Chapter 19 – Saturday Twilight, June 7 – The Assembly
D-Stract stood and whirled. “What do you think of my new gown?”
Sherlock looked at D-Stract impatiently. “I’m sure it will do quite nicely. It should draw everyone’s attention and give Flummox and I the perfect opportunity to investigate undisturbed. Shall we head on?”
D-Stract looked at the other adventurers, smiled and hurried away. Flummox waved as they filed out the door. “Wish us luck.”
As the trio departed, Sapphire held up her hand and cocked her head. “Grace needs me upstairs. Some sort of intruder, I’ll let you know if we can’t handle it.” She rushed through one of the doors flanking the bar, and headed up the stairs to the second floor. The door to their room was cracked open. Wand at the ready, she cautiously pushed the door fully open.
Grace stood in one corner with her arms wrapped protectively around the cabin boy. The window stood open, and the curtain waved in the breeze, causing a single lit candle to flicker in the gloom. “There’s something in the wardrobe. It ran in there I when I screamed, and we slammed the door on it.”
“What did it look like?”
“My eyes were still adjusting after lighting the candle. I think that startled it. All I registered was a vague outline in the shadows, but it was not large, and low to the ground.”
“Bigger than that.”
Sapphire relaxed a bit. “Probably just the brownie then, looking for shoes to work on.”
Grace shook her head. “I don’t think so. There are some tracks over by the window.”
Sapphire went to investigate. The muddy print was something like a bare foot, but also something like a hand. She stuck her head out the window then returned. “The print looks like a monkey or ape, but it would have to have wings to get in this window. There is no way to get any purchase out there. And the prints are man-sized, not smallish.” There was a thumping sound from the bottom of the wardrobe.
Sapphire looked over at Punk. “Don’t worry about what you’re going to see next, this creature is mine.” With a flick of her wand, she summoned a hooded cobra, which slithered to a position in front of the wardrobe. With another flick, she caused the door to pop open.
Out tumbled a 3-foot ball of white fur. It was half in and half out of one of Grace’s spare corsets, and rolled to the middle of the floor, trying to un-tangle it’s feet. “Eeek!” It looked at the cobra with big wide eyes.
Sapphire reached down into the depths of her knowledge of animal linguistics. “Who are you?” she tried to squeak in monkey tounge.
Sapphire banished her cobra. “Oh bog, it’s just a baby. What is it doing here?”
“Eeek!” The fur ball, free of the corset, scooted under the bed and found the chamber pot. It began rocking it back and forth, which made a resonant ringing tone.
Punk the cabin boy untangled himself from Grace’s arms and approached the creature. He extended a hand. “Come on out, Eeek, we won’t hurt you.” The creature wrapped itself around Punk’s leg and began to whimper. Punk produced a copper coin and some string from his pocket, which Eeek immediately seized on.
Sapphire looked around the room. “We need more light. This baby did not make that print.” They lit more candles, and found a sealed parchment on the bed.
Opening it, they read: “Give this troublesome little animal to Dorothy, she seems to enjoy befriending misfit creatures like this. I hope it causes her as much grief as it has me. And when its mother comes looking for the little devil, perhaps she will save me the trouble of having to get rid of Dorothy once and for all. Have a nice day.”
Grace looked at Sapphire. “Well, that wouldn’t be the worst place for Eeek and Punk to be, while we try to sort this out.”
Sapphire just looked at her and sighed. “In the morning light. Looks like there is no rest for the wicked, unless we can get that baby to sleep.” She began to work a spell on the two youngsters now playing happily on the floor.
Goldilocks glanced over at the corner table. “Yep, every Friday and Saturday night, except you stirred things up last night, and the Castle went on lockdown.”
Rufus looked innocent. “Who me? You’re blaming the messenger. Speaking of which, what news of our little friends?”
Goldilocks looked around. Cleo was talking with Beryl and Animus was nowhere to be seen. “Well, I know they’ve been planning to try to spring the Asian mouslings. I got Flicker to promise not to use any overt magic, so there’s that. I’m a little worried.”
“I think they’re from the lab in the castle. Let’s listen.” They did not have to strain much to hear, as the four young people did little to keep their voices down.
“I really pity you working with Dr. Green. She’s really a heartless, witch, isn’t she?”
“At least she doesn’t pretend to care about anything but the work. I think Nurse Scrubs is a hypocrite. She talks a good game, but just try to ask for her help, or even to listen. Always has something else she needs to do instead.”
“I’m lucky, Ms. Brown is really cool, and she really helps me with my work. What is Dr. Zhivaga like these days?”
“Each day she gets a little more tired, a little more cranky. I think she takes it all a little too seriously. I mean, she bit my head off the other day for putting the scissors in the wrong spot. She apologized right after, but still. She’s skating on the edge. I think it’s just a matter of time before she cracks.”
