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Ch. 35

The DV Players

"You are sure?" the deep, alluring tones of Dawn Jedasros spoke.

"Certain as certain can be," the keening voice of her companion responded, "I saw the coin with my own eyes, the swords and the armor too. When the time is right, they will be an army so vast that your human strongholds will not stand against them."

Dawn clicked her tongue thoughtfully as her pale eyes narrowed. The necromancer stood atop a high outcropping of stone, overlooking the Yahnur Market. It had taken some time to assemble the party that morning. The previous night had been a sleepless one for most of the guild, as they braced themselves for the task at hand. Only a single Vabbian prince remained, and without his support their war would likely fail. While the guild had milled about the Raelesin manor, Dawn took it upon herself to take a walk. Upon venturing into the highlands and murdering an unfortunate heket scout, she had dispatched a bone minion to take word to her allies. Things were not going according to plan in Vabbi, and the necromancer wanted to know why.

When the party made its way to Yahnur market that day, most of the guild felt confused. The market itself was fairly out of the way, and with the Bazaar so close it seemed like an unnecessary trip. Kydar had explained, however, that it was customary for the performing troupes to present Prince Bokka with a gift, to thank him for attending their play. It had been Rakiv's decision to make the gift as exotic as possible, and thus she had eschewed the Bazaar of Kodash for the Markets of Yahnur. While her traveling companions browsed the various stalls and shops at Yahnur, Dawn found that her previous night's work had paid off when a familiar bird call summoned her attention to the skies. It had been a simple matter to sneak away from the group and make her way to high ground, where one of her most faithful and loyal subjects descended to her.

"Tell me Nehpek," Dawn said, "Your people have long held enmity for the Kournans, ever since they destroyed the Storm Flight and slew your skylord, Moteh Thundershooter. What then, could possibly convince harpies to ally with the Warmarshal?"

"Demons, my queen," Nehpek hissed, "I was there when Kunan the Loudmouth spoke with the Warmarshal herself. Truly she was terrifying to behold, and the word of her mouth bore a lordly will… Of course she cannot hold a candle to you my queen."

"I have no need of your platitudes, Nehpek, I know that Varesh weilds more power than I," Dawn snapped, more than a little bitterly, "What I require is information. Did she compel Kunan to do her bidding? Or did he and his flight agree freely?"

"It is… difficult to say my queen," Nehpek shifted nervously, "Indeed it took much of my skill to avoid enthrallment, but even as she spoke Kunan did not seem easily swayed. He bargained for a great deal before he would swear fealty to the Warmarshal."

"But he did swear to her?" Dawn inquired rhetorically, "Interesting."

"There is more my queen," the harpy continued.

"Speak then," Dawn commanded.

"My spies tell me that the heket are on the move," Nehpek answered, "I have heard word that the Warmarshal spoke with the brothers Chumab and Jarimiya. They have assumed command of many of the heket tribes in the lower regions and are marching north. It is said they intend to pass through the caverns in the east, to avoid the human soldiers. They make for the Wilderness of Bahdza with all haste."

"No doubt to join with, or take over, the heket tribes there as well…" Dawn mused as she rubbed at her chin.

"Yes my queen," the harpy agreed, "The heket too have taken Kournan coin and arms. If the Warmarshal means to assault the Vabbian humans with a unified force of heket, harpies and her own forces…"

"It is unlikely that the princes will stand, yes I see your point," Dawn nodded.

The necromancer was silent for several moments, mulling over the information. Admittedly, she had little love for the Vabbians, or indeed for any being that still drew breath. But she could not deny their usefulness. The Princes were the only shield capable of withstanding Varesh's sword, and they would need to be reinforced if all was to go according to plan. Dawn could practically see Varesh's knights and bishops advancing across the chess board. It was time to start sacrificing pawns.

"Then here is what you must do Nehpek," Dawn said, "Send word to our covens in Kourna. Tell them of the blood bath that is to come, and advise them that we might be able to use the death to raise an army of undead. Allow one or two of these messengers to be followed by the spies that the Order of Whispers surely have in place. Once the Order knows of our plan, inform me immediately."

"Yes my queen… but if our covens are discovered, the Whispers will surely expunge them," Nehpek said curiously, "Why do you not simply tell the Order of the Warmarshal's plans?"

"Because I cannot allow them to know that I yet rule the Disciples of Joko," Dawn sternly, "This way, they will learn of Varesh's movements and they will believe that they learned of them on their own. Then, they will move to intercept or hinder her however they can. A few of our initiates will die, but my true influence will remain hidden."

"Of course my queen," Nehpek grinned with understanding, "You are most cunning."

"Yes I know, now the second thing you must do," the necromancer went on, "Is you must speak with Bohdalz the Furious. He is yet loyal to us and is still feared and respected amongst the heket tribes. Tell him to do what he does best, to sow the seeds of fear and doubt amongst as many tribes as he can. When the conflict comes, and it will come, he must be in place to force the heket tribes to withdraw from the fight and leave the harpies and Kournans unsupported."

"Thus leaving the Warmarshal's army incomplete," Nehpek nodded, her beak clicking with malicious glee, "Yes, yes your majesty I will do all that you have said!"

"Good, and be sure that you do not fail me Nehpek," Dawn said coldly, "Or I will show you what 'remorseless' really means."

"Of course my queen, I will…" the harpy said, before she turned her head to the wind.

