Rasennan Summer

63 - False Trail and True
Information accumulates, a false trail is revealed, and the group sets out to the Tower of the Heron.

“We can go to different bars!”
“A stroke of Iluni brilliance in our darkest hour!” — Ettorio Iluni & Vittorio Marvigliozzo

After their battle in the Tumbles and brief confrontation with the Vycalaca, Vesper, Carenza and Vittorio are in need of a rest themselves. They spend the rest of the day pursuing no particular agenda. Ettorio, however, continues to speak with the Black Veils about the possibility of vampiric blood in the city. He learns that they have also had an interest in a thief of Blaissa’s character, and he agrees to help them with any possible discussions of mutual interest.

Vesper rises early on the morning of the 3rd, and tells Kosvach that he has ten minutes to get ready and travel with her to the Sespech Estate, or that he can remain in Ladona. She is quietly pleased when he prepares to ride with her. The two of them reach the Estate in a few hours, Vesper telling her husband about the Vycalaca presence along the way. Once at the Estate, she meets with Arusta Sespech, the House expert on vampirism. Arusta is planning a trip via the Shadow Roads to Strechone, but she leaves Vesper with some recommended reading on the subject.

Vittorio spends the morning of the 3rd at the shrine to Kylir, meditating and playing music. Though the presence of so much paraphernalia of the Heavens is slightly disconcerting, he manages to attain a certain peace of mind. The afternoon and evening he devotes to buying drinks and gathering rumors. Most notably, he discovers that someone wearing a many-colored cloak rode out on the Serpent Road at about four bells past midnight, bursting past the night watch and riding hellbent to the west.

Carenza chooses to spend part of the day around the Vargari chapterhouse, keeping an eye out for potential trouble. She takes the opportunity to get to know Tarvana a little better. The fiery Vargari swordswoman is clearly a challenging prospect: she seems to have a portion of Kosvach’s stubbornness and Inyavka’s pride, married to a devil-may-care attitude that seems to match Carenza’s own. She also, of course, boasts the typical Vargari lack of care for proprieties. When Carenza flirts with Tarvana over dinner when the other Vargari don’t seem to be paying attention, Tarvana flirts openly back. When Carenza moves to kiss Tarvana in private, Tarvana takes her head and kisses back as though attempting to establish dominance. Carenza pulls away after a moment, and makes a surprisingly coy organized departure.

The Ladies tease her considerably on the event, however. Rabbit and Dua ask if maybe they could get Tarvana to train them in wrestling. When Carenza replies that they’d probably get Kosvach instead, she is irritated to find out that the thought seems appealing to a couple others. “There is no way to hold a conversation with you idiots! Outside! Crossbow practice! You’re not coming back in until I see holes in every bullseye!”

Having been informed that the vampiric blood had been drawn fresh from Ludovir’s veins, Ettorio continues his inquiries among the Ladonan Veils. Though the Veils have no recent experience with vampires, they have a modest amount of folklore regarding the undead threat. In particular, they have a notable story about poisoning one of the Vycalaca with holy water, and given that the holy water had no difficulties burning its way back out again, it was a notably effective technique.

On the evening of the 3rd, Ettorio, Carenza and Vittorio collaborate on sharing their findings. They decide to follow the trail of Iridios while Vesper’s away, making certain it doesn’t get too cold.

In the morning, the three ride out to the town of Duesti, and promptly lose the entire thread of their investigation. Distracted by new local varieties of alcohol and the distracting memory of Ludovir, it isn’t until after lunch that they focus enough on Iridios to get results. Ettorio learns from the guard who’d been on duty that no single riders of any description passed through town at the appropriate hours. They return to Ladona, arguing about whether or not Iridios made it to Duesti or not.

Vesper and Kosvach return that afternoon as well. They gather the rest of the party for a conference with the core of the Ladonan Vargari. The Duesti affair comes up, and all concerned agree it’s most likely that it was a false trail, and that the Iridios that rode down the west road was an illusion. Vesper explains the whole of the situation with the Vycalaca, including their most common bloodline traits (powers of blood, disease, polluted land and tainted vegetation), their likely weaknesses (holy water seems particularly effective) and peculiar tastes (in particular, for poisonous beasts like cockatrices or basilisks). Ettorio confirms these findings with what he’s learned from the Veils, and relates the tale of the poisoning. Carenza begins musing on ways to trick or force Ludovir into taking a long drink of holy water.

Vepser also details what she’s uncovered so far on the curse that lies on Lucovol Villa. She points out that the Vargari are in particular danger where the Vycalaca influence is concerned: they are particularly susceptible to the blood-fever curse, as Ludovir demonstrated when he had Tarvana poisoned with his blood. She argues that the Vargari should hold their ground and not attempt to challenge the Vycalaca directly until she can achieve some measure of protection against the curse. To that end, she proposes to go to Lucovol Villa and break the curse there — but Iridios must be their first priority. Not only is he dangerous to leave unchecked, but the group promised Prince Lazzaretta they would deal with him. The Vargari reluctantly agree with the wisdom of the plan.

The Ladies dispatched to spy on the Tower of the Heron return around midnight. They report that the Tower does seem to be occupied, and a boat from the nearby lakeshore village of Osta makes regular runs to the island at twilight. The party makes plans to set out the next morning. Vesper is particularly concerned when Kosvach and Tarvana seem to be less than content with remaining behind. Inyavka speaks quietly in private with the two of them, and then the siblings seem much more content and at ease — which raises Vesper’s concern to even higher levels.

The group leaves the morning of of the 5th. Travel is slow, with Vittorio’s “toilette” to be accounted for, and they reach Osta on the 6th. Even with Carenza’s map of the tower, the assault is a daunting prospect. They cannot reach the island without a boat, and there seems to be precious few ways in. Finally they decide to rent a boat from the villagers under false pretenses. Ettorio gathers some fishing gear and tackle, hands it to Carpa, and sets down into town. The itinerant Iluni and his manservant draw quite a bit of attention, finally speaking with the pipe-smoking matriarch of the Mesti fisherman family. Ettorio explains that he is simply there for some fishing, and is willing to pay very well for a very large boat. Farcical as the premise may be, the Iluni’s portrayal of an offhanded gentleman with far more money than sense is pitch-perfect. He winds up taking command of the Mesti vessel, a boat designed for four fishermen and with the capacity for more.

Unfortunately, Ettorio is not nearly the able boatman he claims. To his good fortune, though, Carpa demonstrates a remarkable talent for working the large craft, and is able to bring the boat safely around. The two pick up the rest of the group, and as the lake grows dark, slip across the water to the Tower of the Heron.

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62 - Illumination
The mastermind behind Tarvana’s poisoning is revealed, and reveals himself to be much more dangerous than initially expected.

“You want no measure of me.” — Ludovir Vycalaca

Vesper, Carneza and Vittorio swiftly search the bodies of the dead cutthroats. The would-be murderers have enough coin in their pockets to suggest steady employment, and armor and weapons of unremarkable quality (with the exception of the greatsworder, whose gear is more finely crafted). Interestingly, three of the corpses bear the alchemical convict marks of prisoners from Vennan. The marks are fresh on each one. Also peculiarly, the corpses have dark gums and pink-stained teeth.

They leave the corpses for the guards to discover (though take the coin from the purses), and set out to catch up with Ettorio. Unfortunately, they quickly realize they hadn’t established a rendezvous point in case of trouble. Vesper and Vittorio deduce that the Iluni is likely to be attracted to the Fox’s Grotto nearby, given his predilection for shadow and vulpine personality.

Sure enough, Ettorio and Blaissa are catching their breaths in the Fox’s Grotto. The group asks several questions of the young thief. Vesper in particular is very hard-nosed in her interrogation, but she stops short of actual threats — it becomes clear that she has no grudge against Blaissa, but against her employer. Blaissa surrenders the ring in question to the group. It’s an old piece with a grapevine motif. Vesper recognizes the maker’s mark, though. The craftsman was someone who served the reigning Houses in the principality of Lamosca.

At that point Vesper tells Ettorio what they’d deduced earlier from the corpses. The oddly colored gums and teeth of the prison-marked corpses — including the man with the two-hander that Blaissa describes as her employer’s bodyguard — is recorded in the Sespech libraries as a symptom of drinking vampire blood. It seems increasingly likely that Ludovir not just hired these men to kill Blaissa to cover up the poisoning, but he’s given them vampire blood as a bonus. Where the blood came from is unclear, but it seems also possible that it was the “poison” in the ring, serving as a vector to infect Tarvana with blood fever.

The group parts ways at that point. Ettorio takes Blaissa to an inn and sets Carpa to watch her room’s door, then takes another room himself. Before he actually goes to sleep, though, he puts out the word to the Black Veils, inquiring if any of them know anything about vampires or their blood.

The others return to the Iron Crypt. Despite comments that “justice never sleeps,” they have to send a guard to wake Captain Argonest. When he arrives they show him the ring. The captain takes the news of possible vampiric influence in the city very seriously.

