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Solange - The Faded Lantern Tavern & Inn

Lies aren't needed when others make the excuse for you.

“We must run in different circles, honey. All I ever heard about the Sheriff was that he was a man of strange taste and disappointing stamina,” said Solange with a half-smile that faded quickly as Nora’s icy stare flashed like a dagger from Skarsat over to her. The redhead stood up straight and cupped her hands together to stand like a proper, professional young lady with no hint of irony in her disposition. She nodded in acknowledgment to Nora’s departing statement, Solange’s tongue twisting in her mouth as she swallowed the desire to return the Zherpanian saying with a similar one she’d heard uttered by the followers of Voi—something about making water once the passions cooled. Neither, she realized, would be advice that would need to be followed at this moment.

“Any disputes? Darling, can you believe Miss Sunshine thought we were having a...darling?” Solange craned her neck to search for Skarsat, but her plaything had already slipped away. She exchanged a glance with Sheri and smiled sweetly. “Let’s head to the kitchen. After you.”

Solange had the misfortune of dealing with Sheri before, who’d taken it upon herself to explain the lives of every member of the staff to Solange like some kind of proud, doting mother. It amazed Solange how Sheri was able to know so much about the others, considering she never took a single moment to let someone else get a word in. However, seemingly the stress of dealing with the Sheriff was enough to silence the suffocating gossip who, much to Solange’s relief, fretted with her frock more than anything. Sheri held the swinging door to the kitchen open for Solange, who stepped through after telling the woman to wait outside.

The kitchen of the Faded Lantern was normally well organized but currently in complete disarray due to the prep done to provide the would-be treasure hunters with a bountiful feast that now would go unenjoyed by half of their party. Solange eyed a tower of dirty dishes, her tongue pressing into her bruised cheek as she fought the urge to send them cascading to the ground, porcelain shattering everywhere and ruining the day of some young kitchenhand who’d be forced to scrub it all up. Perhaps if the floors weren’t already dirty the temptation would be too much for her.

She peeled herself away and found what she’d come looking for: an iron kettle filled with black, muddy coffee. Its bitter flavor would do well to mask the taste of the leaves of iris that Solange had squirreled away for a day when her sister had deeply annoyed her. She pulled the leaves out of her tiny herb pouch, casting a glance over her shoulder to make sure that none of that staff was poking their head around. Grabbing a bowl and a wooden spoon from the pile of dirty dishes, Solange pulverized the leaves until they made a fine paste, loosened it upon with a bit of water, and mixed it in with the coffee. It might add a bit of grit to the brew, but it’d be difficult to differentiate between it and loose coffee grounds.

The poison wasn’t lethal—killing her sister was out of the question, and killing the Sheriff would be bad for the local businesses—but it would ruin the better part of the morning by keeping him contained to the loo. Most likely the Sheriff would reason that the cooking was bad or that he had too much to drink the night before and not even consider that someone would dose him. She stashed her makeshift mortar and pestle in with the rest of the dishes and grabbed the wooden handle of the kettle. Popping out of the kitchen, she nodded to Sheri and followed the woman’s gaze up to the balcony. Her nose wrinkled as she caught sight of Sheriff Gerranti gesturing with a piece of bacon to one of the guards seated with him.

Solange adjusted her dress and sashayed her way up to the pig trough. She heard a bark of laughter and paused outside of the sliding door, taking a moment to come up with a story. Nerves steeled and a phony smile painted on her face, Solange pulled on the handle and found three men with crumbs on their lips staring at her. She stepped gracefully through the threshold with her chin high, casting a quick glance at the two nobodies before focusing her gaze upon the Sheriff. Normally she’d move to a spot where she could have her eyes on the door, but she needed to be able to see the main hall.

“Gentleman, I am so pleased our staff saw fit to serve you breakfast after my partner so quickly turned you away the other night. It is always so wonderful to see them take ownership, especially when it comes to taking care of a respectable man of the law. My name is Solange Belgard, Lord Vargas’s new business partner. Sheri took it upon herself to inform me of everything. I’m afraid we’d be here well past supper if we were to wait for Lord Vargas, but I may answer what questions you have in his stead. However, before that…” She placed her hand on the back of an empty chair and leaned forward, squeezing her chest up as she raised the tainted kettle, her blue eyes narrowing. “...who needs more coffee?”
Solange moved a hand up to wipe the blood from her lip and kept it there to cover her grin as Skarsat let loose. What he called foolish arrogance she viewed as confidence. Still, it wasn’t the first nor would it be the last time a man viewed her own self-assurance as something that threatened their standing. She’d hope that Skarsat wasn’t quite the simpleton he appeared to be, but sometimes the simplest solution was the right one. There were only two reasons for a man to ever get so upset at a woman for, as far as she was capable of seeing it (as Solange was incapable of ever seeing her own faults), nothing more than a little teasing.

