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I opened my eyes the next morning to a sun already high in the sky. It was blazing down and I knew it was going to be another hot day. The weather in and near the Castle never made any sense so I shrugged it off and got ready for my day. I knew the Iron Knight would be waiting for our game at the dice table so I made my way towards the Tavern. I entered, signaled to the Innkeeper and glared at Canta.
"I can't wait for the hooded figure to be back," I said in way of greeting. He just laughed and handed me the cup of dice. The Iron Knight was relaxed as I rolled. I knew it was going to be a good day when I rolled my lucky 7. He left the Tavern muttering about loaded dice and how Canta had mixed them up. I just smiled and went to settle my bar tab.
"How much today." I asked the Innkeeper.
"On the house, if you listen to my story," he said leaning in close over the Bar Counter.
"Sure thing," I replied. It was the first time the Innkeeper had offered his story actually it was the first time he said anything more than 100 gold.
"Great. I heard you've been asking questions, trying to find a pattern in the Runes. I can't say I can help with the runes but the more you learn about the Castle and the people in it, the friendlier we will be," he smiled, sitting down the cup he was forever wiping down.
"I can see that but why now? I've been here for nearly a year and now everyone wants to play show and tell."
"You have to earn our trust," he said and leaned back against the counter, "You know my name is Jeronimo. I was born over in Rocksville. I was happy there. Oh this was before all the stores moved in back when it was still more of a farming village than a Town. I didn't mind farming but I always wanted more out of life and I fast learned that I was good with secrets. You have to be in this line of work."
He said all this with a smile and a distant look in his eyes. I knew he was reliving the past.
"I was delivering secrets to Count Vesnik, the old one not the current one when I spotted Arabella one day. She was out collecting mushrooms and herbs, not that she has any need of them but she loves the earthy smell they give off. I fell in love with her. I followed her every where and helped when I could. She, however didn't return my affections. I was fine with that, believe it or not. She helped me get the job here when the old Innkeeper decided to retire. I knew nothing of running a Tavern but it mattered not."
"You took on a huge project," I said.
"Then, yes. Now, no," he glanced around, "Back then all sorts of people visited and business boomed. Now we get the odd stray traveler but that's it. Now where was I?"
"Taking over the Tavern."
"Ah, yes. The Tavern was basically built for secret meetings, hence why it did so good. I know every one's secrets, the good and the bad but I'll never tell them. I just continue watching and running the Tavern. The dice table helps with most of the revenue now. I get half when you loose," he laughed.
"What about when you win," I asked.
"I get it all," he laughed again, a great booming laughter that caused the Monkey to start talking in monkey talk, "Shush! I ran the Tavern for several years before she stepped in the door. I'll never forget her red dress and long curling black hair. I thought I had loved Arabella but she realized what I did not, that back then I was in love with love. Valeria was different, however. I gave her every bit of information I knew concerning the Mystery Chamber. I helped her on her search as much as I could. I even gave her access to the few artifacts I had hidden around the area. I quickly realized she was using me. That she didn't love me, she just loved the hunt. I was okay with loving her from afar until I saw her flirting with Lord Chamberlain. I think something snapped inside me. I killed her in a fit of rage."
He stopped his tale with a sigh and looked at me with guilt stricken eyes. I nodded for him to continue as I knew most of this.
The Shadow Thief
I caught up to the figure in the black hood in the Dungeon of the Cursed. I thought about calling out but I didn't want to spook them. I watched as they reached up and pulled the arm of the statue behind the Stone Chaps. A door swung open and I rushed the person in the black hood. I grabbed their arm and twisted it behind their back, pushing them into the stone wall.
"Arg, that hurts," a feminine voice cried, one that I recognized.
"What are you doing here, Nimie," I asked, shoving her once again into the stone wall.
"I'm doing a job," she said, "If you let go I'll tell you."
"No, I don't trust you."
"Fine! I'm going down into the underground market. I'm on a mission for Just John. He sent me."
"I should let you go because of that?"
"Yes, I can give you access to the underground market here in the Castle and tell you where to find the other underground markets in the other parts of the area."
I admit to being curious so I let you go with the warning that if she tried anything I had a pair of Good Intentions on me. They were handcuffs and once placed on someone that someone could only speak the truth. She nodded her agreement of this plan and turned around when I let go.
