Post-Apocalyptic Relic Hunting Strike Force

Amuse-Bouche

The door to the fine restaurant swung open, letting in the rain and a woman. She was tall, mid-twenties, pretty, not beautiful. Her delicate face might have been mistaken for that of some minor nobleman’s daughter, had it not been for the deep tan. Gentry did not work the fields. The woman’s entrance was noted at the bar. A shifty Halfling nudged a hulking half-orc sitting next to him. The half-orc, who looked as though he was about to fall asleep, was large enough to occupy not only his own barstool but both of those adjacent him. Sitting to the other side of the Halfling, a shabbily dressed human in his forties licked his lips and remarked with some bravado, “Bet you a slug of gin that I go home with that one.” The woman, who had been shaking the rainwater from her well-worn boots, stepped further into the room. A long, sturdy spear strapped across the tan woman’s back become visible. Various bulges underneath her stained traveling cloak hinted at the presence of other instruments of violence. The halfling grinned and turned toward the man and asked if the bet still stood, but the human had already buried his head in his drink, muttering something about “women these days.” The tan woman’s face was bright and honest but not simple. Despite the restaurant’s candle-lit ambiance the woman blinked several times. Her eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness of the street. Before a hostess could make her way through the crowded floor, the woman noticed the halfling and half-orc at the bar. The half-orc sucked his teeth glumly and continued staring at the floor. The halfling did not turn his head, but his eyes met the woman’s, then his eyes strayed far to his left. The woman followed his gaze past the important old men in dinner jackets and the feigned interest of accompanying bored old wives, bored young daughters, or bored young prostitutes. Sitting alone at a table set for two was Baroness Elisabeth LeBrunn. The Baroness, whose porcelain skin deeply contrasted the newcomer’s, sat very straight and still, as if she were a mannequin in a shop window. Small wisps of loosely done up blonde hair trickled down her bare neck. Her slender, manicured fingers lightly clutched a cloth napkin. A chilled glass of wine sat untasted, on the table. The Baroness’ face was a beautiful mask, her full lips parting in a subtle smile, revealing nothing. Missa thought she had the look of a lioness resting on the savannah, aware of and dominant over anything that stirred within her view. Didn’t Dieran nobles justify their rule over the poor by claiming they were born to dominate lesser peoples, like lions among deer? No matter. Missa was not easy prey. Missa weaved through the tables and sat opposite the lioness. The Baroness gave a genuine smile and leaned across the table to gently touch her lips to Missa’s browned cheek.
“So good you could come!”
After the kiss Missa found she didn’t quite know what to say in reply. Missa could hold her own social interactions but it was by instinct, not years of socialized aristocratic etiquette. Missa felt like a favored soul facing off against a well-trained high priest of Pelor.
The Baroness continued. “I apologize if this was a bit forward, but I ordered the tasting menu for two. The chef here at Mushroom is quite accomplished, the best in the North. I trust you’ll find it enjoyable."
“I’m sure I will. But I didn’t come here to discuss food.”
The Baroness pursed her lips almost imperceptibly. “Really? Because I asked you here for precisely that reason. We had made plans to help the poor of Diera with the bounty of grain from the gentry. I called in many favors to see that the High Reeve agreed to tax the rich. But with (she wrinkled her nose) Cupric left in charge of your organization, collection efforts were not accorded priority. I fear the poor may face a hungry winter despite our sacrifices on their behalf.”
Missa shrugged.
“I was… preoccupied. And from what Cupric has told me, he’s been very busy. If it weren’t for his constant vigilance the city guards would have been overmastered months ago. The city would have been given over to anarchy and foreign mobsters. I want as much as you to have done more to help feed the poor, but we need to ensure the poor still live long enough to need feeding first. Even noblewomen need the rule of law to achieve higher ends. Did I not hear that your own estate was protected from crazed looters by Cupric’s men just months ago?”
As she spoke, a waiter arrived at Missa’s arm, soundlessly poured an aromatic white wine in a chilled glass, then vanished. Missa took a long draught. It was excellent wine. She wondered how the Baroness justified spending enough gold to feed a family of four for a month on a bottle like this. She started to dislike her host.
