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Chapter 23 - Engagement in a Brothel, Part I

Roland spoke up. "If it's any consolation, I have arranged to speak with the bishop. Perhaps he will be more amenable to our request for aid than the count has been."

"Really?" said Diane, perking up at that. She wiped away her tears and turned to him. "So we'll be able to get the money we need after all?" -- Elexa added, "He won't just leave us to our plight, will he?"

Roland nodded with a smile. "The Fourth Tenet of the Church of Light: To help those in need. I am sure your sisterhood qualifies. First thing tomorrow, I will speak with him." He pointed to the mace by his side, emblazoned with the templars' descry. "I am templar. He will most certainly hear me out."

Wow, thought Art. The way Roland had so heartlessly dissected Amplisa's secrets earlier and broke their hearts with the revelations, he hadn't expected Roland to volunteer this information. Had the man started to take pity on them now?

Liene turned to Roland. "That's a mite optimistic. Our sisterhood has certainly failed to demonstrate much zealotry in matters of religion. Certainly the bishop will not lend us any assistance as we are now, not without concessions. Most likely he will demand that we convert our monastery into a bastion of their church. Have us all become templar sisters, perhaps even abandon our own ways." -- At this, the other sisters drew back in distaste. -- "And our conversion is not on the table. It would be a complete denial of who we are. And I am sure the count and bishop are in communication, whatever he might say to the contrary. After what happened just now?" She shook her head. "Highly doubtful."

"So what then, are you going to give up? I shall at least give it a try," replied Roland. "I will see what terms he will demand. And you and your sisterhood, of course, must be prepared to accept unappealing terms, which I am sure the man will foist upon you, as I doubt he'd be a fool. Since you need the aid to retake the monastery, then for you, no price is too high."

"Be that as it may, we'll still be needing to make do with what money we do have," replied Liene. "It won't be enough to sustain our sisterhood for long, but with help from the church… We may manage. We just need to buy enough to last till we retake the monastery with the aid of the templar." -- "So what do we need to get then?" asked Eliza, looking up.

Art shot Roland a discreet thumbs-up. It seemed that his promise of templar aid was just what the sisters needed in order to get back on their feet and confront their plight.

"I will need to discuss matters with sister Amplisa," Liene replied. "Besides, given that we Roland has the meeting with the bishop tomorrow, from which we may yet receive the aid we need, I think it's too early to start allocating our silver just now." She looked over at Elexa and Diane. "I'm sure you must all be exhausted from our trying meeting with the count, and I doubt we're in any mood to accomplish anything well. Let's call it a day. Roland… thank you for arranging to meet with the bishop on our behalf. I really don't know what we'd do without you. You've given our hope back to us, and for that we'll always be grateful."

"Let's head back to the inn," said Roland, looking abashed. He led the way, and the rest of them followed.

They walked down half the length of main street and came across a solemn group standing before a row of coffins astrewn with flowers. No doubt for the slaughter that had happened this morning, Art realized. A ring of lit candles ringed each one, and as they approached, Art could make out people among the crowd walking past the lineup, some bowing their heads and some clasped in prayer, some passing a hand over the wooden surfaces. Roland and company kept to the far side of the streets, but the lamentations from the group still reached their ears.

A memory, unbidden, of him engaging the rampaging redskins down Greens Street with whatever makeshift weapons and shields he had at his disposal, even as they slaughtered their way down the far side of the street. Leaping forth to engage the shaman and its guards, knowing full well that he'd be leaving the retreating civilians exposed. The look of shock and digust on the face of the one woman as he knocked the midget warrior down upon her. Blood running along the streets. Ryann with her mangled leg, looking near lifeless. An agonized Blaise at a loss for what to do.

Before him, Roland slowed down, and he and the rest stopped as well for a moment to observe the funeral. Jezebel remarked, "My god, what had happened…"

A man stood on a small wooden dais, speaking aloud over the silent gathering. "…And Annette--"

"Annette!" wailed a man at the center of the crowd at the top of his lungs, before choking on sobs. "My love…" From where he passed by, he could barely make out others standing by the man's side, holding him by the shoulder in an effort to console him. On the man's other side stood a boy no older than ten who was bawling his eyes out.

"… Annette wife of Griswold the smith, she was the joy of our little community. I recall how each week she'd set out flowers to adorn our stalls, always freshly picked, beautiful and aromatic. She'd always visit us with that smile of hers, ask us for what news we had. Whenever we had need for her help, she'd always be the first to provide it. When Tawny had the fever chills and there was none other to tend to him, Annette was there to tend to him and nurse him back to health. When my neighbor Leanna's twin daughters went missing, it was Annette who led the search to ensure that they were returned safely. When Marlowe's house had gone up in flames, it was Annette who was first to raise the alarm so that we could put out the fires. And that was just in the past year. You all know as well as I, just how much we owe to her. And it is for all the ways that she has touched our lives, that she will be dearly missed in the days to come.

