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12/19/2020

PRINCES OF THE APOCALYPSE – ERILETH BACKSTORY W.I.P.

Fun Fact #1: I needed a Harper contact to act as the link between the larger story and Erileth. The (basic) character of Gilfont was created by my partner.

Fun Fact #2: I got so attached to the character/story of Soraya that I started outlining a spin-off/side story for her!


PROLOGUE – PART 1A

Brigand pulled out the bar stool, his leather-and-metal mismatched armour clanking as he sat roughly down. He looked the Barkeep Bronson square in the eyes as he tossed his payment onto the bar: four coppers. Bronson looked down at the copper, briefly, then back up to meet Brigand’s stare.

“I’m sorry, mate. The price has gone up.”

A pause. Brigand continued to stare, blank and unblinking.

“It’s two silver, now.”

Bracing his foot against the aged wood of the bar, Brigand leaned back in his seat, heavy brow raised as he continued to stare down a crooked nose, broken more times than he could keep track of, unrelentingly at the barkeep.

“The Goldrun farm, they couldn’t keep up with the taxes. Not the only ones that couldn’t pay. But the only ones Lord and Lady Highvale could afford to make an example of.” A moment of silence on Bronson’s part, a grim acknowledgement. “They burned the farm. The brewery, too. Half of it’s gone, now, the poor bastards.”

Another pause. Brigand breathed in, deeply. Opening his mouth, he spoke with a booming voice and a thick Northern accent. “Are you fuckin’ joking?”

Bronson glanced behind his patron. A nervous-looking customer gathered his things from the table he was sitting at on the other side of the room, shoving them rapidly into his bag. Brigand turned his head just in time to see him run out the front door.

“He’s not from around here,” he heard Bronson say before he turned his gaze back to the bar.

“Who the fuck do I have to off to get my fuckin’ ale?”

Bronson reached under the counter, discreetly sliding a half-piece of parchment across the counter. Flipping it right-side up, Brigand sat silently, reading. Moments later, he was folding the parchment into quarters, sticking it into the coin satchel on his hip, and on his way out the door.

“Don’t go giving them all your business, now,” Bronson called after him.

“Couldn’t if I wanted to,” Brigand replied shortly. “The food’s shit.”


PROLOGUE – PART 1B

Doran Dunwood sat in a creaking, but stoutly built chair at the dining table. His fingers had found the dents and knicks at the ends of the armrests, and were now picking at them anxiously. Only minutes ago, his son Evran, a boy of nine, had run in to announce the impending presence of a carriage. He was too young to know what it meant when a red-laquered carriage came to your home. He would be too distracted to think it was of any consequence in the first place; one of the few barn cats they had had given birth to kittens a few short months ago, and Evran and his sister had taken to spending their afternoons playing with them.

The tax collector would be arriving shortly. The Lord and Lady Highvale had been consistently raising the taxes for the past several years, and Doran and his family were always able to scrape by, if just barely… Until this season. Their corn crops had done well enough, but the wheat had been hit hard by a violent storm before it had the chance to mature. They could keep enough bread on the table to feed themselves, but with less to sell, they weren’t able to earn what they needed to pay the taxes on their farm.

Everyone had heard about what happened at the Goldrun brewery. Half of the brewery itself burned to the ground, along with the barn and most of the crops. The Goldruns were relatively self-sufficient- they earned money almost exclusively from their ale, and kept most of their animals and food to feed themselves. Now, with half of the brewery and most of their food gone, everyone was afraid. The more comfortable farmers were afraid for them. The less wealthy were afraid for themselves.

Doran started as he heard the front door open and creak shut. The measured rhythm of tiny footsteps confirmed that it was only his daughter, Carra. The light-haired girl of six came walking carefully into the room, carrying a fluffy, white kitten gingerly in her arms.

“Daddy, can Snowy have some cream?”

She had taken a special liking to the creature, and it was easy to see why. Carra was born unusually fair. Where Doran, his wife, and their son all had warm, golden skin that spoke of generations of working in the sun, Carra had skin like milk. Where her family had hair in shades of chestnut and black, her hair was a fine, pale blonde. Where they had deep, brown eyes, hers were a clear blue. The kitten, like her, was born a white, fragile thing into a family of tawny- and ginger-hued cats. Once it was old enough to play on its own, it was common to see Carra picking her up and taking her to a nearby patch of shade to play.

Doran exhaled, steadying his breath. “Yes, my dear. Take it outside, though, by the swing.” The tree-swing was beside the barn. Doran figured that his wife, Isidra, should still be nearby, shucking corn or tending to the chickens.

Carra poured some cream from an earthenware jug onto a small saucer and headed back towards the door, kitten still docile in her arms. As Doran heard the door shut behind her, he thought that it may be best to meet the tax collector outside. He didn’t want to have them in his home if he could help it.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, steeling himself. There had to be a way to compensate for the taxes they couldn’t pay. Perhaps they could offer some livestock or food in place of money. A lean year would be better than a year with burned fields and no livestock.

Doran opened his eyes just in time to see a thin man in a red jacket step through the archway and into the room, with Evran following behind him.

“Mister Dunwood, I presume? I was just telling your boy here how to properly welcome a guest into one’s home. One is never too young to learn these things, after all.” The man gave an oddly asymmetrical smile,wider on one side of his mouth than the other. He had a dark, unsettling look in his eyes that made Doran’s skin crawl.

“Yes, I- that would be I,” he said to the man. “go to your Mother,” he said soflty, an aside to his son, and managed to offer his hand to the man as Evran ran off towards the door.

The man brushed past Doran, ignoring his hand completely. “I am Mr. Pyriman, the personal financial overseer and collector for the Highvale estate.” He idly examined a short, copper candlestick, peering down at it over a narrow, hawkish nose.

Doran made every effort to keep his composure calm and formal. “Can I offer you something to drink, or-”

“No, no, that won’t be necessary.” Mr. Pyriman put the candlestick down and turned on his heel to face Doran. “We both know why I’m here, Mister Dunwood. This little visit of mine doesn’t have to last any longer than necessary. I will be back in my carriage and out of your way, provided you have the requisite payments for the Highvale estate.”

Doran nodded shortly and weakly, and went into an adjacent room. He came back with a cloth bag of gold- a substantial amount, but not enough. He handed the bag to Mr. Pyriman, who weighed it in a leather-gloved hand, the corner of his mouth turning down distastefully.

…And the rest?” Mr. Pyriman asked, the three words drawn out to last half an eternity.

