The Fallen Diadem
I had a pleasant dream. First one in ages. It was something about the time the four of us had gone to the river shadowward of Vichtstein. It was the day we found out both Charlie and Neeka couldn’t actually swim, and yet they had gotten in anyways. It had been fun, until they ended up a mile downstream from us and had to slog back dripping wet. It had been a good day, and it didn’t involve the abyss and the diadem creatures.
I would have liked to say the reason was because Neeka and I had spent the night shoulder to shoulder with one another, dozing in the mattress. Despite the previous day’s escapades, neither of us turned out to be such deep sleepers. Without rocks and roots digging into our backs every time we shifted, both of us had migrated around the mattress and sprawled. I had one foot sticking off the side and my other leg was trapped beneath Neeka, who had ended up face down and sideways.
Her tail was the first thing to rise when daylight shone through the window. Naturally, as we were in the servant room, the light went directly to where our faces should have been; no need for an alarm clock. It took me a moment to recall where we were and why, but life didn’t wait much for morning laziness. Before we were even half dressed, there came a knock at the door and I found Sammy on the other side. How he had risen earlier than the sun, I didn’t want to know.
“I’ve come to ask what sorts of pastries the Lady West prefers?” he asked.
Still rubbing crud from my eyes, I shrugged at Neeka, who shrugged back, and then slipped off to wake her up and find out. “I thought you were a waiter?”
Sammy bristled a bit. “I was working the tables last night, yeah, but that’s just because the usual staff was overwhelmed. I do whatever jobs Virgil asks of me. She will be ready for the meeting, won’t she?”
As it turned out, she was set to meet with Virgil for breakfast, and discuss the closure of immediate business in Port Pelagus by the Order. Thankfully, Claire didn’t actually need help dressing herself. She didn’t wear a corset that needed to be cinched down to the point of strangulation, but she did ask for a bit of help combing her hair to speed things up. Neeka was more suited for that task.
I was left to drum my fingers on the scroll, until I opened it back up. It was a map, that was for certain. Upon closer inspection, I found Vichtstein and Port Pelagus marked out, along with kingdom names in scrawled calligraphy. The thing that made it so illegible to me was it was all in black ink. The seas and rivers weren’t blue, the mountains weren’t brown, and the forests weren’t green; everything was the same slapdash of lines. Just to make it more confusing, the map didn’t have an up. Every name written on it was rotated to face the sun such that I had to spin the map to read it as I went along
“So this is your grand plan?” Claire asked, looming over my shoulder. She had on the same clothes as yesterday. I wasn’t sure if she had brought another set.
“If I understood why it was important, yeah.”
“Well it seems to be explaining a path. Looks like the path of an army maybe? Hard to tell whether it’s coming here or leaving here though. I don’t know of any army that was in Port Pelagus other than us recently…” she said, reaching out with a finger to trace a line from the city up through Dalvurnia, which as I learned was beyond Drusca, outside of Frijorn, and butted up against Dragonbreak Mountains. The cartographer hadn’t elected to denote the outer boundary of the kingdom, just sort of scrawled it off to the edge. “Why did you steal this, anyways?”
“Well did you hear about the curfew last night?”
“You mean right before you troublemakers got back? Which, by the way, I want that book.”
“Oh, right, here,” I said, producing the book that had nearly gotten my killed. Her face lit up as she grasped it with both hands. I thought I saw her lick her lips before pressing it to her chest, glancing around, and hiding it in her luggage. “While I was getting that, I nearly got eaten by some kind of snake-horse… lion… thing. I don’t know, it was big and it ate a guy before chasing me.”
“You mean a dragon?”
“No, not a dragon head, it had a snake head, just that the snake head was big enough to bite a man through his midsection,” I explained, jabbing fingers into my gut and back to demonstrate. “Neeka says this scroll had the same scent as the monster.”
That made Claire pause and plant a hand on her hip. She stared at me, but I could tell she was thinking it over. Then she grinned. “Mark, you’re coming with me. You know how to be a cupbearer, don’t you?” I mumbled something about pouring drinks not being hard, and she talked over me, “You see Virgil runs this place and I would absolutely love to have a one up on him.”
With that, it seemed to be decided and there was scarcely any time before we were out the door. “Uh, Lady West, I don’t think I’ve ever asked what your background is? I’d be a very strange servant if I didn’t know.”
She paused at the door. No attendant was outside to see us to Virgil’s meeting room, so she answered. “You don’t recognize the name? My father is Duke Asmon West; the Sunwise Shield, though Drusca and Piedtri haven’t been at odds for generations. Before you ask, no I’m not in the inheritance, I’m natural born. I carry his name because I graduated with honors from the military academy and found employ with Lord Amaranth.”
