The People's Immigration Portal of Kazave turned out to be a door-sized hole in the lower half of the wall, with the People's Catapult of Kazave parked so as to be visible to anyone who looked in. Just inside the gap were three mismatched table legs and a crate, beside which were a book, a quill pen, and a bottle of ink. Quinn wondered if it was meant to be art.
After Marty had made an unsuccessful attempt on her hat and scampered off to the north wall, she and Xing approached the portal.
"Halt!" An overwhelmingly round man wearing a collision of metal parts and carrying a spear in each hand clanked forward, pointing both his weapons at the intruders. "And who might you be, then?"
"Travelers," Quinn replied, taking Xing's hand in what she hoped was an affectionate manner. "We're a young couple looking for a new start."
The guard squinted at her. "You look like adventurers to me," he said, adopting a facial expression that he had obviously been saving for this occasion.
Quinn waited for Xing to say something, then sighed and shouldered the burden of speech herself. "No, not adventurers. Just honest townsfolk."
"Really? And what's in that sack, then?"
"Goods. My husband is a merchant." Quinn spotted a way to shift the weight of the conversation away from her. "Isn't that right, er, Honeylovebear?"
Xing shot her an annoyed look before saying, "Yes, Sweetiedearest, I'm definitely a merchant."
"And what d'you sell, then?" asked the guard, whose squint now looked painful. Without waiting for an answer, he speared the bag slung over Xing's shoulder and blinked as dry grass and straw drifted out of the hole.
"I sell packing materials," Xing said, perfectly deadpan.
The top of Quinn's staff poked out, damming the flow of dead plant matter.
"Magical packing materials," he amended.
"Revolutionary, really," added Quinn.
The squint moved closer, until part of the guard's helmet fell forward to obscure it. "And where might you be from, then?" came out a bit muffled.
"Ashalam," they said in unison, pleased to be back on the script.
"Ashalam, hmm?" There was a confused moment during which the guard tried to push his helmet back into place without letting go of either of his spears. "I've got family in Ashalam, you know. So if you're merchants, I suppose you know-"
"We'd only just moved there," Quinn said. "Before that, we lived in Lancel."
"Got family there, too," said the guard.
"But we didn't live there for long. We'd only just left Edinbear."
"Funny thing, I've got a sister who works in the royal kitchen."
"No, she lives in Samanao."
"Soo the /town/."
"Right, of course. Got a cousin there."
Quinn decided to change tacks. "Actually, we're originally from Tedanki."
"Ah, my wife's aunt lives there, I believe."
"Not anymore, she doesn't."
The guard digested the information for a moment, then said, "Oh. Well, I supposed you'd know, wouldn't you? Welcome to the People's Republic of Kazave, then. I'd record your information, but we haven't got a desk anymore." After giving them an awkward salute, the guard stood aside and waved them in with one of his spears.
For someone who had just profitted from another's stupidity, Quinn was terribly irritated by it. "How did these people manage to capture Nars and Charlotte?" she whispered after they'd passed the gate.
Xing shrugged. "You're overestimating our comrades in their absence. It's understandable."
"And why are we saving them, again?"
The two made an effort to look like a young couple in love, or at least a young couple not displeased to be in Kazave, until they managed to duck into a shadowy corner behind the temple only a few yards away from the barricade. Quinn retrieved her staff as a precaution.
After a few seconds, there was a skittering sound, then a loud thump as Marty failed to climb the rest of the way down the wall. He grinned up at them from where he'd landed on the grass.
"Is the high pain tolerance something you develop," asked Quinn, "or is it nature's congenital gift to the stupid?"
Marty ignored her. "Your friends are in the cellar under the weapon store," he said, folding himself into a sitting position. "Southwest corner of town. It's supposed to be some kind of headquarters, and the whole place's bound to be under high security. Lady Liberator herself lives there."
"You're trying to steal my shoes," Xing pointed out.
Without missing a beat, Marty stood and continued, "So you're going to have a hell of time getting in without some help. Half upfront, right?" He extended a hand, palm upward, and wiggled it impatiently. His other hand began a tug-of-war game with Quinn over her staff.
She came out the victor and clubbed him over the head with the spoils. "You get your money when we get our party members back," she said. "And at least wait until we're not looking before you try to steal anything else."
Xing plucked Marty up by his shirt collar, interrupting the thief's effort to stuff a handful of straw into his pockets. "Listen," said Xing, in the tone that even Nars tended to heed. "You are going to create a distraction for us while we sneak into the weapon store. You are also going to keep your hands to yourself if you want to keep them at all."
Marty let go of the sash he'd been in the process of removing from Xing's waist. "But I don't have time to plan a distraction," he whined. "They're going to set it on fire /now/."