"And yet, that was nothing compared to her love for her family. Whenever she told us a story about her baby son Tam, her eyes would light up in excitement and adoration. Oftentimes in the evenings we would see her passing by on the streets, following after Tam as he went racing up and down the market streets. We remember her hearty laughs as she chased after him before catching him in a loving embrace. We remember her for all the time she spent to teach young Tam, that he may grow up to be a righteous, god-fearing young man. We remember how she'd work by her husband's side, tending to the blast furnaces when his apprentices stood preoccupied on other tasks. And most of all, we remember how she inspired us all to love our friends and family.

"She was a teacher, friend, and mentor to us. Bringing us comfort when we felt most lost, bringing us suggestions when we'd overlooked matters, teaching us to always strive for the best that we can be, she always had a way of bringing each and every one of us into her extended family. And we are privileged to have been brought into her circle, for it is one blessed by the contributions of such an amazing, wonderful woman who has taught us so much about the values of generosity and cordiality, tolerance and acceptance. It has only been with her efforts that we as a community have become as tightly bound as it has become today.

"All that, coupled with her amazing strength and courage, a wonderful personality, and a toughness of will that few can measure up to, makes her as deserving of any of us for a life of bliss. And that, at least, we can say with a surety: That in these last few years, she had been blessed with a joyful life surrounded by a wholesome, healthy family which she loved and friends beyond number. In this, at least, we can see as her spirit passes on, that we had done no wrong by her. We can live in the knowledge that her spirit now watches upon us from the heavens without any unfulfilled wishes, without any regrets.

"When she passed, it felt surreal to us all. How could such a bright fixture of our neighborhood suddenly disappear? For after all, life here in Tristram without her presence would be a dimmer thing altogether. But I for one believe that we owe it to her to never give up, to never allow our sorrow to overcome us. For if there's one thing her life has shown us by example, is that she would want each and every one of us to live life to its fullest, enjoy it to the utmost, putting our sorrows and worries and fears behind us, and to care for each other as she had done for us. So long as we do this, and brighten our world for each other, we shall carry her memory with us always, and she will never truly die, living with us in our hearts.

"Please join me as together, we take a moment of silence to bid farewell and peaceful repose to your physical form, for we know you shall forever remain with us in spirit, and until we reunite in the distant future, may your beautiful soul rest in peace." -- "Amen."

Art turned away from the crowd with tears in his eyes. He hadn't known this Annette person in life, but after hearing this, he felt he'd come to know her in death. He could imagine how the town would be all the poorer for her being gone. Someone precious had been lost that day, and he'd been at least partially responsible. The guilt settled on him. A part of him wished that he could rewind time, and this time not take the course of actions that would lead to her deaths. No, not just her death, but all of them, he thought to himself as he turned back to look at the crowd and the dozens of coffins before them. This was just one individual, and he knew each and every one of the others had their own stories, their own contributions and accomplishments.

"Let's go, sisters," said Liene, taking the lead, and the group resumed their earlier pace.

But her exhortation did not go unnoticed. Some at the rear of the crowd turned, and caught sight of them, of Liene, Elexa, and Diane in their white and brown gambesons, and a flash of recognition showed on at least one face. The man turned back to the crowd and yelled, "Oi! The rogue sisters are here," causing others to turn around; and they added their voices to the first, clamoring for attention, so that within seconds the entire group had laid their eyes on them. -- "Sisters? Weren't they the ones who started this whole mess?" -- "No, we're not!" -- "How dare they show their faces here?" -- "Haven't they desecrated this place enough?" As they spoke, some advanced on Liene and company, pointing accusing fingers even as the accusations and excoriations themselves blended into a cacophony.

"What was it the eulogist was just saying about showing compassion and tolerance?" said Art. -- "Don't preach to me about tolerance when you lot were the ones who incited the attack in the first place!" -- "Uh, I think that's our cue to high-tail it out of here," said Art as he ran past a surprised Liene and the others, and a moment later they followed as well, down one side street and then another, with an enraged, screaming mob right on their heels. -- "Why'd you have to go and rile them up, Art?" asked Jezebel between breaths as they ran. -- "Would you rather the redskins grew to become a bigger threat?" -- "What? I'm talking about what you said just now… Wait a sec, you mean you weren't lying when you told the count that?" -- "I owe up to my wrongdoings, Jezebel, I'm a man of principles." -- "Says the one who got them killed!" -- "…Why are you coming after me about this when there's a mob coming after all of us?" asked Art as he kept on running.

They wended this way and that through the streets, running as a group with the mob right after them, causing passersby to cry out in surprise and leap out of the way or get knocked over by them. "Oops," said Art as he collided into an elderly man pushing a cart through the street, the distraction only serving to cause him to knock over a young lady holding a baby in her arms. They collapsed in a heap and the very next moment Art had leapt back up to his feet and with an embarassed "Sorry", kept on running. The baby, which had fallen out of its mother's hands and landed on its butt, started to cry but was stunned to silence as the others followed right after, some of them almost running into the babe as well.