“Shall we start a pool on that?”
“You guys are really cruel. I thought you hit bottom betting on the gender of the next patient, but this is a new low. Come on.”
“Spoiled sport. We’re just trying to have a little fun.”
“So what do you think the flap yesterday was about? I missed my Friday night beer.”
“Something about Pirates, wasn’t it?”
“Oh really now, why would they come to this hole in the wall. It’s not like we’ve seen anything of value around here. I really miss home.”
“Hey, we all know this is top secret government work, and they can’t tell us where we are.”
“It is not. I found out the Earl is it. There is no ‘government agency’ here, there is in fact no government anything. This place is off the grid completely.”
“So, if it’s not the government, who had the resources to abduct us all?”
“And if they told us, would they have to kill us all?” There was laughter all around.
Rufus could no longer resist. He stood and approached their table. “Gentlefolk, if you are genuinely afraid for your lives, you ought not speak so loudly in a public place. But if you are distress, perhaps I can be of help? I am Rufus, a practitioner of various arts and sciences.”
They stared at him for a moment, shifting in their seats, then glanced at each other. The man in grey, not looking so young as the others, slid a pitcher of ale across the table towards an empty seat. “Sit down and rest your bones. Do you have a mug?”
Rufus caught Goldilocks’s eyes and sat down, holding up two fingers. “Thank you. Do you mind if my friend Cleo joins us?”
“Sure.” “No problem.” “Okay.”
Goldilocks brought two mugs, and another pitcher of ale, while they scooted around to make a sixth space at the table.
“So I gather you all work in the Earl’s lab. What are your specialties?”
The young lady in green spoke up. “Yes, we’re all interns at the lab. I’m Cloris. I’m into plant microbiology. You know, algae and stuff. No idea what I’m supposed to be doing here, though.” She gestured at the girl in pink. “At least Salvia there was accepted into med school.”
“Not that I actually got to take any classes, before we were abducted.”
The man in gray thumped down his mug. “None of it makes sense. I started studying aging processes in bone structures in graduate school, because of my condition. I’m really the same age as the rest of them, though I don’t look it. But I never had a chance to published anything, and yet… bam! Here I am, trying to make sense of this weird virus. It’s nothing like I ever learned about in school. I’m Splinter, by the way.”
The young man in blue looked around at his friends. “I’m the only one here that seems to fit. Call me Bug. I’m a microbiologist too, but actually into bacteria and viruses. Cloris and I have been a little help cataloging the witch’s brew of samples they cook up, but still they don’t tell us anything to make sense of it all. No library, no network, primitive scopes, and no data on disease tracking. It’s madness.”
“So these two doctors are in charge – Green and Zhivaga did you say? Everybody else is support?”
Bug nodded. “We get the true mushroom treatment.” Rufus looked puzzled. “You know, kept in the dark and fed nothing but BS?”
Rufus smiled. “But what do you mean, no data? Haven’t they been bringing all the patients to you?”
Salvia snorted. “If you call three, ‘all’. Even one of those used to be staff, and caught the bug right there in the lab.”
“We’ve heard of Chessy and Iggy….”
Cloris nodded. “Yeah, but Dr. Gnoll was one of us. He was actually the first on site; he started the program and wrote most of the protocols. Now he’s totally incoherent, and I’m worried Dr. Zhivaga is going to go down the same way.”
Rufus put his hand to his chin. “So, what you need is a broader sample of sick people to understand the course of the disease? Have you met Chief Grief and Sister Maude?”
Salvia shook her head. “We’ve heard of them, but they either can’t or won’t come in. Frankly I don’t blame them, the way Chessy and Iggy turned out. Gross. But if we had some blood samples, maybe….”
Splinter cut in. “That is what Dr. Green is always harping on. We need more specimens, we need more specimens. But then, he seems to forget we’re talking about suffering humans here, and nobody wants to become a human guinea pig in the name of Science.”
“Hear, hear!” The four all raised their mugs to drink to that, and Rufus and Cleo joined them.
Rufus leaned forward. “Perhaps we could help. If we knew exactly what was needed – perhaps we should talk directly with the doctors?”
Salvia nodded. “That would be great. You should come by the lab for a tour. Worst they could do is turn you away. I think. Monday morning to start the week?”
Rufus nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
Bug pushed back his glass. “Uhh, there was something we were hoping to ask somebody. Maybe you could help. Where are we, exactly?”
Cleo smiled, glad to be able to contribute to the conversation. “You are in Founder’s Valley, about three days travel west of The City.”
“The Capital city. Of the Empire.”
The four interns exchanged glances, then went for their beers.
The samurai turned and surveyed him coldly. “The prince is missing. We suspect one of those buccaneer harlots has brought him here.”