Doran swallowed. “That is, ah, that is all we were able to make, sir.” He could suddenly feel the sweat on his palms and the lump forming in his throat. “We had a terrible storm, you see, and we lost a large amount of our wheat-”

tsk, tsk, tsk,” Mr. Pyriman interrupted him once again. “Mister Dunwood, do you not realize the sheer amount of time and effort it requires for the Highvale estate to manage the amount of land that they do? Surely, you must have some inkling, as a man who cares for the small amount of land that you do. But do you really grasp what it takes to oversee the entirety of this region? To ensure that order is kept and that everything runs as smoothly as possible?”

“W-well, of course, and surely we can work out a way to compensate-”

“Ah, yes, Mister Dunwood, there must be some compensation.” Mr. Pyriman’s voice seemed to slide from one word to the next, taking just enough time with each sound to insinuate something fearful.

Remembering what happened to the Goldruns, Doran rushed to offer what he could. “We have chickens, and corn, and some livestock, it’s not much, but surely-”

“Mmm, yes. Perishable goods.” For a moment, Doran’s stomach dropped and his breath caught in his throat. “Naturally, we will require more than a few chickens.” Putting the bag of money down upon the dining table, he clapped his hands together. Two muscular men, a human and a half-elf, stepped into the room and began looking around, opening drawers and cabinets. Doran hadn’t noticed them when he stepped out to get the tax money.

“I’m sure you won’t mind if we take a look around. A roof over one’s head is a valuable thing… wouldn’t you say?” Mr. Pyriman strolled past Doran as the men quickly finished looking through the room. They took no time to separate and brusquely rummage through every other room in the house, pausing intermittently to knock on the walls or tap on the floorboards.

Before long, they were leaving the house and heading towards the barn. They were carrying sacks with what few items of value they could find… an old and expensive bottle of fine wine, gifted to Doran and Isidra on their wedding day; a few tarnished, silver candlesticks and several silver pieces of serveware, engraved with filigree and only brought out for special occasions; all of the jewellery they owned that featured gold or silver or even marginally precious gemstones, including two family heirlooms.

The two muscular men were following Pyriman towards the barn, and toward the large tree-swing where Isidra knelt, holding both of their children to her. Doran ran to catch up to Pyriman, fear for his family outweighing any fear he felt about pushing past Pyriman’s enforcers.

“Now, the trouble with chickens, is that they don’t last very long,” Pyriman said, once Doran reached him. “One night’s dinner, and that’s all you have. It’s done.”

Doran strained to think of alternatives to offer him, starting to speak before he had any real solutions. “Sir, if-”

“Now a pig, on the other hand… that could last a family a little bit longer.” Pyriman’s enforcers strode purposefully past them, directly into the barn. “And the chickens, as well.” He raised his voice, more for the enforcers’ benefit than Doran’s.

Before Doran had even arrived at the door of the barn, he could hear the chickens squawking and flapping wildly. There were two large baskets full of corn, husked and unhusked, sitting beside a short wooden chair against the exterior wall and beside the doors of the barn. Pyriman leaned down to pick up a cob of corn, inspected it, and dropped it nonchalantly before dusting off his hands and remarking, “Yes… I suppose we can manage some of this, as well.”

Doran watched their last pig be dragged away, towards the carriage; they had brought a second vehicle, a large, covered wagon with high rails, and were loading the last of the livestock into it. Chickens had cages already prepared for them, and straw already lined the bottom of the wagon. They had anticipated this.

Pyriman had appeared beside Doran and his family. Doran wasn’t sure how long he had been standing there. After watching most of his livestock and a healthy amount of corn go into the wagon, the shock had faded into a feeling of numbness.

“You may want to remember this, next time you need to compensate.” Pyriman looked to Doran’s children, still being clutched by Isidra. Evran looked scared and confused. Corra, still holding her kitten, looked to be on the verge of tears. Pyriman looked back to Doran. “We’re always looking for strapping young boys to serve at the estate.” Doran’s eyes grew wide as Pyriman continued. “And I’m sure your daughter will grow up to be a… rare beauty.”

“Don’t you dare-” Isidra spoke, but inhaled sharply when Pyriman stepped towards Corra, bending down to the child’s height. Taking the kitten from Corra’s arms and looking into her damp, blue eyes, he said “Lady Highvale is very fond of cats.”

“Snowy!!!” Corra screamed as Pyriman walked away with the mewling kitten. Doran could see the kitten squirming as Pyriman shut the door of the carriage. Corra screamed and cried as the carriage left, her small face red and soaked with tears. When the carriage left, she screamed and cried even louder. Her brother stood sniffling and crying as she fell to the ground, writhing, with Isidra trying to hold her tightly to her chest.

For Doran, the world went oddly quiet, and all he could hear was the distant clucking of the last two or three chickens left in the barn as he wondered how long their remaining crops could last.


PROLOGUE – PART 1C

At no point in her life did Soraya anticipate that her sister’s fate would be determined by a batch of fancy butter.

It was late- perhaps just before midnight. Perhaps an hour or two after. Soraya sat in the dim basement of her family’s farmhouse, among the preserves and jams and wheels of cheese saved from the last year or so. She leaned seated at a wooden work table, a journal full of poorly-organized notes to her right and an unused mortar and pestle to her left. She didn’t know why she took them out in the first place, really. She had nothing more to work towards- the artisanal butter she had strived to create, the perfect recipe, was finished. Cut, packaged, and prepared to be sent tomorrow to the intended recipients.

The Highvales had ruled this land with one hand outstretched, demanding tribute, and the other holding a torch for several generations. Even so, only in the last two decades had things been growing steadily worse for everyone under them. The family’s greed and disregard for the welfare of their tenants was always evident, but now they had started to destroy livelihoods. Started to send women and young servants back to their families with bruises. Started to burn down homes.

Almost half a year ago, they had come for Salindra. Soraya and her sister were twins- not identical, but their appearances left no room for error in showing that they shared the same blood. They were told that, when the time for tax collection came, the demands on their family would be less strenuous if they had one of their daughters in service. When no one offered to serve, they took one of them, anyways. They claimed to choose Salindra for her reputation for having great culinary talent. Soraya knew they just wanted to take the prettier one of them.

So began Soraya’s quest: making an exceptional block of butter.

Her mother and father assumed it was a way of coping with her sister’s absence. Salindra had an aptitude for gourmet creations, and had made a hobby out of infusing cream, cheeses, and butter with various herbs, flowers, and fruits. More than once, Soraya had heard her parents telling a curious visitor or friend, “It takes her mind off of things,” or “It makes her feel closer to her sister,” when she did not care to leave her work and join their guests upstairs. But her sister’s life and safety were more important than exchanging hollow pleasantries with guests.