Argonest goes to arrange for the interrogation of the corpses from the Tumbles, and the group catches a minimal amount of sleep. Vesper and Carenza crash on spare cots in the Iron Crypt. Vestiri insists on finding a more proper bed, and Vittorio accompanies him to a nearby inn.

Vestiri and Vittorio arrive back at the Iron Crypt in a few hours with a gift of breakfast pastries, and the poorly rested blades tuck into the impromptu meal. As they wait, they share some extra with a guard, befriending him and gaining a little extra information. Apparently the expected shipment of bodies from the Tumbles arrived not long ago. Captain Argonest had Odrianna interrogate the corpses first thing, and at present is reporting to Prince Lazzaretta.

Argonest returns not long thereafter. He doesn’t share much of the findings, but announces that he will be accompanying them to call on Ludovir Zarocci. He summons two guards as a token escort, and then the group sets out to pay an early morning visit to the apparent conspirator.

A pair of Zarocci’s men stand guard outside the comfortable three-story house. They attempt to have the group disarm before entering, but the Prince’s captain overrules them. Argonest’s men remain outside with the one guard, while the other, a lean man with a shaven head, brings them indoors.

The Zarocci home is decorated with a kind of careful excess: rich and lurid, but at least of a consistent theme. Tapestries depicting hunts and battles share space with the heavy curtains blocking the windows, and bits of statuary approach the erotic a little more than would be considered generally tasteful. Ludovir Zarocci arrives shortly after the group settles in, wrapped in a robe and with his fingers pressed to his head, his demeanor very much that of the gentleman awoken far too early after a carousal.

Argonest tells Ludovir that the group here has charges to bring against him, and they get right to the point: they want to talk to him about the poisoning of Tarvana Vargari. Ludovir admits to remembering her dismissal, but counters that he went and found another, more willing partner for the evening and was otherwise occupied. During the initial rounds of exchange, the young lady with the parasol from the parade comes downstairs, more presentably dressed. She smiles genially at the group, though there’s a certain mockery in her eyes; Ludovir off-handedly introduces her as his sister Lestrata. Vittorio carefully notes that both have rings and lockets bearing some form of enchantment, as well as the sword Ludovir set to one side.

The Zarocci continues to have answers for the “tedious” line of questioning, though it’s evident he resents the intrusion. Carenza in turn becomes increasingly angry as the conversation continues. She points out that there isn’t any doubt in their minds that he’s responsible for the attack, and the subsequent attempt to dispose of the evidence. “We have witnesses. You’re fucked. It’s just how soft you want to land. You’re lucky we told Captain Argonest and not Kosvach Vargari.”

Ludovir laughs in her face. “That mongrel? You expect me to be afraid of a cur like that? You have no idea what you’re up against, do you?”

Vesper moves to the window blocking out the most sunlight, but as she reaches to open it, Lestrata is suddenly by her side. With a cruel smile, the young Zarocci seizes the curtains to hold them shut. “Do you mind? My brother has a terrible hangover.” Her gaze pulses with supernatural power, and Vesper cannot help but take a few steps back.

But at that point Vittorio abandons his passive observation of the conversation. He suddenly steps from one portion of space to another, catching hold of the curtains himself. “In Cinquedea we often find the best thing for a hangover is light!” he shouts, and pulls the curtains off the hanger rod.

The Zarocci’s reactions are dramatic indeed. The floor buckles near Lestrata as she recoils, and then massive dry roots tear up out of it, wrapping around her and pulling her beneath the stones. Ludovir’s face is a portrait of fury before he literally explodes, with nothing left of him but a swirl of blood that seeps into the hole in the floor. As the heroes recoil, Argonest leaps forward, challenging their guard to step aside. The bald man holds his ground even in the face of the angry spartoi. He draws steel, and Argonest engages him. It is swiftly evident that Zarocci’s man is painfully outmatched, but he fights until the end all the same.

The group swiftly searches the house in the meantime. Vestiri drops a cryptic aside to Vesper as they go: “the last legitimate Zarocci died forty years ago.” They find a somewhat confused and disheveled young lady upstairs, and a few house servants, but no more evidence of the Zarocci’s double lives. That is, until they descend into the hole left by Lestrata’s roots. Below is a secret basement of the sort popular in Ladona. A plot of raw earth, acrid and metallic-smelling, has been laid in the center of the room. They also find a message hastily painted on the wall:

“You will never reclaim Lucovol Villa. What we destroy will never be rebuilt.”

“They’re not Zarocci,” says Vesper in a grim tone. “They’re Vycalaca.”

Captain Argonest does not take the news very well. He makes preparations to inform the Prince at once, though he also makes sure that the group is prepared to clamp down on any mention of vampires in Ladona. They readily agree. The next question is how to continue.

“First we’re going to make them eat their fucking words,” says Vesper. “They say we can’t rebuild Lucovol Villa. We’ll show them otherwise.”

Two hours later, Ettorio wakes up. The Iluni is somewhat perturbed that his manservant didn’t wake him for the customary breakfast meeting. “My pardons, sir,” Carpa explains in a doleful tone. “I thought perhaps you were in need of an extended rest.” Ettorio yells at Carpa for a few seconds, then agrees that in fact he did need the rest and feels quite refreshed.

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61.5 - Ettorio and Blaissa
A conversational interlude, recorded in some length.

“Indeed. There is nothing worse than someone who does not pay on time. Well, a murderer is worse. As is an infernalist, and certain qualities of demon. But it’s certainly in the top ten bad things.”
“You… aren’t often called on to reassure people, are you?” — Ettorio Iluni & Blaissa

As the fight in Cutter’s Way resolves itself, Ettorio is entirely occupied with a wriggling young thief, who is no doubt understandably a little worried about the man who’d “threatened her,” grappled her and scooped her up and ran into the night. Once they reach a safe distance away, he sets her down to try explaining things to her properly.

“Look, I really do not mean to harm you. You were in terrible danger.”

She pulls a knife out of her boot. “How do I know I’m not in terrible danger right now?”

“Because if I wanted to kill you, it would have been much easier if I hadn’t picked you up, fallen off a building, ran with you, and then set you down to give you time to draw your knife.”

“All… right.” She rumples up her brow.

He smiles. “My name is… Vittorio.”

“Okay… Vittorio. My name is Isra.”

“Excellent! We are already lying to each other quite nicely.”

She nods. Her face is still quite suspicious, but she lowers her knife.

“You were a witness to something, and we would like your help.”

“We.” She glances around. “Did you arrive with the people you ran me away from, or do you have a gang of your own?”

“Oh, I run with a much higher quality of person than those ruffians. Even my manservant is more adroit.” He pauses. “Well, he wasn’t when I captured him, but he likely is now.”

“And you want me as some sort of witness, instead of just abducting another hireling?”

“Yes. Although I am not adverse to increasing my retinue. I am reliably informed that I pay well.”

She puckers her mouth into a frown that moves most of her mouth to one side of her face. “Is this a court witness thing? I have a… thing about courtrooms. They’re easier to enter than to leave.”

“Ah. There is… a reasonable chance of that happening, yes. But I can see if we can work around that.”

“So. Whatever this thing is that I witnessed… how did you find me?”

He waves a hand vaguely. “I asked around. I am very persuasive.”

Blaissa’s expression seems indicate that she’s running over names in her head, trying to figure out who the rat is. “All right. And this thing that I witnessed… what was it? And when?”

He moves swiftly on. “It is about a cutpurse who we believe poisoned someone recently, a woman named Tarvana.”

The somewhat strangled expression on her face indicates she is maybe better at cutting purses than con jobs. “All… right.”

Ettorio frowns. “Oh no! Your lying has become much worse.”

She sighs. “Uggggh. Look, that whole affair… the man with the coin and the ring and the drugs said it wasn’t a lethal business. The woman didn’t die, did she?”

“Do you really wish to know?”

“It might tell me whether I’m better off taking my chances trying to run again.”

He smiles. “Then she did not die.”

She watches his face carefully, then releases a breath, perhaps satisfied. “So. The people who came to kill me: are they hers?”

“I admit I did not inquire. However, I overheard their murderous intentions, and decided that speed was the better part of discretion. However, who was this man that spoke to you?”

“Good-looking fellow. Upper-class for certain. Didn’t have any of the major House colors. Long, straight hair. Goatee. Sharp-looking. Don’t know his name. Don’t run in those circles.”

“You mentioned a ring?”

She nods.

“Was there anything unusual about it?”

“Hidden sticker, small well. Already full when he handed it over. Looked old. Maybe a family heirloom, I don’t know.”

“Do you still have it?”

Blaissa nods again.

“I would be willing to buy it off of you, as well as compensate you for your inconvenience of telling this story discreetly to some individuals.”

“I was supposed to return it to the man tomorrow.”

“You have a meeting with him?”

She nods. “At least, he said he’d send his bodyguard along for it. Solid-looking guy, two-hander sword.”

