Chapter 34:

31 - Economic Incentives

The Fallen Diadem

“What do you mean you saw a god and didn’t tell me?” Neeka demanded as she grabbed me by the collar and shoved me against the wall. “They had actual issue with you?”Bookmark here

She was close enough to bite my throat out if she felt like it, and some kind of predatory instinct was coming out in here after the fight had ended. “I mean like, didn’t I mention that? It was right before the monster showed up.”Bookmark here

“Are you some kind of idiot? Something like that is a big deal and as you’ll recall, I was the one that was grabbed because of it. So don’t you think you should be a bit more forthcoming about these things?” she demanded. “Did surviving the castle make you go crazy?” She glanced pointedly at my hand.Bookmark here

“I’m not crazy. A lot is happening is all! This magic shadow thing showed up and threatened to kill me and then it left. There’s really not that much to it.”Bookmark here

Neeka’s hands twisted tighter and tighter as her frustration boiled over. “You absolute idiot. The only reason we survived that was because they didn’t realize I could fight! Had that lasted any longer we would both be dead, and you don’t even realize you’ve basically blasphemed their faith! How did the Everhunting show up in front of you?”Bookmark here

I gulped. I still didn’t know just how good in a fight the other two Hunters were. I had beaten the youngest of them, but only because the other two hadn’t stepped in. “He smelled me, if you believe him. You know, this,” I said, giving my right hand a bit of a shake. “I think maybe he was looking for the chimera and stumbled across me?”Bookmark here

The tension melted out of Neeka and she let go of my clothes. She didn’t step away though, keeping my back pinned against the stone wall. “This is a huge mess. Like, ginormous. A bigger mess than… than a bathhouse exploding. Don’t you get it? Claire and Virgil are going to accuse Brekhart of having the diadem that you have, because he’s associated with the Hunters and a chimera; but, now you’re at the scene of the murdered Hunter, and you are the one with the actual diadem. Brekhart has already labelled us theives and now he’ll get to call us murderers too!”Bookmark here

“Calm down, calm down, there’s no way to prove that I have it.”Bookmark here

“You mean other than the brand across your hand? And by smell apparently?”Bookmark here

“Brekhart isn’t going to be able to smell me. That’s ridiculous.”Bookmark here

She sighed and finally stepped away. She brushed her hair out of her face and thought it over. “I wish Charlie and Xon were here, and uninjured. The four of us might stand a chance taking down the monster if we were all together. Then we could find who was behind it and get all the proof we need about him being a lying rat bastard.”Bookmark here

“I mean, if we just wait it out, won’t the Everhunting find and kill the chimera? That’s kinda his deal, isn’t it?”Bookmark here

Neeka looked up and then to me. Without saying anything she pulled the map back out and unfurled it. “Hold on hold on, the hunters aren’t associated with the chimera. I would have smelled it on them. They are however following the Everhunting. What if this is a map of where the Everhunting has been?” she said as she tilted her head and read the place names. “None of these are big cities except Port Pelagus.”Bookmark here

“So the second diadem user is… what? Chasing it? Luring it somewhere? Are chimeras so easy to make that they can just be thrown away and killed by a god? And why would the Hunters be involved at all?”Bookmark here

Both of us stood thinking that over until Neeka shook her head. “No, no it doesn’t matter. Mark we should leave. We’re only here out of indignation. We wanted to hold him accountable but this is too much for us. You know what you should hear when someone says a diadem holder? A war. An army. Death. Every single one of them has used it to kill and fight for the throne. This isn’t our battle. We should go back to Vichtstein, get Charlie and Xon, and go as far away as possible.”Bookmark here

“No.” I surprised myself with that answer. “No, I’m not going to just let him off the hook. He’s the reason we were enslaved. Did you forget that? If it comes out that not only is he a scumbag who tried to get us killed, but that he’s also a traitor, you want to just run away? I haven’t sworn myself to Amaranth but I at least respect that his men serve him willingly. Haven’t you ever heard that you should kill a traitor before you kill the enemy?”Bookmark here

She stepped back. I might have frightened her with that. “So what are you going to do when you piss off another diadem holder? Are you going to go to war with them?”Bookmark here

“Pin it on Amaranth and let him deal with it?” I offered, but it sounded pathetic even to my own ear. “Alright look, here, see,” I said as I took hold of the map. I traced my finger along the path; down from Dalvurnia and then up the sea to Port Pelagus. “If he’s chasing the Everhunting, then we at least know he won’t be going out by ship. He’d be fleeing sunward. So while he’s here, busy with Claire, we should double back to the Arena and see if we can’t find out who else he’s been meeting with. Someone gave him this map; someone who’s with the chimera. Right now we might be the ones to stop this monster thing. That could save lives. Think of it that way, yeah? Do you want to do nothing while this thing is killing people?”Bookmark here

“It’s not our job to do that,” she said weakly, and she crossed her arms as though she were hugging herself. Bookmark here