Never assume, said the universe to Quinn, that your day can't get any worse. She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Back up."
Marty squeaked as Xing tightened his grip. "While you two were taking your time with the guard, I was keeping an ear out on top of the wall because no one ever looks up anyway and help I can't breathe." Once Xing had given his shirt a little slack, he added, "Apparently they figured out that 'No adventurers on pain of eradication' applies to adventurers already in the town. It's still chafing."
Xing dropped him. After giving Marty a moment to complain about his treatment, Quinn waved her staff near his face and said, "I can cast the slowing spell again."
"Southwest, weapon shop, going to burn the place down because they're afraid to open the cellar door," Marty replied promptly. "This way."
"See?" said Nars. "/This/ is why I said it was stupid idea."
The Charlottes, all but one of whom were in various stages of morphologic dissolution, glared at him. "I never said it was a quick way to get out. Now shut up and keep going."
Returning her look, Nars tried again to force an instrument designed to pierce cork to tunnel through solid wood. It was, unsurprisingly, not working very well.
Their escape plan, which sounded less plausible every time he thought about it, had been to build a stand out of barrels and assorted scraps and then stand atop it while drilling through the wooden ceiling with corkscrews. Charlotte was convinced that enclosing part of the floor with a lot of tiny, closely spaced holes would eventually cause the section to fall through and allow them to climb out.
In a society that prized cork as a building material, it would have been a fine idea. But then no one would leave corkscrews or anything remotely sharp lying around, so, really, the point was invalid and Charlotte was still an idiot. Nars used the strength of his irritation to force the unhappy tool through another revolution.
Stanley's mood took another spectacular dive as he approached Kazave and saw the disaster of a barricade enclosing it. After taking a moment to reconsider running to Romaly, catching the first ship to Portoga, and indefinitely inconveniencing his son, he sighed and kept walking. Really, why miss seeing a good catastrophe up close?
Shoulders stooped, he shambled halfway around the wall before finding the western entrance, which was guarded by what appeared to be his old store's entire surplus rack.
"Halt!" said the jumble of metal, and the voice rang familiar. "And who might you be, then?"
Stanley drew close enough to confirm his suspicion. "Phil, it's me," he replied, enunciating in order to increase his odds of getting through what he knew to be a thick skull. "Stanley. Your neighbor of several decades."
The skull was a mighty fortress. "Might you be wanting passage into the People's Republic of Kazave, then?"
"Are you even listening to me?" When the question failed to produce a response, Stanley sighed and added, "Look, you know who I am. You borrowed my wheelbarrow six months ago and still haven't returned it."
"Ha! Do you expect me to believe that?" Phil brandished a pair of spears. "I'll bet you're a spy sent by the, er, what was it, mock-heroic oppressors!"
"Oh, for the gods' sakes," Stanley muttered. "I see how it is. I'm gone for a day, and already I'm thrown out of my own home. But let's not worry about Stanley. He won't mind, will he? Stanley the Universal Doormat never minds anything."
There was an uncomfortable pause until Phil rallied, drawing himself up in an effort to menace. "Your efforts to confuse the People's Immigration Officer of Kazave will not go un-"
More than a hundred pounds of mismatched metal parts crashed to the ground, victims of a poor balancing decision. Stanley stepped over the prone figure and nudged the helmet with his toe.
"You can't get up, can you?"
"Your nefarious infiltration will never succeed!" replied Phil's muffled voice.
Stanley gave him a thoughtful look. "My, my, is this luck? I don't think I've seen it act on my behalf in /years/."
"But what if it's booby-trapped?" Marty persisted.
"Either be a proper thief for once," said Quinn, "or less of a booby." She raised her arm to signal Xing, then paused and added, "You're clear on the plan, right?"
After a heated and profoundly unpleasant debate, two-thirds of the temporary party had decided to send Marty in through the chimney and get him to unlock the back door. Marty was opposed to this on the grounds that the sort of people who built a city wall out of farming implements were probably the sort of people who left bizarre death-traps lying around. Sympathy had not been forthcoming.
Marty tried again: "What if they set it on fire while I'm in there?"
"Get this done fast enough and that won't be a problem." When he tried to protest, Quinn sighed and said, "Look, if they try to torch the place before we're in, I'll set off a Bang spell or something to buy you some time. Now will you quit stalling?"
"Don't see why I'm going in alone," he muttered.
Xing gave an impatient snort. "I wouldn't fit down the chimney, and Quinn has to stay out here in case the villagers arrive before you do your job. Which is getting more and more likely."
Before Marty could develop another argument, Xing had grabbed him and sent him airborne. After a horrifying moment of empathy for javelins, Marty found himself skidding painfully across the roof until friction brought him to a halt in front of the chimney.
