Tsomo Ryatem the chairman of the liftwood growers association stood as the ten young men and women who had been chosen by the lot entered the tastefully appointed meeting room. He bowed politely and served them with the traditional tea prepared from the leaves of their trees.
Once everyone was seated and had sipped their tea he sighed sadly as he looked at the nervous youngsters.
“As has been laid down in the holy books by our ancestors, you have two years. You will go out into the world and seek an answer.” Tsomo blinked away tears and wiped his eyes on a fine linen handkerchief. “If you fail,” Tsoma sighed, “well you know we will have to enact the ritual and your blood shall feed the trees. Yours or that of one of your family should you fail to return on time.”
“How will we leave, where should we go?” asked Lhekshey Oratem.
“You will go where you will, we will arrange your passage on one of the trade ships when they arrive for the brandy we brew from the fruits of our trees.”
“But there are no fruits this year, how will we manage next year?”
“We still have our reserves. It will be enough for a few years yet. Especially as we will be rising the price of our Hardin Brandy,” explained Tsoma.
= = O = =
The Princess Royal floated majestically over Conimbriga, her fog-horn hooting mournfully warning all lesser airships to keep away. With her bulk the Princess was unable to manoeuvre easily and with her solid build any collisions would tend to favour her. Captain Frostheart Stonefist stroked his full beard and squinted out of his bridge windows in vain. The fog was worse than usual. He watched his instruments carefully and ordered the Princess to be brought to a halt. The fog-horn switched to double hoots letting the world know that the Princess was requesting a pilot.
In his stateroom Bolithico noted the change and gathered his things and gathered his party around him to await the arrival of their porters. Then they helped Flamehand remove his everyday right arm and replace it with his war arm with its built in flamethrower and gun. Bolithico double checked the manna stone and its backup to ensure Flamehand would not suffer any unexpected breakdowns.
Then they were disembarking into the Empress Lines section of Conimbriga’s principal commercial airship terminal. Soon they were installed in a firewagon belonging to the Empress Lines and being driven to the Mount Royal Hotel.
The Mount Royal Hotel was disappointing. It was grimy, the staff was visibly overworked and they were asked to share rooms. It seemed that several of the better Inns and Hotels were temporarily closed, having been seized by the city until their ownership could be determined.
Bolithico was not happy; he demanded to see the manager.
Triffidor Poticus was dismissive. “Sorry sir, I kept two rooms for you, under the circumstances there is not much else I could do. I’m not even charging you a premium. I suggest you find somewhere else to stay.”
Bolithico returned to his friends in a foul mood. He found them at the bar, there Flamehand after a quick look round suggested, “I heard rumours of a new inn. It would appear to have built almost overnight. And it is roughly where one of the unsanctioned dungeons is located. Maybe we can kill two birds with one stone?”
Bolithico leant back and tossed back his beer, He shuddered and glared at his tankard with disgust. “What is it called? And does it have room?”
“The Queen of Hearts. It is really new, so probably. I’m told it is linked to the new fangled telephone network they have here.”
Bolithico gave his tankard another disgusted look, slammed it down on the table and stood. “Can hardly be worse than this place. Let’s go and have a look. We can always get our things if we decide to move.”
= = O = =
Lady merchant Velvet-Starbright kept her face straight with an effort, her sons’ constant grumbling at having to accompany her when she came shopping was a never ending source of amusement. She stopped at yet another shop in Street of Gems. The window was framed with black silk and contained a tasteful scattering of rings and bracelets.
“Now behave, these poor folk are mourning for one of their own,” she murmured to her sons before she opened the door and entered.
* * *
Minnow trotted down the road in anticipation of seeing her parents again. She barely gave a thought to her acolyte who was having to run to keep up with her. Now that she had checked out the old temple it was time to see her parents.
She waved in passing to some of their neighbours as she passed, not noticing that she was attracting a tail of surprised old friends. When she arrived at her parent’s shop she entered barely noting the black silk framing the display window.
Minnow burst into her parent’s shop, her mother looked up from her workbench at the back and shrieked, “MINNOW!” before fainting. Her father, rather rudely, looked away from the client he was serving to look at his wife. He hurried to pick her up from the floor.
Velvet noted her youngest drop to one knee and bow his head. So she ignored the shopkeeper’s rudeness and looked towards the door. She noted the whip coiled at the newcomer’s waist marked with the silver dolphin of the balancer. She bowed her head even as her eldest dropped to one knee.
Minnow’s father with his wife in his arms watched wide-eyed as the haughty drow lady bowed to his scapegrace daughter even as her guards knelt.
Minnow stopped surprised. “Please rise with the blessings of the Balancer.” Minnow felt something stir in her head and her eyes widened.
« Will you serve me Steelheart of the Starbright clan? I have need for a fiddlefoot like you. C’mon Bluey you’re up. Paladin time. »
« ... Humph ... conditions met – you are offered the class Paladin – accept yes / no »
Steelheart looked helplessly to his mother, she gave a very slight nod and he said, very softly, “Yes.”
