“Well, you’ve come just in time for the giant apes, so good!” — Ettorio Iluni
The extra day spent in Zantira revitalizes Opilio, who makes the trip to Ladona well-satisfied. Once there, he manages to navigate the various districts until he finds one that seems like the sort of neighborhood where Vesper would agree to stay. When he sees the signboard of the Pale Maiden, he recalls the name having come up in a discussion of inns along the way (that had been triggered by the revelation of what floral names mean for establishments). He checks with the proprietor and discovers that his companions are indeed staying here, orders a fine meal and settles in to wait. It isn’t long before they return from the arena, and discuss the situation they find themselves in.
The dominant obstacle remains deciding how to best arrange things so that the group isn’t confronted with all of Kagall’s resources at once. The next day, Ettorio heads for the market to purchase “tickets” for the next performance, Vesper sends word to the Estate that she’s still delayed but hoping to be free soon, Opilio goes for a meander after lunch, and Carenza decides to go to the Cranequin to see if she can drum up some additional support from her Rovino relatives.
Opilio, true to form, finds something interesting as he goes wandering. A small park some five blocks from the Pale Maiden has been emptied of all citizens save two small groups of serious-looking men, clearly preparing for a duel between a Crisandor and a silver-haired young Sespech. He races back to the Pale Maiden to inform Vesper, but by the time they arrive, the duel is already over and the Crisandor beyond help. Vesper recognizes the victor as Savaquin Sespech, a rising star in the House. The two exchange formal pleasantries, and part ways.
Carenza’s visit to the Cranequin is tenser. She finds that her uncle Cornabossa, head of the Ladona Rovinos, is picking that afternoon to hold a private meeting with other family members and close associates to discuss the Kagall problem. When her cousin Basolo arrives, she has him escort her into the meeting to say her piece. The reunion between her and her uncle is rather lacking in gentle goodwill, but she stresses that as the source of the information on Kagall’s resources, she’s already one of the main advantages the Rovinos have. Calculating that Carenza and her “blade” companions are potentially deniable agents (and less expensive than the Black Veil), he agrees to let her proceed.
With the news that the next exhibition is not for another couple of days, Vesper decides to take Osomont’s body back to the Estate, which is less than a day’s travel away. Opilio and Carenza gladly agree to escort her, and Ettorio decides to come along when he realizes that this is as good an opportunity as any to learn something about the odd shadow-manifestation that came from his hand several nights ago. Once there, Vesper meets with Osomont’s lover Crysidere and delivers the news in person, and winds up explaining her bond with her vestiges to Crysidere and her traveling companions. Carenza then retires to her quarters before dinner, Opilio stays protectively near Vesper, and Ettorio goes wandering for a bit, examining the shadows. He loses his way quickly, ending up in a cellar where a strange full-length mirror reflects nothing but darkness. The Iluni’s superstitions get the better of him, and he leaves quickly. The young Sespech Isafel, a classmate of Vesper’s, guides him back to the others before dinner.
The dinner itself is a stately, polite affair. The group is interested to discover that many of the Sespechs talk interesting business — hints of a haunting here, rumors of bandits disturbing an old plague-town there. Fortified by plenty of Maviolan brandy, Opilio begins to talk about the similar plague-priest things they’d seen in Calvera, including the walking tree that Ettorio fled from. This catches the attention of Dellascura, a notable shadow mage and one of the three potential heirs vying to take over the House when Grandfather Sadavari finally passes from the seat. She asks several questions of Vesper and her companions, testing their knowledge of whether or not they can oppose servants of the Rotting God. When Carenza admits that she has no experience facing the undead, Dellascura asks if the four would be interested in a training exercise. Carenza, to her later regret, responds in the affirmative.
At three bells before midnight, a lower crypt in the labyrinthine Estate is prepared as an arena. Sespechs (and Carpa) gather on the upper balcony to watch, as the four find themselves about to square off against a skeletal warrior, a lumbering ogre zombie, and a pair of animated animal cadavers from the Plains of Minon. The skeleton and ogre are directly controlled by two necromancers, who seem to be treating the match as a training exercise themselves. At the sight, the group spends a little bit of discussion time regarding second thoughts, but the Sespechs are now fully committed to carrying out the exercise.
The unliving puppets are quicker than they seem. The “hounds” carry a measure of shadow power in their bite that leeches out the warmth of their foes, and pull Ettorio and Opilio down to worry at them. The skeleton is a cagey flanker as controlled by its puppeteer, and the ogre corpse is a threat from its very bulk. But the Sespechs are treated to quite the show as the group pulls out more and more of their true ability. Ettorio again materializes the noose of shadow, this time successfully. Carenza creates opening after opening for her comrades as she fights, and Vesper manifests her vestiges in strength. Opilio in particular practically ripples with primordial nature, smashing the ogre first with his ram-like transformation and then with gusts of wind summoned from nowhere. When the last of the puppets has its necromantic strings cut, the tomb resounds with applause, and many of the Sespechs press the group to discuss the performance more before it’s time to retire.