The first reason she thought of was that Skarsat hated women. Yet while he had undermined Nora by striking Solange, there wasn’t enough evidence beyond that. He solely seemed to hate Solange and Solange only. Thus the second reason became the only reason, and it brought so much joy to Solange that her hand could no longer hide her bloody smile. Skarsat had a crush on her, and like a young boy pushing a girl he liked into the mud he was confounded by his feelings and could only express them through sheer aggression. Goodness, she couldn’t wait to be stuck on a ship with him! How fun it would be to break his oversized heart.

“Sweetheart, with how tall you are I fear the reason some of you arrows may miss is because you are simply firing over your target’s head. With all of your experience, it confuses me as to why I must be the one to tell you that maybe you just have to aim lower,” she said, her eyes catching his foot tracing the ground towards her skirt. As Skarsat turned to move away from her as well as wallop her with a sharp kick, Solange deftly stepped over his foot and moved out of the chair as she joined him at his side. In stark contrast to her advice to him, he really should’ve aimed higher. She dragged a sharp finger down the side of his arm, leaving a faint trail of her own blood, and whispered, “Do you believe I’m afraid of others hating me? There's no difference between being loved or being hated. Either way, I'm the only thing they can ever think about.”

Solange moved quickly out of his reach, cast one glance back at Skarsat as Sheri entered the room to ask for Percy, and then Solange pretended to be more interested in plucking a plum from the table than avoiding a smack that would surely come if her touch lingered for another second. She spun around to lean against the table, set the uneaten plum down, and pulled out a compact mirror and a handkerchief. She glared at the bruise forming on her cheek, and then wiped the ruined lipstick and blood from her mouth.

“Percival is doing his job. It’s one of the admirable things about him,” said Solange. Percival had a knack about giving himself deniability, knowing the less he saw the better his day went. He’d slipped out the moment the room had turned hostile. She looked towards Skarsat who was supposed to be waking Neh’miah with the man but held her tongue. Voi must’ve been playing a game with them. If everyone had been even a bit more timely, they probably would’ve walked right into the Sheriff while leaving the tavern. Solange just worried as she twisted the ring on her finger that the goddess wasn’t done twisting fate’s thread yet this morning. She tilted her head towards Nora.

“Darling, you said yourself that Vargas wants everyone on that ship, and none of us would dare disappoint the Lord, ” said Solange as she began to touch up the bruise on her cheek with makeup. “I doubt I could knock as loudly as our Tork friend or cool the passion between two lovers as quickly as you, but if you would like I could return with dear Sheri here and help ensure that the only thing the Sheriff and his men get this morning is a free meal. Alternatively, I can meet you all at the ship. It’d give me plenty of time to turn what would’ve been poor Neh’miah’s cabin into a drawing room.”
For the briefest of moments, Solange thought that perhaps Skarsat was actually comforting her. She wiped away the traitorous tears with a flick of her finger and looked up to meet his gaze as he lowered himself to be almost face to face with her. She tried to muster up a flirty smile that faltered and slipped away through the floorboards as his words mocked her own. Solange caught a look in his eyes. Violent men wasn’t something she dealt with often while working for Fontaine thanks to the protection she offered through the reputation of her enforcer alone, but there had been one altercation with a man from her hometown who happened to stop by the brothel. Unlucky that she was working that night, really. What were the odds? His eyes were forever burned into her mind. Skarsat’s eyes didn’t look so different.

If she went back the momentum would take her to the ground, so she ducked forward instead. If Solange was quick, Skarsat’s hand would run through the waves of her hair and she could try to weasel out from under his arm. She wasn’t quick enough. The smack echoed throughout the room as his hand smacked across Solange’s cheek so hard that if not for his other hand to catch her she would’ve been knocked from the chair by the momentum of her head whipping. She bit down on her lip so hard that it bled; her pained scream twisted in her mouth and morphed into a defeated chuckle.

