Rasennan Summer

54 - Vicusi
Another illusion is dispelled at an inconvenient time and from an unexpected source.

I hope this doesn’t complicate our relationship.” — Vittorio Marvigliozzo

The rest of the evening passes without incident, as everyone returns to their lodgings. The next morning, messages arrive from Captain Quiccera, asking the group to meet with her for lunch at the Hanged Rake.

Vesper, Carenza and Vittorio arrive in punctual fashion, meeting a clearly off-duty Quiccera. Carpa appears in Ettorio’s stead. Standing behind the empty chair (and a little to the left), he tenders his master’s regrets for his unavailability. Carenza tells him to thank Bessari for the information, and the doleful manservant takes his leave.

Captain Quiccera offers the group her thanks for their assistance in both saving the life of her soldier and in protecting her own reputation. While she is glad to work on their behalf in return, she nonetheless notes that the more of Iridios’ plots they foil (and by extension, the more implied plots of House Miriadis), the more dangerous Cinquedea will be for them.

Following the meal, the group splits up further. Vittorio has a story to tell — a rousing tale called “The Unfortunate Incident” about how a deceiver attempted to frame a worthy captain of the guard, but was foiled by the good citizens of Cinquedea. Carenza tags along at a distance, keeping an eye on the bard. Vesper, on the other hand, makes an appointment to meet Falcinos Verastin on the subject of illusions and countermeasures thereof.

Vesper has little difficulty making the arrangement. The only Verastin adept in Cinquedea, Falcinos keeps a studio apartment in the Diadem district. The young mage turns out to have the visage of a rakish heartbreaker, but the demeanor of an abstinent elder priest. He offers his advice on dealing with glamours, and asks after Vesper’s own mastery of abjuration. When she confesses it’s not a common study, he suggests a particular countermeasure — karun tagli. These rune-etched iron nails, he explains, will dispel illusions. All that’s required is to touch the nail to an illusion and speak the invocation word “Vicusi.” He crafts the nails himself, and although they’re usually not in great demand, he’s sold a few already this month. Out of respect for Vesper’s situation, he agrees to sell her ten at the reduced rate of 80 reganti a nail. She leaves with a lighter purse, five karun tagli, and a promise for five more to be prepared in two days.

Carenza tails Vittorio through the Copperbank district, as the bard begins to spin the tale of “The Unfortunate Incident.” The story deals with a deceiver attempting to impersonate a captain of the guard, only to be defeated when the city’s loyal lower classes rise up against him. Unfortunately, the Cinquedean character is such that stories of virtuous behavior are met with extreme cynicism. In order to stir up the crowd more, Vittorio begins to lavish more emphasis on the mystical nature of the piece’s villain. Unfortunately, while he finds the flourishes that strike an emotional chord, in the process he begins to obscure the nature of the villain such that the tale accidentally becomes more than expected. It becomes entirely possible to interpret “The Unfortunate Incident” as regarding the suspicious behavior of the Sorcerous Houses as a whole — and many people do exactly that. The crowds become shot through with veins of discontent and suspicion aimed at not just the Miriadis, but the Tyliel, Sespech and more.

By the time Vesper has concluded her meeting with Falcinos Verastin, the murmurs of discontent are strong enough that she overhears them. Her skill at negotiating street-level talk makes it easy for her to follow the tales back to their source. As Vittorio stops to wet his whistle between tellings, he finds a rather vexed necromancer approaching him.

“The talk in the street is of a popular uprising against the Sorcerous Houses.”

“Not… all of them,” Vittiorio attempts to counter.

The two enter a hushed discussion on how best to work against the Miriadis while not catching others in the crossfire. As they do so, a not entirely friendly-looking observer arrives. The young man is dressed in the somber clothing and sun medallion of a Kaealite aspirant, and a small group of sober-looking “concerned citizens” stand at his back. Soon the aspirant begins to harangue Vittorio, accusing him of being a deceiver and a tempter, luring the populace into dangerous behavior.

The aspirant presses a small object to his lips, then sternly addresses Vittorio, calling him a tempter and deceiver. He then draws back and throws the object at Vittorio — a long iron nail — with a cry of “VICUSI!”

The nail strikes Vittorio in the chest, and the revelation is extraordinary. Vittorio, now standing six and a half feet tall on clearly cloven hooves, has the clear features of a devil — lustrous black skin, blood-red hair, silvery horns and bone spurs at his elbows. The crowd reacts in fear and surprise; Vittorio expresses only a mournful sigh of “Well, that was unexpected.”

Vesper and Carenza attempt to move in to defuse the situation. Vittorio finishes his latest piece, then vanishes in a puff of smoke. Carenza tries to intervene by playing off the aspirant as “part of the show,” but succeeds only in confusing the crowd. Vesper confronts the young Master Hawkschild, and aggressively informs him that the deceivers at play include the person that gave him the nail.

Vittorio slips back to his quarters with the expertise of long hours of practice sneaking through the alleys, and uses the back door to the inn as once pointed out by a friendly enough servant. Once the situation with the aspirant is sufficiently defused, Vesper and Carenza meet him there for some explanations.

Vittorio admits that he isn’t really mortal. He was once a minor functionary of Hell, but not particularly well-attuned to the task. For all the splendors of punishment and phantasmagoric landscapes the realm of torment had to offer, his portion of it was incessantly dull by compare. Nothing changed; it couldn’t compare to the mortal world he was tasked with scrying. “The food, the drink, the music, the women. This world is ecstatic. The other… just static.”

The devil admits that he contrived to have himself summoned, by means of a peculiar object. Once present, he has done his best to live quietly among the mortals, indulging in their material pleasures and avoiding any real malice. “I’ve tried not to make any enemies while I was here,” he points out.

Vesper replies, “You’re hanging out with the wrong people if that’s your goal.”

Vittorio’s story moves on to the nature of his summoning. The person that brought him here used this odd object to do so, but in the process it consumed the mortal’s life force. That mortal had ties to other infernalists, including some now in House Miriadis. Over the years of feigned mortal life, Vittorio wound up hearing something of his new companions’ deeds, and was much impressed. He has been interested in supporting them with his tales, and if they now have a common enemy in Iridios and his masters, then he’s willing to go further. “So, if you can deal with the fact that I’m a devil, and I killed someone to get here, we’re good, right?” Apparently they can; Carenza and Vesper agree to continue allying with Vittorio for the moment.

The three begin fishing around for information the next day. One likely tidbit arises, that apparently a fellow matching Iridios’ description has been seen on Cinder Street in Copperbank, where perhaps he has lodgings. The other notable piece of information is a likely contact: Obris Tenweight, a dwarf of House Graelskeld who does business in crystalware, and would be a likely source for an illusionist’s needs in arcane foci. The heavyset Obris is actually somewhat cooperative when they speak to him. It turns out he was never fond of Iridios, even though the profits were good, and now he doesn’t want any part of the trouble that Iridios is getting himself into. He offhandedly mentions that the illusionist is likely skipping town, and alludes to a small relic he’d bought from Iridios before. The carving seems to be Dysian, and Vesper recognizes it as similar in motif to the Heron Tower of Maviolo.

The next step is to visit Cinder Street, where they’re soon able to find a lodging house where the landlady admits to renting to someone of Iridios’ description. The suspicious landlady opens the room for them after a few coins cross her palm. The rented quarters are a squalid mess of an attic, with stained rags on a straw mattress and garbage strewn across the darkened floor. But when the three take a few steps into the room, the facade fades away. The bed becomes neatly appointed, the rickety table becomes a fine writing-desk, and the tattered hangings are colorful and richly embroidered. Judging by the look of disgust on the landlady’s face before she leaves them, the illusion of squalor persists for her.

It seems clear from the sparse belongings that Iridios has packed for travel; most of the clothes one would expect in the wardrobe are missing, as are the books from the shelves. Carenza spies a fragment of paper in the ashes of the fireplace, however, somewhat carelessly left behind. It is the opening to a letter, perhaps discarded, wherein the writer (presumably Iridios) asks to call on the hospitality of one Avistella.

Vesper recognizes the name as that of a Maviolan opera star; Vittorio is able to elaborate that she was also a member of the Salon of Enigmas, the Ladonan infernalist club that his “host” belonged to. It seems likely that they were aware of the properties of the Heron Tower, which may be how Iridios came to visit the place and carry away small things to sell to Obris Tenweight.