“I would be very interested in coming to that meeting.”

Blaissa grabs her arms. “That sounds dangerous.”

“No. Being murdered by a number of ruffians in the dark is dangerous. This will be quite easy by comparison.”

“That’s… a fair point.”

“Of course, in the meantime, it seems prudent that you might wish to remain someplace secure so that nothing happens to you between now and then, si?”

“Sure.”

“I am willing to pay for a room for you. Whatever inn you care to name, so you do not suspect a horrible trap.”

She ponders. “If you don’t know who those people were, I don’t know where the safest place is. If they’re the woman’s family, that makes the Smoke Blocks unsafe; if they’re the genteel’s men, that makes Empire Hill unsafe.” Purses her lips. “And the Tumbles and Farhaunts are generally unsafe. Somewhere in the Colonnade then. Maybe.”

Ettorio sighs. “In the interest of gaining your trust, I will confess that the woman’s family has no ill will against you. Rather, it is one of them that wants to speak to you and learn of the person that so maliciously used you to perform this deed.”

“So I was likely double-crossed.” The thief seems perturbed but unsurprised. “Some people will do anything to get out of paying the other half on delivery.”

“Indeed. There is nothing worse than someone who does not pay on time.” He pauses to consider. “Well, a murderer is worse. As is an infernalist, and certain qualities of demon. But it’s certainly in the top ten bad things.”

“You… aren’t often called on to reassure people, are you?”

“I admit it is not one of my usual talents. But I am very good at keeping people safe.”

“Seems I might as well keep trusting you, then.” Blaissa puts the knife away, and returns Ettorio’s coin purse.

“Excellent. I…” He stares at the purse.

She looks up and away at a nearby window. “I… didn’t have much to do while you were dragging me around.”

Ettorio eyes her, and gingerly takes the purse. He starts to open it, stops, and closes it again. “You are… very good. In the interest of trust, I will trust that everything is here.”

“That’s good of you.”

“Very well.” He puts the purse away. “I will take you to meet my…” At this point, he realizes that they never agreed on a place to meet up, and changes conversational direction." …manservant, who can get you cleaned up while we await our next step."

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61 - Cutter's Way
The blades track down the person implicated in Tarvana's poisoning, only to discover others have an interest in the cutpurse as well.

Let me see. If I were my cousin, and I were bored in Ladona, where would I go and what would I do? …Ah. We need to move quickly.” — Vestiri Iluni

While the others are in their audience with Prince Lazzaretta, Ettorio decides to begin investigating the status of the Ladonan Black Veils. He locates Faustina Belluna and has a chat with her over afternoon coffee. She seems initially surprised to learn that he is attached to the Cinquedean Veils, but Ettorio begins to suss out that she may have gotten news of his involvement earlier, and is simply feigning ignorance.

Over the course of the conversation, she lets him know the status of the Ladonan Veils. Since his intervention and the exposure of Filescar, the organization has been tilting itself back towards an ideological center; those who agreed with Filescar have either renounced their former positions or departed. Currently the Veils also know of the Salon of Enigmas, and are carefully keeping an eye on them in case they show some signs of abuse.

Back at the Iron Crypt, Vesper dispatches Vittorio and Vestiri to go find Ettorio, while she returns to the Vargari compound to talk Kosvach down from taking any action. Carenza armors up as well, and brings her remaining mercenaries to attention.

Vestiri manages to anticipate Ettorio’s frame of mind swiftly, locating him at the specialty libation shop called the Woozy Alchemist. Though he’s able to bring Ettorio around swiftly enough, he loses a small battle when Vittorio becomes entranced by the many liquors never before seen. The devil can’t resist trying something gnollish, a brutish and alarmingly potent distillation that apparently translates as “troll-killer.” When they head back for the Iron Crypt, Vittorio is already partially inebriated from just the one drink.

Vesper also has her work cut out for her at the Vargari compound. Talking Kosvach into staying put and taking no action proves difficult enough, and worse, Inyavka is also ready to start taking heads. Vesper carefully points out both the political necessity of remaining calm and the dangers of the blood curse. Fortunately for her, Rodivar is on her side, and he is able to calm his wife and son. Vesper then borrows the three prospects Kalbak, Brosetta and Erigo, with the intention of having them escort Iliska back home once she’s finished caring for Tarvana.

They reassemble at the Iron Crypt. Tarvana regains some lucidity while they’re there. She describes a feeling like a bee sting a bit before she lost consciousness, but can’t identify where she got it — she’d thought at the time she had back into a poorly-sheathed blade at someone’s waist. The sting took place at the Broken Moon wineshop, hours after her meeting with Ludovir Zarocci. Vil confirms that she didn’t see the sting.

The blades leave Iliska and the Vargari prospects to look after Tarvana a little longer, and head to the Broken Moon. Their remarkable shared ability to suss out rumors helps them out, as Vittorio swiftly finds a somewhat disagreeable dwarf who saw Tarvana brush up against a young woman in gray and blue whom he recognized. The girl was a Cutter’s Way resident, likely a pickpocket of some sort who went thieving away from her home.

The next step is a visit to Cutter’s Way. It’s well past midnight when the group, Vestiri and Carenza’s ladies still in tow, arrive at the Tumbles street. There they manage to find a friendly witness who doesn’t mind informing on the cutpurse, a girl named Blaissa who apparently keeps an eyrie in a half-broken tower.

They find that they aren’t the first ones to come calling on Blaissa. When they arrive, quietly and unobtrusively, they find a number of men in half-cloaks and bandannas spreading out around the tower. One, a large man with a two-handed sword under his cloak, gestures at another to enter the tower, and then draws his thumb across his throat.

And then they move.

Vittorio offers a song to send Ettorio flickering in and out of the world, and the Iluni races to the base of the tower, vanishes, and reappears on the third floor while the cutthroat below is still moving for the stairs. As his friends begin their assault on the shadowy murderers, Ettorio attempts to explain to the alarmed thief that there are men here to murder her and he is here to help. Unfortunately, as he looks over his shoulder, the only words that seem to make it through to her are “here to murder you,” and she breaks for it. She leaps from the third floor to a nearby rooftop away from the entrance. Ettorio curses and gives chase. He makes the leap as well, and then calls on the fragment of shadow in his blood to snare her and pull her back to him. Blaissa is clearly stunned from the experience, and he catches hold of her. Scooping up the light young thief, Ettorio leaps down, kicking from wall to wall until he hits the alley floor and then races away from the melee.

Carenza pushes into the thick of the fight, and it’s a dangerous place for her. Perhaps a bit night-blind, she has difficulty catching the band of murderers with her Uromni blade. Vesper locks swords with one of them for a moment, then when the swordplay is inconclusive, darts back and begins to call on her ghosts. Vittorio offers support as they go, sending tiny malevolent curses singing into the fight with each bolt. Even Vestiri joins in, striking carefully at outlying targets.

The enemies put up a fight as though they can’t afford to flee. Some are clearly outmatched; others are fiercer. The greatsword-wielding leader is the evident greatest threat among them, fighting with a careful technique despite a slightly unsettling aura of bloodthirst. But his skill becomes the group’s ally when Vittorio enspells him momentarily. The greatsworder turns on his ally, and nearly cuts him in half with an expert strike. By the time he regains control of himself, it’s already too late.

When the last one falls, it’s clear that the brawl’s noise — particularly the banshee shriek — have wakened and alarmed enough of the Tumbles residents that the guard will arrive shortly. The group prepares to flee the scene, with Vesper quickly starting a search of the bodies for any sort of incriminating evidence.

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60 - Blood Fever
The Prince of Ladona offers cautious approval, and one of the Vargari proves to be too popular for her own good.

Our congratulations on a splendid performance. Give our regards to Iridios.” — Vesper Sespech

The Highsun evening festivities go well and without major incident. Carenza, somewhat affected by the exhilarating mock-battle with Tarvana Vargari, acquires drinks and begins flirting with the Vargari swordswoman. The sight slightly perturbs Vesper, who is not sure she likes the implications of Carenza potentially becoming “extended family,” and Kosvach, who is apparently expecting another relationship disaster from his sister. Vittorio, on the other hand, decides to assist Carenza by playing appropriately romantic music from a respectable distance. The two swordswomen part ways before the night is over, but it seems to have gone well enough by Carenza’s estimation.

The following morning, Vesper, Carenza and Vittorio gather together in preparation for their meeting with Prince Lazzaretta. Ettorio, claiming political difficulties thanks to his interactions with the Prince’s grandson, declines to participate in the audience. Vestiri joins the others at Vesper’s invitation to offer his own insights. Over the course of explaining his expectations for Prince Lazzaretta and her reactions to the diabolical revelation, he emphasizes how curious he would be to see how it plays out. Vesper takes the hint and invites him to join them.