The Baroness, perhaps sensing the sentiment, smiled apologetically. “Please understand, Missa. It has been a trying summer and fall for us here in Diera. There have ben so many horrible afflictions it sometimes seems like the apocalypse has returned- the spread of the suicide sickness to the masses, the resurgence of that despicable drug Dragon back into the community, the proliferation of that awful madness-inducing play “The King in Yellow" to the common folk. The riots never seem to cease. False prophets and demagogues abound, preaching death. Those with means have fled the city, leaving only the poorest- and those of us who love this place too much to leave it. And yes, as much as I hate to admit it, Cupric and his allies have protected many innocents from a violent death. His bard follower personally led the men who protected my manse. You are right. I… I just wish things had been different. "
Missa’s furrowed brow relaxed slightly. “How do we make the best of all this?” she asked.
“Well, it could be worse. Cupric has fought off the incursions of petty drug lords and suppressed riots on the West side of the river in the name of the High Reeve. This allowed the city guard to focus on the Eastern bank to do the same.” The Baroness failed to mention that Cupric had also “neutralized" several dissident noblemen at the High Reeve’s request, solidifying both Cupric’s and the High Reeve’s unquestioned leadership during this time of strife. But Missa did not need to have Cupric’s martial or political prowess explained to her. She already knew from Cupric himself of the daring raid he and his bard executed the very night she had left the city so many months ago, solidifying Cupric’s status as the High Reeve’s trusted enforcer. Under cover of darkness Cupric led an incursion into the fortified villa of Aenfrith, estranged wife of the exiled rebel Aethelric and mother of missing diplomat Athelstan. With no loss of life on either side, Cupric was able to persuade Aenfrith to return to the court of the High Reeve, to live under his protection. This was no mean feat. Many courtiers thought Aenfrith preferred death to once again being hostage in the High Reeve’s keep. The manner by which Cupric convinced Aenfrith to return of her own volition was still a matter of wild speculation at court.
Missa looked up to find the Baroness waiting- waiting for Missa to return to the present moment. There was that gaze again- the eyes of a patient and deadly feline.
“Sorry. You were saying.”
“You had asked me how we make the best of this. The good news is the High Reeve managed to collect much of the grain tax. And Cupric…” Here the Baroness spoke through tightly set teeth- “Took my advice in the worst possible way. I don’t know why I’m surprised. I told him he needed to ally himself with one of the nobles. He did, but the noble he chose to ally himself with was Nyle, the villain who has been buying up country estates for some reason. I keep telling you all that Nyle is likely behind some of the troubles Diera has been facing, but no one ever seems to listen.” The Baroness steadied herself, slowing her breathing. “My point is that with Nyle’s support Cupric was able to avoid a full revolt of the nobles over collecting the new tax. So we have grain. We simply need to find a way of fairly distributing it slowly over time to the people in need without it falling into the wrong hands."
Missa sat back in her chair. “A simple mission, with the city in the throes of looting and riots.”
The Baroness smiled. “A challenging mission, but a worthy one. Will you help me to convince Cupric to create a distribution system?”
“Cupric’s mind is his own. I will do what I can to help get the grain to the poor, but he has made helping this city his mission. I had… other duties. I will not gainsay him if he believes the time is not yet right."
The Baroness nodded sagely. “Very well. Let us speak of other things. The woman you… went about with- Molly. You did not bring her to Diera with you. Is she well?"
Missa wondered at the question. How much did the Baroness know before she had asked the question? Did she know about the madness that overtook Molly? The weeks of isolation and convalescence through which Missa had shepherded her lover? The day when the clerics finally stated Molly was cured? Did the Baroness know all this already? What about the last day Missa had seen Molly, when Molly had decided to return for a time to her family? Did the Baroness know about that? Missa had come upon Molly standing over a dead bird, the feathers still smoldering. “I did that,” Molly said, smiling. Missa had asked her why she had used her fire magic to kill the bird. Molly simply smiled, saying nothing. Then she had left, walking away from Missa into the golden autumn sunlight.
“Is she well?” Missa repeated the Baroness’ question. “Yes. Yes she is.” Missa hoped her answer sounded convincing to the Baroness.
