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Chapter 21 - Seeking Pledge of Arms

The bailiff then proceeded to write out two simpler versions of the contract, which spelled out the terms of the contract, without signature spaces on them, and which referred to the master copy. These he gave to Art and Jezebel. "There. Our business is concluded."

"Thank you good sir," said Art with a bow. Then he turned to Jezebel. "Follow," Art said, putting away his abridged copy of the indenture contract. Looking at the position of the sun in the sky, he gathered it was almost three in the afternoon, when he'd have to pay a visit to the count. Amplisa had all but charged him with bringing Warriv along. He began walking.

"So, where are we going?" -- "Back to our inn. We have a meeting with the count before the hour's up, and I figure he'd be back there by now since he'd left early in the morning." -- "Ah, didn't know one such as you would have friends in high places." -- "Yeah, me neither, who's this friend you speak of? Care to introduce me to him?" -- "Wait, weren't you just saying--" -- "Oh no, Jezebel. I'm just a lowly knave who'd not settle for picking your pockets but the robes they're on altogether," he said with a smile. "Come on then."

They went by the cathedral in the center of town, a magnificent white stone building with arches, spires, and flying buttresses that dwarfed all around it. Oh yes, he thought, Roland would have come by to schedule a visit with the bishop. Having someone as insightful as he come along with them for their meeting with the count could prove quite a boon, as well as him 'representing' the templars. On a hunch, he stepped inside, taking in the spectacle of a panoply of stained glass windows all about, chandeliers above and candles all around. At this time the cathedral stood mostly empty, and he soon found Roland sitting on one of the pews, eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer.

He tapped Roland on the shoulder, prompting the man to open his eyes. He whispered. "Sorry to interrupt, Roland, but there's something that I would very much request your presence for." -- Roland nodded, and followed Art out of the cathedral in silence, so as not to disturb the others.

As they exited the building, Art said, "Roland: Jezebel. Jezebel: Roland, former templar." -- "Well met," replied Roland. "You two know each other?" -- "Just met. Long story," said Art with a dismissing gesture. -- Turning back to Art, he asked, "So…" -- Art explained, "You recall the sisters asked me to go visit the count along with Liene? Well, I figure you ought to come with as well. It'd be quite the opportunity for you." -- Roland nodded. "Fine by me, I've time on my hands waiting for tomorrow." -- "I take it from seeing you at prayer, that you'd managed to schedule the appointment?" -- "Yep, first thing tomorrow. You're going to pick up Warriv too, right?" -- "Yeah, let's see if he's back at the inn." Turning to Jezebel, he explained, "Warriv is our caravan master."

He led Jezebel back to the Smug Mug where he, Warriv, and the sisters were staying in, up to their room where he found it still abandoned. He then went and knocked on Roland's door, right up the hallway. "Damn, they're not back yet. Let's check with the innkeep," he said, leading them back downstairs.

"Innkeep… You know where Warriv went?" -- The innkeep shook his head. -- "Did he leave you a note or anything?" -- "Nothing." -- Turning aside from the innkeep, Art muttered, "Damn. Now where would Warriv be at a time like this?"

"Um, who's Warriv?" -- Art turned to Jezebel, about to explain. "Warriv's our caravan master." -- Roland pointed a thumb back over his shoulder. "Yes, a caravan master without caravan wagons. Where's he going to put his wares?"

Art grinned at him. "Nice call. You know the way?" -- "Follow," said Roland with a nod, and he led the way, wending past streams of busybodies crowding the streets, leading the way to Carpenter's Street, where he found Warriv inspecting one of several covered wagons along the side of the road and speaking to a plainly dressed man before a storefront that said, 'Argyle and Sons, Wainrights'.

"Warriv," Art called out to him. "Fancy finding you here." -- "Art! Come to check up on my progress, have you? I should be done here soon." -- "I'd have thought you'd come here first if you were planning on getting wagons, and that you'd have that taken care of by now," Art asked. "At this rate I doubt we'll be leaving tomorrow morning." -- "I actually had to secure the silver first. Paying for the horses would take a bit more silver than what I had saved up here. I have associates in town, but took a good bit of time hunting them down and getting them to agree to lend me the rest." -- "You managed to get the money you needed?" -- "Yep, already paid for them in fact. Soon as we're done here, I can get started buying the goods." -- "Ah, about that," said Art, "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to delay that a bit. Amplisa has requested our presence with the count." -- "Amplisa did? Well that's hardly something I can refuse. When is this meeting?" -- Art looked up toward the sun. "Right about now." -- "You're not kidding." -- "Nope." -- "Ah." Warriv turned to the wainright. "Argyle, This one will do just fine. I have to run but, I'll be back to pick up the wagon shortly." -- "Aye, aye!"

