“I could use a woman like you back in Eisen!” Reinhardt exclaimed moments after the back of his hand hit wood. He had been bested by the Vesten ogress fair and square, and her pretty smile was earned.
“No thanks. I prefer to be free.”
“Free. I understand. That’s why we left, isn’t it, Greis?”
The Prince fell into a funk, forced into a glimpse of the truth of his situation. No showy dramatics here, just a moment of introspection as he realized the weight of responsibility he was avoiding. Was it really for the best he left? Was what he was doing truly heroic?
The old man gave a sympathetic nod, but said nothing. He felt for his liege, but it was unbecoming of an Eisen Lord to mope so, so he compromised by ignoring the young knight and ogling the zaftig bartender.
The others fared better. Bart’s music was so furiously talented it seemed his mandolin would burst into flames, like the dark-skinned lutist of legend. Remy’s thoughts and notes were coalescing into something resembling understanding of the vast problem before them. Essie was entertained, and Vera blissfully unbothered by fools. Only Inigo was also stung by introspection rather than merriment, but he handled it with the cool head of one who has been stung before. One who was planning to next time do the stinging.
Tur’lokk burst through the door with all the gravity and subtlety of a warhammer. Werner was like a shadow behind him, insofar as a shadow can weigh more than a small horse. They announced their success.
“We’ll meet the Don at midnight!”
“So, he is an actual Don?” The Prince asked. Tur’lokk nodded. Inigo remained inscrutable.
“Midnight. At Opium Sal’s.” Werner didn’t elaborate. No one bothered to ask him to.
With hours til midnight the fate-fixed heroes debated how to most efficiently fill the time.
Bart summoned all his bardic eloquence to craft his argument.
He and the Prince were just about to connect with a high-five when Remy popped up behind the extended hands.
“Perhaps we should follow one of the many threads of this skein we find ourselves tangled in, no?”
“An apt description,” Vera agreed. “Might I recommend we call at the University? A meeting with Professor Cribbage could shed light on key clues.”
“Oui! I shall look into my available contacts to see if I can arrange a meeting.”
“No need. I am studying there.”
Reinhardt’s study of culture caused him to question this.
“Vera, how did you get accepted at the university? Don’t Vodacce forbid their sorceresses to study?”
His response was a blank stare.
“Ah, is this a conversation we should instead have later or never?”
“Yes, this is a conversation we should instead have later or never.”
Bart chimed in with a musical musing. “Awwwkwaaaard!”
“No it wasn’t!” The Prince insisted. “I handled that smoothly!”
Unwilling to argue with the exuberant Eisen’s rewriting of reality, Bart whistled a traveling tune as they wound their way through Avalon to the edifice of education. Only Werner remained, getting drunk off the Prince’s charity.
Vera and Remy navigated the halls successfully, and found the right administrators to question. Soon they were in Cribbage’s office. It was well-appointed, but provided no useful clues. While the more distracted members of the party became bored, the more perceptive discovered a secret – a secret wall, to be precise. A dark, descending stair awaited them.
The room at the bottom was vast, and the decor staggering. Dozens of glass cases of all sizes dotted the basement laboratory. Some were the size of teacake platters, others could store an entire set of armor for knight and steed. In each – an animal. But this fauna had joints of steel, organs of crystal, and minds of turning gears. It was a clockwork menagerie!
Remy uttered many a Montaigne-tinted sound of excitement as he and the others perused the odd collection. Meanwhile, Tur’lokk keenly noted a dark alcove yet to be explored. He and the Prince stepped through it, weapons drawn. Beyond was a young lad, a street urchin enjoying a sandwich nigh as big as he was.
A few excited queries from the would-be king followed by sarcastic commentary from the bandit king produced nothing. To speak with a child, of course, one had to think like a child. This line of reasoning never made it through Essie’s skull as she sprang forward to engage the lad on his level. The excitable lass soon had earned the boy’s trust, as well as his name – Peter Humberstone, better known as Pip.
Pip was just as interested in the professor’s location as the adventurers were. Apparently, Pip was clever enough to have found work as an assistant for the professor, who repaid him in food, shelter, education, and occasional coin. Pip in turn proved extremely knowledgeable about the secrets they sought. A rapid-fire questioning provided much.
Essie: “So the professor likes animals?”
Pip: “Well, the clockwork variety, anyhoo.”
Remy: “Cribbage builds these animals himself?”
Pip: “The interiors, yup.”
Remy: “Who builds the exteriors, then?”
Pip: “Yup, gov, he and the professor meet. Leastways they did before the professor disappeared.”
Reinhardt: “Do they have the capability to make many? Hundreds?”
Pip: “Yer daft, gov. No. But I know where they could.” After no less than three more bites of the massive sandwich, Pip led them to a map of an island in the Crescent Empire, Jabbar Al-Tariq. Here, an island with the needed resources. Here, the flow of secrets of the mechanical minions. Here, the source of the Adversary’s army.
They all looked to Pip for more information. Pip merely stared and ate his sandwich.
Bart: “Now that was awkward.”
Reinhardt: “I agree.”