Confirming the trip to the Heron Tower in Carenza’s hearing brings out a new revelation, though. Carenza has already visited the place — when she killed Cormarro Dusaam. Cormarro had claimed the Heron Tower, but had become possessed by some sort of entity some time later. When Carenza put him out of his misery, that caused the trouble with the Dusaam that compelled her to leave town.

“I killed him because he was definitely an infernalist, but I couldn’t convince anyone of that.”

“That he was an infernalist or that he was dead?”

Given the choice to either leave Iridios to his own devices or to pursue him, the group is quickly resolved. They will have to return to Maviolo.

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53 - Double Bluff
Iridios brings in a new player to his game of deceit, but is himself deceived.

“Alright, everyone, line up, hup two three four, mock Ettorio’s penis.”
“I did that fan dance for you!”
“Oh, come on, you did it for yourself.”
“That may be true.” — Carenza Vega & Ettorio Iluni

Inside the Golden Hammer, Vesper, Ettorio and Carenza take stock of the situation. The corpses of the Yellow Wasps yield no particular clues as to their employer or his location, only gold. They give the coin to the frightened young girl Issida who’d guided them there and then escort her to a safe place to keep anyone from preying on a street urchin with far too much wealth.

Across town, the troubadour of fine repute, Vittorio Marvigliozzo, is enjoying the debate and gossip at the Venting Spleen. He finds himself approached by a gentleman of some elvish blood, dressed in pale clothes of subtly shifting color, who asks to join him and speak of interesting opportunities. The anonymous gentleman (whom Vittorio recognizes as the arcanist Iridios) speaks of a forthcoming event that would benefit from the publicity that a bard of Marvigliozzo’s stature could provide.

Iridios explains that very soon, Captain Quiccera is going to have a violent episode in which she will strike down one of her own men, then attempt to cover it up. Vittorio would be an ideal witness, thus ensuring that Quiccera cannot easily escape retribution. Over the course of the conversation, Iridios also alludes to this event stripping away the captain’s protection of a small group of dangerous elements, a group Vittorio easily recognizes by reputation. Iridios also notes that the bard’s help would be highly appreciated, perhaps even earning him a place in a rising House-to-be.

With a perfectly straight face, Vittorio agrees with each of Iridios’ talking points, and indicates his cooperation. The Miriadis adept is quite pleased, and tells Vittorio that the captain’s regrettable violence will take place tomorrow night at ten bells in the Plaza of Mermaids. Iridios then excuses himself with more pleasantries. Vittorio wishes him a pleasant evening, and then goes for a stroll to a particular guard post.

Captain Quiccera isn’t expecting visitors this evening, but that’s what she gets. First Ettorio, Carenza and Vesper arrive and explain the ambush they’ve recently suffered. They point to the trap having more of Iridios’ trademark illusion to it. Unfortunately, they have no evidence, not even a surviving Yellow Wasp to testify. “We self-defended them to death,” Ettorio explains.

The meeting is interrupted shortly thereafter, by a guard announcing someone on very important business. Vittorio Marvigliozzo enters the captain’s office. Vittorio smoothly explains that he’s privy to a plot that endangers everyone in the room — well, excepting the startled guard, whom Captain Quiccera tersely dismisses. He elaborates, revealing the core of Iridios’ plot. He further explains that he knows the three blades by reputation, and naturally took their side even as he allowed Iridios to believe otherwise. The group decides to see about interrupting the would-be “violent event.” Quiccera announces she’ll lay low so as to avoid being seen in two places at once.

The following day sees some preparations. Ettorio procures disguises for himself and the other two known targets — once again the disreputable Oirotte Bopilio reappears, along with a dark-haired blade (and ten of her closest drinking companions) and a red-haired young woman carrying a sword. That evening they choose to wait in one of the taverns adjoining the Plaza of Mermaids. Vittorio, as according to his arrangement, shows up to serve as a witness. He regales the local passerby with various songs and tales, including one of the ballads of “Shadowfox and the Bladed Banshee.” Ettorio is the only one to overhear this particular composition, and he doesn’t bring it to the others’ attention.

At roughly ten bells, “Captain Quiccera” and about half a dozen guards enter the square. The mock captain puts on a show of being in a terrible mood, turning on a subordinate who honestly doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on. She draws her blade, but doesn’t notice the disguised Ettorio slipping over to her until his dagger nearly enters her back. The strike would have been a good one, but “Oirotte” is surprised to find that her spine isn’t where he expected, and there’s some layer of magical protection about it. The false captain gasps in pain and surprise, and the illusion falls away — “Captain Quiccera” is in fact Iridios, and all the guards save the intended victim are clearly the hardest sort of Cinquedean gutter trash.

Vesper and Carenza charge to join in the attack, and Carenza’s girls reclaim their repeater crossbows to join in. But the startled Iridios isn’t easily subdued. He strikes Ettorio with a prismatic dart that dazes the Iluni, and conjures up several phantasmic shades to join the fray before he vanishes. The false guards are vicious fighters, and manage to strike down a pair of Carenza’s ladies and bloody Ettorio — yet the three have even more assistance. Vittorio infuses his music with subtle spells, and then when Iridios is gone, hexes his quarrels and sends them into the fight. Between the steel of Vesper and Carenza, the ghosts in Vesper’s skin, and the magical trickery of Marvigliozzo, the fight ends decisively.

The genuine Captain Quiccera arrives on the scene quickly thereafter. Vittorio is first among the many witnesses who can attest to the events — of how an illusionist was attempting to frame her. Unfortunately, Iridios himself is nowhere to be seen. No discussion is necessary for the group to affirm that they can’t leave it at that.

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52 - Illusion and Ambuscade
A possible name emerges as the illusionist behind the recent attack, and a second attack strengthens the need to take action.

“To be fair, a bar is a perfectly appropriate place to try to kill me.” — Ettorio Iluni

The death of the manticores doesn’t immediately settle the guests down. Opilio takes charge of seeing that the injured guests receive medical attention. Lapetra and a few other Iluni begin the work of crowd management, calming guests to wait for the guards. Ettorio, Vesper and Carenza eye the nearby Corventira Tower where the manticores emerged. They leave Vestiri in charge of explaining away Ettorio’s absence to the guards, and set out. Unfortunately, the manticore attack has drawn so many witnesses that it’s impossible for anyone Ettorio to approach the tower discreetly. Carenza begins shouting back, causing a distraction so that Ettorio can climb up to the roof unnoticed.

The roof of Corventira is empty, save for chains that seem to have been formerly attached to the manticores’ collars. Ettorio deduces that the chains were loosed on purpose. He then descends through the trapdoor into the large studio that occupies the tower’s top floor. The place is barely lived in, thick with feline musk and with obvious signs that the manticores were kept here for several days. Their dung is oddly sweet-smelling, though, and Ettorio doesn’t know quite what to make of that.

Carenza and Vesper knock on the tower door, and the dwarf that answers is the nephew of the tower’s owner. They’re quickly joined by said owner, Drosseltar Lathemark, and a squad of guards that want to investigate the tower. The two ask just who had rented the upper apartments, but the answer’s surprising: Rasselo Rovino. Lathemark’s description matches Rasselo (“about so tall, lighter hair, sour expression”), and he mentions that his renter had mentioned wanting to arrange a surprise for the wedding, even renting cranes to bring large crates up the tower.

Ettorio moves quickly away to warn Rasselo. Unsurprisingly, his new brother-in-law finds the whole idea preposterous. When Captain Quiccera arrives to make inquiries, the group finds the goodwill they accumulated during the Velistir affair aids them with the no-nonsense officer. They argue that it would make no sense for Rasselo to take these actions under his own name if it were really him, and Vesper stresses that it’s likely a doppelganger or illusionist was the responsible party. Quiccera finally accedes to their logic. She tells Rasselo he’s free to return to the Rovino tower, though he’s not to leave the city until the investigation is more settled. She gives the others a similar freedom. “I don’t want to make you wait on your wedding night,” Captain Quiccera tells Ettorio.

“It’s all right,” replies Vesper, in a faintly judgmental tone. “They didn’t.”

