Leeja was down. Her blood spilling across the pretty jasper tiles in front of the wide-open Athenaeum doors.
A shot ricocheted from the door.
"Hurry!" the heavy-set man in the armored apron gesticulated wildly, motioning them to pass through the door.
Another shot tore a chunk out of a marble statue's belly, one of the smaller ones arranged along the near wall. Bujilli slipped in some blood. He wasn't sure whose. Ahven's body was getting too heavy, too awkward to keep carrying him. He considered dropping the boy and putting his manticore-pistol to good use.
One more shot spanged off of the bronze book held by the colossi flanking the doors. Bujilli slammed down on his left knee as he slipped on another pool of blood. His, most likely. He was beginning to really hate gonnes.
He looked to Leeja. Shifted his grip on Ahven's unconscious, bound form. Shoved the boy towards the fat man gaping at them. Reached over and grabbed hold of Leeja and dragged her towards the door.
Someone's head came sailing towards them. One of the shooters, most likely. It landed with a wet crunch at the feet of the fat man. Bujilli couldn't help but smell the sweet stench coming off of the severed head. They had been heavily-dosed with Hard Candy. The dead flesh was already blackening, sloughing off of the bone with a faint sickening sizzle.
Another shooters' scream was cut abruptly short.
"No! Ple--" The third one threw away his weapon only to erupt in a fine red mist and a steaming pile of shredded meat splattered across the jasper tiles.
Three disparate figures strode into the atrium. Each from a different hallway, a different direction. One was a wild-haired and wode-smeared woman with moss growing in her hair and too many owl's talons protruding from her hands and feet. She curtsied daintily and smiled lasciviously at Bujilli from the left corridor; "Before you go any further--"
The second figure, farthest away across the atrium, was some sort of hunchback who appeared to have a third eye protruding from its hump, glaring malevolently over their deformed shoulder. It had been the hunchback who cast the spell that exploded the second assassin's blood and meat across the tiles. The residual blue flames licked across their heavily studded leather fighting gloves; "--My masters would--"
The third figure wore a heavy wool great coat and their face was covered by some sort of tight-fitting fabric, possibly silk, like some sort of web or cocoon overlaid with a pair of vintage airship goggles. They carried a massive two-handed sword over their shoulder that still dripped blood from the recent decapitation of the first assassin; "--Request your presence."
Three killers stood at the three arches of the atrium before the Athenaeum. All three of them had just eliminated one of the shooters. Each of them clearly represented a different party. An interested party. Three very interested parties who no doubt wished to discuss delicate matters and dangerous things, ostensibly in secret, and yet they competed with one another to be first in line. These were people of power and prestige who wanted to deal with Bujilli bad enough to kill. People very likely not included in Headmistress Shael's itinerary. He looked down at the fizzing head on the floor. The rot was spreading rapidly, but he was able to distinguish some of the features. Enough to know that this had once been a young boy. Whomever they were, they sent children after him with gonnes. They knowingly sent them to their deaths. It was all a set-up. All some sick sort of passion play. Cold, callous and calculated. A bit of twisted theater for his benefit. A game. Politics.
Politics in Wermspittle.
The three killers held their places just a hair behind each of the arched passageways. They watched one another as they waited for Bujilli's response. Blood had been spilled. Power displayed. Lives snuffed-out. There were rules to these sorts of things.
Without a word, Bujilli heaved Leeja through the doors and collapsed inside the vestibule of the Athenaeum. He felt the heavy doors seal behind him. The fat man adjusted his armored apron, then set about tending to Leeja.
"How bad is it?" Bujilli wobbled as he tried to get back onto his feet.
"Depends on your point of view young sir..."
"Oh. You mean your friend here. She's badly hurt. But I can stabilize her condition. If you like..."