They meet with the Prince of Ladona late in the afternoon, claiming the spot of her final appointment for the day. The meeting room is a large gallery filled with high mirrors and statue-bearing alcoves; it is remarkably acoustic compared to the sound-muffling private meeting rooms of Cortifo and Bellostia. Two advisors attend Prince Lazzaretta: the silver-armored Captain Argonest, and the elegant ritualist Odrianna. Argonest stands at attention the whole time, his hand firmly around the haft of his partisan.

The initial introductions take place, and the Prince acknowledges their prior visit. Vesper steps forward to speak, but Vittorio interrupts her.

“Please,” he says. “You’ve had to explain my situation enough times already. Allow me.”

And the stringed devil launches into his tale — the unanticipated death of his summoner, the influence of the Salon of Enigmas, the years spent roaming the land, the motivation to linger on in this world, and the desire to aspire to something greater with the help of Kylir. He produces the golden lyre pendant at the close of his explanation.

Prince Lazzaretta, unruffled, responds that she can tell he’s telling the truth about some things at the very least. She indicates a mirror behind the group. In the mirror, Vittorio’s reflection is that of his true self — tall, obsidian-skinned, horned and spurred with silver. She then asks her advisors for their insights. Argonest states that the devil may be a good liar, but that he’s fairly certain he’s telling the truth; Odrianna agrees to that.

The group then points out the difficulty with Iridios: that the illusionist can dispel Vittorio’s disguise with a word and gesture, that he has set manticores loose in a public setting as an assassination attempt, and that he is likely to remain dangerous. Vesper brings up his association with the Miriadis, and the complications inherent in identifying and neutralizing him.

Lazzaretta contemplates for a moment, then begins to explain the delicacy of the situation. Publicly supporting Vittorio and allowing him to travel openly as a devil would erode her support both among the Houses and the populace. She cannot be seen to take action in this matter. However, she notes that it would be dishonorable to betray the group’s trust by eliminating Vittorio’s free agency, so she releases the group to do as they may — and to deal with the Iridios problem as quickly as they can. Thus dismissed, the four politely take their leave.

The group decides that they need to watch their enemies and wait for a proper opportunity to arise to identify Iridios. Carenza dispatches her girls to go keep an eye on some likely candidates. Two go to shadow Ludovir Zarocci, and two more prepare to set out for the Tower of the Heron. Vesper recommends that the group visit the Dracoleon to watch Avistella’s performance, and see if Iridios is anywhere nearby.

Vestiri regards the Sespech quizzically. “Did you just parlay the plan into going to the opera?”

Vesper shrugs.

That evening the Dracoleon’s performance of The Decline of the Pirosi, a historical piece, is somewhat lessened in attendance — to be expected on the night following a major festival, perhaps. But Avistella delivers a truly impressive performance, and the rest of the show works intently to keep up. The various woes of shifting managers don’t seem to have sabotaged the play at all. The four are duly impressed. Vesper makes a point of sending a bouquet of flowers to Avistella, congratulating her on the show and name-dropping Iridios in the process.

Soon after they leave, though, Vil comes racing up to the group, clearly out of breath and agitated. She reports that there’s been some sort of trouble. Ludovir Zarocci attempted at one point in the evening to make a pass at Tarvana. She rejected him out of hand, of course, but a few hours later Tarvana went berserk, brutally beating a city watchman.

The group races to the scene of the incident. Kosvach is already there, demanding answers and action from a group of fang-helmed guardsmen who are themselves becoming increasingly hostile to the Vargari. The group moves to intervene, and Vittorio’s silver tongue quickly defuses the situation somewhat. The guards indicate that Tarvana has already been taken to the Iron Crypt, a particularly secure city prison, and Captain Argonest has taken charge of the case. While they can’t guarantee he’ll see them, a pair of guards agree to escort the group to the Crypt.

The Iron Crypt is part of the extensive catacombs and tunnels running through the grand Empire Hill of Ladona. To reach the prison, the party travels down through a series of winding catacombs, until they reach a section of ancient stone, a dungeon forged from old Dysian fortifications. There Captain Argonest agrees to see them, though he makes it clear that this case is based entirely on Tarvana’s actions and not influenced by their earlier deal with the Prince. After some argument, he allows them to see Tarvana.

The Vargari has fallen into a fever dream, not entirely coherent yet not exactly wasting away. Vesper recognizes the symptoms — the flushed skin, the dark red veins. Tarvana is suffering from a blood fever that is very similar to the blood-curse laid on the Vargari lands. The prospect disturbs Vesper greatly, and she inquires about the symptoms of the similarly infected Captain Tolnaro. Argonest admits that Tolnaro had spent time in the northern woods around Lucovol Villa.

Argonest agrees to allow Iliska as a visitor, based on her healing ability, though he is clearly wary regarding the infamous Vargari loyalty in the face of other pressures such as the law. He then ascertains the group’s plans regarding Iridios. Their conviction is clear. He nods, and dismisses them.

“You know where the boundaries are,” he says. “Do what you do.”

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59 - Sunless Highsun
The adventurers indulge in Highsun superstition, some memorable dragon parades, and a grand bridge battle.

That was quite a spectacle. Thank you for treating me to that. Speaking of spectacles, how’s my cousin getting along here?” — Vestiri Iluni

The morning of Highsun dawns with heavy cloud and no rain; the air is pleasantly cool for high summer, but the lack of sunlight has a few people muttering about poor omens. Vesper indulges in the local tradition of serving an elaborate breakfast for loved ones, sharing a meal with her in-laws before they begin training for the grand bridge battle. The others wake in various places, and deal with their hangovers in various ways. Carpa fixes a restorative for Ettorio, one involving the juice poured from a jar of fish-stuffed peppers. Rabbit presents Carenza with a greasy pork sandwich. Vittorio self-medicates with some hair of the dog, reading a note from Vesper with his partly liquid breakfast. In it, she reminds him that Iridios or an agent may be able to recognize his current form and dispel it again. The devil thinks on it, and then goes upstairs to experiment with the Toilette to see if he can derive a new illusory face. He manages to create a new human identity, though he can’t get the hair quite right. The best he can manage is a deep purple, a vivid orange with red tips, or a dark green. He settles on the green, for reasons that it will best match his wardrobe.

The four of them assemble for another late breakfast, where Vittorio has to introduce himself to them again in light of his new appearance. They talk of festival plans, in particular the dragon parades. There have been obscure bits of talk that someone may employ an illusionist this year to enhance their parade, and it seems Iridios has as much promise as anyone in that department.

They also consider the custom of spending the stroke of noon at Highsun doing something one would like to do for the rest of the year. Carenza contemplates getting into a fight, but Vesper points out that Maviolans are are prone to think that fighting at noon would invite a war, which they don’t particularly want. Carenza replies that as a mercenary, she’d actually like a war, which means money. “I could count my money,” she muses.

“Yes!” exclaims Vittorio. “Counting money, all year!”

Ettorio regards her. “You can count?”

From there, they separate. As noon approaches, each adventurer decides to honor the coming season in their own way.

Ettorio, his wife a principality away, chooses to find a portion of shadow to meditate in. He begins to explore the grottoes of Ladona, and soon discovers that level after level of catacombs, tunnels and ruins run through the city’s principal hill. He loses himself in the subterranean gloom, never quite hearing the noon bells.

Carenza finds herself at the Goreadon chapel, where the devotees plan their customary sparring to achieve physical excellence and perhaps, if fortunate, channel the godmind. She throws herself into the activity as well. She doesn’t achieve the godmind itself, but when the bells ring, she’s luxuriating in the feel of a strenuous workout.

Vittorio chooses a surprisingly ascetic path. Rather than drink and revel with the crowd, he retires to his room and works on the ballad he’s promised to the shrine of Kylir. He is caught up in the fires of inspiration when noon comes.

And for her part, Vesper decides to extend the tradition of kissing a loved one a little farther, leading Kosvach to a pleasantly furnished rented room in a comfortable inn.

“Hhn. You’re taking this tradition seriously,” he says.

“I’m a Maviolan,” she replies, pulling him in. “Maviolans are very superstitious.”

The dragon parades begin roughly an hour after noon. Vesper and Vittorio head to Empire Hill to act on the rumors of illusion at play; in particular, Ludovir Zarocci is somewhat under suspicion, given that he’s the other party involved in Dossa Barcamir betting his wife. Ludovir’s father Cadmiro apparently associated both with Avistella and Habria Venante while in Ladona, and it seems likely that chain of contacts could reach to Iridios. Before setting out, Vittorio uses his violin to spin a particular enchantment around himself, granting himself the ability to see magical dweomers for a short period of time.

Carenza and Ettorio choose instead to visit the Smoke Blocks dragon parade. WIth the Rovino plan to stage mock fights against attackers, Carenza wants to make sure that no zealous accidents get the family in trouble. However, she acts as something of a lightning rod herself when the parade passes the Vargari chapterhouse. Kosvach has promised Vesper he’d behave — but his sister Tarvana lounges outside the former inn, a pair of wooden swords shaped like her favorite Lokvan sabers at her side. She calmly watches the Rovino parade with a smirk. Her expression changes when Carenza looks her way, giving her stick an extra bit of flourish. The Vargari swordswoman immediately takes an interest, and begins to follow the Rovino dragon despite Kosvach’s growl of warning. When Carenza begins to pay her no heed, Tarvana moves in and attacks.