Together, they back to the square. "Huh, looks like they're still at it," he mused, watching a short, stocky man in a gray gambeson exchange blows with a tall, lanky man in a dark blue one. With the wooden platform now destroyed and cleared out of the way, they simply fought over bare ground. By the side, some two dozen well-armed and armored men stood watching, some of them cheering and others jeering.

"Give me a moment to get Liene to come with," he said to Warriv and Roland, and stepped up to the stand and perused the enlistment sheet, which now sported near two dozen names. "And they've amassed a a decent following, too."

"You again," said Liene. Then she looked to Jezebel. "Ah, Jezebel, I see you got your robe back from this jackass. Are you here to join our enlistment?" -- Art chuckled. "She can't." -- "Quiet, I'm not talking to you." -- "Then you aren't talking to either of us." He turned to Jezebel. "Ignore her." -- "Don't mind him, he's a nobody. We had him thrown in the pillory just a few days ago, for getting on our bad side. Ah, but you, that was quite the demonstration of electroturgy. The sisterhood could definitely make use of your talents. What say you, hmm?" -- Jezebel kept quiet. -- "Ah, you didn't strike me as the shy type when jumped out onto the stage. Cat got your tongue?" -- "No, I did." -- "You fancy you have nine lives too many?" Liene rounded on him, glaring. -- "As I've been trying to point out, except you keep interrupting me, she's indentured to me now." -- "Bullshit." -- "Seriously, Liene, I know you aren't about to trust me, but you really should find out the facts before you make a fool of yourself." -- "Hah. As if she'd have any reason to be indentured to you." -- Art tapped a finger on Jezebel's robe. -- Liene turned to Jezebel. "What happened?" -- Jezebel pointed a thumb at Art. "What he said." -- Liene did a double take. "Seriously?" -- Nod from the both of them. -- "Well that sure happened fast." -- "That's what she said."

Liene shook her head. "I can't take this any more," she muttered to herself, then perked up. "Oh look at the time! Paige, I'm leaving you in charge of the recruitment drive till I get back. Elexa, Diane -- with me." She turned to Art. "Sorry but I don't have time to chat," she said. -- "That's fine, me neither. We'll be seeing you soon," he called after them as the trio of sisters began to head down the street. Art, Warriv, Roland, and Jezebel followed shortly thereafter.

"Care to tell me where we're going?" asked Jezebel. -- "Whitekeep." -- "Why are we going there?" -- "Why, to crash Liene's visit with the count, of course," he said with a grin. -- "What's between you and her?" -- "Long story, but since you'll be coming with me…" And he brought her up to speed about the sisterhood and its plight, their defeat at the hands of the monastery by necroturges, Liene catching him performing necroturgy.

"Wait, you're a necroturge? You never told me." -- "Well after what happened last time someone found out about it, I wouldn't be caught dead with the dead. I figured I'd take it to the grave with me. Oh but look, you've made me tell you my secret. You know what they say about the best way for two men to keep a secret is if one of them is dead." -- Jezebel froze. -- "Why the hard look, Jezebel? Last I checked, we're not two men with a secret, we're two men, another man, a woman, and also a bunch of other men and women from here all the way to Thistledown who had seen me getting pilloried."

Suddenly Liene rounded on them, glaring at Art. "Why are you following us? Don't you have somewhere better to go?" -- "You're assuming we're following you." -- "And you aren't?" -- "No, this just happens to be the path to where we need to go." -- "Then walk," she said, and she and Elexa and Diane stood to the side, beckoning him on. -- "You're assuming I know how to get there without you leading us there." -- "I knew it!" -- "Calm down, Liene," Art said, then he and his group walked on past them.