In the coach ride back to their apartments, Ettorio and Bessari are finally able to discuss the events of the reception in private. Bessari holds together very well, though she is very angry — she hadn’t expected a perfect wedding, but she didn’t expect manticores, either. She calmly keeps her fury suppressed as she evaluates possible motives and enemies. Ettorio doesn’t attempt to deflect her concerns; instead, he dismisses Carpa for the evening. Bessari does the same for her maid Cassa shortly before arriving at their new apartments and dealing with the unctuous landlady, Mistress Digretti. The two celebrate their wedding night in defiance of all the stresses surrounding the attack.

Carenza and Vesper meet for a few drinks at the Bridesmaid’s Tear, and go over possible suspects. Though a doppelganger or illusionist seems most likely, Vesper is disinclined to believe it’s the Morafir of the Elaborate Lie striking back. Partway through their discussion Carpa arrives to deliver the message that Ettorio will meet them tomorrow morning, and offhandedly suggests that perhaps it is Prince Bellostia that hates them, given that Ettorio and Carneza were the two who had the audience with her firsthand. He then offers each of the ladies a savory pie, and vanishes dramatically into the night, emoting softly about having to find a place other than at his master’s side.

The three gather together to discuss their options the next day. As they mull over the possibility of Bellostia as an enemy, Vesper mentions that there was a person in the gallery who took great interest in Ettorio and Carenza’s long-ago audience with the Invicci Prince. She followed the suspicious character back to the Stiletto, but he eluded her from there. The three decide he’s as likely a starting place as any. They begin making inquiries, and Ettorio learns with astonishing speed that the fellow, one Mulgo, is a professional informer who rooms at the Pike-Gaff in the Veins.

Mulgo clearly recognizes them as they appear, and doesn’t take much convincing to give up some information. He says that the man who bought the manticores from the D’Ambergias was a half-elf in odd clothing that seemed to change color — and that as far as Mulgo knows, the half-elf works for the Miriadis. The group leaves Mulgo be, to go into hiding or skip town as he sees best, and goes searching for more information.

Ettorio is the first to discover an interesting point. Thanks to the Iluni habit of keeping track of various elves and half-elves, he uncovers the name of Iridios, a half-elven adept that the Iluni courted for a time in Palaterra. The name is familiar to Vesper, who knows it from her study of mage sigils and notable adepts. She confirms that Iridios is known as an illusionist.

During their investigation, a young girl — one of the many urchins of the Veins — approaches Ettorio with a letter for him. Somewhat taken aback that he was detected so easily, Ettorio shares the contents of the message.

My Friends:

You must have realized that you have been targeted by assassins. I fear it is likely they were hired by a Prince. I am loath to say more. May we meet in person? I will be at the sign of the Golden Hammer this evening. My courier will show you the way.

— A Fellow Persona Non Grata

The young girl says she’s supposed to be their guide, and Ettorio agrees to meet her at one of the bridges into the Veins shortly before the meeting time. He spends the rest of the afternoon carefully attempting to lose any tails or spies that might have tracked him.

That evening the three meet the young girl, who takes them to a rundown tavern that apparently closed, but came under new management. The Golden Hammer seems to be anemic, with only a few isolated patrons drinking alone in the dusky, cramped main room. The girl gestures toward one table in particular.

As the group moves toward the table, the bartender catches Carenza’s eye. He continues to polish a mug, and stare at the door with the same suspicious expression that he gave them as they came in. Even as she stares at him he doesn’t look away. She doesn’t quite have time to voice her concerns to the others.

The bar, bartender and back wall all shimmer like a mirage as a volley of crossbow bolts flies through them. Carenza raises her shield, Ettorio is in motion as soon as he hears the twang-and-whistle, and Vesper’s ghosts rise up to shield her — all three avoid lethal strikes, though none of them are unscathed by the scything bolts. The illusory wall fades entirely, as do the few people sitting at tables. The interior of the tavern is indeed larger than it initially seemed — and the space between the false wall and the real wall is filled by a dozen mercenary crossbowmen protected by the actual tavern’s bar and a small group of six halberd-wielding mercenaries. Carenza quickly recognizes their colors: the Yellow Wasps, who are looking even leaner and hungrier than they were when last encountered almost two years ago.

One of the Wasps gestures at the small girl who’d acted as courier as he reloads his crossbow. “No witnesses!” he shouts.

Carenza draws her Uromni weapon and snaps out a war cry. Ettorio and Vesper move quickly to follow up her attack, Ettorio taking cover behind a table to snipe at the Wasps with his wedding present, and Vesper placing herself between the child courier and the crossbowmen. Carenza slices open one of the halberdiers, but is in a bad position to receive the answering volley of bolts. Vesper, too, is wounded even with the protection of her shadow.

But even with the many flesh wounds cut by the Yellow Wasps’ quarrels, the three blades are not crippled — and they are angry. Carenza begins hacking her way through the halberdiers in a disciplined rage, shouting to Ettorio and Vesper to hold together. Vesper calls on the vestige of her banshee, and with a horrible wail stops the hearts of five Wasps, breaking a hole in their line. The Iluni picks off another pair of mercenaries with his own crossbow, then draws his dagger and then slips through that gap to join Carenza for some expert knifework.

Carenza continues to cut her way viciously up the line; when a Wasp’s hauberk stops her blade, she pushes even harder in a surge of fury, ending his life with brute force. Ettorio dances around her, flanking and then executing other soldiers. The last Yellow Wasp standing in the corner tries to leap the bar, but in his panic he catches his foot on the edge and tumbles hard to the ground. Even as he stands up, Vesper ends him with a word.

Silence falls over the ramshackle tavern. The group loot several coin purses from the Yellow Wasps, give them to the young girl, and send her along with a warning to stay safe. They then begin more carefully examining the corpses for any clues that might give them another lead on the elusive Iridios.

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51 - A Marriage Made in Cinquedea
It is proven that, gossip to the contrary, the most dangerous thing about Ettorio's wedding is not the bride.

“The Nine Hells shit you out and you show up here?” — Rugo Cuscala

As Ettorio and Bessari’s wedding date approaches, preparations buzz and various friends converge on Cinquedea. Opilio and Dechera arrive from Raspian, bearing the well-wishes of Ambira and Alesci. Rugo comes in from the capital as well. Vesper arrives from Maviolo, without the presence of her own husband — no sign that her marriage is in trouble, of course, but rather that they acknowledge it would be awkward for Bessari to have her older brother’s killer present at her wedding.

Vestiri, as his present to the couple, asks to provide the wedding finery; he wants to see his cousin and his bride look phenomenal, and would be happy to utilize the finest tailors in his service to that end. And if Vestiri plays to stereotype in this manner, so does Carenza; she decides to give Ettorio a masterwork crossbow with red and gold inlay, and Bessari a masterwork bodice stiletto decorated in Iluni blue and black. Carenza also attempts to put Rasselo on the path of reason — she does not approve of his initial plan to provide the couple with plenty of contraceptives, or perhaps a selection of poisons and antidotes Bessari could use to ensure his fidelity. She coerces him into getting them something nice and decorative (as he’s paying for a portion of the wedding), and he finally relents and acquires a shield with divided insignia and matched swords.

The wedding ceremony itself goes without trouble. The couple is married in an elaboratedly decorated chapel designed for public ceremonies, bedecked with murals of religious significance and rural idylls. Neither family shows any last-minute objections, and even Carpa musters up a remarkable reserve of dignity given his flower-crowned role as a “patron of plenty.”

The following reception takes place on a rooftop gathering place, atop a wide five-story tower with broad bridges reaching out to other towers and rooftop gardens. The location has some small repute for people toppling over the sides, not always by drunken accident. Speculation among the gossips is that the Rovino and Iluni agreed on this location either to work out a few grudges, or to demonstrate the goodwill by being doubly sure that no guests go plummeting to the ground. A few wagers make the rounds outside the two Houses.

At sunset the reception reaches its toast, and then it sprawls into a lengthening dusk. With the reception strengthened by no small amount of reganti, the goodwill is indeed present to a remarkable degree. The Iluni do their very best to treat the Rovino politely without any visible form of condescension, and the Rovino keep civil tongues in their heads. The tension bleeds out of the reception almost entirely.