Marty pushed himself up and glared down at his employers. When he sneaked a glance at the distance between his new perch and the top of the barricade, Quinn hissed up at him, "Ten thousand gold pieces!"
Marty's survival instinct didn't even try to override his greed. In a matter of seconds he had swung his legs over the edge of the chimney and begun to comtemplate how to slide down. If he braced himself and took it slowly, he decided, he probably wouldn't end up crash-landing in the fireplace.
It was a fine plan until somewhere near the bottom, when he thought he heard fiery death approaching and dropped in a panic into the ashes. The distance wasn't enough to do any real damage, but he considered asking for a raise, anyway. Before he could enjoy the prospect of increased hypothetical wealth, the sound that had startled him in the first place came again.
Whatever it was, it wasn't the sound of something burning. If Marty strained his ears, he got the impression of wood being scraped.
"Not taking me in that easy," he said, climbing out of the fireplace and making a perfunctory attempt to dust himself off. As he did, he glanced around the room and saw that he was in what would have passed for a perfectly ordinary kitchen if not for the pile of metal and wood on the floor. The scraping sounds seemed to be coming from underneath it.
Marty had been on the business ends of more traps than he cared to remember, and he was puzzled by how this one was supposed to work. As he circled the mass of metal warily, his hands helped themselves to a salt shaker and three decorative saucers from the counters.
"What the hell were you thinking?" demanded a muffled voice.
Starting with enough force to send his prizes to a shattering end against the wall, Marty took a few seconds to work his way from the captives being trapped in a cellar to cellars often being in kitchens to the voice belonging to an adventurer and not a vengeful saucer ghost. "Hello?" he called down at his feet.
There was a silence, followed by two frantically overlapping voices. Satisfied, Marty strolled out of the kitchen and set to work looking for the back door, snagging an apple on the way.
Although a specific few had been elected to handle the problem of burning out the cellar, the entire village minus the People's Immigration Officer and the priest had come along to watch. The catapult team had brought their own solution along, just in case.
"Citizens of Kazave," began Dora, as the assembled formed a semi-circle around the front of the weapon store, "we are gathered here today to-"
"Dear, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
All heads turned to the source of the voice, which turned out to be an unusually expressive Stanley. He was cradling an iron pot in one arm and using his free hand to point at the blazing torch being held by the innkeeper.
For a moment, Dora appeared taken aback, but she recovered quickly. "Citizens of Kazave," she said, "let us rejoice, for our lost-"
"I was certainly not lost," Stanley interrupted, "and it looks like you're trying to burn our house down. Why?"
Dora folded her arms across her chest. "It's not just a house- it's our military headquarters. And we're not burning it down. We're burning the adventurers out of the cellar."
Stanley dropped the pot on the ground and balled his hands into fists. "Are you completely out of your mind?"
The villagers were entranced. Dora snapped on a biweekly basis, but they'd never seen Stanley do anything more exciting than despair. The tavern owner started a betting pool near the catapult.
Dora's eyes narrowed. "Are you insulting the great and glorious People's Republic of Kazave?"
"This isn't a republic!" Stanley pointed furiously at the torch, the catapult, and the wall before throwing his hands over his head. "Look at all this! It's absolute lunacy!"
The innkeeper's wife nudged the man beside her. "I've never heard him shout before. What if he starts biting people?"
The man nodded toward the tavern keeper and said, "Thirteen-to-one odds. Me, I put my money on crying."
Dora pointed the frying pan at her husband, her knuckles white. "You have no idea what this is!" she shot back. "You ran away like- like some kind of adventurer at the moment of our noble utopia's inception! Where were you at the Battle of Liberty's Defense?"
By this point, the villagers had learned to hear capitalization in Dora's voice, and they cheered at the birth of a slogan. Now they could make posters.
"Dora..." Stanley's voice dropped a number of decibels, and the villagers with money on "non-stop screaming fit" cursed quietly. "Dear, you are about to murder two teenagers and probably destroy our home in the process. How in the name of any god you please is this a good idea?"
The frying pan wavered. "You left."
"Yes, and I think I took Kazave's collective store of sanity with me."
That had been entirely the wrong thing to say. In less than a minute, the shouting match had resumed in earnest, the gamblers had gone wild, and no one noticed the sound of a door opening but the innkeeper, who was too busy pretending his torch was a magic sword to care.
"Took you long enough." Scowling, Quinn brushed past Marty, who clinked, jingled, and squeaked with every motion, and added, "So how much time did you waste filling your pockets instead of looking for the door?"
Marty recaptured a runaway hand-mirror and gave her a hurt look. "What, you think I can't do two things at once?"
"Never mind that," Xing said, closing the door behind him. "Where's the cellar?"
