"Oh, I am sure it could," says Chuul. "On paper, at least. But no matter how sweet and loving a pup is to its master, after it has bitten him once, it will forevermore be a cur to be watched to his mind."
"To be clear, I would not care one way or another. Unlike some of my companions, I am not a supporter or opposer of imperial reconciliation. I have no dog in that fight. But while I admit that my view of politics is lacking, I just think it would be naive to believe that all sins, real or imagined, would be actually forgiven after someone bends the knee."
Sounding bored, Wæmunding admonishes the milkmaid, "Now, now, Farah. There's no use taking out your frustrations on me just because you lost your scorpion match with Aichav. Or am I wrong, and you're actually interested in what I do with mousy little Marta?"
The milkmaid snorts, indelicately, and retorts, "Of course I'm not interested, you buffoon. Your plans start and end with your prick. Always have. That stodgy dwarf of yours doesn't understand much about you, but he and I see eye-to-eye on that, at least. Besides, whatever your plans for her might have been, it doesn't look as if you've got any chance of carrying them through now. The Alastar bitch must have snatched her right out from under your nose."
Wæs se grimma gæst Grendel haten,mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold
"I suppose if direct confrontation is undesirable, the next best option is escape. He looks to be in conversation." As Garren continues the dance he suggests, "If my friends and I put our heads together, I bet we could arrange for you to literally disappear from view or take on the form of someone else. It might be hard to pull off with so many people, but with so many people it might be an easy thing to slip right out the servant's entrance."
"If I want to leave alone, I shouldn't have a problem doing it. An escort to the door would be more than adequate," replies Marta, in an undertone that Garren doesn't have much trouble hearing because it's practically next to his ear. "Really, the problem is that he's just so persistent. This is the fourth or fifth time I've needed to dodge him in the past couple of months." She sighs, and adds, "He writes to my father at least twice a week, too. Not that Papa welcomes his missives any more than I do, but we're obliged to . . . to treat him with more deference than we might offer if we were completely at liberty."
Alannah circles around the crowd, stalking back toward Garren and Marta. Reaching the dancing couple, she crosses her arms and declares, "That man is an ass."
"I confess I had noticed," Garren adds as he releases Marta from the dance so they can both face Alannah, but his hand remains on her elbow so he can interpose himself if anyone tries to take this as an opportunity. "We should keep moving. To the dining hall?"
Alannah nods, "If I stand in that man's presence any longer, I may have to hurt him."
Garren, Alannah, and Marta head north into the banqueting hall, passing quite close to Avar and leaving Wæmunding and Farah the milkmaid to trade barbs. The food has been refreshed anywhere that it was beginning to run low, and there is now a carving station operating with what looks like a whole tenderloin of beef dripping red juices as it is portioned out.
Meanwhile, Oskav has headed west to seek out the library again, hopeful of finding it devoid of canoodlers this time so that he can get a little reading done. As he hobbles along, the dwarf catches sight of Chuul in the sitting room to the south, and notices that the orc, normally pretty no-nonsense, is engaged in a conversation with someone. Oskav can't quite see who it might be, though.
Oskav's curiosity is piqued, thinking it less likely that Chuul would have found a partner in conversation than Sir Avar. He changes course and bows slightly to the half-orc and the woman he's speaking to. After giving them a moment to acknowledge his presence, he offers, "Master Chuul, how goes your evening thus far? Lady Alannah is in rare form - she managed to say something earlier that was neither insulting to me nor embarrassing for her."
"Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats." - H.L. Mencken
"I am delighted to hear you two are getting along so well," says Chuul. "I would be bored to tears by all of this, if not for a bit of political discourse with a new acquaintance." He indicates his conversational partner.
The carving station catches Garren's eye, and he can taste the juicy beef from across the room. Turning from it he grabs an apple and takes a bite. "Feel free to enjoy all of the foods here, though I abstain from meat for myself. It will not offend me if you do not."