"I have business to attend to first. You can either wait here or follow me," she said, pulling another black hooded cloak out of her backpack, "Put that on. We aren't meant to be down here. It's mostly for the criminal types."
"Aren't you the criminal type," I asked putting the cloak on.
"Sometimes," she quipped and headed down the dark passage. We walked for a bit until we came upon a brightly lit area. It was filled with people from all over, some I had never seen. There were items for sale that made my knees go weak. I saw a Folio and stopped to ask how much. I recoiled in horror when the asking price was 250k gold. The merchant told me it was different from the normal Folio we could craft and far more powerful. I remember my grandmother telling me a fool and his gold were soon parted so I backed away. I did think of the Consortium a few times when I passed by stalls selling elusive Christmas Eggs. I always wondered why I never found that many around the Castle or well any and now I knew why. They were being sold for an arm and two legs in the black market.
I kept a close eye on Nimie and made sure to stay as close as possible. I didn't want to the thief to rabbit before I got some answers. She made her way past a waterfall which I assume comes from Mirror Lake. It seemed we were heading further underground. She finally stopped when she came to a wooden door with the same rune pattern as was on the Rune Stone from the Broken Carriage. She knocked three times with a very nice beat and door swung open. She nodded at the person at the door, he wore something that reminded me of middle eastern attire and he motioned her towards the back. He only gave me a quick glance before fingering the sword at his side.
"Nimie, dear! It has been ages since you've come down. Tell me, what does Johnny boy want now," a woman with long black hair in a neat braid down her back asked.
"He's looking for the Drop of Time," Nimie replied, giving the woman a hug.
"Ah, I see. I just so happen to have one but..," the woman's words cut off as she looked to me, "Are you new? I've never seen you before."
"I..I..," I stuttered. I didn't know what to say.
"This is Rahia, Bella. I'm just showing her the ropes," Nimie explained.
"I see, I see," Bella said, "I do have this Drop of Time, like I said but it is going to cost you. I need a Phoenix Egg for as the last one I had was stolen by Dal. If I ever catch her, I'll kill her."
"She does leave a trail of enemies," I said.
"That she does! So do you have an egg Nimie?"
"No, Just John said you'd be willing to cooperate without anything extra."
"Johnny boy owes me much and he has yet to pay up. I give and give to his cause and he never returns the favor. It is time he returns the favor," Bella explained.
"I have one," I spoke up, "I was going to trade it eventually but if you need one I'll gladly give it you."
"You see, this is how it is meant to work. I give something, you give something and we both walk away happy," Bella smiled at me, "I'll just get that Drop of Time."
Bella departed behind a curtain while I fished through my backpack and into the egg cask the Blacksmith had made for me on one of the few times I caught him awake. The eggs fit nicely in the cask as it shrunk them or some such magic who ha. I found the one I was searching for and quickly shut the lid before any one else could see just how many eggs I had stored in there.
"Here we go," Bella said, coming back through the curtains, "One Drop of Time."
Bella motioned to the table in front of her where she placed the Drop of Time so I followed suit and set down the Phoenix Egg. She gave me a brilliant smile and snatched the egg up. Nimie grabbed the Drop of Time and our business with Bella was concluded.
"You come back again, yes," Bella asked, looking at me, "I think I prefer dealing with you over that one."
"I'll be back," I smiled and followed Nimie out of the door. We weaved back through the market taking the same path as we came. Once we reached the closed off door, Nimie pulled a lever and the door slide open. We were once again in the Dungeon of the Cursed, "Okay, explain everything. Why did you and Dal come after me? Who were you working for then? Where is Dal? What exactly do you do for Just John?"
"So many questions," she sighed, "I don't know who hired Dal to come after you but I was hired by Just John to look after you. Well not only you, also Dal. He got a tip she was going to harm someone in the Castle. I don't know where Dal is, I swear."
"Okay but what do you do for Just John."
"I take care of things he can't. If something is stolen or if he needs a rare item," she said, waving the Drop of Time, "I steal it back or find it. It's what I do for him. I also follow people when required. I don't kill people that is not what Shadow Thieves do. I leave that to the Assassins Guild."
