Lady Martinette sits back, and begins to spin a tale for Shikouju. "Once upon a time for that is how all tales should start, even when they have unhappy endings there was a brave and mighty warrior named Shikouju."
Shikouju sits back and listens, eyeing the elderly Khatta suspiciously. "Go on… "
"Unlike the typical warrior hero of any legend, he did not make his kills standing tall on a battlefield, but instead did so under cover of the night," the lady continues, without any acknowledgement. "The bards love to sing of those who shed blood under certain rules, who slaughter countless faceless dozens, but, strangely, he who slays but a single well-chosen target is given only scorn. The one who brings the fight directly to the king, rather than to his lackeys and soldiers he is the one who is given shame for the blood on his hands. But Shikouju never sought glory."
"No one ever knew just WHAT he sought," the lioness adds with a frown.
The black Khatta says nothing, his ears perking a bit in confusion at the mention of his own name.
"Shikouju was solitary, yet he was not. He was known as the East. And if there is an East, there must surely be a North, a South, and a West," the lioness narrates. "The Compass Rose worked their separate jobs, each in their own unique ways. Rarely did they work together, but still they associated with each other a rarity, since persons of their profession are not known to have any close associations with anyone. Not any true associations, that is."
"The East we know well. The Sable Palm. The Silver Knife," she says.
"And what does this have to do with me?" asks Shikouju.
"The North was Palao Alto, the Musician. In his day, he was a bard with a dashing smile and a daring attitude, his darker side always hidden beneath a veneer of charm and good cheer," the lioness says, perhaps ignoring the question. It sounds as if she's reciting something from memory, as if she'd read it somewhere.
"A poodle was he, though occasionally a fox. While he was more reknowned for his musical talents, he was quite proficient at his 'secondary' occupation as well. His victims were often found garotted, their necks bearing marks about the width of … oh … a lute's string." The lioness says all this in the same tone some old lady might speak about her grandson, or the weather, or how lovely the lilies are this time of year.
The lioness continues, "Rumor has it that his lute lent more to his craft than just a crude use of its strings. Supposedly, he was so skilled with his music that he could induce a wide range of feelings with his songs, to catch his victims unwary."
The dark one sits stone faced, but his trashing tail betrays a feeling of impatience.
"Now, the West was Juniper Jade. Or that's the only name anyone knew and lived to tell about it," the lioness adds quickly. "She was a Naga, and a strategist. The 'Philosopher'. She probably spent the most time thinking. She spent a great deal of time trying to turn plant matter into jade, hence her name. And her victims rarely if ever fell to her hand. Rather, she concocted elaborate schemes to get someone else to do the deed for her, perhaps unaware … often by delivering some poison, or perhaps something that might provoke a deadly allergic reaction."
"And then, the South." The lioness smiles. "She had a lovely name. So lovely that I have it for my own, too. Lady Martinette. She was not unattractive in her day, and was to be found entertained in the courts of all the nations worth visiting in the world, and even some of the lesser fiefdoms and manors. Her targets were almost exclusively the rich, powerful and decadent. Her … charms … helped her to catch her targets off guard." She smiles primly.
Shikouju takes a sip of his drink. His tail calms down a bit, since he finds himself forgetting his haste and becomming interested. "I take it you and she are the same?"
"The same? Why, how preposterous!" The lioness smiles all the more.
"But of the four," the lioness adds with a nod. "Shikouju was the most interesting. After all, legends ascribe to him all sorts of great powers. As to the truth of them, he never ventured a confirmation or denial, of course. He could walk without leaving footprints on sand, snow or dust. Perhaps mud, but I don't think he would have stooped that low. It was said that the faint of heart could drop dead from fear at a single glance … that his blade stole souls … and … oh, there are so many, I forget them all!" The lioness manages a polite giggle.
Shikouju fights back a grin at the mention of all the abilities, then remembers his earlier question, "This is all very… informative, but what has it to do with me? I-," he pauses, "seem to remember these things, but not entirely." He becomes suspicious again.
