Return of the Heroic Interlude
Three nervous horses and one peckish dragon made their way across the snow-covered landscape of Tristain. Leaning forwards in her saddle, arms hugging around the neck of her horse, Kirche von Zerbst groaned. "Please tell me you have an anti-hangover potion, Montmorency," she complained.
The blonde, eyes all that were visible under all warm clothing she was wearing, shook her head. "I'm out," she said. "I… uh, used the last one yesterday."
"You can call it a late birthday present," Kirche said hopefully, staring blearily out over the snow-covered landscape. "I'll be very grateful."
"And I told you, I don't have any left. It's your fault for having your birthday right after the Silver Pentacost." Monmon paused. "Well, your parents' fault at least."
"This is a hell of a way to be spending the first day as a twenty-year old," Kirche groaned.
"I was a little surprised, I must admit, that you're that old," Guiche, riding ahead of them, said. "I had thought you were the same age as us. Mind you, I'm nearly eighteen, because I'm an early spring."
Kirche shot him a glare. "Firstly, you are disgustingly fine this morning, given that you were matching me for most of the evening," she said. "Secondly… uh, hello? Did you not, you know, notice how I'm clearly older than the other girls?" She jabbed a finger at her chest. "Like these?" Fumbling at her saddlehorn, she took a slug of wine.
"Do you really need to be drinking more?" Montmorency observed primly. "That was what put you in this state in the first place."
"Yes, I do," Kirche said firmly. "And it's not because I'm stupid that I'm with you younglings, before you start being snide," she added.
"I said nothing," Monmon said mildly.
"Yeah, but you were thinking of saying it," Kirche said. "It's because of how my education got mucked up with the whole 'being kicked out of schools' thing and missing years and the like. Had my seventeenth birthday in the jails in Baghdadu, though in fairness we broke out two days later with that magic carpet and that decanter of endless water."
"Wait, what?" Guiche asked, eyes bright.
Kirche groaned, holding her head. "My father took me to kill an evil vizier with a genie in Rub Al-Khali because he felt clearly schooling wasn't right for me," she said. "Also, he wanted to introduce me to harem girls. Man, they knew a lot about sneaking secret encounters with men without the people watching them knowing."
Tabitha coughed, and looked up from her book. "Why would you keel a vizier with a genie?" she asked after a moment's thought, sounding confused. "I would use unknife. It is sharper. And can be 'eard by fewer people if you do ze cut in ze proper manner, or if you drive eet into the base of the skull or up and under ze ribcage, no? Are genies good for killing? Should I be knowing zis?"
"What are you… oh no, the vizier had the genie. Father killed him by braining him with the lamp." Kirche sighed, and took another gulp of wine. "Anyway, father got furious because the vizier had already used two of the wishes and only an idiot would release a genie, so he just wished it would seal itself away in the lamp in a way it could never ever escape from and then threw the lamp in the family vault." She glowered. "Which is the reason I'm still female – the whole reason we went to Rub Al-khali was that he was after that lamp," she added, "and that's why I started pestering about making a 'fresh start' in Tristain." She shook her head, putting thoughts out of mind. "This had better be worth it, Tabby," she said, trying to change the topic.
"It eez," the blue-haired girl said, returning to her book. "You saw ze mezzage, no?"
"Ah yes," Monmon interjected, "the one which you said was mysteriously pushed under your door in a mysterious manner by a mysterious person who mysteriously is promising hundreds of écu for the disposal of an evil clown who is kidnapping people from Vauban? The place where all those explosives are made?"
"Eez zere a problem?" Tabitha coughed. "Also, ze word 'myzteriouz'… eet was not uzed."
"No! I like that amount of money! It's a friendly amount of money. It's just…"
"Well, I think it's good we have a reputation as Heroes," Guiche said firmly. "Remember what the duc d'Richelieu told us; people like us are the future of heroism and in times like this, we need to work doubly hard to keep the realm secure! We need to go and teach this evil clown that wickedness is not a laughing matter!"
"Sure thing," Kirche said, kindly.