She squirmed in her seat and looked away from Skarsat, half her face covered by her hair where it had been knocked once he’d hit her, her cheek already changing like a chameleon to match it’s reddish tone. A tear from her eyes lost a race to her chin against a droplet of blood from her lip. It was strange, but he didn’t frighten her as much as Nora. Once the threat of violence was gone and all that remained was the pain it wasn’t so bad. Pain was a dear, old friend.

“Thank you, love. I was being hysterical,” she said softly, the same defeated tone she’d given to Nora just moments ago. However, unlike with the bandit woman she looked up at Skarsat, a shimmer in her eyes that wasn’t the tears. There was a certainty to her that shouldn’t have been there, an undeserved sense that she was coming out of this exchange on top. Striking her would have consequences, even if not immediate. She smiled at him, her teeth stained red with blood and lipstick. “Now, would you like to continue telling me about how I’m the one imagining putting you to my breast like a suckling babe, or is mommy’s big boy going to wake up Neh’miah like he was told?”
The childish giggling became a nervous chuckle and then died quietly, snuffed out by Nora’s shadow that now loomed over Solange. Eyes widening, Solange adjusted herself against the legs of the chair so that, if needed, she could easily bolt under the table and out the door. She was clever enough to realize that a mistake had been made, but too immature to accept that she’d been the one to make it. Vargas was to blame, then, having hired a woman incapable of being the butt of a joke. The late sleepers deserved a thrashing as well. If not for their irresponsibility, Solange wouldn’t be here, on the ground, wincing.

A sound of surprise like a mouse being pounced upon by an alleycat squeaked out of Solange’s lips as Nora dug a finger into her shoulder. She felt her body seize up as if she’d just stepped into an ice bath. She stopped fidgeting, although she drew her right leg up towards herself as her eyes jumped from Nora’s darkening stare to the woman’s fingers settling upon one of her blades. Solange’s right hand slid from her lap and came to a rest on the floor as she began to do some bloody calculations behind the fear in her eyes.

Unless Skarsat intervened, Nora could easily see her dead, yet if Solange saw the flash of steel she might be able to clip through Nora’s heel with her own dagger. Solange would be dead, but Nora’s career would be killed if the injury crippled. Perhaps she could live out the rest of her days working for Fontaine instead. Judging by her tone on the word harlot, she’d love it. The image of Nora painting her face and dressing in lace was almost enough to inspire Solange to make the move first. Her hand pressed against the fabric of her dress, but didn’t slip under it yet. Nora’s bitter laugh smacked a bit of sense back into Solange. Strangely, Solange found Nora’s commitment to her duty admirable even as it was leveled against her. The threat of butchery didn’t terrify Solange nearly as much as the promise of her being kept for Vargas. If it came to that—it wouldn’t, she was sure.

Solange pulled her hand back away from her dress and lifted herself up into her seat. Her head hung in silent dejection for a moment. She knew she should put on a brave face, swallow her pride, and, even though she clearly did no wrong, apologize and diffuse the situation, spinning it into a thread she could pull at later. It would be the clever thing to do, but even if she were clever her damned luck would see her fail. It always did.

“I understand,” she said with a choke, looking down at her hands. A teardrop leapt from her eye and splattered violently on the back of her hand. Solange stared at it in horror, sniffled, and dug her nails into her thighs. Once Skarsat and Nora left she’d be able to quickly recollect herself and smother her embarrassment, but for now her shoulders shook. She felt utterly pathetic. She couldn’t even bring herself to meet Nora’s eyes. “Wake the others. Neither of us wants to disappoint Lord Vargas.”
With her back turned to the Tork, Solange could only pray that her body was blocking his view of the grape that she’d just plucked pop between her fingers as he asked her if she’d ever tried being silent. His words had cracked open her shell and poured salt onto her exposed skin, her face shriveling into a horrid expression of contempt as she milled the guts of the grape between her thumb and forefinger and imagined it was something of more personal value to Skarsat. Her shoulders tensed as she turned her head to look over them, her eyes narrow like the arrowslit of a fortress under siege, a deadly look nocked and ready to be fired. Solange saw the smile, her shoulders relaxed, and the standoff ended without bloodshed as she shook her head and chuckled.

