Stathis stepped inside to what was a flurry of activity, dust shining in the afternoon sunlight as it was whipped into the air. There was a clear line of division between what had been cleaned and what still needed doing. The maid bustled past her, returning to the task of cleaning.
‘Uh, what’s going on?’
Janaxia swept in, now returned to her usual noble regalia, svelte and elegant, dressed to entertain rather than make any attempt at anything practical, a smug grin on her face.
While you were taking a break, I have acquired some servants to restore my home to what it should be
‘OK, I guess. So, they live here now? How many of them are there? And do they know about your, um, condition?’
I had Parth do the talking. Well, as much as she talks
If Parth had been involved, they had probably gotten a decent deal, at least. And the place definitely had enough space, feeling slightly less spooky now there were some extra people around. Although both she could see seemed to have the same red hair, but they probably weren’t demonic cultists or anything, so it should be OK, and they seemed to be doing a good job of the cleaning. She stepped aside, letting the maid bustle past.
‘So, do they have names?’
Janaxia pointed out a particularly stubborn bit of dust, not answering, probably not knowing or caring about such minor things. Well, she was a noble. The servant turned back, curtseying again.
‘Lord Terinth called for you, Miss Stathis. He will be at the Wounded Hart today. He requested that you visit if you can, at your convenience.’
‘OK, fine. So, where is that?’
From the directions, it wasn’t far. While Janaxia was distracted, she took the chance to quickly question the servant, whispering just in Janaxia was paying attention.
‘Are you OK here? She’s not forcing you or anything, no evil magic or anything?’
The maid’s face remained politely impassive. ‘No, we willingly agreed to serve Lady Janaxia.’
‘That’s good. And she’s not made you die your hair to match hers?’ It seemed the sort of thing she would do, even if her red lock was rather darker than normal.
‘No, she has not.’
‘OK, that’s good. Thanks.’
Just in case it was an ambush, she rounded up Parth from what seemed to be a small library, or at least a dumping ground for books, judging by the complete lack of organisation. It took some talking to coax her out, her reaction to the sunlight making Stathis suspect that she hadn’t left since Janaxia had last pulled her outside.
The Wounded Hart wasn’t far and looked like it catered to well-off merchants and travellers, lacking the more rarefied atmosphere of somewhere that catered to the nobility. The place was filled with hunting trophies, horns, skulls, broken weapons and other relics of past adventurers. The centrepiece was the skull of some giant monster, savage teeth and sharp-tined horns at least 4 paces wide, hung with various ribbons, medals and other decorations.
Terinth was easy to find, up on a stage, his music attracting an audience, a few even risking dancing despite their sobriety. He was pretty good, bow moving rapidly as he played, keeping a rapid tempo, even as he started to sing as well, a lusty ballad, crowd shouting up during the chorus. They took a seat nearby, a waiter quickly appearing to take their order, soon returning with drinks.
Once Terinth was done, he basked in the applause, politely turning down the cries for an encore before stepping down from the stage, approaching and pulling up a seat.
‘Stathis Iristari, a pleasure! Thank you for accepting my invitation. Although I am a little surprised by your presence in humble Redcastle.’
Surprisingly, Parth answered. ‘Free housing.’
Stathis continued. ‘Also, the whole “demon incursion” thing, that seemed sort of important.’
‘I was somewhat surprised to see a scion of the Iristari here – your sister, of course is well known, but you are rather more of a mystery, especially given your family. There are various factions within the town, that would…’
Stathis cut him off. ‘Please don’t make this more than it is. I don’t really care about whatever politics or plots you’ve got going, don’t try and drag me in. I’m here to fight demons and get paid, not deal with a bunch of rich people arguing about whatever they’re bitching about this time.’
He didn’t let her flat-out rejection depress him, as he gave a slow nod, taking the chance to toss his hair and generally pose for the crowd – not unappealing, even if now wasn’t the best of times. ‘Such a stance may be wise, although I fear may be hard to achieve. Even without the recent incidents, matters have become heated, with some parties resorting to extreme measures to make their voices heard.’
‘Well, that’s their problem, really. As long as they don’t drag me in. I’m guessing you’re probably involved somewhere?’
‘You wound me, Lady Stathis! I am but a humble knight and performer, dedicated to my musical craft, and fighting evil wherever it may be found. In fact, I am organising a hunting party, to finally slay the beast that accosted you upon your entrance – I’m certain that you and your allies would be welcome. And, of course, there’s a reward for the head of the beast.’
‘That sounds more interesting.’ She took a swig of beer, nothing that he was drinking (of course) wine, liquid a deep, dark red. ‘So, just to get this out of the way, are you a vampire?’
He looked taken aback at the bluntness of her question, then gestured at the bright sunlight streaming through the window. ‘Would I be able to perform in the day if I were?’
