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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.

“No. The Queen wishes to speak with you now."

Hazel’s mouth drew thin. For an alleged utopia, the hospitality in Exusia was just as cold as anywhere in Deadwood and a hundred fold unearned. Hazel formed with the lot as they were marched to the throne room, feeling more and more like a prisoner heading to the judge for sentencing than a guest answering a call to arms. She turned her head and balled her fist as she saw servants cleaning the ground behind them. She wasn’t upset at them but their overseers, so disgusted by the presence of underworld filth that they couldn’t even wait until they were around the corner to start sweeping it away. Hazel fell in step behind Nakala and walked in her footprints to ease the burden of the servants.

Hazel noted the increase in knights on their flanks as they were led through a pair of opulent doors that revealed a line of more knights that led to a throne. Hazel stood tall as they were beckoned in front of the queen. She met Tabitha’s smug smile with a polite one of her own and turned her head ever so slightly so the dry blood caked to one side of it was less upfront. The smile lost its luster but remained as the Queen’s tone flirted the line between teasing and insulting. Hazel closed her eyes and inhaled sharply as the Queen questioned the worth of money in a way only someone who had too much of it could possibly ever think—or was she so disconnected from the world below that she believed they couldn’t even manage currency anymore?

“I don’t really care for riches, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t want the chance of some kind of safety,” said Hazel after clearing her throat. The Bone Clans hadn’t been the only people trying to kill her this week. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and continued, “However, my main motivation is to learn from the mages here in Exusia. I’d one day like to use my magic to make life a little better on the, er, Lower Realm, but…” Hazel lowered her head as if she was embarrassed by subject matter. “Anyway, that’s a long ways away.”

Hazel took a step back to allow others the floor.
Percival arrived moments later as if Solange had summoned him by his name alone. She began to shuffle in her seat to stand and assist the dogged barkeep but stopped and sunk down ever so slightly at the sight of the woman behind him. Solange’s lips parted the tiniest of slivers as a curse gasped its last breath right upon the tip of her tongue, escaping her mouth as nothing more than an almost silent rattle. She didn’t really know Nora, but she’d spent plenty of time around another person like Nora that she knew loyal lap dogs were the most likely to snap off the hand of anyone beside their owner, regardless of the type of treat it had offered. She was a complication to any future plans that Solange had yet to even partially process.

The large Tork man behind Nora, Skarsat apparently, normally wouldn’t intimidate Solange in just about any other scenario. Men weren’t nearly as simple as some of her peers told her they were, but most had similar weaknesses and none were as terrifying as a woman like Fontaine could be. Plus, his name was one she’d never heard Vargas mention before, which meant Skarsat was either a total stranger or regarded as small time by someone who he himself was already small time. Normally this would be a good thing, but if he was Nora’s man then that meant he was dangerous, especially depending on what kind of man he was exactly. Solange gave him a smile, but held back on tossing a hook out at him before fully understanding his connection to Vargas’s enforcer.

“Impeccable timing, sweetie. We were all dying of thirst. Thank you,” said Solange to Percival, touching his elbow as he placed the pitchers and bumping him ever so slightly with her shoulder. The little bit of affection might stop him from throwing himself into the sea that night, but Solange had only been hoping it’d unnerve him enough to get him to drop a pitcher so they could all have another show. Shame. Perhaps next round. Solange eyed Y’vanna. At the rate she was going, there would be plenty of opportunities.

””I’ll go with your offer. Even if the price is worse, it still beats getting on Nora’s bad side. You don’t want to know what that vixen does to people that piss her off,” said Neh’miah.

Solange returned the flirtatious smile and started to lean in to whisper something into his ear but Nora called him out like a schoolmarm shouting at the bad kids in the back of the schoolhouse. Solange couldn’t help but grin, her eyes revealing that she was holding back a laugh as she abandoned the attempt to whisper and sat back in her chair.

“I’m afraid I might witness it soon enough, dear. It appears you’re already on her bad side,” said Solange. She held up a finger to shush Neh’miah in jest and winked. “I would absolutely hate to see what she’d do to an asset such as yourself. However, if you truly did want to give up more of your share to Lord Vargas and myself then I’d be an idiot to refuse. Still, we can discuss it later.”

“Our apologies,” she said to Nora and Vargas for getting sidetracked. She folded her hands on the table in front of her, and nodded to Vargas to show that he had their undivided attention. Solange had an inkling as to why Vargas had summoned Nora and her goon, and she was concerned that she was right. She glanced over at Neh’miah and reconsidered what he said as she peeled back her bottom lip. Solange was afraid that Vargas wanted Nora to join the expedition, but if she was here for another reason...shit. Now she was concerned that she’d read everything wrong. The faintest tap could be heard from her end of the table as she knocked on it, praying that Vargas wasn't about to remove her for that business partner comment.