« additional class gained: Paladin of Mary Silvestre, The Balancer, Mother, Little Fish, Mother of Monsters, Blackbeard’s Bane: aura of protection and water breathing gained »
Steelheart felt something change, his hand reached for his belt and he realized the ceremonial sword he had had been carrying had been replaced with a businesslike rapier and paired main-gauche.
« Enjoy your new rapier, name it and it will wake an’ serve you well as will the main-gauche. »
= = O = =
The minister of trade for Zeehaven, Epigonus Pinegrove stepped down from his barouche and flicked his cloak to ensure it fell correctly. He smiled a tad sourly at his successor as Poplectus Fantail was helped down by his groom. Epigonus hid his scorn for the ridiculous fop who felt the need of help to get down from a carriage.
They then walked side by side towards the building that currently held the drow trade delegation. The two guards at the front door seemed perturbed. Then they crossed their polearms in front of the door.
Epigonus stopped bemused, this had never happened to him before. “We are expected. Please allow us to enter.”
“Certainly minister, you may pass but the other may not.”
“What! How dare you! Don’t you know who I am?” Poplectus exclaimed angrily.
Another drow appeared at the door, Epigonus recognised her as the commander of the trade mission’s guard. “All we need to know is that you’re under the Ban of the Balancer. You are not welcome.”
Epigonus watched incredulously as Poplectus empurpled with rage, before almost screaming at the guards. “By Vortexius Blackbeard’s name, YOU will let me in so I can talk to the head of your delegation.”
All the drow’s eyes went bleak and cold. The guard captain drew her sword. “You are doubly unwelcome,” she said in an icy voice. “The Spider Queen does not welcome the followers of the Thief.”
Epigonius closed his eyes in pain, he could see months of hard work evaporate in front of his eyes. He had no influence over Poplectus and his patrons. He stepped back hoping to distance himself from the furious Poplectus and looked round for some kind of help. He blinked in surprise when he spotted an unlikely group approaching from the commercial district.
The lady merchant Velvet-Starbright was walking side by side with a young sea elf girl, they were chatting happily with the lady’s two sons walking at their shoulders, trailing this foursome were the Delphines, husband and wife and a blue haired human boy in the tabard of an acolyte. Then behind them there was a tail of several merchants and artists who worked in the merchant’s district.
Then the group seemed to loose their smiles on seeing the scene outside the drow trade delegation. What startled Epigonus most was the way the sea elf’s expression hardened and the way her hand went to the whip at her waist and the practiced way she prepared it for use.
“What are you doing here slaver? Get lost or prepare to die Poplectus,” snarled the elf girl to the obvious shock of the Delphine couple. The boy grinned in anticipation and the drow smiled in anticipation.
Epigonus drew in a deep breath and gathered his courage as he prepared to step in and defuse the situation. Why one of theirs was siding with the drow he couldn’t fathom but the Delphines were sensible people, as were their neighbours. And then he had his groom, coachman and ceremonial guard. Hopefully reason would prevail...
Then a huge black bearded figure materialised around Poplectus. The elf girl snarled and an equally large figure enveloped her. Epigonus staggered back in fear, things rarely went well for mortals when gods disputed, he had no difficulty recognising Vortexius Blackbeard. He didn’t know the gilled short haired female wearing the scanty clothing that would have marked her as one of the unsophisticated deep sea cousins were she an elf.
“Do you really want to try your strength ’gainst me here in the middle of the ocean?” asked the unknown goddess.
“You will be hampered by trying to save the cockroaches that will be scuttling under our feet,” sneered Vortexius.
Chillingly the goddess laughed, “Don’t know me well do you? Please feel free to stamp, they’re mostly yours.”
Epigonus kept backing away, he noted the sound of his horses hooves clattering away at high speed. He also noted that the building housing the drow trade delegation was protected by a wavering blue-green aura, as was the acolyte, the drow in the street and the Delphines.
The female god shook out long nasty looking metal barbed bullwhip. Vortexius sneered, “Stupid dungeon, that can’t touch me here.”
The whip snaked forward slicing through Vortexius torso and causing an explosion of blood inside his hip. Vortexius looked startled for a moment, then his form wavered and dissipated. Epigonus turned and vomited at the sight of the two halves of Poplectus’ body splattered all over the street.
“Stupid fool,” muttered the goddess, “as if I didn’t know where something that was under my ban hid.”
Epigonus felt despair as he noted all the respectable tradeselves and artists hurrying away, even the Delphines. It would not go down well amongst them that the council had been pushing for a follower of the god of cutthroats, pirates, bandits and thieves to be his successor. So that was the Balancer. Epigonus shivered in apprehension and after a despairing look at the hard-faced contemptuous drow he hurried after his townsfolk hoping to salvage something from this debacle.
* * *
Minnow coiled her whip, linked arms with her new friend and they entered the trade delegation’s building ignoring Epigonus as he hurried past shying away from her.