They came out of a side street into its intersection with main street and the inn they were staying at. "This way," said Art, passing right by it as he ran. -- "Where're you going? This is--" said Liene, coming to a stop before the inn's entrance. -- "Is going to be your tomb if you go inside," said Art, and the next moment Roland had passed her by and was dragging Liene along as he went. -- "Roland what do you think you're--" -- "You wan't to save yourselves, follow me," he interrupted, and with a glance at the mob behind them the sisters followed right after.

"Where are we going?" shouted Elexa with a bewildered look as they went past a high-end tavern. -- "Run in circles till they give up," said Roland. "And we don't lead them to our inn, or they won't give us any peace," as they passed by a brothel. -- "I have a better idea," said Art, doubling back to the brothel entrance. He and Roland shared a look and in they went. Then they turned around to see Jezebel and the sisters stopped before the threshold, looking like they were being asked to confront the beast. -- "We can't go in there," said Diane, looking embarrassed. -- "How could you even think--" began Liene, before Art interrupted with a look of utter impatience. "Enter or die, choose one," and with a glance behind them Jezebel stepped in, with the other sisters following right after.

"My, look who we got here," said the brothel owner, a plump, homely lady with altogether too much makeup and dressed in fine, flowing red robes. "I'd have said you'll find no shortage of beautiful women here to choose from but it seems you two aren't facing any such shortage to begin wtih," she said, looking them over.

Art took in his surroundings. He needed a place to stow away the sisters. The brothel had a central atrium with a split stairwell at the back leading up to the second and third floors. Each floor had a hall along the back and on the two sides, each adjoined to several rooms. Decorative man-height screens of parchment, held up by wooden legs either side, stood interspersed, providing the place with a semblance of privacy. A little ways off stood a table, upon which rested an arrangement of cups and plates. The madam stood by the entryway, while a dozen courtesans dressed in revealing, flowing gowns of all colors stood behind her. A plan formed rapidly in his mind.

"Go on up," said Art as he nudged the sisters forward toward the stairs at the center of the brothel which led to the second floor. Liene and her sisters looked to each other in confusion before leading them up the stairs. Art called after them, "And if I have to remind you three to strip I'm going to be very disappointed!" Jezebel was about to follow right after them before Art grasped her by the wrist. "Not you." He gave her a nice look over. She did have on a luxurious, flowing blue robe, and the young lady was quite the looker. "You look pretty enough to pass as a courtesan," he remarked, then nudged her toward the entrance. -- "What did you just call me?" said Jezebel in instant fury. -- "Isn't that right, madam?" said Art, turning to the brothel owner. "Sixpence for you if you let her play the part and don't rat us out." -- The madam's lips pursed into a grin. "Well that's a first.

Jezebel pointed a finger at him, lightning dancing on its tip, before the doors were thrown aside by the lead of the mob, revealing several dozen panting men and women gathered right outside. Jezebel glanced at them in surprise then, with gritted teeth, banished the sparks and lowered her hand.

The next moment the mob had burst into the establishment, right by the madam who had approached the crowd with a welcoming smile. "Oh wow, so many customers! Wonderful!" She turned to the dozen startled courtesans standing behind her. "Looks like all you ladies are going to get your fill tonight, and then some!" She gestured to them, and they quickly approached, bringing the incoming mob to a halt as they curtseyed before them, then struck up sexually suggestive poses. One wrapped an arm around the nearest man, bringing herself up close. Another traced a finger along another man's abdomen, inching toward his groin. -- "Will you be having us tonight?" asked a courtesan. -- "You know you want to." -- "Come, my bedroom door is open…" -- "W-w… what!?"

The men looked completely out of their element, like fish caught on dry land. Then they were gasping like fish on dry land as the women among the crowd responded. One woman yanked hard on a man's year. "Darling," she said to him with a predatory smile. Another man was elbowed in the ribs, causing him to double over, grunting. Still another woman, her face gone all pink, had brought her hands up to cover the eyes of the man before her; she looked like she desperately wanted out of there. -- "Disgraceful, Eomar!" -- "What were you thinking, leading us here?" -- "Just wait till we get home…" -- "No, no, this is all wrong!" -- "Of course it's wrong! Took you long enough to realize!"

"Madam," Eomar called to the owner over the voice of the crowd, drawing their attention to him. The tan, spiky-haired man stood tall, massive muscles looking ripped under his tunic. "We have come in search for--" -- "Me?" asked a smiling courtesan in a silken red robe as she put a hand over her heart and batted her eyelids. -- "No, not you--" -- "That hurts," she retorted with pouting lips, "Don't you know how to woo a woman?" -- "I'll have you know, I have a wife--" -- "Not for long, you won't, not with such tactlessness." -- "Dina and I have been together for sixteen years!" -- "Dina, my dear, take a hint from a fellow woman, you deserve better--" -- "And what would you know?" defended Eomar. -- "Oh, I know plenty of men, and in more ways than one--" -- "And probably all of them nasty and vulgar… oh what the hell are we talking about right now?" said Eomar, clawing at his hair in exasperation.