“Absolutely incredible, truly, absolutely incredible. You nearly got it on your first guess. So close,” said Solange with a wag of her finger. Using two hands and a bit of willpower she grabbed the large plate—a serving platter, really—and gently handed it to Skarsat without spilling any of the contents on him. “Only I said it was one of the three best things I gave, darling. Shut up and feed me?” Solange rolled her eyes yet maintained a playful smile. “Those would qualify as two of the things men most commonly demanded of me, with the third thing being for me to lie to them about how amazingly, wonderfully, unbelievably and incredibly big—”

At that moment Nora walked in and Solange briefly stopped talking, which must’ve been much to Skarsat’s relief. Solange tried to return Nora’s cold nod with a warm smile, but she couldn’t control her eyebrow from raising in a look of curious amusement as Solange wondered how it was possible for Nora to look so annoyed so early in the morning. Solange glanced down at the feast, got up from where she was leaning against the table, and gave Skarsat a wink, mouthed “fun’s over”, and said, “Can you believe it, love? They gave us this wonderful fruit yet forgot the key ingredient to make sangria. I doubt either of us would have much hope of actually enjoying this meal without it.”

Solange’s exit was quick but not without grace, and she returned partway into Nora’s conversation with Percival, a glass of wine in her hand. One glass, specifically. Skarsat was a big man and she’d already played serving girl for him once already, so he could get his own damn drink. Solange hated not being up to date on the latest gossip, so she used the opportunity of crushing randomly chosen citrus into her glass and calling it breakfast as an excuse to listen in on Nora’s conversation. Neh’miah sleeping in late? How scandalous! Solange yawned and was about to tune out. She was glad she didn’t.

“I will attend to our two other lost colleagues. The hour is too late for lazy depravity, we have much to do before we set sail, and precious little time for foolishness such as this. I know where Y'Vanna hides, I know her many vices, and I know how to handle her when she had her fun."

“Sweetie, if I didn’t know any better I’d be so bold as to say that you’re jealous,” cooed Solange, her hair twisted into a tight coil around a finger, her eyes joyfully dissecting Nora. “If it’ll help ice your bruise, I didn’t get an invitation either. Lucky me, really. I would’ve hated to break their hearts about as much as I would’ve hated for Lord Vargas to then break their necks. Oh, but I’m sure there’s a good reason for you not being propositioned as…”

Wait, that annoyed look earlier now made so much more sense. Solange’s cheeks puffed out and her eyes crackled with a mischievous energy. No amount of contouring and lipstick, no number of revealing dresses and risque poses, and no utterance of suggestive sentences and flirty winks could prevent the image of a young, immature brat breaking through the mask of a seasoned seductress as Solange lifted her finger, pointed it at Nora, and squealed with delight as the pieces perfectly clicked together.

“No, fuck me dead! You are jealous! Like, jealous-jealous!” Solange cackled. She fell back into a chair, head back, hand on her forehead, and sunk low. Her accent slipped from its affected poshness she’d learned at the brothel and slammed back into her small hamlet accent referred to by the girls of the house as “bitch bumpkin” as she continued to howl with laughter, tears beginning to stream down her cheeks that were turning the shade of her hair. “Piss on the treasure, this is gold. Now have ya known her or didja wanna know her? How’s it feel, knowing that salty son of a whore’s probably knowing her right now?”

The mad laughter cut to a halt as Solange, who'd laughed herself so hard she'd slid out of the chair and was practically sitting on the floor, looked up at Nora with delight. "Ooh, that why you're in such a hurry then? Gonna ruin their good time, or didja plan on jumping in with hopes to expedite that their depravity? Hear that, big guy? You get to kiss sleeping beauty and she gets the orgy. Hardly a fair trade."

Solange - The Faded Lantern

It would raise too many questions to leave the Red Sail with packed bags. Solange spent the night with the chair jammed underneath the doorknob, worried that her sister would wise up and try to convince her to stay or, worse, flap her gums and prompt unwanted attention to turn her way. Even after the jambori had settled down and the music stopped, Solange hardly slept, drifting off only to jump alert at the sound of footsteps passing by her room as some overnight guest struggled to find the loo. The night dragged on for what felt like an eternity, and she slipped out at first light to the Faded Lantern, lugging two packs brimming with dresses, journals, and alchemical supplies. She had heard enough horror stories from the sailors she’d slept with to squirrel away a few extra days worth of rations for herself, too. Knowing her luck she doubted it’d be a smooth sail.

