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Fair Trade

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Tue May 01, 2018 12:05 pm

"I honestly find that surprising, for one of as much power as you possess," the princess commented, as cool as ice about Rock's departure, having given him a nod at his date and nothing more. "It takes very little energy to fly as I do, though obviously with more power comes greater speed."

She looked around the empty street - empty because of her arrival - and one might think she was wondering why everyone left. But no, she was getting her bearings for Aileen's store. "If you would like, I can accompany you back to your place of business. I wouldn't mind seeing that clever bird of yours one more time."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Thu May 03, 2018 3:45 am

Yuki’s critique of Aileen’s magical aptitude was slight, but still carried the weight of a royal decree. The little mage fidgeted, trying harder than necessary to explain herself. “Well, I seldom get a chance to practice,” she offered, wanting to excuse herself. Instead she stepped from the slowly thawing circle of frost left by their arrival, leading the way as a good guide should. Yuki had been keen to land on the same tier as her shop, which wasn’t far into the Haegan’s underground interior.

“My business really is a full time job, after all,” Aileen said, and feared she was making excuses. “And Zuzu is so naughty when he doesn’t get attention. From what I learned when he came to me, he’d been living with a number of traders and street vendors since he was a chick. He was exposed to so much excitement in so many markets, I worried my shop would be too dull and quite for him. But we’ve been quite happy together since we opened. He can be fussy, and messy, but he always cheers me up when… w-when…”

Aileen, seemed to grind to a halt like an automaton running out of steam. There was no soul in her staring eyes. She and Yuki had just rounded the last corner onto the short street leading to her alchemy store.

It had been ransacked. The display window has been smashed. Broken merchandise lay scattered in the street. Fumes rose from a rainbow of fluids in the gutter, a fortune in ruined potions. Some of the wood and glass debris was suspended in midair, floating in the aftereffects of whatever magic had blown the door off its hinges. No one else was on the street. The wards Aileen had set in place to protect her home were shattered, as was she.

She ran inside, panting soft sobs that stood out in the unnatural quiet that hung over the scene.

“Zuzu!” she cried from inside. Wreckage clattered. “Zuzu, where are you? Zuzu!” There was no answer.

Aileen staggered out onto the front step, her face dusted and slicked with tears. Every muscle in her body constricted as Neelia tried to emerge, but didn’t. Instead, Aileen threw herself into Yuki’s cold embrace, forgetting all propriety and weeping into her gown with muffled, high-pitched cries.

“He... hic... he’s gone!”
Last edited by Rock Splitter on Wed Sep 05, 2018 9:28 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Fri May 18, 2018 8:32 am

Normally, Yuki would have been shocked by the display of affection, maybe even unsure how to respond, but she already knew the bird wasn't there, and had seen the state of the building. Her arms wrapped around the childlike alchemist almost unconsciously as her eyes took in the spectacle. The theft could not have been long ago. Fluids still ran from broken bottles, temporary effects from the shattered magics still mutated local physics. They might have missed the thief by mere minutes. It suddenly occurred to her that the great crowds present before her arrival likely might have even had leads. Well, no matter.

"I am at your disposal, Aileen," she told the mage in her arms without looking down at her. "Were it me, I would freeze the city until I received answers, but I doubt such an approach would be to your liking. Do you know of anyone who would target you thus? Focus quickly, now, this attack could not have happened long ago."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Sat May 19, 2018 2:58 pm

Aileen sniffled and sobbed, but steadied somewhat with Yuki's guidance. "I don't know," she moaned. "Why would someone take him? Zuzu... My Zuzu." It was telling that Aileen seemed far more grieved by the loss of her pet than the damage done to her shop. The lost merchandise could be replaced, after all. Zuzu could not.

The mage's body throbbed again, threatening to drown Aileen's pain in size and anger.

"No!" She shouted. She turned from Yuki, staggering, hands clutching deep into her frazzled hair. "Be quiet! You don't get to... Agh!" Her back popped audibly as the muscles in her arms stiffened and bulged. "No!"

