“That was quite a spectacle. Thank you for treating me to that. Speaking of spectacles, how’s my cousin getting along here?” — Vestiri Iluni
The morning of Highsun dawns with heavy cloud and no rain; the air is pleasantly cool for high summer, but the lack of sunlight has a few people muttering about poor omens. Vesper indulges in the local tradition of serving an elaborate breakfast for loved ones, sharing a meal with her in-laws before they begin training for the grand bridge battle. The others wake in various places, and deal with their hangovers in various ways. Carpa fixes a restorative for Ettorio, one involving the juice poured from a jar of fish-stuffed peppers. Rabbit presents Carenza with a greasy pork sandwich. Vittorio self-medicates with some hair of the dog, reading a note from Vesper with his partly liquid breakfast. In it, she reminds him that Iridios or an agent may be able to recognize his current form and dispel it again. The devil thinks on it, and then goes upstairs to experiment with the Toilette to see if he can derive a new illusory face. He manages to create a new human identity, though he can’t get the hair quite right. The best he can manage is a deep purple, a vivid orange with red tips, or a dark green. He settles on the green, for reasons that it will best match his wardrobe.
The four of them assemble for another late breakfast, where Vittorio has to introduce himself to them again in light of his new appearance. They talk of festival plans, in particular the dragon parades. There have been obscure bits of talk that someone may employ an illusionist this year to enhance their parade, and it seems Iridios has as much promise as anyone in that department.
They also consider the custom of spending the stroke of noon at Highsun doing something one would like to do for the rest of the year. Carenza contemplates getting into a fight, but Vesper points out that Maviolans are are prone to think that fighting at noon would invite a war, which they don’t particularly want. Carenza replies that as a mercenary, she’d actually like a war, which means money. “I could count my money,” she muses.
“Yes!” exclaims Vittorio. “Counting money, all year!”
Ettorio regards her. “You can count?”
From there, they separate. As noon approaches, each adventurer decides to honor the coming season in their own way.
Ettorio, his wife a principality away, chooses to find a portion of shadow to meditate in. He begins to explore the grottoes of Ladona, and soon discovers that level after level of catacombs, tunnels and ruins run through the city’s principal hill. He loses himself in the subterranean gloom, never quite hearing the noon bells.
Carenza finds herself at the Goreadon chapel, where the devotees plan their customary sparring to achieve physical excellence and perhaps, if fortunate, channel the godmind. She throws herself into the activity as well. She doesn’t achieve the godmind itself, but when the bells ring, she’s luxuriating in the feel of a strenuous workout.
Vittorio chooses a surprisingly ascetic path. Rather than drink and revel with the crowd, he retires to his room and works on the ballad he’s promised to the shrine of Kylir. He is caught up in the fires of inspiration when noon comes.
And for her part, Vesper decides to extend the tradition of kissing a loved one a little farther, leading Kosvach to a pleasantly furnished rented room in a comfortable inn.
“Hhn. You’re taking this tradition seriously,” he says.
“I’m a Maviolan,” she replies, pulling him in. “Maviolans are very superstitious.”
The dragon parades begin roughly an hour after noon. Vesper and Vittorio head to Empire Hill to act on the rumors of illusion at play; in particular, Ludovir Zarocci is somewhat under suspicion, given that he’s the other party involved in Dossa Barcamir betting his wife. Ludovir’s father Cadmiro apparently associated both with Avistella and Habria Venante while in Ladona, and it seems likely that chain of contacts could reach to Iridios. Before setting out, Vittorio uses his violin to spin a particular enchantment around himself, granting himself the ability to see magical dweomers for a short period of time.
