Fight, Swear, Loathe; Chapter 23

After carefully locking up his cottage, Rackerby von Slothjem led the group to where the banquet was being held. It was in a very distinguished looking palace, near the center of this neighborhood. It was shaped, appropriately enough, like a wide mushroom. It was at least ten stories tall, and the jor told his newest guests that it was the public hall for the House of Vaanmer Kaht. All public festivities were held here, and when there wasn’t a festival, it was where the daily marketplace was located.

The main floor was mostly a vast, open room, with intricate columns supporting the ceiling, three stories up. Balconies on the columns themselves, and mezzanines along the walls, provided ample places for people to enjoy watching the revelry. Right now, rows of tables had been laid out and decorated for the mushroom fish extravaganza. There were great, mobile cookers set up around the hall, and the aroma of culinary glory wafted everywhere. There were, of course, drow elves everywhere, dressed in splendor, and gathering in small groups to gossip and conspire. Von Slothjem guided his guests to one such clique, the center of which was clearly a tall, regal dark elven woman with an exquisite mane of silvery white hair.

Bowing low before her, the jor introduced his friends to LeCreana Deathtree, starting with Hilde and Belynda. Belynda curtsied, and Hilde awkwardly followed suit. The drow elf smiled; a sinister, unsettling smile, and with a wave of her hand said, “Join us, darling surface dwellers! Come, sit with us and let us share our bounty with you.”

They dutifully followed her lead, and sat with her at her table. No time was wasted in the devouring of the food, and as good as it was, Hilde soon learned why the meal proceeded at such a frenzied pace. LeCreana had more important things on her mind, and no sooner had the dishes been cleared away, than she began asking Hilde about her journey to the underdark.

“Tell me, Shar Eigenblade, how it is that you happened upon our fair land?” The drow elven woman oozed conspiracy from every pore, so thick that the stench of it agitated Hilde’s moral compass.

Hilde sipped her brandy, and replied, “Quite by accident, your grace. I was hired to investigate a dwarven mine, and make sure that threats to the commercial interests of my employer were eliminated.” She sipped some more before continuing. “The dwarves had built a bulwark against a beholder that lurked in the caverns above this city, and once we eliminated that monster, we determined to see what else we could find. And here you are.”

The drow at the table were visibly excited by this brief recollection of events, and LeCreana had trouble quieting them enough to ask her questions. “What dangers did you have to navigate in order to make this journey? We have heard that there was a, what did you call it, a gazer in those caverns. That is why we cast our driders out that direction. We do not send our hunters that direction anymore, unless they are going after a drider.”

Hilde didn’t know a lot about dark elven society, but she knew enough to not ask about the welfare of the driders that had to contend with the beholder further up the caves. Driders were cursed, shunned, and exiled. Their kinfolk did not care one bit what happened to them, in fact they may actually want them to suffer a horrifying fate.

“We did encounter a dead drider in a hovel along the lakeside. He didn’t pose much of a threat.” Hilde said, as matter-of-factly as she could.

LeCreana grinned evilly. “That would be Quensedrian, a former priest in our community. He sought too much power, and suffered the wrath of powers beyond his mortal grasp.” Her words were more of a hiss than anything, her heavy accent making the Slothjemian words seem profane. Language was a tricky thing, and a shiver ran through Belynda as she listened to the dark elf speak. Cinder could sense Belynda’s discomfort, but continued to sit in her lap, and nibble on the scraps that the xvart gave her.

The group ate the delicious foods that were brought to their table, and considering there were only two main foods to be had, they were mixed in some very creative ways. Fish stuffed with mushrooms, mushrooms stuffed with fish, soups that combined both fish and mushrooms to varying degrees, and fish and mushrooms just prepared by themselves with spices and lesser ingredients. There was some minor small talk on a number of superficial topics, and then LeCreana lowered her voice, and got to the matter foremost on her mind.