"In the kitchen." Marty started off down the hallway, hands grabbing frantically at the trinkets escaping his overstuffed pockets with every step. "They sounded pretty crazy down there, too."
Quinn resisted the urge to beat him over the head with her staff. "And you didn't let them out /why/?"
Instead of answering, Marty directed her to attention to the doorway in front of him. Through it, she could see a sink, a stove, and a small mountain of armor and furniture rising from the center of the floor.
"Oh, of course," Quinn muttered as Xing began to dismantle the mound. "Gods forbid this should be straightforward."
"Quinn?" came Nars's half-muted voice from below. Despite everything, Quinn couldn't make herself describe the sound as welcome. "Hey, Quinn, is that you up there? Get me out!"
"Get me out first!" said Charlotte's voice. "And where the hell have you been?"
Xing glanced over at Quinn after tossing a suit of iron armor aside. "It's not too late," he mouthed.
"Don't tempt me," she whispered back, beginning to pull the lighter objects off the pile.
Out of the corner of her eye, Quinn watched Marty rifle through the cabinets and collect handfuls of spices, sponges, and on one baffling occasion, old cheese. He was starting to untie the curtains when Xing sent a chair flying at his head.
"Hey!" Marty said indignantly, lurching to the right just in time to avoid the projectile. A shelf of plates suffered in his stead. "What was that for?"
"You're not helping," said Xing. "If the house catches fire before we get the cellar open, we're leaving you in here to handle things."
"Don't you dare!" yelled Charlotte's voice.
Giving them a look that was probably meant to convey his assurance that this was a bluff and that he was helping entirely out of the goodness of his twitchy little heart, Marty plucked a helmet from the pile. It ended up on his head, and he gave an appraising look to the stool he extracted next. Quinn tried to center herself and find a happy place.
"I've got it from here," Xing said. Once Quinn and Marty had stepped back, he strained and pushed until the remainder of the blockade was clear of the cellar entrance. A subsequent thump and curse from below indicated that one of the captives hadn't wanted to wait until the door was unlocked.
Allowing herself a little smirk, Quinn slid back the deadbolt, flipped open the door, and was greeted by the sight of Nars and Charlotte engaged in a bitter catfight for the right to climb out first. Behind them, an odd construction of barrels was visible in the torchilit gloom. Quinn knew better than to ask about it.
Marty peered over her shoulder, prompting her to put a protective hand on her hat. "Thought we were in a hurry," he said, giving her a reproachful look.
"We are," she snapped, then cupped her hands around her mouth and said, "Would you two quit screwing around before the house burns down?"
"Before /what/?" yelped Charlotte. Her distraction caused her to let go of Nars's hair at a crucial moment in his struggle, and his elbow, in a horribly drawn-out motion, connected with the cellar's only torch and sent it flying into the stack of barrels.
It would be a hot day in Greenlad before Quinn thanked the gods for anything again.
The tavern owner nodded and made a note on his list. "So you're putting down two hundred gold on 'the frying pan is used as a weapon' at four-to-one odds, right? Let's have it."
As the young hopeful counted out her coins, someone tapped the tavern owner on the shoulder. He turned to find the innkeeper holding the still-burning torch in his mouth.
"I'm a dragon," he explained after transferring the blazing stick to his hand. "Grr. Rar. Burning."
His wife came up behind him and deftly took possession of his toy. "That's nice, dear. Why don't you go watch the fight for a while?" Once he'd run off to join the gawkers, she leaned over to inspect the table of probabilities and said, "You can remove 'military headquarters burns down.' I'm going to go put this thing out for now."
"Shh," hissed the tavern owner, presenting the sheet to the old man who was next in line. "If you don't go and announce it to everybody, someone's bound to bet on it."
The innkeeper's wife sniffed disapprovingly.
In the near distance, Dora and Stanley's cataloguing of each other's faults reached a shriller pitch. To the tavern owner's relief, the innkeeper's wife abandoned her impending lecture and tried to get a better view of the squabble.
"I swear Lilah's getting to be the size of a bruin," she muttered. "If she's going to let herself go like that, couldn't she at least stand out of everybody's way?"
In the midst of another transaction (five hundred gold, house burning down, sucker), a vague sense of unease began to intrude on the tavern owner's consciousness. He glanced upward to see the flames of the torch flickering just high enough to catch one of the ropes on the catapult. Despite not having worked on the actual construction of the thing, the tavern owner suspected that the now-burning rope was also the Rope of No Return.
He considered tackling the innkeeper's wife, then decided the damage was already done and he'd be better off claiming ignorance later. Whistling innocently, the tavern owner swept the gold into the pot and made another entry on his list.
