The Frog and Peach Tavern
Taking up the lower floor of the inn, this tavern represents the main gathering place for the community. While the ceiling is high enough to accommodate taller folk, just about everything else in the tavern section of the Frog and Peach is scaled to the comfort of those of shorter stature. The sole exceptions are two tables against the back wall, one long and one short, which are standard sized. The stairs to the upper level are behind the wall, opening out next to the bar counter that separates the tavern from the kitchen.
There isn't much activity this early in the morning. A matronly Skeek is tending to the counter, although the only customer so far is a young Gallee girl, all black, who sits on a stool and eats from a bowl of milk and cereal. The back door opens, admitting a bone-white Rokuga and a familiar Kadie.
Qing shoulders his satchel, and glides slowly over the threshold, head held up to survey the common room. The tables at the back of the room look the most accommodating, but the mage tips his head down to hiss to his companion. "Is there a private dining area?"
"The 'carnivore room,' behind the counter, there," Morgan answers. He points towards the counter, then turns the point in to a wave. "Hello, Apella! I've brought a customer," he calls out to the woman.
"Oh, hello Morgan dear," the Skeek woman says, turning on her stool. "My but you're up early. And this must be Mage Qing?" she asks. Behind, on the other side of the counter, Emily von Richebeau looks around her to see the newcomer, and then quickly pinches her nose closed with one hand.
The mage nods curtly at Apella's question, wisps bobbing along the edge of his bowl hat. Mercifully, he doesn't stand too close, his disagreeable chemical odor potent enough as it is.
"What can I get you… uh… for breakfast?" Apella asks, unsure of Qing's gender and… well, Morgan is tricky at times too.
Qing's voice is a dry hiss, not helping the confusion much. "Two rabbits and a basting bowl with pepper sauce and lemon juice will suffice," he murmurs. "And a cup of herb tea."
"Oh, I'll have an apple tart and hot coco. Oh, and some Gallisian toast," Morgan answers.
"I'll bring it to your table," Apella says, hoping down from her perch. "Oh… did you want to use the private room to eat in, Master Qing?" she thinks to ask.
The Rokuga nods slowly. "It is likely for the best, or so I have been told."
Morgan nods slowly to Qing's reply. "Yes, likely for the best." Then he smiles to Apella reassuringly. "I'll be dining with Mage Qing, as well. If you see Olivia Weaver, or my mother, please, let me know."
"Well, Morgan can show you there," the Skeek says, then nods to the nearby door just in case Morgan has forgotten where it was. She then trots off into the kitchen.
Spoon in hand, Emily continues to stare at Qing in fascination, having apparently gotten used to the stink already. But children can be like that. "Did you make that, Morgan?" the poodle asks the Kadie.
Morgan blinks, caught off guard by the question. He glances at the poodle girl and asks, "Make what, Miss von Richebeau?"
The spoon points towards Qing.
Qing answers for the Kadie. "I am my own person, young one. A Rokuga, from the Empire."
"Oh, Mage Qing?" The Kadie turns and blinks at Qing, then gives him an apologetic smile. "You see what I mean about the children," he whispers to the mage before turning back. "It is as the Mage says: he is Mage, from abroad."
"What Empire?" Emily asks next. "And if you didn't make him, he must have come from a broad. That's where babies come from! Emmett told me so."
The serpent holds a hand up for the Kadie in a 'no worries' gesture. To the girl, he murmurs, "The Nagai Empire. It is a place very far from your home here, near the Savan. The sun blazes over its glorious towers, and thousands of my kind live among them, of all colors and shapes."
Morgan closes his eyes, head shaking slightly. "I will need to speak with Emmet," he sighs. Qing can hear him mutter, "Again."
"So, it's hot and full of stinky lizards? No wonder you left," Emily comments.
Qing nods again, upsetting his wisps which hurry to take up their orbit again. "It is hot indeed, but we enjoy the heat. And they are not all like my ugly self, child… there are scents of incense, of tropical flowers and fruit, spices found only in the Savan. Dancers of grace and beauty, wearing bracelets of lazuli."
"Lazuli?" Emily asks, then tries the word out a few more times. "Laaaa-ZOOOO-leeee." She then holds out her arm to show off the charm bracelet on her wrist, shaking it so that it's impossible to actually see any of the charms, but at least it jingles. "I've got a bracelet."