The lioness grins. "Yes, mighty Shikouju, you seem to have forgotten MUCH. But then, it is not surprising for someone of your advanced years. Now then … I'm sure I had a point somewhere. Oh dear … where was I? Oh yes! How they all died. That would be a good place to start. Not that they all DID, of course, or you wouldn't be here, naturally, to hear the tale."
The Sable Palm arches a brow, "Advanced years?" He decides not to further the question. "Go on."
"Once upon a time … no, wait, we've done that already. Very well then," the lioness furrows her brow. "They all lived happily ever after. The end. There. Now we can start a new story, just with the same characters. That's the thing about stories with happy endings, you know. You just have to stop them at the right place, where things are happy. If you keep going, eventually something bad happens and undoes all the good deeds the heroes did, or they simply grow old and die, and then it's not a happy ending anymore. Anyway … Once upon a time, there was a kingdom on the surface. It was ruled by a good and just king. Well, more or less, as kings go."
Shikouju begins to wonder if this lioness has anyone home upstairs, but just nods at the story.
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom on the surface of Sinai. Its riches and glory were not to compare with the majesty of Rephidim, nor even with the lands of Gallis, but it had a king, whose lands were large enough that he entrusted them to his appointed lords. And each of these lords controlled their own minor fiefdoms.
Lord Calderas was one of these lords, all-too-well-known to be crafty and possessed of a silver tongue. He was covetous of the holdings of his fellow lords, and rumor had it was the sort who would stir up intrigue to weaken his opponents. It was believed that he would do such things as stirring up unrest amongst the peasants, hiring bandits to make food shipments disappear … but never anything like open warfare against his fellows. Never, that is, until one incident that proved to be the final insult against the king's sovereignty. For, you see, no one could prove a thing.
Calderas absorbed the holdings of his fellow vassals as their positions weakened supposedly by inept management and was quite adept at covering his tracks, though of course not of allaying all suspicions. But at some point, for some reason, he felt compelled to openly strike against his neighbor, Lord Polurgess, for reasons unknown.
The fiefdom was brutalized in Calderas' swift move to take control of it. The king of the land had seen enough. It was time to deal with Calderas once and for all. Alas, the king discovered that Calderas' power base amongst the king's own court was wider than he had imagined. It proved to be too dangerous to openly move against Calderas.
Instead, the king chose to beseech the Compass Rose for help, in the off chance that the mysterious quartet would accept. To his relief and surprise they did, for whatever reasons and pay that they said that they would extract later.
We find our heroes in the Regency of Stalwirland, having arrived from Rephidim separately, and unannounced guests of His Royal Highness in the castle. In one of the stone towers of the king's fortress, shelves and racks laden with heavy tomes and vials of strange substances are arrayed, examined with keen interest by a roaming Naga.
In an open windowsill, a garishly-attired poodle sits precariously on his chosen perch, a lute in his lap, the neck propped up by one knee. He strums gaily upon the instrument, breathing deeply of the cool breeze that challenges the stuffy atmosphere of the tower laboratory.
Across the room, a sleek lioness Khatta turns sideways to regard herself in a cracked mirror that she has brushed the cobwebs away from. She brushes at her tawny cheek-fur and primps her hair.
In one corner of the room sits a black furred Khatta, seated on a rickety old wooden chair and polishing a silver blade with total care.
At a thick oaken table, a dispassionate-looking Naga fiddles with an array of glass tubes and vials, a smock worn over her emerald hued scales. She doesn't bother turning around to speak. "I assume you all understand what his 'Majesty' desires of us." Her voice is soft and hard at the same time… low, but authoritarian. "Thoughts?"
The poodle smiles, strumming his lute. "Why, I think this is a positively wonderful land so alive and full with spring! If I were a scoundrel IF, mind you then if I should have to die, I can think of no better place and time. Don't you agree?"