"As we were saying, madam," said a lanky, swaggering man standing right beside Eomar. "First, apologies for the rude interruptions," he said, shooting a glare at the red-robed courtesan. "I am Kylan. We have come here in search of women wearing white and brown gambeson. You must have seen them pass by here." -- "Oh, yes, certainly," said the madam. "Why, they went right up the stairs--" -- "Which room?" -- "Third room on the right's available, for a penny. Lorelei," she called, turning to a violet-robed courtesan, who stepped forward with a smile to caress Kylan's arm and started to pull him away. -- "What… that's not what I was asking for," he shouted, looking scandalized, as he pushed Lorelei aside and glared at the madam. "Where are they? We demand to know where they are!"

"Like I said, upstairs. But you're not going any further without paying first." -- "Damn it woman, we don't have time for this nonsense!" Kylan retorted. He tilted his head upwards. "Sisters of the Sightless Eye!" he shouted, "We know you are here. Now show yourselves!" -- Another added, "You disgrace yourselves hiding in such a place!" -- "If you don't show yourselves we'll search every room!" continued Kylan. -- "You're gonna what?" said one of the women in the crowd behind him. "How dare you think of disgracing yourself so?" -- Kylan retorted, "Look we're just going to find them and drag them out--" -- "Have you no decency?" -- "I'm only doing this for the purest of intentions!" -- "Purest my ass!" -- "Damn it, Polly dearest, I know they're up there!"

"Well, you can go up anytime you'd like!" said the madam, looking gleeful. "Only one penny a visit!" -- "Shut up, madam, can't you tell we're not interested?" -- "Actually you look very interested!" -- "What? No I--" -- "Then that's that bulge down there?" she said, looking at his lower parts." -- Polly glared at Kylan, making him gulp. "You're not actually interested in them, are you?" -- "Of course not! I have no interest in any but you, dearest!" -- The madam retorted, "Don't tell me just the presence of your women has made you lose your balls. Are you men or are you not?"

"Okay we're done here," said one of the men, making to leave. -- "But what about the sisters?" -- A slap across the face. "Are you quite finished?" -- "…Sorry." -- "You're not going to just let them get away with this, are you?" -- "Yeah! They got Josephine killed! And Annette, and Tarley, and--" -- "We demand justice!" -- "Go! Search the rooms!" -- "No, not you, you're not going anywhere. You can sit your ass down right here and let the others search." -- "But--" A glare got him to shut up. -- "I'll go oww oww oww, okay I won't go anywhere," said another man, shooting the woman holding onto his ear, a pleading look.

"Damn it, if you're not going to let us men go, then you women go and find them!" said Eomar. -- A slap against his face. "You would have us disgrace ourselves from stepping any further into this place?" -- "You want to pimp us out that badly?" -- "But who else--" -- "One more word out of you and you'll have no drinking money for the rest of the month!" -- A glum nod.

"Okay, who here doesn't have a wife?" asked Kylan. Several of the men raised their hands. "Then you three -- Jeremiah, Daniel, Gregory, you go." -- "Ah ah ah," said the madam, intercepting them. "If you want to enter…" she gestured for money with an open palm. -- "You can't be serious!" -- "Very." -- "Oh for crying out--" -- "Just fork over the money, it's only what, threepence?" said Jeremiah. -- "Oh yeah? Well why don't you fork over the money?" retorted Daniel. -- "Why does it have to be me?" -- "'Cause you're the one who said it was cheap." -- "No I didn't--" -- "Didn't you just say--" -- "No no, I can't afford that kind of money!" -- "Damn, you change your tune fast." -- "One night with me will get you changing your tune again," said a courtesan in a green gown as she made to bare her shoulder. "I'll make you feel like a hundred singletons."

Then with a shout of "step aside, harlot," Jeremiah thrust her aside, his rough push sending several other courtesans falling to the ground before him in cries of protest. Some landed in ways that revealed quite a bit of leg, drawing the eyes of several of the men and the irate glares of several of their women. Jezebel shot Jeremiah a look of sheer outrage. -- "Why, if you're so interested in seeing a lady naked, why don't you have a look at us?" Another said, pouting. -- "How vulgar of you, to knock a lady down?" -- "Shut up will you?"

The courtesan in the green gown cradled an arm, wailing and biting her lip. The madam knelt down by her side and inspected her arm. "Ouch, that must have hurt! Oh, that bruise is not going to look good tomorrow…" She glanced up at the crowd, holding out the courtesan's arm at the stunned Jeremiah. "Look what you've done? Don't you know, a woman's most precious asset is her beauty? Especially for those in our profession?" -- "What are you-- I don't even see any--" -- "How is she going to earn her keep with a marring injury like that?" -- "But--" -- "How are you going to make amends?" -- "Ahh!" shouted Jeremiah as he dashed out the exit.

