By means unknown, the area beyond the curtain suddenly is illuminated with literally the brilliance of day. A young man stands on a gibbet, noose already around his neck, as a fairly good likeness of Mayor Fafrilla reads a list of guilty charges against him. Assault. Attempted murder. Attempted robbery. Chuul recognizes the scene because he lived it, albeit without the artifice of the stage to dress it up and lend it pageantry. There was no drumbeat to rattle the criminal into the next world, and the villagers weren't dressed in festival clothing but rather in their everyday working clothes.
The condemned, of course, must be Marcus, the werewolf who bit Sister Felicia. In true theatrical fashion, the legalities and talking surrounding his execution are given short shrift. Instead, the action moves along quickly to the actual hanging. By means that aren't clear, the actors of the Waterfront have contrived a way to convincingly execute someone on stage. Pseudo-Marcus drops a good foot, stops at the end of the rope, and begins twitching and thrashing as it tightens about his neck.
The audience is silent, at first, and then begins to make nervous, uncomfortable noises, possibly discomforted by the verisimilitude on display.
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
Avar, perhaps unconsciously, eyes where he believes the rest of the group sits. He remembers hearing small talk about this scene and is engrossed seeing it being played out.
Externally, the aasimar takes the scene in passively. Internally, he makes a mental note to ask the others more about this play.
Inexorably, the crowd of villagers watches until the "werewolf" is dead. After a brief speech by the mayor, the stage clears as all but a handful of actors leave. Those who remain are recognizable stand-ins for the Bastards. One in particular is obviously supposed to be Chuul; in reality it's a half-elf or human who's been painted greenish-grey and made up with fake tusks, much larger and more elaborate than real life, and a wide fake nose that spreads across nearly half his face. Thoughtfully, someone (undoubtedly Rennit or Jonas) has taken care that the orc's right tusk is broken off about halfway. It's not so much a likeness of Chuul as a caricature. Conspicuously, the orc wears a large, elaborate-looking necklace made of chunks of carved and polished bone. It has a certain barbaric splendor to it.
With him are other characters who are recognizably similar to Ryster, Jalen, Alannah, and Garren, although the former two members of your company were not present for this early incident.
As the orc stands gazing at the corpse that still dangles on the gibbet, Alannah's character muses, "You were wrong about the villagers, but I don't think you're upset about it."
The girl's observation snaps "Chuul" out of his reverie, and he rumbles, "No. They're hard people, but fair. I wasn't expecting it from a bunch of farmers, especially for an orc who showed up, seeking justice for attempted robbery at human hands. I've passed through places where they would have tried to kill me if I were caught after sunset. This was a delightful surprise."
Wryly, the ersatz Ryster chimes in, "Leave it to you to call a hanging a delightful surprise."
Chuul doesn't reply; he just grunts. After a moment, Garren's character proposes, "Supper time soon. Might as well get going." The actors stroll offstage, leaving the 'corpse' still hanging, apparently unattended. But after about the space of three heartbeats, a rumble of laughter runs through the audience as a goblin—probably a halfling with a fake nose and a thick layer of orange paint on its skin—pokes its head out of what looks like a cart full of trash, looks around with exaggerated care to check that it's unobserved, and then clambers gracelessly out of the cart to stand next to the gibbet in nothing but a loincloth.
Thoughtfully, the creature hisses, "Funny to hear an orc talk like a human. Heard of this one, I have. Bastard." He scuttles up to stand on the gibbet platform, poking the corpse so that it swings, just a little, and "Yes, heard of him, alright. Him and his necklace from the fairy queen."
Without taking his eyes from the fabricated goblin, Chuul reaches up to his breastbone briefly, as though unconsciously feeling at a necklace under his shirt.
"Nicely done!" Alannah says to Chuul without turning to face him, "It's not quite what I expected when I asked them to spread the word that you had the necklace, but I suppose that will work."
Oskav was engrossed in the hanging scene. After many long moments, Alannah's remark stirs him and he offers, "The good news is that it doesn't even matter if our quarry thinks the reference to the necklace is too obvious. He has been explicitly called out and baited with an artifact we know he needs, so he should not be able to resist finding out if we really have it in our possession."
"Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats." - H.L. Mencken
While the Bastards are chit-chatting under the breath, the "goblin," continues his soliloquy onstage.