“Are you empowered by your employer to negotiate a trade deal? If the surface world is as close to us as you say, we could all become quite wealthy with such an agreement.” LeCreana’s voice was practically a whisper.

Hilde laughed, and set down her brandy glass. “You don’t waste any time, do you, majesty? I will gladly take your offer to my employer, and I am certain they would be agreeable to a profitable arrangement. But undoubtedly they will want to make sure all legalities are taken care of before proceeding in earnest.”

LeCreana laughed, and declared, “I’ll have my Slothjemian attorney draw up an agreement, and you can deliver it to your boss.” She grinned with wicked glee and added, “Take your time, but make sure that my family is the only one you are negotiating with. I shall not be crossed, Shar Eigenblade.”

Hilde finished off her brandy. “Don’t worry, majesty. Your passion for power and profit is matched only by my utter apathy for the politics of your people, or any interest in rocking your canoe.”

The drow elven matriarch’s eyebrows shot up as if by rockets, and she laughed. “She is blunt, isn’t she?” she asked of nobody in particular. “You might not care for our politics and conspiracies, but I can assure you that there are many in this city that do. And they will want to interfere with any such arrangement such as I propose.”

Hilde poured herself some more brandy, and muttered loudly enough for LeCreana to hear her, “They are welcome to try. So far in this adventure, my squire has done all of the killing. I’ll prove my worth, if need be.”

Looking at von Slothjem, the drow elven matriarch said dryly, “Your friend talks like a hardened warrior.”

The swamp orc just smiled, and replied, “I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledge her ability, as well as her capacity, towards violence.” He then looked at Hilde, and asked, “Would you be open to serving as a conduit for such a negotiation? All you need really do is take Madame Deathtree’s offer to your employer. Depending on how you structured your fee for this excursion at its beginning, you might end up with quite a tidy income for some good many years.”

Hilde sat down her brandy, and smiled at von Slothjem. “Of course, I will do it. I owe my patron the benefit of every ounce of gold they are due. My own is of no account. In fact, I have treasure to uncover on the way back that is due to me.” She laughed, the hearty laugh that she was so well known for in the world above. “You needn’t worry about me, Shr Rackerby. I manage to get along just fine.”

Rackerby smiled, and chuckled. “I am beginning to see that.” He muttered.

After the meal ended, there was some entertainment provided by a troupe of dark elven acrobats. They used a fair amount of magic in their act, something that drow excel at. They were daring enough that even with the sorcery they came across as fearless and talented, and they received a warm response from the spectators. It was tough to impress a dark elf with magically enhanced acrobatics, so this was a considerable achievement. Hilde was in awe, and Belynda clapped her hands throughout. Cinder contented herself with stealing food off of the table while everyone was watching the acrobats. Rats are not often spellbound by gymnastics.

There was some polite conversation following the festivities, and then von Slothjem escorted his guests back to his bungalow. LeCreana bid them farewell at one of the intersections, and she and her party went merrily off to continue their celebrations. Once the drow had departed, excepting of course for Dellila, Belynda asked Polk, “So, why doesn’t Shr von Slothjem have a squire?”

The orog chuckled, a deep, pounding signal of amusement. Standing almost seven and a half feet tall, Polk was muscled like an ogre but clean-cut and well groomed, looking more like a noble human than a goblinoid. “Rackerby doesn’t adventure, little one. Not in the truest sense of the word, anyway. His knighthood is that of the Midnight Skull. He was awarded it partly for his occupation, and partly for being a member of the royal family.”

Not one to let things lay, Belynda asked, “What is his occupation?”

Polk looked down at the tiny xvart next to him. “He is an attorney. One of the best, I’d say, and that’s no bias on my part, either.” The orog smiled, and turned his attention back to the route they were travelling. “Doesn’t matter if it is a criminal matter, or a civil one, Rackerby knows his way through the law. It’s an honor to work with him, I’ll assure you of that.”

Belynda gazed up at the orog as she jogged easily at his side. “And what exactly do you do, Polk?”