"She's my friend...my partner." Bujilli made an effort to keep the snarl our of his voice; "Get her stabilized, if that's the best you can do, and I'll get her--"
"Of course young sir. Not a bother at all. Mistress Yushgra can tend her wounds. That will spare you making another sortie past those ruffians and rascals outside our doors."
"I appreciate your efforts on behalf of my friend. And this Yushgra's as well."
"Think nothing of it young sir. Will you also be requiring my assistance? What of your other friend there?" The fat man gestured toward Ahven.
"I am injured, as is this one. We could all three very likely benefit from your assistance. If it's not a bother..."
"Certainly young sir. No bother. Not really. And while I attend to you three, could you perhaps tell me what that unpleasantness out there was all about?"
"Damned if I know." Bujilli slid back down against the wall, nauseous and shaky from blood-loss or something. He felt warm. soft, gentle white light filled his mind's eye. His hands itched. Green specks dotted his fingers from handling the weirdly carved Morlock femur-bone that Ahven had attacked him with less than an hour ago. Or maybe it had been longer. Time worked peculiarly in this place. It was almost as warped as some of the people.
"Ah. So it is a mystery then."
"We were sent here by the Headmistress. To speak to Morquin--"
"Indeed? Well, in that case we'd best see to it that you don't bleed-out before your audience." The fat man clapped three times.
Three serpent-headed children rushed out form some unseen gap in the wall and began to examine Ahven. They had syrupy-red eyes and their scales were banded with yellow, white and orange, with purplish tongues. Bujilli watched them reinforce his Sleep spell, as though re-tying someone else's knot.
Three dog-headed children scampered out and began to sniff Leeja, examining her wounds, licking away the blood and rubbing her with fragrant salves and applying bandages. They worked together extremely well. One, with the head of a hound and ragged-looking wings, cast some sort of healing spell over Leeja, a soft blue glow that flowed through her bandages and soothed her burns--he had not realized that she has been burned. Perhaps it had been the dark speech, or the Voorish Sign that Ahven had used.
Three winged monkeys chittered and bickered as they pawed over Bujilli, locating his wounds and similarly tending to him. The one with bat-like wings cleared away the blood and washed him with a sponge dipped into a bucket of cold water. Another had raven's wings and stitched his wounds closed, after it had extracted a bullet and several green lumps of some strange glassy substance. The third one had the wings of a huge, yet delicate moth and it cast a spell on him that tickled as it caused his flesh to mend and his clothes and armor to re-knit and repair itself.
The fat man in the apron beamed proudly as the three sets of furtive little things went about their business. When each trio was finished they bowed solemnly towards their patient, then to the fat man, then to Bujilli and left, disappearing back into the walls.
The last of the three monkeys lingered just a slight bit longer than its fellows. It placed something in Bujilli's hand before he realized what it was doing. It nodded once with an incredibly serious look on an otherwise foolish face, then scrambled out of sight. He glanced at the object. A small bone cylinder. Intricately carved.
"There. That will do for now. You will address Master Morquin immediately. Then we'll see what we will see..." The fat man bent down, grabbed Ahven, hoisted the comatose boy effortlessly. "I'll leave it...her...for you to attend to, young sir." They locked eyes; "Follow me then." The fat man set off without waiting for Bujilli to respond.
Bujilli slipped the monkey's cylinder into his belt, then he knelt down to pick-up Leeja. She pushed him away. Slipped. Sprawled into him. They lingered there for a couple of breaths. Holding each other. Then they helped each other back to their feet. She stumbled slightly. Grabbed his arm. They switched their arms around until he got her to drape her arm over his neck and to lean on him. Together they got to following the fat man towards their audience with Master Morquin. The healing spell used on Leeja was slower to respond than the one used on Bujilli. He wondered about that as they followed after the fat man. Maybe it was some kind of precaution?