"These pale-skins are hateful to me. I'm lucky they just give me a kick and have me muck out the stables, rather than stretch my poor halse like you, poor dog," the goblin says, sighing pensively before going on, "This land was goblin once, home of wolf-riders, for all that I'm their cur now."
He grows still, and suddenly an evil grin spreads across the little creature's face. "Yes. Wolf riders. And wolves run in packs. There's a thought."
Quickly, he scampers offstage, as the audience erupts into a low buzz. The muttering stills itself as the curtain lowers, and a lame dwarf hobbles onto the portion of the stage that thrusts out into the pit. He's moving with haste, leaning on a gnarled staff, and has bones and small animal skulls braided into his beard. Clearly Oskav's double.
Panting a little, the dwarf glances over his shoulder as a trio of hobgoblins (or more properly, a trio of especially large humans made up to look like them with orange paint and blue nose prosthetics) pursues him, swaggering and brandishing their spears.
"Do try not to smile so," mumbles Chuul to Alannah without looking at her.
Alannah satisfied expression drops, replaced by one of genuine irritation.
The business that transpires onstage, meanwhile, is a touch of borderline-racist tomfoolery, in which the hobgoblins, in broken Common, demand the surrender of the "great king's ashes" from the dramatized version of Oskav, and in which he responds with a ringing challenge that both fleshes out their reason for demanding said ashes (to mix them with blood and revitalize their leader, who is evidently a vampire) and also invites them to come and take the ashes, if they think they can.
A fight ensues, featuring a really impressive bit of actual magic that seems to incinerate one of the hobgoblins, who flees offstage, screaming, and blinds another before the third hobgoblin does a fairly convincing job of beating "Oskav" into death or unconsciousness with the haft of his spear.
The violence and special effects go over swimmingly with the groundlings, even if the details of this plot point are complete fabrications from the perspective of the Bastards' lived experiences.
The play continues for a good two hours before the action winds up to a climax, in which Chuul and Berger Cole—represented by what appears to be the same actor who delivered the prologue to this whole thing—fight an extremely showy and impressive, but utterly unrealistic duel. By this point in the action of the play, there's really not much in the way of resemblance to any of the actual events that inspired it.
The groundlings (and the more respectable patrons in the galleries) don't know this, of course, and they seem reasonably pleased with the entertainment on offer, especially the more lurid bits like this duel, or the illusions that were deployed during Oskav's fight against the hobgoblins. In all honesty, the play itself is a little weak; Rennit and Jonas have constructed an overly complicated plot, with holes in it large enough to gallop an armored charger through it. And the ending is . . . abrupt, to say the least. Cole basically runs away to join forces with the goblinoids, leaving the fictionalized Bastards in command of the the field. The ending is essentially a cliffhanger, which is underscored by an epilogue in which the same actor from the prologue pretty much comes out and says that the story is too long to tell in full with one play, and that the audience should be sure to come back to hear the rest another time. This doesn't seem to bother the audience, although they don't exactly cheer, either.
But it ticks the boxes where the Bastards' agenda is concerned. The bone necklace, Cole, the faeries, and the possibility of a goblinoid conspiracy are all prominently featured.
It's fully night, as the curtains fall for the final time, the actors take their bows, and the theater begins to empty. Word reaches the Bastards, via Dermently the usher, that they've been invited backstage to meet with the actors and playwrights. From the way Dermently delivers this intelligence, he doesn't seem to think there's anything out of the ordinary—you've paid more money for your seats than he probably sees in a week. Probably this is a courtesy that's extended to every patron.
Up in the gallery, Avar is accosted by another usher with a similar message. A fellow gallery patron looks noticeably surprised, and not a little envious, overhearing the exchange.
Avar eyes the patron and offers, "It isn't as glamorous as it sounds" through a small smile.
Nodding, the paladin follows the usher.
Alannah likewise follows the usher.
The ushers concentrate you in a medium-sized room somewhere in the backstage area of the theater. It's windowless, but well-lit by continual flames that illustrate that the walls have been plastered smooth and then papered over with a rich green cloth. There are plenty of places to sit; the predominant furnishings in the room are upholstered chairs, benches and hassocks. An array of glasses, bottles, cold meats, bread and cheeses is laid out on a sideboard.
