Immaxuelle Import found it hard to explain, but they tried: “I was standing here, right? Then the basilisk came ‘round the corner there. And now you’re all here.”
Their leader, The Lady Sir Royerton, was a portrait of “not convinced,” in plate mail. “Well I’m not convinced,” she said. “You’re going to have to do better than that, I’m afraid.”
But Immaxuelle could not, of course, because they had no memory from being petrified.
“Perhaps you could tell me what year it is?” Immaxuelle asked.
Bronson Bettersly spoke up. “My good lady, it is the year of the Twin Gods, 1498, and …”
Royerton put a gauntlet to Bronson’s leather-clad chest. “Up up up. Easy there, blabber lips. We don’t know what the game is here. And I disagree that this is a lady. It’s quite clearly a man.”
Bronson’s brow furrowed. “Um, I beg your pardon good Lady Sir, but this is a lovely lady quite possibly of the feyish stock, hence the androgyny of the features …”
Royerton stepped in close and grabbed a thin braid from Immaxuelle’s shoulder. “Quiet, knave, for here you can see the quixote-dun braid, a symbol of virility and manliness well known to learned and landed, of which you are neither, and the envy of many a barrel-chested fool this side of the sea. He is clearly from the Far Shores Over the Bend, and that accounts for his delicate, elfish features. But he is most decidedly a man.” She turned to Immaxuelle and asked. “Is this not so, good sir?”
Immaxuelle blushed. “Well, see the thing about it is …”
Bronson put up his finger. “I would have you know, noble born though you may be and poverty stricken I might have entered this world, I have advanced in status and stature through the hallowed halls of the Academy and then the welcoming arms of the Ethereal Brotherhood …”
Royerton interrupted. “So you’re a thief and a priest, which is just another kind of thief. Big deal.”
“I take offense at your accusations, madam sir, and I remind you that you too have such vows through your knightly order of the Burnished Rose.”
Bronson asked, “Oh what was that?”
Royerton spoke up, her face twisted over it. “Yes, 'tis true.”
“Of course. And you honor these vows, do you not?”
Wild Bill spoke up. “Can we kill it and move on?”
“Quiet, brute,” Royerton said. “There’s a meeting of the minds afoot.”
“Just bring out the bard and be done with it,” Wild Bill said.
“An excellent suggestion,” Bronson said, “for Sagely knows the secrets this world keeps from even the most educated among us.”
Royerton threw up her hands. “Whatever. Where in blazes is Sagely?”
Sagely crawled from the tent, wiping sleep from his eyes. “I’m here. Am I needed?”
“Yes, blast it.” Royerton pointed at Immaxuelle. “What is the determinate gender of this creature? And its race. And its motives.”
Sagely sauntered up to Immaxuelle and looked them over. “It would seem that they are of mixed blood, fey and elf …”
“Well, the thing about that is …” Immaxuelle said.
“Quiet, you,” said Royerton.
Sagely put on little spectacles and took a closer look. “The eyes contain traces of the planes, water and air. And the skin looks quite sandy …” Sagely’s hand went for Immaxuelle’s trousers.
Immaxuelle backed up, hands out. “I really must protest!”
Royerton smacked Sagely on the back. “What’s the matter with you?”
Sagely cried out in pain, then said, “Forgive me! I was only going to check! It’s the only way to be sure.”
Royerton scowled, then said, “Back to the tent Sagely, before I lose my temper.”
Sagely hurried back into the tent.
“My deepest apologies,” Royerton said. “He may know the secrets of the world but he knows little of courtesy.”
Immaxuelle said nothing, just nodded, and put their hands down.
“Well, whatever you are, you are welcome to ride with us, so long as you can kill and pillage. Can you do those two things?”
Immaxuelle was fairly sure they could, seeing as how that’s why they had left their homeland. “Yes, ma’am. I can do that.”
Bronson rubbed his hands together. “What spells do you know? And of what vocation do you come?”
Immaxuelle didn’t know. They shrugged. “I’m not sure. I grew up on an island. I know how to sail and mend sails, how to swim and fish.”
