Plans are laid.
Sunrise found its way to Romaly at about the same time Marty did, but sunrise hadn't wasted all its money at the Pachisi Track on the way. Several early-risers were walking the city streets, among them a woman with a wheelbarrow full of fruit that was probably market-bound. Marty grinned at her as his right hand nicked an apple.
"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded, while at the same time he said, "I have the craziest story for you."
There was an awkward silence as the rules of conversation took offense.
"Um, you go ahead," said the woman, blushing.
"No, no, you go first," Marty replied, using his left hand to pluck individual grapes from their bunch. Some bananas met with a similar fate at his right.
The woman's blush took on an angry violet cast. "You're stealing my produce!" she shrieked. "Thief! Help! Thief!"
A crowd began to form.
"I haven't got a clue what she's talking about," Marty said, blinking angelically. His effort to pocket the goods was spoiled when he fumbled the grapes and sent them scattering over the dirt road. "But that's all beside the point," he added quickly. "Thing is, that little village up north has gone nuts, and I, resident of almost a full year, including time spent unjustly incarcerated, am willing to give you the exclusive inside story for the low, low price of only five thousand gold, plus however many drinks I consume in the telling. How about it?"
There was an incredulous silence, broken by the owner of the fruitbarrow exclaiming, "He's picking the caps off my strawberries!"
"If by 'nuts' you mean 'under a sleeping curse,' that's old news," said an old man near the front of the multitude. He came close to losing his pocketwatch but managed to tug it back.
Marty snorted. "Oh, please. I'm not talking about Noaniels. I've talking about Kazave. Or, as they'd prefer me to say, the People's Republic of Kazave."
"You're making that up," said a little boy. "I get in trouble when I tell lies."
"Look, it's the gods' honest truth." Marty very nearly snatched a woman's necklace before being slapped away. "They locked a couple of adventurers in a cellar and built this crazy barricade out of all the junk they had just lying around. The wife of the guy who owns the weapon store is leading them. Out of her mind. Wears a bathrobe everywhere. And I can be talked down to four thousand if I get a free dinner."
The crowd rewarded Marty with a look of collective skepticism the likes of which he hadn't seen since he'd tried to give the guards of Edinbear a plausible reason for his presence in the castle courtyard with a sackful of royal silverware and half the princess's shoes.
"Someone should get the justices," said the old man in the front. As the call to action rippled back through the layers of citizen apathy, Marty tried to plan a daring escape involving the wheelbarrow. None of his ideas didn't also involve gravity turning itself off for a while.
Just as a few people in the back began to look motivated, the sounds of an armed and angry group of men filled the air, the prevailing sound being, "We demand to speak to the king!"
Enough of the crowd decided to investigate the newcomers for Marty to spot a way out of the circle. Never one to question a lucky break, he scurried off at top speed for the nearest alleyway. One of his hands connected with something along the way and managed to keep it, which brightened his mood considerably.
A shopping center loomed ahead. Deciding that this was even better than hiding on the street, Marty ducked inside, spotted a shadowy stairway leading down, blessed his luck, and darted in.
Panting, he took a moment in the stairwell to collect himself and see what he'd managed to steal. It turned out to be a sack lunch with a sandwich that, judging by its appearance, may or may not have been egg salad. When eating it failed to resolve the issue, Marty shrugged and headed downstairs. Wherever he was, he intended to stay until the good people of Romaly were less likely to recognize him.
"We demand to speak to the king!" bellowed a voice that no amount of hiding under the pillow could muffle. Quinn rose and stomped over to the window, clenching her staff in her fist. Code of Magical Ethics be damned; someone was going to feel the wrath of Bang.
Pushing the inn's tacky yellow curtains aside, she opened the window and squinted at the morning. A large crowd had gathered some distance away, centering on a party of four bedraggled-looking adventurers. The loud voice belonged to the one who looked like a dealer.
"There is treason!" he cried. "Treason in the north!"
Quinn wondered if Icebolt would be more likely to stay on target over the distance. Anyone who made that much noise before noon didn't deserve a warning shot.
Fortunately for her oaths of conduct, another, less shrill member of the group took over the talking. "It's Kazave," said a greasy-looking cleric. "The whole town's gone mad. They think they're some kind of republic now."
Quinn sighed. This did not bode well.
"And they've built some kind of barricade."
Not well at all.
"We think they've got hostages."