Once you're inside and have been invited to help yourselves to food and drink if you want it, the ushers leave. Rennit and Jonas enter almost immediately, looking tired but pleased with themselves. In sharp contrast to their attire when they were traveling with you, the pair are nattily dressed in expensive doublets, hose, and codpieces that would be appropriate at the duke's court.
Cheerfully, Jonas greets everyone and no one, "Wotcha. Had you a bad time at the court, eh?"
"You'd think we wouldn't be tired of hearing about it, wouldn't you?"
Oskav smiles widely. "I never tire of hearing of it, Lady Alannah. The Bastards' time at Court surpassed all expectations."
The dwarf nods to Jonas, and Baldr croaks in support. "Masterfully done, Master Jonas. The two of you have outdone yourselves this evening."
Rennit rolls his eyes as Jonas bows elaborately to Oskav, and agrees with Alannah, "It's been all over town. Nobody's talking about much else, and now there's this play! It's always good to be able to keep a promise, but it's even better to make a fortune doing it, let me tell you."
The wererat makes his way over to the sideboard to pour himself a drink and scoop up a handful of shelled nuts, twitching his mustache a little as his friend teases Alannah. Nibbling at the food seems to relax him, and he sags contentedly into an armchair.
"You did indeed fulfill your promise. There will be more talk for sure. And everyone but Cole will appreciate the depiction of his part."
For his part Avar grabs a drink, a few snacks, and plops himself down. Instead of offering anything the paladin instead prefers to play witness for the moment.
"Will people be discussing it, then?" asks Chuul. "I do not ask as a critique, I just do not know the typical habits of the locals."
After a short pause, he adds, "I would hope that the explosive state of affairs in the valley would be on many peoples' lips, all things considered."
"It will make the upcoming party much more interesting, to say the least."
"I should be surprised if people didn't discuss it, at this point," says a new voice. At the door, an older half-elf is entering the room. From the mustache, resonant but slight nasal voice, pointed nose, and general resemblance, it's obvious that he's related to Rennit in some fashion. He's clearly the same person as the Prologue and Epilogue from the play you just witnessed. Likely, he's also the actor who played the part of Cole, but he was made up heavily enough that you can't be sure.
Almost immediately, you are sure that he's more than just an actor—Rennit and Jonas both wear rapiers at their hips, but they don't give the impression that theirs are merely extensions of their bodies. And most of the other theater staff that you've passed on your way here don't carry more than a knife or dagger, that you could see.
Like your erstwhile allies, the newcomer is garbed in doublet and hose, all of his garments well-cut from expensive cloth.
Rennit is out of his chair almost instantly, bowing elaborately and then hastening to an introduction, "Good evening, Father. Please allow me to present the, ah, inspiration for tonight's entertainments. Chuul Kane. Lady Alannah Zaidah of House Alastar. Sir Avar Sentalial. Moonguard Garren Bauer. Oskav Hruthsson, and his familiar, Baldr. Collectively, the Bastards. Bastards, Renard Wormtail, the King Rat."
Alannah bows her head, giving Renard an acknowledgment of respect, "It's good to meet you. Your performance was excellent."
Renard inclines his head slightly, smiling. "Thank you, you're very kind." Having offered the little pleasantry, he moves to the sideboard and helps himself to a glass of wine, continuing, "My son has told me of his agreement with you concerning the necklace, and of your dealings with Cole. I think that it should be plain, in light of this evening's performance, that I ratify the product of his negotiation."
Alannah smirks, unsure if the pun was intended, "I have to admit, I was a bit worried. I am happy to see you keep to the agreement. Oh, but I would love to see Cole's face when he hears talk of this production."
The Rat King's mustaches twitch as he offers another infinitesimal smile. "How have you fared in meeting your side of the bargain with us?"
"I've completed the first part of our arrangement and it is pending delivery after Cole's death, as agreed."
"Ah, yes. And that brings us to the crux of the matter. Why do you tempt fate by bringing the necklace fragments within his reach at all? All he has to do is defeat you, and he gains whatever you have. And then you're forsworn in our agreement, providing he even leaves you alive." The wererat wets his lips, calmly.
"That was a very predictable argument, almost Cliché. I suppose you'll follow it up with a offer to go ahead and hold on to it for us, since, of course, it's due to you anyway. And giving it to you now leaves you with no skin in the game, which is fine with you I'm sure."
