Parcifal was standing on the docks, watching the good ship Autania as it gracefully waded through the peaceful waters of Hobb's Bay; the wind was at her stern, her sails full. She was making good speed.
"I hope the damn thing sinks and they all drown," said Parcifal with a deep scowl on her proud face. Behind her, the small harbor was settling into its nightly rhythm. Rowdy sailors were looking for the next tavern in line to get drunk and have a brawl, the traders were finishing up their business with shady-looking characters and the fishermen were readying their nets for the break of dawn and their next catch.
Lernea was sitting right beside her on the stony pier, her naked feet dangling in the water. She asked Parcifal with a look of tempered sadness:
"Does that mean we can't go back?"
"No, we can't go back Lernea," replied Parcifal with a sigh and a shook her head. Her piercing hazel eyes were stuck gazing somewhere beyond the rosy-red horizon, fiddling with her cropped red hair.
Lernea nodded with understanding and raised an eyebrow. She noticed Parcifal had an angry, bothersome look about her and knew her timing was off. But she had to ask her anyway:
Parcifal turned her head slowly around and stabbed Lernea with a fierce look before answering coldly:
"Not as long as the Jangdrivals are in power and the Unseen Council remains in place, not while the Eleven Pillars stand and the Noble Eagles fly above the Skarlas, no." Her tone was harsh, unerringly final.
Lernea put a finger on her lip and spent a few moments playing with a lock of her long, brown hair. She then frowned from frustration and asked her sister once more:
"Is that never ever, or really just a long time?"
"You vex me, sister. Never means never," said Parcifal dryly.
"Well, didn't master Sisyphus always say, 'never say never'?" replied Lernea with a hesitant smile creeping up on her lip. Parcifal's visage turned suddenly sorrowful, like a noble, sleek and gray statue in the palace grounds they would never see again.
"Master Sisyphus is dead, Lernea."
"That doesn't mean he was wrong, though. Never is such a final word, you know?" retorted Lernea and stood upright on her toes, with hands on her waist. She faced her sister with a bright smile full of optimism which Parcifal clearly did not share. Her sister's attitude made Parcifal's sadness turn into barely suppressed anger at Lernea's persistence to face their new reality.
"Get it right in that little thick skull of yours, Lernea. We are, never, going, back, to, Nomos. Never!" she shouted, a lone finger rapping at Lernea's breastplate with a clanging sound after every word. Lernea's eyes wandered to her chest for a moment, before her face reddened and her breathing became more pronounced. Her nostrils flared up and she turned her gaze at her sister. She pouted her lips and said icily:
"Don't do that."
"Well, I think I'll just do what I please from now on," replied Parcifal; her face had the look of a poised hawk.
"I hate it when you do that," said Lernea in the same vein, shaking her head slowly with mounting irritation.
"I know, that's why I do it."
"You're such a child," replied Lernea with disdain.
"Says the one who can't accept defeat!"
Parcifal's loud tone made a few heads turn and look. Lernea did not even notice they were attracting the attention of the locals, and added her own shouts to the rising din of their heated debate.
"This isn't about winning or losing, by Skrala! You can't be that daft!"
"You're the one that got us into this mess in the first place, remember?" said Parcifal with arms crossed on her chest. Lernea flailed her arms wildly around her while moving about nervously.
"Oh, really now that's just so typical, trying to put the blame on me like we're still meddling with the master's spellbook!"
"Well, I'm not the one who married Therion Jangdrival on a whim and got us exiled!" remarked Parcifal with wide open arms and a mocking smile. Lernea's reply was filled with overtones of shock and disgust, her face screwed up, her revulsion evident in every word.
"It was him or Gheighran! Have you even seen Gheighran? He's a walking swamp-thing, not a man!"
Parcifal shook her head and berated her slightly older sister, her face suddenly grim and her voice low-keyed and even.
"Is that how you make decisions about your kingdom, my Queen? Based on looks and appearances? Only if mother were alive..."
She let her voice trail off and ventured a look towards the ocean. The Autania's sail was barely visible, the light of day growing dimmer with every passing minute. Lernea was looking at her feet, feeling scolded and reprimanded like a child. Yet, when she talked next she had the voice of a proud woman:
"Mother made mistakes as well in her reign."
"Yes, she did," said Parcifal nodding and went on to shout, "She gave birth to you!"
"We're only a minute apart, you stupid-"
Lernea stopped in mid-sentence even as her mouth began to form the word 'cow'. She had instinctively flung her arm and was grabbing at what seemed to be a child's arm attached to a hand holding her coinpurse.
"Hey," she said and turned to look nearly right behind her. There was a short person standing there, all dressed up in dark leather and an impossibly bland, expressionless face.
Parcifal grabbed a silver, teardrop-shaped knife from her waistband and took a step towards her sister's side where the short person stood frozen, said person pretending he was nothing more than a misplaced piece of furniture. He seemed to be holding his breath.
"A thieving scum, and a bad one at that, eh?"
"Bugger," said the short person with a whiz. Out of breath, he looked sideways at the bristling knife-point and suddenly sucked on air through his nostrils loudly. His body relaxed and he let the bulging coinpurse drop to the wooden pier with a heavy jingle.
Lernea made a grimace and turned her head away from the short man.
"I can see why you held that breath of yours. Could even kill a man; one of your stature, at least."
Parcifal seemed less inclined to comment on the aspiring thief's lack of mouth hygiene. She looked at him with mixed feelings of curiosity and frustration, brandishing her knife accusingly.
