JACKAL AMONG SNAKES-Chapter 302: Weeding
Elenore heard a knock just outside her tent, and her head darted to the side. It was strange for anyone to knock given the fact her residence was cloth, and the knock itself sounded like a knuckle tapping against metal. Only one person knocked like that, and she could perceive him wholly just beyond the tent with her extrasensory jewelry.
“Come in,” Elenore called out.
Durran pushed aside the flap and walked in. He walked in his gray wyvern scale royal-forged armor with his wyvern bone glaive. Ever since the attack, he remained ever vigilant.
“I think I’ve parsed through all the inconsistent reports your agents have been collecting,” Durran said. “The leader of the Unhanded Coalition has been in close contact with the people in Central Vasquer, even Duke Rovostar of Whitefields. And I think I’ve figured out their name, at least. Georgina.”
Elenore raised a brow at once. “That’s one of the player characters in ‘Heroes of Berendar.’”
“It is?” Durran scrunched his face together as he vainly tried to recall that detail.
“It is,” Elenore nodded. “I made a point of remembering the names once I learned of Argrave’s knowledge. Each and all have tremendous potential. Nikoletta, Durran, Ruleo, Dimocles, Boarmask, Ganbaatar, Georgina, Melanie, and Stain.” The princess rose to her feet and stepped around the tent. “Georgina… she was a spellcaster primarily, a rogue secondarily…”
“The memory on you,” Durran stepped closer, shaking his head as though to dismiss his admiration. “She’s heading the Unhanded Coalition. From what I can tell, even if they aren’t officially supported by the lords of Atrus, they’ve been receiving arms, armor, and supplies from them on the down-low. Were I to guess, the various lords of the region want to destabilize things to earn more favorable positions in negotiations.” Durran smiled. “But this coalition struck at you. So I’ll end them.”
Elenore crossed her arms and said waggishly, “Is that right? Can I expect that done by tonight?”
Durran laughed. “You can expect that, but you might be disappointed.” His smile wiped away quickly. “In all seriousness… something needs to be done about them. They’ve been attacking foraging parties, hunters, messengers, and camp followers with great success. They target our vulnerabilities so adroitly it’s uncanny. Even with your men scouting with druidic magic, they avoid capture.”
“Ending them won’t come easily,” she nodded, following his thoughts.
“Maybe,” Durran nodded. “Maybe not. They target vulnerabilities. Let’s give them one,” he suggested, leaning his glaive against his shoulder as he popped his knuckles beneath his gauntlets.
“Should we lay on the ground, show them our bellies?” Elenore waved at him for a continuance, knowing he had more to say.
Durran looked to the flap that marked the tent’s entrance, making no point to lower his volume as he declared, “I think Argrave’s royal guards have a chance to make up for their display of ineptitude. I’ll go with them into a rather ambush-prone location deep in enemy heartlands. When they come to gut us, we’ll turn the tables on them.”
“We should deliberately risk some of our best troops… and you, a vital component by this point… for what, exactly?” Elenore asked with an almost mocking tone.
Durran grabbed his glaive and walked about frustratedly. “An end to this stupid stalemate, this uncertainty. Whether we kill a lot of them or we learn something useful, it doesn’t matter—something changes, and it makes me feel… I don’t know. It makes me feel the good feeling,” he said with a bitter jokiness. “We can’t afford this stagnation. Argrave left to be proactive—I think we should be much the same.”
“Proactive, is it?” Elenore bit at her lip. “I think walking out into the taiga waiting to be ambushed is rather reactive, but then I’ve been told I’m insufferably semantic. Well…” she sighed. “You can’t just walk out into the wilderness like a duckling lost from its mother. There needs to be purpose. I think we can figure out something for you to do, a genuine task… and moreover, I won’t tolerate you alone leading them. Melanie will come with,” she said with finality.
Durran frowned. “That one? The mercenary?”
“We lead an army of mercenaries,” the princess waved her hand as though dismissing the point. “Melanie has fought in more battles than most veterans, yet still she lives. She’s a formidable ally, and one I’ve underutilized considering how much I pay her. Much of that is your fault,” she noted, eyeless sockets fixing on him as though they saw.
Durran stared at her face unflinchingly. “My apologies for being so talented and freely available,” he responded, clearly not sorry. “It’s something of a curse of mine, being so good at what I do. But the way you’re talking… it sounds like you’re in agreement with this idea I had.”
“I am,” Elenore nodded. “Let’s start making some plans for this excursion of yours. I don’t care if Georgina is a player character. We have an undesirable to be weeded out… and a battle to come.”f𝙧ee𝔀𝑒𝚋𝐧૦ѵ𝑒Ɩ. 𝑐𝘰𝒎
Even still, as she thought of the notion of sending Durran into such a risky conflict… something about it bothered her, made her stomach uneasy. Was there a detail that she was missing? That would be revealed in the days to come, she supposed.
Argrave led Vasilisa to meet Vera and Hegazar, supposedly a ‘hostage.’ The blonde-haired Magister of the north had a rather big heart, so her idea of taking him hostage was merely standing behind Argrave as they had a conversation with the other two. The dialogue between the two of them unfolded rather smoothly, fortunately for Argrave.
As the two Magisters had been sent to the north to spread word of Gerechtigkeit, they naturally had something denoting Castro’s authority—a peculiar badge. To learn that Castro intended to declare the Order’s support for Argrave was surprise enough, but Vasilisa was doubly shocked when they discussed the reason: namely, Gerechtigkeit and Argrave’s opposition to said calamity.