Royerton put her face in hand.
“And I can call here most anything I can imagine.”
Bronson turned his head slightly, eyes tight. “An evoker?”
Immaxuelle shrugged. “I meant like animals and things. Creatures big and small.”
Bronson’s cheeks got fat in closed mouth smile. “A summoner.” He showed his teeth, then said to Royerton, “We just picked up a summoner. This is a very good day. The Twin Gods have smiled upon us.”
Royerton waved it away. “Yes, yes, and we say their names twice to honor them. But how are you with the blades and blunts of war, fair one of uncertain gender?”
Immaxuelle held up a long curvy blade.
Royerton’s sword came out and she dropped into her first position. “What devil work is this?”
Immaxuelle snapped their fingers and the blade went away. “I told you. I can bring things here.”
Royerton’s mind was starting to turn on it. “Ah, yes … yes, I see how this could be useful. Very well. Take some rest, for tomorrow we ride.”
“Where to?” Immaxuelle asked.
Bronson shrugged. “We can’t remember.”
Immaxuelle was worried. “Then why are we going there?”
Royerton shrugged. “No one knows?”
And that’s how the Band of Brutal Beneficence got its newest member.
The party leaned all their heads together, in a circle.
“Now,” Royerton said, “this is the Pirate Queen Noreen, scourge of the seven seas, and daughter of five pirate families over six generations of sea-killing madness. So she’s not to be trifled with.”
Bronson raised a finger. “Technically, she’s the daughter of four pirate families and a shipping merchant family who became privateers in 1407 …”
“Oh for the Twins’ sake!” Royerton said.
“Sush!” Sagely said. “Lower thy voice lest your careless whisper be so cruel.”
Royerton glared at Sagely but lowered her voice. “In any case, four families though it may be, I shall lead the parlay and …”
“Um …” Bronson’s mouth was tight. “I really think it should be I who parlays with the Pirate Queen. After all, I have most skill in this sort of thing …”
“You dare question my skills?” Royerton said. “I was born on princely knee and bred in the courts of queens! This is my native tongue you see, foul interloper!”
Bronson’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, let us speak of native tongues since Noreen is from the region north of Westwich, along the Catspekey Sea, and you are from the southern principality of Gallston.”
Royerton turned over a glove. “And what of it?”
“Well I attended the Academy at Lorsedale, which as you know, lady sir, is situated in the Hamlet of Ringsworth, outside of Lorsedale, just along the Catspekey Sea …”
Royerton still didn’t get it. “And?”
Immaxuelle spoke up. “He speaks her dialect.”
Bronson smiled and gave a slow nod. “I do indeed.”
Royerton let out a huff, then looked to Sagely. “Is this true?”
Sagely stroked his chin beard then said, “It is true that Doreen sails her flag over the Catspekey Sea, yes, yes … and ‘tis true that she would speak with a slight Catspekean lilt, which to the, um, heartier ear of the Gallstonian could make certain words sound different …”
“Which of us should talk to him?” Royerton asked.
Sagely looked timid then pointed a finger. “Bronson.”
The Lady Sir Royerton gave a heaving sigh, then said, “Fine! Fine! Get on with it!”
Bronson gave a slow, grinning bow. “It would be my pleasure, milady.”
Royerton rolled her eyes.
Immaxuelle smiled at the back and forth.
“Wild Bill?” Royerton asked.
Wild Bill looked up with slow, heavy eyes. “Yeah?”
“You be at the ready, lest we have to slaughter these wretched sea raiders where they stand.”
“K,” Wild Bill said.
Hatteras Hiccups, who’d been silent the whole of the time, tapped his trusty rifle. “I can pick ‘em of from back here.” He took another drink.
Royerton extended a conciliatory hand that patted Hiccups’ shoulder. “Yes. Of course you can.”
Then she turned to Spells Bruja. “Get a fireball ready. Just in case.”
Spells’ eyes were not visible from beneath the brim of her hat, her pale face grinning between streaks of long black hair. “Girl, you know I’ll light this place up, I haveta.”