Her mother and father were right, in one respect: sometimes, poring over her notes on flavour or mixing new additions into the butter, she would feel closer to Salindra. But she never forgot about her circumstances, or where she was.

This was bigger than creating something desirable. This was even bigger than her sister. The Highvales took dozens of new victims into their service every year. And Soraya was going to make sure that they didn’t hurt anyone ever again.

The Highvales had extravagant tastes. They had meat and produce from local farms brought to their table, but very rarely would they purchase local brews, cheeses, preserves, or other finish products. Even the Goldruns’ ale, a local favourite, was snubbed by them. Though that may also be due to the Elven Highvale family’s rumoured disdain for Dwarves. As a half-Elf, Soraya hoped she had a chance at creating something that would pique their interest. If she did, then she could send something past the estate walls- something that would go directly into their mouths and down their throats.

She had to be strategic with her creation. The ingredients she used had to be exotic, but not too exotic. She could only use two or three additions to the butter before the flavours clashing or overpowering one another. She had to use at least one local or familiar ingredient, to save time and precious money, but not so familiar that the Highvales would turn up their noses at it. Finally, she had to select a poison colourless and tasteless enough (or close enough to) that it wouldn’t be detected.

After saving for two months after they had taken Salindra, Soraya realized that she would never be able to afford a quarter of the ingredients she needed to experiment with, nor the cost of having them delivered to the town. For the poison alone, as potent and undetectable as it needed to be, she would have to save up for years.

That was when she made a pact with the Fey being.

It began one night, after she had once again fallen asleep at her work table. She began experiencing strange dreams, unusual and seemingly irrelevant visions that made no sense. Oddly-coloured leaves and trees, flowers with strong, yet distinct smells, and dancing, effervescent clusters of lights that would play on the very edge of her vision. She would be standing in a mysterious, unnaturally-hued glen or wood one moment, then gone or taken somewhere else the next.

It was on the second night- was it the second? Perhaps the third, or the fourth- when she heard the voice of the Archfey being calling her. A far-off, ethereal singing, wordless, smattered with periods of simultaneous chanting or conversing in a language she didn’t understand. After countless moments of this, a narrow, fluted flower appeared before her. It was a colour that couldn’t be properly described as red, nor purple, nor pink, with several small berries growing dark and firm out of its branches. Soraya somehow knew that she could not touch it… but she tried, anyways. As it faded through her fingers, a voice, male, spoke: “Do you want to save her?”

“Yes,” was the only response that Soraya could give.

Since then, the Fey being had stayed with her. He would not tell her his name, or how he wished to be addressed. He claimed that he could not. When pressed about the flower Soraya had seen, and asked about what it was, (she could only have guessed that it was the ingredient she needed to reach her goal), he only replied, “A figment of your imagination.”

The Archfey had given Soraya knowledge- spoke to her of fruits she didn’t know existed, herbs with qualities only an experienced herbalist or Druidic Elder would know of. She dreamed of strange, otherworldly spices and flowers not of this realm. Her dreams were not restricted to these, though. Often, she would dream of magical items: A key, sparkling gold and engraved with delicate filigree; A chalice, full of sweet-smelling, syrupy liquid in shifting shades of purple or silver; A box, carved with impossible designs and affixed with a broken lock; A sword or a dagger, sharpened on both sides and glittering by the light of an unseen sun, or moon, or stars. Once or twice, she had even felt the embrace and almost-kiss of an invisible lover. The dreams persisted, night after night, for weeks on end. Slowly, though, they had begun to subside. Now, the dreams only visited her every few nights.

The Archfey never specified what he wanted in return for the knowledge he gave her. He only spoke in cryptic insinuations implying that, some day, she would be aware of her part in his plans.

She soon learned, however, that this knowledge was not enough. To make use of what she was learning, she still needed money. The ingredients and poisons she needed could not be bought with intelligence, but gold… gold she did not have.

So Soraya would make a couple blocks of experimental, artisanal butter- something accessible, that wouldn’t cost too much to make, usually. Then she would take a day trip into town, under the pretense of selling it or buying new ingredients. Usually, she would do this, after providing a few desperate people with highly-priced, illicit teas or potions. They weren`t true potions, of course… Soraya had no alchemical abilities whatsoever. But a parfum of distilled maiden’s berry and dianthus or silver musk was enough to stir an intense, if temporary, fascination in a potential lover. A thick, viscous solution of dragonweed and valerian caused a delayed, but viscous rash that would last for a fortnight if it came into contact with an enemy’s skin. A strong tea of scarlet mint and underripe Eastern peppercorns would cause contractions of the womb, strong enough to expel and undesired pregnancy if caught early enough.

Soraya didn’t enjoy using her newfound knowledge this way. She told herself that the ends justified the means, and that, while some people she genuinely helped, she was only giving the rest what they wanted. She told herself that she was not to blame, that she was only the tool they used to achieve what they wanted. She told herself that she would stop, once her sister was safe.

Her trips into town became very lucrative, and finally she was able to fund her endeavour. The recipe she used was given to her by the Archfey himself, who claimed it was an old creation, all but lost to the passage of time. It created a flavour so pleasing, yet so strange, that masking a poison would prove easy. If one was warned about an unusual taste before sampling the butter, one wouldn’t think it was strange to taste something slightly bitter, or sour, or spiced within it.

Soraya had shared her creation (without the poison, of course) with her family, and with visiting guests. She sold a small amount to a few local establishments and merchants, as well- only enough to get the word out and gain a reputation for being desirable, but tricky to acquire.

Eventually, it worked. The Highvales heard of this exclusive, artisanal butter made only in their very own land and demanded a batch for themselves. A messenger had even come directly from the estate to give Soraya the news.

And now, the night before it was to be taken to the estate, Soraya sat at her work table, communing with her Fey patron.

“Will you smile, when you hear the news of the Highvales’ deaths?”

“No.”

“Your sister will be free.”

“Lots of people will be free.”

“But at what cost?”

“I don’t know what will happen after. But I know it will be better than our people being broken and beaten by those monsters.”

“They have not killed anyone, yet.”

Yet.” Soraya repeated. “How long until a family has to bury a child because they didn’t have enough food for the Winter? How long until someone is ravaged by sickness, only to find themselves too poor to pay for the medicine they need? How long until they go from beating their servants, their captives… to doing worse, and passing it off as an accident?”

“Ah, but are you a killer?”

Soraya was silent a moment. “This is the only way I can save the lives of others. And of my sister.” Did her lips move? She had still not grown used to talking with the Archfey. She could never truly tell whether she was speaking aloud or not.

“And if they do not die?”

“Whose side are you on?”