Morgan chuckles forcedly at Emily's comment before indicating Qing should follow him towards the counter. "Children will say the most amusing things," he remarks with equally forced lightness. "Now, this way, if you will Mage Qing."
The front door swings open and in bounds a young Khatta girl, dressed in expensive zolk. The clothing style is one Qing would recognize; that of the Khattan Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Her tail flicks around as she cranes her head. Spotting Emily, she waves enthusiastically.
"Blue stones, the color of the ocean. They are pretty, but your bracelet is a fine one, also," hisses Qing. His tone is quite serious, and when Morgan speaks he bobs his head, slithering to fall into 'step' again. "Lead on."
"Princess Kalalala!" Emily says, waving back. "Have you got any lazy-oily stones?"
The spoon points at the retreating serpent once more, and Emily barks, "This guy is the King of the Empire of Dancing Lizards! Does your mom know him, Kalila?"
"And there's our 'princess,'" Morgan remarks as he leads Qing towards the back room. "The poodle girl is the daughter of the Gallee family I mentioned earlier." In a lower voice, Morgan adds, "Of the lot of them, she and her brother are the best to deal with. It gives me hope for the future of that family."
The Khatta has to actually check her arms. "Uhm, not on me," she answers after a bit, "Mom won't normally let me wear things because I tend to lose them when I go exploring!" She then sticks out her tongue and one ear cants to the side. Turning her head (while leaving that tongue sticking out and ear tilted), she then faces the Naga. "I don't think so," she says after a bit of study, "I know she knows a few of the Nagas, but I don't recognize him. He's a mage though! I know that robe."
The pale serpent tilts his head a little, his hat going slightly off kilter, and he straightens it out with a nudge of a finger. "As impressionable as any, I see. The Gallee, were they the nobles you mentioned? Or am I remembering wrong?"
"Ohhhh," Emily says, a look of understanding on her face. "I bet Morgan is going to turn him into a frog then. I'd like to see that!"
"Active imaginations," Morgan insists. This time, he does open the door for the Mage. "Our private dining area is in here. We get few true carnivores, but enough where they might need private dining arrangements."
"Maybe! Frog-snake. He could join the Frog Prince, then," Kalila nods in agreement and grins. "He's a spirit mage," the little Khatta then randomly blurts, "They wear those robes of white. I've seen portraits of them before because my aunt wore them when she was still alive."
Qing glides along, pouring himself through the offered door. "Active, mm? She does seem to think highly of your… capabilities?"
The 'private' dining room, as seen through the door, could be called 'cozy' if one were generous. There is a small, standard-sized table and seating for two, along with an unlit oil lamp. It all looks like it's been scrubbed down recently.
"My aunt is a harpy, according to my mom," Emily says, climbing down from her stool, bowl in hand, and heading for the door to the carnivore room. "I think that's like a pig with wings. My dad got turned into a pig by a witch you know."
Morgan gives Qing a delicate smile. "I am a healer, after all, and they are children. You will note she called the other a 'princess,' as well. Would it not be unlikely, to find a princess, here? That would be a stretch, as would my turning someone into a frog," the Kadie explains.
Apella pokes her head out of the kitchen to ask Kalila, "What would you like for breakfast today, Kalila-kitten?"
"Cake!" Kalila declares. "Mom says I should have fish, though," she adds with a small frown afterward.
The Rokuga curls himself around the table at the center of the smallish room, having to double himself up to fit comfortably. He retrieves a small bag from somewhere on his person, taking a sulfur match from it to light the lamp with. "It's very unlikely, yes. Things are seldom completely random, however… "
"Fishcakes then," Apella says, vanishing back into the kitchen.
Morgan takes a seat across from Qing, folding his hands in his lap. He glances at the kitten, frowning briefly. "Well, whatever may be the case behind their vast imaginations, no need to trouble yourself with it, Mage Qing. Your breakfast should underway now, and I doubt it will take very long," he says.
Feeling herself being frowned at, the Khatta looks over at Morgan. Her wide eyed expression is one of 'what'?
Qing taps his chin thoughtfully. "Perhaps I will ask them later. I overheard the young Khatta recognized my sphere and station. She said her aunt was a spirit mage."