Nars would have had the upper hand if he hadn't still been stunned by his head's collision with the locked trapdoor. It would have helped if the dripping Charlotte clones had finished disappearing, too. So considering how the odds had been stacked against him, he felt fully justified in using Charlotte's panic at the sight of the burning barrels to scramble up the ladder.
As soon as he'd made the climb to sweet, sweet freedom, Xing lifted him up by his shirt and boxed his ears.
"What the hell was that for?" Nars howled, struggling to get loose. Xing dropped him unapologetically to the floor.
"I can't believe you have to ask," Quinn said, brushing past him to lean over the cellar entrance. "Charlotte, hurry up and get-"
Charlotte and her blurred trail of selves shot up and out of both the cellar and Xing's range. "Take that!" she cried, pointing back in the direction she'd come.
There was a moment of total chaos in which everyone, including Charlotte and an unidentified man with a handful of silverware, dove out of the way of the slicing winds. A surprising number of items flew out of the man's pockets and crashed into the walls. As the roar of the spell died down, a monstrous tongue of flame licked up out of the cellar.
Nars would have sprung at Charlotte if Xing hadn't been in the way. "You know what?" he yelled at her from across the rapidly heating room. "The corkscrew thing wasn't the stupidest idea you've ever had, because that just topped everything that any idiot in all of human history has ever even thought about doing!"
Charlotte and her mutated echoes made a rude gesture with varying degrees of effectiveness. "Then you fix it, you idiot!"
"Neither of you is fixing anything," Xing said in his irritating "I Studied under a Bald Man with a Funny Name, So I'm Better Than You" voice. "We're getting out of here. Quinn?"
Nars and Charlotte attached themselves firmly to her arms, while Xing gave them an annoyed look and put a hand on her shoulder. The strange man reached for her hat, was slapped away, and grabbed ahold of her sleeve instead.
"Right," said Quinn. She flicked her staff, and Nars's stomach lurched as the world became a bright and turbulent place.
When his motion sickness abated, Nars found himself sprawled in the grass a good distance away from what he assumed was the backdoor of the house. Some sort of bizarre wall rose up before him, but there was a more pressing issue at hand.
Nudging Quinn, who was picking herself up to his left, Nars pointed at the stranger and whispered, "Who's that?"
"You owe him ten thousand gold pieces," she replied, "and don't ask about it now."
"Why the /hell/-"
"Not now." Turning to the rest of the group, Quinn said, "Give me a minute to rest and I'll Return us to somewhere less hostile. Outside takes a lot out of me."
Charlotte turned to the barricade and snorted. "We could just walk out of here if that thing weren't in the way." Then the terrible light of creativity filled her eyes, and she raised her arms for less than a second before Xing forced them back down.
"Learn from your mistakes," he said.
Nars was crafting a beautiful insult to add to that when he remembered something more important. "So while we're waiting," he hissed to Quinn, "you can tell me what the-"
There was a whooshing noise, followed by a tremendous crash as the house collapsed behind them.
After a pause, the loathsome creature who wanted Nars's money said, "I'm going to run away now. Pay me?"
Somewhere behind Stanley, there were a few screams, a lot of arguments over the phrasings of probabilities, and, for all he knew, an entire pantheon pointing and laughing at him. He wasn't going to turn around to check, though, because the settling ruins of what had formerly been his home and business had a special way of holding his attention.
"She built a catapult," he said, to see if the words made any more sense out loud. "She built a catapult and loaded it and put it next to our house, and this has to be a dream because people just don't do that." He paused. "Unless they're doing it to me."
There was no response, which was unsurprising given that none of the villagers had dared to approach him. Stanley supposed they were waiting for him to kill someone first. But if the townsfolk were expecting another outburst, it was only because they hadn't noticed that Stanley's metaphorical spine had gone the way of his home's much less metaphorical central support beams.
If Dora intended to say anything, she hadn't gotten up the nerve to yet. Or, if Stanley let himself be a little more cynical, she was racking her brain for a way to put a positive spin on the situation. "Fresh new start" would be sure to figure into it.
As he continued to stare at the ruins, Stanley glimpsed a group of human figures scurrying towards the town entrance. Their jerky movements suggested a botched effort at stealth and a poor understanding of teamwork, and their survival completely failed to lift Stanley's spirits.
A flicker of motion drew his eye back to the wreckage itself. From deep within the devestation came a faint crackling sound, followed by a burst of flame. In seconds it had blazed into a bonfire.
"Yes!" exulted a man in the crowd. "That's eight thousand gold pieces!"
As the tavern owner attempted to engage him in a debate over what "burning down" constituted, several of the more alert villagers seemed to realize that a fire that large would spread. An ineffectual bucket chain was organized from the town's lake.
