Stathis accepted the beer she was offered, chugging it down, the taste now a welcome relief. She did what she could to ignore both Janaxia’s glare, and that Semari was unconscious (again), reeked of beer, and was still sparking occasionally as she was dumped (again) onto a bench. A pile of loot was upended onto the table, artworks, gems, jewellery and coins scattering everywhere.
Kethys sat down with a heavy sigh, slamming the cap off and swigging it down. ‘You got any idea what the hell that freak-monster was? At least it’s after you, not us.’
‘Not a damn clue. At least it’s gone for now.’ They chinked bottles together. ‘Why the hell did you dump beer on Semari?’
‘Oh, yeah. When she gets sparky, that calms her down. She’ll wake up in a bit.’
Her matter-of-fact tone was strangely irritating. ‘She, what, absorbs lightning, and then you dump beer on her? Any reason?’
Kethys shrugged. ‘No clue. We were in some mountain town, found her, she wouldn’t leave and kept following us around. Tried getting rid of her, she broke someone’s arm. Tried zapping her, she started glowing and got violent. Bit less scary when she was tiny, although she still wrecked a lot of stuff! She punched through a beer barrel, and that luckily knocked her out before she wrecked anything else.’
Stathis tried fishing for more information. ‘So, just beer, or anything?’
‘No idea, never thought to experiment, and I’d rather drink most things rather than pour it onto some brat. Useful as a distraction though. Then she wandered off, ‘bout, what, 5, 6 years ago, we moved down here. Get the occasional letter, which is a bit creepy, we don’t exactly advertise!’ Kethys seemed entirely too happy to take life as it came, which explained a lot about Semari. ‘Have to say though, wasn’t expecting you to be Iristari. Guess you’re the youngest? Thought you were meant to be all holy and stuff, not the type to come slumming down here. I can see why that thing had a grudge, that bloody Carissia came down here a few years back, that was an unholy mess for all of us! Sparked a blood war, near as dammit.’
Stathis commiserated. ‘Yeah, that sounds like her. After-effects and following through have never been her strengths, she always prefers jumping in and then leaving others to sort shit out once she’s done. Guess you’d never seen that thing before?’
She shook her head. ‘Not local, unless they’ve been keeping real shaded all this time. This is a rough place, but small enough that everyone knows everyone. Getting to bright for us, so we’ll be heading out soon.’
Stathis groaned. Another mess of her sister’s that had ended up being her problem. ‘So, your lot all OK?’
‘Couple of cuts and bruises, but nothing too bad. Especially not for this haul! Enough to get us out of here – we’ve made some enemies, long past time to ditch this place, find another shadow a long way away.’ She ran her hand through the pile of wealth, fingers stroking against the fine arts and sparkling gems before leaning in close to to Stathis. ‘So, uh, you might want to talk to your wizard? She looks pretty pissed.’
Janaxia had acquired a bottle of wine and was lowering her standards sufficiently that she was deigning to drink from a common tin goblet, rather than her preferred standard of crystal or gold, and hadn’t even bothered to change out of her disguise. She was lurking on the edge of the conversation, expression angry as she waited for a dramatically appropriate point to interrupt. To cut her off, Stathis turned and spoke first. ‘I’m sorry, Janaxia. I should have told you before, but it was just never the right time. And no, I’m not introducing you to my mother. Trust me, it’s for the best.’
Janaxia smiled, not entirely convincingly. ‘Oh, of course. I would never expect to be granted audience to such an eminence.’ She gave a fake, tinkling laugh.
Stathis sighed. ‘Yes, OK, I’m sorry. But you get all weird around high nobility – remember that time with King Karlnus? It was just easier after a while. You only told us about your whole creepy cursed book thing when we asked you about it.’
‘That is an entirely personal matter. But you’re the Duchess of Greybridge! And the Marquis of Farnham! That you never sought to consult me, well, I frankly find it a little insulting. Although your disguise as a simple common sellsword, bereft of high blood and style, was most impressive. To wear such plain, battered armour, it must have been such a trial!’
Stathis wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic or not. ‘Actually, I gave up those titles.’ At least had tried to, she’d never bothered with checking the precise legal status. Knowing her mother, there was probably a warden installed, keeping the place occupied in the hope that she would one day live up to her expectations.