Aileen's ears twitched, and she froze.

Yuki heard it too. The breeze coming down the street carried the gentle chiming of many bells, and heavy, plodding hoof beats against the cobblestone.

Aileen seemed to deflate. Her tear-streaked face looked dumb-struck by what she saw coming around the corner: A great red wagon. A veritable cottage on wheels in fact. Bundles of brass bells hung from the corners of it's inward bowed roof, jingling as huge wooden wheels creaked and groaned. A mighty ox drew it, and holding his reins was a hooded figure who gave them a tug.

The ox stopped amid the debris and snorted. The driver stepped lightly to the street, paused to look at damage, and with a quiet woman's voice said. "Oh my... What harm has come?"

Aileen stepped forward, hopeful. "Jill?"

The driver turned and threw back the hood of her sage leather cloak. Rich auburn hair spilled across her back and shoulders. The height of summer was in the green of her eyes, and all it's warmth radiated from her smiling face. "Yes, little one," she said. "I'm here."

The childlike mage ran into her arms faster and harder than she had to Yuki, and Jill knelt to welcome her into a deep embrace. One made all the softer by the wind-whisked cotton of her traveling gown, and the ample size of her motherly bosom. Into which Aileen wept while Jill stroked her hair.

"Hush," Jill cooed. "Shh, shh, shh...."

Aileen calmed immediately. She stepped back and rubbed at her face, sparing a self-conscious peek at Yuki. "I'm sorry," she sniffed. "Um... Your Highness. This is Jill. Jill Jingles, we often call her. And Jill, this is Princess Yuki, of The Frozen Lands if you can believe it."

Jill beamed at the princess and curtsied. "My, my! An honor, Your Highness. Most unexpected, as so much of this day has been. No?"
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Mon May 21, 2018 11:03 am

"Indeed." Yuki's demeanor was blatantly colder than she had been with Aileen alone, and the way her feet were planted and her arms were at her side were almost combative. "What do you know of the attack on this place of business?" One would say she demanded the information, but her tone was too controlled to imply that much emotion from it.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Mon May 21, 2018 11:50 am

Jill placed a hand over her chest. "Oh, me?" She grinned. The questioned seemed to have pleasantly surprised her. "I've only just arrived. Aileen's shop was happy and whole, last I knew." The strangely beautiful merchant turned to Aileen, who had been eyeing the princess with concern. Yuki could be cold, in every sense of the word, but she suddenly seemed...

Jill knelt and turned Aileen's face towards hers with one finger. "Did this happen just now?"

Aileen's ears perked back up as she blushed. "Well, Yu..." She hesitated, shooting the princess a nervous glace. "Her Highness and I arrived a moment before you."

Jill cocked her head like a curious bird. "Oh? Were you away? It's not like you to leave your lovely little store all alone..." Something in Jill's gaze intensified, holding Aileen in rapt attention. "Where did you go, little one? For what reason? Tell me..."

The mage told her everything. Even detailing the fight Yuki had with Neelia - her biggest secret. Either this merchant was a close confidant of hers or Aileen had just been charmed into giving it away wholesale with the story of Rock's rescue.

Either way, Jill seemed pleased. She righted herself to her full height and returned her attention to Yuki. "My, my... What a day of adventure you two have shared. But oh, for it to end like this?" She gestured tot he ruined storefront. "The world can be so cruel..."

Aileen started to sob again and the strange trader stooped down to her again.

"Oh, no more tears." She touched a finger to Aileen's trembling lips. Again, she was calm in a moment. "There," Jill said, speaking softly. "Don't fret, little one. Jill Jingles is here to help."
Last edited by Rock Splitter on Thu May 24, 2018 9:20 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Mon May 21, 2018 12:56 pm

The whole time, Yuki watched Jill closely as Aileen talked and told her everything of the last twenty-four hours. She said nothing until the merchant offered her assistance. "While I agree that prompt action is necessary and more of this dawdling only assists the thief, I am unsure what you might do to assist us. I doubt this is a matter that lies within a skillset of one such as you, Miss Jingles."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Thu May 24, 2018 10:44 am

The merchant sprang up straight, sudden enough for her full chest to bounce from the motion. She clasped her hands together and she pivoted to Yuki. "Ah, but I may surprise you, Your Highness."

