The North Estate
The fire burst into a brighter glow than the fireworks display could muster even at the finale. Flames sparked to life from the cocktail Quinn had thrown in the direction of the Tainted before ducking back into the estate accompanied by the calculated barrier crafted by Tamerlin. The wind, it seemed, was in Quinn’s favor, for the angry dance of fire curled and twisted its smoke and embers towards the howling beast too wounded to make a run for it. It gave a slow descent, stiff and fighting against the effects of the Night Elixir before ultimately succumbing in a groan upon collapse. No one at the party wanted to stick around to see the skillful effects. No one but Betaley North.
Taking a step forward, her eyes were transfixed on the flickering span of fire that engulfed a significant portion of her back yard that threatened to spread to the gardens where she stood. The oil lamps that lined the shrubbery walls glowed in muted jealousy of the inferno with not but a jig in their wick to give to the chaos. The screams were getting further away as the masquerade turned its tail en masse to the other side of the estate.
Tamerlin danced before the fire as if in ritual tandem, his shouts directing the frightened away from the steadily forming elemental wall. He was too close now to the fire raging upon the once-Tainted, the naked body of a man resting upon the bed of grass behind Tamerlin’s barrier. Betaley couldn’t see if the man was breathing through the waves of heat. She couldn’t recall the name the Crowned Prince had used when addressing the short partygoer dressed as a wood nymph. He hardly looked as drunk as he acted before.
When the crowd had cleared leaving only herself in the garden, she rushed towards a watering can and shoved the tinny base into the lily pond. The metal clinked in protest of its newly acquired weight as she pulled it from the depths, careful to avoid the fish that scurried away from her sudden submergence. Labor of any kind was uncommon for a woman of her birth and stature, and it was unlike anything she had ever endeavored to do in her life. Her arms immediately ached in protest to the activity, and she quickly closed the distance between her and Tamerlin to set the watering can before him.
“Help me put out the fire!” she commanded. “I want that man alive!”
She rushed away to find another basin or bucket to fill with water. It was a lucky find, that watering can, and Betaley had to decide in a matter of seconds whether to look through the gardens for another means or to look inside the house. The heels of her dress shoes tore through the grass as she turned to her left and headed for the door that led into the estate. She knew the table lined with food and drink would yield fruitful results, and from such prospects she grabbed a bowl to test its weight with the bits of fruit tumbling over the golden laced edges.
The sound of footsteps calmly crossing the wood floor caused Betaley to halt. Her eyes met with Prince Jerian as he crossed through the dining hall towards the central green. Another howl, distant, yet very much indoors, echoed from the stairwell leading down to the Servant’s Wing.
“Lady North,” Prince Jerian addressed politely. It prompted her to bow lowly in mechanical displays that were second nature to her. The act, she felt, held no regard or respect for the Prince. He carried with him an eerie calm in the face of it all, unphased by the bestial call that echoed in the halls behind him.
“Your majesty,” she said in return. He said nothing more to her, parting ways with nothing but the sound of his footsteps joining with his personal guards. Once he was out of sight, she dumped the fruit on the table and rushed back out the door.
Doctor Jax Red Thunder
Half a second passed before Milly’s decision was made. Acting on instinct, the brutish cry having snapped her fraught mind into focus, she lunged forward, silently, to block Nadrid and Lenna from leaving the threshold. Her arm, invisible still, was thrown out as well, though she was unsure whether or not it had made contact with their chests. Adrenaline coursed through her veins as the Tainted’s resonance grew near, but she was aware of what had to be done. She just needed to be alive in order to do it.
“Stop.” Milly said aloud, softer than a whisper, but forcefully… desperately. She took a step backwards, towards the threshold. “Get back inside…”
Kylar watched as the two attempted a breakout, as well as watching Lenna whisper something into Nadrid's ear, though he was too far away to hear what was said. His eyes followed them and as they moved towards the door Kylar followed from above, his every step being carefully placed so that he made as little noise as he could. As the duo drew closer to the door he watched as they paused, either reconsidering or from an outside force, though with the people that were around tonight, he wouldn't put it past being the latter over the former.