Carenza and Ettorio choose instead to visit the Smoke Blocks dragon parade. WIth the Rovino plan to stage mock fights against attackers, Carenza wants to make sure that no zealous accidents get the family in trouble. However, she acts as something of a lightning rod herself when the parade passes the Vargari chapterhouse. Kosvach has promised Vesper he’d behave — but his sister Tarvana lounges outside the former inn, a pair of wooden swords shaped like her favorite Lokvan sabers at her side. She calmly watches the Rovino parade with a smirk. Her expression changes when Carenza looks her way, giving her stick an extra bit of flourish. The Vargari swordswoman immediately takes an interest, and begins to follow the Rovino dragon despite Kosvach’s growl of warning. When Carenza begins to pay her no heed, Tarvana moves in and attacks.
It’s immediately obvious to the other Rovino that this isn’t one of the scheduled mock fights, and that Tarvana Vargari is several leagues above the sort of bravos they’d hired to take a dive. Her two-saber style immediately challenges Carenza to block as best she can, and Tarvana still gets one shot in. Carenza retaliates, her strikes particularly showy, almost as though she isn’t taking the fight seriously.
The battle between the women quickly hits a level that has the onlookers gawking. Carenza blocks one saber and jumps another, nearly as fluidly as if they’d choreographed it. She manages to land a hit on Tarvana, and the Vargari comes back in with renewed fervor. Another saber strikes Carenza. But this time the mercenary applauds her opponent, calling out “Oh, good hit!” This clearly takes Tarvana aback, and her next attacks are more easily parried. As they continue the duel, Carenza dedicates less attention to offense, focusing instead on defense and on a peculiar form of diplomacy. After a few more passes, Tarvana seems to catch on. The two lower their sticks, acknowledge one another as good fighters, and then part to the applause of the crowd.
As Tarvana rejoins Kosvach, he reproves his sister for nearly stirring up havoc with the Rovino all over again. In particular he points out that Carenza is an especial friend to the family, and that she’s off-limits for any sort of trouble Tarvana might have in mind.
“Don’t worry,” Tarvana says with an evaluating grin as she watches the Rovino move out of sight. “She’s not quite my type.”
At Empire Hill, Vesper hears a familiar voice call her name from the crowd. Vestiri greets her enthusiastically; the Iluni is dressed much less flamboyantly than usual, emphasizing the black and white of his House colors with minimal blue and no House pin in evidence. She smiles at him, but holds up a cautionary finger.
“Tell me something only Vestiri would know.”
“We’re dealing with an illusionist. I have to be sure.”
Vestiri leans in and whispers something into Vesper’s ear. “All right,” she says, “you’re Vestiri.”
“I’m glad we agree on that.”
“Of course, I have no way of confirming that information.”
“You could probably just ask him. He’s not usually an exhibitionist, but there was that time he was carrying on with an actress…”
“I’d rather not.”
The two of them settle in to watch, Vesper carefully choosing a corner where the street will move into the final stretch, passing under a bridge where Prince Lazzaretta and her court observe the proceedings. Vittorio stays fairly close by, anonymously keeping an eye on the two. As he studies the surroundings, Vittorio also notes a woman matching Avistella’s description atop one of the nearby balconies attached to a fine inn. The opera singer is accompanied by an older gentleman who radiates some form of magic — Vittorio quickly deduces this is Iridios, or possibly an agent of his, cloaked by an illusion. Avistella seems to pay little attention to her companion, however. She appears to be setting herself to catch the eye of Captain Argonest, though if the silver-armored spartoi takes any notice of her, it’s too subtle for Vittorio to discern.
The Empire Hill dragon parade is a spectacular display, particularly in light of the normally somber Maviolo demeanor. Here the carts, banners and beasts are decorated like dragons with some of the finest materials possible. The Theatre Penumbral brings an undulating draconic puppet with remarkable animation. Dossa Barcamir’s entry into the parade proves to be fine indeed. The cart is laden with an elaborate reptilian sculpture, and the horses drawing it wear masterful green barding that gives them the appearance of ferocious drakes. Dossa himself cuts a fairly proud figure, with an elaborate sash worn over one eye.
But he is outdone. The young blade Ludovir Zarocci is clearly dressed for the pageant, with a wide-brimmed hat and clothes that speak of the well-off, adventurous young blade. Yet it’s his mount that draws most of the attention. Ludovir rides what appears to all senses to be a hissing, barely restrained dragon the size of a large charger. It balks at the rein and vents smoke at the audience, its scales shimmering in an iridescent shift of color from its back to its belly.