Perhaps unwilling to make the girl feel concerned, Morgan turns his frown in to a slight smile. "You may as well ask her mother, who is also staying in town," he suggests.
"Ah? She looks Abu Dhabian," murmurs the mage. "And of a family possessing status. When did they come to your town of Stonebarrow?"
Kalila doesn't look very convinced. She puts her hands on her hips … then starts towards Morgan's table.
"Recently. The child's mother is looking for the whereabouts of her sister, without much luck. They are also nobility, I believe." Morgan's brow raises when the girl puts her hand on her hips, and his smile fades. "It would seem she has words for us. Mind your coils, Mage Qing, for we may soon be burned." He chuckles lightly.
Qing quiets himself at the girl's approach, lifting his head a little to look out from beneath the lacquered black wood shading his eyes.
"Mom says it's not polite to stare," Kalila tells Morgan in a very matter-of-fact style … and sounding as if she's a bit concerned. "You might not want to do that or your mother may ground you."
"I'll take that under consideration," Morgan tells the girl, sounding quite serious about it.
The Rokuga glances back at Morgan at the mention of his mother, then back at Kalila. "He does seem a generally polite individual, my lady. I don't think he'll turn me into a frog-creature."
The kitten nods as if the answer is acceptable. "He's very polite. Maybe it's because he wears a dress. Girls are politer then boys. Except he's a boy, in a dress, so maybe it's dresses that are polite and not girls or boys," Kalila observes.
"You never know," Morgan suddenly says with an air mock-conspiracy. He taps his fingers together, as if considering the idea and wanting everyone to know he's plotting it. "I've always wanted a frog kitten, as well." He goes 'hmmhmmhmm,' then suddenly smiles. "Dresses are polite? Why, if only it were so."
Qing's shoulders ripple in that odd, multi-layered shrug of his. "I think there are a great many uncouth people in dresses, but I must admit that few of my kind try to wear them, so I have little experience."
"Mom makes me wear them all the time. They get in the way. I don't like them," the girl says with a frown. "She always says, 'Kalila, you will never be a proper lady unless you wear fine gowns.'" She then pauses and asks Qing randomly, "How old are you? Have you known lots of spirit mages?"
"Ah, I wish I had fine gowns," Morgan sighs wistfully. he drops his head onto a hand, propping the arm up on the table. "You should really consider just how rare those gowns are. You are blessed with that, Kalila." He then shifts his gaze to watch Qing, brow raised, interested in how he'll answer.
The Rokuga murmurs, "I am fast approaching my 60th year, my lady." He draws his mantle aside to let the arm wearing his guild ring emerge, laying a spidery hand on the table to show its milky stone. "I am Witchdoctor Zhu Ye Qing, Imperial Mortician and now senior instructor of Spirit with Caroban. I have known many spirit mages in my time."
"Quite an accomplished record," the Kadie remarks, sounding impressed.
"Oh, you might have known my aunt, then. Mom would love to meet you. My aunt was killed by the necromancer that this town killed," Kalila explains as she stands on her tiptoes to look at the ring. "Mom said she was supposed to have been an incredible mage."
With a little twist, Qing slips the ring from his finger and offers it to the girl for examination. Without the bony finger in it, the inscription in the band can be seen; squirmy Imperial characters. "I am sorry to hear of your loss. I am here because of that necromancer. It may be that this town has done a great thing for Caroban, and we would see it rewarded. Perhaps we could indeed speak of your aunt, your mother and I."
"We'll have to arrange that for some time when you're both free, then. I can see to it, Mage Qing." The Kadie peers at the ring, as well. "I've not seen a Guild ring up close before. And this is … Imperial? A rare language in these parts."
Qing nods, letting the bit of jewelry rest on the table. "It is. I earned my status as a mage in the Empire, perhaps at the height of the Institute's glory. They were different times for magecraft."
"Mom was only ten when auntie died," Kalila says as she leans in to peer at the ring. She doesn't try to pick it up, though. "She was sent here to help eliminate rogue magic users. Mom was so mad when she was sent she didn't even go to the docks to say goodbye."
Morgan nods slowly, although he doesn't say anything to further the conversation. Instead, he contents himself with examining the ring.
Apella intrudes momentarily, carrying in Morgan's breakfast first, then the hot beverages, and finally Qing's condiment bowl and two squirming bunnies.