"Barely stepped foot on this land, and here's our greeting. Couldn't resist our riches, little man?" asked Parcifal, her shiny breastplate protruding from the rest of her body armor straight at the thief's face.
"Be fair, my fair lady! Wasn't ogling your, ehm, lady parts or anything, your gracefulness. Not that they're not worth to, well, ogle," he said with an awkward smile and looked up to Parcifal like a man seeking redemption in prayer.
Lernea punched him in the gut without warning; the short little man doubled over, his face flustered. He looked momentously surprised and awestruck, rather than simply hurt; he seemed to have some trouble breathing.
"She was talking about our money, our armor, our valuables! Really, to address any woman in such a fashion."
Parcifal turned and looked at her sister with a bewildered expression, squinting her eyes slightly, her knife still aimed at the thief's general direction who was trying to stand up again to his full four feet of height.
"It's all about being a queen proper, isn't it? He was addressing me, not you!"
Lernea grinned and straightened her hair before she mused mostly to herself:
"You really can't get over the fact I am the firstborn, rightful heir to the throne and all that, can you?"
"The fact is, you're a spoiled brat if I've ever se-"
Parcifal left her sentence incomplete as she noticed the coinpurse, as well as the thief, had simply vanished out of sight. She looked at the milling crowd behind them reflexively. In the scarce light of the setting sun she spotted the rather short leather-clad thief, idly walking about with his hands in his pockets.
She ran after him while Lernea hurriedly put on her boots and followed close behind. With little effort she nudged her way past a couple of bystanders who were idly having a smoke and grabbed the man by his cloak. She lifted him up like a runaway child and handed him over to Lernea, who grabbed him with both hands from his vest's collar. The sisters sported positively miffed, if not thunderous, looks. The short little man exploded with furious indignation:
"I do say! What manner of outrage is this now? Bellicose women running rampant in the streets? Is there no law, no order in this cauldron of misery and debauchery? Guards! Guards!"
The sisters looked at the man intently for a moment, examining him like some sort of exotic bug.
"It's him," said Parcifal and Lernea nodded affirmatively and added, "There's no mistaking that breath."
The man looked at each of them with a deeply hurt, vastly presumptuous look and raised a hand before speaking. His eyes remained closed haughtily for the better part of his little speech:
"I can dispense with the insult to my dwarven heritage concerning my breath since as a gentleman, I am aware that great allowances should be made for differences of custom and training. I can understand from your appearance you are foreigners, probably fresh off the boat, clearly confused and utterly misguided as to the identity of my person. Although you are clearly lacking in proper lady-like training and manners, such is my gentleness and strength of character, that I am willing to forgo any and all legal accusations and forthcoming tribulations against your persons, should you deposit me safely and unharmed on the ground so I may go about my business."
Parcifal turned her head and looked at Lernea with a raised eyebrow. Lernea shot back her sister a familiar look and nodded, before upending the short man who claimed to be a dwarf. She then proceeded to hold him by his legs and shake him vigorously. Other than a couple of bored, curious looks, no-one seemed particularly inclined to question what has happening. In Hobb's Bay, anything less than a stabbing wasn't a matter of interest.
A few moments later a rush of metallic clangs was heard as various items fell on the cobbled street.
"Aha!" said Lernea gleefully, while her sister shook her head with an uncertain look on her face. The short little man who claimed to be a dwarf and a gentleman no less was looking at the two ladies sternly, his short grey ponytail swinging as he lay hanging upside down, his hands crossed on his chest like some sort of human-like bat having a difficult time sleeping. His cloak brushed against the items that had fallen from his person; a small metallic disc with a chain, a gold, flat square tin like a cigar holder, and a small, thin stiletto.
Parcifal pouted her lips and made a rolling motion with her hands to Lernea, which went largely unnoticed. Lernea said with a wide grin:
"What say you now, thief?"
She made sure to intone the word thief as it meant someone oozing gritty, unhealthy amounts of slime from every available orifice.
Parcifal bulged her eyes and made frantic motions to Lernea to put the man down, pointing to the unfamiliar items that had fallen on the ground instead of the expected loot, their property. Lernea finally took a look on her own and hesitantly put the short man back on his own two feet. He looked at them with a most severe look that implied he could not find the words to begin to describe his feelings.
"I cannot find the words to even begin to describe my feelings," he said with a face torn from disgust and disdain. "You should be ashamed. I fear, I cannot in right conscience call you ladies," he said, dusted off his cloak, straightened his vest and pants and walked away briskly without another word.
Parcifal looked at him in mute disbelief, while Lernea picked up the man's items from the ground, spending a mere moment to examine them. His small figure had almost disappeared into the mass of people crowding the busy street when she shouted at him:
"Sir! Terribly sorry, but you forgot your articles, sir!"
Parcifal looked at the various stuff the man had left behind and had a moment of clarity; she sprang into action, and started running through the street shouting to her sister:
"That's because those aren't his either!"
Lernea stood motionless for moment, idly holding the stolen goods with both hands in her lap. Her lips formed a soundless circle while her eyes shone with dazzling ferocity. Realizing they had been duped, she dropped everything and ran after her sister and the dwarf - or perhaps a simply very short man - who kept surprising them with his sly ways.
The man shot a glance behind his back and saw the sisters were right on his tail, shoving and brushing people aside as they ran after him. "Fire! Fire! I say, fire!" he shouted amidst the crowd in an effort to cause a little bit of hysterical panic to make his escape all that easier. That didn't work though; the people around him went about their business, a few casually wondering to themselves whether or not they had heard some kind of voice; those who did hear wondered where it came from. He had to make himself scarce the hard way, and bolted into the nearest building.