"And the fun follows us," Quinn muttered, slamming the window shut. "Hey, Xing, you'd better get up now."
By the time she had explained what was going on and arrived with him at the site of the disturbance, the direction of the conversation had taken a sharp turn.
"We're not joking!" snapped the party's mage."What's wrong with you people?"
An old man regarded him dubiously. "I think I speak for most of us," he said, "when I say that there's a better chance you five are pulling a prank than there is that some lunatic housewife has taken over Kazave."
The group's warrior looked at each of his companions, then at himself, and did some quick work with his fingers. "Five?" he said at last. "But there's only-" finger check- "four of us."
"Thank you, genius," said the cleric. "As you all can see, we are a party of four. To what 'five' are you referring... to? No, just referring. Anyway, who's 'five'?"
An angry woman standing next to a wheelbarrow full of fruit stamped her foot. "That stupid thief! The one who ruined my grapes!"
The cleric blinked. "Don't you mean stole your grapes?"
Another woman shrugged and said, "He wasn't a very good thief. Which you should know, being in league with him and all."
"Lies and slander!" bellowed the dealer, just before the cleric backhanded him.
Xing drew Quinn aside.
"You want to call the justices on these guys and track down the thief, don't you?" he said. When she nodded, he added, "Good, because I think the justices are already here. Just wanted to make sure that we had the same plan."
Quinn turned to see an enthusiastic little boy directing a number of armed, uniformed men to the oblivious adventurers. Four counts of resisting arrest later, the party was being led away in chains to the castle dungeons. The crowd began to disperse.
"Pardon me," said Quinn, standing on tip-toe to tap the shoulder of a man who looked eager to run off and tell someone what he'd seen, "but did you see what started all this?"
He looked down at her with a grin. "You bet I did! One of the first ones over! Man, that thief was a piece of work. Tried to sell us this wild story about Kazave, and the whole time he's grabbing at everything-"
"Yes," interrupted Quinn, "but what did he look like?"
"Eh, small. Red hair, I think." The man scratched his head. "I dunno. I was busy watching his hands fly everywhere."
Quinn nodded. "And did you happen to see where he went?"
"Nah, he just took off when-"
"Thanks." She walked back over to Xing, leaving her informant a little deflated. "Basically," she said, "we're looking for a redheaded kleptomaniac who's good at running away."
Xing crossed his arms thoughtfully. "This is a huge city. Where do people go around here to disappear?"
Not far from where they stood, a large wooden sign shaped like a downward-pointing arrow advertised "The Joy of Vice: Providing Adult-Oriented Entertainment since the Reign of King Julius the Less Inhibited. Always Discreet! Coins Not Redeemable for Gold." Someone had obviously had a struggle making all the words fit, as "gold" was just a blotch of yellow paint on the tip of the arrowhead.
Quinn indicated the sign with her thumb. "I've got a good guess."
"I'm too plashtered t'see straight, and you still aren't hot."
Glass shattered against the wall.
"Ha. Mished me."
"Needed shome shards for Infernos t'pick up."
The sound of metal being hit repeatedly against wood roused the innkeeper from his slumber. Blinking, he looked around and found that he'd passed out in the tavern, along with about two-thirds of the town's population. He also seemed to be missing his pants.
The People's Republic of Kazave needed to have victory parties more often, he decided. It also needed to wait until mid-afternoon before conducting official business the next day.
The banging sound moved closer, culminating with the tavern's door being flung open to admit an entirely too bright Dora, frying pan in hand, and an equally bright morning. The villagers who had not spent the night on the floor staggered in behind her, several of them struggling with socks or missed buttons. The tavern owner dragged himself up from behind the counter and made an inquisitive mumble.
Before anyone was coherent enough to ask questions, Dora had climbed up onto the counter and assumed a posture of authority. The quicker-thinking villagers covered their ears.
"Citizens of Kazave!" Dora boomed as the slower-thinking villagers winced, the innkeeper among them. "Yesterday was a mighty victory for the cause of the common man, and today we must continue our struggle to throw off the universal shackels of pseudo-heroic oppression. Today we must create the People's Immigration Portal of Kazave to allow the huddled masses of the unenlightened lands to gather and learn how to spread our glorious revolution to their own benighted nations. Citizens of Kazave, I ask you: Are we united?"
A ragged cheer went up from the assembled, if for no other reason than that no one had figured out a method of arguing with Dora.
