The man in the gas mask leaned ever so slightly forward from the velvet chair in front of the princess' balcony. She stood there, trembling, yet defiant under the red moonlight that did nothing but make the shadows under the hood and blood-red hair of one of the most infamous criminals in Winterlight more menacing.
"I'm glad you said that, Princess Camilla, otherwise this would have been very boring." he stood up, carelessly stepping on the bodies of her unconscious knights. "I look forward to playing with you. My condolences for your father's death, and congratulations to your coronation tomorrow. Youngest queen of the kingdom, my, my, you have much to prove."
"I'm not afraid of you!" she blurted at his retreating back.
The masked man laughed, and without looking back at her said, "Of course!" he picked up her fallen crown on the floor and gazed at it. "In front of all this power, what can little ol' me do?"
* * * *
It was the dawn after the bloodmoon, the first day of winter and the celebration of the Frostfire Festival here in the grand bustling city of Winterlight. Hundreds of lanterns floated up to the sky over the city's cliffside, greeting the rising sun.
People were making merry, dancing in the streets lined with food stalls steaming with sizzling meat, and hawkers shouting out their magical wares to visiting folks from afar. There was talk of Princess Camilla's coronation at high noon, gladness and hope that a kind heart will rebuild what was left after the war the late King had lost against his sons and start a new era of peace. It had been a time of poverty and strife the past ten years when the King gave his lands to his three sons who fought over it, then turned against him when he tried to get it back. Now, victorious they had given the land they cared the least to their sister. The land most damaged, most divided by those greedy for power, where the innocents have been abandoned to pick up the pieces.
And this is where the stories of our heroes begin. As the dawn rose on the faces of the companions who had been travelling together for a while in search of one common goal:
A man named Lucien, whom they've learned dwelt in the underbelly of Winterlight's most crime ridden district, Lynch Wharf. In the territory of the crime boss, Sharkie Fastfingers, an informant had told them that Lucien frequented the popular tavern, Serenity, where he'd chill out listening to the local bards.
It was an hour's walk from the more light-hearted and cheerful city market square atop the cliffside, where a job board was being surrounded by mercenaries looking to earn some silver, a smithy bellowed smoke from its chimney, and an inn called the Jolly Bulldog was starting to serve breakfast to its patrons.
"How nice, this place seems to be in good spirits. Reminds me of that quaint town I was living peacefully, before that man ruined it all." The scarlet haired lady said to herself as she watched the town bustle around.
looking at stalls, and observing the people around her in a guise of being fasinated by the busy streets.
Asking the prices from food stalls, mechants and peddlers alike.
as soon as she deemed it as enough loitering around. She strolled towards the informant's info about Lucien's location.
Of course with her disguised on, she dared to hope not to spook her enemies.
'If the inn is really an inn, wouldn't it be thrilling to dive into danger and stay for the night?' she mused as she slowly went towards her destination
The maze like narrow streets of Lynch Wharf shadowed by the city above was crowded with shady folk and the homeless. Despite the poverty everyone seemed to be carrying weapons and wore armor of a sort, mostly make-shift, scrap metal and monster hide. At the side there were some rough looking men hunched over a body in an ally, rummaging through the pockets. Nobody cast them a glance, as they stood up, pocketed something and just dumped the body to the side, leaving red footprints in the snow as they walked away like this was normal.
There were no city guards around, as the scarlet haired lady made her way to the docks in the district, where what looked like a fisherman's fish and chips shack stood precariously over the river that ran underneath the city on crumbling pillars of rock. An old sign with peeling gold paint hanging above the roof said "Serenity". Here there were a handful of people outside.
There was a tavern maid smoking outside chatting up a fisherman who was cleaning his nets and hanging them on stick poles. A little girl was playing next to him all bundled up in her wintercoat and pretending to be princess. She had a crown on her head just like Princess Camilla's, a common festive toy being sold around Winterlight on this day that most of the kids on the topside of the city had been wearing. Up on the second floor on the balcony an oni, one of them oriental ogres with a horn jutting out of his head was playing the koto, singing something peaceful in his native tongue.
Inside the first floor of the tavern, the scarlet haired lady could see a fat man was drunkenly singing on a stage next to the flight of stairs that led to the second floor. A patron was drinking at the bar from a glass boot, while the barman, a young half-elven looking fellow with brown hair sat reading a book. And there in a corner next to the only other door that lead to the outside was a masked hooded red-haired man sitting on one of the round tables cramped inside, his feet up, a plate of what looked like finished breakfast on the table, listening to the fat man singing out of tune. Lucien.
He was alone on his table, lazying about it seemed. And he too had a princess crown on his head. Though this one was the prettiest imitation that the scarlet haired lady had seen today. It was uncannily realistic looking, the way the gems glinted in the morning light, down to the patina in the small nooks of the gold crown.