“Well what else should we do? Buy our own way back to Vichtstein? Walk there in these clothes? Hide and let Claire deal with it? If we find evidence we can send for Amaranth’s help and not do it ourselves. We don’t need to be the one to confront him. Let’s just keep our heads down and figure this out, yeah?”Bookmark here

She finally relented, and the two of us left the alley. I scanned around, afraid to see some dark cloak lingering and staring, just on the edge of earshot, but no Hunter waited. There were people all across the docks, and if one of them had taken off their distinctive cloaks, I may never have stood a chance of recognizing them, but we had to go on. Staying to the edge of the street, we headed back towards the main road.Bookmark here

Brekhart had arrived. His carriage had dropped him off right next to Claire and was just now heading back without him. The two of them seemed to be having a professional conversation. Then I saw what I didn’t want to see; one of the Hunters was marching straight towards them.Bookmark here

“We need to go. If he sees us, we’re screwed. Our description will be bad enough,” I said.Bookmark here

“Uh-huh, yeah, yup, let’s go,” she said, and we turned to run. We had been standing at the mouth of a side street. It ran parallel to the main road and would have been a straight shot back to the Arena. Virgil and a pair of guards blocked our paths.Bookmark here

“Well then. I must say that I am quite convinced the two of you know something that you really should be sharing with me,” the merchant said. He didn’t speak loudly. He didn’t need to. His presence made the whole area quiet and disperse.Bookmark here

“The Everhunting is in the city,” I blurted out. “I saw it last night before the chimera attacked. I think it’s here to hunt it, which means the chimera has been here a while or that it got chased here. I don’t think Brekhart made it. Not enough time. Someone else may have made it though.”Bookmark here

Virgil seemed taken aback that I had so promptly confessed something. It was good that I had a secret like that to share, to hide the much larger one. “Well then,” he said, “I’ve put a lock on the harbor. He even showed up in person as requested, so I think we can rule out flight by sea, don’t you agree? Why don’t you come with me and explain why you let me charge all the way down here without telling me sooner? Hmm?”Bookmark here

The presence of the guards made quite sure that it wasn’t a question but an order. Fidgeting like children sent to the school headmaster, we returned to the Ten Swords Arena with Virgil and left Claire behind. When we stepped into the building, one of the security men, I couldn’t tell whether they were guards or not, forcibly took my sword and handed it to the attendant from the previous night. They held it and stayed in the room with us, hardly the gravest theft. Bookmark here

Before beginning the questioning, Virgil rang for water to be brought in, which was far sweeter than it had any right to be after running around in the hot city. “One thousand silver? That was a very specific amount Claire brought up. You also have a rather auspicious sword for a mere servant. Care to tell me the history?”Bookmark here

I gripped my legs to mask the uneasy fidgeting. Neeka didn’t answer, so I did, “He robbed us of it. That’s why we came here; to prove it. It’s an honor thing.”Bookmark here

“And did you get any evidence while snooping through his room last night? Please, don’t feel so defensive. I don’t need to be your enemy. I’m a merchant and a citizen of this city first. War is bad for the economy you see. I don’t want Port Pelagus becoming a battleground over a diadem.”Bookmark here

“You won’t be able to avoid it forever,” Neeka said. “If the cycle is repeating, nowhere is safe.”Bookmark here

“Not forever no, but if you avoid it for long enough, you just might be able to throw in on the winning side. The goal is to be on the backlines, not the front. That’s how you survive and come out on top,” Virgil said. He sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees and staring into her eyes with enough firmness to make her pull back. That made him smirk.Bookmark here

“Has it? Has the cycle begun?” I asked.Bookmark here

He nodded. “Certainly seems to be the case. Piedtri started a war. Your Lord Amaranth went into Vichtstein for it. They say there’s a some kind of cult in the shadow beyond the Dragonbreak Mountains now. Dalvurnia says they’ve always had a diadem, just that Aquaria has been holding onto it. The Senate certainly has one or two. Sure, there’s some unaccounted for; but, too many things have aligned. And frankly, if one of them wanted to take up residence here, I’d be offended that I hadn’t been contacted by now. All armies need to eat, even ones made up of chimeras.”Bookmark here

“So who’s side are you on? If Brekhart is betraying Amaranth, who are you going to side with?”Bookmark here

“The winner of course,” he answered with a grin. “I may own a gambling establishment, but that means I’m the house. The house always wins because the house is the best with the odds you see. When I see a low risk opportunity that might be high reward, those are the chances I take.”Bookmark here

I gulped. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”Bookmark here

“You have an issue of honor with Sir Brekhart, don’t you? Well then, I have a stage and you have a reason for a duel. Let’s make it trial by combat. Of course, he’s noble so it won’t wholly hold up in court, but it is justification enough to detain him, to take him out of the action while we sort out this monster business. I need a good reason to put him under house arrest after all.”Bookmark here

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