With a flurry of wings, Nehpek immediately ducked out of sight and Dawn turned around just as Kydar came striding up the path. The necromancer fixed the elementalist with a small smile, which the mage returned with a blank stare.

"There you are," he said with mild exasperation, "What are you up to? Sneaking off, are we?"

"Sneaking?" Dawn blinked, convincingly managing to feign indignance, "Sneaking? Oh my dear Kydar you are always so polite. Here I show you secret paths through river and mountain, that few others could find mind you, and you call me a 'sneak'?"

"Okay… okay just, whatever," Kydar rolled his eyes as he raised his hands semi apologetically.

"Sneak," Dawn huffed under her breath as she strode down toward him, "Oh that's nice isn't it? Yes, very nice indeed," she grumbled to herself.

"Alright, alright!" Kydar sighed, "I'm sorry, okay? Rakiv sent me to find you and it took me forever to figure out where you went," he said, and then paused as he looked around the barren rock on which they stood, "What were you doing up here anyway?"

The necromancer turned her pale eyes to his as she reached him and leaned in close. Kydar blinked in surprise as she lifted a finger beneath his chin, her lips parting seductively as her nose very nearly brushed his.

"Sneaking," she answered in a derisive whisper, before she suddenly slipped past him and continued on her way down the hill.

Kydar gave a sigh and another roll of his eyes, sincerely wishing he could blast the infuriating undead woman right then and there. With a shake of his head he turned to follow the woman as she gracefully strode down they slope and back onto the cobble stone streets of the marketplace.

"So the urn is wrapped and packaged," Rakiv was saying as they returned to the group, "All that's left is to try and put on this show."

"What do we do while the play is going?" Melonni asked, "I mean, should we be doing anything?"

"No we'll wait until after the play is done to try and schmooze the prince," Rakiv said, "Kydar and Alendra will be with me in the prince's box, and we'll try to feel him out during intermission. We'll let you guys know what to do or say from there."

"Sounds like a plan," Koss nodded, "Now we'll see if this actually works."

"It'll work," Rakiv said with a firm nod, "Norgu assured me that there wouldn't be any problems."

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"M-Miss Maelstrom?" the green clad thespian said nervously, "I'm afraid we ah… we have a problem."

The setting sun threw its last rays over the city of Resplendant Makuun as preparations for the final night of the festival were completed. Outside the playhouse, street performers plyed their art on every corner, as streamers and banners flew in the warm autumn breeze. Inside the playhouse, was quite another matter. Rakiv and her guild stood on a barren stage, watching as the stage crew went about pulling down backdrops and wheeling away sets. The green suited director and his burly companion stood before Rakiv, who stared at them with smouldering violet eyes.

"What do you mean we have a problem?" the ranger asked almost venomously.

"Well, you see… I did my best! I really did!" Norgu said, "But, it was only three days! And… and actors are ever so hard to deal with you know! It's just… I just…"

"Norgu!" Rakiv snapped, "Spit it out! What's wrong?"

"We have no actors!" Norgu exclaimed, "The whole cast, all of them, gone!"

"Not all," Goren spoke up, "Most of the background people stayed."

"All the cast that matters is gone!" Norgu corrected, "Ola and Amadi had a huge fight, and that got the others going and before I knew it I had a walkout on my hands! I tried to make them come back, I tried everything but they just left! They said they wanted no part of a… of a… oh I can't bear to say it."

"A haphazard production directed by an old has-been that hasn't put out a good play since '68?" Goren supplied the quote.

Norgu burst into tears and collapsed against the tall warrior, weeping pitifully into the bigger man's chest. Rakiv gave a groan and caught the actor by his collar and hauled him back to his feet.

"By torment, man!" the redhead shouted, "Pull yourself together!"

Norgu yelped as the ranger dealt him a swift slap across the cheek. When his crying did not cease, Rakiv slapped him again. A third slap finally convinced the actor that weeping was not the best course of action and he did his best to hold back his sniffles.

"Now despite your incredible failure," Rakiv said, "All is not lost!"

"It… it isn't?" Norgu sniffled.

"No, we're still going to do this thing," Rakiv said, "By hook or by crook, we will be putting on a play for Bokka tonight!"

"But… but the prince arrives in two hours!" Norgu wailed, "Where are we going to get a cast in that time!?"

The ranger hauled the thespian around and pointed him towards her guildmembers.

"You're looking at them," the redhead announced.

"Wait… what?" several people said at once.

"These are your new actors," Rakiv said, "Make 'em act."

"You can not be serious!" Norgu exclaimed, "These are soldiers and fighters and… not one of them is classically trained, are they!?"

"Doesn't matter," Rakiv said, "This is the new cast, get 'em ready."

"Oh no, no, no, no!" Melonni quickly interjected, "I am not about to try and sing in front of a bunch of strangers. That is not happening."

"I can't act Rakiv!" Koss protested, "I can hardly pretend most of the time! Do you have any idea how bad I am at poker!?"

"Rakiv I don't… I don't think I can do this…" Ani spoke up timidly.

"Yer off yer bloomin' rocker if yew think I'm gonna prance 'round in tights like some soddy cabin boy," Margrid snorted.

"Shut up!" Rakiv shouted over the rising complaints, "Look, it's this or nothing! We don't present tonight, Bokka walks and we never get a chance to talk to him! You all wanna wimp out on me? Go ahead. We'll all have good times telling the folks back home that Varesh won the war and made us all her slaves and minions because you guys couldn't stand on a stage for two-and-a-half-hours in funny outfits and sing a few bars."