“’Sides’ are such a simplified notion. A child’s attempt at understanding a more complex concept of motivation.”

Soraya did not reply. She knew that he would only answer as sensibly as he wished to. The necessity of his help made it difficult to be completely and utterly fed up with his cryptic questions and even more ambiguous answers.

She knew how tomorrow would go. The courier from the estate would come, and her father would remark about it being a shame, “a damn shame,” that they would not waste their limited butter on servants, and that Salindra should not sample a taste of the fruits of her sister’s hard work. Her mother would hug her, and tell her how proud she was. The courier would agree to take a letter to her sister, as a small token of appreciation: “Alas, you would not care for my concoction,” Soraya would write, “as it contains alderspice, and I know how you absolutely hate alderspice…”, a safety measure, if her sister or her fellow kitchen servants should see fit to sample a stolen bit of butter. Once this was done, and the butter away, Soraya would spend the rest of her nights in a forced, herb-induced sleep until her sister came home.

Even tonight, Soraya knew she would be unable to fall asleep on her own. This was not the first time, since Salindra left. Her worry and fear for her twin would keep her awake for days. So she reached underneath her work desk, finding the tincture of valerian, weeping willow, and somnium powder strapped and fastened to the bottom. After squeezing a single, generous drop onto her tongue, she replaced the bottle and closed her eyes, knowing that she would not have time to walk up to her second-storey bedroom before sleep took her.


PROLOGUE – PART 1D

CW: Are you squeamish? If so, you may want to skip the underlined text. There’s a bit of violence/gore here.

Coryanna shifted and adjusted the heavy stones as well as she could. The hollowed-out space in the exterior wall of the estate was deep and dark, and far from new. The excavation was clearly the work of someone else, made long ago and gradually eroded into something larger, rougher, and more conspicuous over the years. Though one couldn’t dig into the interior room on the other side, it didn’t take more than a strong pair of hands or a decent tool to enlarge the cavity itself. This was what Coryanna had been working on all morning, and for part of the afternoon. Her slender hands didn’t have the strength to move the large, heavy blocks of stone left partially exposed and beginning to crumble inside the wall, but she was able to scratch away at the mortar, to the point of the blocks loosening and falling if not given sufficient support.

Just before she felt the stone blocks reaching the point of no return, she wandered the estate grounds just long enough to find a suitable support: another chunk of stone, perhaps two-thirds or three-quarters of a foot in length, and just thick enough to support the blocks that composed the ceiling of the hole. Just before loosening the blocks further, she placed the support below them. She had prolonged placing the support for so long that her hand was almost crushed, twice, as she tried to place it. After doing this, she dug around inside the hollow for a few more moments, dissatisfied. It didn’t seem that there were any further stones that she could loosen… at least, not until the ones relying on the support could be removed. Clawing around blindly, she let the smaller pieces of stone, mortar, and dust fall where they may.

Todric stood in a short, dimly-lit passage behind the kitchens, waiting with giddy anticipation for his beloved. She was to arrive momentarily… or so Todric hoped. Not often, but occasionally, Coryanna would fail to meet him. Her parents would disapprove of their relationship, she had said, and if she were to get roped into something, there would be almost no way for her to excuse herself without raising suspicion. She could only feign an illness or a headache so many times.

In truth, Todric had no doubts about her family’s furious disapproval if they were found out. Everyone knew of the Highvales’ cruelty, and their elitist attitudes. Those below them were nothing more than worms, peons to be used for labour while they play games with luxuries and money and politics. Coryanna often spoke of the awful things she’d seen her family do, and what harsh expectations they placed on her. As their youngest daughter, she may not inherit the estate, but she was expected to marry well and act as a gleaming credit to her status and her name. Once, she had told him, when she was a child, her parents had discovered her friendship with a scullery maid. The girl was sent home without any payment and Coryanna was given the birch until she bled. When Coryanna told him that their love had to be kept a secret, Todric didn’t hesitate to acquiesce. More than once, she had spoken of their running away together once she came of age.

Todric shifted uneasily, picking at the buttons on his overcoat. It was force of habit for him to find something to worry at when he was anxious. His mother told him it was a common thing among whittlers and wood carvers; his father shared the trait, having passed both the habit and a love of woodwork onto his son. But where his father had a talent for creating larger sculptures and fine architectural features, Todric had an affinity for fine detail and intricate pieces. He had carved a ring for Coryanna not a fortnight ago- a simple, but beautiful thing, carefully smoothed to perfection and decorated with an intertwining Elven design. When he watched her smile and coo over how beautiful it was, he fancied that day to be the proudest of his life.

Todric’s breath caught in his throat as he heard quiet, rushed footsteps heading in his direction. But when she turned the corner, he saw that her face was stained with tears. Her eyes were red, as though she had been crying for some time. He immediately took her in his arms and brushed aside what tears he could before she pushed her face into his chest.

“My darling, what’s the matter?”

“I’m so sorry!” Her words were muffled, partially obscured by Todric’s overcoat. “I’m so sorry, I’m so stupid!”

Moving to take her hands in his, he noticed that her palms were reddened, her fingertips scathed, and her skin covered in grey dirt and peppered with small scratches and scrapes. It took another moment of inspection to notice the odd bit of dried blood hiding beneath her fingernails.

“My God, what has happened to your hands?”

“I’m sorry, I was-” she took a moment to choke out a sob before attempting to steady herself. Her clear anguish tore at Todric’s heart. “…I was throwing a ball against one of the walls outside, just to clear my head, after Alyssinia and I had fought again,” she took a breath, easing her frantic temper. “And I mustn’t have been paying attention, because I threw it into that hole, where we used to leave each other all of those letters… I tried to retrieve it, but it was so dark and so difficult to find, and it took so long that by the time I managed to take it out, I realized that my ring had fallen off!” A new set of tears were forming in her eyes, and she brought up a roughened hand to obscure them. “I’m so sorry that I was so careless and stupid. Please say that you can forgive me!”

“There is nothing to forgive!” Todric held her close, caressing her hair as she sniffled into his chest. “You didn’t mean to lose it. I can’t bear to see you in so much pain.”

“I tried to retrieve it, I tried for so long!” her words were once again stifled as they were spoken into his body. “But it’s so dark, and I wasn’t able to see! It must have fallen behind some loose stones, or into some crevice, but I couldn’t find it!”

“I will take a look. Perhaps I can find it for you.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt, or to ruin your sleeves… please, my father would have you whipped for tearing your clothes!”

“Don’t worry for me,” Todric replied. “I can take off my jacket, and it would be a small price to pay to see you smile again.”