"Quick! Into that establishment!" yelled Parcifal to Lernea, her finger pointing to a large sign, illuminated by a nearby lamp post which had just been lit, as night proper fell.
"The Sniggering Pig? That sounds like a piss-hole!"
"What did you expect this far south? Come on, hurry!" replied Parcifal even as they left the stream of people in the street and saw the man who had robbed them of money and pride hustle past the tavern's doorway. Sounds of drunken merriment and folk music blasted away from the relatively large inn.
"By Skarla, of all the places..." said Lernea mostly to herself but followed Parcifal inside reminding herself not to touch anything.
Inside the Sniggering Pig, there was ample candle light from chandeliers on the high ceiling, as well as candles and lamps on each and every table where people had still not passed out. A powerful mix of heavy scents dominated the air; rye, ale and roasted meat. The tables were mostly occupied by rowdy gangs of shady-looking sailors; everyone seemed to be having fun judging by the spillage on the floor, when the music suddenly stopped. The hubbub of laughter and loud conversation filled the emptiness until a rather tall and lanky fellow appeared at the far end of tavern, on what seemed to be the stage where the band of musicians sat. Parcifal's eyes had the chance to search the room for a moment. There was no sign of the thief.
"Blasted runt of a man," said Parcifal, this time gripping her sword's hilt instead of her knife. Lernea corrected her with a face that implied every second in there was making her feel shamefully unclean: "Dwarf. He said he was a dwarf."
As if on cue, the tall lank man who had appeared on stage cleared his throat loudly and bowed, only to receive a handful of drunken irrelevant yells, most prominently, 'Show us yer tittays!'. Nevertheless, he smiled courteously and said to the crowd:
"Well, this place is lively, ain't it? Feels like a band of roaming Dwarves would love to roll by. Hell, it's not like they're set in stone or anything," he said, grinning widely and posing to the crowd which hardly noticed anyone was talking on stage. The performer was facing a tough crowd. He turned to the band of musicians and said in voice right above a whisper:
"Guys ... That was a joke."
The percussionist realised that was meant for him, nodded, and promptly made a half-hearted drum roll, followed by hitting a small cowbell. The sound was not unlike a couple of coconuts banging together.
"Thank you!" said the performer on stage, clapping his hands in solitude.
Parcifal, equally oblivious to what sounded like a bad comedian noticed something else. She told Lernea:
"Windows just on the front. That door behind the barkeep, that's locked and barred. He's got to be somewhere in here. He's trapped!"
"And us along with him. God, is that man heaving his insides?" asked Lernea with a tremor of disgust in her voice.
"Someone will mop it up later, I'm sure. Just stay right here at the door. I'll flush him out."
Lernea let out a little laugh, more aptly a snigger, and put a hand to her mouth. Parcifal eyed her in puzzlement, her brow furrowed. Lernea replied with a giggly voice:
"That sounded like a, uhm ... A poop joke. 'Flush' him out like the little, uhm, shit he is! Oh, my!"
Parcifal closed her eyes, said nothing and sighed. Then she slowly started wading through the tables, filled with passed-out customers. The comedian was having a go at another joke, while the crowd had mysteriously quietened down. Lots of sets of eyes were now following Parcifal's slender form as she moved about the tavern.
"Dwarves, eh? What a race," he said and pretended to run for a moment. "I remember one night, a group of them fellows walks in this very same place. He nods at the bar and shouts, 'Barkeep! Seven short ones', to which the barkeep replies, 'I can see that, but what can I get you?'"
The drum roll came on cue, but the laughter he was expecting was delayed until a man who had been standing on all fours yelled, "Barkeep! Ha ha ha! I gets it! Bar-keep!"
Spontaneously, half the tavern erupted in fits of laughter, while the other half lay motionless except for their eyes, magnetized by Parcifal's presence. Even if staring at her meant her staring back at them with a look that could shrivel their scrotum and turn their eyes into tiny glass beads. The comedian went on:
"Lovely crowd here tonight, lovely crowd. Say, I can see lots of sailors, again. Nice to have you ashore. Mostly humans, but hey, everyone can smell dwarves have this aversion to water."
There was no drum roll. The man on stage eyed the band and waved his hands. Then came a drum roll and the signature cowbell. The crowd though wasn't paying attention; they kept drinking and singing rowdy songs, mostly containing obscene lyrics about unicorns and the priest's daughter. There was a voice of dissent though that rose sharply above the cacophony:
"That's bloody lie!"
It was the thief, all flustered, standing up on his toes to make himself heard. Parcifal turned her head around and saw him, pointing an accusing finger at the man on stage. She drew her sword and shouted above the din of the crowd, cradling the heavy blade threateningly towards the thief:
"By Skarla and Encelados, I'll have my money back or I'll skewer you for the thieving dwarf you are!"
Suddenly the crowd stopped everything they had been doing; the singing ceased to be. The band on the other hand, much to the comedian's dismay, started to play a suspenseful tune. The sound of whistling pipes was dominant.