At first it seemed that instead of a fortress Hazel had conjured a city. No, had she teleported them? Since when could she—no, of course it had not been her. She snapped her book shut and lowered her hand. There was a warmth on her face that wasn’t the blood and she looked up to see the sun as her eyes readjusted from the sandstorm. A gentle breeze rustled her hair as she looked around her, mouth going slightly slack as she took in the structures around her, alien in appearance due to how pristine they looked. Where was the rotting woods and burnt out landscape? Where were the hard faces and broken bodies? Where was the death and misery? Gone, all of it.

Hazel lowered her head and smiled to herself. So, she had actually made it to Exusia. She looked back up at the people encircling their little band of fighters, with their soft skin and ornamental armor. Many Ember Makers, especially when whiskey added fuel to their zealous fire, boasted about how they one day dreamed of making it to Exusia so they could liberate the people from the evil magicians that kept them oppressed. Hazel clutched her book to her chest. These people lacked the coarseness to them caused by the friction of being forced against the ground by a tyrant’s boot. Perhaps it was an actual utopia after all. Hazel huffed. She knew better than most that appearances often only ever existed just to deceive.

Take, for example, the knights surrounding them with weapons drawn. Not a single blade had a nick on the edge, not a single piece of armor had a scratch. Hazel would find it hard to believe that they’d seen any action outside of the training ground, and even then she doubted the difficulty of their regimand—for example, how quickly the tent guards had been bested by a wild pack of raiders. The knights demanded they hand over their weapons, but what could they do if they didn’t? Hazel saw images of the spearmaiden pushing her weapon through the paper armor of the scroll reader, of the crossbow bolts bouncing harmless off of the golem, of the short man gleefully pointing to the next victim as his animated construct ribbons the first knight foolish enough to lift a sword against him.

She felt herself tense as Nakala didn’t hand over her spear, and the breeze grew cold as visions of a slaughter continued playing out in her mind. The magicians would quickly fall to the arrows of the sun elf and the superstitious hunter, while the crafty Kaimerian and her sneaky human friend would unleash some ploy to distract the rest. She could hear the mad man laughing in harmony with the bug as he jumped into the fray, and she could feel the heat on her skin as the citizens surrounding them revealed themselves to be the true mages of Exusia with an explosive fireball that consumed them all.

Hazel drifted back to reality and suspiciously eyed the crowd. Hazel met the eye of a child in the crowd that stared at her with something more than curiosity. An invitation to a bunch of opportunists to be granted an audience before an insane Queen who’d harbored a bunch of magic users before tearing her city away from the world; they’d have to be crazier than the Queen to believe that the only dangerous ones around were the ones with fancy swords and flowing robes. She stared at the child and smiled, who was quick to turn and tug on her mother’s sleeve. I see you. The mother glared at Hazel, picked up the girl, and walked away. Only then did she remember that she was drenched in the blood of a dead clansman and they were probably the first killers that child had ever seen.

Hazel felt her eyes water and looked nervously at Nakala. Please, hand your weapon over. Instead, the elf who’d snuck in past the clansmen was the first to do it, setting off a chain reaction of others giving in to the demands of the knight. Hazel jumped in line as she returned her book to her bag before handing it and her weapons over to the Exusians. She stepped to the side, glanced back at her compatriots that were still wiping the blood from their blades, and folded her hands behind her back.

“Sorry, I’m sure this is a stupid question, but we aren’t truly expected to meet before anyone, let alone the Queen, looking like...this?” she asked the knight, meeting his eyes as she gestured to her sand-covered, blood-soaked companions. “It’s just that we've had a bit of a day and I do want this meeting to go well—not just because I am fond of my stuff, either. I think we'd all do better with a moment to recuperate. Just..." She picked a red globule of viscera out of a loose strand of hair that had fallen in front of her eyes and stared at it as she grew quiet, her gaze growing distant as the howling of wind and flames deafened her hearing. "...I, I need a moment..."
Solange smiled as the woman took the bait and snatched the glass of wine, downing some of the drink without even a sniff of the contents or a question of intent. She had no answer to the question of how Solange could be so sure things would run smoothly outside of knowing that it would be smooth if everyone were so eager to follow her lead like Y’vanna was eager to drink the shite wine. Fortunately, there was no need for her to find a way to word the thought in such a way that didn’t seem so desperately power hungry as Vargas joined them at the table and shifted all eyes on to him. Solange sat back and squared her shoulders as she watched him with one raised eyebrow and tried to get a read on how he reacted to Solange giving herself a promotion.