She tittered, her eyes narrowing to delighted slits. Jill stepped past the princess and towards Aileen's shattered doorway. With her parting, the mage teetered, and nearly lost her balance. She blinked and glanced about, seeming to have had a lapse of her senses.

"Huh? Jill?"

"Just a moment," she called from inside the shop, into which she had vanished amidst the shadows and settling dust.
Her voice called out again. "Be good and wait right there, little one. Let me search for the way we must go, and I will find it."

Aileen shifted nervously, but did as she was told. She glanced up at Yuki, who did not look pleased. She seldom did, but Aileen imagined she could tell when the ice princess was feeling particularly frigid.

"Don't worry, Your Highness," she said. "Jill doesn't steal. Well... It's sometimes hard to say exactly what it is she does, but she knows what she's doing. Um... Whatever it is, that is."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Thu May 24, 2018 2:09 pm

"She's scouring for the aroma of male sexual essence that would match one of the attackers so that she can follow it like a blood hound." The imperial princess' reply was flat and immediate. She didn't sound impressed or confused by what was happening before her, and she certainly didn't sound like she approved.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Sat May 26, 2018 1:39 am

Shocked, the mage blushed and stammered. "S-sexual what? Your Highness, I... I don't follow. It's not as though Jill is a..."

"That I'm what?" Jill emerged from the darkened doorway, still wearing her perpetual smile. The look in her eyes was unreadable, but she cocked her head in curiosity at the fear and she saw Aileen's. "Hm?"

Aileen's muscle tone deepened. Her height crept upwards with the building anxiety that threatened to bring Neelia out in public.
"Th-that you're a... a..."

Jill quickly stepped forward. Again, she touched a slender finger to the trembling mage's lips and hushed her into a preternatural calm.

"I am a friend," Jill told her, in a tone akin to a command. Delicate, but direct. "First and always."

Looking deeply relaxed, Aileen sighed and shrank. She nodded and Jill tittered again. She straightened and gave Yuki a sideways glance.

"My, my... That was a close one. We mustn't have our little one lose her composure out here in the street. It would hurt her business, where so much harm has been done already." She pouted for a moment, but her smile returned quickly as Aileen again regained her senses.

"But oh," Jill continued. "I have found the way we must go. The Broken Hook gang is responsible for this mess. We'll be able to find them around the docks at the bottom of the city, where all the worst filth eventually settles. Hardly a place for royalty..."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Sat May 26, 2018 2:20 am

Yuki seemed unbothered by how close Neelia had been to coming out. Perhaps Jill might think the princess was unaware of the mage's dual nature. However, she answered Jill's suggestion with similar detachment. "On the contrary, merchant, if royalty is not responsible for the state and safety of their cities, who is? A ruler who cannot deal with such matters themselves when necessary is not worthy of the position."

She turned to Aileen. "Would you prefer to remain here and begin the straightening of the store so that Zuzu has an orderly place to return to?"
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Tue May 29, 2018 10:08 am

Again, the merchant stifled a fit of giggles. "A just question, My Lady..."

Aileen, distracted and worrying, was startled back into the present. She fretted over Yuki's question for an anxious moment. Her brow was knit tight with concern, but before long her mouth set in a hard line. "I'm coming with you," she said, determined.
"Just one thing..."

The mage's staff came aglow and drifted from behind her, placing itself in her hands. With it, she cast a new protective ward over her vandalized home. Hexagrams in hot hues of blue bloomed into being. They trilled and chimed, all inter woven and turning
together like gears in a clock. Then they vanished, without a sight or sound to hint they were there, but they were. An invisible wall of spellcraft was in place, detectable only by those with a nose for magic. Or by those hapless enough to walk into it.