She banged the frying pan against the wall for silence. "We have one more issue to discuss," she added, once those afflicted with the most severe hangovers had stopped groaning. "The thieving adventurers who were first apprehended in the perpetration of their nefarious deeds were imprisoned in the cellar of the People's Military Headquarters of Kazave, rather than being eradicated. What shall we do with them?"
"Are we united?" had been a simple question that didn't require any particular attention to the context. But "What shall we do with them?" assumed a high level of comprehension, retention, and analysis, and it came on the heels of a lot of morning-inappropriate words. The villagers gaped.
The innkeeper considered, then said, "We should make them find my pants."
"They're over here," said the tavern owner, holding up the lost garment from behind the bar.
"Oh. Never mind, then." The innkeeper paused in the act of retrieval. "What were we talking about?"
"Grievances?" said the item store owner hopefully.
The frying pan hit the wall again. "Very well, then," Dora said. "All of favor of tabling the issue until after the construction of the People's Immigration Portal of Kazave?"
"Aye!" said the innkeeper's wife. "I want my dresser back."
"All opposed?" When no one responded, Dora alit from the counter and said, "This meeting of the People's Republic of Kazave is adjourned. To work!"
Hopping into his pants as he followed the masses outside, the innkeeper hummed to himself and wondered when they'd get to have a battle again.
Quinn had never been interested in gambling. She felt that the odds were stacked too highly against her, and in any case she valued skill more highly than luck. The Joy of Vice tried to accommodate the non-gamblers with a high concentration of puff-puff girls, but they didn't interest Quinn, either. That left only the bar. Again Quinn was uninterested, and no self-respecting pit of sin was going to accommodate someone that far gone.
At least she had the comfort of knowing that Xing wasn't going to be having any fun, either. His order expressly forbade every element present in the Joy of Vice, right down to the weird grime that covered most of the surfaces. The establishment gave every indication of having been founded by someone who used the "Thou Shalt Avoid" page of the fighters' handbook as a checklist.
Quinn and Xing attempted to discuss strategy, realized they were too close to the fighting pit to be heard, and retreated to a quieter, yet strangely filthier, corner. "I'll look there," Xing said, indicating the roaring crowd around the pit.
"Then I'll get the bar." Quinn pointed to the smoke-filled area against the far wall. "We'll meet back here if we can't find anything."
In the short walk to her destination, Quinn saw that a lot that qualified as "anything," including three friendly stabbings and an obviously male belly dancer, but nothing that qualified as unusual for a place that called itself the Joy of Vice. As her eyes adjusted to the haze hovering over the bar, however, her luck changed.
"Bingo," she said under her breath.
Alone at the end of the counter was what appeared to be a humanoid manifestation of kinetic energy with a bright explosion of hair glued to the top of it. Sitting still was clearly a challenge for the man; his fingers tapped like a troupe of amateur dancers against the countertop, pausing only when one of his hands darted out to snatch an unattended object. After watching him eat half a bowl of peanuts with one hand while nicking the bartender's tip with the other, Quinn decided that, in this case, the right hand was only vaguely aware that the left one existed and didn't much care what it was up to. And vice-versa.
She tapped him on the shoulder and watched both hands scramble in unsynchronized surprise.
"You're the guy from Kazave," she said, not bothering to make it a question. "My partner and I want to hire you." She paused to slap his left hand, which had been trying to get her money pouch. The right was fumbling around the counter in search of someone else's drink.
"I'm freelanshe," he announced, as if that explained everything. That his voice wasn't unusually high-pitched or rapid came as a shock, but the amount of alcohol in his system might have been slowing his speech. It was definitely slurring it. "All doorsh're open t'me."
"Right," Quinn said, with all the patience she could muster. "And we would like to hire you on a one-time-only basis."
"Yeah?" Even the man's eyes refused to hold still, as if he suspected something exciting was about to happen in his peripheral vision. His focus landed on Quinn for the amount of time it took him to say, "Too bad. I'm freelanshe. M'own bosh. Ha!"
The verbal approach was not going to work. Shooting a vexed look at the thief, who was currently draining a mug of ale while pilfering all the complimentary toothpicks, Quinn made her way to where Xing was peering over a block of the gambler wall.