Ettorio’s young friends from his carousing days are particularly in evidence — Vesper and Carenza note that Ettorio’s facade as a generally witless rake must have been strongly influenced by his friends Bingetti, Tuparo and Gustave. Indeed, the romantic side of the reception seems to have a particular effect on Bingetti. The young dandy always had a penchant for quick infatuations that he confused for true love, and he is in rare form this evening. Bingetti first falls for Vesper… and is rebuffed with a threat of a sword point. He laments his heartbreak to Ettorio, and immediately shifts his amorous inclinations to Rabbit. He does no better with the sharp-tongued scout. While bemoaning his sorrow a second time to Ettorio, he then proclaims the depths of his passion for Carenza… and although Rabbit tries to encourage her leader to go for it, Carenza has zero tolerance for the concept.

Rugo, on the other hand, enjoys clear success. Scanning the crowd for wealthy widows, he winds up drawing the attention of Jada Rovino, who is not lavishly rich, but who has been coping with the loss of her husband Scorpis with drink and ill-considered liaisons. She demonstrates clear animal attention for the burly mercenary, and Rugo is certainly not above flirting his way into a bit of no-strings-attached debauchery with the woman.

As Rugo pushes the boundaries of how deeply one can be engaged with a lady in a public place without removing any clothing, Ettorio catches a strange feline musk on the wind. He and Carenza see a large winged shape emerging from the top of a nearby tower overlooking the reception area. It spreads wings, lets loose a strange fluting roar, and then the manticore descends on the celebration.

With its first pass the manticore releases a volley of spines from its tail that land amid a cluster of guests, striking many down with injuries to the chest and limbs. Ettorio snatches up Carenza’s wedding present, and puts a bolt in the manticore in reply. The beast descends on him decisively, focusing on the half-elf groom as if it recognizes and hates him. Ettorio is left to defend himself in his wedding attire, though he still retains his Ferraregante cinquedea on his hip, and Vestiri’s tailors have done a good job in permitting freedom of movement. Carenza takes her Uromni weapon from dagger form to that of a shining silver halberd, and Vesper is perhaps the best prepared of any of them: without being the bride herself or having received a special request to wear a dress, she dresses in high-quality tights and shirt with her armor, as she might for an audience with a Prince. Rugo kisses his finger and touches it to Jada’s lips before he rushes down the bridge to join his comrades, snatching up the shield that Rasselo had given as a token of esteem as an improvisation. He bellows an intimidating demand for all the guests to get clear, and is so impressive that Gustave Nottilo faints dead away.

The manticore is a lean but sturdy monster, four feet at its shoulder and swift and strong. But its initial attempt to tear apart Ettorio is largely thwarted by Carenza’s careful tactical strikes and Vesper’s powerful necromancy. The madness of the Mourning Mother of Dunsini Rise echoes in its mind, and before it can shake free, Rugo tears into it, demanding its attention. Despite the furious resistance it meets, it still tries to focus on Ettorio and Carenza. While they keep it at bay, a few of the group notice that its hide shows signs of recently healed wounds — the thing has apparently been abused in its recent past, though it’s healthy now. And so, grimly enough, is its partner — for a second manticore emerges from the nearby tower and swoops down to the fray.

With the arrival of the second manticore, the pressure to finish the first is intense. Finally Ettorio sees the opportunity he’s been waiting for, and slides his dagger up under the beast’s mane to open its throat. It’s still undergoing its death throes when the second lands — it, too, focusing its attention on Ettorio and Carenza. With so little armor in evidence, most of the group is lucky to get away with minor flesh wounds as they carefully pin the second manticore in place. Rugo blocks it from the front, his shield always in its line of sight, while the others distract it and undercut its strikes. Finally, before it can muster one last savage leap at the groom, the spectral blade of the manifested Styriax passes through its neck, spine and mouth, severing its thread. The group is left with a very disrupted reception, a pair of massive corpses, and a number of questions. At least one of them decides the questions can wait, though, as Rugo goes off to make sure that his assignation with Scorpis Rovino’s widow is still on track for the evening.

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50.3 - Second Spring
Events of the spring of 2722.

Tour of Duty: Carenza manages to land a month’s contract of service in Raggavante. The northern portion of the principality has been having problems with bands of raiders that strike out of the southern swamps and return, and the Ladies-in-Waiting are hired to ambush these raiding bands. The journey gives them practice fighting on wet land and dry, and although a few of her Ladies fall, the company returns with more experience, coin and renown to their names.

Return from the Overworld: Opilio, slightly shaggier, returns from Xedravina’s court in the spring and begins to oversee having the vineynards tilled and planted. He also begins preparations for building a winery. And in addition to these projects, he also teaches some of the farmers who’ll start tending the vineyards some small libational rites to the Lady who’s given the lands such fertility and prosperity: not worship, but thanksgiving and respect.

Mixed Business: Vesper extends her research and political inquiries, but also chooses to set those studies aside and assist her husband with his own ambitions. With his sisters along, the four go treasure-hunting in the northern Maviolo woods, scouting the horrors of Silken Grave and picking off lieutenants of the bandit lord of Despartis.

Showing Off: Opilio takes Ettorio’s wedding as an excuse to leave the estate in the hands of Ambira and Alesci for a few weeks, and do some leisure traveling with Dechera. He arranges for a trip out to Redoris and then to Raspian City; he takes the opportunity to show off that he knows the Princes of these cities, even if it’s only peripherally. He stops off in each court to pay his respects, introduce his wife and otherwise just enjoy their cities and spend a little coin. Prince Olidian proves to be a warmer host than Prince Cortifo, though Dechera isn’t fully sure she trusts either of the silver-tongued gentlemen.

A Wedding: Toward the end of spring, the marriage of Ettorio Iluni and Bessari Rovino is set to take place. The guests begin to arrive to Cinquedea…

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50.2 - Second Winter
Events of the winter of 2721.

“Of course, we can stay here only the one night.” — Vesper Sespech

The Evernight Elopment: Just before Vesper’s wedding, she spends time making sleeping arrangements and ordering food and drink for the reception in Ladona. She returns the night before Evernight to discover that not only are the Sespechs still arguing about her wedding, one has become an intractable obstacle to her plans to hold the wedding and reception at the Estate. Decillius Sespech leads a small group in arguing that the marriage between Sespech and Vargari is a bad idea, and asks Vesper to reconsider for political reasons. Though the young necromancer is adamant on the position, she finds that Decillius is not alone in feeling that the marriage cannot be openly sanctioned by the House. The rising star Savaquin also states that it must be made abundantly clear that the Sespech are making no allegiances with the Vargari. Enough of the House agrees with the two that the House Grandfather has no choice but to rule that the ceremony and reception should not take place at the Estate, scuttling the wedding plans the night before. But Vesper speaks with Grandfather Sadavari privately, and gains his blessing for marrying Kosvach under other circumstances. She quickly calculates a new plan.

Utterly unruffled, Vesper first has the food and drink’s delivery changed to the Vargari-owned building formerly known as the Last Ditch. She has her in-laws-to-be arrange for an alternate reception, and to pass word to the various guests to gather there. She then sends a message to Kosvach, asking him and his second to meet her at the shrine to Shessa at sunset. Cutting it very close, Vesper arrives with her second on spectral steeds just in time for the ceremony.

There she and Kosvach quietly speak their vows in a private elopement, with Crysidere Sespech and Iliska Vargari serving as their witnesses. Vesper gives Kosvach a wedding shirt she’d been working on secretly over the autumn: red with gray running wolves linked by Sespech eyes embroidered around the collar. The same embroidery runs in black on her silvery-grey crushed velvet wedding dress. The newlyweds then attend the reception and celebrate with their friends, before slipping away to their reserved chamber at the Pale Maiden once the assembled parties are too distracted to notice.

Winter In the Overworld: Evernight is Opilio’s last night in the mortal world before winter comes. Though a bit miffed that the public ceremony was cancelled and that Vesper decided to make the ceremony much more private, he nonetheless manages to be a lively pillar of the celebration until midnight comes. He discreetly walks through the portal into the Overworld, where he spends the winter at work in the gardens of Xedravina.