The ring's pale gemstone glints as its owner picks it back up, slipping it back on. "Your mother was angry that your aunt was sent? Why is that?"
"Ahh, nothing chases the morning chill away faster than hot coco," says the Kadie in a pleased tone. He takes up the coco cup, then wraps both hands around it while holding it to his chest.
Qing nods brusquely at Apella, taking his meal off the Skeek's hands with a pair of his own while a third slips under the bowl to hold it out of the way.
"Are you gonna eat those bunnies?" Emily asks, having just finished her own breakfast.
"Well, Mom said she was jealous. My aunt could do no wrong in Grandmother and Grandfather's eyes; she brought the family much prestige. To mom, it was like she was going on a great adventure and mom had to stay behind, again," Kalila tries to explain.
The snake tilts his head. "She was going to fulfill her duty to her guild, I assume. Your mother must have been on adventures since. She has you, for instance." To Emily, he simply nods, a fourth arm taking the baster from his bowl of pepper oil.
Morgan sips his hot coco, then places the mug down before picking up some eating utensils. "It's always sad when sibling rivalry damages a family," he comments, before taking a bite of his Gallisian toast.
"Eww, gross," Emily says, and runs off upstairs no doubt to see to her own pet bunny.
The kitten nods. "Yes, but Mom always says she never got to say goodbye to her sister. Even though she was angry, she loved her," Kalila tries to explain. "Mom came here when word got back to home that he was finally found. Mom said she came in hope of finding anything of her sister that he may have kept and to say goodbye."
Qing bows his head, letting his hat shade his eyes. "Yes, it is a difficult thing. I wish you and your mother strength, and hope she finds the closure she seeks."
"I'm uncertain if we ever did find anything. I do know he has that staff, but I didn't search through the rest of his possessions," Morgan tells Qing.
"I do too. I don't like seeing Mom cry," Kalila says with a nod. She curtsies to the Naga, then says, "Thanks for showing me your pretty ring, Mister Qing."
The snake pauses. "That is a fairly significant concern, actually. What became of his possessions? The staff in particular." He inclines his head toward Kalila in a sort of seated bow. "You are welcome, my lady."
"The staff and the rest of his possessions were placed within the sealing coffin as quickly as possible," Morgan answers. He shakes his head, takes another sip, then adds, "You'll understand if we were unwilling to handle his items more than required. That staff, in particular, looked vile. If you'd like to see it, though, I'm sure it can be arranged."
Kalila steps away from the table. The then blinks as if remembering something. "Hey, what happened to my caked fish?" she asks.
"Here you go," Apella says, returning with a plate of fishcakes (and some warmed up syrup to pour on them, just in case)
Qing begins basting one of his rabbits once Kalila turns away to find her breakfast. The struggling creature is held securely at its back while he brushes pepper sauce on it. "It will indeed be necessary to exhume the corpse, Nightshade. I must examine the remains for verification, and the items must be studied to determine if they're a threat to be either destroyed or returned to Caroban for study and containment."
The kitten takes the cakes and syrup, then bounds off to a far table. She settles herself into a chair As much as she complains about her dress and acting ladylike, she daintily starts eating her breakfast.
Morgan's brow raises, and this time he puts a hand on his hip. "That is a good question. Apella must be behind, to- … ahh there she is." Morgan leans back when Apella appears. "As I said, that can be arranged. The coffin is currently in a secured basement. Once you're ready, I will arrange for the securities to be removed so you can access it," he tells Qing.
Qing is forced into brief silence as he begins his own meal. It's mercifully quick. With a last spritz of lemon on the rabbit, the Rokuga's maw yawns wide and clamps over the creature's head and forequarters. His jaw unhinges as he swallows, and his throat and neck distend with the bulge traveling down it, the hind legs kicking up to the point they disappear.
Morgan's brow shoots up when Qing begins eating. He stares for a moment, before politely looking away. "I hope your meal is acceptable, Mage Qing," he murmurs, sounding genuinely concerned despite his surprise.
It takes a few moments for the lump to pass the point Qing can begin talking again. "It is not traditional Naga cuisine, but it is adequate. I do not need much." Always one for business, he adds, "There is plenty of time for the exhuming. I will be preparing defenses before the casket is unsealed, just in case."