"What's the difference," I asked. My only response was a raised eyebrow, "Okay, stupid question."
"Yeah. Look, I'm not the enemy, neither is Just John."
"Then why did you and Dal lead me to believe that?"
"Part of the job," Nimie explained, "I had to make sure Dal believed I was on her side. You know I still have bruises from all those creatures you sent after us."
"I'm so not sorry," I said, sticking out my tongue, "I have to protect what is mine. I've spent nearly a year collecting all of the things in my backpack. Plus, close to six months getting the Gnomes to make me things that would make it all fit in this tiny backpack. I won't have it stolen."
Nimie nodded in agreement, "Any more questions?"
"Yes, where are the other markets?"
The Haggard Husbands of Arabella Scales
I arrived at the Tavern as the sun was setting and double checked to see if Nimie had doubled back. I entered the Tavern when I realized I wasn't being followed and walked over to Jeronimo who was back to human form. I didn't say much but slid a pouch with two thousand gold coins in his direction.
"What is this for," he asked, putting down the mud and towel.
"I need some information," I said and began to explain.
"I see," he said after weighing the pouch, "You might want to start with Hamish. I'm sure they will lead to others after you've had a chat with them."
"Ah better give me the gooseberry cider then," I smiled. Once I had my flask of cider in hand I made my way over to the Drunken Skeleton. I settled down next to him and waved the flask under his nose.
"Och, now what have you brought me, lass."
"Gooseberry Cider," I said, shifting it away from his greedy, bony fingers, "I'll need you to answer some questions first."
"Of course," he said, smacking his bony lips.
"Why did you warn me against Arabella?"
"She has a temper. A fiery one she is. One little slight and you might find yourself a bag of bones as well," he said reaching for the flask.
"Not so fast, Hamish. You were married to her," I stated and at his nod I continued, "What can you tell me about her?"
"Well she's the daughter of the Lord Chamberlain. They don't get on well. She lost her mother when she but a babe. She had a nursemaid who was like a mother. Lethe, I think her name was but she vanished one night. I believe I was her third husband."
"I know most of that," I sighed, "You were married to her so what is she really like?"
"She's kind and gentle. She wouldn't hurt a fly unless it hurt her first," he explained, "The one thing you don't do is cross Arabella Scales!"
"Right, fiery temper and all."
"Yes," he agreed, reaching for the flask once again.
"What did you do to her?"
"Ah, well that is," he trailed off and reached in to his robe. He pulled out a small painting and rubbed his fingers over the canvas, "I fell in love with someone else. She was a scullery maid, beautiful and not nearly as anxious as Arabella."
"Arabella always questioned my intentions towards her. Perhaps her first husband had burned one too many bridges to Arabella's heart. Perhaps it was her father's constant rejection but she always thought I was seeing someone. I wasn't, not until I met my Heidi. That was five years into our marriage."
"That wasn't a long time to go a stray," I said.
"No but you have no idea what it is like to be married to a powerful witch. People would come and go, ask for things all the time. I barely saw my wife the whole time we were married. I was ready to have a family, she wasn't. After I told her she cursed me and here I sit drinking and drinking but the thirst never goes away," he lamented.
"Do you know her other husbands?"
"You could try her first husband. He resides in the Belfry and his name is Diego but he doesn't talk much," Hamish laughed and threw back the flask as soon as I gave it to him.
"Thanks," I said, dusting off my pants and heading towards the Belfry.
There was a chill in the air by the time I arrived and Trina's door was firmly closed. I had thought about dropping off the items I had collected for her but that would have to wait. I made my way up to the Belfry and Diego. He was propped up against the bell and was nothing more than bones. Hamish was right, he didn't talk much. I had over looked him every single time I had gone in the Belfry in search of clues or items.
"Diego," I called, "Time to wake up for a bit."
The bones didn't stir and I was beginning to give up in finding the next one when the crow above Diego started talking.
"He had to go but I can give you his message. He said he wronged Arabella. He had several mistresses, one in every port he recalled. Arabella flew into a fit of rage and stabbed him with own sword when she found out. She followed him, one day she did. She caught him with Lyla and that was the end of that. It was five years into the marriage. She was always kind before that but he had a wandering eye you see. He knew he shouldn't of married her but he couldn't resist. He is sorry, if he could do it all over again, he would have stayed true."