It’s immediately obvious to the other Rovino that this isn’t one of the scheduled mock fights, and that Tarvana Vargari is several leagues above the sort of bravos they’d hired to take a dive. Her two-saber style immediately challenges Carenza to block as best she can, and Tarvana still gets one shot in. Carenza retaliates, her strikes particularly showy, almost as though she isn’t taking the fight seriously.

The battle between the women quickly hits a level that has the onlookers gawking. Carenza blocks one saber and jumps another, nearly as fluidly as if they’d choreographed it. She manages to land a hit on Tarvana, and the Vargari comes back in with renewed fervor. Another saber strikes Carenza. But this time the mercenary applauds her opponent, calling out “Oh, good hit!” This clearly takes Tarvana aback, and her next attacks are more easily parried. As they continue the duel, Carenza dedicates less attention to offense, focusing instead on defense and on a peculiar form of diplomacy. After a few more passes, Tarvana seems to catch on. The two lower their sticks, acknowledge one another as good fighters, and then part to the applause of the crowd.

As Tarvana rejoins Kosvach, he reproves his sister for nearly stirring up havoc with the Rovino all over again. In particular he points out that Carenza is an especial friend to the family, and that she’s off-limits for any sort of trouble Tarvana might have in mind.

“Don’t worry,” Tarvana says with an evaluating grin as she watches the Rovino move out of sight. “She’s not quite my type.”

At Empire Hill, Vesper hears a familiar voice call her name from the crowd. Vestiri greets her enthusiastically; the Iluni is dressed much less flamboyantly than usual, emphasizing the black and white of his House colors with minimal blue and no House pin in evidence. She smiles at him, but holds up a cautionary finger.

“Tell me something only Vestiri would know.”

“Really.”

“We’re dealing with an illusionist. I have to be sure.”

Vestiri leans in and whispers something into Vesper’s ear. “All right,” she says, “you’re Vestiri.”

“I’m glad we agree on that.”

“Of course, I have no way of confirming that information.”

“You could probably just ask him. He’s not usually an exhibitionist, but there was that time he was carrying on with an actress…”

“I’d rather not.”

The two of them settle in to watch, Vesper carefully choosing a corner where the street will move into the final stretch, passing under a bridge where Prince Lazzaretta and her court observe the proceedings. Vittorio stays fairly close by, anonymously keeping an eye on the two. As he studies the surroundings, Vittorio also notes a woman matching Avistella’s description atop one of the nearby balconies attached to a fine inn. The opera singer is accompanied by an older gentleman who radiates some form of magic — Vittorio quickly deduces this is Iridios, or possibly an agent of his, cloaked by an illusion. Avistella seems to pay little attention to her companion, however. She appears to be setting herself to catch the eye of Captain Argonest, though if the silver-armored spartoi takes any notice of her, it’s too subtle for Vittorio to discern.

The Empire Hill dragon parade is a spectacular display, particularly in light of the normally somber Maviolo demeanor. Here the carts, banners and beasts are decorated like dragons with some of the finest materials possible. The Theatre Penumbral brings an undulating draconic puppet with remarkable animation. Dossa Barcamir’s entry into the parade proves to be fine indeed. The cart is laden with an elaborate reptilian sculpture, and the horses drawing it wear masterful green barding that gives them the appearance of ferocious drakes. Dossa himself cuts a fairly proud figure, with an elaborate sash worn over one eye.

But he is outdone. The young blade Ludovir Zarocci is clearly dressed for the pageant, with a wide-brimmed hat and clothes that speak of the well-off, adventurous young blade. Yet it’s his mount that draws most of the attention. Ludovir rides what appears to all senses to be a hissing, barely restrained dragon the size of a large charger. It balks at the rein and vents smoke at the audience, its scales shimmering in an iridescent shift of color from its back to its belly.

Vesper waits carefully until Ludovir and his mount are passing her — then she throws a karun tagli directly at the beast, her cry of “Vicusi!” not loud enough to be heard over the crowd. The nail strikes the monster in the side — and suddenly the drake is gone. Ludovir rides a blood-red horse with a pale mane, an impressive charger by most standards but no longer anything like a dragon. The crowd cries out in surprise, and Vestiri aids Vesper by hugging her tight and feigning utter alarm at the proceedings.

Ludovir’s lips go white as he looks down at his mount in clear fury. Vesper receives the distinct impression that he would spur his charger into the crowd and start trampling pedestrians if he thought he could get away with it. His glare first fixes on the old man on the balcony by Avistella; the aged gentleman looks shocked himself. Then the Zarocci rake stares furiously up at another balcony, where a pretty young woman with a parasol laughs cruelly at him — and the family resemblance between the two is notable. Finally he turns his steed and rides back down the street away from the Prince, still fuming. The old man looks into the crowd one last time — and Vesper sees his gaze fix on her white hair before he turns and goes inside.

Vittorio slips carefully into the inn where Avistella and the presumed Iridios have placed themselves. He first attempts to bribe the proprietor into giving him a balcony view, but the proprietor is unwilling to dislodge any of his current clientele. Vittorio then takes up a seat where he can keep an eye on the most likely exits. A vague presence blurs across his arcane sight, and he hears footsteps, but nothing more. He deduces that Iridios has invisibly slipped out the back, and although he tries, he’s unable to track the unseen illusionist.

Vesper and Vestiri don’t bother to remain for the judging of the parade. They set out for the Smoke Blocks. Along the way, Vestiri notes they’re being followed. Vesper reassures him that it’s a friend, and by the time they’ve made the trip back to the Vargari house, she’s explained the peculiarities of the Vittorio situation to him. He receives the news that Vesper and his cousin are associating with a literal devil with reasonable aplomb.

The four reconvene, Vesper also bringing in Kosvach and his sisters. Most people are looking forward to the evening’s bridge battle, and so that’s their next target.

The traditional Ladonan bridge battle assigns sides by drawing colored stones from a sack. By a stroke of fortune, Carenza, Ettorio and Vesper all draw black stones and end up on the same side, east-to-west (Vittorio choosing to remain out of the fray and simply watch), along with the half-orc “Rosette” and Cornabossa Rovino. Kosvach, Tarvana and Iliska all draw white stones, though, as do Kalbak and Erigo and Basolo Rovino, and prepare to push west-to-east.

When the fight begins, each group becomes the core of a dynamic wedge. Carenza and Vesper draw on long experience with teamwork to push their way forward, and Carenza’s command draws in more and more fighters around them to form them into a powerful spearhead. The Vargari are less inspirational, fighting with the expected skill of a wolf pack but more drawing their side along in their wake than inspiring them. Carenza and Vesper’s press completely dominates the north side of the bridge; the Vargari family tear through the south side. When the two groups reach each other, Carenza and Vesper briefly consider plowing into the Vargari rivals, but decide to just push past them, reasoning that the side that wins is the side that delivers the most fighters across the finish line. Ettorio, naturally, has already reasoned the same — he leaps onto the stone bridge railing and races along it, handily avoiding the blows of his rivals and acrobatically vaulting each of the draconic statues guarding the bridge as he comes to them. He arrives safely on the other side without so much as scuffed boots. Not too long after, Carenza and Vesper’s impromptu spearhead pushes through as well, with a surprising amount of success.

The black stones are declared the winners of the festival battle. Everyone is rather pleased with their performances, and then they settle in to enjoy the spectacle of the Dragonfire Burn floating on the lake, a last bit of festival enjoyment before they have to face the prospect of explaining their infernal circumstances to Prince Lazzaretta tomorrow.

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58 - Festival Eve
A variety of diplomacies and inquiries are indulged in, with variable efficacy.

So you mean to say there was nothing at all? Nothing in the piece of merit?
I liked some of the pauses.” — Pirudo Vetali & Ettorio Iluni

Carenza joins the group a little late. She explains that while they were out and about, she was trying to put out another possible fire.

Upon arrival in town last night, Carenza had started asking about the family fortunes. She discovered that the Rovino had taken over the old arena Kagall had used, and are at present using it to host less lethal exhibition fights.

She traveled to the Cranequin to meet her cousin Basolo, who was glad to see her. However, Basolo admitted a few things that struck a nerve with Carenza. He mentioned that Cornabossa’s new mistress is trying to persuade him to bring in a pit fighter she saw in action in Redfathom Cove last year — a Vargari. On top of that, Cornabossa has learned that the Vargari in question killed the heir apparent to the Cinquedean Rovino, and is wondering if he might be able to arrange an “accident” as a favor for the Inviccian cousins.