"Good evening, Master Hruthsson," replies the half-elf woman, inclining her head politely and dispensing with the fiction that nobody at this function knows who anyone else might be. Oskav notes that her outfit is not so much a costume as an extremely advanced scorpion motif with a somewhat insectile-looking mask added to it.
"Master Chuul and I were discussing the plausibility of a course of events in which Port Hope returns to Imperial rule, possibly in a fashion which allows the city and its territory to retain some degree of sovereignty. A tributary kingdom, in effect."
Oskav nods in deference to the woman. "I will not insult your intelligence by pretending to care one way or the other; except to offer that unless the tide of war can be repelled, there may not be much of anything for the Empire to annex."
"Imperial steel carved this city out of the wilderness," counters the woman, affably. "The Aureshans stand in dire need of the timber to be harvested in this province, and would shed blood to take it. Better goblin blood than ours."
"Better that they arrive in time, then, to choose between the two," Oskav shrugs, raising his gnarled staff briefly then tapping it back on the floor. "But what do I know of such things? May the days ahead be fruitful, and free of fear or hurt." He bids the pair farewell and continues on toward the library.
Alannah pulls Marta over to the side of the hall, ignoring the food (and Garren) for the moment, "What in the world is wrong with that horrid man? I heard him obsessing over you as I passed by him and that tramp he's talking to. I thought I was saving you from a momentary and unprompted encounter of lechery. I had no idea that he's apparently been plotting to corner you here."
Marta looks a bit freaked out by Alannah's sudden question, and stammers, "I-I, uh, that is, it's—my father is—I can't talk about it here, Lady Alannah."
"His directness is always refreshing," comments Chuul as Oskav leaves.
Alannah dismisses Marta's worry, "Oh, I know who he is, he's Padishar Meel. Which makes you Marta Meel. But that shouldn't matter. No one can hear us in here and fewer would care what we are talking about enough to listen. Garren will let us know if a certain someone gets to close."
"The best defense is a good offense." Garren slips away and moves directly and purposefully toward Wæmunding.
Marta looks like she's about to be ill, and hisses at Alannah, "Please, stop the Moonguard! Wæmunding is blackmailing my father, and he'll ruin us!"
Alannah perks up, "Oh! Well, that's different." She turns, "Oh, Garren. Please come back for a moment. The quest can wait as I've got some new information that may be critical to the decision to do what you are about to do."
Marta waits, clearly on the verge of hysterics or apoplexy.
Avar stands alone in the room scanning for someone to talk to while sipping his drink.
It is while his thoughts drift from considering how he can get his sizeable balls drained, to who in this room would be a willing ally to bring the Empire to help these people, to that wretched politician whose name currently can't be remembered, to either leave or to get politely wasted on the delicious punch wine, when Avar sees Garren adopt a look of determination and separate himself from Alannah and another woman.
"By Agons balls," Avar whispers to himself, "What are you doing?"
The paladin begins to quick walk to the ranger.
Just in time for Argus to reverse course and rejoin Alannah and Marta. "I feel like I may have missed a crucial detail." He grabs a couple of goblets from a passing server, "No need to pass so far away."
When Garren turns off of his course toward Wæmunding, Marta begins to breathe once more. But she's still clearly very upset as she asks Alannah, "Please. If you want to hear all about it, then take me someplace private and I'll tell you what I can. The secrecy is eating me from the inside anyway."
While all of this is going on, Chuul's conversational partner watches Oskav's departure, then regards the orc from behind her mask for a moment, "Quite. Are . . . are those skulls braided into his beard?"
When Garren stops and reverses course, Avar slows and moves to a server to get another glass.
Walking purposefully towards the reunited trio Avar asks jovially, "Everyone having a grand evening?"
Alannah pats Marta's hand, "Of course we can go somewhere to talk about it." She pauses a moment to think, "We can go to the library perhaps. But we don't want your stalker following us. I think you'll need to disappear."
Chuul nods, slowly. "Yes they are. Birds, mostly. It is a quirk of his, I think."
"Stalker?" Avar asks while looking around the room.