It was already growing dark in the winter twilight by the time they got to their destination. The town of Vauban was a strange place, the building squat, heavy structures of stone with slate roofs. There was something subtly off about the lighting. It was as if there was a storm coming, but the clouds above were winter neutral-grey. There was a foul odour about the place, too, though that at least was from the sulphur mines, dug into the side of the hill the town was built into.
Oh, and there was a giant brightly coloured village-sized circus tent set up on the brow of the hill, which the inhabitants seemed to fear to look at. That was pretty strange.
"Oh, the Lord frowns upon this place," Guiche whispered, as they rode past the corpses at the gallows by the gate. "I do not like it. It is an ill-favoured place."
Monmon looked around at the dirty buildings and the statue of a rearing dragon above a frozen pond. "You're telling me," she said. She looked around at her companions. "Do you think we should go up and… and deal with the clown in the tent now? I don't want to stay here any longer."
"I don't think we can," Kirche said. "The horses are exhausted, and we're hungry. We'll just have to… well, take watch duties and share a room, because," she glanced at a stinking tannery worker who glared back at her, "… I don't trust these people."
Guiche looked uncomfortable. "It's for the best," he said, "though we should see if we can get two adjoining rooms and blockade the door and windows of one of them, so there isn't allegations of impropriety."
Kirche rolled her eyes. "It really is an annoyance," she said. "We've shared tents, caves, ruined towers, and the jails of goblins before. But still people would talk! So we have to spend twice as much as we meant to! World! Why do you try to steal the money of hardworking Heroes such as us!"
"I could go on Sylphid and deztroy eet now," Tabitha volunteered.
The boy sighed. "We shouldn't," he said. "They said the clown is taking prisoners, yes? Well, we need to rescue them."
The blue-haired girl returned wordlessly to her book.
"So, find a room at the inn, get some food, get sleep and go up in the morning?" Kirche asked, to mutual agreement.
"If you try to drink too much, I will drop ice-cold water down the back of your neck," Monmon said. "And that goes for you too, Guiche, if you stare at her when she is drenched."
Guiche's expression was hurt as he led their procession to the inn.
"Barman!" announced Kirche loudly. "One mug of your finest ale, one flagon of your medium-grade wine, another flagon of… uh, some kind of fruit juice, and… what was it you wanted?"
"Milk. Warm. And un barrel of cider for dragon!"
"One cup of warm milk! And a barrel of cheap cider, unless you're willing to pay more, Tabby!"
When the drinks were served, Kirche took one sip of her ale and immediately went off to complain about it, while Guiche and Montmorency diluted their wine down with the fruit juice, and took advantage of the fact that as nobles, they had been able to force the commoners away from the table nearest to the fire. Tabitha sipped at her warm milk while reading a book.
"What is that?"
"A book," Tabitha said, without looking up.
"No, I know that." Montmorency took a deep breath. "I mean, what's the book about?"
"Did you know? Ze human body 'as a lot of water in it. In a baby, eet is as much as seventy-five perzent, but in adults eet eez closer to sixty. In ze very fat, it can get as low as forty-five perzent."
"Zat 'as very interesting implications for water magic, no?"
Monmon tilted her head. Well, yes, she did suppose it was somewhat easier to heal small children and harder to treat the very fat, now she had thought of it, but she had always put it down to the fact that the fat were unhealthy, while small children got better more easily. "Well, that sounds interesting," she said. "If it says things about healing, could I borrow it when you're done?"
Tabitha paused. "Eet is not about healing," she said, quietly. "You would not be interested een eet."
"In that case, what is… oh, what is taking Kirche so long?" Monmon said, getting bored of trying to parse the blue-haired girl's thick Gallian accent. "Just accept they're not going to do good ale in a backwater like this and she should just drink wine like the rest of… well, like me and Guiche. Guiche? Guiche? Oh, where has he got to?"
"I've been mingling," the boy said from behind her. "For example, do you know that Old Woman Bevis will pay twenty deniers if someone goes into her basement and kills all the rats for her? And the alchemist with the shop on the town square is looking for people to collect a certain rare herb which grows in the wilds which he plans to use to make a new kind of potion and…"
"Guiche, we've talked to you about this," Montmorency sighed. "The returns relative to the time we put into them are simply not worth it from talking to random people."