Lady Martinette pauses in her primping, and smooths out a crease in her silken, frilly gown. "I wonder what sort of person Calderas is? It would seem no one ever sees him in person. I can't even find out what race he is. Or what his taste is in companionship." She smiles primly.
"Have a care as to our objective, Palao," murmurs the emerald Naga, raising a beaker of purplish liquid and swirling it in front of lantern. "'Think not of what you will gain for a task before the task at hand is complete, lest you gain nothing at all.'."
Shikouju finishes polishing the dagger, then balances it by the tip of the blade on one finger, "I'd say that's your job to figure out, my dear Martinette. Besides, he can't be too hard to spot." He tosses the dagger in the air and catches it by the hilt. "And as for dying, I'd rather leave that for another day."
The poodle watches the Naga's actions with what passes for fascination, strumming on his lute. He reaches a high note on his lute, then adds in his voice. "Laaaaaaaa!" The note reverberates strangely in the musty chamber.
"Yes, that is your job, Lady Martinette," the Naga agrees. "I believe there is far more to this task than the objective would hint at. For exa-" There is a brittle snapping noise, a jagged silver line runs down the neck of the beaker the Naga bears. Her back goes rigid, but she betrays no other emotions as the crack grows purplish.
The black feline grins, replacing the dagger to its scabbard, "And mistakes like that may cost you the objective as well, Juniper." He leans forward, all emotion vanishing from his face. "In whatever way we handle this, it must be discreet and quick, we can't leave any calling cards, not on a job of this scale." He especially eyes the poodle while speaking.
The poodle silences his lute by slapping a hand over the strings, and closes his mouth, looking bashful, as if he didn't at ALL mean to be quite so noisy with his music… No, not at ALL.
The jade serpent places the beaker in a bucket with a lead lining, and turns around. Her face is hard, seeming particularly so when she glances at the poodle and the black Khatta… but then… when doesn't she look this way? Her voice, at least, is quite level. "Agreed, Shikouju… there will be no margin for error. I know little of Lord Calderas, the person. I, and almost anyone else with half a brain, know of Lord Calderas' holdings. They are very substantial, such that his Majesty is reluctant to engage Lord Calderas directly." Juniper's face nearly betrays a smirk.
Martinette strikes another pose, admiring herself in the mirror, as she sways her upper body back, piling up her hair with one hand, and smoothing the skirt of her dress with the other. She turns, smiling to Shikouju, then theatrically blows him a kiss as she lets her head-hair fall back down again. "And what is your role in this, Shikouju? Or are you just planning on letting the rest of us find out all the information, with your hand being on the dagger?"
Shikouju frowns, eyes and paws returning to the task of his dagger, "I will do what I have to do, and if luck is with me," he plucks a single hair from his tail, and slices it in two with the blade, "I will be there for the kill."
"And I," says the poodle in a sing-song voice, "will be there to sing your praises!" He ducks his head. "Quietly, of course," he adds a wink.
"As ever, your capacity for carnage is unequalled amongst us, Shikouju," hisses Juniper drily. She hangs her smock up on a peg, and straightens out the strange, green garment she wears. Rather like a cloth tube with sleeves, tied about her with black cords. "You will, of course, be imperative to our goal."
The black Khatta flares his nostrils at the poodle, then turns back to the Naga, "Of course. But first we must identify our mark. It does one little to chase victims without faces."
"Or ears," adds the poodle. "I HOPE he has ears." He smiles.
The Philosopher settles into a neat coil. "My thoughts exactly. Perhaps I'm rubbing off on you at last. I would recommend a reconnaissance jaunt through Lord Polurgess' fiefdom… according to runners through Stalwirlund who escaped, Lord Calderas' raid was very swift and efficient. He obviously wanted the fief taken quickly." The Naga unrolls a wide scroll of parchment, bearing a map of the regency.
Shikouju pads towards the Naga in order to view the map more effectively. "What did he want with this fief? Does it hold any signifigance to him, or to the kingdom as a whole?"