She was happy to see him play along with the act as she was happy for holding her tongue instead of burying herself alive or digging herself out right before hitting gold. Solange hid her smirk behind her fist as Maréngo did a number crunch. From what she could tell, Vargas wasn’t angry with her at all. In fact, she bet the sucker was so head-over-heels for her that he’d let the whole fake partnership thing become a reality. What an idiot! If only she dreamed so little that sharing success would satisfy her. Solange had no desires for a real partnership with anyone, let alone someone as small time as Vargas. She was much more interested in acquisitions. In due time…

"...unless of course you know someone else who can gather up all your gear and have you ready to leave harbor by the noon time tomorrow? Eh?"

“I know of one,” said Solange, narrowing her eyes and raising her head as she stared down her nose at Vargas. He would know that she was referencing Fontaine. She had said it only to make him squirm. Vargas might be good, but Fontaine was better—and so much more dangerous. Admirable, if she wasn’t the enemy. Solange chuckled ever so lightly and relaxed her stare, “But she’s sitting right here.”

“Honestly, dear, it’s a better deal than what I would’ve offered, and considering you already gave me the what and the where regarding this potential treasure horde you should really consider it a blessing that an offer is even being made at all,”
said Solange, turning to Y’vanna. “A less honest and greedier man would’ve laughed you out of the room and then chartered a ship to keep the coin all to himself. Might’ve even gutted you to avoid any kind of competition on the way.”

Still could, she thought and smiled at Vargas, curious to see if he could read her thoughts.

“I would say we should raise a glass in toast for sealing the deal and getting rich in the future, but as you can see,” Solange gestured to the missing drink that should be in front of her. “I might have to get them myself if Percival takes much longer.”

There was a growing number of dead, but none of them appeared to be from the ranks of the would-be adventurers. Hazel appeared to struggle as she held up the weight of the large, dead man, turning ever so slightly to get a better view of the fight. Arrows were loosed, spears were thrusted, notes were taken, laughter was had, tiny constructs vivesecuted, and a rope was cut. Hazel twisted her partner to take the blast of sand that snuck up under the loosened part of the canvas and watched as more and more clansmen filed in through the hole in the side of the tent and attempted to push past the mountain blocking the entrance. It seemed as if the clansmen were as numerous as the sand itself, more appearing the moment a grain was discarded. Hazel doubted the desert would run low on sand before her companions exhausted.

The voice sounding like an avalanche crushed the sound of fighting, "We require a more robust defensive position. Who here has knowledge of battlefield tactics or the acquisition of defensive fortifications?"

Hazel frowned, but when even the creature with rocks for brains knew the situation was turning desperate then she really could no longer justify holding back. She continued to hold up the Bone Clansman as she spun with him towards the overturned table that had once held the ever-so-coveted map. When the dancing duo got there she yanked the dagger from free his chin, pooled blood cascading down her arm, as she gingerly crumpled to the ground with his body. Hazel nudged it up ever so slightly, hoping that both the corpse and the table would block her from the sightlines of any clansmen, and then sat on her knees. She’d seen how they had descended on Azariah for his magic, and feared the repercussions that’d come with her having to rush her spellcasting.

Uncertain of how hidden she truly was, Hazel planted the dagger into the ground next to her and unlatched her satchel. She wiped the blood on her hand on the cloth of her sash and then snaked her hand around the inside of her satchel to reach into the hidden compartment. She glanced up as she pulled the ancient leather tome out, drew her elbows into her knees, and cracked the book open. She heard the mad laughter of the preacher man still as a few men in bone armor stormed past to rush at Artur’s group, but none seemed to notice her yet. A gust of wind made it appear as if the pages flipped on their own as it opened up to about midway through the tome. Hazel pinned the book open with one hand as the other reached out from her balled-up body and began to claw at the earth below her.

Hazel dug deep so the blowing of the sand would not interrupt or transform her ritual. First, she laid out the blueprint for the barrier. It would be a round bastion of earth about fifteen feet high and just larger than the tent, with one entrance wide enough for Fourteen to squeeze through. The outer walls would be smooth and difficult to climb, while the inner walls would tiered like the seating at a coliseum to allow those inside to get to easily step-up to the top of the parapets and fire down from above. Then, she drew a circle around the design and began to write words of power around the border in an incomprehensible runic language. Almost finished with her ritual, Hazel lifted her head to shout a word of warning at the others.