"Every other night, no-one reads the sign," said the comedian mostly to himself. He did try to get everyone's attention though:
"Excuse me now, I'm sure there's been some kind of misunderstanding. The lady here is certainly new around these parts. I mean, she's still got most of her belongings on her and a full set of teeth. If you could just ignore her breaking The Rule, I could tell you about this time when an elf, a human and a dwarf were on the same boat, and-"
The comedian was interrupted by an almost overbearing yell from the crowd:
"Balls!" they said in one voice and everyone was suddenly holding something that could kill, maim, or hurt like hell, most prominently forks, knives and the odd cutlass and pistol. Parcifal stood in the midst of them all, perhaps fifty or sixty men the lot of them, half of them still conscious. She gave Lernea a look of determined despair and grasped her sword with both hands, ready for what seemed to be a sudden, uneven fight to the death. Lernea nodded to her sister without a word and loaded her bow with an arrow. In one fluid motion, she was already aiming at the thief's head from a very comfortable distance; she couldn't miss.
The thief looked at her, grinned, bowed slightly and yelled:
"Jambalaya everyone! I'm buying!"
The crowd erupted in sudden cheers and howls, while someone yelled 'Balls!' right before slumping down on the floor. The comedian got off the stage disheartened and headed for the bar. The band picked up a serene ballad that no-one really cared for. The barkeep smiled congenially to the comedian and told him: "More peppers this time, Ned," to which Ned replied faintly, "I know, father."
Parcifal and Lernea were standing amidst the merry crowd with their weapons at the ready, but it was evident in the way their faces were screwed up that they felt relieved, confused and mildly insulted at the same time. Parcifal would not leave the thief from her sight; he approached her with both hands in the air, making sure his palms were open. He was smiling thinly, looking at Encelados with a keen, respectful eye.
Lernea lowered her bow and strung it behind her back. She walked over to her sister, being very careful not to tread on someone or someone's heaved insides, spilled beer and other assorted spots of trouble that could be found on the Sniggering Pig's floor in abundance.
"I guess we're even now, eh?" said the thief, still careful enough to put some sensible space between him and Encelados.
"Even? You steal our money and you have the audacity to mock us? By Skrala, this is unheard of," said Parcifal in a voice of pure disbelief.
"Well, I'm not the stubborn, hot-headed, beautiful though foreign lady. I certainly wouldn't have heard anything of the sort if I were you," replied the thief with a kind smile. Lernea stood by her sister's side and pondered for a moment before she said with a calm voice:
"I think there's a reason for all this, sister. I'm sure this dwarf, or whatever he is, will at least explain himself before returning our money."
"There, a civil person. With all this tension, I haven't introduced myself properly. My name is Winceham Higginsbottom Abbermouth the Third. At your service," said the small man with a slight bow and a smile, before showing the sisters to a recently emptied table. Parcifal looked at the man as he had insulted everything holy by Skrala and couldn't help but yell in anger:
"What, we're having drinks with the runt now?"
Lernea sighed, took a deep breath and gently took her sister by one arm, walking her towards the table. She told her:
"Now sister, this calls for some diplomacy. We might as well solve this quandary in a civilized manner. Things might not be exactly as they appear. Mr. Abbermouth seems like a ... Solvent type of person."
Parcifal couldn't believe her ears, but followed along as if in some kind of a trance. Winceham led the way and drew their chairs charmingly. As they sat down he made a motion with a hand to the bar, always smiling. Parcifal said as if still in a dream:
"I thought his breath stank!" exclaimed Parcifal in protest.
"Well, it's obvious that this is neither party's priority. Mr. Abbermouth here will make sure we're properly compensated for all the trouble he's caused us," said Lernea stressing her last few words. Winceham grinned and laid back on his chair before he said:
"The way things turned out, you gals should be actually thankful. These folks live on rotten clams and maggoty bread most of the time; they'd rip you apart and feed you to the sharks right round the Mangled Horn if they didn't get some of Ned's jambalaya. Perhaps they'd have their way with you first as well."
Parcifal laughed in shocked disbelief and shouted at Winceham, "Thankful? For being robbed and humiliated by a dwarf?"
"Technically, a hauflin, but I'm sure you don't meet with our kind where you're from."
"A what? How would you know where we come from?" asked Parcifal, raising an eyebrow, her voice edgy.
"My lady Teletha, you and your sister are of nobility," he said and pointed at the family crest on their breastplates before adding, "Nomos nobility doesn't hold much weight around these parts, but nobility still."
"Is that how your kind treats nobility then?" asked Parcifal folding her arms upon the table. At that moment, Ned, the comedian who was also the cook and the barkeeper's son arrived with three kegs of ale and a large pot of steaming jambalaya.
"Compliments of Mr. Abbermouth, miladies," said Ned and with a firm lip bowed slightly to the sisters before leaving quietly.
"Now that's a gentleman, Mr. Abbermouth. How about you?" asked Lernea and Parcifal added after wiping some foam off her mouth and settling her keg hard down on the table with a thud and a spill.
"Yeah, where's our money runt?"
"In all those pots of jambalaya, I'm afraid. The Rule, you see."
"What bloody rule says you go off with our money and then spend it on buying dinner to a drunken sailor?" asked Parcifal with mounting anger, while Lernea tugged at her sleeve, pointing to a tiny wooden plaque on the wall right behind her, next to a broken light lamp.
"' The Rule - First to draw a weapon, first to buy everyone a meal or face their wrath.' Pretty obvious place to put up a sign with a pretty arbitrary rule, I might add," said Lernea and puckered her lips in a very unladylike manner. Parcifal added after another swig of ale:
"You knew that, didn't you? You saw us get off the boat, saw we smelled money and went for our coin. Then you slicked your way out with our money and then came running down here, knowing we'd be in a fix when we eventually drew a sword."
Winceham nodded along, sipping at his beer and seemingly savouring every drop.