"Hey wait a minute, you still have to pay up!" shouted the madam, giving him a half-hearted chase for all of two seconds before he was well and truly gone. Then she turned to the others in the crowd. "You lot are all together, aren't you? Then you'll have to pay for that. Tenpence will be letting you off easy." -- "You deserve it, you're the ones getting in our way in the first place!" retorted Gregory. -- "Besides, that's not our fault, she fell on her own! Why was she the only one who got bruised?" -- "How dare--" Jezebel whispered, clenching her fist. -- "She's not the only one who got hurt," said the madam, then turned to the courtesans. "Right, girls?"

"Ow, I think I may have broken my ankle," said one courtesan who was still lying on the ground, caressing her ankle. -- "I think I fell a bit too hard on my shoulder," said another. -- "I might have broken my back…" -- "What… you're just making shit up now, you bitches!" shouted Gregory, his face a rictus of anger. -- One of the courtesans pulled herself up and, catching hold of Gregory's hand, put on a pouting face. "Please, Ellie can't work with an injury like that. And if we don't bring in any silver, we'll starve! If you're a good man, you'd take pity on us--" -- "Damn it you worthless scum, get the fuck off us!" shouted Gregory as he thrust her aside, causing her to fall into several other courtesans and causing them all to collapse in a heap again, moaning.

Jezebel stepped forward, pointing a finger at Gregory. "I thought you looked familiar! Why, you're the one who came here last week, humiliated Ellie and left bite marks all over her waist and beat Lorelei so hard it took days for the welts on her face to fade," she accused. "And then you left without even paying a penny!" -- Wait, thought Art, Jezebel is saying this? How would she know, she doesn't even work here… Oh, he realized, chuckling to himself. -- Eomar, Kylan, Polly, Daniel, and the rest of the crowd listed in mute amazement, disbelief, and outrage, and several of them turned to look at Gregory with accusing eyes.

"What? How dare you make such an accusation against me! For that, I ought to break your neck, you harlot!" -- "Gregory…" Polly said, menacing. -- "I'm telling you, I didn't do it!" -- "And now you'd deny what you've done?" retorted Jezebel, shaking her head with a look of disgust. "Just when I thought a man couldn't stoop any lower…" -- "Gregory," said Eomar, looming over the shorter and stockier man, causing Gregory to take a step back.

He shook an accusing finger at Jezebel. "You lie! I've never been in this place before in my life! I could never do such a thing!" -- "Really now? Because I seem to remember you're quite the recurring visitor," said Jezebel, taking slow step after slow step toward him. "Three, sometimes four, times a week, for several months now, forcing poor Ellie to say the most demeaning things, so that she'd cry for hours afterward and disturb our sleep…" -- "Oh my god," said Daniel, looking horrified. "I can't believe I thought of you as a friend," he said, looking away in shame. -- "You!" Gregory grabbed at Jezebel's robe. -- "What, now you're going to 'punish' me the same way you 'punished' Lorelei? That really gets you off, doesn't it?" -- "Why are you trying to accuse me of something I didn't do? I've never seen you till now. You don't even know my name, do you?" -- "Sure I do, Gregory."

Gregory looked at the faces turned against him, with a face of sheer alarm. "That doesn't count! You could have just heard someone say my name just now." -- "You think you can weasel yourself out of this?" Jezebel retorted. "Just like how you've snuck out of paying before? Well we'll make sure you pay every last penny you owe." -- "But I haven't done anything! I've never been here before! I've never visited those two harlots before, ever!" he said, incurring glares from both the courtesans.

He turned to Ellie. "You tell them! You've never had me as a client before, have you? Tell them!" -- Ellie burst out crying and looking just miserable as she replied, "What, about how you humiliated me?" She covered her mouth with a hand. "Ah, oops, that wasn't supposed to come out, was it?" -- Gregory looked as if he was about to cry, and turned to Lorelei in tears. "Please, Lorelei! I don't know why they aren't telling the truth, but you have to, I beg you!" -- Lorelei fell to her knees and kowtowed before Gregory. "Please spare me, master, don't put me in such a bind! I can't bear your punishments any more!"

The man collapsed laughing and wailing, tears drenching his face. 'How much do you want? How much? I'll pay! I'll give you anything if you would retract your words!" Gregory said, reaching out a pleading hand toward Jezebel, Ellie, and Lorelei. -- "Worthless piece of pondscum!" -- "What a bastard!" -- "To think he'd gotten away with it for so long!" -- "How could you, Gregory? How could you?" -- "What's a fitting punishment for a worm like him?" asked Polly. -- Eomar cracked his knuckles. -- "No, oh dear god no no no!"

And Eomar slammed a forceful punch right into Gregory's face, knocking him onto his back, bleeding out his nose and crying in pain. He brought his arms up to cover his face, but then a snarling Daniel kicked the man in the groin, sending him bending over and clutching at his private parts, and then punches and kicks descended without end from the crowd, all of whom seemed to want a piece of him. The man gasped in his screams, crying and begging for mercy and pleading for them to spare his life, in between involuntary groans and inarticulate screams. -- "Take that!" -- "Teach you to take advantage of helpless women!" -- "Go to hell and stay there!"