"I knew it." Stanley sighed and turned away from the fire. "I've been saying all along, 'There's no way my house isn't going to end up in ashes after this.' There were witnesses, too. You can ask anyone at the Pachisi Track."
Sensing that no one would pay him any mind now that he wasn't threatening violence, Stanley picked up his iron pot and poked at the contents as if expecting them to devise a brillant plan that would keep him from having to move in with his son. A future with nothing to look forward to but daily updates on Portoga's exports was not a future he was ready to face.
A hesitant tap registered on his shoulder. Turning, he came face-to-face with Dora, who looked almost sheepish.
"That wasn't supposed to happen," she said, and it was the closest thing to an apology Stanley expected to get. "But the spirit of the people is organizing-"
Stanley's temper rallied, but it slumped along with his shoulders before anything came of it. Instead he cut Dora off by saying, "Dear, we don't have a home anymore. We are homeless. Unless the people are finding a new home for us, I don't care what they're doing. We should just leave."
Dora gave him a blank look. "'We'?"
"We've been in Kazave for a long time. Maybe we should try a lower-stress environment."
"'We'?" Dora repeated.
Since tact had ceased to be concern around the time that he first saw the catapult, Stanley decided to be blunt. "After twenty-eight years of being married to you, I don't function well on my own. So it's either you or our son, and I don't hate myself enough to live in Portoga."
Dora gave him an appraising look before saying, "Twenty-seven."
"No, twenty-eight. I was eighteen."
"Twenty-seven. Robert's twenty-five now."
"I'm his mother. He's twenty-five."
"I read his last letter. He's twenty-six." Stanley pointed at the fire, to which the bucket chain was currently losing. "Unfortunately, the proof is no longer with us."
For a moment he expected Dora to point out that lost evidence didn't count, but she only pursed her lips. "How time flies," she said at last. "Well, the message of liberation should be spread..."
Before she could decide to spread it to somewhere like Elvenham or Tedanki, Stanley blurted, "You know, I've heard Soo has fewer adventurers per capita than any other town in the world."
Dora tapped her fingers against her frying pan as Stanley wondered if the peace and quiet would be worth the near-total isolation and infamous dialect of Soo. "A land in which the mock-heroic regime has yet to take root might resist its tyranny entirely," she mused aloud, and Stanley realized that he was doomed to lifetime of linguistic contortions regardless of where he went. "But how would we arrive at this immaculate oasis?"
"Portoga sends a ship there every now and then," he replied. "We could wait in Romaly, but we should at least visit Robert long enough to hear him say that he is, in fact, twenty-"
A panicked cry from behind drew his attention. Stanley turned just in time to see the lake erupt like a geyser, its water flying high and far enough to create a translucent umbrella between him and the sky. "Ooh," said a admiring voice from somewhere in the crowd.
Then the moment passed, and a thick sheet of water landed on Stanley's head. That it also landed on the remains of his home and quenched the flames was a cold comfort.
Dora wrung out one sleeve of her bathrobe, watched water from the rest of the garment seep into it, and set her chin. "We'll dry out on the way," she said.
Shaking her head, Dora waved her frying pan at the drenched pile of splinters and ashes. "We have no spare clothing now that the mock-heroic menace has dealt a grievous blow to the dwelling-place of liberty."
Stanley knew he wouldn't win this one, but he felt compelled to try. "Dear, evil political forces did not destroy our house. Your catapult did."
"A catapult clearly corrupted by-"
"Never mind." Stanley's will to opine was fading fast. "We can buy new clothes in Romaly after we salvage the rest of my wares from Phil and this... thing you've built."
Dora gave him the sort of look generally reserved for people who use "cheap labor" to refer to their own children. "The People's Defensive Structure of Kazave," she said emphatically, "is a cooperative construction that keeps the oppression out."
"You just keep telling yourself that, dear."
"I can't believe you wasted your magic like that," Nars said for what was, by Quinn's count, the seventeenth time. Pointing out the ethical problems with letting the fire rage hadn't shut him up, and she doubted mentioning that the blaze had been his fault in the first place would help, either. Instead she made a mental note to ask Xing about meditation techniques. Deep breaths weren't doing the trick.
"And you haven't paid me yet," said Marty in a tone that suggested this was a helpful reminder and not something he'd been repeating every sixty seconds since the house collapsed. Fortunately, Nars was too busy whining about having to walk back to Romaly to start a fistfight.
Then again, "fortunately" was a strong word. "I can't /believe/-" Nars began before Quinn rounded on him.
"Have you ever seen a Return spell go wrong?" she asked. When he shook his head, she gave him a dark smile. "Pieces of you end up everywhere. Sometimes there's a shower of body parts where you wanted to go, and sometimes you send a chunk of yourself to every town you've ever visited. Either way, if I used Return now, you'd probably end up dismembered. In fact, I can promise you that you would."