The protests died out as the guild fell into uncomfortable silence. Rakiv stared at each and every one, ensuring she held their attention before she continued.

"Now I know no one came prepared for this," Rakiv said, "But you've all seen the play, you've heard the songs and Norgu knows this script backwards and forwards. There's gonna be a lot of improvising, but we're gonna give this our best shot. We'll call it something fancy like an "improv play" or something, and we'll do our best to pull this off. Is it gonna be crap? You betcha, but this is all we got! Anybody that's got the balls to walk out on me, there's the door!"

The ranger pointed toward the back of the theatre and waited for a moment. The guild gave a few grumbles but no one moved, and Rakiv nodded with satisfaction.

"Good, then everyone get to costumes and make-up," the ranger said, "Norgu get the stage crew to set everything back up. Sort out roles, hand out scripts and be ready to give them help when they call for a line. I'm going to go get changed and when I get back, this stage better look like we're ready to perform."

"This will ruin my career," Norgu shook his head miserably.

"From the sound of it, it was ruined a long time before I got here," Rakiv said indifferently as she strode off stage, "Get to work everyone! We go live in an hour and forty!"

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For the next hour, madness reigned back stage. Most of the supporting cast had stayed on, and had thus been conscripted to teach the new actors their positions, blocking and musical numbers. It was clear that the supporting cast was more than a little peeved that they had been overlooked for leading parts but Norgu assuaged them rather easily.

"Do you really want to be remembered as the lead in the last failed play of Norgu the Fabulous?" the director questioned rather bitterly, "I didn't think so. Now get our new leads ready for their big debut!"

For her part, Rakiv was determined to make sure that everything was as ready as it could possibly be. Thus the ranger stalked about the stage, eyeing everything with what she believed to be a keen producer's eye.

"Is that dowel lofted high enough?" she demanded of a stage hand.

"Yes marm," the man answered, "Any higher and the curtain won't touch the ground, and you'll be able to see everyone's feet during scene changes."

"Fine, carry on," the ranger nodded, before rounding on the nearest grip, "Why aren't those lamps mounted already!?"

"We changed these for larger ones marm," the grip blinked at her, "These weren't giving us the lighting we needed."

"Good, good, move along then," Rakiv nodded before turning to a group of men pushing a large wooden mountain set piece, "Where are you going with that!?"

"Miss Maelstrom!" Norgu finally cried, "Do you mind!? I have this under control. Please, go prepare yourself for the prince's arrival!"

The ranger grumbled under her breath but gave a curt nod and exited the stage. Rakiv meandered through the darkness back stage before finding her way to the access stairs that led to the seating balcony. From here the redhead surveyed the theatre in its entirety as the troupe of performers and her guild raced to pull the show together. The lilting sounds of the orchestra's warm-ups began to fill the playhouse, and Rakiv gave a small nod of satisfaction as her shoulders relaxed. It wouldn't be good, not by a long shot, but maybe it'd be just enough to catch the Prince's attention.

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"Quiet, quiet!" an urgent hiss rang from the wings.

"Places everyone!" someone else called hushedly.

The house lights lowered and a lull fell over the gathered crowd. Rakiv absentmindedly adjusted the large white orchid in her hair as she peered over the edge of the viewing booth. Despite the many setbacks the production had suffered, Norgu had managed to pack in a full house of theatre goers. The trappings of the wealthy spilled over the arms of every floor seat while the balcony seating was occupied by Vabbi's working class citizens. Rakiv craned her neck as she surveyed the quieted throng that now turned their attention to the stage as the conductor raised his baton and rapped it against his lectern. With a loud burst from the brass, the symphony launched into a merry tune that opened the overture.

"I must thank you again guildmistress," came the exuberant tones of Bokka the Magnificent, "It is not every evening that I get to spend in the company of such an acclaimed warrior as yourself."

Rakiv brought her attention back to the occupants of the booth. She sat in the box seat, high above the playhouse floor with a prime view of the stage. The guildmistress quickly smoothed out a wrinkle in the lap of her champagne dress and offered a smile to the prince of Vabbi.

"And I thank you for the invitation Prince Bokka," she answered him, "I only hope you find our production to your liking."

"Hah," Bokka chuckled, "Never fear Lady Maelstrom. Bokka the Magnificent has never seen a play he didn't like!"

"Save for the Mirror'd Wind's production of Dogs, my lord," one of the prince's attendants put in quickly.

"Ah yes, except for that one," Bokka nodded, wrinkling his nose at the memory.

"Or the Artisan's Guild's production of The Taming of the Tengu," the attended added as well.

"Oh yes, that was quite awful as well," Bokka agreed.

"Or the Lyssan Fools' production two years ago, of An Amusing Event Occurred On the Road to the Bazzar," the attended interjected.

"Yes, yes alright then!" Bokka waved the man away, "Other than those, I've never seen a play I didn't like."

"But your majesty, you gave our production five stars that year," Norgu blinked.

"Did I? Oh I suppose I did," Bokka shrugged, "What's your point?"

Norgu seemed somewhat visibly crushed and Rakiv took it upon herself to turn the tide of the conversation.

"Well your majesty," the guildmistress quickly broke in, "I can assure you that tonight's production will be quite unlike anything you've ever seen."

"Then I eagerly look forward to it," Bokka grinned as he summoned a servant to bring him a bowl of fresh grapes.