Rather incensed, Carenza stormed into Cornabossa’s presence that evening. She pointed out that the feud in Cinquedea was resolved amicably (to some degree), and that the current Cinquedean head is not the same man who was interested in furthering the feud. She also reminded Cornabossa that the Vargari in question married a Sespech, and he would bring down all manner of trouble. He seemed to accept her logic, and asked if she’d been drinking yet. As she closes by explaining, she wound up late for the breakfast as an aftereffect of bonding with her uncle.

Vesper is grimly explicit about just what would happen if Cornabossa tried anything with her husband. Carenza asks Kosvach to avoid signing up for the arena, pointing out she’s betraying her family’s trust on this. The Vargari responds that he’s had enough of fighting for the amusement of others for a good while. Carenza seems satisfied, and the group returns to the business of hunting Iridios.

Kosvach returns to help his family with festival plans, and the group sets out. Vesper starts at the temple to Theht, where she meets a cadet Sespech that keeps his ear to the ground regarding family concerns. She discovers that Opalessa Dusaam has rooms at the Green Mantle, and has been inquiring about the Tower of the Heron. Vesper decides to arrange a meeting; unsurprisingly, Carenza declines to attend. Instead, the prodigal Rovino spends some time wandering Ladona and gathering rumors. Most interestingly, she learns:

- One of the Prince’s captains is planning a raid on Lamosca, in the hopes of gaining some of the lost principality’s treasures or the glory of a grand battle.

- The local troops have offended a visiting dignitary, a swordsman from the court of Prince Alviarra of Forspada.

In the meantime, Vesper and the party scoundrels pay a call on Opalesse Dusaam, who is conveniently free at the moment. The Dusaam wears clothing that conceals her entire body, including a mask, but her faintly threatening presence is muted by careful courtesy. Vesper moves to the point rather quickly: she needs to find a way to ensure that an extraplanar being can be legally determined to be in control of his own actions. She also explains that it’s a devil, and it doesn’t take long for Opalesse to determine from Vittorio’s little asides that he’s the devil in question. She asks about the taxonomy of the given fiend, and Ettorio and Vittorio mumble something about not really paying taxes. She puts the question more directly to Vesper: “Have you studied the Incalavulum Diavulum?”

“No.”

Opalesse gestures for her maidservant to bring the book, and begins leafing through it as she continues the discussion. She explains that devils are not technically people — their physical form, soul and animus are not as individually distinct as they are in mortals. The class of a particular devil has certain implications: a tormentor is probably more sadistic by nature, whereas a tempter is harder to trust. She does note that the precepts of angels being capable of a fall also stress that devils are capable of rising. That would take the intercession of a specific god or servants thereof, but it’s been known to happen. Vittorio contemplates possibilities; Ettorio recommends Taltikka, but Vesper points out that Kylir would be a more respectable patron, and more in keeping with Vittorio’s epicurean ambitions.

The Dusaam finally finds a reference to the vibrezu, or “stringed devils.” The picture is unflattering, but it establishes Vittorio’s heritage as a tempter and not a tormentor. She says that perhaps it will help in the case put before the Prince, particularly if Lazzaretta’s ritualist Odrianna can compel him to tell the truth. Opalesse then inquires about the Tower of the Heron, stating that she’s here to investigate the circumstances surrounding the fate of a House member. Vesper is honest with her (though she does not mention Carenza), and says she may be able to aid Opalesse by removing a potentially dangerous squatter from the tower. The two mages part on sociable terms.

Carenza catches up to her friends a little after the meeting ends. The next stop on their itinerary is the shrine to Kylir, where Vittorio may be able to establish a good initial relationship with the priesthood. As they enter the lavishly decorated shrine, they note that the dark-skinned priestess in attendance is currently listening to a young poet — or perhaps “enduring” would be more appropriate, as his paean to civic-mindedness and benevolent authority suffers from poor rhymes and a rather tortured meter. As he finishes, he acknowledges the group of visitors, and then asks the priestess her opinion on the piece. While she is carefully choosing her words, Ettorio leans in with his own opinion.

“It was bad.”

Much to the astonishment of Vesper, Vittorio, Carenza and the priestess, Ettorio begins an unrelenting and infallibly negative criticism of the young poet’s work. After receiving a certain amount of this arguable misuse of Iluni wit, the young fellow excuses himself in an offended huff.

“I suppose such criticism might be useful for him,” sighs the priestess as the would-be poet leaves. “He doesn’t hear it very often; it is unfortunately impolitic.”

“Why?”

She looks quizzically at Ettorio. “Because he’s the prince’s grandson.”

Ettorio excuses himself to go strike his forehead against an alley wall.

Vesper addresses the priestess, Dessamori, and moves directly into particulars. She asks about the potential of having a devil “sponsored.” Dessamori seems to not believe at first, but she comes to be convinced. Vittorio asks what sort of first step he might take in his education. She tells him to compose a song, and to return when he feels it’s worthy. Vittorio agrees without hesitation. Perhaps moved by his humility, Dessamori opens the shrine’s reliquary and removes a small holy symbol, a pendant shaped like a golden lyre. It doesn’t burn as she places it in his hand, though he is aware of a faint discomfort like a great weight. Satisfied that he is able to accept and wear it, she bids the devil and his comrades good luck.

That evening, all four agree on spending some time drinking. Vesper drops out and returns to the Vargari compound somewhat early, her endurance perhaps taxed by stress. The others keep going, and along the way gather a surprising amount of information.

- Dossa Barcamir has bet his wife on the outcome of the Empire Hill dragon parade. He apparently stands to gain some logging rights if he wins, and is very confident of his odds.

- The grandson of Prince Lazzaretta aspires to become a poet of renown, but his actual skill is fairly terrible. (Ironically, it’s Ettorio who unearths this particular tidbit.)

Vittorio, however, plies the rumormill with astounding ease. Over the course of the evening, he discovers a number of particularly close-kept secrets:

- The famed sculptor Massavio is reputed to derive his skill from a haunted chisel, said to have been driven into an artist’s skull long ago.

- Captain Tolnaro’s recent absence is perhaps due to a curse, a blood-fever picked up from the Lamoscan border.

- The Evrelite shrine is sheltering a woman reputedly pregnant with a celestial child. Many factions are interested in influencing the babe’s purpose.

- Ilviro Sespech is blackmailing Habria Venante over her membership in the Salon of Enigmas, in particular a charge of infernalism.

The most immediate reaction to all this news is a certain amount of contempt aimed at the Barcamir merchant wagering his wife. Carenza proposes tracking him down and punching him in the face, and her two companions see no reason to discourage this plan.

The resolution to go find Dossa Barcamir and punch him in the face weakens somewhat under the application of alcohol. By the time the three are assembled in the street outside the Barcamir manor, they have fallen to arguing about small things rather than their plan of attack. In particular, there appear to be guard dogs, and none of the three particularly feel that the dogs deserve punching quite as much as Barcamirs might. Ettorio announces that they should figure something out before they are at risk of becoming sober, and dispatches Carpa to go purchase some more wine. When Carpa returns with a smallish handkeg of a local red, Ettorio stares blearily at him.

“Carpa. Why do you have a keg?”

“Because of the impending danger of sobriety, sir.”

They appropriate the keg, and then send Carpa back out into the night in search of wine glasses. By the time he returns, their attention spans have suffered notably from the time.

“Carpa. Why do you have glasses?”

“Because sobriety remains a menace, sir.”

Eventually their debate becomes louder, perhaps aided by the extra wine. In the wee hours, an irritated man emerges from the manor and begins shouting at them, demanding they go elsewhere — he has a very busy Highsun tomorrow and he would rather be asleep than calling the guards on them. Although a few hackles raise when he identifies himself as Dossa Barcamir, the three are surprisingly non-confrontational about the issue of his wager. They exchange a few rude quips, then turn and wander off into the summer night. The aggrieved gentleman watches them leave, then sighs and prepares to return to his bed.

And Carenza comes running back down the street out of the darkness, lunges at Dossa Barcamir and punches him solidly in the left eye.

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57 - Return to Ladona
The group arrives in Ladona as quietly as one might expect from a band of actors and mercenaries, and the wayward Iluni catches up.

I escaped.”
From Hell.”
From Hell.”
Were you bad at it?
I was very good at it.”
I did not want to hear that.” — Vittorio Marvigliozzo and Ettorio Iluni

The Prismatic Players wait for Vesper to pronounce that the lingering undead presence has been well and truly vanquished before they can settle back into camp. Even then, the rest of the night is a little restless. The troupe members spend some time debating whether or not performing their new “Drego’s Fall” play would be a good idea or not, until finally they decide that it’s likely to make them more money in Maviolo.

By the end of the following day, the caravan exits the Vaulted Wood, meeting the Tortoise Road and turning northeast through the more open and welcoming farmland of the Mala Vale. Along the way, Vesper is careful to explain to Vittorio just how much damage could be done if the Prince of Ladona becomes suspicious or hostile — this being her home, the seat of her career, and now the home of her newly extended family.