Finished, Aileen sighed and her shoulders fell. Her worried mind made hexing more difficult, but she turned and nodded to Yuki, ready to carry on.

"Well done, little one," Jill said. "We will back in time for afternoon tea. Don't you worry."
Aileen tried to smile. "I hope..."

Jill turned to her cart-bound ox, who looked engrossed in boredom and misery.
"Burgy, you stay here and be a good boy."

Burgy snorted and shat with a wet smack upon the street.

Aileen cringed, having no experience and no love lost with large animals. Jill was unfazed. She giggled quietly to herself, fingers steepled as she admired the newly formed trio. "My, my... We three would be quite a sight on the open road. Such lovely
ladies, out to chase adventure hither and yon! Perhaps this will be the first of many?"
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Wed Aug 29, 2018 9:04 am

"I doubt it," Yuki replied coldly - as she was ought to do. "My forays among your kind have been as brief as they have been unpleasant." Could she possibly mean gypsies? After all, she did not seem to be speaking of humans in general. Indeed, the only thing Aileen had heard the princess speak toward with similar disdain were men, and Jill certainly wasn't one of those. "Speaking of which, is it wise to leave a minor brute in a foul temperament unsupervised in the middle of a city?" she asked, motioning toward the ox as she specifically addressed Jill. What an ox had to do with gypsy kind was no doubt a mystery to Aileen.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Tue Sep 04, 2018 11:35 pm

If Jill took offense, she didn't show it. With a mercantile grin, she gestured to her ox. "Oh, not at all," she said. "Burgy is always on his best behavior. He never goes anywhere without me. Ever." Burgy snorted again.

"As you know," Jill pointed out, "We gypsies have a way with beasts. Especially those upon which we depend to carry our wares here and there, and from there to here." Her slender hands swept in each direction as she said it. "How else would I, in particular, be so blessed as to meet royalty like yourself?"

Aileen was charmed. It wouldn't have been a stretch to guess the elfin mage had something of a crush on Jill, and she did. Though for reasons she couldn't quite grasp. Being smitten was itself reason enough for her to speak up in Jill's defense.

"Your Highness... They're not all bad, you know." She spoke softly, standing stiff as a post from anxiety. "Gypsies, road folk, and such... They're very clever. And... Well, Jill, knows the city as well as the captain of the guard."

"Better," Jill pointed out, savoring the word as her grin curled wickedly. "Shall we be off, then? We needn't rush, but we shouldn't linger. Follow, and we will find your lost little birdie."

Jill turned, her cloak swirling with the motion. Aileen eagerly padded after her, hurrying in soft-soled slippers too clean to have spent much time plying the world outside her shop. If any. True to Jill's word, Burgy remained where he was, stock still. A living totem of hair and anger.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Wed Sep 05, 2018 5:26 am

"So I must," Yuki replied as she went to follow the other two. "This city is not mine and I do not know it."

After the other two rounded the corner, however, she turned back toward the bull and made a fist, both it and her eyes glowing bright blue. The message was clear, cause trouble and she would slay Burgy herself.

And then as if nothing had happened, she followed the others around the corner and down the city's streets toward the docks.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Tue Sep 18, 2018 10:55 am

Together, the three women descended through the lower tiers of Haegan. Much of the city was underground, as no other in the world. Beneath the lofty white towers of the elf-blood elite, a thousand layers of tunnels and strata-works had been established. Each was as shabby or stately as wealth and local custom allowed: From columned artisan halls with vaulted ceilings to several dingy side passages where a giant mole-rat could have done better. Soon, the ladies reached the Breezeway.

Here, the tiers of Haegan encircled a harbor like the stacked balconies of a theater. Jill stopped, leaning on the solid stone banister to take in the view. The harbor was a near-perfect circle, not quite as deep as it was wide, and the Zuzu's search party had nearly reached the bottom. The smell of tar, hemp, and tidal grime wafted up from all of the eleven piers evenly built along the water's edge like the hours of a clock. Ships of all sizes clung to them, forming a forest of masts that did not sway at all in the harbor's still waters. The space for a twelfth pier, directly across the water from where Jill smiled and hummed, was taken by a towering slit in the rock. The glistening sea laid just beyond the gap.