"Then why not let us face everyone's wrath and make your way out with the money?"
"Because, I'm a visionary. I'm an opportunist and when I see an opportunity I grab it by the horns."
"You mean you're a thief."
"A thief ... What exactly constitutes a thief, tell me, dear Parcifal?"
"How do you know which one's which?"
"Oh, that's easy. Queen Lernea is still wearing her marital ring," said Winceham and pointed to Lernea's finger.
"News travels fast," said Lernea with an awkward look on her face and added: "So you've heard about we're not the reigning Nomos family anymore?"
"Oh, I see. Well, it's been a pleasure. Miladies," said Winceham and tried to get up and vanish expertly. Lernea's hand though was already at the scruff of his neck and wouldn't let go.
"Sit down, Mr. Abbermouth. We demand compensation. Financially, as well as morally," said Lernea strictly.
"Right. As I said, the money's turned into jambalaya for everyone."
"A coinpurse full of gold? That should be enough to buy this place!" exclaimed Parcifal with disbelief.
"That was gold? I thought I'd seen that kind of colour before, but I wasn't sure," said Winceham, feigning surprise.
"Still mocking us? Listen, scum, I think your misconceptions about women of nobility are about to be shattered in a very painful way," said Parcifal, finished her ale and brandished Encelados once more. Winceham smiled as broadly as possible without his mouth falling apart and tried the way of appeasement:
"I never said I conceived ill of you, milady. I urge you to reconsider,"
Then suddenly, the door to the Sniggering Pig Inn swung with an eerie creaking noise, unusually louder than the din of the laughing, merry sailors. A large bulky man dressed in a scaly leather vest, matching boots and cornered hat walked inside. He had a heavy-looking, jagged cutlass in hand and a blind, glazed eye. The music stopped abruptly.
"Alright, you scallywags. Off to the hammocks!" he yelled and spat a vile green lump of slime on the floor. Beside him stood a tall, ape-like creature dressed mostly in rugs and cloth, all muscle and hair. It carried a blunderbuss as tall as a man and grinned widely, its mouth filled with golden teeth. Like a silent church bell had rung, everyone, even the band, promptly picked up their hats and passed-out companions and left in a hurry, though the last man was mindful to enough to close the door behind him. Winceham reached out and touched the sisters' hands awkwardly; he had a desperate look on his face.
"Please, miladies. Don't do anything rash. I'll explain, I promise."
Lernea and Parcifal exchanged troubled looks. They shot glances at the man who had practically ordered everyone to leave with a less than keen eye, and then saw the worry on Winceham's face. There was fearful anxiety written there; the sisters shared their opinion with a simple nod. Ned appeared from behind the bar, holding the sisters' coinpurse, still looking full and heavy. His father, the barkeep, looked at the bossy man with a well-measured hateful gaze.
"Where's Hobb's money, Sturgees?" asked the leather-clad man coldly.
"That's Larkin now. I've got the money," said the barkeep, while Ned's eyes seemed to shine, fury seeping in them.
"Ain't that a surprise, eh, Mr. Brumbles?" said the man and slapped the hairy ape-man across the chest. The ape-man replied eagerly, always grinning. The gold in his mouth sparkled while his voice felt like sand on paper.
"Mos' def, Cap'n."
"Righty ho, then. Go on, Mr. Brumbles; go on, count the money. Remember now, after ten, that's..."
"Too late fo' sho' leave, Cap'n."
The man sighed and looked at the ceiling for a moment, as if praying, before answering:
"Eleven, Mr. Brumbles. After ten, that's eleven and then twelve and so on," he said to the ape-man while he smiled at the sisters and made his way towards them, making sure to wave his cutlass in a pompous, visibly threatening way.
"Well, it's so hard to get good help these days, wouldn't you ladies agree? I'm sure you have similar problems."
Winceham rolled his eyes wildly trying to signal the sisters. His efforts went largely unnoticed since they had both turned to face what appeared to be nothing more than a glorified debt collector dressed in leather with a talking simian in tow. The ape-man took the coinpurse from Ned and started counting the money. Ned fidgeted behind the bar. He looked like he found it increasingly difficult to keep his temper. His father looked at him in the eye, shook his head and bit his lip.
"Indeed sir, if I may so lightly abuse the word, we do share the same problem," said Lernea while Parcifal reached for the handle of her sword under the table.
"Really now, how so? Is Winceham over here giving you trouble? He's a fine lad and all but he's got his priorities mixed up, wouldn't you say Wince ol'mate?"
"Take the money, Culliper. Just take the money," said Winceham, his rather soft voice carrying a note of hate for the first time.
"Much obliged, Wincy," said Culliper, smiled broadly, briefly tipped his hat with his cutlass in a parting salute and made to leave. He took a step and stopped when he heard the sound of metal grinding on metal. Parcifal had drawn her sword and was pointing it at Culliper's back. He slowly turned around and saw Lernea had also nocked an arrow, ready to draw at the blink of an eye.
"That's our money, sirrah," said Lernea, the word 'sirrah' filled with as much disdain as possible.
Culliper turned his head towards Ned and said with a curled smile:
"Are these people, ah, comedian friends of yours, Ned lad? 'Cause I've seen your act and it's a bloat of shit, really."
Mr. Brumbles stopped though generally not very bright had stopped counting. He drew his blunderbuss and faced the sisters, cocking his gun.
Ned replied through gritted teeth:
"My act is not shit."
"What smells that bad then, eh?"
