Though it was morning, it was still dark outside. Dawn wouldn't come for at least another hour, and when it did, he wouldn't know save for the odd sensation that always struck him at that time ....... a reminder that normal people would be waking and heading to field or town, depending on their livelihood, while he and his would wait again for the fall of night to begin their more furtive pursuits.
It was one of these pursuits that occupied his thoughts now and propelled him through the hallways of the guild with a purposeful step. Few saw him as he passed, for the guild had been quiet in the wake of the Ravenclaws outburst, putting more subtle plans into effect and allowing the Claws to savor the legal attention they appeared to desire.
Turning left down a final corridor and stopping halfway down, Striker Kel knocked once on the door and entered without waiting for a response. The room was dark, but he expected as much. The burglary team had been in a state of "limbo," since the Claws outbreak, working on only small jobs while waiting for the watch patrols to shrink back to normal size. It was therefore no surprise that its members were keeping more normal hours, taking the opportunity to sleep at night and venture into the city by day. Their leader had resisted the temptation the longest, still clinging to her normal hours, but eventually the lure of sunlight grew too great even for her.
She was therefore still asleep when Striker knocked on the door and entered the room. She awoke quickly, however, and raised the flame of the lantern beside her bed, glaring at Striker with greater alertness than might be expected as he spun the chair at her desk around and sat across it, propping his arms on the backrest. That she was annoyed, he had no doubt, and he took a perverse pleasure in the look she wore. She was about to say something and he was tempted to let her, but he was fairly certain her tongue would be as sharp as ever and he cut her off, raising a gloved hand in gesture of silence.
He was frankly surprised that it worked and made a mental note to the effect before he realized that the look she gave him spoke louder and clearer than any words. A small grin crept across his features and prompted only a darker look in return. The deadlock lasted only a few seconds, and when she opened her mouth to speak, Striker finally began, "Your plan is approved."
She steamed in silence for a few minutes more, then finally quipped back, "Well, as pleased as I am to hear that you finally managed to make a decision, was it really necessary to tell me now? No, wait, let me guess. The decision finally came to you in the middle of the night and you were so excited that you had to race in here and tell me. Is that it? Well, congratulations. Shall I applaud now or will there be a public ceremony later?"
She knew she should hold her tongue, for she had seen firsthand what happened to people who found themselves on Striker's bad side. She seriously doubted, however, that any of those people had been awakened from a sound sleep to find the dark form of the guildmaster grinning in annoying amusement from the chair by the foot of their bed. And if they, had . . . well, if they had then there were things about Striker that she didn't want to know.
She was curious, however, as to why it had taken so long for the plan to be approved, and it fueled her suspicions that Striker was not completely in charge of the guild. But, not surprisingly, few people were willing to speak of such things and those who might be weren't willing to speak with her as her position in the guild was still the source of much rumor and speculation. She was also curious as to why Striker had woken her at . . . what time was it anyway? She glanced quickly at the clock by the bedtable and tried to stifle a groan. It wasn't near the time she had planned to rise, but it was too late to make going back to sleep worthwhile.
Scowling once more in Striker's general direction, she climbed angrily out of bed and headed for the armoire across the room, pulling out various articles of clothing with little thought or consideration before returning across the room and dropping them in a pile on the bed.
She was further annoyed but not surprised to see that Striker hadn't left the room, but was still sitting by the foot of the bed, waiting. He might have had something else to say, but she sincerely doubted it, and at any rate whatever it was, it could wait until she was dressed. She thought he would take a hint when she climbed out of the bed, or at least when started to pull clothing from the armoire, but it appeared that subtlety was lost on this one and she was forced to resort to a more direct approach. Placing a hand on one hip in tired exasperation, she looked from him, to the door, and back again. "Do you mind?"
Striker could take a hint, but chose not to, remaining in the chair with the same grin he had worn before. "No, not at all. Go right ahead."
He expected her to fire off a clever retort, or shoot another fiery glare. He didn't expect her to start undressing, which is what she did. Coughing uncomfortably, he quickly excused himself and stepped outside into the hall. Given the hour, the hall was empty and he leaned casually against the cool stone wall as he waited for Quaralyn to finish dressing. The door opened a few minutes later and when she didn't step out, he stepped back in and found her dressed and sitting at her desk tying her hair back with leather band. When she finished, she turned to face him again and waited expectantly for an explanation.
He didn't answer right away. He never did. Instead he appeared to be carefully studying her features, raising a hand to his chin in contemplation as he examined her from first one angle, then another as if preparing to set brush to canvas. His inspection completed, he asked finally, "Have you ever given any thought to dark hair?"
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, expelling it slowly. If it wasn't the last straw, Striker could tell it was approaching it.
"Let me get this straight," she began, looking at him squarely. "You come into my room unannounced, wake me from the first decent night's sleep I've had in weeks, announce that you've finally reached a decision on a plan I presented over a month ago, and now you're suggesting that I change my hair color? What's the matter? Are you having a slow morning?"
He didn't react save to tighten the gloved hand by his chin and stare at her with chilling intensity. It was enough, however, and it told Quaralyn, more clearly than anything else, that she had come dangerously close to stepping too far. He held the stare for a moment longer, and when it became clear to him that Quaralyn understood, he continued. "Have you ever given any thought to dark hair?"
"No, why?" she asked in a more restrained, if not even, tone.
"Because I'm told that Lord Ogrek has an eye for dark hair."
"And why should I care what. . ." she started, irritation creeping back into her voice before she caught herself and continued more smoothly. "Why should I care about his preferences?"
"Because you're having dinner with him tonight."