‘Probably, I always lose track of all the weird types and what they can do.’ She started counting off on her fingers. ‘There’s daywalker high-bloods, there’s magical items and spells for protection, thin-bloods are affected less, those creepy flying head ones are fine during the day; hells, there’s at least a few vampire priests of the sun – useful perk of the job in that case, I guess. And you’ve got some very quiet, very faceless minions.’ She looked around, but couldn’t see them anywhere. ‘And the Ebon Lance don’t have the best reputation, let’s be honest.’
He recovered quickly, answering with an easy smile. ‘You certainly don’t beat around, do you, Lady Stathis?’
‘Just Stathis is fine. I try to avoid the whole “nobility” thing, it’s generally nothing but trouble.’
He smiled, spreading his hands disarmingly. ‘I can assure you, I have far too much attachment to the warmth and pleasure of life to have my blood turned cold and still.’ He reached out and gently touched Stathis’ hand, his own flesh still flushed from his recent exertions. ‘And, yes, many of the Masters of the Order are…’ he searched for an appropriately poetic term, before giving up, ‘…well, vampires, but they generally restrict themselves to enemies, or those willing to be fed on. I will pass on your desire to avoid such matters to my colleagues. I should warn you though, between yourself and Lady Uth Tremari, there’s quite the competition to see who can attract the pair of you.’
It took Stathis a moment to realise who ‘Lady Uth Tremari’ was, before realising it must be Janaxia.
‘Of course, that’s assuming the two of you come as a pair. No small amount of rumours on that particular topic, as well.’ He gave her a questioning look, eyebrow raised.
Parth snickered, as Stathis sighed. ‘We’re not like that. We work together, that’s all.’
‘Well, that does raise some interesting questions – would Lady Janaxia perhaps be more interested in the pleasures of society?’ He let his hand linger for a moment, before withdrawing.
‘Probably, although she’s a bit ill right now. I’ll pass on your invitation though, she’ll be thankful, even if unable to attend. Is there anything else to be aware of?’ Stathis groaned. ‘How much of a gods-damned pain is staying out of everyone’s squabbling going to be? Also, how many people how are currently pissed off at, or currently trying to attract, my sister? She’s been popping up recently, and I’d like to know if she’s going to dump me another pile of crap on me from on high.’
‘Ah, so you do have some interest!’
‘I don’t want someone kidnapping me for a damn party again! Or one of Carissia’s ex’s, or would-be ex’s, hunting me down. Again. Or being given a “gift”, which turns out to be a cursed item. Again.’
Terinth laughed. ‘Ah, the thrilling life of the highest of blood! Pledged to honour and glory, seeking to escape from the chains of duty to seek heroism and virtue!’ He grinned. ‘Sadly, the games need playing, largely empty though they may be. You can try and turn down the invites, but I suspect there will be quite a number, and some may take the refusals personally.’
Stathis rubbed her forehead, a headache starting to grow. ‘I’m not going to be able to get out of this, am I? Which ones are going to be the least bad?’
He clapped his hands together. ‘Ah, you do your family proud! Worry not, there are a few events that are rather more entertaining than a bunch of stuffed robes bickering about who slept with whom several generations ago. Shall I assume you will be attending the demon hunt then? An opportunity to meet some of your peers, and altogether more interesting than a petty soiree. I’m sure that will be an appropriate entry to Redcastle society.’
‘That sounds more like it. Gods, how bad is it here? Vendettas?’
‘Knives in the night, no. The usual petty bickering, the lords of Redcastle attempting to marry their scions to increase their wealth, the frantic gambling of the Velvet Room, and so on; those continue apace. Of late, the demons have certainly added a certain spice to proceedings – many a blushing youth of high blood is turning away any suitor that doesn’t have at least a few imps or fellhounds to their blade. I’m sure you would make quite the impression, were you to engage yourselves in such entertainments.’
‘I think I’ll pass, thanks. Just let me know when the demon hunt is, I’ll bring my guys along.’
‘An invitation will be sent promptly, I assure you. So, Miss Parth, I believe? A pleasure to meet you in a somewhat more relaxed environment.’ He switched languages, a series of sounds, liquid and light, falling from his mouth, impossible to tell when each word, or even sentence ended. Stathis tried to remember her long-ago language lessons (swordplay had always been far more interesting) – something about the seasons? Or maybe a fish? She’d never gotten the hang of the slight switches in tone being able to change the meaning completely.
Parth replied, brief even in her native language, a series of sounds that was probably a single word, before glancing at Stathis and saying something else, that made Terinth laugh and respond, equally incomprehensibly. While Terinth and Parth conversed – or at least, Terinth spoke, and Parth nodded, shook her head or occasionally spoke a single word, Stathis gave up trying to pretend she was following along, taking the chance to enjoy the beer – light, and refreshing in the ridiculous heat, good enough she ordered a second. Armour was going to be torturous, even if it was preferable to being murdered by a demon.
As they were talking, some admirers of Terinth began to circle, keeping a polite distance but slowly getting closer. Stathis finished off her pint, just as Parth finished hers. As they left, the waiter approached them, Stathis pointing back at Terinth, ‘They’re on him.’ He was busily flirting with his admirers, so might not even notice the extra charge, and could clearly afford it.