"That would be him," said Lernea who let an arrow fly right between Mr. Brumbles eyes before he had a chance to even swerve the gun their way. A gunshot rang clear though; Culliper was holding a pistol with smoldering smoke trailing off its barrel. Ned's father was down on the floor with a dull thud barely a moment later. Parcifal sprang at Culliper with all the might of her sword, but he parried expertly with his cutlass as he turned to leave. Lernea was reloading her bow even as Ned cried in outrage, "You murderous bastard! I'll see you dead!"
Winceham simply sat in his chair, his face buried in his palms, mumbling to himself:
"Why nobody, ever, listens to the small folk?"
Culliper jumped up on a nearby table and rushed towards a window. Lernea's arrow caught him on the shoulder. He cried in agony even as Ned was rushing right behind him. Parcifal saw the barrel of a pistol aiming blindly towards Ned, even as Culliper made ready to jump through the window; she did not hesitate and grabbed Ned by his waist as he run. She brought him down right when a bullet flew over his head and turned part of the wooden bar into a bunch of smoldering splinters.
Culliper crashed through the window and onto the street. He landed on one side, rolled, and quickly got back on his feet. He glanced at them and then ran away cursing even as one of Lernea's arrows grazed his back.
"Quickly!" cried Lernea and rushed towards the door, an arrow already nocked in her bow. She shot a look over her shoulder and realised that no-one was following her.
"Why are you just standing there?" she asked, even though no-one was technically standing. Parcifal was on her knees, nurturing a hurt jaw. She had a bloody lip and she was staring at Ned like a wounded tiger. Ned was lying with his back against the bar, a stream of tears trailing his cheeks, his face flustered. Winceham was sitting on the same chair as before, his face planted smugly in the palms of his hands in complete silence.
"What are you people doing?" said Lernea with a sigh. Her air of authority was badly placed and timed: "Come on, he's getting away!"
Parcifal got up on her feet lazily. She picked up Encelados and sheathed her sword, staring at Ned with a hurt look.
"He punched me in the face," she said and felt her jaw with a hand before she went on: "and that's after I saved his life."
Ned was wholly ignoring her, his face a mask of stone cold grief. His tears had just began to dry out.
Lernea suddenly looked deeply disappointed, almost heartbroken, as she held an arrow in one hand and her bow in the other, her shoulders sagged. She shook her head, put the arrow in her quiver and the bow across her back before she pointed a finger at Parcifal and said with a numb voice to no-one in particular:
"It's her fault, you know."
"Oh, by Skrala, grow up," came Parcifal's terse reply, scowling.
"She could've cut him down with that first strike, if she was any good with that sword."
"To the deeps with you!" cried Ned and stood up, his body's slight tremble carried along in his voice.
The sisters both turned to look at him with an even gaze. They met his blood-ridden eyes and with a glance saw his father's lifeless body on the floor to his right. They stooped their heads low and crossed their arms on their chests before they told him humbly in unison:
"Let Svarna guide your father to the Eternal Light and Skarla's heavenly abode."
Ned looked at them with menace, a sudden viciousness in the young man's otherwise gentle, homely face. His voice was calm, but it somehow managed to sound brazen, harsh and vibrant:
"My father has no need for keen wails and haughty words. He's dead and dead men have no need of anything other than a grave."
The sisters remained silent, neither one venturing to speak her mind. Winceham broke the silence when he rubbed his face with both hands along with a loud snorting noise, as if he had forced himself to awaken from a deep slumber. He caused everyone, even Ned, to turn their heads his way.
"Now you've done it, you really have. The definition of knee-deep in shite; you're it. And this time, I'll have to keep running," he said with a scowl, his eyes set in a vacant stare beyond the walls of the inn.
"You involved us in this against our will, half-man," said Parcifal with a cold, accusing tone.
"Halfuin," replied Winceham and went on after he tried to sip from an empty cup. "You could've just bought the act. And then, again, you could have just let Culliper take the damn money."
"Our money," added Lernea in a half-hearted manner.
"It still is just money," said Winceham with a sneer, before he went on. "It would have kept Vern alive and this place going for some time," he said and waved a hand around. He picked up a small satchel from the floor and told them: "We've tarried too long. By midnight, Hobb's men will be scouring the Bay. I suggest you make yourselves scarce as well and keep a low profile."
He nodded at the two sisters and said with a dry voice: "Dump the gear as well, you two," before he turned to Ned and said with a weary look and a bleak voice, "I'm sorry, Ned. There is no perfect plan."
To which Ned replied with a deep, rumbling hatred in his voice:
"I'll kill his men. And then I'll kill him, with my bare hands. I want to see him beg for his life before I squeeze his last breath out of his lungs."
He had a feral look about him; a keen, proud gaze. It was as if he had been Ned's long lost twin, a battle-hardened warrior who sought revenge. In truth, he was still little more than the meek, aspiring bard son of Vern Larkin, doubling as the inn's cook. And Winceham told him so, trying not to sound unkind:
"Lad, you've a fiery heart, I'll give you that. But it's in the wrong place. Saving your life is more important than having revenge."
Parcifal interjected with a nod of approval:
"At least he is a man, red blood coursing through his veins. Willing to spill other men's blood, no less," she said with a slight grin and added, "and quite a punch. Better than his jokes."
Winceham's face frowned and turned to look at Parcifal with an impossible stare of disbelief.
"I beg your pardon, milady, but surely, you're sorely mistaken."