((Note: This post takes place one day prior to the previous posts in this thread))
Ogrek sat in the early morning light that shone through the expansive window of the forecastle, finishing the last morsels of breakfast and knowing that it was the last moment of peace he would have for the day. With a silent sigh and a shake of his head he thus pushed his breakfast tray aside and turned his attention to the self-perpetuating stacks of papers that were slowly consuming his desks--land requests, knighthood petitions, noble invitations, economic figures, watch alerts, and military reports.
He was already deep in concentration when Withers entered unnoticed and departed the same way, having removed the dishes leaving in their place new inkwells and quill pens. It was past midday before Withers returned, bearing a tray of sweetmeats, crackers, cheese and another bundle of documents that had been delivered a short while ago. His Lord sitting with his back to the door, facing the window. The ocean view was missed, however, as his attention was still focused on a lengthy report which caused him to furrow his brow in increased frustration. Careful not to disrupt whatever organization might exist on the paper-strewn desk, Withers cleared a small space for the tray, removing three empty ink wells, countless discarded quills, and the missives ready for the messenger.
Ogrek still hadn't noticed him, prompting Withers to quietly clear his throat and announce, "Lunch Sir, and perhaps something that requires your more immediate attention."
"What? Hmm?" Ogrek asked surprised and distracted as he spun his chair around to face both his butler and friend and was met with yet another bundle of documents to deal with. Sighing, he reached for the bundle with and examined them with weary eyes. The seals were broken, of course, as Withers dealt with all incoming correspondence, prioritizing them and seeing they were ready for him along with his morning repast. It was unusual, however, for Withers to interrupt him with any particular matter save those involving an emergency, and those were generally rushed to his attention without cryptic statements. Tired, but both intrigued and concerned, Ogrek raised his eyes in a questioning look as he reached for the lunch tray, suddenly aware of the time.
Reading the look with ease, Withers began to summarize the content of the more pressing message. "It appears, Sir, that the city's political changes and your increased rank, and importance have not gone unnoticed. We have received an increased number of requests for your attention, particularly from houses seeking a more binding alliance, if you take my meaning."
Ogrek groaned, and rolled his eyes. He more than took Withers meaning. He had received such "requests" from several of the houses before, houses that all bore one thing in common--they all had young, unwed daughters who they sought to use for political gain. "They'll have to wait," he said simply but with no small degree of irritation. "They'll all have to wait. I can't travel to see anyone now. Hell, I can barely see my desk through all these blasted petitions, queries, requests, and complaints." This was the very reason he had left Thrukal and the main court for Stormpoint. Contrary to speculation, he had not taken to stationing guards at his bed chamber out of any danger to his life. One would be surprised how effective a bobby pin actually was at lock-picking.
"I'm afraid it might not be that easy, Milord." Withers interjected. "It seems that in this case the proverbial mountain has come to you. If you read closer you'll find that the young lady will arrive within Stormpoint sometime tomorrow."
Ogrek gave the papers in his hand a much closer look. "Nevaryl? I don't recognize that name."
"According to the papers, Nevaryl is one of the new houses. It was granted land on the northern border with Dominia," Withers responded with fluid efficiency.
Ogrek frowned as he stared at the documents as if they might somehow change under further scrutiny, but alas, no. With Nevaryl being one of the newer houses he had appointed, it was likely to be an eager supporter. ~~Not wise to turn aside this....~~ he glanced again for the Lady's name ~~....Dulcinea and risk alienating her family after she has made such a long journey.~~ With a heavy sign and a look of regret Ogrek responded, "See that the best rooms at the Eventide are secured for her use. Also see to it that a dozen red roses and an invitation to dinner the day after she arrives are awaiting her at the city's gate. And, please see that I am not disturbed for the rest of the day, and bring extra candles. It is going to be a late night if I'm going to be ready to take time to entertain this . . . Lady Dulcinea."
"As you wish, Milord." Withers answered, giving Ogrek a polite half-bow and hurrying to carry out his commands.
Quaralyn was quiet for a moment following Striker’s statement. It might have appeared that she was thinking of what to say, but in actuality she was trying to decide if she had heard him correctly. When she decided that she had, she arched a brow and met his eyes in a straightforward gaze. "I'm not going." Her expression was matter of fact, her tone was clipped, and her eyes carried no trace of amusement. The combined effect was one that conveyed the impression that debate would not be forthcoming. It was also completely ignored.
"I'm not going," she repeated in a somewhat firmer and entirely more irritated tone when he didn't respond, but instead simply stared at her display, his grey eyes stern and unblinking.
He had a feeling she was going to react like this. He had lots of feelings where she was concerned. Few of them were good. From the beginning he had known that she was a soloist. Oh, clearly she had belonged to a guild at some point in her past. The guild's activities and practices were second nature to her despite her well-veiled dislike for many of them. But regardless of her attempts to conceal it, Striker could tell that she preferred to work alone and that, more than anything, she hated to be told what to do.
"As I recall," he began, walking across the room and pulling another chair from its place against the wall, "you wanted to be part of this guild. Well, now you are. I don't know what your past is, and frankly, I don't care." The lie hung heavily in the air between them as he stared with feigned indifference before continuing, "But you're here now, and if you want to stay, you'll do as you're told."
She bristled visibly beneath his words, ignoring the possibly larger connotations of the word "stay" and speaking her mind without pausing to consider the wisdom of that action. "Even if I'm told to go on some fool's errand where the risk of capture outweighs any possible benefit?"
His chin tightened with the outburst and he took a deep breath, leaning forward in his chair as he closed his eyes and slowly expelled it. If he thought it would help, he was mistaken. When he opened his eyes she was still there, one brow raised in a pointed gesture. It was annoying look....one which increasingly grated on his nerves. But so far she'd had the wit not to use it in front of others and it was this, more than anything else, which prompted his tolerance. But tolerance goes only so far, and this particular bout was starting to grow as old as that look. Ready to thus put an end to the match, Striker advanced his position with clear and careful precision. "Lord Ogrek isn't just another noble. He's one of the regents. If you think it's going to be easy to carry out that plan of yours, you're mistaken. You may be used to going in blind, but as long as you're in this guild, you're not going to be that reckless. You need to case the ship. I've arranged for you to do it. So, unless you can think of a better way, you're having dinner with Ogrek."