"Nothing Avar, its a valley figure of speech." She turns to Marta, "We can go this way, no one will see us. It will all be ok."
Avar watches the trio walk away wondering just what the hell is wrong with these backwoods people.
Shaking his head to shake off the thought, the paladin walks toward Chuul to see what he is up to.
Seeing the paladin approach, Chuul nods in acknowledgement of him. "Avar. Are you having fun here?"
Avar purses his lips and stares levelly at Chull adopting a "What the fuck do you think?" look.
However, the paladin offers an easy "No." and looks around to where the rest of the group was.
"However, Alannah has found some woman with a stalker she is trying to protect. Oh, and there is a request to find a sword."
Avar shakes his head at the absurdity of it all. "I was hoping to meet someone tonight to discuss plans to help this town and to help those up north."
"I had such hopes as well, faint as they were," says the orc. "It seems a nest of vipers. Boring ones. But it might have been nice to find a viper or two that cared for whether or not its den gets destroyed." He turns back to the girl. "You and my friend Avar here would probably agree on several points regarding Imperial control of the area."
The half-elf woman eyes Avar, and finally comments, "It's possible. I don't know where Sir Avar stands regarding the prospect of limitations on imperial sovereignty to guarantee home rule." She waves the matter aside, and asks instead, "What leads you to the conclusion that the local vipers don't take your news about the goblinoids seriously?"
"Some do not," says Chuul, simply. "I suppose they probably will not until they hear the war drums. Others do believe, but they do not act. I can only imagine they are afraid of being seen to be the first to do so among their peers. Save us all from fools."
The scorpion-costumed aristocrat tilts her head to one side in a curiously birdlike gesture, and presses, "How long do you suppose it takes to mobilize an army, Master Chuul? How much do you suppose it costs to pay, feed, shelter and arm everyone involved in a war? If this city immediately calls up its entire militia, the duke can field—" she hesitates, shrugs, and guesses, "a thousand troops, perhaps? I think Sir Avar would know better than either of us. But the militia is a defensive force. Warm bodies to man our walls with spear or crossbow, drawing from the city's resources for food, shelter, and other necessities, if we're being frank. They would be massacred in the field. The Surcaptain's guards are professionals, but there are less than two hundred of them. Most of us believe the substance of your report to the Duke, especially since many of the details are consistent with other news that has reached the city. But armies don't march overnight, especially when a few key hold-outs need to be cajoled, bullied, or bribed into cooperating."
"The logistics are beyond me," admits Chuul. "But even if that is the reason, I dislike being...handled. Tell me you will do a thing or that you will not and you will still have my respect. But if you insinuate that you might or might not and couch that non-answer in the idea that there are forces I would not understand, as you might do with a child, and you can watch any respect I might have for you wither and die."
"Who is, as you put it, handling you?" asks the half-elf woman, sounding curious. "It's my impression that people have simply declined to consult with you. As you just said, you aren't really versed in logistics and politics. If you want to become versed in those topics, then I suppose you could pursue the matter. You might be good at it. Certainly you're the most polished, well-spoken orc I've ever heard of. And I can see that even if you aren't a soldier, you're certainly a warrior." She inclines her head at Avar, and adds, "Unlike good Sir Avar, here, who I believe has something of a soldierly bearing even if he's currently on the outs with the local leaders of his church."
"Bah," says Chuul lightly, shaking his head. "As at odds with my current profession as it may be, I just want to live a peaceful life among people who care. Politics seems... the opposite of that."
"The duke is no fool but I believe he views the inclusion of Imperial troops to this area as both a sign of weakness leading to loss of authority." Avar offers soberly.
"But I don't share that viewpoint so I do think that viewpoint is foolish. It's no secret that Imperial troops have have been contracted by my former colleague Ryster and are already in the fight. I view the Empire as a means of help. While I cannot say for certain that the Empire will want more authority in exchange for help, ot is a possibility."
