As anyone would guess I wasn’t the only courtesan at the Duke’s palace. You wouldn’t say truthfully that we were friends, or even allies, but there was a certain understanding between us. Because no one else understood our position. We were amongst the rich and powerful but we were neither. Our riches belonged to others and our power, such as it may have been, was a mirage. I’m sure it would have been difficult to comprehend for servants being turned out or horsewhipped at our whim (I never did such things of course) but our position was more precarious than theirs. Our existence depended wholly upon the urges of our masters. In theory back then I owned five riding steeds and a few hackneys, I owned as many fine gowns – several of them silk – as well as an array of fine jewelry and other valuable trinkets. But in truth all of those things would have been taken from me in an instant had the Duke ordered it. So in what way were they mine? There’s no slavery in the Kingdom (of course there isn’t, that would be wrong) but I had less freedom than the poorest pot-scrubber in the kitchen. I could do whatever I wanted, as long as the Duke wanted me to do it.
The other courtesans and I didn’t help each other, we often worked against one another, but we understood in a way that no one else could. And that was something. You could liken it to a swarm of piranha, they aren’t working together by any means, they’re all out to get the most for themselves – but you never seen a piranha bite another piranha do you? Maybe a better analogy is soldiers from the opposite side of a battle – they’re not bosom companions but they shared an experience that no one who wasn’t there can understand. One of my fellow solider-piranhas was a woman called Rova, which could be her real name for all I know. Many of the courtesans there concealed their history and background for a variety of reasons but largely to seem mysterious and to avoiding giving anyone information that could be used against them. Rova’s history was known to all because her paramour quite enjoyed telling everyone about it. I don’t know how many people believed it, I know I assumed it was bullshit at first, but over time I learned enough to know that by and large the story he told was the truth.
Rova’s parents were wealthy merchants, the kind of wealthy that true nobles like to look down their nose at but allow into their circles because they need money – and also like having someone around to look down their nose at. Her mother died at a young age from some disease or other and her father did not give her the appropriate upbringing for a girl from a wealthy home. After her tutor declared to her to be “impossible” for bloodying the nose of a boy her age her father decided that if she wanted to fight with boys she should at least know how. He had been a ranger and an army scout in his younger days and taught her many unsuitable things for a young lady – archery, wilderness survival, hunting, swordplay, military tactics, etc. She excelled at many athletic endeavors to much clucking of tongues and shaking of heads – and loud complaining from the parents of those boys she bested. It’s clear to me in retrospect that Rova was one of those girls who had the dangerous misconception that she could earn the respect of her opposite gender by beating them at their own game. I don’t know if she ever truly comprehended that the harder she tried and the more she accomplished the greater their hatred for her became. You can’t win that game, you lost the moment you were born.
At the age when her father should have been looking to find her a suitable husband he instead enrolled her in a fencing school. After graduating from this fighting college Rova thought that a good way to prove her skills would be to stand up to a local street gang on behalf of some of her father’s workers who had been hassled by these street toughs. This was a poor decision. They brutalized her mercilessly for having the audacity to challenge them, as a warning to others, and probably just for fun. To her credit though, once she was recovered instead of falling into depression or breaking like a fragile vase, she sought revenge. She spent several weeks tracking down her assaulters and instead of trying to fight them herself used her father’s money to rent the services of those more suited to that kind of thing. In the end they all died, not at her hand precisely, but close enough. Her father disapproved of this but did nothing to stop it, and while he was wealthy he wasn’t wealthy enough to weather the legal storm of more than a dozen murders committed with his money – even the murders of criminal scum – unscathed.
Once all was said and done he was broke and everything he had of value was carted away – a number of rumors said that he had an enemy in the city watch who used this opportunity to break him but it hardly mattered, the end result was the same. Rova’s father was left in a debtor’s prison and she was left homeless and utterly alone. Being an attractive young woman, in order to rectify this situation she sold herself to the Duke’s cofferer, although this act ended up being rather pointless since her father killed himself not long after being let out of prison. “But Ela if slavery isn’t legal in the Kingdom how can anyone be sold?” That’s a solid point isn’t it? Rova’s life at the palace was pretty much the same as mine except that where I might be called upon to sing for the entertainment of the court she was sometimes given a rapier and told to show off her skills in that way. Everyone thought that was very comical indeed. Like most of us she was skilled at masking her emotions but I could tell that she hated doing that more than anything. How she resisted the desire to stab her chortling lover through the face during one of these performances I couldn’t tell you.
What does this have to do with anything? The woman I saw sitting before me, struggling to get to her feet, grasping at a rapier in the floor by her side, holding hands with a half-orc – was Rova. They were clearly concerned that I was a centipede controlled meat puppet coming to get them, just I was concerned that they were the same but eventually after much “no you prove you’re not infected” back and forth we just decided to trust each other. Although the two of them had no real choice, despite their best efforts they could barely stand, let alone fight. I found a couple of mugs and poured them wine out of my Flask which they drank down so greedily I thought they would end up puking it all back up. It perked them up to have something to drink, but also clearly made them light-headed – as you might imagine downing that much booze in a short period of time while being sickly and starving would do.
Even sitting down Rova seemed to sway drunkenly “Do you have anything that’s not alcoholic?”
“No. What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“I asked first.”