They approached the space in the wall, Todric gingerly holding Coryanna’s hand in his own. He knelt before the hole, taking a cursory look before removing his serving jacket. A deeper look confirmed what Coryanna had said: it was nearly pitch black inside, and one couldn’t see more than a few inches in. Placing his hand in up to the wrist, Todric could also confirm that the ring had fallen in far enough to be difficult to retrieve. Coryanna quickly got to her knees behind him, peering over his shoulder.

“Please be careful,” she implored.

“I will.”

He explored the crevices and cracks of the hole further, finding a surplus of crumbled pieces of mortar and broken chunks of stone. Gradually, he brushed aside what dust he could and pushed aside the larger pieces of debris until he could maneuver his arm further into the hole, almost deep enough to reach his elbow.

Coryanna spoke, her voice quiet and breathy beside his ear. “There were some blocks I couldn’t move… I tried, but…”

Todric’s fingers found a thick, ragged piece of stone blocking his path. It was off-centre in the cavity of the wall, leaving not quite enough room to reach past on either side. He pushed against the surrounding stone, only to find that it would not yield. He tried pulling at the piece of stone obstructing the space beyond, and found that it would move, if only slightly.

He felt Coryanna’s grip on his shoulder tighten as his body jerked backwards in response to him pulling. “I think I might have something…” he said, and felt her nails start to dig into his skin through his shirt.

He pulled again at the stone, feeling it give barely more than it did before. This must have been one of the stones that Coryanna wasn’t able to move. He pulled yet again, hearing the shifting of eroding stone as it moved.

“Hold on,” he said as he braced his other hand against the stone and took a deep breath in. He could feel Coryanna’s anticipation in the second before he leaned forward and pulled the stone towards him with his full force.

As the stone moved, the two larger, mostly intact block above it fell inward. Todric fell back,stone slipping out of his hand, and was stopped before he could reach the ground. There was a sudden, crushing weight on his hand. He screamed.

Coryanna reached into the hole, attempting to move the heavy blocks off of Todric’s hand. Todric, panicking, involuntarily tried to jerk his hand free, pulling his muscles and scraping his skin in his frenzied attempts. The pulling and screaming continued until Coryanna managed, with some strain, to lift the corner of one of the blocks just enough for him to remove his hand.

She grabbed Todric’s hand as it emerged from its trap. It had not escaped completely intact, but was horribly mangled. Misshapen fingers were covered in blood, some bent the wrong way or turning red beneath the skin. The middle, ring, and smallest fingers on his hand all had some amount of skin torn off, revealing slick pink or sticky white underneath. His palm fared no better- twisted vaguely towards her gaze, shiny muscle melded with dusty skin and thick fluid to encompass delicate tips of white bone, erected shyly in her direction.

Tears, sweat, and mucous trailed down Todric’s face as he cried out in agony. Coryanna let his hand slip out of hers as he rolled onto the grass, wailing.

Coryanna held her hands behind her back as she walked towards the salon. She paused before the doors, bringing her hands forth to meet her gaze. She noticed a small smear of blood on her wrist- one she must have missed while cleaning herself off minutes ago. Her memory brought back the appearance of Todric’s hand… skin torn and ragged, exposing glimpses of raw muscle bathed in thick blood. She remembered how it glistened in the light, just enough to make her question whether she had caught a glimpse of bone here, or just a glare from the sun. She brought her wrist to her lips, slowly licking the last smudge of blood off of her skin. She felt a warmth growing at the bottom of her stomach, and her pulse quicken faintly as she dropped her hand, letting it trail between her breasts as it fell.

Moments later, Alyssinia and Luthias heard their younger sister enter the room. Looking up from her book, Alyssinia said to her, “Mother has a new kitten.”

Coryanna walked across the room, coming to sit quietly in an oversized chair and pulled a wooden ring out from her bodice.

“She asked where you were,” Alyssinia continued. “I told her you were with one of the serving boys.”

“Did she say anything?” Coryanna asked absently, examining the gracefully-carved ring.

“No. Why would she?” Alyssinia placed a marker in her book and put it on the low table before the chaise she was lounging on. Sitting up and crossing her legs, she looked to Luthias and said, “She’s starting to imitate your habits.”

“Oh, no,” he responded, not taking his eyes from the dragonchess board before him. “She’s far surpassed me.”


PROLOGUE – PART 2

“All I am saying, Mister Freeforge,” the Elf said, “is that while destroying a family’s business is an entirely horrendous thing to do, it is not the worst thing the Highvales could possibly do.”

Soraya rolled her eyes. The man who had introduced himself as Gilfont was arguing with Baern Freeforge. If his clothing had gone unnoticed (which was very unlikely, considering it bordered on ostentatious), his self-assured demeanour and condescending way of speaking marked him as a Noble. He advertised himself as a sort of revolutionary-for-hire- likely the result of a youth spent with elite libertines and affluent anarchists, wanting to leverage his privilege for the good of the common folk while still enjoying the comforts offered by his upbringing.

“No matter, I’m sure that this is all especially difficult for you,” he continued as the stocky, heavily-bearded Baern stood fuming, hands spread on the table before him. “…seeing as this tragedy hits so close to home. How are your brethren handling all this? As well as can be expected, I would suppose.”

“You daft, presumptuous twat!” Baern shouted, his face red with anger. Gilfont was both an Elf and a Noble- neither of which Baern had much love for. Nobles, especially. It didn’t help that Gilfont was being painfully pedantic. “Has the thought ever crossed through that arrogant head of yours that Dwarves aren’t all related to each other?!”

Never mind that the the Goldruns were actually distant cousins of the Freeforges.

“Certainly,” Gilfont retorted, scoffing. “It’s just so difficult to tell, what with small towns and whatnot. Tell me, which Noble line are you descended from?”

Baern’s answer started as an inarticulate growl. “…You prejudiced shit! Of course I must have Noble blood in me, seeing as we’re all bred from some gold-shitting merchant clan or another!”

Never mind that the Freeforges could indeed trace their lineage back to Nobility in fewer than five generations.

“Forgive me, I only assumed you must be, seeing as you’re considerably more articulate than certain other Dwarves I’ve met.”

Baern roared and thrust the table to the side, only to have it stopped by a heavy boot. Brigand was leaning back in his chair, unmoved by the impact of the table against his raised foot. He glared at them, arms crossed over his chest, cutting off Baern’s bellowing with his own.

“For fuck’s sake, can you two quit your arguing so we can get on with it?”

Gilfont eyed Brigand warily, as he had been doing periodically since his arrival. He had made a point to keep some distance between himself and the rugged, standoffish mercenary.