"It was a rather insignifigant fiefdom, by most accounts," sniffs Juniper, spreading the sheet on the table. She weights the corners with beakers and vial-cases, and folds her arms over her front, one hand idly playing with a jade pendant. "Lord Polurgess was known for being unknown… his holdings were modest, his serfs neither happy nor discontent, and his shire of dubious strategic value." Though there seems to be plenty of room, neither the Lady Martinette or Palao Alto seem interested in going over to view the map.
The dark cat's tail twitches in thought, "Most strange." He returns to his seat. "Do we know where he makes his residence? The total holdings are of little concern for my job."
The poodle picks out a playful little tune on his lute, his lazy smile still in place. "I went to Gessershire a few times, in my travels. Juniper is right… the place is stifling in its boredom. I went to visit his court incognito, and he turned me away. Can you believe it? I ask you, how can that corpulent puffinstuff govern if he can't even appreciate music?" The Philosopher gives Palao a sharp look. The poodle falls silent, but the grin on his face suggests it's simply because he doesn't feel the need to say more.
Juniper returns her attention to Shikouju. "Ordinarily, Lord Calderas remains in his stronghold in Tectishire, the county where he began, and communicates by missives or messengers." She points at a large fief on the map, several counties away from Gessershire.
"Then that is the obvious destination," replies Shikouju. "Let the Lords worry about the feifs, our only concern is Calderas," he grins, "and slitting his throat."
Juniper issues a short hiss… something like a serpentish snort. "I could tell you a parable about a man who sought to pick up a bar of gold lying in a field, but I'll simply give you the moral. 'Question the obvious'," she quotes, tapping Gessershire again. "Consider, if you will, the importance Lord Calderas has placed in a seemingly insignifigant fiefdom. Why would he risk challenging King Xante now over something so trivial? I believe there is a good chance that A) Whatever Lord Calderas is after is important enough for him to personally move there, and B) If it isn't, it could have enough tactical signifigance to outweigh possible repercussions from the regency that Lord Calderas might face."
Shikouju shrugs, "Then we go there. But like I said, our job isn't to decide why Calderas is doing these things. If he wants to start a war with the king then that's their affair, we were simply paid to stop him." He sits back down and polishes his blade some more, tail twitching in thought.
"I tend to agree with our dear Silver Knife, Jade," purrs the lioness smoothly. She still hasn't looked away from the mirror, trying for a slightly different angle of her head. "One slain vassal, and the high regent of Stalwirlund lies at our feet. I couldn't have asked for a prettier arrangement." She makes a token effort at hiding her amusement behind a frilly fan.
The black feline nods, "Although my personal asperations aren't as high, my thoughts are similar on the matter."
Juniper sighs patiently. Or impatiently, it's difficult to tell. "Knowing what we may be forced to deal with will aid in our efforts. If you can simply creep right into Lord Calderas' chambers, then by all means, put a dagger in his back. I, however, don't believe it will be that easy." The Philosopher settles back into her coils, her arms folded. "You are the expert on the subtle nuances of stealth and infiltration, however," she grants grudgingly. "It will ultimately be your choice on how we should proceed. While I possess knowledge, and the rest of us possess skills, the most … ah, 'hands on' member of the Compass Rose will have to apply them." Another sigh. "I must reluctantly concede that that will be you, Shikouju."
Shikouju smiles with a graceful bow, "You're too kind." He stands back up, grinning a little while longer, then face turning sober. "I suppose we should get to work then. The longer you take to catch the mouse, the more of a head start he has."
"Righty-o!" says a beaming Palao. He lets his legs dangle over the sill of the window he sits in. The two ladies nod agreement as well. "Have you any more questions, Shikouju?" asks Juniper. "I will, of course, volunteer any information that seems relevant at the time… but seeing as how you seem to be running with a rare moment of clarity and reason, I thought I'd ask if there was anything else on your… mind."
The black Khatta stashes his dagger away, "If any come to me, I won't hesitate to ask. But for the moment, there are none. Let us start this."
In a rare display of social unity, the rest of the Compass Rose nod assent. There is much to do…