"I see. Thank you. Do you know the next husband?"
"He said the Ice Monster at Ice Rock."
I nodded and picked up a Polestar on my way out. I made my way up to Ice Rock and nodded to Henry. He just grunted back. He really didn't speak.
"Speak," the Ice Monster bellowed as I approached his eyes glowing red.
"I want to speak of Arabella," I said offering two Ice Crowns and 2 Shackles of Chaos.
"What of the witch," he asked taking the offerings.
"I heard you were married."
"Yes," came an anguished sigh, "I was her second husband. You can see her fourth husband dead in the snow down there."
I looked and saw a skeleton pointing towards the Summer Garden. I shivered and looked back towards the Ice Monster.
"I can tell you both of our tales. I was a snow imp, chasing snowflakes when I met Arabella. She was heartbroken over her first husband and his betrayal but I assured her I wouldn't do such a thing. I never did! The only thing I did wrong was take her father's side in an argument between them. I knew I was wrong the moment the words left my mouth but it was too late. She cursed me after 5 years of marriage."
"Wait," I said, seeing the connection, "Did all of her marriages last 5 years?"
"Yes," the Ice Monster answered, "Now I am here. I have a purpose at least from this vantage point I can control the ice and wind and keep the climate safe in the Castle. I do still love her."
"What about him," I asked pointing the skeleton on the ground.
"Poor Kestril went insane," the Ice Monster said, "He couldn't handle being the husband of a witch. She had hid it for so long but one night he followed her into the Underground Grotto. He tried to drag her out of there but she cursed him. He flew out of the Castle Entry and bashed his head on the rocks below. She mourned his lose for years until she met Jorg then her heart filled again."
"Where is Jorg?"
"He is in the Commercial District. The only one of us still in our normal form," he explained and the glow faded from his eyes as he lifted his hand, handing me a Symbol of Sacrifice.
I took the offering. I guess it was an item for an item with this one. I looked up at the night sky and decided to make my way over to Cloud City.
The lights were not lit in the Commercial District but I could make out Jorg. He was pulling on a rope that was connected to a heavy sack.
"Excuse me, are you Jorg?"
"Who wants to know," he asked with a grunt.
"I'm Rahia and I was wondering about Arabella Scales."
"How is she," he asked, stopping what he was doing and turning towards me, "Did she send you? She sent me away after 4 years. She said she didn't want anything to happen to me. She was so afraid so fragile, my Arabella."
"No, she didn't send me," I said and watched the happiness in his face shatter.
"Then go away!"
"Please, I just want to know about her."
"I just want to understand her."
"All I can tell you," he sighed, "is that she is just looking for happiness. She wants a family of her own but in her own time. She wants to be able to practice her art without people calling it foul. She just wants to be. That is why she sent me away. She thinks someone put a curse on her. She thinks it could have been Lyla who was mistress to her first husband but she isn't sure. She won't take any action until she is sure."
"You were happy together?"
"I think so. We had a good life and she could move from the Castle to Cloud City with ease. I was one of the Gnome King's guards back then. After I came back, I was sentenced to pulling this sack for what seems like forever."
"That is a harsh sentence," I said.
"No, it's the punishment for divorce in the Gnome kingdom," he said and started pulling, "It's an ancient law that should be removed but I'm the only Gnome it has happened to in a thousand years. We had all but forgotten it."
"Oh," I said trying not to laugh. This was a divorce punishment? I couldn't stop it and burst out laughing.
"What is so funny," he asked whirling around forcing the rope to snap, "Oh no! Oh no!"
"Does that mean you are free from the punishment?"
"No! Also Arabella doesn't know about this. You can't tell her. She would feel awful!"
"Okay, I won't say a thing. I have a spare rope if that would help."
"Thank you," he said and fixed his pulley.
"No, thank you," I said as I back away. I didn't want to burst out laughing again. It was their custom so who was I to laugh at it?
I decided to head home for the night. There wasn't much else I could do. I had learned that indeed Arabella and Lord Chamberlain were much a like. They were both kind but vengeful when needed. Their bark was much worse than their bite. It all didn't add up though.