A warship crept through it - a battleship almost too wide to pass - flying the city's white and green mermaid banner with pride.

Aileen saw it and said "Eucatastrophe," almost to herself.

Jill glanced and grinned at her. "You know it?"

Blushing, Aileen nodded a little.

"And?" Jill prodded, sensing a secret.

The mage fidgeted and looked away. "It's just a good sign, I think. S-smugglers... If they have Zuzu, they wouldn't dare try something with a ship like that here."

"Eluding ships like that is what smugglers do," Jill pointed out, not sounding the least bit unhappy to bring bad news. "Would there be any smugglers in this age if not?"

Aileen squeaked in despair. Jill giggled.

"Don't fret, little one. Your birdie is still here in the city. Our thieves have not gone far."

Fighting tears, Aileen clasped her hands together over her heart. "Are you sure? How do you know?"

The smiling merchant turned her gaze back to the harbor. "It's all here," she said, her voice dropping into reverence. "The sights, the sounds, and the smells... They tell me more than enough."

Aileen blinked, a little unsure but impressed. "Well, that's, um... Y-you're more perceptive than I thought."

"Oh yes," Jill agreed. "It comes with experience. Intimate experience... Such that I'm sure if Zuzu was taken in the Frozen Lands, then Her Royal Highness would know where to find him at once." She turned her smile to Yuki. "True?"
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Tue Sep 18, 2018 11:23 am

"Immediately," the princess confirmed with a cold lack of hesitation. "The snow swears its allegiance and hides nothing from me." Her gaze went to a group of sailors who were hauling up rope and had stopped to gawk at the trio, her icy stare propelling them back to their work instinctively. "However, he is not in the Frozen Lands, so that does us little good. Let us keep going before we find ourselves in a situation the other party will regret."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Sat Sep 29, 2018 9:19 am

The trio continued their descent. On the slopped street that lead down from the last and lowest tier of the Breezeway, more sailors appeared. Yuki's piercing glare repelled them, too. Soon, though, she and her plebeian companions came upon the docks. Here, few paid them a second glance. For it was in the rush of comings and goings amid Haegan's docks that one could find far stranger folk.

Aileen stayed close as she dared to Yuki as Jill lead the way past a gang of shark men. They were huge and hairless with grey skin, dressed in rough porter leathers. They had found a large fruit crate to use as a table to play dice. The game looked close to turning into a fight. Several of them shouted at one another and pointed with the biggest of their three webbed fingers. Aileen had no idea what they were saying. Out of water, shark men drooled constantly, and it was impossible for them to speak Common with lip-less mouths full of sharp teeth,

"Awfully big for mermaids, aren't they?" Jill said as she walked. Aileen scowled a little but waited to answer they were further away from the gambler's intensifying ruckus. "A curse on Manahiem's ghost for creating those things," she said. The mage shot a quick glance over her shoulder at them. The fight was on. She cringed. "And if I may say so, any of the mermaids I've ever met would be offended at the comparison. They are a natural and beautiful race. Not a slobbering sin against alchemy."

Jill tittered. "Oh, I don't know. You'd be surprised how alike they are. Also, I've known alchemy to make some real wonders out of flesh."
Aileen fell silent, and her gaze turned inwards. But not for long.


The crowd thickened as the trio followed the curvature of the boardwalk. The wheezing high notes of an accordion rose over the din of a dozen different languages, all shouting, laughing and haggling in the midst of a ramshackle marketplace. Aileen felt intrigued and bewildered by what she saw. Most of the stalls were made from driftwood, crate panels, or whatever usable material the hardscrabble merchants found. Other sat with blankets arranged with their goods, and within arms reach of their neighbor. A pair of Weeping Rock mermaids sat with their purple tails on display, helping to catch eyes for the pearls they were selling. They recognized Jill and waved.