Vesper waits carefully until Ludovir and his mount are passing her — then she throws a karun tagli directly at the beast, her cry of “Vicusi!” not loud enough to be heard over the crowd. The nail strikes the monster in the side — and suddenly the drake is gone. Ludovir rides a blood-red horse with a pale mane, an impressive charger by most standards but no longer anything like a dragon. The crowd cries out in surprise, and Vestiri aids Vesper by hugging her tight and feigning utter alarm at the proceedings.
Ludovir’s lips go white as he looks down at his mount in clear fury. Vesper receives the distinct impression that he would spur his charger into the crowd and start trampling pedestrians if he thought he could get away with it. His glare first fixes on the old man on the balcony by Avistella; the aged gentleman looks shocked himself. Then the Zarocci rake stares furiously up at another balcony, where a pretty young woman with a parasol laughs cruelly at him — and the family resemblance between the two is notable. Finally he turns his steed and rides back down the street away from the Prince, still fuming. The old man looks into the crowd one last time — and Vesper sees his gaze fix on her white hair before he turns and goes inside.
Vittorio slips carefully into the inn where Avistella and the presumed Iridios have placed themselves. He first attempts to bribe the proprietor into giving him a balcony view, but the proprietor is unwilling to dislodge any of his current clientele. Vittorio then takes up a seat where he can keep an eye on the most likely exits. A vague presence blurs across his arcane sight, and he hears footsteps, but nothing more. He deduces that Iridios has invisibly slipped out the back, and although he tries, he’s unable to track the unseen illusionist.
Vesper and Vestiri don’t bother to remain for the judging of the parade. They set out for the Smoke Blocks. Along the way, Vestiri notes they’re being followed. Vesper reassures him that it’s a friend, and by the time they’ve made the trip back to the Vargari house, she’s explained the peculiarities of the Vittorio situation to him. He receives the news that Vesper and his cousin are associating with a literal devil with reasonable aplomb.
The four reconvene, Vesper also bringing in Kosvach and his sisters. Most people are looking forward to the evening’s bridge battle, and so that’s their next target.
The traditional Ladonan bridge battle assigns sides by drawing colored stones from a sack. By a stroke of fortune, Carenza, Ettorio and Vesper all draw black stones and end up on the same side, east-to-west (Vittorio choosing to remain out of the fray and simply watch), along with the half-orc “Rosette” and Cornabossa Rovino. Kosvach, Tarvana and Iliska all draw white stones, though, as do Kalbak and Erigo and Basolo Rovino, and prepare to push west-to-east.
When the fight begins, each group becomes the core of a dynamic wedge. Carenza and Vesper draw on long experience with teamwork to push their way forward, and Carenza’s command draws in more and more fighters around them to form them into a powerful spearhead. The Vargari are less inspirational, fighting with the expected skill of a wolf pack but more drawing their side along in their wake than inspiring them. Carenza and Vesper’s press completely dominates the north side of the bridge; the Vargari family tear through the south side. When the two groups reach each other, Carenza and Vesper briefly consider plowing into the Vargari rivals, but decide to just push past them, reasoning that the side that wins is the side that delivers the most fighters across the finish line. Ettorio, naturally, has already reasoned the same — he leaps onto the stone bridge railing and races along it, handily avoiding the blows of his rivals and acrobatically vaulting each of the draconic statues guarding the bridge as he comes to them. He arrives safely on the other side without so much as scuffed boots. Not too long after, Carenza and Vesper’s impromptu spearhead pushes through as well, with a surprising amount of success.
The black stones are declared the winners of the festival battle. Everyone is rather pleased with their performances, and then they settle in to enjoy the spectacle of the Dragonfire Burn floating on the lake, a last bit of festival enjoyment before they have to face the prospect of explaining their infernal circumstances to Prince Lazzaretta tomorrow.