"I was thinking that we might want to get on good terms with the locals, get them to trust us, before they tell us the actual truth about what's going on with the circus tent," Guiche said, sounding hurt. "I mean, otherwise we'll have to go find the crazy old man again and try to dig the truth out of his mad ramblings. And last time that happened, you and Kirche had me send my golems into that cesspit to find the goblins that lived in it which stole all the countess' gems."
"Hey! There were goblins lurking around there," Monmon retorted.
"Yes, but they were just stealing food from the bins. That was a waste of an afternoon. Has Kirche finished talking to that strange woman yet?"
The blonde girl, about to take a sip of her diluted wine, paused. "What strange woman?" she asked, looking around.
And indeed, Kirche was sitting at a table with… well, looking closer, it did appear to be a woman. At first inspection, it had not been clear. Her reddish-blonde hair was cropped short; she wore stockings and breaches like a man, and whatever femininity she might have had was marked by the old pale burn scars which marred half her face.
"Oh, she's another outsider. She was passing through looking for… well, she was a little vague about what she was looking for, but she stopped here, and has been here for a week or so, trying to get to the roots of why there's a giant evil circus tent outside the town which no one wants to talk about."
"Mmm," Monmon said. She didn't trust the woman. She was sitting a little too close to Kirche, leaning in a little too close for it to be… trustworthy. "I think we should go over there and hear this," she said.
"That's probably a very good idea," Guiche agreed. "Come on, Tabitha, this might be the break we're looking for!"
"And so I told him, he'd need a sheath made for a dagger for his blade, and I wasn't impressed by his little knife!"
"And then what?" asked the scarred woman, eyes gazing deep into Kirche's.
"I beg your pardon," said Kirche.
"And then what happened? Did he find a better fitting scabbard?"
The girl blinked. "It… it was a joke," she said, weakly. "Oh, hey, you lot. Everyone, this is Agnès. She's a chevalier. Used to work for the royal family as a protector; now freelance."
Tabitha touched Agnès softly on the hand. "Eet is a problem, zeir joking" she said quietly. "I 'ave asked them many times what zey mean by such things, and zey never do explain eet."
"Who's the Gallian?" the older woman asked, evidently giving up on Kirche's cryptic ways.
"Oh yeah, I should introduce them better. The pretty blond is Guiche, the less pretty blonde is Montmorency, the one with her nose in a book is Tabitha."
"Hey!" Monmon began to protest.
"Ah, of the de Gramont family," the chevalier asked, half-turning to Guiche. "Your older brother might remember me; we put down a rebellion of black nuns in a convent on the Gallian border a few years back, back when I was still with the army." Her lips curled down. "Such behaviour is not unexpected of nuns, of course."
"Oh, I think I do recall him mentioning being involved in something like that, about five years back," Guiche said, cheerfully. "So what brings you to this forsaken town?"
"I'm… looking for some people," the older woman said, her words guarded. "I've found a few of them, but… there are a few left. I need to find them so the gh… before too long."
"Ah," Guiche said confidently, taking in her muscled build and the horrific-looking burn scars on her face. "I understand."
"I don't think you do," the woman retorted coldly.
"Perhaps," the boy said, leaning over and whispering something in Kirche's ear.
The darker-skinned girl tilted her head, and nodded. "I think we might well be able to work together," she told the older woman. "Guiche thinks you're trustworthy and I'm inclined to say the same."
"That's too kind," the woman said, smiling and leaning closer to Kirche. "Would you mind if… there are watchers here," she said, barely moving her lips. "If you will come with me to a backroom and your friends stay here, I will tell you what I have found out."
"I will see to Sylphid," Tabitha announced, departing.
Kirche and the older woman disappeared off, and the other mages returned to their table. "Guiche," Montmorency hissed insistently. "I don't trust this woman. Look how she's acting! Especially around Kirche! And the way she dresses, and the way she acts in a manly way, and the way she doesn't seem to have a sense of humour!"
"It is a little strange," he admitted, "and I suspect she does have a secret, but I'm sure she'll be trustworthy against the dark presence that haunts this town."
"Oh good. It isn't just me," the blonde whispered. "And no, I'm not worried about that."
"I think she's a Protestant. We'll be careful," Guiche whispered back. "We'll just have to watch her for anti-clericalism and an aniconographic rejection of symbolic rejections of Brimir and the saints."