Royerton’s lip turned up, but she nodded. “Whatever.”
Immaxuelle asked, “What should I do?”
“Um, let’s see … I’ve never really worked with a summoner before. What can you do?”
“I could bring an animal here, maybe one she’d like,” Immaxuelle said.
Royerton tapped a finger on her own chin. “Umm … good idea, good idea … but let’s wait on that one, okay? Let’s just save it for later.”
Immaxuelle shrugged and smiled. “Okay. Sure.”
Royerton looked back to Bronson, who was combing his hair and looking into a mirror held by Sagely. “What in the Twins?”
“I’m coiffing,” Bronson said. “Pirate royalty take hairstyling very seriously.”
“Just get over there and talk to her!”
Bronson frowned, then waved away the mirror. He pulled on a priestly robe and hat, then plucked at pieces of his hair to make sure they came out from under the hat just the way he liked.
Noreen the Pirate Queen sat atop a throne of coral, chewing on tobacco and offering seed to a bird on her shoulder.
Two pirates rushed up to Bronson as he approached. “Hilt! Ho goos dar, say!”
Bronson cleared his throat and extended his hands, palms up, letting his robes drape down. “‘Tuss aye, Father Bronson Bettersly, prust of da Catspik. Frush on lind doh aye be, aye am of da seas like ye!”
The two pirates looked at one another, then laughed.
“Shut up!” Doreen called. “Let ‘im through.”
The pirates winked at each other and continued to laugh at a snicker.
Bronson held his dignity and approached.
“So yer wha, den?” Doreen asked. “One of dem fancy priests up on da hill?”
Bronson bowed slightly at the knee with stiff back and neck as though he were balancing something on his head. “Aye, I am. And never have I seen a queen so lovely as you, milady.”
Doreen spit some tobacco. “Really?”
Bronson bowed again and said, “Oh, yes. Lovely and enchanting.”
Doreen pulled out a sword and put it across her lap. “Watcha wan, fadder? Tell us quick, na.”
“We seek safe passage, milady. From here to Hemmingsway.”
“Ain sailin’ to Hemmins today. Maybe next week.”
“Yes, the port authority told us.” Bronson made a vague motion back toward the harbor master’s station. “But we thought perhaps if we could fulfill a boon for ye that, um, ye would reconsider setting sail sooner.”
“Like what?” Doreen asked.
“Perhaps there is a small item of some value you seek. Or a group of peasant farmers who have wronged you. Or maybe some kobolds have taken one of your crew hostage …”
“Na. None of dat,” Doreen said. “But mah crew could stand to git laid.”
Bronson went stiff in the lip. “Uh, well …”
Doreen spit again. “Wha? I thought I was beautiful.”
“Lovely and enchan’n,” one of the pirates said.
“Shut up,” Doreen said. Then, “Yeah, right. Lovely and enchan’n.”
Bronson pushed his smile back and peered over at the party.
“Is that a go?” Wild Bill asked, axe in hand.
“No,” Royerton said. “Not yet. I shall reconnoiter the situation. Wait for my signal.”
“Who da hell is dis?” asked Doreen.
Bronson bowed again and said, “May I introduce the Lady Sir Wilma Royerton of Gallston.”
“So she’s some stuck up royal ass, den,” Doreen said.
“Though we come from lands low and high, your majesty,” Royerton said, “you’ll find that royal blood pulses just the same.”
Doreen smiled, showing many missing teeth, then spit. “Like dat, prissy. Keep ‘at up.”
Wild Bill sighed and put his axe head on the ground, then rested his hands on the haft, and his chin on his hands. He wanted so badly to just kill ‘em and move on.
Immaxuelle looked on with interest but couldn’t help but feel like they had little to offer the situation.
Immaxuelle looked at Hiccups. “Yeah?”
Hiccups said, “I’m on ta ya.”
Immaxuelle didn’t know what he meant. “I’m sorry?”
“I’m on ta ya. With your devilish ways.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I mean I’ve seen you workin’ the dark arts, bringing devils and whatnot here.”