Polk chuckled. “I get my hands dirty.” He had no intention of following up on that statement, and Belynda furrowed her brow. She wasn’t going to get more than that right now, but she let it settle in. That was probably good enough. Polk did not seem to be the sort of person that a xvart should pester for details beyond a certain point, and this was it.

Ahead of them, Hilde was walking next to Rackerby. She didn’t exactly whisper when she spoke, but she did her best to keep her voice level lowered. “How long will it take for Madame Deathtree to contact her lawyer?” Hilde didn’t want to sound overtly conspiratorial, but she knew that she was dealing with drow elves, and this is the kind of paranoia that fed their civilization. They played a lot of political games against each other, and oftentimes these would result in bloodshed. Hilde wasn’t worried about her own skin, but she wasn’t going to act recklessly, either.

Rackerby smiled at her, and replied, “She already has, Shar Eigenblade. I’ll have a proposal written up for you to take to your employer in a couple of hours. It will suffice to relay enough of the details to allow your patron to make an informed decision about the amount of money and trade is at stake. If they agree, we’ll begin more in-depth negotiations at a later date.”

Hilde couldn’t hide her surprise. “You’re an attorney?” she gasped. “And you are her attorney?” It had never occurred to her that this fellow had a job.

Rackerby chuckled softly. “Yes, I have done some work for her from time to time. As luck would have it, I happened to be in the right place at the right time for your visit.”

Hilde didn’t say anything else for the rest of their walk back to the jor’s cottage in the tower. Things had certainly moved smoothly on this trip. It was mildly disconcerting. Hilde was not well-accustomed to things going effortlessly. She had the sneaking suspicion that the fun had yet to begin.

Once they reached their destination, the group settled in to the central sitting room. Rackerby quickly sat at a small desk, and began writing. Dellila brought him a book and a ledger, and as he asked for information, she looked it up so he wouldn’t have to cease writing. Polk, meanwhile, fetched a decanter of brandy and brought some glasses to Hilde and Belynda. He poured them both a drink, and smiled as he sat down in the cartoonishly high-backed leather chair. Hilde and Belynda settled comfortably into the couch, and Cinder curled up in Belynda’s lap to sleep.

Polk grinned, and said, “With your approval, I will be accompanying you for at least the first portion of your journey back to the surface. It is imperative that the proposed trade route be checked out, and if I can scout some of it that will make the later surveys easier.” He poured himself a brandy, and sat back in the chair.

Hilde sat, holding her drink, and said, “Fine by me. I would hazard to say I can suggest where you might draw the line to differentiate where the border is between my patron’s domain and the drow. The dwarves seem to have done a fine job of that already, but you can see for yourself.”

The orog nodded his head. “When would you like to leave? I am not trying to push your agenda along, but I would like to know what the schedule looks like.” The orog’s voice was deep and rumbly, and it reminded Hilde somewhat of how her father sounded like before his voice became so gravelly.

Hilde smiled sadly, and said, “We should head off soon, I think. We have already been gone quite a bit longer than we intended, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think we were lost down here.” Hilde tried to refocus her mind to the orog in front of her, and disperse the imagery of her father.

Belynda chimed in with, “Plus, we have only explored one third of the goldmine we were sent to explore. If the rest of the mine is this interesting, we have a lot more work to do.”

Hilde wanted to chide her squire, but then thought better of it. There was no reason to suspect that Polk cared one wit about their quest, outside of how it affected the potential deal with the dark elven merchants. Her annoyance turned to amusement, and she began to giggle. She managed to say, “Lord, I hope the rest of that accursed facility isn’t as interesting as this.”

Belynda started to giggle too, and Polk couldn’t help but laugh, as well. The orog liked this spunky orcish sword maiden and her quirky, outspoken xvartling. He had been curious about this Shar Hilde Eigenblade when first he heard of her, and now, he was moving beyond curiosity in to outright intrigue. He liked the sound of her laughter.

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