Nars blinked, then said, "Cool! Try it on Charlotte!"
By the time they'd bickered their way to the Immigration Portal, Quinn was looking forward to the marauding monsters that they were sure to meet on the way back. Something needed to die. Painfully.
Xing raised a hand to halt the group. "I'll take care of the guard," he whispered, slipping around the corner. A long silence followed, broken at last by Xing's voice: "Never mind. Come on."
The heavily armored guard lay sprawled outside the entrance, wriggling in a futile attempt to get his face out of the grass.
Before anyone could comment, Marty began raiding the area where the desk should have been. Quinn had no intention of asking what the appeal of inkwells and quill pens was.
"That's my new spear!" Charlotte exclaimed, wresting the weapon from the prone figure's hand. "Wow, what were the odds of /that/?"
The guard began a muffled but unmistakably rude monologue.
Nars joined her. "Hey, and that other one's my spear! Pretty convenient, eh? I think that's my new shield strapped to his back, too."
As the looting continued in earnest, Quinn gave Xing a long-suffering look and said, "Mages get blacklisted for breaking contract, but maybe you can still get out of this."
"I'm afraid not," he replied. "Fighters get blacklisted, too, and they threaten us with spiritual torment in the hereafter."
"Ah. Mages save that for those of us who kill our teammates."
"Is that a common problem?"
"Short tempers and BeDragon are a volatile mix."
A rustling alerted her to Marty's effort to capture her money pouch from behind. With a sigh, she swung her staff over her shoulder and heard the satisfying thump of wood against a skull. "If you want to steal something," she said, turning to face him, "try the guard. He can't fight back."
"Already did," Marty replied, and the state of his pockets testified to this. "Got the boy's pouch, too, and if there's ten thousand gold in there, then I'm the queen of Isis."
Quinn stared at him. "Wait. You robbed someone who was conscious and capacitated?" As the rest of the sentence sank in, she added, "I'm going to hate you forever for that image."
"He robbed Nars," Xing reminded her. "And he's only a wig and some padding away."
"You're not helping."
Marty's fingers tapped impatiently against the barricade, occasionally coming away with loose bits of it. "Point is," he said, "I'm short four thousand gold, and I want to know what you intend to do about it."
Quinn shrugged. "Rob Charlotte."
"Already did. I was counting it as a bonus."
Taking a deep, calming breath, Quinn resisted the urge to set his hair on fire. "In that case," she said, employing the tone she normally reserved for slow children and royalty, "you've already got your money, haven't you?"
Marty scowled. "Don't see why that should count."
Before Quinn could argue, Xing flexed and said, "Not to change the subject, but when I was still in training, I accidentally shattered another student's kneecap. Did you know kneecaps can shatter?"
Marty's gaze shot from Xing to Quinn to his own legs. "You wouldn't," he said, but after a beat he added, "Thing is, I've decided to give you a discount in hopes of encouraging, er, puppies. And only a sick bastard doesn't like puppies."
"Not one of your better ones," said Quinn.
"Point for effort, at least?"
Before the conversion could degrade further, Nars and Charlotte, now fully if eclectically armed, made their way over. "Done now," Nars announced. "Let's go."
Quinn nodded. "This is the first and will probably remain the only time you've taken the words out of my mouth." Turning to Marty, she was about to imply that his life would be better if he didn't follow them south when he beat her to it.
"Well, I'm off to Noaniels, then," he said with a dramatic flourish that rewarded him with some of Charlotte's plunder. "Good area for thieves, I hear. Lots of unconscious people not guarding their valuables."
Nars's eyes lit up, so Quinn snapped, "Romaly. Inn. Now."
"Wait a minute." Nars narrowed his eyes. "Wasn't he trying to get money out of me a minute ago?"
"He's been paid," Quinn said.
Glowering at her, Marty went for a last hurrah. "I still think-"
"/He's been paid/."
Xing cracked his knuckles.
"Actually, never mind."
There was an awkward moment.
"If you're waiting for us to invite you into the party," said Quinn, "don't."
Marty shook his head gallantly as his right hand made an unsuccessful grab for Charlotte's spear. "No, no, I couldn't possibility," he said, bowing as he ducked her retaliatory effort to skewer him. "I've got to live on the open road, you know. Wild hearts and all that."
"Where the hell's my shield?" asked Nars.
Quinn neglected to mention the obvious, and after a final spastic salute, Marty sauntered off with an unusual contour to the front of his shirt.
Xing nodded after him as his silhouette diminished in the distance. "And that's that," he said. "Thank the gods."