"That makes one of us…" Rakiv muttered under her breath nervously.

The orchestra released one long sustained note before the conductor called them to silence with an energetic flourish of his baton. Applause filled the playhouse as the curtain began to rise. Rakiv watched tensely as a handful of the dancers made their way on stage and began to act out the first scene of the play. It depicted loyal men and women of Kourna, raggedly clinging to tales of their glorious past, the days in which the King of Elona had sat upon his golden throne in Jahai. As the bemoaned their plight in a slow dirge of a song, there was a trill from the wood-winds as the backdrop lifted away to reveal a stage set of Jahai itself. Soldiers in glittering armor stood upon battlements and their lines parted as an actor depicting General Morghan strode down stone steps. Rakiv blinked for a moment and then clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter as she suddenly recognized the actor.

"Aaaaand noooow iiiiiit's…!" Kydar, bedecked in a mock-up of the general's garb, sang out, "Spring time, for Varesh, and Kouurnaaaa!"

"My, my, who is that fellow?" Bokka asked as he flipped through the handbill, "I thought I knew all the major actors in Vabbi."

"Ah that is no local actor your imminence," Norgu explained, "He is ah… from a troupe from Istan."

"Really? I thought this was just the Fools performing tonight," Bokka blinked as he continued to leaf throught he handbill, "Who are they and why have they not been billed?"

"Ah, they are a relatively new troupe, formed as part of a guild," Norgu quickly explained, "They are called… ahm… they are called…"

"The DV Players, your highness," Rakiv supplied, "They are the theatrical arm of my guild."

"Aaah, so warriors and artists as well!" Bokka chuckled as he clapped his hands, "Most excellent, most excellent indeed!"

"Spring time, for Varesh, and Koournaaa!" Kydar continued, launching into the second verse, "Winter, for Istan and Vabbiiii!"

"It does seem rather Kourna centric doesn't it?" Bokka commented.

"Rather, my lord," his attendant agreed.

"Please, I beg your patience my prince," Norgu entreated, "It gets better, you will see!"

Rakiv cast a disbelieving glance at Norgu, who only shrugged helplessly and tried to grin confidently. As the musical number hit its peak Rakiv could see an almost visible wave of outrage washing through the crowd. Some of the audience were already discreetly gathering their belongings while others were simply making a beeline for the door. The ranger grit her teeth as she turned her eyes back to the stage, mentally willing the whole ordeal to just be over. Norgu might be willing to delude himself, but Rakiv had seen the rehersals. It only got worse from here.

"Spring time, for Varesh aaaand Koournaaaa!" Kydar sang as the music rose to a crescendo.

At that exact moment the throne at the top of the city set piece swiveled around to reveal the Warmarshal. The music stopped for a moment and so too did the audience's exodus from the theatre. Rakiv squinted at the actress in the chair, before smacking a palm over her eyes. It was like a harbor ship wreck, it was awful but you just couldn't look away.

"Praise… myself?" Alendra, beneath great purple robes and nearly a half-pound of make-up, began to sing, "Praise to me! I'm the girl that's going to save this great country!"

As she rose from her chair to take her first step forward it became clear that her robes were meant for a much taller actress. The paragon's heel landed on her robe's hem and as she leaned forward she flailed and tilted off kilter. With a squeak she tumbled down the steps, evoking a gasp from the crowd as she rolled to the stage floor. It was her warrior's instinct that saved her from anything more than a few small bruises, and Alendra took a moment to right herself as several actors moved to help her. She quickly waved them away, straightened her crown and then forced a smile as she continued.

"Praise myself! Shout and cheer!" she sang, causing the dancers to release a cry on cue, "Soon the world will see my nation's grand premier! Praise myself! Rise and stand! There's no cuter, war leader in the land!"

As the paragon pranced about the stage, following her personal interpretation of the choreographer's militant march, her exuberance and flamboyance brought forth choruses of laughter from the audience. Some began to return to their seats as others became swept up in the tune and began to clap to the beat. Bokka himself began to chuckle before he broke into uproarious laughter. Rakiv blinked at him incredulously before turning to Norgu who, in true sycophantic fashion, was laughing along with the prince.

The rest of the play only continued the parade of silliness, and soon what was meant to be a stirring homage to Kourna's Warmarshal became an irreverent and comedic lampoon of Varesh and her court. Anorah made her debut as a completely deadpan General Kahyet, while Koss brought a heaping helping of awkwardness to the role of General Bayel. Other guildsmen found themselves in stranger roles, such as Dawn who played a scheming court councilor or Anicara who rotated through the parts of a servant, a village maiden, a waitress and a scantily clad dancing girl. Throughout the play Alendra's attempts at being intimidating or stalwart or impressive were underminded by her comedically large clothing and unfortunately high pitched voice. By the time the cast was taking their bows the play had earned a standing ovation and the crowd was calling for an encore of the final number. All the while Bokka laughed and clapped along while Rakiv sat dumbfounded by the whole affair. The cast performed the requested encore to cheers and applause before the curtain finally went down and the house lights began to lift.

"Oh… my…" Rakiv muttered in a mixture of horror and incredulity.

"Gods!" Bokka finished loudly as he slapped a well-dressed knee, "That was hilarious!"

"I take it my lord is well pleased?" Norgu smiled gleefully.

"Well pleased?" Bokka laughed, "Good sir I've not laughed like that in an age! A truly inspired satire if ever I saw one! I would pay excellent money to see this show tour Kourna!"