Contrasting the shady and dark place the tavern is. A black-haired girl that gives a cheerful aura as she carries a hearty meal by herself towards to the man that was identified as Lucien. The girl stands there and asks the shady man.
He didn't answer this stranger immediately, wating for the fat man to sing the last line before he clapped. " Oh, not at all." He glanced at her up and down. "Help yourself. That was a wonderful song, Marey, you are in, my man."
"Ugzz, thank-thank ya, boss." slurred the fat man, who stumbled over to the table and took the other free chair next to the raven haired girl. "Hey, pretty-hick-nice hair. Don, another beer over here!" He called to the barman. "Make it two." he winked at her.
"Coming right up, Mar." said the young man behind the counter.
Lucien had been looking at the raven haired girl the whole time, hands in his pockets. "That's very crass." he said, boots still up on the table. "You're supposed to introduce yourself first, then ask her what she likes."
"Oh, oops. Am Marley, they call me the Pudding Man ---"
"I don't think that's what you should say." began Lucien.
"--- but, not 'cause of this pudding." Marley chortled, slapping his belly. "But because of these." he showed his pudgy fists, scarred with warped bones from years of brutal use. "I make pudding. Make pudding out of bones."
Lucien clapped a hand over his own forehead.
"Impressive, right?" Marley grinned at her. "So, uh, what drink would you like?"
Just behind the merry patrons with too much to drink, Ferro glares from a distance while the girl and his target exchange banter, having tracked him down after getting a "tip" from one of the waiters. "Not yet. Not quite yet" he mumbles to himself as he takes another swig of what some might consider beer."Too many drunks, not enough exits". He pauses for a moment to reflect,
"Not enough help."
The raven-haired Girl ignored the fat guy enjoying his meal while she, herself, enjoys hers. "mhhhy nmmmn ishh Kat...." *swallows* "Pardon me. I was just really impressed by the food around here." The girl introduced herself as she munch on a chicken leg. "The name is Katarina. You're that notorious one that they call Lucien, right?"
"That'll be six silvers, and you get one free meal too on the house." said the brown haired half-elven bar tender, muttering a spell that summoned two ghostly hands that carried two mugs of beer over at Lucien's table. He slid a glass to her, amber with beer. "We have room seven and thirteen available, seven's got a great view of the river, thirteen's got a balcony." He pushed a ledger forward and a quill and ink for her to sign. "Take your pick and call me when you need anything else." He pushed two keys for the scarlet haired lady to pick from.
The barman then looked warily at the muttering Ferro sitting at the counter. "Tell you what, mister," he whispered,"if you leave now I'll give you another pint of beer on the house, what do you say?"
* * * *
At Lucien's table, he perked up. "Yes, that's my reputation. Though I haven't heard of a Katarina. Katarina who?"
Marley looked disappointed he was being ignored, and received the two pints of beer from the two floating ghostly hands.
Lianna whistled, clearly impressed. "I'll take seven, it seems to be a lovely view." 'and a quirky escape route too.' she mused as she took the quill and dipped it on the ink to sign the ledger. She took out 6 silvers out of her breast pocket.
After that ordeal, she took the glass and the keys.
She raised her glass "Cheers" and took a sip of the beer. she took a glance towards the rest. 'Play it cool, right now you're just a mere traveler. If things gets rough, might as well play along and give someone a potshot or two. '
"What's up with the festives today, did something happened?" she asked to the barman across the room.
"Just got here from a long travel, so news pass by me."
On a table near the bar, a cloaked young man with a flat cap sat alone, tapping his fingers to the oriental tune above. He was scanning the commotion among the patrons as he drank deeply from the same pint of ale ever so slowly.
'Straight to the mark, eh? Lady's got guts, I give 'er that,' he comments to himself as he watches the black haired lady chatter with his quarry.
As his eyes pass the barman, the woman and the mumbling man, he signals for another pint. As much as he'd like to eavesdrop on the conversation, he relents.
'You're in a bar, Lowe. A bar... with just the barman serving, a single barmaid on extended break, with a good band; a bad singer; and a psychopath. Might as well make a day outta it.'
He relaxed as his eyes then rest on the man with the glass boot. Amused at the sight, he tipped his hat wishing the man's clothes good luck. The flash of an idea flitted in his head.
He greets a random patron behind him.
"Ello there. I know this be outta nowhere, but I've got a pint betting that the boot drinker becomes a drenched mess before finishing that ale. Whaddya think?"
A smug grin traces across his face. Oh the wonders of boredom.
