Madame Natasha's Wagon
Dark. Very, very dark. The Khatta seems to prefer to keep the lights low in her somber wagon. The walls are draped in black fabric with arcane silvery symbols. In the center of the wagon sits a round table that's about enough to seat three people around it. In the center of the table rests a crystal ball. A few feet behind the table hangs another sheet of dark fabric, presumably for keeping her bedding and personal items away from prying eyes.
The events of the world conspired against Olivia from getting back to Natasha's the same day that she had the letters translated. Instead, it has come down to having to sneak over to the Gypsy camp in the early morning, skipping breakfast to do so. Olivia finds the wagon open. Inside sits Natasha where she's reading from a worn book and making notes on some ragged paper.
Olivia steps up to the door and knocks gently on the doorframe, so as not to startle Natasha with a sudden entrance. "Hello, Natasha," she says quietly. "I'm sorry I couldn't come back to see you yesterday. After I talked to Axel about those letters we found, my aunt said that I had to work a shift in the main weaving room to fill in for an apprentice who is sick," she says by way of an apology.
"Mm?" Natasha says and looks up from the book. She closes it quietly then sets it aside. "Oh, pay it no mind and please come in. Close the door behind you," the Khatta says. Natasha rubs her eyelids and sits back up, as if being a bit tired. "A lot has been going on for all of us."
Olivia does as requested and steps inside, shutting the door. She casts a quick glance over at the book Natasha was making notes from. "Preparing for the ritual?" she asks.
Natasha nods. "There has been a complication," the feline says, "and I'm not sure what the impact will ultimately be. Have you met the new visitor in town yet?"
Olivia raises an eyebrow at the Khatta. "New visitor? No, I have not. Who is it this time? Someone else to try and explore the barrow?"
Natasha shakes her head. "No, a college mage. They've sent one to confirm the corpse of the necromancer before any reward will be furnished. He's looking to speak with you," she replies.
Olivia looks startled at this announcement, then rubs her temples. "Right, I forgot about our trip to the capital in all that's been going on! I guess he wants to see me since I'm the one who put in the request for the reward. Well, if it's the corpse he wants to see, I'll have to take him over to the Gnarly Tree… after I warn the witches he's coming, of course."
"Exactly. His name is Zhu Ye Qing, a spirit mage and a Naga. A snake, if you don't know what the Nagai are," Natasha explains. "A few years older than me. It may also be useful for you to know that we attended the same college."
Olivia stares at the Khatta. "Wait… do you mean that you know this mage? Like, personally?" Then she blinks, processing some of Natasha's information just a little bit late. "Er, uh, he's a snake? He's not going to try and hypnotize me with his gaze and make me tell all of my darkest secrets, is he?" Truth be told, the Skeek looks rather nervous at the prospect of talking with a mage that just happens to be a Naga.
"Actually, I remember him because he was a student of mine," Natasha says and shakes her head. "Hard to forget him, if for nothing else he came to the college later than normal students. He was already an adult. I taught some of the beginner classes he had attended. I have no idea if he remembers me."
Olivia rubs her temples again, albeit a little harder this time. "Okay, so throw into the mix one college mage who used to study under you and who may or may not remember you. Along with your sister who certainly remembers you and her daughter who could figure out who you are," the Skeek mutters under her breath. She sighs. "Well, if he asks me why the necromancer came to Stonebarrow in the first place, I'll have to tell him. In fact, I may have put that into the report I made in Justininople. Think your hooded robe is a good enough to disguise to fool him, if he decides to come looking for you?" she asks, not sounding very hopeful.
"We've already talked," Natasha says, "I was robed at the time and he knows the small bit that the necromancer was after my power, but not much more than that. You had the most direct, recent, contact with that creature." Natasha then chuckles and adds, "Apparently he and your boyfriend also talked. They did not get along well."
"Whoa, you told Qing that you had some sort of magical power?" Olivia asks, surprised. "And he decided not to cart you off for being a non-College mage? Well, I know that you are but you're pretending not to be, so… well, you know what I mean!" the Skeek finishes, somewhat flustered by the round-about logic.
"It would not have mattered if I hadn't told him. He would have known. We can sense each other," Natasha points out. "He's fortunately not here on any witch-hunts, so we are safe."
Olivia lets out a big sigh of relief. "Thank goodness for that! It's a small ray of sunshine in the midst of our troubles, but I'll take it." Then she sobers. "So he wants me to talk about my contact with Valicross, huh? Brrr. Now that's going to be a happy conversation… yeah, right!"
"Indeed. As I said, things are more complicated now. I have to perform the ritual tonight. So you have to meet with qing today so he won't come looking for you during the ritual," Natasha notes with a sigh. She rubs her own temples this time. "So, what were you able to uncover about those letters? Forgive me, but my mind-scanning enchantment on the doorway told me that is why you came today."
Olivia takes off her flowered hat and removes the pad she scribbled her notes on from its hidden pocket. She hands this to Natasha. "Read that, then we can discuss them," she says.
"These are my notes on what the letters said, just as Axel translated them," she adds.
Natasha leans forward and takes the pad of paper. She looks over it slowly. As each small page is flipped, her expression grows more and more grim. "It could mean a lot of things," she says quietly. "None of them good."
Olivia starts to pace around the small wagon. "Well, the letters could mean that that author was Bravil just that his name was different at the time. He could have changed it whenever he was changed by that accursed place," the Skeek says. "But that doesn't explain why he kept letters that he wrote himself without having the corresponding ones. So he could be the Baron that's mentioned in the letters."