"Wonderful!" Norgu grinned, "I had my doubts, your majesty, about putting on a show that so prominently featured your neighboring ruler, but he without courage in the theatre is not worthy to take the stage! It is like I always say…"

"Yes, yes well that's all very well and good," Bokka waved the director off, "When can I meet this wonderful troupe? I should like to converse with them before my next show."

"I will summon them at once your majesty," the prince's attendant said as he slipped out of the box.

"And you, Lady Maelstrom," Bokka turned to the red-head, "You say these actors are part of your guild? What so inspires warriors to evoke such stirring commentary in so eclectic a medium?"

"… what?" Rakiv blinked in utter confusion.

"Ah, surely it is the eyes of the warrior that sees the truth of governments," Norgu put in quickly, "Who better to show us the true faces of our rulers, if not those who are sent to fight and die for them?"

"Hmm, yes, yes… I should wonder then what statements a play about me would make," the prince mused as he rubbed his chin.

"Your majesty," Rakiv spoke up, hoping to turn the conversation to more useful subjects, "I must confess that my guild did not come here tonight merely to entertain."

"Oh?" Bokka asked as he turned from his musings, "Well seeing as you have entertained so well, I can only guess at what your true purpose might be. Do enlighten me."

"Your majesty there is a war going on," Rakiv stated plainly, "I know that you and your fellow princes have decided not to interfere in Kournan and Istani affairs, but you need to know that this war is about to be your problem too."

"I should say it is," Bokka chuckled, "My shipping costs have tripled since this silly conflict started. Have you any idea how hard it is to find cargo runners willing to cross battle lines?"

"Your majesty!" Rakiv said firmly, "I came here to give you a warning. Varesh is coming and she's bringing her armies with her. And she will not just be bringing men and arms, but demons as well."

"Hmm? An invasion?" Bokka arched an eyebrow, "That seems unlikely. We have had a non-aggression treaty with Kourna for years. Besides, Varesh can hardly feed her own people, let alone assemble a decent army. Have you spoken to Ahmtur about this? He's much better with these fighting things than I."

"I have, your highness," Rakiv nodded, "He is preoccupied with his defense against the heket and the harpy. Prince Mehtu would not listen at all, so I have come to you hoping that at least one of you three will hear truth in my words. Varesh is coming, and if you aren't ready then she will conquer you all."

Bokka fixed the woman with a critical stare and stroked his clean shaven chin. He took a deep breath and sat back in his chair and opened his mouth to speak just as the curtain of the box rustled aside and a young man stepped in.

"Your majesty, I have been sent to inform you that the next show will be starting soon," the young man said.

"What?" the prince blinked as he half turned, "Who are you? Where is Dondi?"

"Ah, your attendant is backstage, ensuring that all is in readiness," the young man nodded, "My name is Vaughn, sometimes called the Venerable. I am taking over as your activities director for the evening."

"Oh, I see," Bokka frowned in mild confusion, but then simply shrugged, "Well that is a pity, I was rather looking forward to meeting these DV Players. It is only proper that I deliver my congratulations to them in person…"

"Perhaps after the next play, your majesty?" Vaughn suggested.

"Hmm, yes that will have to do," Bokka nodded, "Ah, but ensure that they have front row seats for this show! As a token of my appreciation."

"I think those seats are being occupied, your highness," Norgu commented as he peered down at the theatre floor.

"Not anymore they aren't," Bokka said firmly, "Vaughn, ensure that the DV Players have a front row seat if you please."

"As you say, your highness," the young man nodded, "I shall return post haste."

As the young man left the booth Bokka relaxed in his chair and then balked a little when he noticed that Rakiv's gaze had never left him. The prince sighed as he rubbed at one temple and then chuckled a little awkwardly.

"Come now Guildmistress, this is a sacred night for we who dwell in Vabbi," the prince explained, "Perhaps we can speak of this after the plays? Or perhaps even in the morning? I should certainly like to enthrall you at my palace," he added with a grin.

"Your highness, this is a matter of some importance," the guildmistress pointed out, completely nonplused by the prince's attempt at flirting.

"I am certain that it is," Bokka nodded, "But I'm sure the Warmarshal's soldiers will not be bearing down upon is this very night, will they? Come now, enjoy the show. I'm told we're to be watching I, Adelbern next, and I've heard it is an excellent play."

Rakiv began to object before Norgu shot her a look and shook his head. The guildmistress sighed and instead gave only a gracious nod as she settled back to watch the show. The curtain opened to a set of the Ascalonian countryside, complete with paper props of wheat waving in the 'wind'. As the first actors took the stage it became clear that this would be a long and dry ordeal. The ranger sighed yet again and leaned back in her chair as she braced herself for extreme boredom.

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Two hours later the intermission finally arrived and the guests milled about as they hurriedly made use of the facilities. The theatre was abuzz with conversation evoked by the provocative play. The tale of King Adelbern and his unending war against the charr was common knowledge enough, but the biography of the still living monarch told also of the struggles within his own house. Patrons of the playhouse mused over the driving forces of Prince Rurik whilst others theorized about the motivations of the mighty Duke Barradin. Adelbern himself was a subject of mixed opinion, and just as many play-goers sympathized with the beleaguered king as condemned him.

"It is interesting, isn't it?" Bokka queried as he popped a cube of cantaloupe into his mouth, "I mean, I personally have never commanded troops into battle, but the king's actions raise very interesting ethical questions do they not?"