It was already sweltering even though the sun’s golden rays had just begun to crest above the bay. Solange tugged at her collar and huffed, shifting the weight of the packs to try and ease her burden as she passed by the handful of sleeping revellers that’d failed to party until dawn. She imagined that most of their pockets had been picked clean by now, and the strain of the bags made her not want to dawdle. She quickened her pace and entered the Faded Lantern, abandoning her bags to Percival as quickly as she could. Secreted away in one of her hidden pockets was an itemized list of what she’d packed. She figured ol’ Percy lacked the guts to try and snag a tip, but she would rather play it safe.

A delectable aroma wafted from the meeting room and Solange felt her stomach rumble at the cornucopia set out for their band of rascillions. However, as difficult as it was to not satiate her appetite immediately, it was even more difficult to not notice the large Tork man despite his efforts to try and blend in with the wall decorations. It appeared that he was the only one to have arrived so far besides her. A devious smile flashed across Solange’s face. How perfect! It was difficult to pull the strong, silent type out of their shell while in a loud setting. Alone, he had no choice but to be wrapped up in her web.

“Good morning, darling! I am pleased to see that you felt no reservation in helping yourself to the food this morning,” said Solange.

Her hand flicked out and snagged the back of a chair, the leg scraping across the floor like an alarm harbinging the end times for Skarsat’s wallflower days. Solange sat down far enough as to not immediately burst his bubble, but close enough so that looking at the floor would be the only way to escape her presence. She sat with her legs crossed, her billowing dress slit just above the knee, and fingers idly playing with the strings on her bodice as she locked eyes with Skarsat.

“Sleep well, I hope? Did they ever get you that hammock? I was so excited I could hardly rest. I’m sorry I did not have more time to get to know you last evening, but you didn’t strike me as the type of man who’d enjoy playing dress-up—at least not with your superior in the room,” said Solange, her lip curling into a warm smile. “Of course I am referring to that Zherpa woman, my dear. I might be Lord Vargas’s business partner, but that doesn't mean you and I aren’t equals. If there is anything that you need, please do not hesitate to ask.”

“Believe me, love, I’ve been told that advice is the third best thing that I give. I’ll leave the other two up to your imagination...for now,”
she said, standing to peruse the food. “Would you like another plate, dear?”

Solange - The Red Sail

They overrun the garden like dandelions, weeds disguised as pretty little flowers.

Chitchat was had, pheasants were picked at, drinks were filled, jackets were fitted, and an excuse was made.

A chill hit Solange as she exited the Faded Lantern and saw the red-tinted lanterns posted beside the entryway to the Red Sail Brothel looming nearby. It was difficult to say if it was the cool summer breeze sweeping in from the night sea or unchecked nerves about being questioned regarding her whereabouts that caused her spine to tingle, but whatever it was it made her hesitate on the corner. The street was lined with revelers getting an early start to the Festival of the Crescents, bottles trading hands as a few sailors danced with ladies to an out of tune fiddle. Solange knew a few of the girls from the brothel, likely trying to entice the men inside with promises to fulfill their fantasies while draining their purses.

Solange didn’t immediately head towards the brothel. Instead, she walked away from the busy intersection, a careful eye observing the ground for any mother-crippling cracks. She cut through an alleyway, paid little mind to the independent contractor shrieking at her to find her own spot, turned upon the next main thoroughfare, loosened a few strings on her bodice, and approached the brothel as if she’d been at the markets serving as a lure. Solange waved a few fingers at the girls that thought she was their friend and ignored the glares from the couple of them clever enough to know she thought herself their better.

Before she had a chance to avoid it a bottle had been placed in one hand and a drunken sailor had grabbed her by another to lead her in a stumbling waltz. He was young and still unbroken by the sea, with a big smile, deep dimples, and a clear first attempt at a mustache. Solange knew instantly he was the kind of boy whose month’s salary she could siphon completely given the proper amount of time to allow for her nails to sink in, but such paltry sums were beneath her now that she had a treasure to acquire. Still might’ve been a bit of good fun, but tonight wasn’t one for distractions. She slipped the bottle into his back pocket and then took the lead of the dance as quick as a whip before cracking him towards the nearest open painted woman, who graciously caught him in her web.