She shakes her head, "It was part of the bargain, I intend to honor the deal as struck. You might not care if this gambit works, but we won't gamble with fouling it up by giving up the bait too soon. Besides, delaying the deal's conclusion to Cole's death means we are all..." She motions to indicate the inclusion of the rat king, Jonas, and Rennit, "motivated to do what it takes to bring him down and keep us alive."
"Oh, and I know where more pieces are and I assume you'll want to be keeping to the second part of the bargain."
He peers at the wine in his glass, makes a face, and sets it aside, replying, "I am prepared to be reasonable in finding an arrangement that satisfies your need for," he grimaces, "skin in the game, but if Cole reassembles the necklace, it puts my pack at risk. I'd find it highly satisfactory if he perishes at your hands, but that's more of a personal sentiment than it is a matter of policy."
"I propose the following: you must place any necklace fragments you have obtained to date into safekeeping with a neutral party who can be trusted to hold them until you either perish against Cole, or emerge victorious," continues Renard. "If you do so, my people will continue their work on misinformation directed at Cole. I shall not require you to divulge any information you find regarding other fragments until after your business with Cole is concluded. And likewise, I shall not require that you relinquish any other fragments you find after your departure from this city until afterward. That does put me at some risk of having fragments or information fall into Cole's possession, but we live in an imperfect world."
Alannah considers, "It sounds reasonable. However, this was Chuul's vendetta before it was mine -- I'll give the decision to him before he puts the best Cole bait he ever had in storage."
Alannah does a slight double take based on one of Renard's earlier statements. "So, you know what this necklace does... or did?"
Chuul speaks simply. "While I do recognize your stake in the matter and do not wish to cause you or yours any discomfort or risk, I plan to do whatever is most effective and most expedient to ensure Cole's death. Aside from whatever grand design he has in mind, the threat he poses to the people of Golden Sheaves is a lot more real than the 'maybe' he poses to you, sir. If you are concerned about the real possibility that Cole might win, then I would suggest that you do everything in your power to help us emerge triumphant."
The orc purses his lips for a moment, seeming to weigh whether to speak further. In the end, he decides to, though he drops the formal tone and speaks directly instead. "I am learning how... political the movers and shakers in this city can be. But I am much more of a 'get things done' kind of person. This maybe-game of politics, putting eggs into a dozen different baskets, might serve well at court, but against Cole...? Commit to it, fully. Help us bring him down, and I will wear a smile as I give the necklace to you." Chuul does not beg, but his tone is that of implorement.
"If I may weigh in," Garren begins, "it seems to me that if we were to tell you what neutral third party had been entrusted with the necklace that it might put them at some risk - not only to life and limb, but to tests of their security by some of the most accomplished...cat burglars...in these lands." Garren continues, "If we did not tell you where it had been cached, you would have a most difficult time locating it if we fail. While the shards remaining unaccounted for might be preferable to being in Cole's hands, it would be far from ideal. Considering that, I would be curious to know how you imagine such an arrangement should work."
Oskav frowns. "My current research is taking longer than I anticipated. If it is agreeable to our associates and the Bastards, I would be willing to remain in Port Hope under the protection of Master Renard's family, with the artifact safely secured in my possession."
He shrugs. "I don't have any personal stake in the fight against Cole. It would be my preference to see him dead, and I believe I would be an asset when Master Chuul finally draws him out; but right this moment I have no intention of going anywhere, such that waiting for me to conclude my studies might unnecessarily delay our investigation. Is this short term solution satisfactory to everyone?"
"While that is great news, Oskav, I don't think its necessary. We already have a 3rd party that has offered to keep pieces of the necklace for us and would keep it safe from anyone that might attempt to take it, even Cole himself."
"And Garren, this has nothing to do with trust or worry. Renard has proved that they are trustworthy and delivered on their part of the bargain, taking only my word that I even had the capacity to locate any of the pieces. Perhaps there was little to lose on their other than further infuriating Cole, which could be more of a bonus. I manipulated the deal so that I could expect continued assistance from Renard to help trap and kill Cole even after the rumor was spread and a piece was found. It wasn't a deception, as Rennit and Renard are smart enough to see exactly what I was doing and you can't blame them for being worried about us getting killed and them losing the piece. That's what I was counting on, and they know that, thus Renard's proposal. Besides, having the piece lost again to a 3rd party is better than it falling into the hands of Cole... I think we can all agree on that."