They walked down two blocks, then he glanced around to see Liene's group walking after him. They walked two more blocks, and with a glance saw them again. He turned around and marched right up to Liene. "Why are you following us? Don't you have somewhere better to go?" he demanded. -- "What -- you again!" -- "What do you mean, I again, you're following us, what did you expect?" -- "Who says--" -- "Seriously? You mean to tell me that you're not following in our footsteps?" -- Elexa turned away, covering her mouth with one hand, chuckling. -- Liene flashed an irritated glance at her, then rounded on Art. -- "Are you intentionally trying to mess with us?" -- "Kind of hard to do, considering you're already such a mess that we'd only succeed in putting you straight." -- "Alright, then set us straight, why don't you. What are you up to?" -- "I have a meeting with the count." -- "Not now you don't." -- "Yes now I do." -- "No you don't, because we have that meeting right now." -- Art smiled. -- Liene leered at him before she widened her eyes in realization. "No way." -- "Like I said, Liene, you really ought to find out the facts first," Art replied, looking smug. -- "Amplisa set you up to this? She did, didn't she. Why did she have to send you of all people? Augh!" She turned away, muttering.

"Liene, I actually need to apologize," Art said. -- "Hah, really? What con are you trying to sell me now, to speak such honeyed words?" -- "We've gotten off to a rough start--" -- Liene chuckled. "'Rough start', he says." -- "…and I haven't done much to earn your trust back." -- "You think?"

"Believe it or not, I'm actually looking out for the sisterhood. Amplisa sent me because she saw that in me, and besides, I can represent the caravaners, and you'll want any last bit of support we can provide in your meeting with the count."

Amplisa gestured toward Warriv. "And Warriv's here. So why are you still here then? Aren't you the odd wheel here?"

"If he's not going, then I'm not going," said Warriv. "-- "Yeah, me neither," said Roland.

Liene sighed. "Why are you making this so difficult for us? Look, Art. I don't need your help. You can go tell Amplisa to mind her own business. Because I certainly don't want to mind you when we're meeting with the count. Heavens know you've frayed my nerves enough already."

"Ah, good, then I've succeeded." He slapped himself on the cheek. "I… Let my mouth run faster than my mind, sometimes. Oftentimes. Most times. Fact of the matter is, you're fun to tease. And for having gotten me locked in that pillory, you deserve it. I can't say I care much for the sisterhood, but I do care for some of the people in Thistledown, which the sisterhood is protecting simply by being there. And I'll be damned if I let you get between me and the people I want to protect."

"Bold words, Art. Since Amplisa seems to trust you, you can come, and if you trust Jezebel as much, she can come with, too. But." Liene stepped right in Art's face, stared right at him. "While we meet with the count, you'll do exactly as I command of you. And if you do anything to jeopardize our meeting with the count, you'll be wishing you were back in the pillory, because I'll be damned if I let your antics hurt my family. Are we clear?"


With a final mistrustful look at him, Liene turned and led the group toward Whitekeep.

"So," Diane asked Liene, "Do you think this count will prove receptive to our request?" -- "Remember, sister, we are seeking an ally in our war, as equals. We are not requesting aid on our venture. When we meet with him, do not in any way expose the situation our sisterhood finds itself in, do you understand?"

Diane nodded with a look of worry. "Yes, but elder sister Liene, you make it sound like it's not certain that we'll get the aid we need. Are you worried that he won't be receptive to us if we simply asked for help?"

"I prefer a little paranoia to leaving ourselves vulnerable. After all, it never hurts to be on guard either way. But don't worry, Diane; we'll get the help we need. After all, I know the count. He's a good man, and he and the sisterhood have had amicable relations for many years."

"Don't forget about the merchant trade," added Warriv. "That's a lot of tariffs going into his coffers, silver which I'm sure he won't want to do without. He'll want to ensure that the sisterhood's efforts in keeping the peace along this stretch of the silk road continues, lest the trade dries up and the caravans go some other way and he loses his income. This is no place for him to stint on expenses."

They came upon it soon. It stood proud, a tall, wide stone building that rose some sixty feet tall, easily the second tallest building in the town after the massive cathedral in the town center. The keep stood adjoined to the town wall on the one side, with turrets at each of its four corners. A squad of five guards in full mail stood at attention before the entrance, spears held out before them and barring entry.

Liene addressed the one among them with with a blue cloak. "Greetings, good sergeant. We are here for a meeting with the count," said Liene. -- "Name?" -- "Liene, of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye." She gestured toward Art. "Also, we bring other guests. Warriv, caravan master; Roland, another caravaner; Art, yet another caravaner; and Jezebel…." -- "A resident here." -- A nod, as the sergeant looked over Liene and the other sisters' white and brown gambesons. "Welcome, Liene and company. The count is expecting you. Brendan will show you the way." The sergeant waved them in, and the pair at the entrance set aside their spears.