Jezebel watched the crowd beating up on one of their own with a triumphant look. Art turned to Roland, who whispered, "Think we should step in a bit here? The guy did no wrong." -- "Obviously." -- "But it's not obvious to them, and if we don't do something about this he's going to get himself killed." -- Then Jezebel was shouting at the crowd, sounding concerned, "Oh heavens, what are you doing to him?" -- "Beating the bastard up, what's it look like?" -- "No, no you can't, don't you see how badly you're hurting him?" -- "That's the point." -- "Haven't beat him hard enough, by my reckoning," said Eomar, stomping hard into the sputtering man's chest. -- "Someone has to beat a lesson into him."

"No, I can't, I can't watch you do this," she said, sounding alarmed. "At this rate you'll kill him! And he doesn't deserve to die!" -- "For making all of us look bad? He surely does!" -- "What are you complaining about? Didn't you want to see him punished?" -- "Well not like this, this is too much, if I'd known you'd react like this then I wouldn't have made the accusation in the first place…" -- "No, you were right bring this to light, we don't put up with abusing women!" -- "Please, you have to stop! I… I withdraw my accusation…" -- "Oh, bother feeling any pity for this guy, he isn't worth it."

"Did you hear that?" said Eomar, shouting down at the man who had been beaten senseless. "Even after all you've done, they still feel pity for your worthless hide. Why couldn't you have taken pity on them? What worthless scum you are!" More beating followed. He lay inert and unconscious as Polly and Dina took turns kicking him in the groin, snarls on their faces. Jezebel backed away from the crowd, leaving them to it.

"Jezebel, was that really necessary?" Art asked. -- She turned to face him and Roland, and approached with a look of mock sadness. "I was trying to get them to lay off beating poor Gregory…" -- "We're not stupid, you know." -- "Oh?" She leaned close to them with a haughty smile, and whispered. "What do you think of my performance?" -- "A bit horrifying." -- "Good. Best we all keep that in mind before someone gets any ideas, wouldn't you say, master?" she said, shooting him an askance look. -- "Did… you put all that on for me?" -- She snorted. "You're just an afterthought. No, I just couldn't stand how the bastard was calling the ladies the vilest things and pushing them around. Which, incidentally, was probably why Ellie and Lorelei corroborated for me. People get upset when their feelings are hurt, and the man didn't watch his mouth. Figure the bully could do with a bit of getting bullied."

"And are you pleased with your handiwork? Was this what you expected would happen?" Roland retorted. -- She turned to watch as the crowd continued to beat the crap out of the helpless wretch, and mused, "Hmm, come to think of it, it's a bit more intense than I would have expected. I'm so good, I astound myself."

"Alright alright, you all can stop now, he's unconscious," said Kylan, spreading out his hands to get the others to step away. Several of them spat at him as they did so. With the crowd now parted, Art could see that the man was covered black and purple in bruises, his face smeared in blood, his nose crooked, an arm twisted behind his back in a most unnatural way, pus oozing out of his eyes.

"Seems we got him right good," said Dina, looking at Gregory in disgust. -- "Teaches him right." -- "No, teaches everyone right," said Eomar in his deep voice. "I doubt anyone here would dare to take advantage of women after seeing what'll come to them."

"If only that were the case," muttered a courtesan in a white gown, looking downcast. -- "What's that?" asked Polly. -- "N…nothing." -- "Speak up, girl." -- She shook her head. -- "Oh dear. Don't worry, no one'll hurt you." -- "Ariana, you don't have to speak to that if you don't want to," said Ellie, setting a hand on Ariana's shoulder and looking worried for her. -- "What? Is it another injustice? We demand to hear it. We'll teach him a lesson as well. We're already at it, so might as well. Right, everyone?" -- Nods and grunts in agreement. -- Ariana looked up to them, tears welling to her eyes.

"It was Eomar," she said, barely above a whisper. -- Eomar's eyes widened, as did those of all the others. Looks of disbelief crossed the faces of several of them. -- "Eomar? Eomar what?" -- "You're saying Eomar--" -- "I what?" said Eomar in a threatening tone. -- "He raped me," said Ariana, looking away again. -- "Ah crap," Art muttered to himself. -- "Why don't you say that to my face, huh?" -- Ariana backed away, grimacing. -- "Or why is it you can't you meet my eyes?" -- "I can't believe it…" -- "Must have gotten it wrong…" -- "How could Eomar--" -- Ariana looked from one disbelieving face to another, and fell silent. -- Dina put out an arm to her side, silencing them. "You're saying Eomar raped you? When, how did this happen?"