"Rising tides!" One said. "It's been too long, Tickle Tongue. What brings you back?"

Jill smiled but kept moving. "Business," she said. She winked and the Weeping Rocks shared a conspiratorial giggle. Aileen had to ask. "Are they..."

"Ah-ah," Jill cautioned. "I don't kiss and tell." Aileen huffed. "No! Are they registered?"

Jill slowed for half a step but still kept walking. "Registered," she repeated, as if trying to pronounce the word.

"With the Merchant's Guild! Don't play dumb."

"Honestly, I forgot you did that here," Jill replied, unconcerned. "Do you see any merits posted here, though? This is a free market, Love. You'd know that if you came down here more often."

Aileen ignored the jab, becoming much more concerned with being in an unregulated tier. "But how? These are the Haegan City Docks! They can't possibly let people flout guild charter here of all places."

"Oh but they do," Jill tittered. "And isn't it wonderful? Such a variety of possibilities to explore. That's the real stock in trade of true merchants like us. Possibility. Those old men in the guild have forgotten that." She arched an eyebrow at Aileen. "Have you?"

"N-no..." The mage knew she ought to be the last person fretting over merits and charters, what with the storeroom full of illegal artifacts she had at home. She was certainly out of her element here, but she honestly wished she had discovered this brazen black market much sooner. The rare and otherwise outlawed goods of several vendors had caught her twinkling eye. A very discreet shopping spree was in her near future. If she found Zuzu soon.

"No worries," Jill Assured her, as if reading her mind.

Further down a line of wooden stalls a burly Loxodon hunched over the bundle of hemp chords he held in his trunk. He grunted as he twisted them into rope by hand, one span at a time, and didn't seem to notice when Jill came to a stop behind him.

"Hello Muul," she said.

The elephant man's huge ears flared out as he dropped his work and turned to face her and her friends.

"Are you here to cheat me again?" Muul rumbled. His wide-set eyes were the color of black strap molasses and his bearing declared no tolerance for foolishness.

"Not today," Jill said with a smile. "Just stopping by to leave a little message."

Muul met Yuki's stare and did not flinch. Jill chuckled. "Don't worry about her. Or the little one. Though I do need to make sure they're accounted for before our little errand at the old tap house."

The rope-maker grunted. "An errand."

"Oh yes. And just so you know, it could be a loud one. Nothing we can't handle, of course."

Muul's trunk curled to his hidden mouth. He grumbled and gave a consenting nod before returning to his work.

Jill beamed. "Ah, wonderful! Thank you ever so much, Muul. Love you, Darling!" The giggling merchant spun on her heel to face her girlfriends and clapped her hands together in eagerness.

"So! Who's ready for some violence?"

Aileen blinked. Muul sighed.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Sat Sep 29, 2018 10:25 am

It was easy for Muul to look at Yuki without flinching, because the princess didn't even seem to look at him. In fact, she had walked through this crowded lowest level almost entirely without turning her head unless her patented glare was required. Of course, Muul didn't know that she had been prepared to swat him had he decided to act on his initial impulse of aggression.

Instead, she stepped toward the door of the establishment. "This is the location of the thieves of Zuzu?" she asked, then continued when the gypsy merchant nodded. "Finally. I am unaccustomed to traveling such a short distance taking so long, and my heart demands justice."

Before Aileen and Jill could even think to stop her, the Imperial Princess blew the door off of its hinges with a backhand gesture. Along with a five foot radius of the surrounding wall. The explosion reverberated both within the taphouse and across the docks, the backblast nearly, but not quite, enough to take little Aileen off her feet. She strode through the falling dust and debris into the interior as ice-like blue light radiated from her body, already the temperature starting to drop as she threw her gaze around the dim interior.

"Those who trespassed upon Aileen's Cures and Curios and abducted the bird Zuzu, step forward and I shall spare all others within this structure."
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Rock Splitter
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Posts: 189
Joined: Sun Nov 30, 2014 3:17 pm
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Class: Nobility

Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Mon Oct 01, 2018 8:12 am

Yuki had thrown down the gauntlet. Somewhere in the back of the tavern, a loud and familiar voice squawked, "Limited time offer!"