Beryl shook his head. “Sorry, I’ve been minding the bar all morning. Neither prince nor buccaneer came through here.”
Rufus crept over and whispered to the four interns. “Get out of here. Go to the castle, tell the Earl to come right away, and bring his guards. Go.” They got up and headed for one of the doors beside the bar.
“They lock from the inside, entry is denied from the outside.”
“Unless someone held the door for them.”
“Who? As I said, there were no buccaneers here today.”
“My name is Gin-Tzu, as you should know by now, harlot. What do you know of this matter?”
Rufus interceded. “She meant no harm, my lord. She only meant to say that, if it has been any time at all, the buccaneers probably have him on their ship by now. Perhaps I can use my arcane arts to see if that is the case?”
Gin-Tzu looked around at Mama-San, who nodded. “Very well, summon your demons and see what you can learn, while we prepare for battle.” The Asians huddled in a corner whispering, while Rufus went through the motions of summoning an air sprite, and sent it out the door.
A quick zip through the attic showed a handful of gathered mouslings, including two demure mouslings in pink, toasting their success while Flicker danced in celebration. One of the gray ones gleefully juggled gold coins. Then, Rufus sent the sprite flitting out over the lake. He watched the ship and waited, meditating in silent communion, until the Earl arrived with his guards, along with many of the townsfolk who were wondering what was happening.
Much shouting ensued, with weapons drawn, until the Earl shouted, “Enough! Everyone put away their weapons, now!” Everyone slowly complied in the silence. “Very good. Now I hear snatches of accusations, and repeated accusations, but we will never get to the bottom of this here, in this cramped and noisy room. Palance and Eastwood, you come with me. Chief Grief, you take the rest of your detail and set up patrols of the town. Augustus Caesar, you take the rest of the palace guard and organize the defense of the castle and bridge gate – no one is to pass through, either way, without my leave. Yes, you are in charge. Anyone else who knows anything about this affair, follow me to the Great Hall.” The Earl then whirled and headed out into the street.
Goldilocks squared on Rufus as he went to follow the Earl. “Please keep our little friends out of the public eye, if there is any way. Please.”
“I’ll try.” Rufus headed out the door.
Beryl snapped to Goldilocks, “Watch the bar,” and headed down one of the halls. Glancing up and down the empty hallways, he knocked heavily on a particular door. “Open up, it’s urgent.”
A blurry-eyed Jugs appeared at the door, with rumpled hair. She was wrapped in a sheet. Beryl turned his eyes away. “You paid me for privacy, and you had nothing to do with the latest troubles, I know, but a shit storm has broken and the word of welcome is no longer ‘Buccaneers’. You had best make your escape out the back door, for both our sakes, and don’t be seen until you are safely away. I don’t care about your gentlemen friends, they can stay as long as they want.” Beryl then hurried back to his post at the bar.
The Earl led the mob through the main castle gate, across the courtyard and into the massive hall diagonally opposite, which was filled with tables and chairs. A massive fireplace stood at each end. He took the seat in the center of the head table, with his back to one empty fireplace, and everyone else lined the other tables that ran parallel down the hall.
The Earl rapped on the table top with a mallet. “All right then, let’s get to the bottom of this. I understand your prince is missing. When did you last see him?”
“Was he alone?”
The Earl chuckled dryly. “Alone then. So you men, what happened?”
The male figure cloaked in gray stood. “I guess I saw the first of it. The carriage door opened mysteriously, though nobody was there. I suppose now it could have been the breeze, but at the time we expected the prince to emerge. Instead, a bird, a huge duck, flew in the open doorway. Of course Slick immediately attacked…”
The Earl banged his mallet. “Who is Slick? You said the prince was alone.”
“Begging your pardon, my lord. Slick is Mama-San’s pet ferret, who guards her things. So the ferret attacked and the duck fled. The noise seemed to awaken the prince, who then came to the door to see what the disturbance was. But alas, the ferret was unsuccessful in catching the duck, as a dog and a cat appeared and chased the ferret down the beach. The prince yelled at us, ‘Don’t just stand there! You two, get after Slick.’ “
“And by ‘you two’ he meant…”
“Yuan and I. My name’s Darter. Anyway, we chased off after the ferret, and ended up at the far end of the beach before we cornered it. It took some time to calm it down and bring it back. By then, we were too late; we missed all the rest.”
The Earl gestured at the ninjas. “So you two were left on guard. What happened then?”
“Was the coach door open or closed.”
“Um, I saw that it was closed as we left, but I’m not sure which of us closed it.”