Vasilisa had already been put off-balance by the news Argrave was the true identity of the man she thought named Silvaden. To hear of this calamity nearly turned her brain to mush. Despite the surprise, she was convinced of as much as was possible with no evidence for the claim beyond Castro’s word. She agreed to two things: to return to the Tower of the Gray Owl to see the proof, and to support Argrave in his endeavors here. It was a tremendous victory.
Once the talk was over, the two Magisters said consolingly to Vasilisa, “Fret not. Argrave… he makes a habit out of fooling Magisters, it would seem. Perhaps we ought to tell you about the circumstances we first engaged with their party…”
Though Argrave was pleased the three of them seemed to be bonding, he was a little unnerved it was under the pretense of his habitual duplicity. Lying was supposed to be a bad thing. He didn’t wish to be remembered as Argrave, the pathological liar. That was a poor reputation to have as a king… and even worse, it might make people finally wise up to his pathological lying.
With the crisis largely averted, Argrave returned to the inn where the four of them were staying with an increased understanding fostered. Argrave felt some burden lifted, even if he would need to wear that damnable wig for another long while to keep up with the persona he’d projected to the others.
“I’ve never needed a drink more than I have now,” Vasilisa declared as the door opened.
Argrave held the door for her. “It’s early morning after dealing with all this. I think the both of us need sleep.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Vasilisa nodded, rubbing her eyes as though she’d been reminded she should be tired.
Anneliese and Galamon had been left behind, as dictated by the ‘hostage’ situation. Now, both stepped towards Argrave, eager to reunite. Argrave hugged Anneliese, then extended the same courtesy to Galamon, if a bit less intimately.
“I have news,” Anneliese said. “Someone working for the margravine stopped by. She’d like to have another meeting today—with more parties present, this time.”
Vasilisa sighed. “Good gods…”
Argrave, unlike the Magister, was pleased. He had felt things were moving too slowly, and now it seemed the new addition to their scheme was committed to her role. “No rest for the wicked. Did she ask for a reply?”
“I do need a drink,” Vasilisa decided, stepping off into the room in search of the innkeeper.
Argrave watched her go, pleased as punch with this start to the day no matter how fatigued he felt.
“No, Sophia needed none. I assume things went well?” Anneliese asked. “Looking at you, the answer is yes… but details?”
“The talk went as well as it could have, reasonably,” Argrave looked to her. “Vasilisa is still with us, but now fully and totally.”
“Excellent,” Anneliese clasped her hands together. “Shall we go join her, then?”
“Hold on,” Argrave stopped her. “Out of curiosity… how’d you figure out she met with that vampire hunter?”
Anneliese paused, then said somewhat proudly, “Just… a little gamble based on speculation. You mentioned Svetlana was a player companion. You also mentioned the attacker was elven. I recall you mentioning one playable character was elven… and given the liberty the playable characters had in their life paths, I assumed that might be our vampire hunter.” She strolled to him bouncily and then said, “I just did what I think you would have done. It was a little risky… but it was reasonably risky. Just like you like it, I think.”
Argrave clicked his tongue as he beamed at her, reminded once again why he loved this woman. His face started to fall as he thought of another matter. “Playable character… then it’s Ganbaatar,” he said, looking at Galamon. “Looks like the owner of our glass eye was looking for you as much as we were him. Problem is… I don’t see a good way to get it off him. Little bit more difficult to justify murdering and taking it from his corpse when he’s a reasonably good person.”
Galamon crossed his arms. “I’ve been drinking of the bowl again, yet the feeling has not yet returned.”
Argrave nodded. “Maybe… you don’t need to bother anymore. We can probably deal with this matter through Svetlana.”
“Can we?” Anneliese tilted her head. “So far as I know, she still thinks the cure you have in mind is the Flame of the Tenebrous Star.”
Argrave blanked for a moment, then held his hand to his face. “Good lord… I think you’re right.”
“You are amply tired,’ Anneliese grabbed Argrave’s shoulder. “We had best focus on the imminent matter—the meeting with Margravine Sophia. After, we can disentangle this complex issue.”
“If the opportunity passes us up?” Argrave rebutted.
“Even a juggler can fail if he leaves too much in the air,” Anneliese said proverbially. “Come. Vasilisa waits.”
“Good, you’re here,” was the first thing Margravine Sophia said to Argrave and company when they arrived to the Drawnwater estate. She had been waiting for them just out front. “I do hope that you’ve nothing else to do today.”
“Why?” Vasilisa questioned somewhat brusquely, her fatigue catching up to her.
“Because I intend to do much today—the persuasion and the planning both, or at the very least the beginning of it,” the margravine explained, turning on her heel and heading for the door. “We have an undesirable leading us, and he needs to be weeded out. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I would,” Argrave answered. “I appreciate your eagerness, Margravine Sophia.”
“Just call me Sophia,” the green-eyed woman answered back with a coy smile.
“Alright, Sophia,” Argrave smiled in turn. “But… let’s make sure we’re as cautious as we are quick.”
The margravine’s back straightened somewhat, making it seem like the elaborate furs she wore puffed up. “But of course. We have a battle to come. And I have some good news, about two new arrivals… Vasilisa might know them, being as they’re colleagues.”
Argrave’s already-wide grin widened further. “Oh? Who might they be?”