"Follow me," said Brendan, one of the other guards, an older man with a full beard that had started going white. He led them in to the atrium, where two other men stood at attention, these wearing only gambeson. "Weapons," asked one of them, whereupon the group handed over their weapons; and then the two of them patted them down. "All good", they said, whereupon Brendan led them down a spacious stone hallway to the count's courtroom.

Brendan entered the room first, taking to stand by the side of the wall as soon as he did so. "Milord, Liene of the Order of the Sightless Eye, and her entourage, also," he announced in a crisp tone. -- "Enter," said a voice within.

They entered the large chamber adorned with chandeliers above and candles all around. To the sides, half a dozen more guards stood at attention in their mail, swords at their sides. Near the far end of the otherwise empty room was set a stone dais, upon which Count Traben sat upon an ornate mahogany chair. The tall man looked dashingly handsome, with a full head of golden hair, broad shoulders set on an imposing frame. He wore a luxurious bright red surcoat lined with ermine. By his side stood his chancellor, a lean man with a wiry long white beard, far more plainly dressed in his undecorated light gray robe. To their sides stood a pair of maidservants.

"My lord," said Liene, and knelt on one knee; -- "My lord," said the others, following suit.

"Ah! You are most welcome, sisters of the Sightless Eye," he said as he sat on his chair. "Come, have we such need for honorifics? Rise," he said, and as one they rose. The count turned to a maidservant. "We must have a proper reception for ones such as these." Upon which the maidservant nodded once and departed. Then he turned back to the group. "I must say, I have not had a proper reception with your order in many a week, though your monastery lies only half a week's walk away, and this seems to be a trend as of late. You must let your sisters know that I, as pretty much your next door neighbor, require that I see your faces more often. And not just when they're on their occasional shopping trips. Speaking of which, I believe I've not had the pleasure of being introduced to any of you save Liene. I suppose my reputation precedes me, which leaves me somewhat at a disadvantage, wouldn't you say?"

As Art and the others introduced themselves in turn, a troupe of maidservants entered, bearing light wooden tables and chairs and setting them about the room, three set to the left where Liene and the sisters gathered, and fourt on the right where Art, Jezebel, Roland, and Warriv then sat. They left a moment later, to return a short while later with trays bearing geese and eggs, assorted fruits and vegetable dishes and more, to set them down on the tables before them. The wafting aroma made his mouth water. One of the maidservants poured red wine into the little pewter cups set on each of their trays, the count's included.

What a nice reception, thought Art. He'd gone before a court a few times on other occasions, for other nobles at roughly the same rank as this Traben, and those had been singularly somber affairs with him and perhaps others simply standing in the middle of the room talking, before a noble that was all business. Yet here they were being treated quite graciously by their host. This looked well, thought Art; his treating Liene and company like equals showed that the count respected them and the order they represented, and that would mean an easier time securing the aid the sisterhood so desperately needed.

"Come, let us toast," said the count, lifting up his little cup and holding it for all to see. Art and the others held it up likewise. "To wealth, health and happiness," said the count, then drank his wine all down in one gulp, tilting it out forward for the others to see he'd finished. -- "Wealth, health, and happiness," said Art and the other guests, before drinking them all down in one gulp as well. Art's wine sent down his gullet smoothly enough. He savored the taste. It had just the right blend of sweetness and tanginess, without any of the bitter dregs. "Ah, fine wine," he remarked, making a solid thumbs-up gesture, as the maidservants walked around to refill everyone's cups.

"I am glad there are still those among my guests who know great wine from good," said the count, beaming. "So what brings you here," asked the count as he turned to Art, Warriv and Roland. How did you have the fine luck of meeting these lovely ladies?"

