Rasennan Summer

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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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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