She held her tongue as she considered the possibility that he might have a point. She wasn't acting alone anymore, a fact of which she was poignantly reminded whenever she caught a glimpse of Kit moving through the dark corridors of the guild, quiet as a mouse and pale as a ghost. It had been weeks since the young girl had raced to Quaralyn's arms and clung tightly to her as she carried her away from the alley, away from Samantha and Triana, and away from the terror that still flickered in her wide hazel eyes. If something went wrong with the team's plan, Quaralyn wasn't the only one who would be caught. As much as she didn't like it, it was something she had to consider.
Still, the idea of being told what to do sat poorly with her, and she wasn't ready to give up quite yet. There had to be other ways to get the lay of the land, and one jumped quickly to the forefront of her mind, allowing her to meet Striker's advance with a swift parry of her own. "I hear you've been aboard the ship." The words were given voice before she realized what they implied, and she nearly swore out loud at her stupidity as she heard them leave her mouth and tear quickly through the room. Following up on a superior's activities wasn't something you advertised as it generally indicated plans of self-promoting activity.
"Yes, but I wasn't exactly given a complete tour," he growled without further comment. If he had noticed the implication, he either didn't react or didn't care.
Concealing her relief and putting a more careful check on her tongue, Quaralyn barely tilted her head to one side and struggled not to raise either her voice or her brow. Though she succeeded inthe former, she failed in the latter. "And what makes you think I will be?"
"I think you're a bit more to his tastes than I am. And besides," he added, a rakish grin rising on only one corner of his mouth "you're inventive. I'm sure you'll think of something."
"Yes," she snapped back, her face and voice both twisted in sarcasm, "I'm sure I will." Though her tone implied a well-worn confidence, she was certain of only one thing—whatever she came up with, she wasn't going to have dark hair.
Quaralyn was alone again. Finally. She had spent the better part of the day being drilled on the history and politics of a small, fictitious house supposedly lying somewhere on Ogrekvania's western border. It was a good cover, she had to admit, and the roses and dinner invitation which sat conspicuously on her writing desk indicated that Ogrek had been fooled—temporarily at least. The timing had been good for the guild. With the recent political changes the city was facing, Ogrek had little time to verify the names of the houses he held under allegiance and little desire to offend any of them.
She had committed her new name and past to memory and now stood before an elongated mirror, staring mutely the foreign reflection that gazed back at her. Her hair, once flame red, was now a soft auburn and was swept up and piled loosely atop her head with gentle tendrils falling to frame her face. Her skin was ivory, pale and fair, and her lips were the color of a rich cabernet with all the warm and subtle promises their color bespoke. Her once green eyes were now the deepest of blues, twin sapphires that pierced the soul of those she beheld, and she wore a velvet gown of the same rich shade, its low, square-cut neckline designed to spark the imagination while still remaining within the bounds of decency. A single strand of cream-touched pearls graced her slender neck and matched a ring that adorned the third finger of her right hand.
With trancelike movement she lifted a delicate hand to the mirror before her as if uncertain that the woman who stared back from its polished surface was her reflection and not some stranger who had come unbidden into her room. When her touch was met only by the cold and smooth surface of the silver she smiled in satisfaction before withdrawing her hand and running it slowly down the side of her dress, marveling at the soft feel of the fabric. It had been a long time since she had worn such finery and she found herself slightly ashamed for the small pleasure she now took in her appearance. She was neither the Lady whose name she would assume, nor was she a girl of six playing dress-up in her mother's court attire.
Though she taken many names, worn many faces, and been many things, she remained as always that which she was—a learner of secrets, a weaver of wiles, and a child of shadow. But tonight, clad in the sweet deception of illusion, she appeared to be none of those things and all of them, as all women were often thought to be. She smiled slightly, an expression tinged with both roguery and sadness as she considered the truth. It was a deceptive thing, the truth—a concept more shrouded in illusion or disguise than she. It eluded many who sought it only to appear in blazing glory before those who tried so desperately to conceal it. Tonight, as on so many other nights, she was one of the latter, and she prepared to once again disguise the elusive glow of the truth behind a pair of deep blue eyes that sparkled with mischief, criminal and otherwise.
Galyn had been standing by the door for a few moments before he spoke, a self-satisfied smile rising on his face as he watched her admire her new reflection. If she was surprised by his presence, she didn't show it, but simply turned to face him with a cool and questioning stare.
"Absolutely, beautiful. If I sae so miself." Galyn continued, admiring his own handiwork. "Much better than last time, but then agin, 'o woulda believed yea were Kit's mum if yae looked like this?" He paused and smiled again, evidently pleased with himself. "Yae know, 'e won't be pleased when 'e sees the hair. But," he added, pushing a fallen tendril back into place, "it's a bonnie shade." He stopped speaking, frozen in place as he stared into her dark blue eyes, surprised to see that they didn't reflect his own image but held instead a swirling pool of secrets and promises from which he could not break free. It had to be an effect of the spell, he reminded himself as he tried to turn away, but he had never seen it happen before and he found it disconcerting.
He finally managed to pull himself away, and stammered in brief embarrassment. "I dinnae care how much magic Lord Ogrek's got aboard that ship o 'is, it will nae affect the spell, and it should last at least till mornin', so yae need nae worry."