"I disrobed her"," Art blurted out. -- Jezebel shot Art a scandalized look. -- "No, I meant the sis… wait, what?" -- Elexa burst out laughing. -- Art turned to Jezebel. "What, Jezebel, just that, no backstory, you're going to leave me hanging like that? Speaking of which, they were going to hang you, weren't they?" -- "You just won't make matters convenient, do you?" she replied back, looking at him reproachfully. -- "For attempted murder? Course not. You killed me, made me take a sojourn through hell, or did you forget that already?" -- "You made that all up!" -- "Why how dare you make light of my travails, when you were the one who made my heart stop beating, as several others could have attested to! My lord, I demand she be hung for killing me!" -- The count, with a look of amazement and confusion his face, cocked his head at Art and asked, "Really, now? And how is it you are doing the demanding?" -- "…I got better." -- "One does not simply… Whatever," cradling his head in his hands. "How did this even--"

"Trust me, you do not want to know," replied Liene. -- Turning to Liene and the other sisters, the count said, "Ah yes, I imagine I wouldn't, or at this rate I'll get a heart attack before we're done." -- "Now you know what a chore it is to deal with this man." -- "And how is it that you wound up with such a 'chore' like him?"

Oh, he has no idea, mused Art. He had the 'fine luck' of sleeping at the monastery the night of the attack, the very night that culminated in his losing an arm. If it had happened just one day later, he and the rest of Warriv's caravan would by now be several days out into the deserts to the east, blissfully unaware of the war, and he wouldn't have gotten to know any of the sisterhood, or at least not really.

"They put me in the pillory," Art answered, glancing at Liene and evoking a glare from her. -- "Art…" -- "Well now, this I have to hear," replied the count, reclining back in his seat with a smile. -- "Ah crap, now I am wishing I hadn't brought this up," Art muttered. -- "Well don't keep us waiting."

"Alright then. It should come as no surprise to you that necroturgy is heavily frowned upon in these parts, what with the Church of Light and all," he began. He gulped. He hadn't first found out what the count's attitude toward necroturgy was, which meant this could go potentially very badly. "Guess what? I just happened to be dabbling in the very same when Liene and company stumbled upon me."

The count's face formed a rictus of fury. "How dare you dabble in such black arts!" he shouted, causing some of the guards' hands to fly to their hilts of their swords. "For such desecration of those who have earned their eternal rest, there shall be but one reward, and that is death!" Then in a perfectly calm voice, "…is how Bishop Arevain would like me to say." The guards visibly relaxed, as did Art. "But as I am the local count, he has to suffer my reticence on the matter." Then his wry grin faded. "So yes, I can see why the sisters would put you in the pillory for it. But tell me: how is it you came to be working necroturgy in the first place?"

"I used to be a swordsman," Art said, looking downcast. "Then…" he lifted up his arm. "I lost it in battle."

A vision, of him getting his arm hacked off by the sudden appearance of the beast. Him, fleeing into the night, chased in his panic. Crying tears of sorrow, agonizing over how he'd live out the rest of his days without the use of his other hand. Running through the night, searching for Selena, afraid that he'd not be able to defend her against the midgets…

"Sacrifices must be made in war," mused the count. "But in my reckoning, so long as you lost it in the pursuit of an honorable deed then you would wrong yourself to fret over its loss. I can see how you'd resort to necroturgy, then. An almost entirely mental way that can function as a second hand to replace the one you lost makes a great deal of sense, even if a difficult choice given how poorly it will be received." He turned to Liene. "So. The pillory? What did he do, steal a loaf of bread with a dismembered hand? There are other punishments for that, though admittedly severing a dismembered hand would deter awfully little."

"Well no, not quite thievery…" -- "Oh you can admit it," Art said. "All I did was put on a bone puppet play. For an audience of one. In the middle of the forest. And you got Kashya to put me in the pillory for a day and a night."

"Now that's cruel and unusual punishment," mused Traben.

"Yes, it does seem a bit of an overreaction, does it not?" Art said, while looking at Liene, a smug look on his face.

The count added, "I am surprised; last I heard of Erend's rantings, he'd been lambasting your order for being too weak on theological matters. I gather that would include a nonchalant attitude toward the supposed 'dark ways'. The caravaners who pass through your monastery's gates all have nothing but the utmost praise for the sisterhood's understanding and acceptance of all manner of practices. What changed?"

"The damnable redskins," replied Liene. "Their elders wield staves that grant them the ability to fling fire bolts and reanimate the dead. Their black arts had cost us many a fellow sister in the war, so we'd hardly take kindly to humans doing the same," she said, shooting Art a vengeful look.

"War?" -- The count looked up at Liene in surprise. "What war? Why is this the first time I hear of this?"