"Found him," she said, pulling him into a quieter area. "Knock him out and we'll drag him back to the inn." To Xing's look, she added, "He's no good drunk, and if we leave him here, someone's going to gut him before he has a chance to sober up." When she got no answer, Quinn crossed her arms. "No one's going to stop you. I'd be shocked if anyone even noticed."
Xing sighed and followed her toward the bar. "I trained under a noble fighter of Dharma," he said. "I was taught to meditate and keep my power under control, lest it control me. My master said that violence against my fellow man is never the only solution."
"Really?" said Quinn. "You never had a problem smacking Nars and Charlotte around."
"They're Nars and Charlotte. And that's still a far cry from kidnapping a refugee."
Quinn smirked. "Well, there's our 'refugee' now. We should probably save him."
The man in question had managed to snag a pair of bunny ears from one of the puff-puff girls, and his victim was winning the tug-of-war game to get them back. "You lousy little creep," she growled, "if you don't let go right this second, I'm gonna get my manager and-"
"We'll take him," Xing interrupted, grabbing the thief's wrist. The man howled and released his grip on the ears.
The girl made one last indignant sound before re-affixing her headband and strutting back to one of the tables.
"Hey!" the thief protested, trying to squirm out of Xing's grasp. "Whaddaya-" He collapsed forward as Xing landed a neat chop to the back of his neck.
Quinn nodded her approval. "Nice work. Sometimes you scare me."
"I recall that this was your idea," Xing said, slinging their captive over his shoulder. "Should we throw a hood over him?"
"I wouldn't bother," she replied. "No one will recognize him when he's holding still."
After an indeterminable period of unconsciousness, Nars awoke with a hangover and set to work trying to shut it up with more wine. Unfortunately, his blind fumblings turned up nothing but empty bottles, and he refused to beg Charlotte for more. Clearly the next step was to roll over and pass out again. Nars was in the process of putting his plan into action when something sharp bit into his arm.
Yelping, Nars opened his eyes and found that the floor was littered with broken glass, a piece of which had embedded itself in his elbow. He pulled it out with a curse.
How the shards had gotten there was a mystery. There were a few fuzzy memories of a shattered bottle and a drunken Infernos spell that didn't take, but Nars had learned to be suspicious of any memory insulated by so much alcohol.
"Hey, Charlotte," he called, wiping the blood off with his shirt, "did you really try to kill me last, er, uh, before? And what time is it?"
"If I'd really wanted to kill you," she snapped, "you'd be dead. And it's a little hard to tell what time it is when we're /stuck in a cellar/, you moron."
Looking up from his wound, Nars saw that she was sitting in a corner with her knees drawn up to her chin, scowling at the world in general and him in particular. "Maybe if you weren't such a lousy magic user," he said, "we wouldn't be stuck in a cellar in the first place."
"Funny," she returned, "I seem to recall that your being a jackass is what got us thrown in here."
"Yeah, well, I'm not talking to you anymore!"
"Ha! That means nothing, because I'm not talking to /you/!"
The cellar experienced three minutes of peace.
"This sucks," Charlotte whined, getting up to pace across her half of the floor. "The wine sucks-"
"Ha! You admit it!"
"-the food sucks worse, and there's nothing to do!" She stamped her foot and gave Nars an expectant look.
"We could make out," he said. "Oh, wait, I'm sober now. Never mind."
No sooner had he spoken than his stomach twisted, and when the nausea had passed, a ring of Charlottes surrounded him. A panicked punch connected his fist with nothing but air. Sputtering indignantly, Nars tried to find the right image to glare at. "What the hell-"
"It wears off eventually," said the Charlottes. "And don't act like you didn't deserve it."
"I didn't! You started it!"
When the Charlottes collectively failed to answer, Nars followed their gazes, despite that fact that he couldn't see more than five feet in any direction without encountering a cleric-shaped hallucination. "Well?" he said at last. "What is it?"
The Charlottes cocked their heads. "I think," they said, "that I may have figured out how to get out of here."
"We finished the gate. You should see it! We've got these-"
"That's nice, dear. Where's my dresser?"
"Yes, dresser. That big wooden thing you were supposed to get out of the wall."
"Oh. Does it look like it would be a good desk if you turned it over and put it on something?"
"...I never thought I'd say this, but my mother was completely right about you."
"Huh? Anyway, there's a meeting now. We'd better hurry."
"You go ahead, dear. I've got something to take care of first."
"Want to get a good look at the gate, eh?"
"Something like that."