Monmon blinked. "Wait, what?"
"If we're not careful, she might try to lead us into heresy with a rejection of the wisdom of the church fathers and their interpretation of the holy texts based on well-established learning, in favour of an ill-educated reading which exults in the ignorance of barely literate peasants. She might even start insulting His Holiness, the Pope, in front of us."
"But we're not interested in her theology, and she looks competent enough in a fight. Those kinds of commoner soldiers usually are; my father taught me about how to look for them and why we should reward such talent."
The girl sighed, and patted Guiche on the head. "You do that," she said. "Watch her like a hawk. I just need to go to talk to someone who can grasp a hint," she added, under her breath, as she went out to look for the last member of their party.
She found the blue-haired girl feeding a pail full of meat to her dragon. Montmonrency wasn't sure where the shorter girl had found all that raw meat, but she supposed that Tabitha had the capacity to find the kitchens herself when she didn't have her nose in a book.
"Have you seen something… off about this Agnès woman? You know, with how she dresses and how she acts around Kirche?"
"Oh, good, it isn't just me."
"Oui. I think she may be an 'uguenot. A Proteztant. Not sure."
Montmorency blinked. "Why did I go talk to you again?" she asked herself. "You don't even catch Kirche's innuendo."
"I am sorry? Kirche eez een what?"
"Never mind, Tabitha." Monmon slumped down. "You know what! I think I'll just have another drink. And not so watered down this time. In fact, it'll just be neat…"
"No need for that!" Kirche announced from behind them, flanked by Guiche. "Just as well Tabby is checking the mounts; we're going up to the circus tent right now! Agnès has found that there's a nightly 'festival' where they do all kinds of wicked things, so we'll go in and put a stop to it once and for all!"
"Hurrah!" Guiche cheered.
"Agnès?" Monmon asked, raising her eyebrows. "Are you on first name terms already?"
"Yep! And yes, you were right, Guiche," Kirche said cheerfully. "Hero, through and through. I'd trust her at my back."
"Told you," the boy said, grinning. He put his hands on his hips, raising his chin and gazing off into the middle distance. "Let's go turn this comedy of clowns… into a tragedy!"
There was silence. It was the wrong time of year for crickets to chirrup, but had it been summer, there would have been crickets chirruping.
"Yeah, let's," Kirche said, eventually.
Under the cover of darkness, five cloaked figures and one trying-to-be-sneaky dragon made their way up the hillside to the tent. After some complaints about the clattering and the trees which got knocked over, the dragon was told to stay behind, while Guiche's mole familiar and Kirche's salamander scouted ahead.
Surprisingly, though, no traps lay in wait. There were guards waiting for them at the entrance to the tent, but Tabitha happened.
"Zat eez all of them," the tiny girl said, returning to the others. She wiped off her black-painted poniard on the snow. "Ze ground eez slippery zere; watch out."
"Good job, Tabby," Kirche whispered. "So, swing in through one of the windows on these convenient ropes?"
"Good idea," said Guiche.
"Veto," said Monmon.
Kirche muttered under her breath. "I never get to swing in on ropes," she complained. And so she vented her frustration by setting alight the bears who tried to maul them when they charged through the main door. In deference to the theming, the bears had been wearing tutus, but as it turned out they burned especially well.
The interior of the circus tent was a mad panorama of colours and noises. There a peasant was forced to try to swallow a sword; here a clown was throwing knives at a woman tied to a wheel; over there a seal – imported no doubt at great expense, because none lived on the north coast of Tristain – balanced a screaming child on its nose.
And in the centre of this madhouse lounged a man in brightly coloured clothing, sitting on a grand throne. His chalk-white face was elaborately made up, and his green hair was braided with little grinning skulls. On the sight of the newcomers, he picked himself up, an utterly insane grin flashing across his face.
"Mwhahahahahaha," said the clown in a deadpan voice, and then gave a forced laugh. "Welcome to my show! I am the Capering Count of Canimar, King of Clean Killings and Callous Comedy! Can cows count contrary consumers? Can they?"