"She won't be staying that long," a third voice added. The artist and his creation turned to face the newcomer with differing reactions. "Or is there something you're not telling me?" Striker Kel pushed casually off the doorframe and entered the room, pleased for one time to have stuck a point of sarcasm before Quaralyn. He thought he saw her blush, but she turned her face away before he could be sure and walked back to the mirror, straightening her hair and her dress in final preparation for her departure.
Striker moved to stand behind her, staring also into the mirror and wordlessly inspecting the unfamiliar figure framed in its reflection. Quaralyn, for her part, continued to fidget, ignoring him as best she could and amusing him in the process despite her best efforts to the contrary. When it looked as if she could find nothing left to straighten or smooth he stared at her for a moment longer, then turned without comment to Galyn. The mage had grown increasingly nervous since Striker's appearance. He'd never had much interaction with the hawkish figure that ran the guild, and preferred to keep it that way. He had no illusions now that he would ever work off his debt to the guild, or that even if he did he would be allowed to leave; but he had managed so far to keep his interactions with Striker to a minimum, and for that he was thankful. Now, however, as the grim form of the man who was acknowledged as the guildmaster turned to face him, Galyn found himself standing flat against the far wall, trying to remember how to become invisible.
The grey eyes were intimidating, though Galyn couldn't say why. They never changed, appearing ever-vigilant, cold and unblinking. There was something inhuman about the stare, though Galyn knew otherwise, something that made one feel like prey beneath the watchful eye of a predator, waiting always for that moment when the talons would strike and the darkness would come at last. Fortunately for Galyn, that time had not yet come.
"Nice work," Striker stated flatly, "I wouldn't have recognized her."
Galyn relaxed enough to start breathing again. "Thank yae," he managed to get out, "I tried to convince 'er on the dark hair, like yae said Lord Ogrek was partial to, but she ahh . . ."
She wouldn't listen, Striker thought, finishing the mage's sentence. "It's fine," he interrupted, trying to ease the mage's concern that he would be blamed for Quaralyn's stubbornness. "In fact," he added, assuming a bit of Galyn's accent and a roguish grin, "it's a bonnie shade."
She found herself wishing that he would leave—that both of them would leave. She had enough to be nervous about already without Galyn's unabashed appreciation of his own work and Striker's . . . she tried to put a name to the stare as he studied her reflection from over her shoulder, and found that she couldn't. The feeling that washed through her as he turned his attention to the mage, however, was easily named and she breathed a small sigh of relief as she finished her preparations in relative peace. There was little left to do though, and after she collected a small bag and an evening cloak she looked in vain about the room trying to remember if there was anything she had forgotten.
Satisfied that she had everything she needed, she returned to the mirror to take one final look at her new appearance. She looked steadily at the blue-eyed stranger who stared back as she mentally repeated her new name. 'Dulcinea Nevaryl.' Taking a deep breath, she turned from the mirror, ready to leave just in time to hear Striker quip to Galyn, "In fact, it's a bonnie shade," and see the mage turn a shade or two paler in response. "Well," she began as she crossed to the door, drawing the attention away from the nervous and now appreciative mage, "If Ogrek objects, I'll let you know. If not, I'll see you in the morning."
Twentysome minutes later, Quaralyn found herself standing on the docks, listening to the waves lap gently against the side of Ogrek's ship and wishing that she was leaving rather than just arriving. She glanced quickly back to Brextyl, nodded once, and the two of them strode forward with a more noble bearing than that encompassed in their usual gate. Brextyl was her "guard" for the evening and for her long, fictitious journey to Stormpoint, and he wore the colors of her assumed house. More practically, however, he was another pair of eyes to scour the ship's defenses, and as they reached the gangplank, Quaralyn was glad of his presence. The ship was a behemoth, standing nearly four stories above the docks. She had of course seen it before, but she hadn't come this close to it and thus the full appreciation of its size had been lost.
They crossed the gangplank without comment, each of them carefully eyeing the ship as they walked. Minor armaments dotted the deck and though many were mounted by the ship's side, a few more mobile ballista were concealed further back on the deck. They didn't concern Brextyl too terribly much, as he deemed that their usefulness was limited to attacking enemies outside the ship. While turning them to an interior force would no doubt eliminate any threat such a force might offer, it would also go some way towards eliminating the ship itself, and such a recourse was hardly practical. They could, however, serve as place of concealment for other less destructive, but no less dangerous defenses, and it was in this capacity that Quaralyn kept them in mind, waiting for a chance to get a closer look.
A crow's nest rose high overhead and offered a clear and unobstructed view of the top deck of the ship. She couldn't be sure, but Quaralyn thought she saw a pair of bright blue eyes flash briefly from the darkness of the nest. Little else caught their attention as the crossed the gangplank for there was little else to be seen, but as Quaralyn took her first step upon the ship she was troubled by something. She couldn't quite identify it, but it was there all the same—a nagging, prickling sensation on the back of her neck. It could have been due to the fact that the ship was a jammer and all the magical accouterments attendant to such a vessel, but she suspected that it was something else and her heart beat slightly faster in sudden and near gleeful anticipation of a challenge.
They were met atop the gangplank by a neat and otherwise nondescript gentleman wearing a fastidiously pressed butler's uniform. He bowed with polished grace and greeted them with practiced ease. "Milady Nevaryl, in the name of our sovereign, Lord Ogrek, I welcome you and your escort aboard the Stardancer. For the rest of this evening, your wishes are my commands."
Without unnecessary ceremony, Withers ushered them on to the deck of the ship. At least twice as long as she was tall, the ship's crewless deck was picture perfect as always. Every coil of rope and sailing implement stood smartly in its place as if it had been taken directly from a mariner's almanac. The only thing out of place was a throne, and given the identity of the ship's master even if this would not be odd save for the fact that it rose from the heart of the ship. A siren's call seemed to emanate from it, echoing a song of adventures and sights undreampt of. The pull was strong, and almost against their will the two guests followed Withers past the throne and into the ship's forecastle.