In the course of his long and unsuccessful career, Marty had done his share of waking up in unusual places. Many of these had been jail cells, several had been alleyways, and one had been the cavern of a hobbit named Norud, an event for which Marty had refused to seek an explanation.
His current location was a bit of stumper. While his memory of a bar and a bouncer-shaped man suggested "alleyway," he seemed to be on top of a bed, which suggested he'd gotten himself to an inn. Then again, his hands were bound, which usually meant he'd been arrested. Norud was not even to be considered.
Warily, Marty pried open his eyes and found that he was indeed on a bed, that his hands were indeed tied, and that there were no hobbits in sight. He breathed a sigh of relief.
"Well, look who's up," said a sharp female voice that brought the relief to a screeching halt.
Working his legs to and over the edge of the bed, Marty managed to sit up and get a look at his captors. The voice presumably belonged to the diminutive girl wearing a mage's hat and robes, whose staff was pointed at him in a casually threatening manner. Beside her stood a bear-sized young man who gave every sign of being a fighter. Both Marty's hands itched to pull his braid.
There was something familiar about the pair, and a moment's squinting made the connection.
"You kidnapped me!" Marty shouted, wanting to leap to his feet to drive the point home but reluctant to do anything that might get him knocked out again. "Let me go!"
The mage sighed. "Well, there's gratitude for you," she said. "You should thank us for getting you out of there before the big guy in the executioner's mask figured out you were the one stealing his drinks."
So that was where the ale had come from. The other events of the evening began to resolve themselves, and another connection clicked into place: "Hang on! I thought you were trying to hire me, not knock me senseless."
The fighter cracked his knuckles and said, "They weren't mutually exclusive. Now, are you ready to listen to our proposal?"
Realizing that he was at a disadvantage, Marty decided to accept defeat with all the bad grace he could muster. "This's unethical," he muttered.
"Says the thief." The mage returned his glare and continued, "We have traveling companions being held hostage in Kazave. We don't necessarily want them back, but we're under obligation. You're going to get us into Kazave, help us retrieve our captive party members, and then get us back out again. And we'll pay you for it."
Still sulking, Marty said, "And if I won't?"
The fighter nodded towards the window. "We give you to Romaly. There's a party of four in the dungeons who'd love to meet you."
Marty glared again, even though it wasn't doing any practical good. "This's blackmail," he grumbled.
"Not since we're paying you." The mage pulled a money pouch out of her robes and jingled it tantalizingly. "How's ten thousand gold strike you?"
Stay cool, said Marty's brain. If we play our cards right, we'll get twenty thousand upfront and be halfway to Ashalam before these fools know what hit 'em.
"Are you kidding?" said Marty's mouth. "I'd do it for half that!" His brain slunk back into darkness and self-loathing.
The mage shrugged. "I'm sure you would. But your pay's going on our fearless leader's tab, and since I'm sure this was all his fault, he deserves to take a financial hit. Now, are you going to behave yourself, or do we have to keep your arms tied?"
"I'm behaving." What Marty hoped was more an angelic grin than an avaricious one spread across his face. "For ten thousand gold, I'll behave however the hell you want me to." His brain wept quietly.
"Keep it up and you're back in the ropes," the fighter muttered, his fingers flying as the ancient secrets of his order undid a confusion of knots. "There. If you steal anything, we'll deduct three times the value of it from your pay."
Marty nodded and sat on his hands.
Eyeing him warily, the mage said, "I'm Quinn. You can call him Xing. I'd shake your hand, but our brief acquaintice has taught me better."
Financial dealings were not among Marty's strong points, but self-introductions were. "I am the inimitable Martin Nobbles," he announced, "freelance thief and charmingly persistant rogue. You may have the priviledge of calling me 'Marty.' My accomplishments included being arrested in every major castle west of Zipangu and at least half the towns. I've got a heart of gold, too."
"Good for you." Marty deflated a bit as the mage continued, "Anyway, I can get us to Kazave, so your responsibility is to find a way to get us inside and..." She trailed off into annoyed, narrow-eyed silence.
It occurred to Marty that she was probably upset with him. "What?"
"Would you stop that already?"
"Twitching." She made it sound like a hanging crime. "It's like every muscle in your body is going off at once."
Marty, who had learned more than once that it was a bad idea to upset a mage, grinned sheepishly and tried to focus on sitting still. It took him several seconds to notice that both feet were still tapping a merry rhythm against the floor.