Lernea approached the rest and came to stand by her sister's side with a regal smile painted on her face, her hands on her hips. She pointed a finger at Winceham as if he was some kind of lowly subject of hers:
"You, halfuin, you are the one who is sorely mistaken. You have a less than pure heart."
Winceham sighed and stared at the empty cup for a while. He then told Lernea:
"You figured all that out by yourself? And I thought, Nomos was full of stupid inbreds."
Lernea went wide-eyed in shocked surprise. Before she had time to retort, Parcifal had her sword drawn, poised in front of Winceham's chest, ready to pierce his heart.
"Forswear that insult! Unsay it or Encelados be your last woe!" shouted Parcifal with a blistering voice. Winceham, seeing the steely tip of Encelados flash brightly in the candlelight, spoke faster than perhaps ever, in one breath:
"You do have a penchant for the dramatic, don't you? I was only making an effort to be sarcastic. Since it seems to be an idea foreign to you, I'm particularly sorry I ever said such a thing so as to raise your deadly ire. I therefore renounce my comment, recant the implication of an insult, renege my former statement and repudiate my previous statement regarding your noble persons."
Parcifal sheathed her sword and calmness returned to her face, while Lernea found the clarity of mind to reply properly:
"No need to mock us with fancy words, sir," she said, and forced a thin smile on her mouth. She went on:
"We know enough about sarcasm to not use it in serious matters. We've been trained in languages and the arts, as well as the ways of the sword, bow and armor. Such is the way of Nomos; we are not simpletons, mind you. We are warrior-maidens of the Mountain Garden, not simple women who would rather spent their days serving a lowly, unworthy husband as their master. We demand respect and earn it our way; we obey the laws but listen to our hearts first. We serve Skrala, until Svarna guides us to the Eternal Light. Do you understand, Mr. Abbermouth?"
Lernea managed to awe everyone into stilled silence, including her sister. Winceham managed to nod, yet enchanted by Lernea's presence. The silence was broken by Ned, who took Lernea by the arm suddenly and spoke from heart, the words rushing freely out his mouth:
"You've spoken true milady; even a fool would feel that. I know this then; that you and your sister are noble women, with brave, courageous hearts. I'll only ask this once and in return I pledge myself into your service until my last breath escapes me. Help me avenge my father's death, miladies."
Lernea looked at Ned with a surprised half-smile; it seemed he was being utterly serious and fully aware of what such an oath entailed. Parcifal saw her sister's face brighten up. She placed her hand gently on Ned's shoulder and told him heartily:
"There's no need for that Ned. We are free women and our people, are free people; we do not offer them a life of servitude, but one worth fighting for. Worth dying for. We are honored that you ask this of us; we shall avenge your father's demise, or fall by your side. By Skrala sworn."
Ned's face was overcome by a hard, edgy smile that crept up on his lips. He nodded solemnly and offered his arm to Parcifal which she grasped firmly. Parcifal looked at her sister with a set of proud eyes and said with a hint of admiration:
"Spoken true, sister."
She looked at Ned brightly and told him, "By Skrala sworn, your father will be avenged."
Winceham on the other hand was half-way towards the doorway of the Sniggering Pig when he turned around and said with a scoff:
"Do you even hear yourselves? I can understand Ned is upset and has little grasp of reality right now, but you? You ought to know better. But I forget; you just got off the boat today. Goodnight to you, Godspeed, by Skrala or whomever you fancy, whom you're bound to meet soon, I'd wager."
Ned looked at the halfuin with piercing eyes and told him even as Winceham's hand was on the door's handle:
"I've known you for a thief Winceham, but not for a coward. You made a promise to my father and to me. That promise cannot be met now; do not make me invoke the Nadragatea, Wince. I ask this as a friend. I ask this because I know it to be true in your heart as well."
"Don't do this, Ned. Don't make me do this," said Winceham, shaking his head with eyes held firmly shut.
"Avenge my father's death, Wince. It wasn't always Hobb's Bay, Winceham. You should remember better than I do," replied Ned softly.
"I remember and I know, Ned. It just can't be done. We'll be throwing away our lives for nothing!" shouted Winceham angrily.
"No life given freely, pure of heart and with honorable intention, is thrown away for nothing. There is always a place by Skrala's side for those that seek a righteous death," said Parcifal in earnest, while Lernea nodded thoroughly and added with conviction: "By Skrala sworn!"
Winceham looked suddenly tense. His usually tolerant and cool manner was chipping off his flustered face. He afforded the two sisters a sharp stare and told them with a tone of rightful indignation:
"You two pig-headed noblewads! You just won't give up! You won't give up those damned coins and now you won't give up a certain death!"
"I think it's plain old fear you feel. It is normal, not to say expected of a thief. We feel it as well, mind you, but it is only useful to keep one alive in battle, not to keep one from joining it."
"You think you're so brave and righteous, don't you? Well, you'll be dead before that body's cold!"
"My father has a name, Winceham."
"I've turned bags of shite into gold with Vern before you were even conceived in the glimmer of his eye! Don't play the part of the insulted fool, it ill suits you! Mind you, I have pride myself and I can muster my anger and hate when needs be done, but I have a good mind to stay alive as well. And what you've been trying to convince yourselves into doing and dragging me along, is plain and utter bonkers, that's what it is. Not to mention time is already swiftly running against us."
"Is that your professional opinion, sirrah?" said Parcifal with a grin.
"He really is afraid," Lernea added with a curious smile, as if discovering something new.
"I invoke the Nadragatea, Winceham Higginsbottom Abbermouth the Third, Never-been-caught-with-my-hand-in-the-cookie-jar, witnessed by two of neither party!" said Ned in an officious, loud voice.