The bouncer Kline, a quiet, bald, pockmarked man with arms the size of ham hocks that Solange had once thought of as terrifying until she discovered that slipping him the occasional pastry would transform him into the biggest softie, gave her a nod and welcomed her back. He called her Ms. Belgard, as it was his habit to refer to all of the working girls as if they were proper ladies. That strange bit of professionalism and respectfulness earned him more points in Solange’s lodger, and it was why she still supplied him with sweets even after they were chums. His eyes brightened like a baby doe as she palmed him a scone wrapped in parchment that she’d taken from Vargas’s feast, pressed two fingers against her lips, and sent a kiss swirling through the air towards him.

“From the market, love. Where I have been all evening drawing this crowd before you, as you know,” said Solange.

“Oh but of course, Ms. Belgard. As you mentioned earlier,” said Kline knowingly.

Solange smiled, happy to hear that the only man of Fontaine’s who had seen her enter the Faded Lantern was on her side as long as the sugar kept flowing. Kline opened the door for her and she passed through the threshold, parting a sheer red drape as she entered the brothel. The bar was as raucous as ever with constant chatter and live music playing along to a free burlesque show that men cheered to, loud enough to thankfully drown out the theatrics going on behind closed doors upstairs. Solange preferred the noisy nights over the quiet evenings. It was easier to ignore the constant drone of debauchery than it was to try not to critique someone’s hammed-up bedroom performance like they were a theater starlet (and she a world-renowned theater critic) instead of them being a harlot and she one as well.

Not the case anymore, if all goes well. Her hand racked the wood on the bartop, inadvertently getting the attention of the bartender who regarded her with a familiarity that was chiller than the breeze from outdoors before turning back to chat up the men before her. Solange kept moving through the dimly lit room, lights flickering behind red-stained glass and red and pink lace draped over everything to add a false layer of warmth to an environment that was expertly calculated to drain men of their cold, hard cash. She passed the two bouncers at the stairs up to the private chambers, unsure if she was more thankful or nervous to have not bumped into Fontaine’s lapdog yet. Perhaps the awful woman had the night off. Perhaps the monster had caught a knife in the belly and Solange and the whole world had been given a favor. She doubted she’d have such luck. Better to ask.

“Darlings, have you seen ol’ Prue anywhere? I caught a free bird trying to hook a couple of worms in one of the nearby alleys, and she didn’t have much kind words to say about the Madame when I told her Fontaine didn’t like to share,” asked Solange, taking one step back from the curtain to better see the bouncer.

“Can’t say that I have. You?”

”Not since shift change.”

“Well then, sounds like it would be a good night for all of us then, doesn’t it?” said Solange.

Smirks were shared as she dipped back through the drapes, ascended the stairs, and made for her room. She had much she needed to pack and prepare for her voyage, and she had her doubts that she’d get much of any sleep thanks to the excitement. Solange paused momentarily at her sister’s door, and then decided better to just leave a letter. She fished her key out from her pocket and unlocked the door to her own room. It was crowded but organized, with sheets draped over bookshelves and a desk stacked with journals. A few plants lined the windowsill, nestled alongside a few bottles of ointments. Something felt off the moment Solange stepped into her room. Where was her desk chair? The door closed behind her. Her heart leapt into her throat. A woman spoke.

“Tell me what’s going on.”

Hazel didn’t keep her head lowered in deference for long, lifting it so she could analyze her companions as they all told the Queen their reason for responding to what could turn out to be a fool’s errand. Her eyes betrayed her piqued interest in learning about what motivated the others, although her face showed no signs of judgment as they all spat out their own selfish desires. She failed to hide the amusement on her face when she learned that the man who had begun commanding a defense during the raid was once the leader of the Bastardborn. The Ember Makers would occasionally hire the Bastardborn to help guard a couple of their communal bonfires before, but during her times as a witch hunter she’d never worked alongside a bastard and had certainly never met the greatest bastard of them all.

She was just thankful that not all of them were only in it for their own wants. Kymir had at least attempted to petition the Queen to aid the land below, and Nakala only wanted money to free her daughter. Hazel put her hand over her heart and gave Nakala a sympathetic little frown as she mentioned the fate of her child. How the woman reasoned that this was the best way to get her daughter back was beyond Hazel. Then again, she was not a mother and in Hazel’s experience every mother got attached to at least one outlandish idea, like how ritualistic sacrifice would help your harvest, or how hearsay served as any kind of proof that a child was not a witch, or how willingly bringing a child into this desolate land was anything other than a vicious act of cruelty.