Immaxuelle thought perhaps he had them confused with Spells, so they pointed at Spells and said, “Oh, do you think I’m her?”
“The hat? No. She just throws fireballs and picks up dead shit. But you …” His finger waggled.
“Well in that case, I’m at a loss, Mr. Hiccups is it?”
“Just Hiccups. And it’s Mr. Hiccups to you.”
Immaxuelle’s brow furrowed, “Yes, but that’s what I …”
“Psst. New girl.”
Immaxuelle looked over at Spells. “Yeah?”
“She ain’t a girl,” Hiccups said. “She’s a he. And a devil. A he-devil. And I can hear you.”
Spells ignored him and waved Immaxuelle over. “Come here, come here!”
Immaxuelle gave a little wave to Hiccups, who just leant back and took a pull from his bottle.
Spells leaned in close. “You can’t talk to him. He’s a drunk.”
Immaxuelle looked back at Hiccups, his hat tipped down over his face, long beard showing puffy lips drawing deep and labored breaths. “Well, all right. Be he seems nice enough … A bit suspicious, I suppose …”
“Well he’s not nice,” Spells said. “He’s only tryin’ to get something from you. I promise you that. And it’s one of two things.” Spells held up two skinny fingers.
Immaxuelle looked at the fingers that at Spells’ face, even though they couldn’t see the eyes.
Spells sighed. “Booze and bed time, you know?”
“Oh …” Immaxuelle did know the type. “Oh, yes, I see. Well, thank you for the warning then.”
“We gotta stick together out here,” Spells said. “Never know what could happen. People turn on each other quick … That’s the signal!”
“Huh? The signal?”
Spells brought her fingers across her face, mumbling something like, “in cogitum firem latin blastem ballem makenow forme do it, yeah I said do it,” and a bead of fire appeared at the tip of her finger. She sent it over to where the pirates were, and it expanded rapidly to the size of a small boat, then exploded.
The pirates yelled and screamed, then put their swords in the air.
Wild Bill went in, cut one in half, then sliced the other. His face was wild with delight, blood and skin flying around him.
Sagely pulled out a lute and sang, “You cannot defeat us! We have to win! The fight is ours from beginning to eh-uh-end!”
Immaxuelle frowned. “That’s bloody awful.”
“Yeah, well, he doesn’t practice much,” Hiccups said. He took a hard line with his rifle, then dropped the other of the pirates.
“I see you do.”
Hiccups didn’t say anything, just took another drink.
Doreen let out a cry and attacked with two swords, one bigger than the other. She cut across Bronson with one and he gave a wail, then met steel with steel against Royerton.
“You shall not defeat a Knight of the Burnished Rose, foul villain!” Royerton said. Then she gave two chops in sequence, one batting the blade away, and the other striking Doreen.
Bronson rolled alongside Doreen, then behind her and pulled a dagger and a sword from his robe, each went in to either side of the Pirate Queen.
Immaxuelle wasn’t sure what to do, so they summoned a blade and ran up to the Pirate Queen.
Spells let loose a bolt of lightning that struck the Pirate Queen, then Wild Bill ran in and took two swings at Doreen, each making good solid contact.
Sagely continued his song, “You will taste defeat at the swiftness of our hands and the dirtiness of our feet …”
Hiccups shot twice, both hitting the Pirate Queen in the chest.
Doreen let out a roar, and swung once at Royerton, knocking her back and wounding her. The Pirate Queen’s second strike was at Wild Bill, gashing his thick hide.
Royerton gathered her feet and went back in, lunging with her sword and piercing the Pirate Queen’s rib. “Take that, false queen!”
Bronson peered around Doreen to look at Royerton and said, “Really?”
Royerton made a gesture, like, “What?”
Then Bronson stabbed Doreen twice again.
“Goodness,” Immaxuelle said. “She sure can take a lot of punishment.”
“Yeah,” Hiccups said, “but she’s lookin’ haggard. If we just keep at it, she’ll go down.”
“Okay,” Immaxuelle said, then took a stab at the Queen. They missed.
“Uh, sorry guys,” they said.