Winceham closed his eyes and dropped his satchel on the floor. He remained motionless for a moment, before he went down on his knees and looked at Ned with a sad face. His voice had a surrendered quality.
"Blasted. You knew my full name, eh? I was hoping Vern had never really guessed."
"You gave away little business cards with that written on them," said Ned with a puzzled frown.
"It was supposed to be misdirection! Hiding in plain sight and all that."
"Well, I wish I didn't need to, but now you're bonded by oath," Ned told Winceham flatly.
"Yes, well, if there's one thing I'm good at is finding the silver lining, which in this case is we'll all be dead or dead-ish pretty soon."
"You seem so certain, so profoundly unequivocal. Are you a fortune teller as well? Do you tread the lines of fate like a dancer on a rope? Can you foretell what lies in store for us?" asked Lernea.
"No, but I know Hobb. He's a monster with the means and a purpose. He'll be on to us like a vice, probably literally as well," replied the halfuin.
"You're acting like the man has a personal army," said Parcifal in disbelief.
"He does," replied Winceham curtly.
"That only changes our way of approach. We cannot confront him openly. We'll have to employ cunning," added Parcifal eagerly.
"And stealth," said Lernea followed by a nod of her head and a twirl in her lip.
"Listen. You're not listening. You're hearing words but your mind seems to discard them as mere sounds. Julius Hobb has been granted complete authority of the peninsula. He is the ruler of these lands, in practice, effect, and under Imperial law."
"Nomos is not subject to an imperial tithe. We do not hold such law as binding," interjected Lernea.
"Will you please let me finish? I'm trying to make a point," said Winceham, holding back a verbal eruption with some difficulty. He went on promptly as soon as Lernea nodded matter-of-factly:
"He does as he pleases and that is due to two things; money and power. Money keeps his henchmen, guards and foot soldiers happy to work and even die occasionally for him, as do the crews on his ships roaming the seas for loot and plunder. That same money, the money he keeps making by bleeding everyone just short of dry, just like he did to Vern and the Sniggering Pig. That money bought him an Imperial Consulate and soon if word has it right, a place as Princeps of the Court. Meaning that he goes untouched by any sort of Imperial force of justice. If there's still such a thing."
"Meaning that this Hobb you speak of, has the wealth and power that begets it to aspire to an even higher place of authority. Yet he seems to act as a common thug, an extortionist. A deceiver, a man with no scruples. Dangerous, powerful and ambitious," said Lernea.
"Remind you of anyone now, sister?" asked Parcifal with a barb in her voice.
"Now's not the time to bicker about the Jangdrivals, Parcifal. Please."
"I'm only saying that this analysis of yours would have served better in the past."
"You've run into him before, then?" asked Ned expectantly.
"No. Just someone who they share a lot of common traits with," said Parcifal.
"Care to share what happened when you ran into that man?" asked Winceham.
"We lost the throne and were exiled from Nomos," answered Lernea tersely. Winceham smiled with irony and said:
"See? And that was probably them being very gracious. Hobb isn't gracious. At all."
"But we're alive. We can still fight. And we won't be alone," Lernea told them, and Winceham retorted:
"No, you'll have a retired thief and a bard who can't sing and tells bad jokes to take care of your backs."
"Retired?" asked Parcifal in disbelief, while Ned exclaimed:
"It's always a tough crowd!"
"A bard who can't sing?" Lernea asked Ned, cocking her head sideways.
"I can sing! I'm just more of a comedy performer! Why does everyone say that?"
"No, I'm asking if he is retired," said Parcifal, pointing to Winceham, her eyebrows raised in suspicion.
"Why do you think you caught me red-handed both times? My joints have been killing me," said the Hauflin with a slightly embarrassed look. Lernea's words had a hint of arrogance about them:
"Small matter; we weren't counting on you as our first line of defense. Or of anything, for that matter."
"I see. You ask for my help, nay, demand it by Nadragatea," said Winceham eying Ned with a look of disappointment before returning his gaze to Lernea and adding: "And then when you learn I'm retired, I'm suddenly worthless. Great management skills for a queen," said Winceham, looking irreparably emotionally hurt.
"She didn't see the Jangdrivals coming either. She wouldn't listen," added Parcifal with a nod, only to receive a frown from Winceham and the protests of her scowling sister:
"It's more complicated than that Parcifal!"
"Stop this, please. Stop this badmouthing. It leads nowhere. If we are going to do this, we need to stick together; we need to support each other, trust each other. We need to believe in each other. Or else, no matter who stands against us, it will be an easy fight for them if we fight amongst ourselves."
Everyone took a moment in silence. Parcifal and Lernea looked at each other briefly, reassuringly. Winceham nodded to himself and pouted his lips before speaking:
"We need a plan. A damn good plan preferably of the genius kind with implausibly good luck to boot. But first, we need to leave this place," he said and picked up his satchel, looking sideways through the window for any sign of Hobb's men. Parcifal and Lernea nodded and checked their gear smartly, while Ned shook his head and curtly said:
"No. First we need to bury my father."
"Ned, lad. Look, we've already spent all this time talking. Hobb's men could be right around the corner."
Ned stared at Winceham unyieldingly for a few moments, until they all looked at each other and simply walked over to the body of Ned's father and helped him carry the body of Vern Larkin out back.
Winceham was on the lookout, while Ned, Parcifal and even Lernea, much to her sister's surprise, began to dig in a hurry.
It was midnight on a moonless bay.