Quinn raised her staff. "Never mind," she said. "I'll take care of it for you."
For a nasty second, Marty was certain that he was going to end up minus a limb. Then a light dizziness passed over him, and he saw with relief that all his parts were still in place. When he tried to crane his neck to make sure, however, he felt as if he'd been dipped in tar.
"Nice one," said Xing. "Now he's twitching at half his normal speed."
"Whaaat?" Marty's voice stretched out of his mouth like taffy. "Heeey!"
With a small sigh, Quinn waved her staff again. Marty's efforts to move were suddenly happening at a normal speed, and he nearly toppled off the bed.
"You got the same orientation at Ruida's, right?" she said, turning to Xing. "Remember how they told you you'd visit exotic places, meet interesting people, and earn fame and fortune with like-minded adventurers?"
"Well, here's one out of three." Xing's voice balanced on the edge between amusement and exasperation. "It's like a carriage wreck. I can't stop watching."
Marty looked at his hands and noticed that he'd grabbed a pillow in the process of righting himself and was now engaged in pulling the feathers out of it. He tossed it aside and tried to look victimized.
"Someday I'm going to found my own recruitment tavern," Quinn went on. "With competency testing. And negative reinforcement via Thordain."
Xing nodded. "And make sure you ban jesters. I had to share a room with one at Ruida's."
Sensing that the conversation was drifting away from him, Marty looked for another way to amuse himself. Temptation beckoned in the form of the clasp on Xing's braid, and Marty's right hand caved to it.
"Remember," said Xing, "fingers are a privilege, not a right." Marty's hand turned aside at the last second and grabbed a fistful of bedsheets.
Quinn crossed her arms. "So if you've got time to screw around, I take it you've already figured out how to get us into Kazave. Let's hear it."
There was a panicked moment as he realized that they'd expected him to be thinking. Foundering, Marty clung to the first relevant thought to pop into his mind: "I can climb the wall."
"That's nice," said Quinn. "But I have the upper-body strength of cooked pasta, and Xing may be too bulky to follow your path, so maybe you should try another plan, hmm?"
Maybe official, certified thieves got training in this area, but Marty had never had to consider sneaking around with a group of physically dissimilar people. After a quick rifling through his memories, he realized that his most pertinant information came from half a comedy sketch he'd watched in Ashalam while making drunken attempts to pick the other patrons' pockets. The details of the routine were fuzzy, of course, but if he left out the crossdressing bit, he could probably pass it off as a legitmate plan. A plot, even.
His brain drew its metaphorical curtains, locked its metaphorical doors, and refused to come out again.
Not even the terrified screams of an electrified jester could lift Stanley's spirits. He'd spent the night sleeping in a corner near some shrubbery, and the first news he'd heard on waking had been that an extremely twitchy man had visited during the night, raving about the situation in Kazave and trying to barter a fistful of bunnytails for tickets. He'd been ejected from the building after being caught stealing bits of the decor, but his message had outlived his presence.
And the message had not been a good one. Even allowing for exaggeration, Stanley figured that he would be lucky if only his house burned down. Kazave itself probably wasn't going to survive Dora's latest assault on reality.
Stanley sighed. Her quirks had been endearing when he married her. And Dora had been harmlessly eccentric for a long time, perhaps because their son, who now lived in Portoga and occasionally wrote long, dull letters about his work in the shipping industry, had kept her busy for the better part of two decades. Stanley wasn't quite certain what he'd expected Dora to do with herself after the boy was out on his own, but her constant talk of social injustices should have given him a clue. Dora's problem was that she didn't know how to slow down with age.
The fussy host who'd been hovering around Stanley since the previous afternoon was approaching. Sighing, Stanley stuck the pot back on his head.
"Sir," the host said, for approximately the thousandth time since Stanley's arrival, "while we appreciate your fine patronage, we also express concern that you have yet to return home-"
"I have no home," Stanley interrupted. "My wife's taken over Kazave."
The host's face flickered through surprise, sympathy, disapproval, pity, exasperation, and, curiously, indigestion, before settling on a neutral smile. "Surely sir does not intend to stay here until the local unpleasantness is resolved?"
"Oh, that's right." Stanley made the vocal slide into "morose." "Don't let me be a burden on you. Take away my one last joy- no, no, I don't mind, it simply doesn't do for me to mind, does it? At least, it doesn't do any good." The effect of his sinking down into his seat was undermined by the clang of the pot against the wooden chairback.