"That should … reassure some people, Mage Qing. I'd rather not opening the coffin without protections in place." Eying his own meal, Morgan shrugs, then starts into his tart. His large front teeth nibble at it with almost the same delicacy that Kalila eats her meal. Pausing between nibbles he asks, "Is there anything you'd like to know about, Mage Qing?"
Qing simply sits there, reclining comfortably as the lump at his neck moves inch by inch. His voice is just a bit hissier when he speaks. "I can think of little else at the moment, Nightshade. I'm sure many more questions will present themselves in due time." He turns his head a little to eye his companion. "I suppose I should ask the same of you, per our agreement."
Morgan's brow raises, more curious now than shocked. "Ah? Ah, yes." He lays his apple tart down, and folds his hands in his lap. "You said you are a teacher at Caroban? That is interesting. Again, I can't help but feel I got the better bargain, which I must apologize for. But, anyway," Morgan taps his fingers together, "What of the … magic? … I saw when I entered? The dust devil and," he waves at hand at Qing's head, "those bits there."
The mage tilts his head back as if to look up, even though he couldn't possibly see past the broad black expanse of his polished hat. "Those are manifestations of the spells I am holding, Nightshade. But first thing's first. There is a magnitude to disciplined magic, divided roughly into categories. The entities you witnessed were crafted by what is called a 'minor spell'. These and cantrips are some of the first workings of magic that a mage learns."
"Fascinating. Please don't stop; I'm listening, Mage Qing," Morgan says. He picks up his apple tart and nibbles at as he watches the mage with rapt attention.
Qing continues as directed. "Cantrips are where an apprentice begins. They are largely useless, nearly insignificant effects that are used to practice with, or sometimes do some small practical thing. A fire mage may light a candle, an air mage might ruffle your hair." By way of demonstration, Qing begins murmuring to himself. He points a finger at the table, and a small, faintly whitish puff coalesces into being. It begins scooting around the table, stirring an errant spec of dust or passing through Morgan's drink glass. As soon as Qing stops mumbling, the thing evaporates. "Minor spells are of more consequence, and can be accomplished without the aid of circle. But it is ritual magic where true power lies."
"The great magic of legend, ah? Mages, gathering together, working tremendous spells … " Morgan nods slowly, pops the rest of his tart in his mouth, and swallows it shortly after. "Would you tell me about that?"
Qing leans back, his crimson eyes becoming distant. The lump in his throat has almost passed to his torso, and the other rabbit has been forgotten long enough to stop struggling. "Ritual magic is what defines our craft, young Nightshade. It is the power to sunder castle walls, to make crops grow, to see visions of the future to come. At the height of our strength, it was as you said. We would come together, each knowing our purpose, each gathering Sinai's latent power, speaking the language that only we knew. A single mage might work a ritual, one of power even, but any mage could contribute to the one guiding the spell's energies. This is how we compounded our power to do our greatest deeds… or our greatest follies."
"Sylvania," Morgan breathes, sounding a little sad. "The Necromancer Wars. The legacy of Mages."
The snake works his throat again, and finally the lump disappears beneath the neckline of his mantle. "It is so. We were sought for many things, but war was all too often chief among them. For the glory of the Emperor, I myself was called into war. Battle made it all too clear just how vulnerable we are, boy. Our power made us priority targets, and the frailty of our flesh and bone made us choice targets. The Great War was the most costly of them all."
"Our town experienced very little impact from the Great War, but not all were so lucky. Several of the other mayors, lords, and bandit kings sided with Babel and the Empire, I believe. Their towns were laid siege to, their holdings taken." Morgan shakes his head at it all, frowning. "Fools, many of them. They sought to gain, but didn't see what the cost would be. I doubt it is the same for your people. Greatness seems to draw upon greatness, and the wars were battles between the great. We, the small, tend to get trampled."
Qing nods, that faraway look still in his eyes. "It is so. In the end, I don't see that there was anything gained. I suppose it would be that Rephidim was the least impacted, but things seem much the same as before, except that our great colleges are no more, and we have withdrawn to our last stronghold. Not even the Light mages can see what our future holds."
"Is that why the College no longer is as … what was the word you used … concerned over other practitioners of magic? Not as willing to enforce matters, as they once were?" Morgan glances at the door, then looks back and tilts his head. "It would seem a great burden to police the world more so when your numbers have dwindled. A concession of necessity, perhaps?"