Hands still behind her back, Hazel felt her fist tightened. That last point alone proved that what the Queen said about there not being much to help down below was utter balderdash. Hazel shifted where she stood and cleared her throat as she tried not to formulate an ugly opinion about someone she’d just met, yet she was finding it more and more difficult to not fantasize and see the Queen’s throne as a giant wooden stake surrounded by kindling, the poor wine bearer rushing forward to throw more and more fuel on the fire so that the royal bitch would light quicker. She nodded along as the Queen continued her tale, the visual of the flames catching around her fading at the mention of their destination. Some might think it suicide, but Hazel knew she’d be safer in those places then anywhere else in Deadwood.

“I gratefully accept. I doubt there is one among us who would even think to refuse your most gracious offer,” said Hazel, turning to shoot a cautionary glance at her compatriots. She would be fine if any or all of them thought such a quest was complete lunacy and not worth the endeavor, but prayed they all had enough insight to realize that outright denying the Queen was just as suicidal as stepping into the Desolation. “Now, I’ll admit that you have piqued my curiosity. After we have been shown to our lodgings, would it be possible to examine these glyphs ourselves? It would help to know what to look for once we our on our way.”
Solange chuckled as Maréngo called her out for trying to trip up poor Percival. She gave him a playful little shush, complete with a finger to the lip and a knowing wink, as she joined him in his cheers. She lifted the wine glass of hers that Y’vanna had emptied. She’d already had two glasses earlier that night, and while she didn’t mind bonding with her new companions she wanted to keep a clearhead—especially around that Maréngo. Twice he’d caught her in her little games. Perhaps she’d been too quick to think of him as yet another dull sailor whose sharpness had been eroded by the waves and salt of the sea. Her smile slipped as she pressed her lips close to the edge of the wine glass. She preferred dimwits. Clever people were always dangerous.

A wave of relief hit Solange as Vargas revealed that Skarsat was a new underling for Nora. The large man didn’t seem thrilled by the prospect judging by the look on his face, but he hadn’t seemed thrilled since he’d entered the room. By the way he’d loomed over Vargas, Solange had half-expected the Tork to reach down and snap his neck like a stalk of celery. It was a dreadful thought—she still needed the man to finance the voyage. Once everything was paid for, however? Solange felt ice crawl up her skin as Vargas rested his hand on hers, yet gave him a look that could melt the mightiest of glaciers. She slid her hand free to grab the empty wine glass and kept it there.

“A splendid idea,” said Solange as Vargas suggested she help Neh’miah disguise himself. She thought it was a stupid idea. What, the thief couldn’t part his hair another way and change his coat all by his lonesome? And why her? Percy couldn’t grab a shirt? She batted her lashes at Neh’miah. “I am quite talented at getting men out of their trousers, so surely I must be skilled at fitting them in a coat.”

Solange felt Vargas take her hand again, lift it, and kiss it. She didn’t like the way he called her his partner this time and his unblinking stare put a lump in her throat. Solange didn’t pull away. Instead she leaned forward so that her breath was hot on Vargas’s ear as she whispered, “You have my gratitude, darling. ‘Tis a shame neither of us can afford to be up late tonight, but now we both have something else to look forward to once we are reunited.”

Vargas had given her quite the good offer. If she didn’t find his controlling nature repulsive she might’ve begun to reconsider the way she was going to screw him. A shame. Perhaps she’d play her part a little bit longer still. Solange pulled back, gave him a smile, and turned her attention away from him. She eyed Nora and Skarsat as she leaned back in her chair and smoothed her dress. The sooner they were eating out of her hand, the better things would go for Solange.

“I believe the two of you are invited to this feast as well. Please, have a seat and enjoy some pheasant,” said Solange, getting out of her seat to offer it to Nora and playing the role of hostess. She grabbed the decanter, poured the two of them wine, and left it at their empty seats to be enjoyed as she refilled her own empty glass and set it down in front of Y’vanna again. “Empty again, are you? There’s nothing wrong with letting loose every once in a while, love. Neh’miah, darling, I know you’re excited for me to get you out of those clothes, but there’s no need to rush through your food. Maréngo, any sage wisdom about the sea you’re willing to part with for us neophytes? I’m afraid I’m more knowledgeable about sailors than sailing...”

And so on.
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