The host continued to hover. Holding out a handful of gold, Stanley added, "Here. Now I'm a paying customer. That's what you all want out of me, isn't it?"
When the money failed to disappear, Stanley sighed and pulled the pot off his head. "You're throwing me out, aren't you?"
"At the moment," replied the host, "we simply believe that it would be in sir's best interests to return home. 'Throwing you out,' as sir put it, is what happens when Bruno and Clete in the back room decide to help sir on his way."
Five minutes later Stanley was outside the building, cradling the pot containing all his remaining worldly goods, with no idea what to do next.
"Wait, that's your big plan?"
"Yeah. The villagers aren't very bright."
"What, and you are?"
"I resent that. And if you'd just think about it-"
"Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize that we're paying you too much."
"Okay, see, now you're thinking too hard."
It had been quiet for a while, so Nars decided it was time to voice his opinion: "This is the stupidest idea you've ever had, and that's counting the time you tried using Antidote on a venom toad."
"That was your idea, Nars."
"Was not. You made me think of it. Shut up."
The multiple Charlottes stuck out their tongues at him, in one of the most nightmarish moments of his young life. Nars had been on the receiving end of many Surround spells in his time as a hero errant, but those had all been cast by monsters. Somehow, a ring of carnivorous butterflies was less unnerving than a ring of Charlottes, especially when the Charlottes were starting to flicker and distort as the magic wore off. One at the edge of his peripheral vision looked like a watercolor painting left out in the rain.
"And this is a great idea," the Charlottes added. "You just don't appreciate my genius."
"Genius uses a lot fewer corkscrews."
The Charlottes held up a series of barrel lids menacingly, expect for a meltier one who appeared to be levitating a puddle of mud. "Just hurry up and get this done," they snapped, "unless you want to keep waiting around for someone to save you."
"No one saves-"
"Right. We've been over that." The Charlotte cluster paused and extended a distressing number of palms. "And pass the jerky," they said. "This leg's wobbly."
The tavern currently housed the population of Kazave minus several, including the guard on duty as the People's Immigration Officer of Kazave, the current shift manning the People's Defensive Force of Kazave, and the innkeeper's wife, whose husband was no help in determinting her whereabouts. The meeting began without her.
"Today," Dora began after rapping the pan against the wall for attention, "is a proud day for our fine republic. Soon we shall serve as a haven for honest townsfolk, and the shining beacon of our great liberty will illuminate all the world with a holy proletariat glow!"
The villagers cheered. With any luck, that meant they'd get to fend off another invasion before the day was out.
Dora shuffled some papers around on the counter. "Now, then," she said, "we must decide how to feed and house the anticipated refugees before word gets around and we have a flood of the tired, hungry, and oppressed."
After much quibbling, it was decided to convert the cells beneath the temple into living quarters for the new arrivals until more permanent dwellings could be established. When the question was raised of where these new dwellings would go, several villagers pointed out the wall was easy enough to expand, which led to happy speculation as to how much land the republic could emcompass before the mountains became a problem. At key points, the priest could be heard wailing from the storeroom.
The innkeeper's wife arrived near the end of the discussion, looking sweaty but triumphant. No one asked.
"That settled," said Dora, pushing the papers aside, "we come to the question of what to do with the villains still polluting our fair republic." She waved the frying pan to indicate the crowd. "What are the people's suggestions?"
After a moment of consideration, a young man in the back raised his hand. "If we leave them down there long enough, they'll starve," he pointed out. "Technically that's eradication."
There were assorted nods until the innkeeper's wife said, "That's not very humane."
"Right," said the innkeeper, who felt he had a stake in agreeing with her.
"But if we open the cellar, they might get loose and kill us," said the tavern owner.
There was a thoughtful silence.
"We could set the cellar on fire," suggested the innkeeper's wife.
The assembled cheered. Everyone loved a good compromise.
An old man near the front raised a timid hand and said, "But isn't the cellar part of our military headquarters?"
"Don't worry," replied Dora, beaming. "We'll be careful. But I think your show of patriotic fervor deserves a round of the People's Applause of Kazave."
There was enthusiastic clapping. The crowd was enjoying itself.
"And now," said Dora, rapping her frying pan against the wall for order, "let's move on to the issue of trade relations with governments that continue to uphold the mock-heroic system..."