Instead of going down into the ship's heart, however, Withers led them up a single flight of stairs to a large set of exquisitely carved doors bearing a replica of the Stardancer cutting through a sea of stars. A dragon, unlike any they had ever seen, hovered over the ship's bow, pointing ever onward. Withers paused before opening the doors and turned to address them. "Milady, your escort will not be necessary here. If you will dismiss him into my care, I will see to his needs until it is time for you to return to the Eventide."
Quaralyn looked towards Brextyl and nodded without a word. He gave a half-bow in response and stepped aside, preparing to follow Withers. Having seen to his master's protection, Withers opened the doors wide, and announced the visitor. "Milord, I present the Lady Dulcinea Nevaryl."
Ogrek stood in the rear of the room, wondering why he had agreed to this dinner. He wore a white admiral's jacket with dark blue slacks, even his normally mussed hair was all in place--a gesture to the formality of the occasion. Though he truthfully dreaded sitting through an evening of idle chatter regarding such stimulating subjects as the latest fashions at court, decorating, and trivial gossip, he couldn't afford to offend any of the houses under his rule, even the ones he had never heard of. Hearing Withers' familiar voice announce the arrival of his guest, he took a deep breath and resigned himself to his night's fate, turning to the face the doors as the noble daughter of Nevaryl entered the room. Despite all his protestations, he couldn't help but be taken by the sight of her. It was often said in his homeland that the arts were born of beauty, and as he beheld her, he knew it to be true. ~~ She is the song that calls the artist to dream. ~~
She crossed threshold with a what looked to be a natural grace and curtsied as if the action were second-nature. "My lord."
Ogrek responded with single, if somewhat stunned, nod. "I welcome you to my ship and home, Milady. It is a pleasure to meet you. Your journey, I know has been long. Have your needs been properly seen to in the city?"
Quaralyn had always considered herself to have a discerning eye and impeccable taste. Over the years, she had "collected" items of considerable monetary and aesthetic value from various homes and establishments that could only be described as opulent. She was, therefore, somewhat jaded by the trappings of wealth with the result that few things actually piqued her interest. Truthfully, wealth no longer concerned her. She had continued, or more precisely, resumed her occupation for other reasons, but she'd never lost her eye for art, finding beauty and craftsmanship more appealing than gold; and in this quest she was quite discriminating. Stepping into the dining hall, however, even Quaralyn was forced to admit that it was impressive.
Paintings and tapestries of rich color and exquisite design hung interspersed on the dark-paneled walls. Each bore the mark of a different artist and culture, a blending, no doubt, of the various ports the ship and her captain had visited. Given her profession, Quaralyn was somewhat well-traveled and she therefore recognized many of the influences of the works. Several however, were foreign even to her, but no less beautiful.
No windows graced the walls, but the room rose the entire height of the ship and opened like an atrium to the night sky above. The stars could be seen clearly in the cloudless expanse, a good omen, Quaralyn thought briefly. She mused at their presence and blinked in surprise when she thought she saw one of them move. Looking closer she realized that it wasn't her imagination. Small globes of light with no visible source floated aimlessly about the high-vaulted "ceiling," giving light to the room and blending with the scene above—countless stars awash in a sea of blackness.
She struggled to pull her gaze back from the starscape and to the figure who stood across the room. She knew him only by Withers' introduction, for while much was known of Lord Ogrek, his likeness was rarely reproduced. She had thought it was vanity. Ogres weren't known for their attractiveness and he was reported to be at least half ogre, owing to his father's bloodline. Seeing him, however, she doubted the reports were true. She guessed his height to be somewhere over six feet, making him appear lean despite an inherently muscular build. His dark hair was cut short and his features were surprisingly human. Aside from his height and two small teeth, or were they tusks, which were just visible above his lower lip, there was very little to mark the figure as carrying any ogre blood. In Quaralyn's judgment, he could easily be mistaken for human at a glance, and she wondered if false rumors of his heritage had been created to make his leadership more palatable to the majority of his country's citizens.
"I welcome you to my ship and home, Milady. It is a pleasure to meet you. Your journey, I know has been long. Have your needs been properly seen to in the city?"
"Yes, thank you, my lord," she answered, hoping that the slight accent she had adopted would hold, "your generosity has not been exaggerated." He smiled at her in response, a gesture he had no doubt used countless times, and it caused her to relax. She was just another face in a long and steady line of faces that sought his favor, and she knew she'd be forgotten as soon as she left. Perfect.
"Generosity? Why no, Milady simple, manners." His voice was smooth again, a practiced tone, useful, no doubt for occasions such as this and those of greater political importance. It concealed a certain hint of gamesmanship, she thought, and she was sure he suspected that she was also playing a game of sorts, sent by her family to attract the attention of the regent. She struggled to contain a smile. Her true game was far more entertaining.
A soft cough interrupted them and drew their attention from the standard pleasantries so far exchanged to the pensive figure standing off to the side. There, Withers, always the epitome of manners, nodded and extended an arm towards his master's lovely guest. "Your cloak, Milady."
She turned slightly to face him and smiled in warm appreciation before slipping the cloak from her shoulders and surrendering it to his care with a dulcet, "Thank you."
Withers bowed in acknowledgment added with an ever-polished accent, "You are quite welcome, Milady." He smiled slightly as he did so, knowing she hadn't hear him, for she had already turned her attention back to her host and taken another step into the room, a small trace of wonder playing across her features as she peered about her surroundings. Withers couldn't fault her, remembering the first time he had seen the Stardancer upon entering Ogrek's service. A knowing gleam hit his eye when he noticed that his lord now wore a similar expression as he watched his new guest, but as always, Withers said nothing. Bowing once more to his lord, he backed from the room, closing the door as behind him, and left the two nobles alone.