The Knife Business: Ettorio spends part of the winter continuing his association with the Black Veils. He volunteers in particular to assist in rooting out the mercenary elements of the organization and furthering the fortunes of those Veils who hold to the older tradition of using their blades for the betterment of society. His path takes him to Canteria, where he has a reunion with Lyria Redstockings, who agrees to recant her more mercenary ways and offers him the names of several corrupt Veils as a peace offering.

Between Campaigns: Carenza spends some of the winter recruiting and training the Ladies-in-Waiting, as well as gathering information on possible spring campaigns. She leads a small squad as security on an uneventful sea voyage to Khavayin, where she gets a taste for the mercenary culture in Hamaji, City of Blades.

Research: Vesper and Kosvach get a small apartment in Ladona, but don’t spend the majority of their time there. Vesper studies frequently at the Estate while Kosvach and his sisters are hunting reputable jobs. She focuses on the curse laid on the Maviolan Vargari lands, and ways to break it, but also makes a closer study of the life and works of Sespech the Shadowed and the legal codes governing the Sorcerous Houses.

During this time, Vesper cannot help but be drawn into House politics more heavily; Decillius continues to try exerting some influence over her, though he remains unable to acknowledge their blood relation publicly (much to her satisfaction). She is also pleased to receive word that the Miriadis appeal to be recognized as a Sorcerous House has been postponed by the Convocation of Princes; Cortifo in particular has recommended that the Miriadis take a year to look within their ranks and address a few troubling rumors of ill-conduct that have arisen.

The Courtship of Argentine D’Acentra: Rugo continues his off-and-on relationship with Cortifo’s trusted advisor on arcane matters. She is a difficult woman to get close to; she seems to be satisfied acting as the Prince’s arm as a means to achieve her ambitions, and her bond with her clan is apparently much stronger than the bond most House scions have with their own kin. Argentine discusses her job in generalities, but is very discreet regarding specific arcane threats that she may be pursuing.

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50.1 - Second Autumn
Events of the autumn of 2721.

Pre-Nuptial Arrangements: As the plans for his wedding to Bessari begin to take shape, Ettorio sits down with her and explains to her his involvement with the Black Veils. He omits his involvement with dealing with her father (and for whatever reason, she does not ask), and he doesn’t volunteer anything about his real motives the summer before he proposed. But generally Ettorio makes a clean breast of the situation. Although he is a liar, those are temporary, ephemeral lies — he won’t let her marry a lie.

Bessari is somewhat taken aback by this confession, but admits it explains a few things: the cloak, the alley-fighting, his association with mercenaries and necromancers. She asks if Carpa is one of their plants as well. She seems a little perturbed about the dangers of the trade, but ultimately demonstrates enough of a ruthless streak that “killing people for money” does not drive her away on moral grounds. If anything, she seems glad to discover that Ettorio has newfound depths, even if they are rather dimly lit.

Bessari also apologizes to Ettorio, confessing that their initial fling was in part a means for her to get out of an arranged marriage. She had meant for them to be discovered, so that she would seem undesirable to the (quite undesirable) groom her father had picked out for her. She had thought Ettorio would be a charming but harmless sort for her intrigue, but admits she’s quite fallen for him now that he’s demonstrated he has steel to his character as well as copious charm.

They set a date for the spring.

A Short Engagement: The day after Harvest’s Birth, Vesper tells her friends that she and Kosvach will also be married. She’s chosen Evernight as the date — the winter solstice, her favorite holiday — and Ladona as the location. She invites all her friends, emphasizing that she will not be offended if certain people cannot attend as it is somewhat short notice, and there is (understandably) some lingering resentment against Kosvach by the Cinquedea Rovino.

With only three months to prepare, Vesper travels to Cinquedea and Raspian, ensuring that the Vargari have no complaints with her impending nuptials. She has her mother help her with a wedding dress. When Vesper asks her mother to come to Ladona for the wedding, Istrella is unusually reticent at first. After 18 years, Istrella reveals the identity of Vesper’s father: Decillius Sespech, son of the House Grandfather Sadavari. He was already married and had a family at the time of his affair with the young Istrella (and as Vesper would remember, still does), and Istrella knew by the time she was pregnant that Decillius’ impotent ambitions were so important to him that he wouldn’t take proper responsibility if it meant it might undercut what little influence he had. Istrella finally admits that she has no real desire to see Vesper’s father again, but she’s willing to do so in order to see her daughter happily wed.

Father-Daughter Reunion: As winter draws closer, Vesper confronts Decillius on one of her visits to the Estate. Without ever calling him “father,” she makes it clear she’s aware of the circumstances surrounding the two of them, and the reason for his meddling in her affairs. She warns him that if he says or does anything to upset Istrella, Vesper may make him regret ever laying eyes on her to begin with. Decillius at that point is able to manage only a few weak protestations regarding Kosvach, at which point he runs into a wall of “Really? You want to question my life choices?”

The Wild Dog: While she’s in Raspian again, Vesper attempts to use her lessons in diplomacy to influence Carnis Vargari to play it a little cooler. Knowing what she does of the Vargari character, she avoids preaching or exhorting him to calm the fuck down: she simply lays out the political facts of Raspian and encourages him to figure out for himself that he may be doing his House more harm than good. Carnis, for his part, seems to have little respect for Vesper, but he does not openly scoff at her delivery. She takes the response as mildly encouraging.

Ambitions: Carenza begins a serious training program with the Ladies-in-Waiting, having successfully demonstrated the profitable benefits of traveling as adventurers and mercenaries. She starts focusing on larger-scale tactics, running drills outside the city walls so they can move beyond their specialization in city-fighting. She also begins promoting the company around Cinquedea, making sure that everyone knows about any recent adventures that make the Ladies look good.

City Life: Rugo settles in to enjoy some of the fruits of his labors. He spends some time enjoying his new apartment, but also works hard at sparring at the Goreadon temple and working the streets to maintain his connections.

Rugo finally asks Turthis Pulsciri about the money he’s still owed for his mercenary work. Turthis responds that he’s not authorized to make any such payments until some measure of reclamation has been made on the goods carried by the Wind’s Kiss. The head of the House, Umborio, refuses to be seen making payments to people who failed in their duty, and the loss of the Wind’s Kiss is registered in the Pulsciri books as a failure. Turthis recommends that Rugo travel to Cinquedea and take it up with Umborio, but the Raspian house’s coffers are sealed.

Preparing for Winter: With the events of Harvest’s Birth in mind, Opilio spends the autumn working hard to make sure the harvest will be fruitful for all concerned. He begins laying the groundwork for turning the best bits of land into vineyards for next year, a process that includes sending letters to attract an experienced vintner to come live on the Chapelwood lands and become Master of the Vine. When he can, he also spends what free time he can win with Dechera before winter. Ambira and Alesci gain some practice in managing the lands in order to assist their father.

The Wolf Returns to Maviolo: Kosvach and his sisters dedicate some of the autumn toward establishing more of a Vargari presence in Maviolo, in preparation to reclaiming some of the old House lands. As part of their ambition, they set out in search of a possible location to serve as a starting chapterhouse. They ultimately settle on the Last Ditch, a troubled Smoke Blocks inn that had served as a lair for a family of cannibals slowly turning into ghouls. With the family exterminated, the Vargari successfully claim it as their new base of operation. The proprietor, all too happy to be out from under the ghoulish thumb, is glad to stay on to run some of the building’s affairs. They hang out a new signboard featuring the two-headed wolf, and decide to keep the building’s tavern running in the meantime to help with bills while the Vargari presence is still skeletal. Vesper is not entirely impressed.

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50 - Coming to Fruition
Opilio's daughter becomes a bride, as he learns the nature of the power within him.

When an oathbreaking squire came to this land, I planted a seed of power in him as he slept. Every summer it has grown and flourished under the sun. And now that it is ripe, I have need of that power.” — Xedravina

With Bravadi Rovino in custody and the summer’s conflicts largely settled, the group drifts apart. Opilio returns to Cinquedea, gathers his family, and heads back to his estate to oversee affairs there. Ettorio and Carenza also return to Cinquedea, the former after some time spent with his fiancee in the capital, the latter to drop off her Ladies and put in some more training time. Rugo remains in Raspian City, continuing to build groundwork and connections. Vesper also remains for a time, spending as much time with her mother as possible.