Janaxia looked at her dubiously. ‘So, who precisely are you?’
Because of course, someone’s measure was in their title, not their deeds. Stathis sighed. ‘Stathis of the House of Iristari, Knight of, uh…’ She tried to remember the name of the order she’d joined. ‘Knight of the Sun, I think?’
‘The Knights of the Sun? You’re a member of them? They’re reprobates and meddlers, with scarcely any influence at court, and so stuffy and old fashioned! And all those ridiculous oaths they have to swear. You should have joined at least the Order of Ebon Lance, they are far more becoming to anyone with any aspirations, or style.’
Stathis looked around, at the group of rogues, thieves and bandits with whom they were currently carousing, Janaxia apparently indifferent to irony, at least when it came with free wine. ‘The Ebon Lance are a bit, uh, evil for my tastes. And aren’t most of their leaders’ vampires?’
A faraway look entered Janaxia’s eyes. ‘Ah yes, the Duke and Duchess d’Nessia. So brave, so dashing! And quite the trendsetters!’
‘They also butchered their way through most of the Athran Crusade.’ Apparently, a few brutal atrocities weren’t enough to douse Janaxia’s ardour, although finding out that she still held the highest social rank amongst them seemed to have reassured her somewhat.
‘A few minor lapses, I’m sure, entirely necessary in the circumstances. But we simply must go to Hayden’s Keep soon, I’m sure you have friends you wish to see, and to re-acquaint yourself with more appropriate company. And Carissia, of course, is always a delight!’
Stathis sighed. Some things, apparently, never changed. At least she didn’t appear to be in danger of losing her (fake) wizard in the immediate future, small mercy though that was. She supressed a twinge of guilt about keeping the other half of the her parentage a secret, but one step at a time.
There was a loud cry as Semari jumped to her feet, hands flailing into a fighting position as she tried to regain her bearings, looking slightly confused until someone handed her a beer, perking her up immediately. She looked around, finding Stathis, downing the beer as she came over.
‘The rich dude’s still alive then? So that means we get paid, right?’ Her gaze wandered the room. ‘Hey, it’s Kethys! Been a while!’
She fell on the elf before Kethys could evade, wrapping her in a bone-crunching hug, squeezing the air from her lungs. Once she was released, it took Kethys a moment to regain her breath, managing a weak, wheezing reply. ‘Good to see you again.’ Semari turned to see Hadric, looking him up and down, her grin turning downright predatory. He was faster, managing to duck out of reach when she pounced, darting away from another grab.
Stathis grabbed the scruff of her neck and pulled her in, as Hadric hid behind some of his colleagues, whilst pretending not to. ‘Don’t you need to rest? You drank underworld magic water, blacked out for most of the day, and then got zapped, and went a bit crazy. Are you OK?’
She twisted around, far more limber than seemed reasonable. ‘Pretty good, but Had’s grown up pretty damn fine, I’ll feel better if I can get a piece of that!’ As she went to leer at Hadric, she noticed the pile of loot scattered on the table. ‘Shiny! That ours?’
‘Some, yes. Kethys, how long until we can get our money for this? We should probably get this guy back to the surface.’ She turned to Kamarni, lurking in the corner, shoulders hunched in, trying not to draw attention. He started as he was addressed, looking shifty and nervous.
‘Well, that’s a long story, you see.’
‘It had better be a really good one.’ She had exhausted her own powers, so called Janaxia over. ‘That creepy doom-crown thing lets you get the truth from someone, right? And won’t eat his soul or anything?’
‘I assure you, it is perfectly harmless.’ She spoke several words, the sounds ripping themselves from existence before they could be remembered, a flicking shadow coalescing from nothing.
Kamarni had just enough time to start objecting before the casting was complete. ‘Wait, what are you…’ A crown of pitted and jagged iron, edged in crimson flame, shaped itself around his head, cold, black gems drinking in the light. A manic light edged into his eyes, face breaking into a crazed grin.
‘Now, Baronet Kamarni, quite why were you kidnapped and bought to this place?’ Janaxia asked.