Spells rolled her hands together then threw a ball that opened into a large web that covered Doreen, Wild Bill, Royerton, Bronson, and Immaxuelle.
“Ew,” Immaxuelle said.
“What in the Twins’ hell?” Royerton called out. “I thought I said no more webs!”
“Whatever, man,” Spells said. “It’s all I have prepared today.”
Wild Bill thrashed about in the webbing but could do nothing else.
Sagely continued, “And even though we be sticky, you’ll not escape our sticking …”
Hiccups shot twice. Both hit Doreen.
Doreen cut the webbing apart with one slash, then struck Wild Bill with another. Lots of blood ran out and she chuckled. “Ha ha! You bleed nice, pretty man!”
Wild Bill didn’t say anything.
“Let’s see how you bleed, your majesty!” Royerton said as she made two quick thrusts with her sword. One narrowly missed her, and the other slashed the queen’s stomach.
Bronson made a precise movement and stabbed the queen in the kidney. She howled and went down on one knee. His second strike hit her in the head.
“She’s still up?” Immaxuelle asked.
“Well, okay, then.” Immaxuelle cut at the webbing but to no avail. “Oh well.”
Spells let out an array of small, translucent bolts that traveled over to the queen and struck her several times.
Doreen said, “Bollocks,” then fell over, dead.
“Yes!” Spells said.
“We are victorious,” Royerton said. “Good team work, everyone.”
Immaxuelle looked down at the dead Pirate Queen. “What happened?”
“Huh?” Royerton asked.
“I mean, you and Bronson were talking to her. What happened?”
Bronson and Royerton looked at each other, then back to Immaxuelle.
“She was an enemy,” Bronson said.
Then the party stripped off Doreen’s armor and took all her money. They took the clothes and money from the two dead pirates, too.
“And why are we doing this again?” Immaxuelle asked.
“I gots to get paid,” Spells said. “Components don’t grow on trees … well, actually some do, but …”
“It’s a tale as old as humankind itself,” Bronson said. “The vicious are overtaken by the righteous, and the Twins bestow their virtue upon the weak and their riches upon the meek.”
“Yeah, okay,” Immaxuelle said, “but we just killed her for no reason, right?”
“There’s always a reason,” Wild Bill said.
“Oh? And what’s that?”
He held up the gold sack.
“Ah. Yes, I see.”
And that’s the story of how the Band of Brutal Beneficence killed Doreen the Pirate Queen.
“Is there really no way out?” Emmaxuelle asked. Because if there were a way, they sure couldn’t find it.
“Stand back, you knaves,” Royerton said. “It requires a keen and knightly eye to find such a fine mechanism.”
Bronson rolled his eyes so hard his head moved along with them. “Pardon me, lady sir knight, but your Order knows not of the art of locks, mechanisms, and such. Those skills are within the purview of my training with the College of Physical Liberation.”
Wild Bill kept his head on his hand, itself resting on his ax haft. “Ya mean the Thieves Guild, yeah?”
“Precisely,” Bronson smirked.
Royerton ignored them and pressed against the nothing, her mailed fingers searching for something, anything to manipulate.
The nothing here was just that: nothing. Not a blackness, just a blank space, all around. The only other things on the scene—aside from the Band of Brutal Beneficence themselves—were two corpses. Two corpses recently killed by the Band of Brutal Beneficence.
Sagely took a puff on a loose cigarette, then handed it to Spells. The two laughed as the exchanged occurred.
“What’s that?” Emmaxuelle asked.
“Plus two cheeba of slowing,” Spells said.
She and Sagely giggled.
“You should try it, Maxy,” Sagely said.
Emmaxuelle looked to the others for guidance.
Wild Bill shrugged.
Royerton remained focused on trying to work the blankness.
“What do you think, Roy?” Emmaxuelle asked.
“Partake not of the devil weed,” Royerton said. “Why wouldst thou trade speed and the possibility of an extra attack for the simple pleasures of mild euphoria and an alteration of space-time?”
“That’s exactly why,” Wild Bill said.
But Royerton had nothing else to say about it. “This confounded blankness confounds me.”