I supposed that explained why she wasn’t some airhead obsessed with status and dresses, but it certainly left me wanting to know more. Instead of telling me, she turned her back on me and started walking. Neeka and I had to follow behind, after she took care to hide the scroll on her person. She took us to the main arena, and after some help from the attendants we were in a waiting room with a window able to hear the day’s events in the arena, but not see it.
Virgil, a lowborn merchant who had seized ownership of the Arena and with it most of Port Pelagus, looked more like a noble than Claire did; except for the dragon tattoo from his chest up to his cheek. I couldn’t tell his age. He didn’t have wrinkles but there was a certain gauntness from stress and his dark hair was already speckled with grey. “Claire, what took you so long to visit?” he asked with a smile as he sat down and interlaced his fingers atop a walking cane.
“You look like Necrotis himself paid you a visit. What happened to you while I was busy digging holes?” she responded, lifting up one arm and resting her elbow across the back of the sofa.
Virgil grinned. “Now, now, don’t be like that. I still have the receipts. I don’t actually want to present those to your father.”
Claire flinched visibly. “Come now, that’s just some playfulness between old friends. No need to bring that up,” she said, and took her arm off the back of the sofa to sit more politely. A door behind Virgil opened, and in came a servant carrying a tray of chocolates. Claire’s eyes lit up and she darted a hand out to get one. Neeka was almost drooling at the sight of them, but we both had to stand quietly behind the sofa.
“Well then, since we are old friends of a different caliber than your lord’s other liaison; let me be frank. Has he recovered the diadem?”
“No. The castle at the deepest part of the city has been captured, but the diadem has yet to be found. The search continues,” she answered.
“Has someone else made off with it?”
“Unlikely. There has been no desertion. We here in this room are the only ones to have left the city since the castle was captured. If one of the soldiers thought to take the diadem for themselves, they are surrounded night and day by those that would sell out their secret,” Claire said, despite me being right behind her, mark still on my gloved hand.
“And you expect me to furnish enough supplies to march when you don’t even know when you’ll leave?”
“Lord Amaranth has pledged to move on to his next target within the fortnight, whether the diadem has been found or not. If it has not been found, a contingent will be left behind to continue the search. All has not been in vain however. The treasury of Vichtstein has been laid open to us. While Lord Amaranth would never equate the lives of his men to gold, he will happily equate lives to supplies. They are one in the same. You will be paid upon delivery.”
Virgil held his tongue and though. I saw his fingers drum across his knuckles. “Very well then. A shame I can’t leave the city at this time. The arena needs my attention too dearly. Shall we dine at the least?” he said, and when Claire nodded, a bell was rung.
“I heard you had quite the unpleasant visitor in the city last night,” Claire said, taking a second piece of chocolate.
Virgil scowled. The tension through his cheeks made the maw of his tattoo open wide. “The baron should be managing that, and yet people come to me for answers. Sounds like confused hysteria to me. Someone saw a dog or a hauler-beast perhaps, and the whole city is gossiping about it before lunch.”
Claire lifted her hand to signal me and I cleared my throat. “I saw it, sir. I don’t think any of those things could kill one of the Hunters of Hellsing.”
That raised an eyebrow on him. “Is that so? And what are you two then? New soldiers playing dress-up? No one ever taught you etiquette,” he said as a pair of servants brought in steaming plates of breakfast foods, mostly eggs and bacon.
I grimaced, unsure what I had done to give it away. When we had the room again, I said, “I can only say what I saw. I’d call it a chimera.”
Forks clattered out of both of their hands. Claire and Virgil both stared at me. “Are you sure?”
I glanced at Neeka, but she was of no help. Wetting my lips, I said, “I mean, yes it looked like several animals spliced together. That’s a chimera, isn’t it?”
“And it killed a Hunter, you said?”
“Is it possible that Brekhart made off with the diadem?”
Claire leaned forward, staring at the carpet. “It’s possible, he was present the day of the battle and left the next. If he stole the diadem, he wouldn’t remain here though. He would be putting as much distance between himself and Amaranth as possible.”
“Such as by chartering a boat?” Virgil said.
“Would a thousand silver suffice for that?” Claire asked.
“That it would. And perhaps he’s had enough time to experiment with the power of the diadem and leave a mistake behind,” Virgil said.
Claire rose, lifting her plate up with her. “Where is he now? We should find him at once,” she said, before eating the eggs with all the grace of a mercenary in a storm.
“I’ll get the guards,” Virgil said, pocketing one of the chocolates before he marched back to the door he had come from.
Claire turned to me, holding the strips of bacon in one hand. “Well then, perhaps your duel won’t be needed,” she said, and motioned to follow after Virgil.
And yet all that conjecture had happened while I was the one who had found the diadem.