"It was the night of the midsummer festival. My friends and I had been out celebrating, and as the celebrations died down, we parted ways, and then I was walking home alongside Eomar--"

"That can't be right," interrupted Dina. "Eomar couldn't have attended the midsummer festival here last year. I would know, because the two of us were traveling out on errand to Duncraig. I remember, we joined the village locals in their feast that night." -- Several people turned to Ariana with disbelieving looks. -- "It wasn't last year's festival," Ariana replied, looking caught. -- "Oh? When was it, then?" -- "It was… five or six… maybe seven years ago…" -- Roland face-palmed himself. -- "You don't remember when it happened? Something this important? I'd have thought you'd remembered," asked Kylan. -- "Kind of convenient, isn't it?" -- Dina raised a hand again. "Then what happened?"

Ariana gulped, the continued. "He convinced me to come to his place, just to check it out, he said, and I went--" -- "Great, just what we needed right now," Jezebel muttered to herself. -- "You did agree to go to his place then?" -- "Yes--" -- "Why did you go? You know, that wasn't the brightest thing you could have done--" -- "Had you been drinking?" -- Ariana withered under their barrage of questions. "No!" -- "Who doesn't drink on midsummer's?" -- "I mean yes… yes, I did drink--" -- "How much?" -- "I don't remember--" -- "Oh come on, you couldn't remember? Sheesh, you must have been drinking quite a lot then." -- "You know, young girls shouldn't be drinking that much." -- "You think if you hadn't gotten drunk, you'd have kept your wits about you?" -- "Yeah, it's kind of your own fault if you get drunk enough that a man can take advantage of you." -- "Guys, can we not jump to assuming that I would have taken advantage of her? You all know me, I would never have done such a thing." -- "Point."

"Then?" Dina asked Ariana, who continued, -- "Then I don't remember what happened--" -- "You don't remember!?" asked Kylan. "Then how is it you remember getting raped at all, hmm?" -- "Are you sure it was even me?" -- "Yes, I wouldn't have forgotten that!" -- Kylan looked askance at her. "Are you sure? Maybe you just misremembered remembering his face, is all." -- "No, honest I wouldn't!" Ariana protested.

"How do we know you didn't just want to have sex with him?" -- "I mean, I can imagine how you'd want to tryst with someone as handsome as Eomar--" -- "I wouldn't have!--" -- "Really? Because you sure do now, don't you? Seems your work as a courtesan really fits you." -- "Fitting, for a harlot to besmirch the reputations of others." -- "Haven't you caused enough harm already?" -- "I honestly don't know how the madam manages to convince the count to keep this place open. The whole lot of you can burn in hell for all I care," said Polly. -- "And we all know the likes of you'll say or do anything for half a penny. How much money did you want to coax out of him, hmm?" -- "That has nothing to do with it!" Ariana shouted in exasperation. -- "Oh, we're getting all emotional now, are we?" -- "I'm not getting emotional!" -- Stares. -- Alisha slumped, looking absolutely miserable.

"She's probably just saying this to get money," one of them said. -- "Yeah! We all know their kind are just money grubbers," agreed Kylan. He loomed over Ariana. "Why, I bet half of the lot of you indentured yourselves out to the madam in exchange for a heaping of money." -- "So what? That has nothing to do with--" -- "How much did you sell yourself for? Two singles for a year? Three?" He and several others burst out laughing. -- "I had to pay off my parents' debts or they'd languish in debtors' prison!" -- "We are to expect the likes of you to speak the truth?"

"Can anyone corroborate what you said? About this so-called rape?" asked Daniel. -- "Well, Alisha was the last to part from us before--" -- "Then she wouldn't have been anywhere nearby when what you say happened happened. And there was no one else?" -- Ariana shook her head, looking defeated. -- "So no one saw this," concluded Daniel. "And it's just your word against his. And from what you said, we already know your memory's quite unreliable, don't we?" -- "Please, you have to believe me!" -- "Really? And does anyone?"

"I for one, don't believe a word of it," said Kylan. -- "Me neither," said Polly. "Eomar is an outstanding man of our community." -- "I can attest to that. He's always been the first to offer assistance to anyone who needed it. I personally know at least three families who owe him a great deal," said Daniel. -- "And I've never ever heard any complaints about his craftsmanship, either," said Dina. -- Nods and murmurs of assent from the others. -- "But, I'm not lying, it really happened," said Ariana, sounding forlorn.

"So," said Eomar, walking up toward Ariana in all his imposing figure. "You thought you could just jump on the bandwagon after seeing what happened to Gregory, didn't you? Thought you could scare me into giving you whatever you wanted? Ruin my reputation?" As he approached, Ariana backed away. "What would have happened if the people around me hadn't been smart enough to discern the truth? Would you watch as they beat me to death?" -- "I would never--" she said, meekly. -- "Or would you demand that I be castrated and torn limb from limb? Or worse?" he said, continuing to press forward and causing her to stumble and fall on her butt and shrink from him in fear.

Eomar turned to those behind him. "What do you think would happen to our beloved Tristram if the likes of you got your way? How long before the town falls into utter depravity and deceit, the names of good men dragged through the mud? Would you tolerate this?" -- "No! Never!" -- "So what should we do with her? What would be fitting punishment for making such a false accusation?" -- "Teach her a lesson like we did with Gregory!" -- "That's too good for her. I say we hang her!" -- "No, please!"