She told me that these Steel Savior people had done some kind of adventuring work for the Duke and as a reward she had been given to them (but remember slavery is illegal in the Kingdom so don’t take it the wrong way). At first they had been intent on using her as a servant or maybe just turning her loose, but she insisted that she had skill with a blade and once she had proven that true she became one of them. She traveled all about with them doing adventurer stuff – killing monsters (or just people that got in the way), saving kidnapped ladies of high societal standing, looting ancient tombs, spending long periods of time underground for no good reason, and extorting a king’s ransom out of people in need. Along the way had found love with her half-orc companion and now husband Pragma. Being at court was no picnic but ending up an adventurer with a half-orc spouse sounds like a real hard landing to me, but I don’t judge (much) because she seemed genuinely happy about this turn of events.
“Your turn Ela.”
“Well I came here to hire you guys for a thing but it looks like most of you are dead and you two don’t look like you could fight a blind peg-legged kobold right now so I guess I’m here to rescue you?”
She turned an even paler shade “So all the others are dead? We held out hope that some of them might still be alive.”
“I don’t know about all. Three guys I didn’t really look at were filled with worms, I burned them, and then a guy with a beard, a fat man, and a one eye wizard all had their heads fall off. So at least six others are dead. How many of you were there? I thought four was the magic number for adventurers.”
She had no answer, just weeping and turning to Pragma. They clung to each other as fiercely as their weakened state would allow and wallowed in their grief. Eventually I hounded them up to their feet and drove them outside, it feels shitty to bark and club at people on the verge of death but it’s for their own good – you need a firm hand to get them up and shuffle to safety. I only stopped for a moment to slip another locked chest into one of my Bags. Once we were outside I signaled for the Quiriva’s man to join us and he approached cautiously. He shared some of the little bit of provisions we had with them which they devoured greedily. The food seemed to do them much good, as did the healing draught I had the Flask issue forth.
“I suggest we move a ways away from this revolting place and head out in the morning. You think with some more food and a little more healing you’ll be ready to travel?” Rova nodded wearily “Good. So, I don’t mean to cast aspersions, but how did you end up in this state? Apparently you were an eight-person strong adventuring group and those creatures certainly didn’t seem that dangerous to me – I’m no warrior at all and I killed three of them myself without much trouble.”
Pragma spoke for the first time, his voice hoarse and haunted “Those were just . . . . the young. The thing that came for us . . . . it was a nightmare. We were just a place for it to lay its eggs.”
“How did this nightmare overcome you? Some kind of poison?”
Rova shook her head “It attacked us in our minds. It was like nothing any of us had ever experienced. We’ve all seen mind magic before, enchantments and spells , this wasn’t like that. It was something else. Something for which we had no defense.” She started weeping again softly “It crushed our minds like eggshells. Pragma was the only one who could resist it even a little, and he was weakened like he had been horribly ill for weeks. It was all he could do to drag me upstairs and lock us in. We were too afraid to come out.”
“How long were you up there?”
“I don’t know, we weren’t conscious most of the time. When you broke in we thought it was over, we thought they had finally smashed their way in and would drag us out. For the thing to put its babies in us.”
I squirmed a bit at the thought myself “Yes well, let’s hope that it’s moved on, whatever it was.”
Pragma’s soft voice came again “I’ll see it forever in my mind. It’s burned into my memory.”
“You survived though. You came through the other side.”
They looked at each other, a look filled with love but no hope – like they wondered if dead would have been better.
Funds: 23,045 platinum, 19,788 gold
Inventory: Flask of Endless Sake, Hat of Effortless Style, Ring of Disguise, Badge of Last Resort, Tankard of the Drunken Hero, Censer of Dreams, Enchanted White Pathfinder’s Gear (effects as Iadaran Dress Uniform) Belt of Physical Might +4, Versatile Vest, Expedition Pavilion, +1 Human Bane Endless Ammunition Light Crossbow with Sharpshooter’s Blade, Ring of Urban Grace, Holy Symbol of Adariel (Sanguine Protection) Black Marketers’ Bag (5), white squirrel fur Slippers of Scampering, Token of Summoning, Tidy Trunk, Whiterock Family Ring (Ring of Binding), Ela’s Better Walking Stick, Meteoric Amulet
Noble’s outfit (5) collegium ring, pocketed scarf, wrist sheath, signet ring (2) assortment of fake signet rings, silver chain set with moonstones, gold and emerald ring (2), garnets (700), gold necklace with jade pendant, ivory combs, tax collector’s badge, gold bracelet with ivory inlays, silver necklace set with rubies, gold earrings with jade inlays, silver and gold brooch, silver necklace with ruby pendant, disguise kit, covenant ring , tiny diamonds (27), Saryah Phidaner gown, masterwork thieves’ tools, onyx (55) personal signet ring, locked chest (2)
Revenge List: Duke Eaglevane,
Piltis Swine, Rince Electrum, watchman Gridley, White-Muzzle the worg, Percy Ringle the butler, Alice Kinsey , “ Patch”, Heroes of the Lost Sword, Claire Conrad, Erist priest of Strider, Riselda owner of the Sage Mirror, Eedraxis, Skin-Taker tribe, Kartak, Królewna & Bonifacja Trading Company, Hurmont Family, Androni Titus, Greasy dreadlocks woman, Lodestone Security, Kellgale Nickoslander, Beltian Kruin the Splithog Pauper, The King of Spiders, Auraluna Domiel, mother Hurk, Mazzmus Parmalee, Helgan van Tankerstrum, Lightdancer, Bonder Greysmith, Pegwhistle Proudfoot, Lumbfoot Sheepskin, Lumber Consortium of Three Rivers, Hellerhad the Wizard, Forsaken Kin, Law Offices of Office of Glilcus and Stolo, Jey Rora, Colonel Tarl Ciarán, Mayor Baras Haldmeer, Rindol the Sage, Essa