“Yes, we asked you here for your help!” came another voice. It was difficult to tell who had said it- there were too many people crammed into the Tipsy Tanner’s private room. Many of them Soraya recognized: Doran Dunwood, a farmer who had been quiet this whole time; Flannah Miller, whose son had just returned from the Highvale estate, broken in body and spirit; Baern and Brigand, of course; Abilyn, a woman around her own age who had been among the many women used and tossed aside by the Highvale’s son, Luthias; and a smattering of other acquaintances with present eyes and absent or muffled voices.

“Never mind, we must continue with the matter at hand,” Gilfont flickered his wrist and declared after a pause, as though the idea were his own. “These Highvales believe themselves to be the height of sophistication, naturally, but not true aristocrats could possibly treat those below them with such vulgar brutality. It’s absolutely offensive. It’s rarely anyone but these nouveau riche types who have the audacity to commit such reckless acts of dominance, regardless of whether or not they can see how atrocious it looks. No tact- or compassion-” an addendum, “-whatsoever. Why, I for one wouldn’t be surprised at all to find something scandalously invalidating in their family history.”

“So you think they’re illegitimate?” asked a young man, on the opposite length of the table. “Do you think there is something was can use as leverage? As blackmail?”

“ No, I wouldn’t go that far,” Gilfont responded. “Every aristocratic family has a few skeletons in the closet, but their claim to their authority is perfectly legitimate. I do commend you for the question, though, as I would have thought precisely that same thing myself, were I you!” The praise was given a little too well- a compliment paid in candy to a small child. “Why, I’m almost unconvinced myself, what with that positively awful names they gave themselves. ‘Highvale’- what an utterly stupid name! On every level, even linguistically- for one cannot have a high vale, that is entirely a paradox! If-”

Everyone in the room was growing impatient, and the Elf was effectively interrupted once again by an assortment of voices.

“What if we got into the estate? Infiltrated it?”

“What, all of us? You couldn’t possibly manage that.”

“No, what if it was only a few people? That would be doable.”

“To what end? What do we do once we’re inside? For Gods’ sake, we aren’t assassins!”

“We could pilfer their valuables?”

“And do what with them? Redecorate?”

“Why don’t we just storm the estate? The whole town, or as many folks as will join us?”

“Brute force? Perhaps-”

“No, no, no,” Gilfont had attempted to reclaim control of the conversation. “The Highvales won’t have an army, but they will certainly have guards of some skill. Are you really willing to risk the lives that would be lost as collateral damage? How high is the cost you’re willing to pay?”

“Then we need to be more strategic…”

“Peaceful disobedience?”

“I’ve got it! What if we all stopped paying taxes?”

“And end up like the Goldruns?”

“No, think about it! If enough of us just refused to pay, they can’t do anything! They’ll eventually have no resources, their income will be lost!”

“Income, though exceedingly significant, is not the only resource a family of Nobles has.” Gilfont leaned into the back of his chair, an elbow draped gracefully over the arm of the chair while his other arm gestured as he spoke. “ Moreover, who among you is willing to risk your homes or your livelihoods? Some of you also have family members held hostage in service to the Highvales, no? How many of your are willing to risk their safety?”

The disappointed frustration in the room created a palpable, all-enveloping tension. Soraya saw Doran looking especially uncomfortable.

Flannah Miller stepped closer to the table. In the light, one could see her red hair starting to grey and crow’s feet adorning her eyes. Her face was drawn, betraying the long, sleepless nights she had been enduring since her son had come home. “My child returned to me maimed! He returned a heartbroken mess of a boy who still has hope that the little bitch who crushed his hand and dashed his future against the wall still has some love for him!” She leaned in, nails digging into the time-worn wooden surface, and looked Gilfont directly in the eye. “They’re already destroying our loved ones.” Soraya had never heard this warm, kind-hearted woman’s voice sound so dark. She shivered.

“Then we must figure something out quickly!”

“We need to get to them, somehow… Why not target those involved with them? Their other resources?”

Other Nobles???”

“No! The tax collectors, the couriers, the merchants, the underlings!”

“Cut them off from their money, goods, and food… that’s not a bad idea! But how can we organize something like that?”

“Simple-”

“We can’t! Some of those people will be ours!”

“Sure we can! We’ll just have to take them back home, keep them here, with us, where they belong.”

Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Gilfont moved his finger from side to side, in time with his lips. “You don’t want to do that.”

“What now?!?” A glance to her left told Soraya that the shriek had come from Abilyn this time.

“They aren’t unarmed. The tax collectors come with help…” Though quieter than the voices of those around him, Doran spoke with disconsolate surety. By now, everyone knew why.

“Precisely. Surely you don’t think that, even if that plan were to succeed initially, the couriers and collectors would remain unprotected? Besides, many merchants supplying the food or goods to the estate are likely just trying to make an honest living. Are you sure you want to destroy their livelihoods with your own?”

‘Honest living’?” Brigand interjected, “Are you telling me that there’s no corruption in the Merchant’s Guild? No arse-licking, palm-greasing, or back-scratching to get the chance to cater to rich fuckers like the Highvales?”

“Well,” Soraya thought, “he tried.”

“Regardless,” Gilfont dismissed, “it wouldn’t work.”

“For fuck’s sake, then!” Brigand responded, not alone in his sentiments. Others united in exasperated exclamations of “What are we supposed to do?!” and “What help are you?!”

Baern spoke, his voice booming above all others. “We paid you good money to come help us, but all you’ve been doing is shootin’ down every damn thing we say!” A rousing wave of agreement filled the room. “We do all the work trying to solve the damn problem, and all you do is talk nonsense! We need action!” His fist hit the table with violent emphasis, punctuating the mob of cries surrounding him.

It was at this point that the Innkeeps’ daughter entered with several trays of drinks… mostly ale. Soraya only knew her in passing. She was a girl of seventeen, and had been working at the Tanner for most of her life, in one capacity or another. She had no fear of loud, agitated crowds.

Correction:” Gilfont began, “What you require is money. All of these plans have been all well and good, but the fundamental problem with all of them is ultimately the same- a lack of capital.”

“We’ve had enough!” It was Abilyn who spoke again, eyes wild with passion and a voice alive with fury. “Stop toying around with us! You dismiss everything we’ve ever said, then tell us we need the one thing we don’t have!” A few murmurs of agreement bubbled up into the air as Gilfont waved away the server’s offering of ale. “Do you have ANY idea how long it took us to pay for you?!? A hell of a lot longer than your ‘help’ has been worth!” He bristled. “ Was this your plan? To fuck around with us, then ask for more money? To give us false promises?!?” She grew more and more unhinged with each word, using old torment to fuel today’s rage. “This is why we NEVER should have asked a Noble for help! They are ALL the same! If we are going to do anything to survive, we need to do it on our own! We need to hit them hard, and repay them every last bit of pain they’ve caused us TENFOLD!”