Jezebel inserted herself between Eomar and Ariana, staring at the man. "Don't even think of laying a single finger on her." -- "What, you actually believe a word of what she says?" asked Daniel. -- "Most definitely," said Jezebel. -- "Hah? Don't make me laugh. Take a hint, Jezebel. She's only saying this because she saw us beating up Gregory. But don't be deluded. She's just making it up." -- "You might not believe her, but I've seen enough of this kind of thing to have a good idea of when it's true. This is one of them."

He cocked his head at her, and set his hands on his waist. "And you think you know better than us, do you? You think that if someone can't get their story straight, and can't remember the facts, that they're somehow more likely to be speaking the truth?" -- "Rape victims often can't remember the exact details of such a traumatic experience." -- "Yeah, sure. You know what's more likely? That she's made the whole thing up and is grasping at straws to try to get around our probing questions, and her story's falling apart at the seams. We aren't stupid, you know."

"How can you say such a thing?" Jezebel shouted at them. "A woman earnestly comes to you and bares her most confidential secrets, exposing herself and her worst experiences to you, and you reward her with scorn and ridicule, and engage in victim-blaming, such as to make it nigh impossible for her to defend herself. How then do you expect anyone to speak up going forward?"

"You miss the point," said Kylan. "Yes, we want to know the truth. But we also don't want women speaking up with lies and throwing false accusations at people we know and trust. Nor do we want to hear any more from those who would attempt to lend credence to such detestable testimonies." -- "But the whole point is that even upstanding members of your community may have engaged in such vile behavior, their good deeds notwithstanding," protested Jezebel. -- "Look, Jezebel, if we can't trust respectable members of our community, then who are we to trust you? Should we doubt everything you say?" said Daniel, with the kind of smile that said he he thought he'd concluded the argument and there was nothing else to say.

"And you!" shouted Eomar. "You're the one who started this whole mess, by making an accusation against Gregory. You're just as responsible for this," Eomar shouted down at her. -- "And, so it happens," Roland whispered to Art, who nodded in dismay. -- "Hey, just how do we know that what she said was true?" asked Daniel. "I mean, if one might have been lying, so might the other, no? They were probably all in it together."

Several faces blanched. -- "No," said Dina, "That one was legitimate--" -- "You sure you're not just trying to justify beating Gregory up with extreme prejudice? What if he really was innocent, just like Eomar?" -- "That's impossible, they had corroborators--" -- "All of whom are harlots just like Ariana, no? And just as trustworthy." -- Ariana flinched away. -- "What did you call me?" -- "Oh, did I misplace you? If you don't belong here then how would you have known about him and the two harlots he supposedly abused?" Daniel smirked at her. "I say we take these three to different roooms and question them separately, then compare their answers. Tenpence says their story'll fall apart." -- Ellie and Lorelei turned to look at Jezebel, looking at a loss for what to do. -- "Humph. Now that's a guilty look if I've ever seen one. I do have to congratulate you, woman in blue, you sure pulled one over on us."

The rest of the crowd started glancing over at the still unconscious and heavily beaten man with furtive looks of guilt. "Oh god, what have we done?" -- "Wait, so was he guilty as charged or not?" -- "Oh dear," said Dina, kneeling down to cradle the unconscious man's head in her arm. -- "Is… is he going to make it?" -- "I'm sorry… I'm so sorry…" -- "What have you to be sorry about? She's the one who tricked you," said Kylan, pointing at Jezebel. "She might well have beaten Gregory up herself."

"You!" roared Eomar in outrage, squeezing Jezebel's neck with his right hand. "How dare you trick us into hurting our friend? Why, I should break your neck right now--" -- hands clawing against Eomar's grip, Jezebel struggled to break away, but without success. -- "I'm sorry," said Ariana, looking up at Jezebel with tears in her eyes. "Please forgive me…" -- Eomar sneered at Jezebel. "Think you're so powerful now?" He lifted her up so that her feet dangled in midair. "Now--"

Jezebel pointed a finger at the man's outstretched arm and channeled lightning into it. The brilliant streak of lightning coursed into his arm, down through his chest, abdomen, and feet, into the ground. The man, who wore nothing but his tunic, spasmed, barely managing a gasp, before collapsing into a heap on the ground. Jezebel landed gracefully on her feet, lightning still sparking from her hand, and rested a foot on the side of the crumpled man's head, as she stared at the rest of the stunned crowd.

"You're right. I was making that up. But I owe you thanks, since you're the ones who beat him up for me without questioning anything until it was too late. Every wound you inflicted on him, was your own damn fault. You think your little community comes together seamlessly? You can't even trust each other. And besides, I told you earlier that I was recanting my accusations, but did you listen? In your hubris you patronized us, and that was your downfall. But you got one thing wrong. I don't need to rely on trickery or wiles to defeat you lot."

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