“As I knew it would … “ Bronson stepped in, removing his priestly gloves. “Allow the experienced touch of a physical liberator to do the trick.”
Royerton rolled her eyes so hard her head moved with them. “Fine! I wash my knightly hands of it!”
Spells came alongside Emmaxuelle and put her arm around them. “Go on, gurl. Give it a little puff.”
“Wait, I thought we agreed she was a man,” Royerton said.
“Nope,” Wild Bill said.
“But I was certain …” Royerton said.
“Yeah, ya were,” Will Bill said. “No one else is.”
Emmaxuelle was okay with talking about it. “The thing about that is …”
“Oh c’mon!” Sagely cried out. “Take your hit already!”
Emmaxuelle raised their eyebrows, nodded, and took the loose cigarette. They looked to Spells for approval as they brought it close to their lips. “Like this?”
Spells smiled and nodded.
Emmaxuelle toked it, then immediately coughed.
Spells rubbed their back. “Yeah, there ya go. Good one, Elle.”
“Wait,” Sagely said, “I thought we’re calling her Maxy …”
“You are,” Wild Bill said.
“I’m fine with either,” Emmaxuelle said.
Sagely stared, unsure of what he’d been saying or doing.
“Go on, gurl,” Spells said. “Take another one.”
“Hey!” Sagely cried out. “It’s my hit!”
“Shut it, you twat!” Spells said.
“But it’s my stuff …” Sagely said.
“Tis not,” Royerton corrected. “It’s from the groups coffers and is therefore communal property of the group. True, we divvy said property after every third encounter or so, but we have not since … oh when was it last?”
“The Lizard King,” Wild Bill said.
Bronson paused from his examination of the nothing, raised a solitary finger, and said, “Actually, it was the Tribulations of The Quanderfolk. The Lizard King was four times ago, which was when you gained the jewel of quickening crust for you ax, Wild Bill, and when Spells found an ancient tome containing the legionnaire’s grimoire and the husk druid’s seven lost orisons …”
Wild Bill nodded. “That’s right. He’s right. My bad. Lost count.”
Bronson looked satisfied, but not enough to not continue: “… Emmaxuelle displayed her fine prowess with a blade while riding on the back of the lion she summoned to fight against the Quanderfolk’s legendary vizier, the White Lion of Yesteryear …”
Royerton raised a gloved finger. “Yes, but I must insist that she is a he …”
“As you wish, lady sir,” Bronson said. “But the fact remains the divvy was after the Tribulations and not the Lizard King.”
Wild Bill nodded again, then threw a thumb in Bronson’s direction. “He’s right. I remember now.”
Bronson gave a self-assured smile.
Sagely blinked. “But it’s my weed!”
Royerton took a step toward Sagely then pointed an accusatory finger. “Have you heard not of what we’ve been conversing?”
“No,” Sagely says sheepishly.
“I think I’m starting to feel something …” Emmaxuelle said.
Spells giggled and nodded.
“That’s wonderful, m’dear,” Royerton said to Emmaxuelle. She returned to Sagely, “I’ll say it again in terms that your common ears can understand. It’s group dro.”
Sagely sank. “Aw, man …”
Bronson put a finger to his chin.
Royerton gave a lofty smile. “Can’t figure it yet, eh, master thief?”
Bronson’s irritation showed. “I’ve never said I was a master. I am but a skilled journeyman. I have pre-trained for the traps portion of the master test but not yet the locks.”
“Indeed,” Royerton beamed.
“This may be a stupid question,” Emmaxuelle said.
“Yes?” Royerton responded.
“But is my head growing fuzz on it? I feel like it’s growing fuzz on it.” They broke into laughter and leaned into Spells.
“You gonna go to some magical places tonight, gurl, what!” Spells said.
“Can I have my effing hit please?” Sagely said.
Everyone ignored him.
“Perhaps there is a dimensionally anchored tumbler system that is also wrapped in an invisibility rune …” Bronson hypothesized.
“Wake me up when something happens,” Wild Bill said, then closed his eyes.