“Everyone, fallback! Stay within the fire! It won’t harm you!”

Hazel rose her hand and slammed it down into the middle of the design. As the sandstorm continued to tear through the lacerated tent a bright beacon of white flame erupted around Hazel’s palm. The flame produced no heat, no smoke, and didn’t even bend with the wind as it spread from her hand towards the middle of the tent. From there the flame splintered off throughout the tent, diving into the sand and visibly traveling just below the surface before arriving at the outline of Hazel’s fortification. Jets of harmless magical flame began to emerge and burn a few inches out of the ground to denote the border of the fort and form a literal line in the sand of where their crew would want to be once the ritual was complete.

Hazel grabbed her spellbook and rose from the ground, hand outstretched. She raised her hand into the air and began mumbling in some otherworldly language. As she did, the flames surrounding the tent began to rise up as well—one foot, three feet, five. Wind began to wipe white flames around her feet and spiral around her up to her waist, her hair and clothes blowing in the tempest as it eradicated the ritual circle next to her once the spell began to truly form shape in reality. The others would feel the ground quake just below the surface as the earth shifted, the barriers ready to erupt once the flames had hit their peak.

It would only be a matter of seconds before Hazel finished fulfilling Fourteen’s request for defensive fortification beyond the scope they had called for and shifted the fight from a desperate assault to an easily-defended siege. However, seconds was more than enough time to absolutely slaughter someone, and Hazel had just turned herself into a bright, unarmed magical beacon begging to be fed a blade.
Solange managed to maintain the air of confident authority she’d set forth despite the telling stare from the other woman. It was a look that Solange was all too familiar with from working in the brothel. She still found herself annoyed by it even after realizing the power that look gave her, but she’d still take that card and tuck it up her sleeve to turn a losing hand into a winner anyway. Solange didn’t break eye contact from Y’vanna until she fumbled her words, and then instantly she looked away. She shifted her interest onto the sailor, both to drive a little spike of jealousy into the other woman’s heart and to get a sense of him. The sailor chuckled; he had clearly caught on too. Solange smiled at him, unable to resist sharing the moment of superiority.

Naturally the word “lucrative” drew both of them back in. She imagined greed was something all of them at that table shared in common. Solange’s shone eyes as bright as the oil lamps they reflected as the woman spoke of the job. She looked away just once to acknowledge the presence of a new arrival and give him a head nod, as if she was giving him permission to join them at her table. As she listened she idly traced her thumb along the bottom of her lip, her other hand resting over the top of her glass of wine. The thought of an untapped treasure horde was enticing, but there were a few things that concerned Solange. She held them for now and lifted an eyebrow as her latest admirer poured another horn and toppled the empty pitcher upon the table.

“Allow me to take care of that, love,” said Solange. She rose from her seat—Vargas’s seat—and leaned over the table to grab the pitcher and set it down gently.“Once we have come to terms my partner will provide funding for the ship and I will accompany the crew to represent our interest. Oh, my apologies. We haven’t had the pleasure yet. I’m Solange Belgard, Lord Vargas’s business partner,” she said to Neh’miah. The more times the lie was repeated the more comfortable it felt. “I believe what you said about being more valuable than any gods to be true,” said Solange with a smile and a once over. She’d always found value in stroking those with a big ego. Now if only the sailor would reveal himself to her. In due time, she supposed. She glanced through the partition, saw the Vargas was pretty much out of hot air and would have to wrap up shortly, and remained standing.

“We can burn all of the offerings and say all our prayers, but I rather make our own fortune by relying on talent than hoping for a miracle,”she said as she began to circle the table, leaving the chair for Vargas as if it had not been touched at all. She paused behind Maréngo. “Now, we have the captain and myself to get us there.” Solange moved on to the empty chairs, stared at them with a frown, and twisted her hair. “We’d definitely want some more muscle if that other crew pulls together.” Finally, she walked behind Neh’miah and traced a finger along his shoulder as she stared past him to Y’vanna. “And I have an idea as to what the two of you are capable of doing.”

“However, before that—!” Solange twisted around Neh’miah and gingerly slid into the seat opposite the head of the table. That knocked pitcher had given the redhead another theory, and she just couldn’t resist the temptation to toy with it. Solange’s brow darkened as she set her full glass of wine on the stained wood of the table and gently pushed it towards Y’vanna. Her eyes narrowed as she gave the woman a mischievous smile. “Your drink is low, dear. Have mine, it’s untouched." Her face lightened as she leaned back and glanced between the pair of thieves. “Now, I’d love for either of you to tell me that my hypothesis is correct.”