The preparations for Ambira’s wedding begin in earnest a week before Harvest’s Birth. Carenza, Vesper and Kosvach arrive a week early, after a stop in Canteria (where Carenza managed to find Catafarza’s Prismatic Players and commission them for a pre-wedding show, and where Vesper had a few grim words with Tenumbra Sespech about just how little the Miriadis are to be trusted). Rugo sends his regrets, but also a gift of a fine Canterian draft horse for the young couple.

On a hot day that week when Alesci and Kosvach have gone to the swimming hole, Ambira and Ivella approach Vesper with an unusual proposition: to go spy on the young men. After a bit of circuitous discussion, Ambira asks if Vesper has ever wondered if the bond between Alesci and Kosvach has ever been… more than good friends. She suggests that if the two of them had some sort of spark, the parting before Alesci marries would be the ideal occasion for them to express it one last time. Vesper expresses her doubts, but does admit she can’t say she’s never wondered, and finally allows herself to succumb to Ambira’s pressure. The three of them creep up on the swimming hole, and get a notable eyeful before they’re noticed. Ambira and Ivella race for safety with the speed only country girls can muster; Vesper stands up calmly, turns, and walks away with all dignity.

Ettorio and Bessari arrive a few days before the wedding. He introduces her to the Borsaris and shows her around. Ivella and Bessari are very polite to one another, though it’s the blindest or most oblivious who fail to pick up on the undercurrent of no love lost between the two.

The day before the wedding begins with the tradition of the Bride’s Throne. Ambira sits on the makeshift throne, guarded by Opilio, Dechera, Vesper and Carenza. The four guardians carry skins of sour wine; the goal is to mark any would-be “suitors” that attempt to win past them for a kiss. Ambira’s first beau, the pig-herder Gillis, is first to try his luck, and he’s easily drenched. Ettorio puts up more of an acrobatic attempt, but Carenza throws him off his game with a disdainful castigation of “Opilio’s daughter? Really?” Before the Iluni can recover his balance, he takes a splatter of wine. Kosvach, on the other hand, seems to care less about winning past the guardians and more about directly challenging Vesper. He evades her splashes, steps into her guard and redirects her attack to douse her with her own wineskin — only to be himself caught by Dechera. The only “attacker” to win through the guardians that day is Carpa, who takes advantage of Ettorio’s distraction and his penchant for being overlooked to slip through and claim a chaste kiss on the cheek.

The night before the wedding, Catafarza’s Prismatic Players set up to perform the play commissioned by Carenza. Reputedly one of their bawdiest, The Enchanted Lance provides a great deal of spectacle surrounding a jousting tournament in Sundrin, and the comings-and-goings of the knights and gentlefolk involved. It strikes quite a chord with all the assembled young ladies. Opilio, from his vantage point atop the hill, wonders a bit at all the uproarious laughter drifting up from near the Falcon and Goose. It seems a bit out of keeping with the soppy romance that Carenza had described.

The bachelor party, on the other hand, follows Ettorio’s direction. The Iluni blade admites to making arrangements for an entertainment at the Coiling Snapdragon down the road. Alesci objects the idea of actually fraternizing with prostitutes, but Kosvach calmly describes the practice as traditional. Opilio is left uncertain as to how serious the references to Alesci’s “education” are up until the gentlemen depart. They return the next morning in a cart driven by Carpa, most of them quite ill-prepared to deal with the morning. Opilio treats them to a boisterous welcome, which sets Ettorio’s teeth on edge.

“You are aware that I am on good terms with assassins?” Ettorio queries in a low tone, holding his head.

“Certainly. But I don’t see any here.” Opilio throws open another window to let in more summer sunlight. “There! No shadows to be found.”

“I am fairly certain I could arrange for a stabbing at a sizeable discount.”

“True. But that won’t help you now!”

Finally Harvest’s Birth dawns. The consecration of the Chanethi chapel takes place at sunrise, banishing the last remnants of the Phouthite blight. In the afternoon, Hedera Threevines and the local priest oversee the marriage ceremony. Carenza and Vesper downplay their more martial nature by wearing civilian dresses, though each still carries her weapon. Opilio does his best to be the member of his family who doesn’t blubber openly. Nobody objects or causes trouble, and the two are happily wed.

Kosvach rather openly admires Vesper’s attire as the two of them dance. “A man could get drunk,” he says as he traces the grapevine-patterned trim on her dress and stockings.

Her answer comes in a stern tone. “Do you not care for the way I normally dress?”

“Mm," he says contemplatively. "A man can have a taste for venison and also enjoy lamb.”

Vesper blushes.

As the revel continues, a small tremor shakes the land. A goblet of wine tips over and spills its contents on the ground. From the ground where the wind was absorbed, several sprouts of grapevines quickly emerge, grow rapidly, and coil together into the framework of a woman. In a matter of moments she’s complete — a voluptuous woman with four ram-like horns, her flesh the color of ripe red grapes, clothed minimally in living vines and leaves. The woman — clearly one of the fata, or perhaps some sort of spirit — kisses Alesci, then Ambira, and offers the confused newlyweds her goodwill and blessing. She then summons Opilio. His friends attend as well.

Her name is Xedravina; and long ago she planted a small measure of power in Opilio. As she explains it, that power has grown from summer to summer, and now she has need of it. A rival of drought and hunger, the pauper-prince Witherwords, is soon to challenge her for authority over her lands. She needs the power back to resist him. Out of deference for Opilio’s good stewardship, she offers a choice. She can remove the power, and leave him to a rather quieter mortality, or she will accept his service in her court, granting him extended years — but cutting him off from his family.

Opilio considers both options, clearly finding neither attractive. As he does so, Vesper speaks with Xedravina about the rivalry: Witherwords will not accept her challenge in the growing months when she is stronger, and she has avoided his challenges when she is weaker. Vesper proposes a third option: hold the challenge tonight, on the equinox, when both parties are equal. Xedravina is soon convinced, and sends the challenge by a messenger bird. The reply comes quickly (Vesper taking the opportunity to change into her fighting garb), and Xedravina conjures more vines to form the lattice of a portal to the Overworld.

With the Overworld as the duel’s site, Vesper tells Ettorio that he should likely remain behind. The Overworld has a tendency to make fae things… more so, she explains, and his mixed blood might be transformative. Ettorio agrees, and Kosvach keeps him company. The two stand watch over the wedding party as Opilio, Carenza and Vesper step into the Overworld. Xedravina offers protection to Carenza, growing armor and a shield made of living wicker.

The battlefield is a simple clearing in a strange, almost exaggerated forest — the trees are oddly angled, their branches almost more dramatic. Peculiar obelisks stand on either side of the field, which is itself divided. The half that the mortal heroes enter is lush and green, the grass so thick and soft it’s like moss. The other half, marked by a portal of withered and dead vines, is a swath of burnt, decaying vegetation. From the portal issues a lean, angular fata dressed in tattered finery the color of late Rathember leaves. He takes a seat formed from the withered wood of the surrounding forest, and Xedravina seats herself in a living throne as well.

The opposing champion looks unwholesome enough — a haggard, slouching knight, wearing rusty and corroded armor held together by dead tendrils. Instead of fellow-champions, he’s flanked by strange birdlike humanoids, something like ill half-molted carrion crows. The very aura of him feels wrong — if Opilio is suffused with verdant life, Witherwords’ nameless champion seems to be a font of miasma.

Neither side holds back. As the fight spills from one end of the clearing to another, it becomes evident that the lush half offers some protection from the mystical decay channeled by Witherwords’ champion, while the dead half enhances its power. The anti-warden conjures vampiric, hollow vines as a parody of Opilio’s own power, and the harpy-like fata whistle up cold winter winds to buffet and freeze the three. The enemy focuses on Opilio — but Xedravina’s gift appears to have matured well, and they’re unable to cut him down before one of the bird-things falls, and the mortal heroes bring the champion low.

When the champion falls, the surviving harpy-thing flinches and cowers behind an obelisk. “You cheated!” screams Witherwords, much to the amusement of the elated Xedravina. With no champion and no tricks, the pauper-prince concedes and retreats through his portal.