The barman turned back to Lianna, swept the silvers off the counter and put away the ledger and extra key. He was surprised. "You haven't heard? Today's Princess Camilla's coronation, it's what everyone's talking about up there. Today's a good day to visit, if it's your first time here, lots of fun things happening above. Apart from the food, there's going to be a parade, tournaments, and I heard that a travelling fair's come to the city too with exotic monsters for show."
He then overheard Lowe's conversation with a customer that just came in and looked at him with a grin. "Yeah? You gonna bop that guy?" He looked at the man drinking who looked at Lowe like I'm-right-here-and-I-hear-you. He looked like a common thug, and glared at Lowe.
"Don't you dare, boy, I earned this drink." growled the man.
The patron that just came in looked interested that a fight's probably going to happen. "Tell you what kid, I'll bet a pint he kicks your butt."
"Hey, hey," said the barman calmly, " Come on folks, it's too early in the morning for this. I don't fancy rebuilding my dad's bar for the third time this week. You, and you, please leave." He looked at Ferro and Lowe.
"Yeah, you're right, I'm just a nobody." She continues with her cheery personality still intact. "One probably won't remember most of the people that came in to their lives." With a hint of seriousness, she finished her meal that looks like it might feed 2-3 people. "That was delicious!" She stands as she lean towards Lucien. "So, with such a man of your reputation, what are you doing in a place like this? I can't believe that you're just lodging in. Right?"
People around her are starting to look at their direction. With how the space around them are filled with different kinds of noise, one can feel a tense and menacing air around contrasting this girls radiant smile.
Ferro suddenly snaps back to reality. He was on the bar counter, right next to anyone that can easily hear him mutter his plans. This is what you get for talking to rabbits and frogs.
And yet this opportunity has presented itself quite nicely.
He looks back at the barman waiting for his reply. "Actually, I'd rather watch this spectacle right here, boss-man". Ferro hollered to the new patron as he got up from his stool,"My pint's on the boy! He looks like he's been around the block!"
The young man shook his head. "Ay, ay, I ain't done any mentioning 'bout a fight. 'Twas all youse suggestin' I, a harmless customer, hit another, boss," he shrugged.
He shifted his weight forward, rubbing his chin.
"If you've got some beef you want settled by a third party, hire a sellsword; I don't want noneya business," Lowe grinned at the half-elf before the man was distracted by Katarina's shenanigans.
Without missing a beat, he grabbed his drink and placed a silver down on the table.
"Don't worry. I'll be off soon as I... finish me drink," he raised his glass to the bootman and sipped at an even slower pace, giving Katarina a wink behind the amber glass.
"No fighting in the tavern, miss." said the bartender to Katarina.
"Why'd you bet I'd get drenched then?" said the man who had been drinking from the glass boot at Lowe. The patron who'd just come in shook his head disappointed there won't be a fight and took a seat at the bar.
At Lucien's table, he had sighed in disappointment too when Katarina went over to the bartender. He and Marley were looking over at the group. Then Lucien leaned forward looking straight at Ferro and Lowe's back as though he recognized them. Then he chuckled.
Marley muttered something to him. Lucien replied in a voice just as quiet. The two placed silvers on the table, then stood up and left through the other door next to their corner, Lucien going out first with Marley looking at the group, blocking their view of him.
A high pitched whistle from Lucien sounded outside, and immediately there were footsteps on the second floor, the opening and closing of a door, then the footsteps moved towards his direction.
One of those footsteps came down and the oni appeared at the foot of the stairs. He was so tall he had to stoop not to hit the roof. "Don, I heard you yell. Is something wrong?"
"Just some hoodlums riling up my customers." said the bartender. "Nothing happened . . . yet."
"Ah . . .Well, I guess I'll just practice the classics here then." He sat cross-legged on the stage and began to play.
This seemed to relax the bartender enough to continue chatting. "If it's food then I recommend Zig and Zowe's Delectable Delicacies if you're feeling adventurous. They're gnomes and they invent weird magical sweets. Last year, they had canary creams, people were suddenly bursting all over the place covered in yellow feathers."
"Wow, that's IS interesting... How about the tournaments and parades? will the newly crowned queen show up on a parade?"
she said as she played along, interested.
'nah, can't be that lil unless they're THAT good.' She shook her head a bit ' then again, we're talking about a manaic here. I doubt that crown he got was fake, looks too shiny to be fake.'
"Say, if you don't mind asking. Ya got any rumors running round here? or people to avoid to stepping on others toes? A good friend of mine left me a good note about being cautious." she casually asked.
'Not a friend. He's the bastard to burned down a small town. People mostly think people who asks these questions are seasoned traveller who doesn't like conflicts or problem on their short visit... or they're like me who used to do recon. '
"Oh? Did it looked that way?! Ahaha! But I am just a young girl. I wonder why would anyone think that way." She glances at the direction where Lucien, Marley, and some others went. She was then greeted by the freakishly large Oni. Katarina whispered at the bartender, "is that Oni a bouncer here? He appeared when Lucien whistled earlier." She crossed her arms and wonders. "Do I really look like I will cause a big ruckus?"