As slowly as he could he lowered himself to the ground, his feet hitting the cold ground with a light thud, the soft leather of his boots absorbing most of the landing and making it quiet. He walked onwards and stopped just out of striking range if Nadrid had a sword or dagger to stick him with. "I cannot allow you to take her, it is too dangerous and you endanger far too many just for the sake of one. So I will ask nicely, please turn around and go back to the cages. It's safest for everyone considering current circumstances." He said raising his voice just enough so that he could be heard clearly from behind his mask, his hands held in a non threatening manner.
The pair had halted before the doorway as it seemed to tell them to stop. Lenna's hand slipped down to the hilt of Nadrid's dagger at his side between them. He did not move, but heard the click of claws against the stone floor and the huffs and sniffs of the nearing beast. And once Kylar's voice chimed in behind them, Lenna unsheathed the dagger and spun about to meet the man that threatened her.
"I'll not go back in there," she spat threateningly. "Back off."
Just as the Tainted rounded the corner, Milly, still invisible, managed to enter the threshold and swing the door shut. She was shaking, but whether it was due to anger or fear, she could not tell.
Releasing her spell, Milly blinked back into existance and immediately took a few steps forward, eyes aflame with anger and indignation. Level with Lenna, Milly raised a finger at Kylar's chest.
"Have you forgotten what we stand for? How dare you tell her that!"
Glancing and gesturing around, where people in cages dominated the room, Milly shivered, and looked back at Kylar wonderingly. She made a face before turning away.
Plucking a small set of lock picks from within her heeled shoe, Milly looked to Nadrid. "Can you get the door to lock from the inside? We need time to free these people."
Kylar looked at Milly and sighed, annoyed with Milly though at least he now knew why the two had stopped. "I forget nothing, but let me ask you, have you thought of the risks that come with this? Because I won't have a dead innocent on my hands because of your negligence." He said, his voice not reaching above that of a whisper for her ears only, he took a breath, oriening himself before focussing back on the matter at hand.
"I'll lock the doors, I'm better suited to this in case the blasted creature gets in here. When we leave, I suggest that all of you come with us, we can keep you safe and hidden from the nobility." He said as he rushed to the door, pulling out his own set of picks and getting to work on the door.
Nadrid placed a hand on Lenna’s shoulder causing a flinch and a sharp inhalation of air. The haggard woman was clearly on edge, reluctant to draw away from her stance and focus on Kylar. “There’s another way,” she said through the dark. The caged servants held their breath and quiet sobs.
“I can’t see a thing,” Nadrid said. It was remarkable the conditions to which these people were subjected to, all for the Cabal. But Lenna had spent enough time in the pitch black of the room to orient herself even from the cage. Another howl billowed from outside the door from the champion beast that hunted the lot inside the room. It had not caught on fully to their whereabouts, but by the sound of its howl it was getting close.
A soft glow filled the room as Nadrid removed a stick of everglow from a runed piece of cloth. It was no more than the length of his finger, slightly thinner, and carried the faint blue hue of arcane. It was enough glow to light up a portion of the small room to reveal about thirty cages stacked in threes along each wall. Not every cage was occupied, and those that were had varying degrees of the abuse evident upon their bodies in hashed scarring and bony structure.
“Put away the dagger, Lenna,” Nadrid said lowly. “Hold this for me.”
She still held reluctance, and it took her a second more to exchange the dagger for the everglow stick. Nadrid sheathed his weapon and politely took Molly’s offered set of picks. “Do you have another set?” he asked as he motioned to the locks upon the cages. “It would go faster with the two of us.”
Fireworks crackled and sparked within the view of the balcony the king chose for his private viewing. The clouds in the night sky held higher in the atmosphere allowing the vibrant colors to strike without being masked. A cushioned chair and footrest was brought out for his leisure with a bottle of wine. It was a humid night in Windfeld with a welcoming breeze at such heights to make the venture a little less unbearable.
The king looked content, legs crossed over the footstool in not but his stockings, a lavish robe draped over his shoulders. His head carried the crown even in his relaxation and beading sweat, silver hair wisping from the wind of his fan. The soft padding of steady footsteps caused his head to turn ever so slightly, though he still kept his gaze to the fireworks display.
“What wonders from Estwynd,” he said to his guest. “It is unfortunate their political system is flawed. I would have liked to marry off one of my own to the High Ruler.”
“You could still do it,” Sothal said as he approached the chair his father sat upon. The king looked up at him with a smirk.