“So, as we returned to the coach, we were approached by the silver-haired harlot from the ship. We prevented her from approaching the prince at first, but the prince pushed between us and took her hand. They whispered together and she passed him a parchment, which he read. ‘Lord Gin-Tzu demands your presence at once,’ he said. ‘What about guarding you?’ we said. ‘I will take good care of him,’ said the harlot as she snuggled up to his shoulder and nibbled his ear. We objected, but the prince ordered us to go.”
“So, I expect that when you found Gin-Tzu at the market place, he said the note was not from him?”
“Yes, my lord. But before that, as we initially approached the market place, we were delayed by the captain of the ship, who insisted on speaking with us.”
“Did you tell him the prince was alone with Starlight, the silver-haired pirate woman?”
“Not in so many words, sir. But he asked after his wife, and we told him we’d seen some buccaneer woman down on the beach. He wanted a detailed description of her, and so we were delayed longer. Only when he left us did we manage to make our way to Lord Gin-Tzu.”
“And so when you got back to the beach, you met up with Darter and Yaun and the prince was gone?”
“Yes my Lord.”
“Palance, Eastwood, you two were on guard duty atop the castle. What did you see?”
Two men rose and the one with the black hat spoke. “Well, begging your pardon milord, we were tasked with watching the skies and the lake, mostly, because of the dragon, and stories of flying monkeys, and pirate ships and such. So our attention was not on the streets below. But we did still notice the prince in company of two ladies from the ship, because they were singing loudly as they headed out the bridge gate.”
“So why didn’t you stop them, Palance?”
“Stop them? Why would we? Nobody told us to stop people coming and going from the ship. Certainly not this prince fellow.”
“I see. You have anything to add, Eastwood?”
The second man fiddled with his hat. “Well, after the three of them left, the captain came around and hailed us from the street. Wanted to know if we’d seen his wife. It was plenty awkward, and we talked a little while. And then there was the explosion at the butcher’s shop. That took our attention away and when we looked back for him, he was gone, only he wasn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, this is the bad news we tried to tell you before. He took the longboat, milord.” There were astonished cries from the assembly. “Him and three other buccaneers. I don’t know how they got through to the dock; must have picked the gate’s lock while we were talking with the captain. They were rowing like mad when first we saw them, already well out in the lake. We yelled, and fired some warning shots, but they didn’t slow. So we fired for effect. I’d swear we hit some of them, but nobody fell. The range was pretty long, and then they were too far.”
“Oh, and sir, we saw one last buccaneer, running down the marsh road beyond the bridge about that time, alone he was. But he was too far away for a shot.”
“No sir. We heard the Asians raising an alarm on the beach, but that’s about it until you sent word for us.”
“Very well. It seems clear the prince has been taken to the ship, and though it seems he was at least tricked into going willingly, the theft of the longboat throws doubt on anything the buccaneers may have had a hand in. Can anyone else add anything?”
Mama-San spoke up. “Besides the prince being missing, our coach was ransacked and cages that housed my exotic pets were smashed open and left on the ground. Many other valuables were taken as well. Whatever else happened, there was malice and greed involved.”
Gin-Tzu nodded. “Well said, Mama-San.”
“I’m not finished. As we left the coach, I noticed this note, stuck in the crack of the door. It is a ransom note, from the buccaneers, saying if we can’t satisfy their demands here, they will sail back to the city and seek higher bidders on the prince’s life. Since they took every bit of gold from the coach, this doesn’t make any sense. Why ask for ransom when they took all our gold? Who else has motivation to harm our prince? I’d like to question that Socrates fellow from the show, for starters.”
There was a low murmur, then Rufus stood up. “My Lord, I used my arcane arts to check the ship as you were on your way across to the inn. I caught a glimpse of the prince being bound and taken below decks. Unfortunately, most of the ship is shielded from my kind of surveillance, so I know no more. But I do have a plan to propose, before our asian friends try to rush off and attack the ship, or anyone else.”
“A diversion. I suggest that some of the non-combatants and I, specifically to include Mama-San, approach the ship overland and call for parley regarding terms. Meanwhile, while we draw their attention, Gin-Tzu and his select group of warriors will row across the lake and take back the longboat. Without it, the good ship Buccaneer is stuck on the sand bar, to be dealt with at our leisure.”
Gin-Tzu stood and snarled. “The only seaworthy boat on the docks is a tiny dinghy. One man rowing and one in the front, plus their arms and armor, is all that such a boat could carry. We would be slow and obvious.”
“Ah, but there is another boat. The Marsh family’s fishing boat is larger, and would do the job. Plus, it would come from the far side of the peninsula, where they probably are keeping no watch. My friends and I might be able to offer additional, arcane, means of concealment as well.”
The Earl banged his mallet again. “I think this is a good plan. Everyone not involved in this affair, back to your homes. The rest of you, do please avail yourself of this space while you make your plans. I do not take kindly to those who steal from our docks.”