"How so your majesty?" Rakiv asked, attempting to hold back a yawn.

"Well, for example, what makes his war just?" Bokka asked, "These charr, they are vagabonds and ruffians clear enough, but they vie for the very thing Adelbern insists on defending, the wealth, prosperity and safety of his people. What right has he to withhold these things from them? Is not Ascalon large enough to be shared?"

"Would you share your lands with a hostile force intent on wiping you out?" Rakiv questioned.

"Perhaps, if they seemed to be in need," Bokka said as he tapped his fingers together.

"Due respects highness, but I think your support of Ahmtur says differently," the huntress quipped.

Norgu coughed on a chunk of melon and shot Rakiv a horrified glance. The red head gave a smooth shrug as she kept a careful eye on the prince.

"Ah yes, Ahmtur's wall," Bokka sighed, "In truth I am not partial to his… methods. I have time and again suggested parley with the heket and harpy tribes, but Ahmtur… he has too much of his father's blood in his veins."

"How do you mean?" Rakiv asked curiously.

"The princes of Dzagon have been the protectors of Vabbi since their line first rose to royalty," Bokka shrugged, "Ahmtur's father fought to keep harpy raiders and heket maurauders out of our lands, and so did his father before him. Without these 'threats', Ahmtur would invariably find another force to fight."

"You say 'threat' as though you do not believe them to be threats, your majesty," Rakiv said with a tilt of her head.

"I believe in commerce, Lady Maelstrom," Bokka smiled at her, "I believe in the power of the bargin and the strength of the deal. Why horde when you can share? I realize that most think me a man of greed because of the opulence in which I live, but in return I say… are my people not as rich as I? Is Makuun not the most beautiful city you have ever seen? I share my wealth for prosperity is not a thing to hide away, or defend with steel, it is a thing that must be allowed to flow."

Rakiv quirked an eyebrow at the prince but said nothing as she turned her eyes toward the stage. She didn't much like where this was going, as it seemed to be clear that the prince was only solidifying his impending denial of her request.

"Some might say I am a pacifist but… this is not altogether true," Bokka waxed on, "I am not so much opposed to violence, instead I believe that it need not be an immediate resort. If your neighbor is jealous of your wealth, why not offer him enough to help him get by? If a begger becomes desperate enough to raise steel, it is not his inherent evil that drives him to act, but the neglect he has suffered at the hands of his fellow man. I based Vabbian economic policy on these principals and as you can see, we have thrived."

"But not all enemies just want what you have, highness," Rakiv said, "There are forces that want nothing but destruction. They don't care about your wealth or your riches or your fine food and clothes. They just want to put you and everything you love to the sword. Some men… and indeed, women, just want to watch the world burn."

"Perhaps this is so," Bokka said with a chuckle, "But I remain resolute in my belief in commerce Lady Maelstrom. No matter from whence he comes nor where he goes nor who he is nor what he does… every man has his price."

"My lord," Vaughn spoke up gently, "I believe act two is about to begin."

"Ah, so it is," Bokka said and clapped his hands with a chuckle, "I do so love the theatre. It evokes such interesting paths of thought, don't you think?"

Rakiv only shrugged as the house lights began to lower once more. The orchestra struck up its opening tune and the curtains parted to reveal the stage. For several minutes the stage was unoccupied until a clatter in the wings announced the character of Prince Rurik. The huntress tensed as she sat up straighter in her chair and scrutinized the prince before half turning to Norgu to whisper.

"Did they change actors for the prince?" she inquired.

"Maybe?" Norgu blinked as he flipped through the handbill, "I see no understudy for his character though… why do you ask?"

"That… actor is different," the ranger blinked, "See how he moves? In act one Rurik moved like a dancer or something, this man is fumbling with every step. His armor doesn't fit right either, his shoulders are too wide for that cape and the buckles are straining on his mail."

As more actors joined the prince on stage the ranger's agitation only increased. The entire cast seemed to have changed. Duke Barradin was no longer the tall, stout man who had played him before, and was instead wiry and lithe. The woman playing Lady Althea was several pounds heavier than the petite actress who had portrayed her in act one, and Adelbern himself seemed younger than he had been mere minutes ago.

"They're all different," Rakiv blinked, "What happened to the actors?"

"Shhh!" Bokka hissed, his eyes fixed upon the stage.

"Oh Althea, how do … love thee?" Rurik spoke as he awkwardly bent to a knee, "Wouldst that thy face were less fair that mine heart were…. That mine heart were…"

The was an awkward pause as the actor fumbled for his lines and cast about quickly for help from his fellow thespians. He found his lines as Lady Althea mouthed them to him and he brightened and nodded quickly.

"Ah! That mine heart were less captivated by thy every glance," he continued, "And that my soul were not raptured by your heavenly touch."

"And oh how do I love thee Rurik, for 'tis no finer man in all of Ascalon," Althea recited, perfectly but stiffly, "I cannot help but question what fate or fortune earns me the affection of so mighty a man, yet I dare not so closely examine my luck for fear that I shall wake to find that it has all been but a shadow and a dream."

"What's all this then!" Adelbern interrupted, "Sorceress, thou hast bewitched mine son and made him to shirk his…"

The king stopped as hisses from off stage attempted to explain that he had jumped ahead in his lines by a full three scenes. Adelbern seemed entirely mystified, and assumed that he was being directed to give the next scene cue.