For a terse moment, the room was silent.

Abilyn was a sweet, kind girl before Luthias Highvale had happened. She thought Luthias was her gilded prince, come to give her the fairy tale love she has always dreamed of. He was not.

Everyone used to call her “Abby”. They all knew better than to do that, now.

In that moment of awkward, uncomfortable quiet, Soraya heard the Archfey speak to her. “She would have been an excellent choice.” She chose to ignore his remark… but he continued, anyways. “Anger is a useful tool. Vengeance is an easy way to motivate.” Although no one seemed to be looking at Soraya, she couldn’t shake the feeling of being stared at. She tried to suppress a shudder.

The only two people in the room who didn’t feel some measure of fear of Abilyn, Brigand and Gilfont, were casting sidelong glances elsewhere, eyebrows raised.

Well,” Gilfont inhaled pointedly, “now that this concern is out in the open, I assure you, I wish for no further payment from you. My fee is paid. The simple fact of the matter is, you are all unable to accomplish anything without certain…” he cast another distasteful eye towards Brigand, “…aid.”

“He’s right. You can’t protect yourselves on your own.” Taking a tankard of ale off of the server’s tray, Brigand raised it to his lips, falling short enough to continue. “You’d be fucked if you tried anything without some muscle behind you. I know some people, but they sure as hell won’t do it for free.” He took a gulp of his ale, grimacing as it reached his tongue and promptly spitting it out, much to the chagrin of the people on his left. He called after the server, “What the fuck do you call this rat’s piss? I know you don’t call it ale. Gods, and I thought the food here was bad.”

The serving girl turned and looked directly at him. “Twelve years we’ve been serving that and you’re the only one to whine about it. If your tongue is too delicate for our ale, you can go back to the Boar. You think our food is bad? Have you tried their roasts? They’re so greasy, they may as well have poured a tub of oil on your plate, sprinkled in some flour and called it ‘gravy’.”

“Hey!” He called as she strode out of the room, “Their roasts are tender and flavourful!”

“How are we supposed to come up with any more gold?” Baern spoke. “We’re already being bled dry by the taxes! It would take too long, even if we could come up with it!”

“Well, think about it. Who here has money?”

“You?” Flannah suggested coldly, bringing a sardonic snigger from Brigand.

Gilfont chuckled shortly and awkwardly. “No, that is not how the Harpers work.”

“The Highvales are the ones with all the money.”

“Exactly!” Gilfont clapped his hands together. “What better way to fund a revolt than with the gold of your oppressors?”

“How in the hell will they do that, mate?” Brigand asked. “They can’t just ask for the money outright and hell if they’re going to leave their gold unguarded.”

“No,” Gilfont brought his hand up to thoughtfully stroke his goatee. “But Noble families are often looking for some new, exciting luxury to get their hands on…” Soraya felt an indescribable pang in her stomach. “…we’ll need to do some research, gather some intelligence. I’ll need to bring this back to the Harpers.”

“…So… You’re just going to take this back to the Harpers?” Flannah asked flatly. “We’re paying for a glorified messenger service?”

“Yes and no.” Gilfont responded slowly, absently. “I have someone in mind.”


CHAPTER 1

The Lascivious Lyrist was not the establishment it once was. After opening its doors some twelve years ago in the most disreputable district of the city, the original proprietors had attempted to curate a vision of “modest luxury” and “subdued sensuality” for nearly three years before giving up and selling the property off to the highest bidder. The purple paint on the wood panelling had faded to something of a musty grey, and the plum lacquer on the bar had been been chipped, scratched, and beaten enough to render the original colour indiscernible. “Ambience” was the excuse given for the poor lighting. The grape- and wine-hued silks decorating the furniture had long since been removed, along with any leftover tufted cushions or finely-cut furs. The current proprietors cared more for ease of cleaning than they did for aesthetics.

All in all, Gilfont found the place rather depressing.

As he entered the establishment, it was quite impossible for him not to notice the dank aroma that pervaded the air. He had met fellow Harpers here multiple times, but he had never liked it any better with each successive meeting. Looking past a half-wall and beyond a column (which must have been decorative at some point), he could see his quarry seated at a table towards the far wall of the room. He immediately felt a twinge of annoyance upon seeing her- it was as though her very presence felt irritatingly polite.

She rose to greet him as he made his way across the room. Her golden-blonde hair was tied back into a regal stream of waves, leaving her long, slender ears and refined features unobstructed. He spoke to her.

“I daresay, I’ve always dreamed of owning an establishment such as this.”

“Is that so?”

“No, of course not.” He didn’t bother to check and see if she so much as smiled cordially. “The odour could only be banished by tearing down the very walls, and one couldn’t remove the walls without welcoming the stench of the air outside.”

“Certainly no establishment is without room for improvement…or its own unique charms.”

How diplomatically sanctimonious.

“I hope you’re well, Gilfont?”

“Yes, quite. And yourself, Erileth?”

“Very well, thank you.”

“I trust your wife is in good spirits, as well?”

“Aiyrana is, thank you.”

“Excellent.”

As they seated themselves, the barkeep approached with a decanter of wine and two glasses.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Erileth said as he placed the items on the table, “I took the liberty of ordering the Fennwood Orchard red. As I recall, you have a fondness for fruit-forward wines with berry notes.”

“Indeed, thank you.” How very considerate.

As the barkeep shuffled away, the two of them extracted their handkerchiefs. Erileth placed the folded fabric upon the table, with the exposed corner featuring an embroidered, silver-blue “E”. Gilfont, taking care not to dirty the irridescent jewel-green and wine-red monogram on his own handkerchief, scrupulously rubbed the rim and bowl of his glass. Erileth took her time opening the decanter and poured the wine into his glass for him once he had finished. She filled her own glass before raising it between them.

“To your good health.”

“And to yours.”

They both drank. Gilfont wrinkled his nose slightly more than was necessary. He had grown more used to cheap wine than he would like to admit, despite his best efforts to avoid it as much as he could. Finishing his pointedly modest gulp, he brought his glass decisively back to the table.

“Very well, let us discuss the matter at hand. I take it you have looked into these Highvales?”

“I have,” Erileth replied seriously. “Absolutely awful.”