Lien replied, "We've been fighting the redskins for a while now, off and on for months." -- "Ah, right, that. Slipped my mind, I'd have to admit." -- "Wouldn't be surprising in the least. We keep the pass to the east safe and secure, and the caravans have nothing to complain about." -- "And I owe you much thanks for that," he said with a smile. "Though, I'd hardly call policing your territory for bandits a war." -- "It's… a bit more involved than that, as of late." -- "Oh. I trust your sisterhood has been managing nonetheless. Is that why you're here then -- to buy more supplies in order to support the war effort?"

"Not just supplies. Our sisterhood is a rather small local power, and we are not many to sustain a war. Hence with the approval from your bailiff, some of my sisters have been looking to recruit mercenaries for the upcoming battles." -- "How goes the search?" -- "Very well. We have gotten a good two dozen individuals to sign up, and expect several times as many by the time we leave tomorrow. Speaking of which, if you would be able to spare some men, that would be much appreciated."

"Why of course!" the count said, beaming. "Anything we can do to help our next door neighbors. I take pride in the knowledge that my men can march in but three day's notice. Though I have to ask, what venture did you have in mind, for the sisterhood's own forces and the mercenaries you're recruiting to prove insufficient?"

"We have reports that the redskin tribe to our north has suffered heavy losses in their continuing struggles with more distant tribes. Battles that have deprived them of most of their adults of prime military age. This gives us an opening for quite the coup. To capitalize on this, we're planning to attack one of their villages," she replied. "Maybe more. Drive them out of the local highlands altogether." -- "Ah, nice. Make them think twice about getting anywhere near our lands," the count added, nodding. -- "And banish their threat from our lands entirely," Liene added, looking triumphant.

"That would be an honorable achievement indeed," the count agreed. "And with our portion of the silk road safer, we'd see fewer raids and more merchant traffic. A win-win for the both of us, wouldn't you say?" -- Liene nodded with a smile. -- "Well a toast is certainly in order!" he called out, and he and the guests all raised their cups. "To victory," he said, and they downed their cups in one shot, after which the maidservants quickly refilled the wine. -- "Ahhhhh! Now that's the kind of wine I really enjoy," he said as he set down the cup. "Red wine with the indulgent taste of impending triumph mixed in."

"You shall have my finest men for this endeavor," the count continued. "A hundred, nay, a hundred and fifty men-at-arms. Let it never be said that Count Traben proved lax in his aid in the sisterhood's time of need."

Warriv stood up, holding out his wine cup before him in both hands. "I, as but a humble caravan master, do thank my lord for ensuring the safety of not only our caravan but others as well. Truly you are most wise, and just as surely shall Tristram prosper under your rule." -- "Haha! Well said," said the count with a broad smile holding out his wine cup as well, and the two drank their cups and showed them empty to each other before sitting back down.

Roland stood up next. "And I, as templar of the Order of the Temple's Light, also thank my lord, for your enthusiasm for supporting the sisters' cause and for demonstrating your devotion to the Ten Tenets. If there is indeed any ruler more of an exemplar of those ideals than you, I have yet to meet him." -- "Hah! Would you listen to that! Drink, good Roland!" and they drank, and Roland too sat down.

Liene stood up, holding out her wine cup before her in both hands. "Thank you, my lord. I believe I speak on behalf of the sisterhood when I say that your support of our cause shall not go unrewarded. Let this herald ever closer relations between us, that we may achieve together what our two polities divided dare not dream of." -- "Wonderful, wonderful!, Come, let us toast!" and they drank, and Liene sat back down also.

The count elaborated, "Give us a few days and we'll set out. Where do you want them?" -- "Thistledown." -- "Uh, forgive me, where is this place you speak of? Bjorn," He snapped a finger at the chancellor, who stepped forward and unfurled a scroll with a map of Tristram and the surrounding regions, setting it on the stand by the side of the count's chair.

"It's a village slightly more than halfway between here and the monastery, straight as the crow flies," said Liene. "This is where we'll be massing for our offensive."

"Ah," mused the count as he looked over the map. "And where are the redskin villages?" -- "Here, my lord," said the chancellor, circling several regions on the map with his finger. -- The count turned to Liene. "I assume you're looking to assault the villages that pose the greatest threat to the silk road, then, rather than the ones closest to the monastery?"

