircled a rising tide.
“Certain about that, cupcake?” Basile asked, now standing rigidly before Will, “I see a lot of faces in my line o’ work. I’ve developed a sort of knack for remembering mugs, ya see… and I’ve most certainly spotted yours someplace or another.”
“Well… y’know what they say… everyone has at least a single look-alike per continent.” Will sputtered in quick defense, sounding anything but confident in the tidbit.
Basile’s lips curled into a wry little grin. He nodded, slow and sure of himself. Will felt his entire world crumble away, the harsh buzzing in his ears drowning out the casual revelry of the party around them, replaced entirely with the dreadnought of tension that floated between them. He felt the coil of tension around his stomach tighten ever further.
“Oh… now I know~! You were at one of my auctions a few months back, weren’t you? You never won a bid, right?”
The relief practically shot from Will’s body like steam from a kettle. Smiling brightly, he chuckled just a bit and tipped his hat, “Hehehe… I do believe I was. My memory isn’t the greatest.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it, dear sir.” Basile tweeted, sliding back into the crowd, “I’m sure you just had more important matters eating you at the time.”
“I’m… sure I did.”
Will watched cautiously as the slave-trader went back to mingling with the other party-goers. He leaned back against the dinner table, excitedly gesturing his cane about as he regaled three smiling guests with a story of some sort.
Making absolutely sure that the auctioneer’s focus was relegated elsewhere, Will returned his own attention to Wes. Otha was already glossed over in the eyes, and struggled to lift herself from her sturdy seat with the help of two servants and removed herself from the party. Wes had seemed to already have taken notice as well. With the slightest traces of a grin, the auburn-haired mage poured the rest of his drink into a potted plant and made his way to the exit.
Picking up his pace, Will somehow managed to circumvent the drunken mess of a crowd and wedge himself between the trudging Wes and the exit.
“H-hello, Mr. Lindstrum!”
“Hi.” Wes breathed, palpably mirthless. He took a moment to readjust his glasses before staring into Will’s chest, purposefully avoiding eye contact, “May I help you…?”
“I… I was wondering…” William scrambled for an excuse, his eyes eventually leading him over the mage’s slumped shoulders and onto a bottle of chilled wine on the dining table “So… can you tell me more about this cold storage you use to keep your food fresh?”
“Hmph. Trying to snuff out your competition, salt monger?”
“O-o-o-of course not! I… I’m just fascinated… is all…”
Neither man was willing to break the socially inept standoff. It was only until William formulated a better way to appeal to him did he emerge the victor. The archer began slowly, but his tone went unwavering as he saw a smile grow on the mage’s face with each word.
“Perhaps… if we brainstorm some ideas together… I could possible fund a project or two…?”
It was only then when Wes started grinning in return. Will was spontaneously dragged from room to room, shown gadgets and gizmos of every shape and size, bombarded with technical and magical lingo he couldn’t have even begun to decipher. During all of it, he could only silently pray to the Holy Mother that things were going smoothly on Nathan’s end.