“Ah, I was hoping it was you,” he said. “No, marrying the High Ruler is a pointless endeavor. Once they die, their children do not become the successor. It’s a mess.”
“Their people prefer it,” Sothal said in return. “It seems to have its benefits. A king or queen picked by the people for the people.”
“Mark my words,” the king muttered, “Estwynd will fall by their own doings. There’s a reason Kong’s and queens here are ordained by birthright. Faledrin would fall to ruin if the throne is usurped. The knowledge of how to do better, how to run this kingdom, is passed on by birthright.”
“Wasn’t it your great grandfather who usurped the throne when he was Jerian’s age?”
“From his tyrant uncle,” the king defended.
“And still the people suffer in less than desirable living,” Sothal stated. “That tyrant uncle insured the completion of the underground sewers and your great grandfather took the credit for the decrease in disease.”
A frown formed on the king’s already disgruntled expression, and he looked up at his son in offense. “Shouldn’t you be at that party?” he asked as he nodded to the fireworks. The last one popped in the sky, bursting into an array of purples and blues before crackling into nothing leaving only a trail of smoke that quickly disappeared into the night.
“I was,” Sothal began to explain. “I've come to inform you of what I had witnessed. It appears our nobility have aligned themselves with the Cabal in efforts to create Tainted from their servants.”
The king hummed in thought and heaved a sigh. “Emrys,” he began, “the Cabal is a financial asset we need. Do you know what we have too much of? The common folk. The men and women who disease our kingdom because they weren’t fit for anything else in their miserable lives. Do you know what we have too little of? Money. Money is how we can feed all these greedy mouths and clean our streets. We’re the laughing stock of the Allied Kingdoms. We can’t even forge a decent army from the weak metal of my people. You need to learn how to make sacrifices for the greater good, Emrys.”
It took every ounce of his will not to lash out at his father, his king, for such an ignorant and uncaring mindset. Instead, Sothal grabbed the bottle of wine and began to drink from it, instigating a rumbling chuckle from his father at the sight.
“Jerian says you drink too much,” the king said. “Says it fogs your brain.”
“The common folk are the backbone of this society,” Sothal challenged as he ignored his remark. “They are the ones bringing in the fat and oil from the whales out on the Glassy we use to trade with our allies. All their hard work goes into parties and imported glittering and pointless explosions while we allow their disease ridden lives to perpetuate creating a cycle of distaste towards the very people keeping our heads above water.”
“Watch your drunkard tongue,” the king spat as he snatched the bottle away. “If they’d done their jobs better I wouldn’t have had to call for the Cabal to bail us out of debt.”
“Where did our reserves go?” Sothal demanded. “Last quarter it was there per treasurer. We were still in the clear.”
“It’s been longer than a quarter, Emrys,” the king said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Lord Trennan and I discussed matters of the treasury in private when he noticed it was on decline. I saw no need to alert the council until I could figure out if there was a solution or if there was none.”
“Innocent people are dying due to your exchange with the Cabal,” Sothal noted. “How did we lose that much of our reserves so quickly?”
“What matters is we have nothing to fear,” the king said as he rose from his chair.
“I am your successor and yet I feel as though you’re leaving me in the dark,” Sothal said.
“You’re in the dark because you choose to be,” the king said simply. “Let us hope for all our sakes I don’t die anytime soon. You’re not ready to rule. Not fit.” As he stepped back into the castle, he turned around to look back at his son with a cool expression. “Oh, I am remarrying in a fortnight. My future wife will be in town in a few days. I want you here to meet her.”
“As you wish, my king,” Sothal said dutifully, and bowed his head respectfully as he took his leave.
It was late into the night by the time Jerian De Genisos graced the halls of the castle. He didn't seem in much of a hurry as he meandered and conversed with a few individuals as he passed. His guards were no longer at his side having been dismissed practically as soon as he stepped over the threshold. There was an air of confidence, both in security of his surroundings and in himself as he walked. At this hour it was practically just him and the midnight crew about their duties, mostly comprised of guardsmen at their stations.
His first stop was, as predicted, Alyse’s quarters. He knocked on the door, waiting a moment for an answer and finding not even a peep. After confirming with the guards she was in her room for the night, he turned away to head for his own quarters just down the hall. This hall created a blind spot between the guards stationed at Alyse’s door and the guards at his own.