"For now, yes. We'll eventually seek to target both. That is our mission, after all," said Liene. -- "Of course. But that will take a few weeks at the least, yes? Surely you wouldn't think to assault each of these villages one after another. If you wanted to scare them into fleeing, best to give them some time for the news to spread, so that they flee of their own accord. Spares you the trouble of killing them all, you see." -- "Of course." -- "Well in that case I'm not sure a village would be the best staging ground for such an effort, especially one without a caravanserie to support the sudden influx. We'd have to build an encampment for the troops otherwise. Why not Maple Creek? It has one. Or the monastery itself? The complex has plenty of room to house the troops, as a caravanserai in and of itself."

He doesn't know the monastery has fallen, Art realized. With the monastery fallen and the redskins able to attack from both their villages to the north and along the silk road to the east, the sisterhood had to hold Thistledown to protect the villages to its west. They can't afford to fall back all the way to Maple Creek. But he doesn't know that, which is why he's thinking Liene's just being foolish. But Liene knows the truth, and she knows that he doesn't know it, and she wants to keep it a secret for as long as possible to strengthen her negotiating position, so she won't offer to tell him as much, and that means she wouldn't give him the real explanation.

"I am sure you know that ours is a celibate order. It simply would not do to have the men simply settle down in our monastery. You know how rowdy such men can get, cooped up in such a modest abode as ours. It would lead our younger sisters to temptation."

"But don't men and women alike pass through on an almost weekly basis, with the caravans and all?" replied the count. "If almost sounds like you're saying my men, and only my men, can't control themselves, Liene."

"We would not dream of implying such a thing! The caravaners, they visit for a night and then continue on, and many of them we will never see again. Even the regulars only return once in many months, if not years, such that they never have the chance to build up any rapport with the sisters. But for a garrison staying there day in and day out, night after night…"

"Now, I understand your concern. Please, let me lay your worries to rest on that front. I will have it made known that should any of my men even so much as attempt to lay a hand on any of your sisters, the offending arm shall be lopped off -- without excuses. But surely, if my men and your sisters are to fight together, they would benefit more from cooperating closely, training together, conducting joint military exercises, and just all around getting to know each other better, so as to foster trust? After all, one can hardly expect my men, well trained as they may be, to willingly put their lives on the line for a sisterhood whose people they would rarely, if ever meet. Your sisterhood would be well advised not to cloister yourselves off from my men."

"It is not only a matter of chastity, my lord. We have separate quarters for the caravaners as opposed to for ourselves, whereby we limit their interaction with each other. Those rooms of course need to be retained for when each caravan arrives; we would be most inhospitable hosts if we forced them to set up tents without our monastery. For a group of over a hundred men to also dwell within our halls would require them to reside in the very same halls and chambers as our own sisters. We are concerned with what consequences that would bring."

"Let me read between your lines and say that if you fear that, if my men were allowed to mass in the halls of your citadel, that you may have a coup on your hands, that can easily be resolved. I shall not insist on having them reside in the same quarters as your sisters. Only let them be stationed right outside your gates, where they would pose no threat to you but would stay close enough to work closely together, as allies in war must. I believe, so long as they never set foot within your monastery, that you should have few qualms about letting them set up encampment without. In fact, I insist that they do so."

Liene seemed to cast about for some other excuse to offer. "You speak wisely, my lord. You understand I will have to discuss the matter with my superiors before I can agree to such on their behalf."

"'Agree'? How presumptious! You are yet young, Liene, so I can countenance your naivete on this matter, but to any other, what you say would verge on insult. You come to me, asking for my support in your war, offering nothing in return, yet you treat my men as your inferiors, declaring where they may and may not be allowed to go, as if they were nothing but untamed beasts with nothing on their minds but rape and pillage, and this even after I have already made concessions and after I have explained why such a move would prove disastrous. Do I need to summon the abbess here to discuss matters with her personally?"

Liene flinched from such accusations. "It's not that! I truly appreciate your assistance on the matter, but--" -- "But what? Why is it so hard to work with your order on this matter? Why are you so persistent on this point? Is it that significant an issue as to where our forces rally? Why are you so averse to our men arriving at your monastery?"

"Please, my lord. We have our reasons as to why we wish to amass our forces at Thistledown--" -- "What reasons, Liene? What is it you are not telling me? Why is it you absolutely cannot allow our men anywhere near your monastery?" -- Art looked at the count in horror. Liene stared at the floor, speechless. -- The count's eyes widened in realization. With lowered voice he said, "You… don't have the monastery, do you?"

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