The rogues moved away, showing the sense to not get involved with Janaxia’s particular brand of weird magic.
His voice was a harsh growl, bestial and savage. ‘My family is currently weak, and sought alliance. They wish to leave this place, and settle amidst the sunlit lands.’
Semari wandered over, experimentally poking the crown, its shape fading as her finger pushed into it. ‘See, that’s why we all think you’re weird. Normal wizards don’t do this, they just make people go droopy and woozy and say stuff, no eldritch hell-crowns.’
Most of Janaxia’s focus seemed to be on maintaining the spell, her only response a rude gesture with one hand, other locked into a painful looking sigil. Kamarni kept talking, the shadows from the crown creeping down over his face, making him look increasingly demonic. ‘They have their own wealth, to pay off our debts, if I would marry their heir. But they sought to bind me closer to them, make me like them and lay binding oaths upon my soul, betraying my family so they could hollow it out and replace my kin with their own type.’
‘Right, so underworld and nobility wedding gone horribly wrong? Couldn’t you have warned us?’
He didn’t respond, until Janaxia repeated the question.
‘I didn’t think they would dare such bold action, and believed that the services of Lady Janaxia and her allies would be enough to protect me.’
A faint sheen of sweat was beginning to form on Janaxia’s brow, as she had to focus to maintain the spell.
‘You’re paying us a bonus for this, just so you know.’ His grin was turning downright feral, eyes now almost burning with fever-light. ‘OK, release the spell now, it’s getting a bit creepy.’
Janaxia snapped her fingers, the crown disappearing, sounds mundane revelry and talking rushing in. Kamarni slumped, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
‘I know I asked before, but just to check – you haven’t eaten his soul or consigned it to the Abyss or anything?’
Janaxia sniffed. ‘Of course not! As if I would ever traffic with the inhabitants of the Abyss, they are unbearably crass and ill-mannered. At least those of the Hells are more sociable, even if a trifle prickly, at times.’
‘As long as he’s alive and conscious enough to pay us when we get back, that’s fine.’ She took a long pull on her beer. ‘So, we’re alive, we’ve got the guy we’re protecting, we’ve got some loot, whatever that damn thing was isn’t around anymore, Semari’s conscious and apparently absorbs lightning, is there anything else? Parth, you got any revelations to share?’
Parth was sat opposite Kethys, the pair staring each other down, a knife dancing between splayed fingers, some sort of Elven test of courage, stupidity or both, the others cheering them on.
‘OK, we rest up, get the money and then head back. And, Semari, don’t drink the damn magic doom water this time. I’m not carrying you again.’
Semari had wandered off to eye up Hadric again, leaving Stathis and Janaxia alone. They sat for a moment in companionable silence, each drinking before Stathis spoke, feeling as though she should try to make things right.
‘For what it’s worth, I am sorry, but you must know what it’s like when you have a certain name, and everyone has expectations. It can create problems, and I’d rather people accept me as myself, not simply a name.’
Janaxia drained her wine, her expression frosty, before she put the goblet down with a solid thunk. With an astounding reversal, her expression softened, as she placed her hands on her heart. ‘Ah, the trials of nobility! While, of course, I have never suffered such doubts, that you should strive to meet the standards set by your sister is commendable. I’m sure she admires your perseverance.’
Janaxia shuffled closer, taking Stathis’ hands, meeting her eyes. Apparently having now accepted Stathis as someone of high social rank meant that a certain closeness was appropriate, when Stathis would frankly have preferred a more professional distance. ‘Of course, I’m sure you could use your influence to find more suitable jobs in the future? I’m sure Carissia must have any number of tasks that need performing.’
Stathis sighed, and took a deep drink, tuning out Janaxia’s flowery praise of her sister. Anything Carissia wanted her to do would invariably turn into a horrible, screaming mess. Even worse than this! The conversation was mercifully interrupted by loud cheering, Kethys raising a knife in triumph. Parth’s hand was bleeding, quite heavily, blood pouring from her hand. She appeared largely unconcerned, just wrapping a cloth around her hand before drinking more. That seemed a good plan, as she found another beer, smiling and nodding along with Janaxia’s chatter of the trials of leadership and suchlike.