"Where then is thy vigil my son!" Adelbern quickly started in, "Thy attention is distracted and they perception dimmed by the beauty of that woman. See how the hordes of doom amass upon our door step and how even now their assassins stalk us as prey!"

As the king finished his line an actor dressed as a charr burst in from stage left and raised his large, shaggy prop claws as menacingly as he could.

"Raaaaarrrr-warrg-rragrarg…" the actor roared lamely, "Grr… hrrrgh… argh… hrrarr…"

The actors feigned cowering before the charr, but soon their cires of exclaimation died down and the stage was swathed in silence. All on stage looked from one to another until the charr lifted up his large mask and whispered.

"Line!" he hissed, "Line!"

"You're not in this scene!" someone offstage shouted.

"What in Lyssa's name…" Bokka blinked, "What mockery is this?"

"I'm… certain I don't know my lord," Norgu responded, his eyes locked on the spectacle below.

"Say something menacing!" Duke Barradin's actor suggested in a whisper that was easily heard across the playhouse.

Rakiv stiffened again as a rustle behind her caused her to half turn her head. The attendant Vaughn had drawn closer and seemed to be shuffling with something beneath his robe. The ranger took a deep breath as she slowly kicked off her strappy heels and began calmly removing her earrings.

"I am a charr!" the actor cried, clearly ad libbing, "And I will eat you all with my big sharp teeth and my long pointy… uhm… ah, oh screw this!"

The charr hopped to center stage, ripped off his mask and turned to stare straight up at the prince's box.

"Vaughn, now!" the man shouted.

"Vaughn?" Bokka blinked as he turned in his chair.

With a wide sweep Vaughn cast off his robes and raised a pair of gleaming daggers high over his head. His face a mask of villainous intent, Vaughn charged Bokka whose eyes went wide as the attendant-turned-assassin advanced. Vaughn's charge was stymied as Rakiv's chair clattered into his path and he was forced to leap over the obstacle. The redhead was between him and the prince in a trice, wielding her shoes in either hand. Heels clashed with steel as the ranger caught the assassin's daggers and held him at bay.

"Norgu, get him out of here!" Rakiv shrieked.

"Kournans, attack!" the charr actor cried from the stage.

Someone in the audience screamed and panic broke loose. Like a herd of stampeding mokele, the theatre goers made for the entrances, shoving each other aside in their desperation to escape. Every actor on stage drew weapons and gave a bellowing war-cry.

"Guildsmen to arms!" Rakiv screamed as she struggled against Vaughn.

"Hell yeah!" Koss shouted in reply as he sprang from his seat and clambored onto the stage.

Completely unsure of what to do next the musicians in the orchestra looked about lost and wide eyed until the conductor called them to attention with a rap of his baton. Clearly unflapped by the ensuing events the maestro set them to playing a rapid battle march as the guildsmen rushed the unveiled Kournan assassins.

Vaughn spat in Rakiv's face, forcing the ranger to reel as her eye stung and burned. Still the woman reacted swiftly as she planted a foot in his chest and pushed off hard, propelling them both apart. Vaughn struck the wall with a grunt and lunged again for the prince's seat only to find it empty. His eyes whipped to the door where he caught sight of Norgu ushering the prince into the hall, and Vaughn snarled as he turned to give chase.

"You won't escape that easy!" the Kournan assassin snarled until a hand caught his shoulder and forced him to turn.

"No, you won't!" Rakiv snapped as she brought the prince's grapes bowl down hard on the man's nosebridge.

Vaughn howled in pain and responded with a rapid flurry of dagger strikes, his blades bluring like twisting fangs as they sought the ranger's flesh. The red head defended herself expertly, her lightning reflexes kicking in as she evaded and blocked nearly every attack. A single dagger blow made contact and Rakiv cried out as she hopped back from the assassin. The ranger glanced down to her torso where the assassin's blade had grazed her and drawn a long, shallow slice across her abdomen as well as a wide slash through her dress. The red head's gaze rose to the assassin and a snarl of fury contorted her pretty features.

"This was the only pretty thing I owned you son of a bitch!" she screamed as she flung herself at him.

Vaughn swung with his daggers but the ranger caught his wrists and flung her body weight and momentum into a powerful kick to his chest. Vaughn grunted as he stumbled back and lashed out with a hard elbow that Rakiv ducked before delivering a punishing palm strike to his ribs. She earned a knee to her own ribs in return and as she reeled from the blow Vaughn brought his daggers up once again. Once more Rakiv lunged and gave a wild shout as she caught the man around his waist and tackled him out of the viewing box. Vaughn cried out in alarm and terror as Rakiv rode him through the air, straight into the floor of the playhouse. The assassin broke with an audible crunch as Rakiv rolled off of him and thumped to the floor. A sudden crash from on stage brought Rakiv's attention back to her guildsmen as she turned her eyes upward. A Kournan archer, in a moment of desperation, had loosed an arrow into the rafters, cutting the rope that held the lighting boom aloft. With a heavy crash the entire apparatus had crashed into the stage, causing oil lamps to shatter and their fuel to ignite. A roar of flame echoed through the playhouse and Rakiv's wide eyes filled with firelight.

"Fiiiireee!" someone screamed as the escaping audience descended into even deeper depths of panicked madness.

Trusting her guildsmen to take care of themselves Rakiv dragged herself to Vaughn who lay choking and gasping on the theatre floor. Her fists curled in the man's lapels as she yanked him up off the floor and glared at him.