“Quite. Subjugating their people, assaulting their servants, draining the coins from the very pockets of their farmers… the family as a whole is positively atrocious. Greedy, self-important, cruel, absolutely tasteless… why, even their name is offensive to the sensibilities. ‘Highvale’… one cannot have a high vale, it is utterly-”

“They are abominable. And the townsfolk have no way of supporting a rebellion.” He bristled as Erileth interrupted him. “I’ve had several contacts look into the goods that the Highvales have delivered to their estate. They haven’t noticed anything that would be useful to us.”

“I’ve had my associates make inquiries, as well,” Gilfont said grimly, “and it seems that the only thing the Highvales are seeking is more money.” He made no effort to conceal his distaste. Most noble families cycled through a series of nouveautés du jour, savouring one expensive novelty before another came along to take its place. To predict what might catch their attention would be no better than taking a shot in the dark. Manufacturing a novelty and hoping to pique the family’s interest manually would be even more difficult. The time, effort, and meticulous planning it would take made the task arduous enough, before one also factored in the urgency of the townsfolks’ rebellion.

In short, it would be damn near impossible.

“If they aren’t looking to acquire anything that we could profit from providing them with, then it appears we are at an impasse.”

“Yes… it would.” Gilfont languidly stroked his beard. “I supposed we could try exploring other options… but to be perfectly truthful, I was really quite taken with the idea of funding the revolt with the family’s own money.”

“Yes,” Erileth agreed, “as was I.”

There was a moment of contemplative silence, which proceeded to stretch past the bounds of a single moment and filled a space so broad that it could almost be felt across the room.

The terse quiet was disrupted by the metallic clinking of the bell attached to the front door. The arrival of a dishevelled hawker coming to sell his ill-gotten jewels prompted the shuffling of chairs, the averting of gazes, and choruses of irritated expletives aimed in his direction.

It didn’t take long for the barkeep to forcibly remove the offending scoundrel… just long enough for his presence to plant a seed in the mind of a patron.

“Gilfont,” Erileth spoke slowly as the door shut firmly behind the hawker, “you said that the Highvales only seem to be interested in amassing their wealth, yes?”

“Of course. Their type always is.”

“I see…” she brought the last sips of wine to her lips, emptying the glass before replacing it on the table. She dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her handkerchief before putting it back into her vest. “I have the beginnings of an idea.”


CHAPTER 2

It was a bright, balmy afternoon when an elegant, black carriage wound its way over soft, green hills towards the Highvale Estate. Upon its arrival, the rider was welcomed into the grand Estate with the utmost hospitality. The finely-dressed, middle-aged gentleman was a jeweller & appraiser of great renown, having learned the craft from his father, who had learned it from his father before him, who had learned it from his mother before him.

Had he given the Highvale family his real name, it likely would have been recognized immediately.

However, following Gilfont and Erileth’s assessment of the family, the craftsman elected to use the alias he used in his work with the Harpers. He wasn’t being deceitful, per se… he was exactly who he said he was, in the sense that he often felt that his identity within the Harpers was a more accurate reflection of who he was than the one he used in his more above board business dealings. While this alias carried significantly less distinction than the name he was given at birth, decades of time and effort had given it just enough weight to be recognized by a small handful of Nobles on this side of the continent.

This was what made him the perfect candidate for the task at hand: a modestly-sized reputation among the wealthy that carried both the pomp of exclusivity and the novelty of mystery.

The Highvales responded to his letter almost instantaneously.

Like most Noble families, the Highvales’ penchant for excess lead them to have an unreasonable amount of fine gems and jewellery in their possession. After receiving a letter that hinted at an epidemic of irreputable merchants in the area, naturally leading to “honest people of means being duped into the purchasing of glass jewels”, the family, fearing for the perceived legitimacy of their fine jewellery (and subsequently, their reputation), commissioned the writer’s assistance in the appraisal of their own collection. The writer of the letter, with all due haste, made his way to the Highvale Estate, assistant and appraiser’s kit in tow, to assess the quality of the Highvale jewels and, if need be, discreetly save the reputation of the family.

What followed that day was a rather sad series of furrowed brows and troubled sighs from the appraiser. He hated to be the bearer of bad news, but there was no getting around it… these jewels were, regrettably, fake. The devastation of Mistress Highvale and the fury of Master Highvale was completely understandable, he had assured them. They were not the first, nor would they likely be the last, to be taken advantage of by dishonest jewel merchants. While there wasn’t much he could do as the identifier of this tragedy, the plight of the family moved him to offer them some recompense for the substantial amount of funds they had surely lost in the purchasing of these illegitimate pieces. “It won’t cover all of the losses, surely,” he had said, “but I hope this can restore some balance to this intolerably unjust situation.”

Grateful for the appraiser’s generosity and discretion, the Highvales sent him away at dusk with a full stomach and the majority of their jewels. While they were sure to speak ill of the merchants who had sold them the jewellery, it was unlikely that anyone would take their word over the word of hundreds of other customers who had the wisdom to purchase the corresponding certificates of authenticity that came with the wares.

That evening, the appraiser rode into town to deposit the exquisite, very legitimate jewels into the hands of a local Rebellion leader. He and his assistant met with Erileth when she arrived at the docks onboard a small ship to discuss the details of his meeting with the Highvales and the true value of the jewels.

“I do wish I could stay,” he said, “but considering the nature of the situation, I think it best that we depart first thing in the morning.”

“Of course,” Erileth replied. “How is your son?”

The appraiser shook his head with a half-smile. “Extremely pleased with himself. I told him that a full disguise was unnecessary for today, but he insisted on creating an entirely new identity, just for this afternoon. I can’t say that his satisfaction is completely undeserved, however… the boy managed to make himself look and sound ten years older.”

“You must be proud!”

“I am. The Harpers will be gaining a damned good actor, in a few years’ time… if that’s what he chooses. And I think he will.”

“We will be very lucky to have him,” she agreed. “I trust you’ve spoken to the Innkeeper at the Tanner? They’ve offered to host you free of charge for the night, as a token of gratitude.”

“I have.” A kind smile spread on the appraiser’s face. “But I couldn’t accept. I’ll be paying for the room tonight, and for the hospitality.”

Erileth regarded him warmly. “A true Harper.” She turned to look out at the water, dark and calm. “We sail out tomorrow. It seems that the wind will be on our side.”

“I wish I could see you off.”

“It will be an early morning for both of us. That being said, I won’t keep you…” She took his hands in a display of fellowship. “Safe travels tomorrow, my friend.”

“And a safe voyage to you, Erileth.” Unclasping her hands, the appraiser turned to leave. Pausing after two short steps, he spoke one more time.

“Oh, before I forget… how is Aiyrana’s wedding ring holding up?”

“Beautifully,” she replied with a fond smile.