It paralyzed Aileen for the brief moment it took for her eyes to well with tears. "Zuzu!" She shot past tables of confused patrons towards the back door. A thug in a chain mail vest stood in her way. He barked for her to stop, ready to block her with one meaty hand while the other reached for the ironwood club in his belt loop. Aileen blew the man onto his back with a burst of wind magic, lept over him, and hit the door with a second spell.

The attack broke upon an amber-colored magic circle that rang like a gong. Aileen gasped in dismay and hit the door again with the same result. "It's warded!" she cried. "I can't get through!"

"Don't fret, little one," Jill assured her. Glass and splinters crunched under her boots as she strolled inside, waving to the stunned onlookers. "Sorry, everyone! We'll do our best to resolve this quickly. But to do that, I'll need a little help from the audience..." Her gaze swept over the room and settled on an old man behind the counter. He was sweating and fat, wearing a bourbon-stained apron, and using his bulk to shield the blonde and buxom barmaid who cowered behind him. Perhaps for her sake, he put on the bravest face he could, despite knowing who he was dealing with.

"Damn it, Jill," he growled. "How many times have you destroyed by bar?"

Jill blinked. "Hmmm? None more than last time. I want to say... nine, or so?"

"This is nineteen," the bartender pointed out, to which Jill scoffed.

"Oh come now, Porter! Having your front door in the street hardly counts. I certainly didn't do it." She motioned to Yuki, who's icy presence had frosted the mugs of those closest to her.

"I hope you have an answer for her," Jill said. "Or you could just unlock that door for us. That would be marvelous."

"I can't," Porter confessed. A bead of sweat ran down his jowls. "I'm not allowed back there. There are rules..."

Jill sighed and massaged her temples. "Ugh, so many rules today. And really, selling out your backroom to a band of thieves? Whatever they've been paying you, it isn't enough. Not for what it'll cost to rebuild this place again. Not this time..."

The two stared each other down. Porter's knitted brow twitched, his will wavering. Jill just smiled. Finally, the old bartender relented. "Alright, alright!" He offered up an acorn-sized crystal the same color as the wards on the door. "Here, just take it and-"

Porter gasped. His hand spasmed. "Th... Thellen?"

The crystal key fell to the floor. So did Porter. The frightened barmaid that had been hiding behind him stood with a black dagger in hand, looking altogether bored and disappointed.

"I warned you," she reminded him. Porter didn't answer.

His killer flicked her blade up into the air to spin it clean of blood. When she caught it, her frilly and low-cut waitress clothes evaporated. An illusion, which had concealed a close-fitting suit of full body armor made from black insect shells. The body to which they conformed, however, was distinctly male and elfish.

"My, my," Jill tittered. "You're even more handsome than I imagined. I thought I almost lost your scent for a moment. And how do you hide your aura so well?"

"Trade secret," the rogue told her with a smirk. "As is everything beyond that door. Now that she's here, I have business to conclude with the young mistress." Aileen scarcely had time to wonder what was happening before two more elves in the same insectoid armor seized her. She screamed only once before they inflicted a sleep spell on her. Aileen fell limp in her captor's arms as more of their band emerged from the crowd, dropping their own illusions. All who remained were scared out of their seats and out the door.

"You had best be off," Thellen warned, as if remaking on the weather. "I'll forgive your ignorance only once."

Jill giggled with an impish grin. Thellen scowled. His comrades drew their daggers, which only made Jill laugh louder.

"Oh yes," she swooned, grinning at Thellen like a lunatic. "That one. You can have the rest, Your Highness. Not that one. He's mine..."

She pounced. Jill was across the room as quick as thinking. Too slow, Thellen grimaced as he popped a smoke screen in the last fraction of an instant before Jill tackled him to the ground behind the bar. The solid oak of which helped shield them from Yuki's wrath.
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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