Ogrek watched her in silence as she surveyed the hall, momentarily lost in her grace, before chastising himself for his reaction. Oh, she was beautiful to be sure, but beneath the fair veneer she was no different from the other daughters of social-climbing houses who managed to weasel an audience with him. Still, he was pleased by her apparent wonder as she looked about the dining hall, her expression birthing a bit of nostalgia. He had found Stardancer long ago--trapped, grounded on a mountain side and slowly dying. He'd revived the failing ship, breathing his own life into it until he and the Stardancer had become almost one entity, and he couldn't help but to allow a smile to lighten his face at his guest's reaction to it. "She's quite something, yes?"
It was understatement, and he knew it. Quaralyn had never been aboard a jammer before, but she knew a good deal about them. They were exceedingly rare, so much so that she should have been thrilled to find herself aboard one, but she wasn't. Instead she found herself dreadfully annoyed, despite her initial wonder. This was going to make things a lot more difficult, and she had a ticking suspicion that Striker had know all alone, but neglected to tell her. The thought only served to darken her mood, but her demeanor remained pleasant as she looked back to her host and smiled demurely. "Yes, my lord, I've never her like."
"The Stardancer, this old girl, is quite a ship. I will give you a tour later, if that is your wish," Ogrek offered simply as he moved over to a small cabinet inset in one of the dark wooden walls. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Dulcinea struggling to contain what appeared to be an eager spark that had leapt suddenly to her eyes.
Well, that would certainly help. It isn't every day I get so generous an offer. She suppressed a cheshire grin and gestured about the room with a slender hand, "If the rest of the ship is only half so amazing as this, my lord, then a tour would be splendid."
"Milady Dulcinea, this grand lady we are aboard is more amazing then you can ever imagine." His smiled broadly, smug in what he thought was a well-hidden secret. "Can I offer you something to drink, Milady?" Ogrek said as he turned his back to her and opened the cabinet, revealing rows of multicolored bottles.
Quaralyn pursed her lips in consideration. She knew Striker wouldn't approve, but Striker wasn't here, and in her experience, nothing loosened the tongue so much as alcohol and flattery. It was too soon to start the latter, but as long as he was willing to begin with the former . . . . "Thank you, my lord, yes."
Nodding, Ogrek pondered the selection carefully before reaching for a lite greenish bottle. In a single, well-practiced motion he removed the stopper, then paused for a moment to allow the wine to breathe before pouring two glasses. Carrying them both in one hand, he crossed the room to his guest and offered her a glass, adding apologetically, "It is Ragnorian wine, but I regret that my supply is barely two centuries aged."
She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes and just managed not to raise a brow at his "apology," nodding instead as she accepted the glass with a fair hand and smile. The wine was sweet, far sweeter than she expected, and they drank in awkward silence for a few moments. "It was very kind of you to see me, my lord," she started, grasping for a way to get him to start talking again, "I know that recent political events must weigh heavy on your mind and schedule."
Over the rim of his glass, Ogrek answered her with immaculate court etiquette. He found it to be drivel, but he also found in useful in dealing with her kind. "No, Milady, it was kind of you to have undertaken such a rigorous trip simply to grace my ship with the your charming presence, serving as a lovely distraction for the most boring affairs of state. How is it with your family, Milady? Settling well on the border?"
Her demure smile spread into a grin that belied the impression Ogrek no doubt held of her intellect. "I somehow feel that little escapes your attention, my lord, especially on the border. You needn't worry, the border is still held strong and all the houses praise your wisdom. Your actions of last year during the drought went some way towards appeasing the smaller farmers and landholders. They would not have survived without your intervention, and their gratitude is great. Be assured that any who seek to enter along the western border will have to do so by force rather than insinuation, and that the houses stand ready to repel any such undertaking."
He nearly choked with her response, finding it apt, intelligent, and entirely unexpected. Nodding, he looked her over once again, much more closely. Her stock had just risen considerably. She had a good grasp of happenings. Much better than the insipid girls who threw themselves at his feet back at court. And on top of that, she had completely ignored his complements on her charms instead of giggling inanely as most of his "guests" were wont to do. Perhaps this Dulcinea was more than a simple waste of his time. Perhaps it was time to test the issue. "It's gratifying to hear that my people are so well." He paused, trying to find his words. "A question, if you please, Milady?"
She lowered her glass and looked at him, curiosity and seriousness mingled in her expression. "Of course, my lord."
Ogrek sat the glass aside on the table before continuing. "Coming here was not your desire, was it Milady? Please be frank." Raising his eyes to meet hers, he watched her response closely.
She laughed inwardly. Oh, if you only knew. Had it only been that morning that Striker had woken her from a sound sleep with a disturbing grin and an even more disturbing plan? Dinner with the regent. True, it gave her an excellent opportunity to survey the ship's defenses, but if she was caught she could easily find herself surveying the interior of the ship's brig, and after that, she'd probably be afforded a first rate chance to inspect the city gallows. She managed not to wrinkle her nose in distaste, holding out little hope that Striker would make any efforts to retrieve her from the scaffold. He didn't exactly seem to be the chivalrous sort. But she wasn't there yet, and if she didn't want to find herself there, she needed to pay more attention to where she was, and she needed to answer the regent's question—had she come on her own desire?
Lowering first her eyes and then her head, she looked down into the heavy liquid that still filled half her goblet, and spoke in a blushful tone. "You see," she began, "I was right. Little escapes your attention." She fell unexpectedly quiet, as if reluctant to continue, and kept careful watch on the goblet she now held clenched between two hands. When she spoke again, her tone was the same, but she met his gaze with lowered eyes. "No, my lord, it was not desire to come."