It was an odd feeling, lying in wait. Idly, Cordelia wondered how people like Kylar stomached it. Of course, he was used to it, and no doubt it still weighed heavily on him, but even knowing she did not intend to harm him, there was a strange sense of anxiety… a dread.
Getting in had been surprisingly simple. She had flashed a little ankle to one of the guards with the veiled suggestion that Jerian was expecting her arrival. His boldness at the masque had seemed a fairly key indicator that he was the sort of man to entertain even a lowly housemaid, and the guard hadn’t batted an eye when she’d slipped in.
And there, she waited. She felt small in the massive chamber, decorated lavishly with ornately carved furnishings and luxurious fabrics. A fire had been stoked to life, and a small silver tea set sat on the table by the hearth. Sitting in the large upholstered chair, she sat… silent, anticipating his arrival.
There was no verbal exchange between Jerian and the guards outside his door. The only indication he had approached his chambers was the clattering of armor as they formally stiffened their stances, and the oak door groaned upon entry. A sigh could be heard from where Cordelia sat accompanied by the shuffle of feet headed for the foot of the bed.
“Where is that damned manservant,” he muttered, and then called out. “Morgan!”
“You gave Morgan the night off. Or well, that's what the schedule says, anyway.” Rising, Cordelia turned to the prince with a wan smile, “Hello, Jerian. Best not make a fuss. Not if you want answers.”
There was surprise initially on Jerian’s features, but only for just a moment before turning to a pleasantly pleased smirk. “An unexpected surprise,” he said, and held out his arms wide. “Come to have another dance?”
“Hm. No.” Shaking her head, she stepped around the chair, watching him with an amused expression, but watching nevertheless, “I make it a point not to dance with men who've tried to kill me. Tends to spoil the fun. I need some answers, myself, incidentally. I'm proposing a trade.”
His smirk widened to a toothy grin, a huff of a laugh escaping him. “Propose away,” he said with an outward motion of his hand, and propped his boot upon the trunk at the end of his bed to begin to unfasten the buckles.
Taking a step, she lifted her shoulders in a shrug, “The way I see it… we've no need to be enemies. I'm willing to forgive your impulsive behavior… and tell you what you want to know. If you're willing to tell me what exactly you've got planned in that pretty head of yours.”
Once the buckles were unfastened, Jerian sat upon the trunk to remove the boot, and then the other, his head turning over to look at her still carrying his amusement. “I plan to give you a good time,” he said melodically. “Consensual and non-sexual, of course. Unless you feel inclined.”
A brow lifted, and Cordelia met his eye with a smirk, “That depends, I suppose, on how cooperative you are. And, decidedly, what your definition of a good time is. Curious change of heart, though. All things considered.”
“What can I say?” he said as he set his boots aside. “So what is it you think I want to know?”
“The Cabal’s intentions. And my own, I imagine.” Her eyes flickered to the boots, then back up to Jerian, “Something, by the way, you could have asked me, privately. Instead of before your little circus of nobles.”
He slowly stood, eyes fixed on the gaslight blue eyes of the woman before him as he bridged the gap in a confident stride. “Close,” he said as he neared enough for his breath to brush against her hair. “I'm more interested in your relationship to my brother.”
His hand rolled out and next to her arm nearly touching the fabrics of her garments. “I give you permission to look at whatever you like,” he whispered. “However long you’d like.”
Unmoving, Cordelia tilted her head to view his face, dangerously close, “What makes you think I've a relationship to your brother? Maybe I'm just a really good dancer?”
“Final offer,” he said sweetly. “Either speak up or get out.”
Smiling coyly, Cordelia shrugged, “I've known Emrys for some time, now. I suppose you might say our relationship is complicated. He's privy to some of my secrets. As I am, his.”
He kept his hand barely against her arm, palm upward in offering as he kept his fixed stare upon her. “Vague it is, then,” he whispered. “I've done this before, you know. People make what you do seem more complicated than it really is. It's like dreaming. Just like dreaming.”
“Like dreaming…” Cordelia agreed, and shifting, she reached up, fingertips brushing his palm, before laying flat against it. Cautious, still, she closed her eyes and with a breath, sank into the man's mind.
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