As expected, traveling with a group of players mean few days are uneventful, but the events are almost harmlessly mundane — a jealous boyfriend, a brief stop at a roadside Taltikkan shrine, and a run-in with a rival troupe. This last involves Ilgari’s Peerless Players, a slightly less successful band of performers who are immediately irritated to see the Prismatic Players headed to Ladona for Highsun, when they had heard that the Prismatics would be staying in Cinquedea for the festival. Things are about to get ugly before Vittorio explains the situation, turning Master Ilgari from viperous to obsequious. The two troupes are able to reach Ladona in peace, though the Peerless pull ahead vigorously at the first opportunity.

In the meantime, Ettorio and Carpa are finishing their ride from Cinquedea to Ladona. After a week of honeymoon, talking decorations and arranging financials, Bessari finally releases Ettorio to go on one of his disreputable yet profitable ventures. He collects his manservant, reads Vesper’s letter to him, and sets out. Along the road he finds several instances of the group’s passage: a village all abuzz with talk of harpies, a young girl who tried to run off with a bard (and who tries to run off with Ettorio), and a tale of a prodigiously generous gambler. He begins to feel slightly as though he’s been replaced.

When the main group gets to Ladona, they split up. Carenza asks a few contacts about what’s happening with her family, and the answer makes her storm away with a stern declaration of “Family business. I’ll be back.” Vittorio splits with the Prismatics and makes his way to the Pale Maiden, in the mood for a quieter establishment. Vesper makes for the building formerly known as the Last Ditch Inn. Now the two-headed wolf of House Vargari hangs over the door. An exotic-looking warrior stands outside, arms folded, much like a bouncer. Vesper pays him no attention at all, walks past him and opens the door. He raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t challenge her.

The interior of the Vargari chapterhouse is nearly as rowdy as an actual inn at festival time. A number of soldiers and warriors fill the common room, drinks in their hands and mostly focused on an arm-wrestling contest at a center table. The two competitors — Kosvach and a sturdily built half-orc woman — seem to be evenly matched, and by the tenor of the crowd, have been at it for a time. Iliska is nearby, with some attention being paid to her by a handsome young blade. Vesper quietly greets Iliska, who is happy to see her sister-in-law, and then sees about placing a small bet on Kosvach.

The contest is still going on when Ettorio arrives at the Vargari chapterhouse shortly after. The Iluni also walks right past the warrior at the door, who again considers him and then takes no action. Seeing the contest, he finds the person running the odds, pulls out a handful of gold, slaps it on the bar and announces he wants it put on Kosvach.

After another tense couple of minutes, Kosvach finally gets a surge of strength as the half-orc falters, and he pushes her hand down. He smiles as he works the affected shoulder — until Ettorio arrives and heartily slaps him on the tender spot. The Vargari chokes back a snarl.

“Kosvach! You have won me quite a bit of money!”

“What are you doing here?”

“It is nice to see you too!” But the Vargari is already looking around, and he quickly spots Vesper. He exchanges another bare minimum of pleasantry with the Iluni as he stands up, then walks over to his wife, taking hold of her and kissing her passionately in front of the entire crowd. Ettorio averts his eyes, rather discomfited by the humanizing effect it gives the Sespech necromancer. He calls for Carpa to bring him a drink, and the miserable response comes from outside the door — where the manservant stands, unable to progress past the barbaric-looking guard.

Things are sorted out soon enough. Ettorio joins Kosvach and Vesper, and they catch one another up briefly. Kosvach introduces the two to the three Vargari applicants with the most potential: Kalbak, who chose to play sentinel at the door; Brosetta (or “Rosette”), the cheery, heavy-set half-orc who’d challenged Kosvach; and Erigo, the charming young man attempting to be a very good friend to Iliska. (He later explains that Erigo is at least attempting to leave the opportunity to marry into the Vargari open, and that Rosette had much the same idea until she found that Kosvach was already married.)

Vesper mentions that things have gotten dangerous at the wedding and beyond, but doesn’t go into too much detail. “We can talk about this tomorrow,” she says, fixing Ettorio with a level gaze.

“So you don’t have to repeat yourself?” offers Kosvach.

“Yes. That’s right.”

Ettorio gracefully takes the hint and wanders off to the Pale Maiden. Then Vesper turns to her husband. “I’ll tell you more later. For now, I want you to show me how much you missed your wife.”

He contemplates the look in her eyes, then scoops her up, throws her over her shoulder, and exits the common room. Precious few of the raucous soldiers-of-fortune in attendance even meet Vesper’s eyes as the two leave, and none at all brave a rude comment.

“Tch,” says Rosette. “If I’d gotten here a year earlier, that could have been me.”

“To be fair…” begins Erigo.

Shut it,” she says, punctuating with a solid punch to his upper arm.

Ettorio decides to visit the Pale Maiden, where he runs into Vittorio downstairs. The two greet one another politely, and decide to go gathering information together. However, only Ettorio is able to keep his wits about him long enough to learn a few things about the opera singer Avistella, who has changed theaters lately and seems to have developed a rivalry with her former opera house. Vittorio finds there are entirely too many drinks he hasn’t tried in Ladona, and attempts to rectify the situation, to the extreme detriment of his sobriety. Ettorio begins to suspect that some of the drinks the bard is enjoying are invented on the spot by cunning bartenders who’ve noted Vittorio’s love of new things.

“I do not think a Flaming Half-orc is a real drink,” he finally points out.

“Yerrr a liarr… an’ you should have one!”

The two have a little more time to recover from their hangovers than expected. Vesper arrives a little later than one would normally expect for the morning breakfast, with her husband in tow. While they wait for Carenza, Vesper and Vittorio tell Ettorio a few things about the pursuit of Iridios. They then convene in Vittorio’s room, where he reveals his true form to Ettorio. The Iluni takes it much better than his manservant does, though Carpa attempts to put on a brave face. Vittorio explains the nature of the artifact that brought him here, his prior role in Hell, and how he has traded his fate-twisting powers of temptation for a wandering life in the material world… though at the expense of his summoner’s life. He is careful to stress he didn’t know his arrival would kill his summoner.

With that confession made, the three begin discussing their plans. Iridios is probably in town, the festival is nearly here, and it’s yet to be seen what sort of family business the Rovinos have been triggering this time.

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56 - Drego's Fall
The travel moves to Maviolo, where the Prismatic Players search out a story emblematic of the principality and are more successful than they’d expect.

You know, I’ve started disbelieving everything you say as a precautionary measure.”

It’s wisest, really.”

It is!” — Carenza Vega, Vesper Sespech & Vittorio Marvigliozzo

Come the morning, the troupe sets out on the eastward road once more, bidding farewell to Rivo Morposa and his servants. The next major stop is the large town of Plasso, home to Heartswall, a sizable temple to Lierce. Vittorio and Carenza take advantage of the larger markets to replenish the caravan’s stocks of wine. The group also continues the tradition of enjoying the local Forspadan cuisine; Vittorio winds up with quite a few excellent selections of Plasso cheeses and sausage. The disguised infernal also makes some inquiries about town regarding local troubles. He hears a few things about the nearby gambling house, the Four Crowns, but more interestingly finds a story about a man being cheated in a horse trade. The rider stopping in Plasso offered his own exhausted horse and some coin for a fresh mount, but some time after the rider left, the horse trader found that the exchanged animal was rather in worse condition than it had seemed, and the rider’s gold was also short. Vittorio takes note of this evidence of a passing illusionist and informs the others that they must be on Iridios’ trail.

They reach the Four Crowns at roughly lunchtime the next day. During the meal break, Carenza and Vittorio dabble in some gambling. Vittorio’s luck spikes in an interesting fashion when he manages to make one of the rarest throws possible in a dice game, winning a pot of plenty of coin as well as an onyx-set pinky ring put in by a merchant who had clearly overestimated his own throw. Vittorio savors the victory, but later approaches a pit boss and asks her to make certain that the ring makes its way into the loser’s possession once more. She seems confused by the demand of anonymous largesse, but Vittorio persuades her not to keep the ring herself, but to close the deal out, with an extra tip for her trouble.

The following day they reach the town of Yarissa, where a weaver’s daughter takes a fancy to the idea of running off with Vittorio. Carenza and Vesper both become very defensive at the idea. Carenza points out that the girl is far too young. Vesper takes the opportunity to vent some of her stress at the political dangers of traveling with a devil, emphasizing that any misdeeds on Vittorio’s part could well damn the rest of them, figuratively speaking.

“If you do anything that blows back on my House, or my family,” the young necromancer says, “I will send you back to Hell myself. And it won’t tickle.”

“Well,” says Vittorio, “as long as we’re resorting to threats…”

“It wasn’t a threat.”

Vittorio promises that he will do no harm. True to his word, he politely persuades the weaver’s daughter to remain with her family and not to go attempting to run off with handsome strangers. In the process, he finds out from a friend of the girl’s that she’s somewhat prone to this behavior — she nearly ran away with a smooth-talking gentleman that was in town some days ago.