There was a long silence, until Charlotte asked, "Does anyone remember where we were going in the first place?"
Once the crashing, roaring, and curiously wet-sounding explosion had convinced the priest that the judgment of the gods was finally upon Kazave, he rose shakily to his feet, took a step towards the door, and collapsed into intoxicated unconsciousness.
When he woke the sounds had stopped, but the priest still staggered out of the storeroom and tavern with as much dignity as his current state would allow him. What he found outside perplexed him. Instead of the glorious miniature armageddon he'd been expecting, all he saw were the distant remains of the weapon store, the accursed catapult, and a lot of soaked villagers.
Dora was nowhere in sight. Perhaps it had been a very specific apocalypse.
Brushing the cobwebs from his robe, the priest made his way to the southwestern end of the village and leaned against the inn to catch his breath. Now that this whole "republic" mess had blown over, all he had to do was deliver a little divine message and watch the people scurry back to their proper village lives.
"We should probably take the wall down."
The priest started, then let his gaze wander until it landed on the tavern owner, who was dripping nearby and still speaking: "I mean, it doesn't feel right without her yelling things over it, and I want those stools back."
"What if someone attacks again?" asked an old woman. "I can't cane 'em all myself."
The tavern owner wandered over to the catapult with the air of someone who had decided to be an expert. After poking it in a few places, he turned and announced, "It'll be fine with a new rope. So we'll just launch a wheelbarrow at anyone who attacks."
Before the priest could express the gods' condemnation of that idea, the people had broken into a cheer. Clearly the contraption had seduced their simple provincial souls.
Clearing his throat, the priest lurched as regally as possible into the people's midst and raised his arms. "Disciples of Divinity, how you have fallen! The judgment of heaven has been upon us this day, but in their mercy the gods have spared your lives, that you might yet repent of your folly!"
The innkeeper raised his hand. "Not bad, but it's not quite the same. Try pointing at things and saying 'the people' more."
Ignoring him, the priest continued, "Would you squander your last chance at redemption? Return now to the path of the gods, or suffer the same fate as the temptress who built this mechanical abomination!"
The item store owner gave him a critical look. "What, you mean we'll all decide to pack up and move to Soo?"
"Er?" His thunder stolen, the priest stared at the crowd in bleary-eyed confusion. "She's not dead?"
"Well, she is from a social standpoint," said the innkeeper's wife. "I've heard there's nothing to do there except weaving and maybe a little beadwork."
"And cow-tipping," added the innkeeper. "Always the cow-tipping."
"Repent or face a life of cow-tipping" wasn't something the priest could say in his ominous voice. But before he had worked out a better alternative than "bovine molestation," the crowd's attention had drifted back to the catapult, which the tavern owner was struggling to fit with a new rope. The priest let his shoulders droop.
"Relax," said the young woman standing nearest to him. "We're taking the wall down, so you can start overcharging adventurers again in no time."
The priest drew himself up in righteous indignation. "I do not overcharge for my services."
"Then why does it cost more to heal adventurers with better armor?"
"The gods favor progressive taxation."
A cheer from the direction of the catapult indicated that the rope had been restored and the ghastly machine was ready to scare away potential customers again. The priest sighed and began to shuffle back to his temple, which he figured might at least be quieter than the streets.
"Where are we going to keep it now?" wondered a voice from the throng.
"I dunno," replied another. "The temple yard was working."
Gritting his teeth, the priest ripped the dish towel from the temple entrance and stomped inside. He was about to slam the doors behind him for effect when an eager voice in the crowd said, "Ooh! Can I be the new priest?"
Whirling in holy fury, the priest saw the man who had earlier tried to seize control of the local theocracy hopping frantically up and down, waving his arms in the air. "No," he snarled, letting the temple doors punctuate the answer for him.
These things were suppposed to blow over in a few days. They were not supposed to leave catapults behind when they did.
Visions of fantastically wealthy, bleeding adventurers refusing to set foot in Kazave flashed through his mind, and the priest found himself wondering if it would be possible to request a transfer to Lancel. He'd heard that Lancel attracted a lot of people with too much gold and not enough self-preservation.
A crash came from outside, followed by cheering. The priest gritted his teeth. If the catapult was going to become the village's idea of a way to pass an idle afternoon, he was going to start drafting that transfer request. The priest sat down at his desk with a quill pen and a piece of parchment and set to work.
He was two lines in when he heard another crash, followed by a cry of "Watch it! That was close!"
The priest looked up thoughtfully, set down his pen, and tore the letter in half. After all, it was his sacred duty to provide his people with healing. Expensive healing.
Humming to himself, the priest opened wide the temple doors and made his way back behind the altar, awaiting the first round of disasters.
There was a lot to be said for compromise.