Xedravina leads the three back to the material world, well pleased. She thanks them for their assistance, promises to see Opilio come winter, and then she is gone in a rush of wine and fallen grape leaves.

The celebration resumes in earnest. Opilio spends more time watching from afar and discussing things with Dechera, but the others resume as if nothing were wrong. Vesper changes back into her dress, and soon draws Kosvach away into a secluded corner to relate the tale. Of course, they soon fall to more pleasant discussions as well, and finally between kisses the Vargari murmurs “I want to make you my wife.”

“Well," she says, unruffled. "What’s stopping you?”

When Opilio comes to find Vesper to propose a toast, a pair of murderous glances inform him that the two would rather be left to their conversation in peace. He retires quickly, sagely postponing the gesture of thanks and returning to play host as the celebration unwinds slowly into the evening. Long after the guests have drifted off to bed, he and Dechera are still quietly talking of the season that’s been and the seasons to come.

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49 - The Midsummer Masquerade
A Midsummer celebration in Raspian City promises great spectacle, social extravagance, and a quiet bit of murder.

“…What exactly do you think a fete is?”
“Well. It’s obvious!”
“I’m starting to wonder.” — Vestiri Iluni & Opilio Chapelwood

Before the guard arrives to remove Bravadi Rovino, the group quietly goes through his treasury. Vesper, Carenza and Opilio all help themselves to a thousand reganti worth of various currency and objects, while Rugo and Kosvach decline due to the hazy legality. The fallen Rovino infernalist is placed in irons and dragged away, still unconscious.

The Prince does not contact the group regarding the resolution of the affair, though he does send a thousand gold to both Rugo and Kosvach, intensifying the belief that he had eyes in the tower between the fight and the arrival of the guard. Vestiri speculates that the prince is likely to try Bravadi under his alias of “Brino Ruvetti” in order to keep the Rovinos from scandal — though he is certain the Rovinos will be well aware of the favor Cortifo is doing them.

Things become quiet in Raspian City for a time thereafter. The group receives invitations to Prince Cortifo’s Midsummer masquerade ball, and all decide to attend. Vesper makes plans to take her family to the opera, and invites the others to join her at the Grand Phantasmagoria’s performance of The Sirens of Tzal Cherathis.

Ettorio spends time with his fiancee, introducing her to some of the local Iluni, but mostly concerning himself with House-unrelated business and keeping her from discovering his activities with the Black Veils.

Rugo rents an apartment in Bladesrun, and begins frequenting the temple to Goreador to find sparring partners. He’s obviously of the highest tier, though the High Swordfather of the temple still outmatches him. He also pays a social visit on Cortifo’s arcane advisor Argentine D’Acentra, inviting her to join him at the opera. She accepts, which causes some level of gossip and tension the night of the performance as the wizard-killer joins the social outing organized by the Sespech to view an illusion-backed performance.

Others begin plotting for the festival. Vesper and Ettorio formulate plans for a staged display during the bridge battles to further the career of Arisant. Carenza nominates a contest among her Ladies to see who’ll attend the ball with her, and Rabbit wins. Kosvach admits his love for Vesper in an off-handed manner that would be considered gravely unfashionable throughout the city but touches her all the same.

And, of course, costumes must be purchased. Vestiri recommends the Noira Val family of halfling tailors, the master mask-maker Vestreccia, and a skilled costume-maker who works for the theaters, one Reteskos, who is popular among bohemians but naturally not as fashionable among the elevated set. Opilio learns that his choice of a satyr can come in entirely too “aspect of fertility” for his tastes.

When Midsummer comes, the first order of group business is the bridge battles. Vesper, Ettorio (disguised once again as the disreputable Oirotte Bopilio) and Arisant choose the Cavalier Bridge for their demonstration. Opilio, Rugo and Carenza all offer their assistance as well; by compare, Kosvach claps Vesper on the shoulder during the preparation and says, “Have fun. I’m off to find a real fight.”

There are many witnesses on hand for the event. When the clearly incensed Oirotte draws naked steel in the middle of the mock battle, Arisant is quick to engage him wielding only the wooden sword that is traditional. Opilio, Rugo and Carenza shout at the surrounding forces to BACK UP, HE’S GOT A REAL SWORD, and their force of presence compels immediate compliance. Many eyes are on the bravery and skilled swordwork of Arisant — Ettorio makes him look very good before dashing away in utter defeat, losing himself in the crowd and discarding his disguise in the process. Arisant receives several rounds of congratulations, and moves away to discuss business with a few impressed folk before the city guard officially restarts the bridge battle. The group acquits themselves very well, and Vesper is coolly delighted to prove the merits of the Iron Fang school in this vicious test of endurance.

That evening, all assemble for Prince Cortifo’s Midsummer masquerade ball. The affair is grandiose indeed, occupying not only the immense ballroom, but spilling over into the eight themed salons that surround it. Many costumes are works of art, and some — such as Prince Bellostia’s fire-puffing chimera regalia — seem to even benefit from a touch of enchantment or alchemy.

Vesper’s bat mask obscures her features, and her skintight costume emphasizes her figure in a fashion that seems uncharacteristic. But the others are able to pick her out easily by noticing how the rather less deceptive Kosvach hovers protectively around her. She draws a number of admirers, and Opilio finally decides to position himself behind her for a bit to deter easy admiration of her callipygean attributes.

Rugo greets Argentine, though the reaper-masked D’Acentran is clearly on full duty that evening. He also notes that one of the thick-set men in the Rovino delegation is lacking a hand — clearly Calibar. Calibar fails to recognize Rugo’s dyed armor, though, so the awkward reunion is postponed.

Ettorio and Bessari go into full mingle mode, exchanging pleasantries with various House scions and causing no small amount of gossip. Alesci and Ambira enjoy the lavish masquerade for a dance or two, before sneaking away to the Dryad Parlor for some private time. Opilio chats with the flamboyantly costumed Vestiri, who asks how he and Dechera are enjoying the fete. A much-flustered Opilio, still attaching odd connotations to the word “fete,” nearly collects his wife and departs entirely.

Vesper recognizes one of her would-be admirers as Trasanto, the opera singer who took the male lead in The Sirens of Tzal Cherathis. Confident as the young virtuoso is, he withers beneath the blast furnace of Kosvach’s intimidation and withdraws gallantly.

“Why couldn’t you have done that with Crestir Miriadis at Ambira’s processional feast?” Vesper asks.

“If you had been wearing something like this at the time, I might have punched him in the face and walked over his body when he started paying attention to you,” replies Kosvach in his usual deadpan.

Vesper considers the image, and finds it pleasant. “Are you feeling jealous?”

She hears a faint growl from under the dragon’s mask. “I admit, you might find a more charming partner.”

“Alesci Tyliel is charming. Ettorio Iluni is charming, when he’s not a blithering idiot. Even Crestir Miradis is probably considered charming. I’m in love with you because you can’t be bothered to care whether people consider you charming or not. You’re fierce and you’re loyal and you’re not afraid of honesty. Your mind is refreshingly unclouded by politics, or meaningless formalities, or the need to present yourself in the most flattering light at all times. Any common rake can be charming. To be quite honest, I am bored by charming. Except Vestiri. He’s allowed to be charming. For him, charming is the scabbard that keeps his rapier wit from slicing us all to ribbons at every opportunity.” She smiles and squeezes his hand.

It seems to have an effect. Kosvach’s zone of murderous intent abates for the remainder of the evening.

During one round of socialization, a woman in a black cat mask and dress approaches Ettorio. Ettorio excuses himself from a suspicious Bessari to walk with her. He shortly recognizes her as Catariella, a noted actress… and one of Raspian City’s Black Veils. She informs him that House Miriadis has contracted the Veil’s services — and the target is Crestir Miriadis.

Ettorio gathers his friends discreetly. He informs them of the hit, and the odd position he’s in — he cannot honestly refuse. Vesper is torn: she doesn’t want Cortifo to wind up owing the Miriadis if Crestir’s found dead at his party, but she also wants Crestir dead. Rugo decides he can’t involve himself with the operation, but he won’t spoil it, either. The others agree to help.