The aasimar sighs, "I wanted none of this but it is what it is. You seem to know much about these things. Even my current status with my church. Perhaps we can work together to bring about a request to the Empire? I do not have the means for expedited communication."
The woman looks amused at Avar's offer of cooperation, but doesn't laugh in his face or anything so uncouth. Instead, she clarifies, "It isn't about authority or weakness. We are in a state of war with the Empire, Sir Avar. We haven't engaged in hostilities for some time, now, but the Empire doesn't recognize Port Hope as an independent state, even though it has been true as a practical matter for somewhat more than a century. It's a major stumbling block." She sighs, and adds, "And it isn't something that I have legal standing to involve myself in. It is literally treason for me to attempt to negotiate with the Empire's representatives other than at the direction of the duke. Without that, banishment would be the most pleasant consequence I'd be likely to suffer if I did as you suggest."
Avar considers the half elf for a few moments before responding.
"Well, I am no representative, so I think we're okay there." The paladin chuckles briefly. "But I understand your position. I have no desire to cause concern for you."
The aasimar pauses and sips his drink, "Can you speak to the attack on my church?"
The noblewoman shrugs, "Your church was attacked because of the same concern that makes people roll their eyes at you when you say you aren't a representative of the Imperial government. The Church of Agon is the next thing to an organ of the Imperial government. That's not entirely true here; our local priests have spent a century emphasizing Agon Justicarius over Agon Potens because Imperial writ isn't valid in the Mereflow Valley. But your remarks before the duke have reminded people that the Emperor is the real head of your church." She frowns, empties her goblet of wine, and adds, "I'm frankly a little surprised that nobody tried to get to you. It's lucky for Qistis that the temple grounds are walled and gated, or they would have lynched him. How did you talk him into getting you that audience, anyway? He should have known what would happen."
"We were there to report what we have seen beyond the walls of this town." Avar offers easily.
"Of course, having recently coming into this area, I havent seen as much as Chuul and the others. But I lost a friend so I have decided to stay."
The aasimar pauses a moment, "So I suppose I could be a representative of the Empire of sorts. I am here to help, and I think the Empire can help as well."
Avar shrugs, "But I do wish I could apologize to Qistis. It was never my intention for the meeting with the duke to play out the way it did. I meant what I said, but I suppose wariness and decades of fighting as well as politics trump what I meant to convey."
Eyeing the room briefly, then his glass, Avar frowns, "I just hope help is sent north. The troops won't be there much longer. I hope that message got through at least. Ultimately, that is why Qistis helped us out. Turns out his faith in me wasn't rewarded."
"The troops your late colleague contracted are due to move east onto the halfling plains as soon as they finish their obligations," replies the woman, coolly. "At which point they are to take up a supporting role as the short folk defend their territory. Understandably, there is some concern about whether they are really in the valley to represent the interests of their clients, or those of the Emperor. Your remarks in front of the duke had a patina of official sanction to them because of Qistis, and it isn't at all clear that you haven't irreparably harmed your Emperor's cause in this valley." The woman stands up, betraying a touch of irritation as she sets down her emptied goblet with a touch more force than necessary, and adds, "So I advise you to keep your opinions about Imperial politics to yourself in the future, Sir Avar. There are guests at this party who would take your misinformation concerning the Horsekillers' mission as more evidence that you are an Imperial agent rather than just prone to talk without knowing anything of substance."
Not moticing, or caring, of the irritation the half elf show's Avar responds, "Well, you apparently know more than I do so I would caution the same."
The paladin shrugs, "My opinions are my own and are just that, opinions. If someone has an issue with them I am not a hard person to find and I will gladly discuss anything and everything. I have done nothing but try to bring awareness and help to this Valley. In return, all I receive is skeptisism."
Finishing, Avar looks about the room, "I would welcome anyone to tell me something that has more...substance."
The sentence is finished with a slight nod and dip of the wine glass to the woman.
Chuul shakes his head slowly, but his face is nothing but amused. "Gods above, Avar. Do your opinions on this subject irritate everyone you give them to?"