"Or he could be the person who carried the letters. The Baron's attendant," Natasha adds to the list of possibilities. "What does your heart tell you?"
Olivia doesn't stop pacing, but her voice grows sad as she talks out her theories. "This is just a thought, of course, but I wonder if Bravil isn't the Baron himself. That would explain the courtly way he treated Miranda in that dream she had of him, if he is nobility. Perhaps, once he received his son's last letter, he left the town and went into Bosch in search of him. That would also explain why he is so changed in form. And the sword and patch we found in that trunk may be his son's, and not his as I first thought. Maybe that was all that he could find of him?"
"It is a possibility, yes," the Khatta concedes. She leans back and closes her eyes. "That would be horrible. No parent should ever have to bury their children. But, it happens all too often," she notes. "I told Isolde this, but not you. I think Bravil wants to die."
Olivia stops her pacing and stares at Natasha in shock. "Wh-what? Why? I know he's had a fair amount of pain in his life but, why now, all of a sudden?"
"I have been thinking on that, and on Axel. I think Axel opened up the old memories in him. The power of Bosch can warp the mind. I think somehow in his own way, Axel undid it," Natasha answers. "How would you feel, if you could see what you were, and what you are now, if you were in his place?"
Olivia finally sits down in another chair across from Natasha and sighs. "Pretty lousy, yeah." she agrees. "Although I don't know if I would want… welll, hmmm." She lets that thought trail off. Instead, she says softly, "I'm not suggesting that we not try to bring Bravil out of his nightmares, but if we can't convince him that he life is worth living who's to say that he might not try to end his life some other way?"
"I don't have that answer," Natasha admits. She curls her hand and a small blue light flares to life in it. She rolls the energy around her fingers, then says, "But, as his friend, as someone who loves him, I have to try. He has things to still live for. I think so, anyway."
One corner of the Skeek's mouth twitches slightly. "Then I'll just help you to wake him up, if I can," she remarks. "I'll leave the convincing that his life is worth living to you."
"You still don't have to go," Natasha offers with a small, sad, smile. Her hand closes around the little ball of blue and it vanishes from existence. "I fear for what we may see. What he may have endured."
"So you keep telling me," Olivia says, "but I still want to try. If his memories are as painful as we fear, then I think you will need all the help with this ritual that you can get. I'm not backing out now."
"All right. It will begin tonight at nightfall. Be at the castle. Plan to be there for the night," Natasha says with a small nod. "Also, do please go speak with Master Qing beforehand. I'm not sure I want him snooping, though he will feel the ritual."
Olivia nods. "Then I will bring a few necessities with me, if we're to be at Pike's all night. Perhaps if I lead Qing over to the Gnarly Tree before I arrive, he will remain occupied with inspecting the corpse and not bother us."
"I also have to decide if I want to trust Master Qing," Natasha says after a moment, "He would be a great help to this ritual. So, I want you to get your honest opinion of him."
Olivia looks at Natasha now, dubious. "Well, I don't know how accurate my reading of this Master Qing will be, but I'll do my best."
"I know. I'm just … I feel we may have a better chance with his help," Natasha replies quietly, then folds her hands together. "But, to do that may put my life at risk. I … to save Bravil's future, I may have to destroy my own." The feline lets out a soft sigh and sinks a bit in her chair.
Olivia expression grows even more worried at this. "You told me that we'd all be at risk by participating in this ritual," she says slowly. "Why would your risk be the greater? Is there something you're not telling me?"
"Not in that way. If I took Master Qing into my confidence, I would be putting my life in his hands," Natasha answers.
Olivia ahs and nods again. "All right, I see it now." Then she looks away, not able to face the Khatta as she says, "I like to think that we're good friends, Natasha. So I wouldn't want to see you hurt, or… or do anything that might cause you to be killed or imprisoned for what you are now. But I can't make that decision for you. If Qing seems a decent sort, I promise to tell you the truth. But don't ask me to tell you if he should be included in the ritual. I don't think I can do that."
"I only wish to know your opinion of him. I would not burden you with making the choice that only I should make," Natasha says and offers a reassuring smile. the feline blinks, then asks, "What time is it?"
"Uh, it's early in the morning, just a little after sunrise," the Skeek replies. "Why?"
"I didn't sleep," Natasha says in realization. She blinks her eyes tiredly. "Bravil was transported to the castle yesterday. I spent all night reviewing the proper ritual forms I will need to keep from worrying."
Olivia stands up and puts a hand on Natasha's shoulder. "Then you should sleep before nightfall. Build up your strength you're going to need it. I should go, anyway I have more work to do at the Weavers' before I go to see Qing. I assume he's staying at the inn?"
"Yes, he is. Same as," Natasha says. The feline then suddenly lowers her head and rests it on the table. "Oh no."
Olivia's hand tightens its grip on the Khatta. "The same as what? Wait… don't tell me he and your sister are staying in the same place?!" she asks in alarm.
"Yes," Natasha says quietly. "She's renting one of the inn cottages."
Olivia swears under her breath. "Right. Then our little visit just got moved up a few hours. I'd better head over there now and give this guy something to distract him and keep him away from Inaya! I'll get one of the barmaids there to take a message up to the Gnarly Tree to know when to expect him."
"Some days, it truly feels like the fates are plotting against us," Natasha notes wryly and finally sits back up. "Well, come what may. I need to worry about Bravil. Thank you, for everything, Olivia. Truly."
Olivia heads for the door and says over her shoulder, "And you're truly welcome. I just hope Master Qing decides NOT to turn me into a pancake for waking him up so early!" With that, she opens it and hurries out towards town.