Most of the travelers were quick to agree to Tisa’s terms, some impatiently so. Only one of the strangers had the nerve to even question the delegate. Hazel imagined the shakiness in the young woman’s voice was caused by the rattling of her spine. Of course the person plastered with protective pieces of paper that were likely meant to be some kind of ward would be the one to bring voice to caution. Hazel gave her a soft smile accompanied by a look that balanced between sympathetic and pitying. Even if Tisa had given the girl a satisfying answer and a promising word it wasn’t like any of them would know if it had been wise to trust them until the moment for betrayal had passed. In a way, it would be much like the girl’s talismans—good for the ease of mind, but ultimately nothing more than a false comfort. Hazel found it funny how quick the woman was to rush to calling for the teleportation ritual after even a single voice had questioned their intent. A good omen, surely.

However, the ritual was never completed. Hazel drew in her breath and held it as a screaming person harmonized with the howl of the wind. She did not blink as she saw the body slump against the tent, nor did she avert her eyes as the tent was torn open and sand kicked around as the Bone Clans assaulted their gathering. Hazel watched, her eyes stinging, as a spear was shoved through Tisa’s gut, her only reaction being the slightest raise of an eyebrow. Hazel had thought an Exusian mage would be harder to take down. Turns out, they fell just like everyone else. She didn’t even have time to think about healing the emissary before a robed assailant slit Tisa’s throat. Well, at least their wouldbe killers were merciful. She’d never seen an Ember Maker make it quick.

Hazel stepped back towards the middle of the tent, hand on her sword but blade undrawn. She was a master swordswoman when it came to slaying untrained fieldhands and frail old medicine women, but against actual warriors it was basically a decoration anyway. She watched as Artur began issuing commands, thankful that someone was there to rally them. It gave her a second to observe as the others sprung into action.Hazel glanced over to see one of the clansmen try to take out the Golem. She couldn’t help but snort and shake her head as the stupid idiot got what was coming for him. The short man called forth some kind of mechanical monster to come to his aid, shredding apart the clansman that had attacked its master. It only spurred the fury of more clansmen. The questioning girl raised her crosswbow while another saw to hide, crawling out from under the tent and likely being eviscerated by the enemies outside—a karmic end for fleeing like a coward.

If Hazel had the option she would’ve continued to be an outside observer to all of the carnage and bloodshed, but the warriors of the Bone Clans didn’t respect her wishes. She sighed and rolled her eyes as she drew her sword and dagger as a clasnman rushed her. There wasn’t enough time to pull out her book and even if there was it would be a bad idea. At best casting a spell would make her a priority target for the raiders; at worst it would turn the whole tent against her, or at least what was left of it. The clansman lifted his axe, howling with the wind as he brought it down to split Hazel’s skull with a powerful blow that she caught with the crossguard of her sword and dagger.

Hazel locked the weapon in place as the clansman continued to wail at her, his spittle wetting her face. The axe slid and cut her hand but it did not break free from her guard. Hazel bit her lip as the larger man struggled with her. She backed up as he pushed and pulled against her, and didn’t even blink as one hand let go of the axe to wrap around her neck. She dove her chin down into the hand, a fruitless effort to stop the man from strangling her, and glared up at him as she choked. Her eyes watered as they met his murderous gaze. She grinned. The man was probably strong enough to snap a neck in half if given the opportunity. He didn’t get the chance.

With a surge of strength Hazel kept the axe held back with just her sword as her dagger hand freed itself from the guard. In a flash the blade bit through the inner wrist of the outstretched arm and sliced towards the elbow, cutting open the man like a letter. His howls shifted their tune ever so slightly as his grip around her throat fell. She stepped forward and flicked the dagger up, silencing the sound forever as the point of the blade pushed up under his chin and deep into his skull. Hazel twisted and put her shoulder into the heavy man to keep him propped up as he began to go limp and left her dagger in him to free up her hand so that she could keep his own from falling away from the axe.

Hazel grunted as she continued to tango with the dead dance partner, hoping that the illusion of her still being engaged in battle would give her a quick respite from any other raiders. Hazel turned her attention to the others as the blood dripped down the hilt of her dagger and splattered on the side of her cheek to sense the tide of the battle. Public spells were for desperate situations only, and so far the losses had been anywhere in the range of acceptable to cathartic. There was value in a culling every now and then. Were any more of their would-be adventuring party dead yet, or had the Queen been blessed with a better stock than her own?
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