Catariella distracts Crestir, luring him into the Storm Parlor. Opilio and Carenza chat with a bored Prince Olidian to keep his attention away from the others. In the process, they learn that the group’s names have been circulating among the various princes: they’re developing something of a reputation. “Every prince considers the presence of unknown variables such as yourselves,” he explains, and goes on to elaborate that they have a reputation for defying proper laws and channels but working for what seems to be the common good. As that plays out, Vesper and Kosvach block line of sight to one of the Storm Parlor’s doorways by indulging in a passionate clinch. (“This is your plan?” Kosvach asks her. “I’m the one who comes up with the good plans,” she responds.) Ettorio convinces Vestiri to wear his costume for a bit, and while Vestiri-as-Ettorio regales an audience, Ettorio dresses in a purloined harlequin costume, slips into the Storm Parlor, and cuts Crestir’s life short with ease.

After that, the rest of the evening is something of an anticlimax. When the Prince’s servants discover the body, they are remarkably discreet at removing it. Indeed, it’s heard the next day that apparently Crestir Miriadis was seen stumbling drunkenly out of the masquerade, making a minor scene of himself, only to be found face-down and lifeless in a Scabbard gutter.

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48 - The Downfall of Bravadi Rovino
Carenza brings down the monster she had inadvertently set loose.

I’m willing to bet that Cortifo is better at this than Bravadi.” — Carenza Vega

The morning of their audience with the Prince, an out-of-breath Carpa arrives and informs Ettorio that his fiancee Bessari has arrived in Raspian City, and has been inquiring about his whereabouts at the Iluni palazzo. Ettorio blanches, makes a few quick excuses, and departs with all haste, his manservant at his heels.

Carenza, Vesper, Opilio, Rugo and Kosvach set out without Ettorio for their audience. The Prince’s Palazzo is the sort of large, ornately decorated, labyrinthine structure that naturally results from generations of princes each choosing to leave their mark on the structure. A slight young woman wearing purple sashes guides the group away from the grand audience hall and into the winding side corridors, down below the surface of Lawgiver Hill. The audience chamber is a smaller room made to resemble a crystalline grotto with waterfalls to all four sides. There Prince Cortifo waits for them, along with his arcane counselor Argentine D’Acentra.

Carenza and Vesper take the lead in the audience, explaining that they’ve caught the Downturn sniper, that he needs to die, and that he’s a scion of the Crisandor. The Prince appears to take their concerns seriously, though he’s difficult to read. Cortifo is a cagey conversationalist, and expresses curiosity as to the group’s eventual ambitions. He also demonstrates some extensive foreknowledge of their activities; he refers to the assistance that they’ve given Temagli and Olidian, wonders at their not doing the same with Bellostia, and even seems aware that Carenza is not only Rovino, but in pursuit of a fellow House scion. When he calls for refreshment, the group is slow to accept.

Cortifo expresses some perplexity at the group’s failure to remain close at hand to any prince they’ve assisted and reap the benefits of the goodwill — and perhaps satisfied that their civic spirit is true, he agrees to take the rogue Crisandor into his keeping. He also agrees to have Captain Angratti of the Scabbard back their move against “Brino Ruvetti” by having his men keep a discreet perimeter during their operation. The audience concludes, and the group is led through a different series of corridors back to the Hill.

They then resolve to learn more about the tower and its defenses. At present, “Brino Ruvetti” has hung red flags with a sword-and-torch motif, and his hired troops wear leather jacks dyed red. He does not seem to be popular in the neighborhood, and is very cautious (paranoid, even) about new hires, somewhat spoiling the possibility of Rugo performing another “Executors gambit.” The tower was formerly home to one Captain Ralgori of the Vanquishers company; Rugo remembers the battle in which Ralgori fell and the Vanquishers were scattered. That afternoon, Rugo and Carenza go prowling the Scabbard for information, preferably someone who has seen the inside of the tower. They have little luck.

Luck, on the other hand, is with Opilio again. The rustic winds up sharing a few drinks with a veteran who’d lost part of his leg in that battle — a former Vanquisher who’s seen the inside of the tower. In exchange for gold and sympathy, the veteran tells Opilio that among the defensive fortifications is a chandelier that’s rigged to fall in the front room. He also mentions a secret passage in and out that led to a nearby stables; for a little gold, the stable owner might be willing to let them use it. Opilio returns with the information, and earns more accolades from Rugo on his clear mastery of the Raspian streets.

The group keeps an eye on the comings and goings of Ruvetti’s men the following day, and that night they take the passage from the stables. The stable owner has one of his boys muck out the stable where the long-disused trap door lies, much impressing Opilio with the convenience of having someone else do such a task. The tunnel is small and cramped, and the trap door up to the tower is difficult to force — something has been piled upon it. Rugo’s recently purchased crowbar is cheap and insufficient to the task. It takes Opilio and Carenza working together in a mildly compromising position to force open the trap door.

They emerge in the tower’s larder. The noise draws one of Bravadi’s men, who meets unconsciousness in the form of Rugo’s shield. They move into the kitchen, where they subdue another henchman they find there chewing on a bit of old sausage, but not before he can sound the alarm.

The group storms out of the kitchen into the main hall, careful not to stand below the chandelier. A number of Bravadi’s men come pouring out to meet them, some charging downstairs from the second-story balcony where a few nock crossbows. Among their ranks on the stairs stands a better-armored man, bellowing orders like a drill sergeant; he wears a red tabard to match his colleagues, but is carrying a shield covered with the barbed metal spikes peculiar to the Thornshields. Rugo snarls at the sight of the archers, and begins fighting his way up the stairs as the others stand to secure the lower portion of the room.

A pair of double doors crashes open, and reinforcements arrive — large reinforcements. The ogre is defended by iron plates fashioned for a creature of its size, and has a distinctive split tusk that’s regrown into two thinner ones. It tears into the group on ground level, forcing Opilio and Kosvach to brace against it. The Thornshield pushes into Rugo with the spikes on his shield, hooking the scarred mercenary. The two go at it hammer and tongs, though it begins to become evident that Cuscala has the edge in strength and experience.

“Clear me a path!” Kosvach shouts to Vesper, and the two of them cut down a pair of soldiers. Then Kosvach returns his attention to the ogre. He hooks the thing’s gorget with his claw-bracer, kicks it in the back of the knee, and half-riding it, he propels it forward under its own momentum until it goes down in a heap under the chandelier. On the balcony, Rugo smashes the badly wounded Thornshield with his own shield, sending the man over the balcony to land in a broken heap on the flagstones. He then smirks grimly and releases the chain, sending the mass of iron crashing down. The ogre manages to survive the blow, although a red-jacketed thug standing too near him is not so lucky.

And then Bravadi Rovino shows himself. He strides from an upper room onto the balcony, snarling “YOU!” as he surveys the battle. “You can’t be surprised,” retorts Vesper.

Bravadi’s rejoinder is unexpected. He extends his sword, and flame springs up at its tip. It runs down the blade, and then down Bravadi’s arm, spreading across him as if he’d been soaked in oil. Horns sprout from his brow, and the fire coalesces into molten armor that rapidly cools — armor of an infernal aspect. With a roar, he leaps the balcony and crashes down among the melee.

The former Rovino head fights as though he’s possessed — and it’s not clear that he isn’t. His sword continues to blaze, and he beats Kosvach down. When Opilio moves to flank him, he reaches out with a free hand and lifts the immense man over his head — igniting him in the process — and bodily hurls him, one-handed, near Vesper, where a cloud of flame erupts at the point of impact. Between Bravadi and the ogre, the melee is brutal and vicious. Even when he’s badly wounded for the first, time, Bravadi’s blood ignites in arcs of lightning, spraying everyone nearby. But the damage he does is mitigated. Carenza’s voice is clear in the fight, and her tactics hamper the infernal Rovino’s attacks. Finally, when he’s staggering, she knocks him to the ground and rings his helm off the flagstones, knocking him unconscious. The ogre continues to fight, but once at the center of the wolfpack, it’s not long for the world.

With Bravadi unconscious, his hellish armor dissolves into smoke. Vesper checks for some arcane talisman that might have triggered the change, but finds only a strange brand on his pectoral. She recognizes it immediately. It’s a devil’s mark: Bravadi had apparently entered into a pact with Vaskathion, a ruinous servant of Mal Zath and his sister Xacshi. The tales of infernalism in Rasenna have proven themselves true once again.

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