“I don’t like this plan.” — Ettorio Iluni
“Suck it up.” — Carenza Vega & Vesper Sespech
Prince Olidian begins to tell what he knows of his court. Sequava is an ascetic; Taza owes him and Bress spends a lot of money on books; Piretta fancies herself a patron of the arts; Rozodor no doubt is interested in his luck; and Check is, well, a halfling information broker and therefore enigmatic. He asks the four not to be too obvious in their investigations, and gives them the name of a dressmaker where they can leave discreet messages for him. All this settled, the group breaks up and begins their work that evening.
The consensus is unanimous that Ettorio is the best to inquire among the artists and poets regarding Pirretta. In a smoke-filled back room he makes friends with a few artists that have worked directly with her. They inform him that Pirretta is very serious about promoting the arts in Raggavante, perhaps because she wants to be remembered for that rather than for being a courtesan who was lovely in her time. Olidian is not as generous with the city’s coin as he could be, and this distresses her greatly — in part because she is more fond of him than she dares let on. He also finds that Olidian seems to have offended the aged matriarch of the local Iluni…
Opilio finds a place where the various palace servants drink when off-duty. There he inquires about various wealthy folk the Prince may have offended. He learns of the Iluni grudge, that the Levatis have been chafing at a refusal to lessen their taxes, that the Dancredi also are not pleased with their Prince, and that the Graelskeld have come to an arrangement to provide work on the Grand Quay in exchanged for lessened taxes.
Carenza decides to feign interest in mercenary work for the Prince in order to investigate Taza. She manages to ingratiate herself with Taza’s lieutenant Krista and learn quite a bit. Taza apparently still holds to a Paelite knight’s code despite her disgrace in her home nation. Though she reportedly finds Olidian irritating and sometimes unreliable, her oath is to him as a Prince rather than to the office of Prince, to Raggavante or to Rasenna. She has also been stymied of late — there was to be a raid on the “Black Skulls” or something similar, but it turned out the information they’d been given was bad.
Vesper has the least luck of anyone that evening; she chooses to target the scholar culture to learn more about Bress, but finds that few people are out and active during the evening. She returns to the High Tide before anyone. The next morning the four commence the ritual of sharing their finds over breakfast, and depart for new efforts.
That morning, Vesper speaks with booksellers who have Bress as a customer, but learns that the Paelite seneschal has no suspicious buying patterns. She also learns that Check comes from a family that runs a bookbinder’s and scriptorium, and decides to act on this later. Ettorio visits the somewhat asymmetrical Taltikkan cathedral to look for new constructions or signs of higher security, but is solidly distracted by the charms of the Eminent Heirogaliant Carmina Foxhair. Opilio travels into the Bask, and manages to navigate the Hith culture sufficiently well that he gains an interview with Sequava’s clutchmate Ixeth. She tells him that Sequava remains free of “the net” of intrigues because he wants very little: the fewer wants one has, the harder it is to be ensnared. The group meets again to compare notes over lunch.
That afternoon Vesper actually gains enough trust from Check’s family that the halflings are willing to speak to her. She learns from Check’s apparent paramour, a pretty but very androgynous halfling named Tolly, that Check has not been checking in with his family regularly. He was apparently investigating the Sable Skulls before a three-day disappearance, and has declined to discuss the affair since.
Opilio, accompanied by Ettorio and Carenza, surprises the Prince by requesting a private consultation with Sequava on animistic matters. The lizardman diviner is even more taciturn than his clutchmate, but does provide a vision for Opilio: a thick black coil, surrounded by a circle of stones, gold at its heart. Opilio thanks the vizier and departs.
Combining their information over dinner, it seems apparent that Check is the culprit, having been coerced or ensorcelled by the Sable Skulls. The vision must refer to a sunken tower, the sort that can be found in Norhill. They scout the district, and quickly identify a dyer’s that seems entirely feasible. Finding a potential sally-port by which to enter, they decide to strike in the morning when the nocturnal rogues will likely be at their most vulnerable. Opilio watches through the night as the others rest and prepare.
When morning comes, Ettorio bypasses the door’s security and lets them into the kitchen area. A pair of Skulls are still awake; the first is dispatched silently, but the second — a crafter designing some weapon or harness in a workshop — lets out a shout before he’s put down. The group quickly finds a stairway leading down, and takes it before any more Sable Skulls wake or investigate.
The stair leads to an octagonal lower room of odd design, peculiar reliefs of human/animal hybrids on the walls. A pair of small pools flank a large dais, upon which rests a strange dark serpent with a scaled, human-like head. A pair of women, their heads shaved and painted or tattooed with the Sable Skull emblem, take up their scimitars as the snake-thing regards the intruders.
“Why are you here?” it asks.
“We’re here to kill you.”
Its eyes flash. “I forbid it.”
The dispute ensues. The thing is a quick, dangerous enemy — it bites with poisonous fangs, sends people flying with whiplike tail strikes, sprays acidic spittle across the room, and those who meet its gaze fall briefly under a hypnotic thrall. Ettorio is the first to be entranced and stagger into one of the pools, to discover the spikes hidden beneath the water. Its attendants are no slouches either; they fight as though dancing, moving with inhuman undulations and vicious scimitar strikes. Ettorio is badly blooded before he’s able to drop one of the women.
Opilio holds the attention of the thing, but somewhat to his detriment. It curls its tail around his maul and pulls it free from his grasp — and before he can do anything, the snake-monster swallows it. Almost immediately, though, Carenza is at his side. At her command, her silvery Uromni weapon takes the form of a massive hammer with intricate leaf-pattered filigree, and she passes it to Opilio. Snatching up a scimitar from the fallen attendant, she shouts a series of orders that retake the momentum. Ettorio dispatches the second attendant, and while the snake-beast is staggered from Opilio’s blows, Vesper slips behind it and opens it up with a strike from Styriax.
As the immense ophidian nightmare thrashes, its gut-pouch spills its contents across the floor. Opilio reclaims his maul, and the others scoop up the mix of coins, gems, jewelry and oddments. Ettorio singles out a golden coin and holds it up. The fox-head winks back at him, and the Taltikkan relic in hand, the group beats a hasty exit from the sunken tower.