Missa felt like talking about something else. “And I heard the good news about your husband, Baroness. The battle of Freeport won, Penda’s forces routed, your husband leading the victorious charge into the city. The Baron and his men will finally be coming home soon, I suppose.”
Missa thought she noticed the muscles of Baroness’ delicate neck tense ever so slightly at the mention of her husband’s return. The Baroness smiled. “Well, there are still the Ogre Wastes to patrol. But I believe the men will return for some time to the capital. Do you know it’s been three years since I’ve seen him in the flesh? His men didn’t receive any leave home, so he felt it unfair to take the leave granted him.”
“It sounds like the Baron places a high value on duty,” Missa replied.
“Oh yes.” The Baroness moved her hand closer to her wine glass. “He would give his life for his men."
“It sounds as though Diera could use a valiant leader in these dark times."
“No.” The Baroness voice turned cooler. She picked up her wine, but did not drink. “This city needs fewer leaders. Times like these are akin to a culling, and not just for the poor. The strongest will survive. But if my husband and I are among those who live through the winter…"
“Then you will be uniquely positioned for power.” Missa finished the sentence.
“We will have more power- to help the city, yes.” The Baroness’ wine glass hung lightly from her thumb and forefinger, perfectly still. Missa couldn’t hide her nose wrinkling slightly at the Baroness’ comments. She wondered who the Baroness expected to die this season. The High Reeve, her old ally? Nyle, the rival power behind the throne? Cupric? Cupric. Of course. Myself as well? Perhaps even me, Missa thought.
The lioness watched patiently, letting Missa think.
The waiter returned silently, placing two small plates in front of the women. A small cube of flesh sat on a thin wafer. Both were garnished with a green leaf.
“Amuse-bouche. The chef’s gift to you. Rice wafer, salmon roe, river prawn, basil leaf.”
Missa stared at her plate. The whole thing would fit in the mouth of a child. Missa’s eyes strayed to the menu on the table next to theirs.
“Tasting menu for two: 240 GP.” Missa read the words out loud, without even thinking. The waiter looked away. The Baroness arched an eyebrow.
“You spent that much on a meal for two?”
The Baroness smiled. “But Missa, that includes the wine as well.”
Missa was not amused. With one hand she snatched the untasted glass of wine from the Baroness’ hand while with her other hand Missa caught the waiter by the arm, viselike. In a fluid motion Missa downed the wine, dropped the glass on the table and turned to the blanching waiter.
“How many cooks are in the kitchen tonight?”
“Seven, madame.” He knew better than to demur.
“And at the bar? How many working?"
“Three, madame."
“And how many waitstaff are working the floor tonight?"
“Five, plus our hostess, madame.”
“Have I missed anyone working here tonight in this count?"
“N-no madame.” The waiter was shrinking away from Missa, but she would not let go of his arm.
Missa pulled out a worn pouch, heavy with coins, pressing it into the waiter’s hands.
“Fifteen souls. This is three hundred gold. I am buying the staff the best glass of wine that can be had for twenty gold a head- for everyone working here tonight.” Missa’s free hand strayed toward her spear. “See that everyone receives a glass.”
“Yes madame.”
She released the terrified waiter. Of course everyone was watching.
Missa looked at the Baroness dead in her feline eyes. The Baroness was undaunted.
“Dear, please do sit down. The tasting has only just begun. Try the amuse-bouche.” The Baroness’ voice had the tone of a true friend, one who wanted only to spend an evening enjoying food and wine with good company. One who sought to avoid embarrassment for her companion. Missa’s cheeks flushed pink.
“Baroness, I don’t know whether you truly care about me or see in me only a means to an end. And right now I don’t care. Do not ever speak to me again about power, only about helping those in need. And next time you’re coming to me. In the slums. I am nobody’s amuse-bouche.”
She walk away.
As Missa moved to the door she noticed fifteen glasses were lined up on the old varnished bar. The half-orc smiled broadly at her. The halfling wore a wry half-smile and a raised eyebrow. Missa realized they were… impressed. Behind them the barkeep was dutifully uncorking bottle after bottle of an old-looking red wine.
The door to the fine restaurant swung open, letting out a woman into the rain.

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