Ogrek looked genuinely pleased with her response, and he retrieved his glass from the table before continuing with a more relaxed demeanor. "Good." She looked startled, and he added by way of explanation, "I've quite grown weary of husband hunters with little thoughts of their own aside from echoes. Your Father's or Mother's idea then?"
There was something about his tone, his expression. She couldn't quite put her finger on, but it sent up a flare of warning just beyond her periphery. Playing a hunch, she bristled beneath the statement and answered with hint of defensiveness. "My Father's motives in this visit might not meet with your approval, my lord, and my house may not be of great standing, but I too have some understanding of what it is to be sought for something other than your own character."
Her response took him by surprise, and his expression clouded over as he considered it. He'd no doubt that she'd spoken the truth. She was probably sought by many who saw nothing more than he had seen at first, and had judged her just as quickly . . . or rather, misjudged her. For the second time in less than an hour he found himself at a loss for words. Finally, after seconds of awkward silence, a small frown twitched at the corners of his mouth. "I apologize for my ill-chosen words, Milady. I meant no disrespect to your Father or your House. Please forgive my words."
She studied his expression carefully, scrutinizing his face with almost narrowed eyes. Please forgive my words? My words? The apology rang hollow, or at least partly so. He might have regretted the reaction it prompted, but the question had been clearly calculated. There was something about him she didn't trust, and it bothered her that she couldn't give name to it. She could, however, put an end to it, and she spoke with a sincere and direct tone. "I shall, my lord, if you grant me permission to speak frankly."
Another small look of surprise crossed his face, but he responded quickly, and without a great deal of consideration. "Why of course, Milady. You may speak frankly for the rest of the evening."
A cheshire grin spread slowly through her, warming her more than the wine, but stopping short of her face. Had circumstances been different, he might have lived to regret his statement. As it was, she was constrained by the role she had assumed, but she still had fair amount of latitude within her personae. "Thank you, my lord." She looked at him squarely and spoke in an even tone, allowing a bit of her own spirit to break free. "I should like to know if there are any other tests you wish to put me through this evening."
He lowered his glass in mid-sip, not expecting such a "frank" statement despite his grant of leave, yet clearly not displeased. He looked at her sharply, reappraising her with this new showing, and moving her up a few more notches in his assessment. When he finished, his expression settled into one suggesting a bestowment of some measure of earned respect, and he shook his head slowly as he answered her. "No, I don't think they'll be necessary any longer. You are quite a remarkable young woman, Milady. I believe I will find your company most enjoyable, and please in private I am simply Ogrek."
A single brow arched high in response, a silent expression which conveyed both that she was uncertain whether this was another test and that she cared little if it was. She was sorely tempted to press further, but while she had studied much about the man who stood before her, she could only guess as to his reactions. Deciding to quit while she was ahead, she nodded, but conspicuously failed to offer him a reciprocal courtesy. "As you wish, my l . . . Ogrek."
He smiled openly at her response, and lack thereof. It looked for a moment that he would add something more, but before he could, he was interrupted by a purposeful knock on the door. Following a brief, yet respectable pause the door opened; Withers had returned. Ogrek merely sighed. Like everything else about the man, Withers' timing was impeccable.
Ogrek smiled openly at her response, and lack thereof. It looked for a moment that he would add something more, but before he could, he was interrupted by a purposeful knock on the door. Following a brief, yet respectable pause the door opened; Withers had returned. Ogrek merely sighed. Like everything else about the man, Withers' timing was impeccable.
"Shall we Milady?" Ogrek gave Dulcinea a half bow, and motioned to the large dark oak table with its twin place settings. Dulcinea nodded wordlessly and moved towards one of the chairs he indicated. Ogrek followed a step behind the noblewoman, finding himself impressed with her a second time this evening. She was graceful beyond the practiced and tailored grace of the ladies of the court. Her fluid movement bespoke a well-earned confidence, a self-assurance that sprang from within, and something else he couldn't quite name. As they reached the table Ogrek politely stepped in front of her, and pulled out the chair for her to sit. "If I may, Milady?"
Dulcinea took the offered seat, glanced back over one shoulder, and smiled warmly "Thank you, yes."
"My pleasure Milady." Ogrek smiled in return, gently pushed the chair in for her. He nodded silently toward Withers, and moved around the table to take the seat across from her.
With Ogrek and Dulcinea finally seated Withers brought in a trolley heavily laden with covered plates of all sizes. "Dinner is served Milord and Lady." Dinner began with a spiced clam chowder and friendly, if somewhat guarded conversation. All in all, Ogrek found that Dulcinea carried herself intelligently and made acute observations, again prompting a change in his mindset regarding her company. No longer was she a bother, an unwanted interruption, or some insipid debutante. When the main course of lobster tail surrounded by stuffed soft shelled freshwater crabs had arrived, Ogrek had relaxed noticeably, but also he had begun to ask polite questions about her family.
Though she answered each question with ease and candor, she was quick to change the subject away from herself, as if the topic of her life held little interest. It was probably modesty. Probably. Ogrek didn't have time to consider it, however, before the conversation took a quick turn. "It must have come as a bit of a surprise?"
The question caught Ogrek off guard, as he had neither notice of the sudden change nor any hint as to what she might be talking about. He raised an eyebrow while dabbing at the corners of his mouth with his napkin. "Pardon? What came as a surprise?"
She smiled with slight embarrassment, outwardly, that was. "I'm sorry, Lady Samantha's departure and the dissolution of the alliance, it must have come a bit of a surprise."