Renard takes a deep breath, then lets it out in something that isn't exactly a sigh. "Let's say that you leave the fragment or fragments that you have in safekeeping with Temple-Warden Burke," he suggests, not bothering to conceal that he already knows who you'd use. "Suffice it to say that although I think it's possible for my people to steal it from him, it would be difficult and dangerous. If something went wrong, I could find myself at war with the old man. I could win, but victory in this case would be a matter of ruling over the ashes of this city." Languidly, he makes a gesture of dismissal. "I'd quite like to have the entire necklace, and there's no reason to dissemble about that. But I don't need it. If a fragment is stuck in a hole under the temple of Derena, then I can feel reasonably certain that Cole won't get it. That's the thing I must have, as a prerequisite for going on with this arrangement my son has cooked up with you, and it's a thing that I don't think will trouble you overmuch, since it ensures that whatever happens, Cole is less likely to achieve a complete victory."
Raising his eyebrows, he makes a point of looking at Chuul, as he continues, "If you want more than that, perhaps we can work something out. It'll have to be specific. It will have to lay out what my people are to do, and when, and how we'll be compensated for our work."
Chuul nods to himself, as though tbis was exactly what he expected to hear. "All I require," he says, "is that they stay out of the way. I appreciate the assistance we have been given to this point. But I would take it poorly if anyone's machinations ruined our chance to put Cole down, well-meaning or not."
Renard seems pleased at Chuul's response. "It sounds like we have common ground, then. If you can arrange matters so that whatever fragments you have are placed in safekeeping until Cole is eliminated, you're assured of our cooperation along the same lines that we've already provided. No machinations, well-meaning or otherwise. Everyone's happy."
He pops a shelled walnut into his mouth and chews with evident pleasure.
Chuul makes an "mmm" noise, seeming to consider the discussion finished.
Rennit looks intensely uncomfortable, as does Jonas. Neither one says anything, though. Instead, they both head for the drinks table, where Rennit gets a refill of wine and Jonas pours himself an inappropriately large helping of what is probably some kind of distilled liquor.
Avar, picking up the cue, asks,"Are there concerns Rennit?"
Rennit downs half his wine and refills the cup, not answering the paladin. His mustache twitches. For once, Jonas doesn't have a stupid joke or smartassed comment to make, either, although he isn't quite as nervous-looking as his friend.
Renard, on the other hand, comments, "My son's probably concerned that Master Chuul isn't happy with the arrangement I just suggested. Probably because he's chosen to respond with a noncommittal grunt instead of a tusky grin and enthusiastic agreement." The wererat probes around the inside of his mouth after a stray fragment of walnut meat, musing, "I would hate to think Rennit's correct, but I suspect that he is, and that Master Chuul simply is too gentlemanly to directly refuse."
"Chuul's fine, that's just as much positivity as you are going to get when it comes to Cole," Alannah answers wryly.
"Your idea isn't a horrible one. We'll leave the piece after Chuul wears it around for a bit more. I'll sense Cole when he returns and we'll put it in safekeeping inside the temple before we leave town again... whichever comes first. If it's safe anywhere from Cole, it'll be there."
She thinks for a moment, "Maybe we could find a charm that is similar for him to wear."
"Maybe you could," agrees Renard. But he's still looking at Chuul as he queries, "Does Lady Alannah speak for all of you in this?"
"She doesn't speak for me."
The paladin shrugs and continues, "But I do not pretend to have a vote in this as the necklace doesn't belong to me. I am with whatever plan can lure Cole in a quick and efficient fashion."
Garren had taken Chuul's 'mmmm' as assent, but he had spent more time with the orc. Sensing the difficulty, Garren explains, "These folk are used to dealing with unscrupulous merchants who would claim that they never agreed to anything because they didn't say yes, or if they did, they didn't shake on it, or if they did but they didn't sign a contract. Not to impugn your integrity, the conversation will be truly over when you positively agree to the terms they've offered."
"It belongs to Alannah," says Chuul. "And her judgement I trust. If she wants to put it in a temple vault, that is where it will go."
Rennit and Jonas visibly relax as Renard smiles, "I see. Then it seems as if Lady Alannah and I have reached an accord." More warmly than before, he continues, "I hope you're all comfortable. Have you dined this evening?"
Avar shakes his head, "I haven't."
Alannah also shakes her head, "No."