The mage looks away, out toward the common room. "Yes. We simply do not have the numbers we did before. Caroban is still powerful, perhaps even more powerful in its own way than any single Collegia was, but it is just one place now, our influence concentrated and our council no longer willing to create the branches anew."
"It sounds … insular," Morgan says. He follows Qing's gaze, looking at the people tickling in. "Has the Collegia lost sight of the common folk, you think? Does it concern itself with the welfare of," he waves a hand to indicate the tavern, "the small folk?"
Qing snorts, his face darkening. "It never did. Not as a political entity."
Morgan tilts his head, his tail flicking in to that semblance of a question mark. "Does that bother you, then, Mage Qing?"
The snake glances at Morgan, then looks away again, his expression difficult to read. "It is not my business to judge the council's motivations. Each mage serves the guild, but it is also within our right to serve our own interests within the boundaries dictated by the Collegia."
"And what are your interests, Mage Qing," the Kadie asks with an intent, low quality to his voice. The Jingai might think he imagined the quality, though, for Morgan adds quickly in a pleasant tone, "If I may ask, Mage Qing."
"You may not," comes the terse reply. The mage glowers, but it doesn't seem to be directed at Morgan, or anyone in particular. "I serve Caroban and the Empire, what is left of them. There is nothing else for me."
Morgan leans back, his muzzle creasing with a frown. After a moment of silence, he says, "That sounds very lonely."
The reptile sits in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds, then crams the remaining rabbit in his mouth without seasoning it first. The creature barely has a chance to register that it's been remembered before it's halfway into Qing's gullet, the hind legs wriggling.
Morgan watches the reptile man for a moment, searchingly. Then, he offers, "I'm sorry, Mage Qing," in a sympathetic, gentle voice.
If Qing has an excuse not to talk with his throat full of rabbit, he has less of one to look down at the table, obscuring his face with his hat, but he does so.
"You seem to like the children," the Kadie mentions, trying to sound upbeat. "I must admit, I didn't expect you to humor her especially after her remark about 'stinky lizards.'"
Qing's meal eventually travels enough to allow speech again. He looks up again at where Emily had been eating her breakfast. "There will come a time when they must learn better, must be held accountable; but there is plenty of time for that later. Childhood does not last long. It must be filled with learning, with experiences, with… joy. It is too valuable to fill with rebuke, and they cannot understand it anyway." He looks back at the Kadie across the table from him. "There is no telling, in this hostile world of ours, how long such a fragile thing can last."
Morgan meets Qing's gaze, but then it is his turn to look down. He stares at his plate, ears back, and asks, "Do you have children, then Mage Qing? You sound as if you do and … " His head shakes, "Or is it merely your extensive wisdom, that has you say what you say? You sound a little like one my my 'aunts' … "
The serpent hesitates, his normally self-assured manner broken up as he seems to struggle with something. Qing's throat works, swallowing the lump in it and smoothing out again. Even still, he looks reluctant to speak, but eventually he murmurs, in a voice so quiet as to be nearly inaudible, "I… had a daughter."
"Oh," Morgan breathes, sounding rather choked himself. He narrows his brow, staring at his plate, then shakes his head. "I shouldn't have … ahh, I'm sorry. I just … " He takes a breath, then looks skyward. "I'm sorry for your loss, Mage Qing. I'm sorry for prying."
The mage's fist drops to the table with a thump, enough to make a nearby spoon rattle. "Enough!" He keeps it there for a moment, then looks away again moodily. "To deny Zhu Yin's memory would have been a disservice, Nightshade. That is the only reason I spoke of her."
Morgan's tail suddenly poofs when the mage's fist hits the table. It twitches in a spasm, and the Kadie's eyes widen. He seems at a loss for words.
"It has been many years," the mage hisses quietly, and repeats, "I serve Caroban and the Empire. There is nothing else for me." He wipes his hands on a napkin one by one, despite the fact there is nothing on them, and rises from his position at the table. "Finish your breakfast. We must go see Weaver."
Morgan stuffs the rest of his Gallisian toast in his mouth, then stands up quickly. He swallows, and nods, "Yes Mage Qing. I am ready to go."