The children and the chevalier exchanged confused looks. "No?" hedged Guiche, uneasily. "And… uh, what was that about…"
"Correct!" said the man, honking his large red nose. "Do I have a show for you tonight!"
"Do you?" asked Agnès.
"Uh uh uh! That wasn't a question!"
"It sounded like a question."
"Well, it wasn't! I think you'll find it hilarious! In fact, you might just laugh yourself to…" and that was about all he managed, because Agnès drew her pistol and shot him in the head.
There was a shocked silence, interrupted only by the scratching of a pencil as Tabitha quickly took notes.
"Uh," said Guiche.
"What?" the scarred woman asked.
"… aren't you going to, you know… make a witty one-liner or something? Say something like 'laugh this one off'? Or… well, if you'd hit him, you could have said something about a punchline."
"Why would I do that?" The woman sniffed, beginning to reload her pistol. "That kind of detestable humour is a weakness of papi… most people. Incidentally, there are multiple evil clowns staring at us in shock. Kill them."
"Oui," Tabitha said quietly, and flicked her wand in the direction of a woman dressed in a harlequin's outfit. The woman exploded in a hail of scything bloody ice which cut down most of the others. "Slyphid," she added, raising her voice, and a dragon crashed through the roof, with a roar which sounded most peculiarly like 'Om nom nom'.
Guiche watched the carnage, his shoulders slumping. "Well, there's really no point in me even making my golems," he said sadly, watching as the dragon wolfed down a man who had been juggling burning torches. "They'd take too long to get over there and then the fun will be over." He squared his shoulders. "Well, I'll make them anyway! They'll protect you fair maidens from any threats which might get behind us."
"Not a word," Monmon said, warningly.
"I said nothing."
"Oh, please. You were going to say something about not minding having a large threat behind you or something slatternly and filthy like that."
"Montmorency de la Montmorency," Kirche said, her hand going to her mouth in fake shock, "such language! You wicked, sinful girl, speaking of such unmaidenly things!"
"Why would you want for a threat to be behind you?" Tabitha asked. "Zat is a threat, a vulnerability? Bad."
"Quite so," Agnès said, solidly, as she finished reloading her pistol. "The blue-haired girl… Tabitha, wasn't it? She's right. Always keep your foes in front of you." She nodded. "I believe you can clean up the rest of them without my assistance."
"That'll be easy," Kirche said.
The older woman nodded. "If you ever want to do adventurous things with me, without these others slowing you down, I keep a mail box in the capital, in the Charming Fairies Inn. It's a disreputable place, but the owner is… strange, but honest," she told Kirche. "We can have a little meet-up to talk some things over."
"Remember what I said earlier about my father looking for a new captain of the guard," Kirche said. "From what I saw of you here, I'm even more impressed, and for all his many flaws, the role pays very well and he's seldom at home. He looks for the best to protect his family in his absence, because he has a lot of enemies. When you've found the people you're looking for, you should get in touch if you're interested."
Agnès' face twitched. "I think few would be interested in my bodyguarding services," she said. "After all, I 'failed' with Princess Henrietta… though I can tell you one thing. They're lying when they say she secretly snuck off and married the Albionese prince. I was with her when they said the marriage happened, chaperoning the two of them. There's a reason I made myself scarce from court. I'm an inconvenience to the tale the Council tells."
"Wait, really?" Guiche interrupted, eyes widening. "You mean the allegations are…"
The woman's lips pursed. "I've said too much already," she said. "Maybe I can talk further when I get my revenge, but for now? I don't want to get involved in politics. It'll get in my way."
"But you're saying that…"
"I'm not saying anything. Not yet," she said, firmly. She glanced at Kirche, looking her up and down. "Get in touch," she said, dropping her voice. "And don't trust the Council. Or the Church. The rot of Evil goes into high places, now they have removed Cardinal Mazarin – known to all to be a righteous man, one who thwarted the wiles of the King of the Abyss – from his place. Keep your own council, ladies, Gramont, and stay wary!"
"You know," Kirche said, as they watched the scarred woman leave, "I'm starting to suspect she's a Protestant. Why else would she speak out against the Church like that? It seems to be something very personal with her. What could have set her against our Holy Mother Church like that? I dread to think." She shook her head sadly. "And of course, there is the way she dresses."