They reach Fuera Hold, and the Maviolo border, toward the end of the next day. The troops overseeing the checkpoint are careful and a little suspicious, but between Vittorio’s charisma, Carenza’s emphasis on her Ladonan origins, and the presence of a Sespech, the caravan makes it through with no complications.

Another day’s travel sees them in the town of Radira. At the Fallen Leaves inn they enjoy a Maviolan dish of wine-cooked rabbit and mushroom ragu over dumplings, and discuss their options. The fork in the road gives them the choice of following the less-traveled northern road up through the towns of Must and Duesti, or the eastern route through the Vaulted Wood where they can take the Tortoise Road up to Ladona. Vesper argues for the Vaulted Wood route, and there’s little resistance. In fact, the Prismatic Players show some enthusiasm.

During their time socializing with the locals, Catafarza’s troupe came across the legend of Drego’s Fall. Vittorio and Carenza immediately recognize the story: the mercenary captain Drego Lionsblood, his vendetta against the lesser House Donante, and the mutual annihilation of both sides. The manor house where Drego and Cispa Donante reputedly fell to their deaths has stood empty in the Vaulted Wood for sixty years. Vesper doesn’t recognize the story; it apparently was not noteworthy to the Sespech records. But the troupe thinks it would make an interesting play, and they discuss the possibility of visiting the location.

So the following day, the troupe enters the Vaulted Wood. They get local directions to Drego’s Fall, and find it handily; it is a mile or so off the main road, and though the road was long disused, it hasn’t become too overgrown thanks to the wood’s high, thick canopy. They set up camp by the derelict manor that afternoon, and begin indulging in sketches for possible set dressing, writing the dialogue, and rehearsing possible scenes, all to the backdrop of somewhat eerie music provided by Vittorio’s violin.

As it turns out, Drego’s Fall did not excite comment in the Sespech libraries not, as was assumed, because there were no lingering ghosts there. It failed to excite comment because the ghosts that lie there were never properly provoked. But when Ruserra, in the role of a Donante servant, begins speaking out against Drego, old wounds reopen. Decrepit skeletal soldiers tear themselves free from the earth surrounding the manor. And at their heart, a grinning corpse dressed in tarnished scale with a leonine motif — Drego Lionsblood himself. He eyes Ruserra, and condemns her Donante blood.

Drego and his skeleton soldiers advance on the players, but the three heroes are swift to intervene. Carenza advances on the deceased Captain Lionsblood, and feels firsthand the terrible wrenching cold that emanates from him. They recognize him as given wholly over to Namaluk — a thing of cold, undeath, and vengeance.

The Ladies-in-Waiting do their part, launching volleys of bolts at the skeletons, but are clearly not as practiced at facing the unliving. The players scatter for cover, with the heroes intervening to give them the opportunity. Their intervention isn’t without cost — Drego is a powerful revenant, matching frightening sword skills with a voice that calls down winter.

It takes every trick in the ledger. Carenza calls out tactic after tactic, directing her friends in one improvised advance after another — and suffers a good portion of Drego’s punishing attentions. Vesper calls on her own ghosts to struggle against the risen captain. Vittorio’s magic twists luck one way, then the other, turning glancing blows into solid hits and vice versa. They are battered, bruised and near-frostbitten by the time they send Drego to rest a second time. “This being heroic shit hurts,” complains Carenza. Vittorio offers, “But you look great doing it!”

Vesper pronounces the campsite likely safe now, with Drego gone, though Ruserra is clearly unsettled by the surprise concerning her heritage. As the Prismatic Players begin to work out just how this event might impact their plans for a play concerning Drego’s Fall, a frustrated Carenza calls her women together and gives them a hard stare.

“Tomorrow morning. Before dawn. Target practice.”

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55 - Siren Song
The group sets out for Maviolo, enjoying the Forspadan countryside and discovering that art will sometimes find an unusual audience.

I was thinking of ways I could look like some random dumbass ready to be snatched up.
You’re fine.” — Vittorio Marvigliozzo and Vesper Sespech

Vittorio proposes that if they’re to travel together, given that he needs to bring his sizable toilette with him, they would be better off in some sort of caravan. He recommends moving with a troupe of traveling players. Vesper admits she feel some urgency to preventing Iridios from causing more trouble closer to her home, but she needs to remain another day until her nails are done — the karun tagli of Falcinos Verastin, to be precise.

The diabolic bard does some investigating, and learns that Catafarza’s Prismatic Troupe will be arriving in Cinquedea soon. He applies his charm to the troupe, persuading them that a trip to Maviolo might be better for them than staying in Cinquedea — at least once they’ve been properly compensated. With the group of blades purchasing various supplies for the Prismatic Players, and Vittorio promising to give them all the latest stories and plays from Cinquedea on the road, Donaria Catafarza eventually concedes to the plan.

The three make some preparations to leave over the next days. They notify Carpa of their departure, so that he can inform Ettorio of their movements. Carenza has another bolstering conversation with Rasselo, who wishes her luck in his own irascible manner. Vesper picks up the remainder of the karun tagli, and distributes them among her colleagues. And a couple of days later, the troupe sets out. Vittorio has hired a wagon to carry his artifact, and drives it himself. Carenza brings along five of her Ladies, dressed roughly as security. Vesper, though less than enthusiastic about a caravan’s reduced speed of travel, accompanies them as well.

The road to the Forspadan border goes by without incident. The group samples the famous sour chicken of Crizzi, and notes that the more rural citizens of Invicci are jealous of well-to-do visiting Cinquedeans, though of course quite happy to take their coin. A complication arises once they reach the border-town of Abbatore and its Forspadan neighbor Fort Crimson, where the lieutenant of the Forspadan troops is a little too inquisitive for everyone’s comfort. Vittorio is thankfully able to talk down Lieutenant Salumis before she conducts an investigation of his own wagon.

The Forspadan countryside provides some enjoyable, if a bit hot, travel. Each town has its own distinct special tastes to discover, both wine and cuisine. Vesper takes a particular liking to the goat cheese-filled “marrow bone” snacks local to the area.

In one village, however, the troupe arrives to discover some form of trouble in play. In the town square they find a pair of halflings, dressed in servant garb, begging for the assistance of the town militia. It comes out that the halflings, Umber and Lilac, are servants to the notable artist Rivo Moroposa, who keeps a country estate nearby. The estate was recently raided — harpies sacked the place and carried off Morposa. The militia seems hesitant to launch a rescue effort, and in all honesty, ill-suited to challenge harpies on their own. The group offers their services instead.

The grateful halflings lead them back to the Morposa home, where they also meet the servants’ daughter Coral. Umber is able to give the general direction in which the harpies left with his master. As the group sets out, though, Coral slips after them and offers to guide them the rest of the way. She says the harpies are in a very old abandoned tower that nobody visited since a basilisk lived there long ago. Impressed with the young halfling’s stealth abilities, the group agrees to let her lead the way.

The group draws close to the tower without alerting the occupants. One harpy, a creature with vibrant plumage and wild hair, sits atop the crumbled roof; the others aren’t in sight. As planned, Vittorio breaks cover and begins to wander to the tower, affecting the personality of a lost rustic singing to himself. This catches the harpies’ attention, and although they don’t seem to care for his first song, soon he has all four listening to him intently. With the distraction in place, Coral slips toward the tower, and is soon lost from sight. At Vesper’s direction Chiro flutters off to accompany her as she frees Morposa.

When Morposa arrives at the tower entrance (and is immediately pushed to his belly by Coral), Vittorio begins to negotiate with the harpies, who have begun arguing over whether to keep him or the painter. The troubadour first argues that both should be released, but the harpies are lacking in enough empathy to consider the artists’ needs. In the process of negotiation Vittorio asks one of the harpies to sing. The youngest of the four, a surprisingly fetching creature, chooses to oblige — and Vittorio hears the voice of a genuine siren for the first time. Unfortunately, so do the rescuers. Carenza and Rabbit succumb to the allure, and begin to walk, enthralled, toward the harpies. While the Ladies-in-Waiting are able to grab them and hold them back, the scuffle alerts the harpies’ attention.

The resulting negotiation is tense, but achieves a peaceful resolution. The heroes accurately play off the harpies’ appreciation for food and drink, and bring as much wine and liquor as the Prismatic Players were able to carry — drying out the troupe temporarily, somewhat to the players’ irritation, but winning the freedom of both Vittorio and Morposa without a fight. During the celebration, a couple covertly check the tower, and see a blocked-out mural that Morposa was working on oddly juxtaposed with the bone midden of the harpies’ meals and the stone form of a long-dead basilisk.

Rivo Morposa insists on feasting the group for his freedom. He agrees to return to Spardis for a time, until the harpies forget about him and move on as they tend to do. He shows some flirtatious interest in Carenza, but the mercenary politely avoids his advances despite the encouragements of her subordinates. Coral also shows interest in Carenza, but in a different manner — she’s not interested in a future as a house servant, and asks if the Ladies in Waiting have need of a scout. Carenza enthusiastically accepts.

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