'Damnit,' Lowe squints his eyes at the fat bastard who blocked the mark's exit. He watched the escape unfold like a hawk, all until the door creaked shut. Surprised the boot drinker wasn't part of the posse, he got up and approached the man.
'Might be best not to antagonize non-affiliates. 'Tis for the better anyway. This be his turf; he's bound'ta show up some other time, soon. Best be able set up camp 'ere nearby,' he thought calming himself, holding up a finger as he finished his drink.
"Glass boots, chap." Lowe explained, placing his mug onto the counter. "Always been a prank in every pub back 'ome. Continue chuggin' the way you did and you'll find out why." He gave the man a pat on the shoulder, turned towards the barman and tipped his hat.
"Y'all'ave a nice day," he bid them adieu, stepping out the way he came in hoping to track their mark outside.
"You were really giving off a very obvious menacing vibe, getting up into Lucien's face like that." He said to Katarina. "There's one of the people whose toes you don't want to step on. " the barman added to Lianna, stepping around the counter to go clean up Lucien's table.
"I don't know what happened between you and him, miss, but take this advice. Drop it." He looked at Katarina seriously. "No sense throwing your life away and get it taken by hatred."
The man drinking the glass boot shrugged Lowe's hand off grumbling. The other patron he almost had a bet with nodded at him. "Come back if you're bettin' more free beer!" he called after him.
When Katarina mentioned the Oni the barman shook his head. "Nah, Akashi here plays for his rent. Though he helps me out if people will make trouble."
The oni looked up at them all and smiled placidly. "I take it you must be why he left." He looked at Katarina. "Get in his face, did you?" He chuckled. "That's really bad business for us. He pays well here and pays a lot when he stays longer. Please don't do that again. Fights around here with people like him deal a lot of collateral damage to us folks who are just trying to get by. Best take it somewhere where no one else gets hurt, you know?"
The two other patrons were listening with interest now.
"Darn right. All these young blood swaggering around like they own the place." scoffed the glass boot man giving Katarina a nasty look. "I tell you things are gonna change once Princess Camilla will be queen. She's gonna route all these bad blood off the streets!"
The other patron who ordered a pint himself from the bartender who was now washing the dishes back behind the counter laughed. "Nahh, nothing's gonna change. Good intentions aren't enough, you gotta have real power you know? She don't got none of that."
"She got the army. The crownsguards." Said glass boot man.
"Yeah, well then why hasn't she done anything for us folks down here then?" And the two started to argue.
The bartender sighed and returned his attentions to Lianna, telling her about the crime bosses in the area and how just keeping her head down and minding her own business is good enough to stay out of trouble.
Meanwhile, outside, Lowe could swear he was being followed.
Lowe circled around to the door where Lucien and posse made their exit. His footsteps slowed to a leisurely, or rather, cautionary pace. An uneasy twitch from the top of his head. Whether reflex, intuition, or just plain nerves out of whack, the feeling is way too strong to ignore.
'Too big a crowd to rustle up a fight, too small to blend in. Not here,' Lowe decided, placing his scarf over his face like a mask. His eyes scanned the surroundings for signs of anything he can use to confirm the presence of pursuers without needing to look back. No mirrors nor surface would let him: not even a clean window sill in sight. 'As expected.'
An alleyway presents a chance to get away.
'Wouldn't mind a little detour to get these guys off my back.'
He turns into the alley, momentarily increasing his pace while placing the hood of his cloak on his head. Onto another turn, he removes his cloak and carries it on his arm, wearing only his cap. In yet another turn, he puts on his cloak once more and removes his cap, revealing a shock of dark brown hair, with tufts that look like white tipped fox ears, rustling with each step.
After about ten minutes of playing cats and mouse, he noticed his stalkers have given up chase. He goes back onto the street by the river's edge, finding Lucien walking albeit with his flabby friend nowhere in sight. He approaches one of the fishermen on the wharf, rubbing his chin.
"Ello there. Interesting fish this is. Haven't seen something quite like it from back 'ome. What's this fish called?" he strikes a conversation with the wrangler, pointing at a particular fish on the haul. He takes a glance at their mark, keeping tabs on him.
'Whatderya up to now?' under the scarf, his mouth curls into a frown.
"Yeah, noted chief. Give those two patrons two drinks, I'll pay it later." Lianna smiles at the barman then goes to Katerina. "Gotta say, you're pretty ballsy to do something like that. you can call me Ana. Nice to meet 'cha."