The expression on Ogrek's face told Dulcinea that she had scored, distracting the Regent from her fictitious persona. He frowned and lowered his napkin to his lap, thinking to himself. ~~There is much more to Dulcinea than meets the eye. Only the highest nobles and advisers know anything of the Alliance ending. ~~ Once again Ogrek found himself pleasantly surprised by the woman seated across from him, and he had the feeling it was far from the last time. "Yes, a very unexpected move on her part. At least it does not appear to be a prelude to worse. Unless you have seen something living close to the border."
"No," she answered with near sigh and a pensive expression, "the border is quiet. . . . Painfully quiet."
Ogrek's expression darkened as he considered the implications of her response. "Perhaps I should give more thought to the Crusader calls for reinforcements."
An imperceptible spark lit a pair of temporarily dark blue eyes, and was followed quickly by what the speaker hoped would appear as an expression of natural interest. "Are they really calling for reinforcements?"
Ogrek smiled ruefully. "Of course they are. Always leading with their swords instead of their heads."
His statement received a noncommittal nod whilst his companion filed away a scant bit of information. It might be unimportant, but it was interesting that the monarch should find the vocal Crusader Orders to be vexing, especially given the high reputation they held in the opinion of most. "Do you think there's anything to their requests?"
"No. If it had been Lady Samantha and Lord Sable's intention to attack, why not do so they had the armies in place from the undead war?" Ogrek rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he responded, and sounded somewhat as if he was trying to convince himself, rather than her.
She watched him struggle with his internal doubts, finding their presence both curious and fascinating at the least, if not possibly of greater import. "I'm sure you're right."
Ogrek seemed less than convinced, however, and shook his head as less appealing thoughts now held sway within him. "Perhaps not, with the border being ... How did you say it? .... painfully quiet."
"Oh no," she answered with the same smile and tone of embarrassment she had used earlier, as if she had suddenly realized that on this level, even the smallest misspoken word could spell disaster. "I just meant that it's rather boring at times."
Ogrek relaxed slightly and tried to push the darker thoughts to the back of his mind as he quipped, "You should try being monarch sometime."
She tried to hold her tongue. She really did, but such opportunities came so rarely that allowing them to pass by seemed nearly . . . criminal. Her smile broadened at the thought and at the fact that she knew how Ogrek had secured his throne. It was generally common knowledge within the kingdom, but it was rarely mentioned, and then only whispered, and it certainly wasn't even breathed in the presence of the king. She shouldn't have said anything. She should have just smiled and nodded. And so she nodded, and smiled, and finally added with no small amount of sarcasm, "Well, truthfully, I'm not that good of a card player."
He chuckled in response and showed the first sign of a genuine smile. "To be honest neither am I. I won after all."
Taking his comment as jest, she laughed brightly in return. "And you didn't mean to?"
A small hint of regret played in his eyes for a second, a wandering spirit pulling against the chains of his choosing that bound him now to a single place. She realized then that the statement was only half jest, if jest at all. "Well, you do have me there. I hate to lose."
She rarely gave any thought to her marks other than the occasional feeling of contempt, and her opinion of royalty was generally little better, but her current companion held her interest. It had started as a cruel inquisitiveness, the type that might inspire one held in its sway to pull the wings off butterflies and study the trapped insects with a keen yet detached regard. Somewhere along the way though, the curiosity had become more humane. It remained, however, equally appetent. Her expression shifted to match her mood, and her voice quickened with what might have been sincerity. "And have you ever? Lost, that is?"
He rolled the glass he was holding in his hands in a gesture of momentary contemplation. It wasn't a practiced move, or at least it didn't appear to be. His type usually surrounded themselves with those whose vocabulary contained only words of affirmance and who never asked questions. She therefore doubted that he'd had occasion to fashion a standard gesture or response to the turn the conversation was presently taking. "Actually, no. I usually make sure the odds are in my favor."
Why wasn't she surprised? "Perhaps that's why you don't enjoy what you've won," she responded coyly, raising her goblet to her lips and arching a brow over its brim.
"And so I seek greater and greater challenges?" he asked, with more than passing sincerity. "Always looking for that which always seems to elude me? A prize worth risking everything for?"
She paused for a moment to let him consider his own question. "Sometimes it's what you aren't looking for that . . ." she stopped suddenly and managed to work a convincing blush. "I'm sorry, I'm sure you've advisors aplenty and have little need of my opinions."
"No, please continue," he prompted, leaning back in his chair and twisting his glass around once more. "Somedays I grow weary of almost everyone walking on egg shells when talking to me. I mean, it's not as if I have a history of beheading anyone who says something I don't approve of." He smiled at his own joke and took another sip from his glass.
"I sincerely hope not," she answered with a tinge of surprise that he would even suggest such a thing, "But I imagine that such a practice would decrease the number of petitions you receive and would probably go a fair way toward thinning out those 'social' invitations which you endeavor to avoid."
His brow furrowed for a moment, twisting his features into a caricature of consideration. "Hummm. Tempting. Very tempting, but if I did that I might have been denied the pleasure of your company, and that would have been too great a loss." He smiled broadly at his own cleverness.
The statement and expression caused her stomach to churn in response and brought back a trace of her crueler disposition. "And do you always have a clever answer?"
"If I don't, Withers has emergency cue cards," he answered with a quick smirk.
She laughed and shook her head despite her growing nausea and better judgment. "Somehow I sense he hasn't had to use them in some time."
"True, but I don't know what I would do without him. Utterly indispensable."
His returning confidence and increasing air of comfort gave her an opportunity to shift the conversation in a direction more in keeping with true purpose of her visit. "Well, he must be very efficient as he seems to constitute your entire staff. But then again, I don't imagine that a ship of this sort requires much in the way of a crew."
The statement elicited a look of surprise from the monarch and he lowered his drink in mid-sip, having just managed not to choke. "True," he responded when he recovered, "she does tend to herself, but what sort of ship do you think she is?"
"Why?" she asked innocently, arching a brow, "Don't you know?"
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