"Varesh sent you!" she roared, "Why!?"

"Hrrk… no prince in the southwest… easier invation," Vaughn coughed and snorted at her, "Not that it matters… Bokka's army will cave like rice paper anyway."

"So the invasion is on it's way," Rakiv surmised as she gave the man a shake, "When!?"

"I.. krrk… I ain't telling you a damn…" the man began.

Rakiv's face twisted into an indescribable mask of rage and then contorted still with inhuman proportions. Her canines lengthened and her teeth sharpened as her eyes turned yellow and her pupils elongated to slits. A snap and a genuine roar burst from the guildmistress' maw as her nails turned to claws. Despite feeling his final moments fast approaching, Vaughn found himself even more terrified of the demoness that loomed over him.

"T-two days!" he exclaimed in a choking gasp, "The W-Warmarshal's armies take Yoholon in the morning!"

"How!?" she shouted at him, "Where did they come from?"

"Hah… haha…" the man laughed at her as blood ran from his nose and began to well in his mouth, "Y-you didn't think krrk… you'd found the only secret path… did you…?"

With a racking cough and a gurgle the man slowly slipped from life and fell limp in the ranger's grasp. Rakiv threw him down in disgust and gave a savage snarl of frustration.

"Rakiv?" came a voice from above her.

The ranger snapped her head up with a rattling growl and then paused as she watched Anicara recoil immediately. Adreneline surged and her pulse pounded as Rakiv snarled against the rising urge to kill… something, anything. With a shake of her head and a focusing of will she pushed down the tide of bloodlust, though she could hear the beast baying deep within her. As violet flooded back into her irises she seemed to calm, but then jumped as a burning beam plummeted from the playhouse roof.

"We have to go!" Anicara exclaimed, "Kydar can't stop the fire and the building is coming down!"

Rakiv cast about and saw the truth of the young elementalist's words. With every piece of wood covered in varnish and silk and satin forming the mainstay of the cloth, the playhouse stood no chance against even a small unguarded spark. The ranger pushed herself to her feet and gave a firm nod to the hydromancer.

"Every… everybody out," she panted as she felt smoke take over the majority of the air in her lungs.

"Yes guildmistress!" Ani agreed.

A heavy crack sounded from somewhere as flames lapped hungrily at the roof and sped up drapings and tapestries. The guildsmen made a hasty retreat, following the last of the fleeing play patrons out the door. Glass began to shatter as the fire burst from windows and eagerly set to consuming the playhouse in its entirety. Outside the festivities had come to a halt as street performers and partiers stopped to observe the spectacle and render aid to the frazzled play goers. Rakiv found herself leaning against Anorah as the dervish helped the guildmistress out of the burning building. Rakiv winced against the sound of barking, rabid hounds that snapped demandingly to be released. A voice broke through her internal din and she glanced up into the bright hazel eyes of Kydar Raelesin.

"Are you alright?" he asked again.

"I… I think so…" she whispered, wincing against a growing migrane, "Where is… where's the prince?"

Kydar only pointed to a wide circle of Vabbian guards who held their shields up defensively. Rakiv gestured toward him and Anorah aided the ranger as they made their way toward the circle of guards. Even over the general roar of the crowd and the explosions of flame behind them they could hear the prince's voice as he dressed down his commanding officers.

"What the hell do I pay you for anyway Bunda!?" Bokka cried, "I was almost killed! I could have died!"

"Your highness I… I have no idea how this could have happened…" Royal Guard Bunda attempted to explain, "I had patrols at every entrance, there were supposed to be guards stationed outside your booth! I… I don't…"

"I do," Rakiv spoke up from beyond the soldiers.

"Stand back ma'am," one of the guards said threateningly.

"No you stand aside soldier!" Bokka barked with a wave of his hand, "That woman saved my life, now move out of her way!"

The guard immediately did as asked and Rakiv gave a nod to the man as she stepped away from Anorah and strode toward the prince.

"You were infiltrated," Rakiv said plainly, "By Kournan spies and assassins. They wanted to remove you so that the south of Vabbi would be undefended."

"We have a non-aggression treaty!" Bokka exclaimed, "Why on earth would Varesh do such a thing!"

"Because, your majesty," Rakiv wheezed lightly against the smoke inhalation, "She wants to watch the world burn."

Bokka was silent for a long moment and stroked his chin thoughtfully. Behind him Royal Guard Bunda stepped up and snapped a fist to his chest in a salute.

"Your majesty, we must get you back to the palace," the commander reported, "We need you in the safe room before there is another attempt on your life."

"No!" Bokka waved him off, "No, no… no I will not hide. I am a Prince of Vabbi! These lands are my lands and may Lyssa damn anyone who threatens me in my own house!"

"So…" Rakiv said leadingly, "What are you saying highness?"

"I am saying that if Varesh intends war then war she will have!" Bokka said as he drew himself up to his full height, "Someone give me a sword!"

Four guards immediately drew steel and presented their weapons to the prince. Bokka selected the fanciest looking one and raised it over his head.

"Rally my troops Bunda, and break open the armories! I want every soldier and reserve warrior I have prepared by mid-day tomorrow!" Bokka ordered.

"Yes your highness," Bunda answered, "It shall be done!"

"Guildmistress," Bokka said as he turned to Rakiv, "I do hope you will accept my offer to tarry at my palace. For by mid-day tomorrow, you will have your army!"