The Athenaeum was a large place. Elegant. Immaculate. All marble and jasper and other rich stone tiles, columns and pillars, sweeping rails and wide stairs; a labyrinth-museum of quiet hallways meeting at atrium junctions where huge chandeliers were suspended over delicate fountains. Side passages led off to a vast array of dedicated libraries, dim scriptoria, esoteric displays. One could easily spend months wandering through this place, surrounded by learning, languages and lore.
"You say that the Headmistress has sent you?" A tall, thin very black man stared down at them. His eyes solid, glossy black and accusing.
"Yes." Bujilli shifted his weight in case things were about to get violent again.
"And who is Headmistress of the Academy now? Not Inlache, surely." The very black man scowled at them both, not so much studying as challenging them.
"Shael." Leeja shivered slightly, but remained upright, a defiant fire in her gold-green eyes.
"Truly? How distressing for the Gardeners. But at least the Faceless Lords are happy, though you'll never catch one of them smiling, will you?" Master Morquin laughed heartily.
Bujilli was unsure what to say. He didn't feel like laughing.
"No need to get flustered--it was a rhetorical question. So. Shael is now Headmistress and she has sent you three to--"
"Excuse me. Headmistress Shael asked us," Bujilli gestured to Leeja and himself, "To request your presence at her Chamber of Consultation."
"And this one?" Morquin pointed to Ahven.
"He sort of got in the way when he attacked us...after we went to...oh scheiss; it's a long story." And he wasn't entirely sure how much of it he wanted to share with Morquin.
Morquin laughed. His teeth, gums and tongue were entirely black. Bujilli had heard of a people who were like that. But they tended to live near the polar regions.
"Sit then. Would you share some tea with me? You both look like you could use it." Morquin folded his long legs and took position upon a massive cushion with a grace that was nothing short of impressive.
"Klush; go see to the tea. Then you can get back to your work. I'll get Yushgra to tend to our guests once she is finished. Oh, and get Zumbri to go clean up the atrium."
"Yes Master Morquin. I will get the tea. Will you be needing your sword?" Klush hesitated as though he wished to speak. Morquin pointedly wasn't giving him an opening.
"Not immediately, but you have a good point; please ask Yodrik to prepare my war gear. Now the tea if you please."
"Yes Master Morquin. Right away." Klush waddled off towards the kitchens more than a little deflated that Morquin was not going to ask his opinion about the recent excitement.
"So. Shael is Headmistress now, and she has sent you two to come ask me to consult with her. Things must be pretty bad for her to do that."
"I...don't know what we're at liberty to discuss..."
"Are you under any sort of prohibition? Have you been ordered to not talk to me?"
"No..." Leeja wondered what Morquin was getting at.
"There you have it then. You are expected to use your own discretion. Tell me, are you students here at the Academy?"
"Yes. Both of us are." Bujilli nodded.
"Excellent. Who is your sponsor? Hedrard? You wear one of her amulets I see...and I'd bet good money that Eberhard herself was her sponsor...except you carry a pistol that I recognize as one of her collection..."
"Hedrard is a...friend. We have an understanding, an arrangement of sorts. The pistol was a gift, from Mistress Eberhard. Gnosiomandus is my sponsor, for both of us." Bujilli felt slightly tongue-tied. Morquin was an imposing figure. And he knew it.
"Gnosiomandus. Huh. I thought he was dead. Well, in any case, I have no problem with Hedrard listening-in on us, so you may keep the amulet. I am impressed that you've managed to earn the respect of someone like Eberhard, to receive such a gift from that lady is no small thing. I would dearly love to hear all about it some day, but obviously, you did not come here to regale me with tales of your exploits. No. You come here to convince me to leave this place and run the gauntlet in order to come to the assistance of someone who never before lifted a finger on my behalf..."
"I do not know very much about the politics in this place--"
"Politics?!? You run errands for the Headmistress herself. You are beset by assassins reeking of Hard Candy at my very door. You are sought out by the Gardeners, the Comprachicos, the Seamstresses, all of whom expect you to drop everything and come talk to them--"
"I have a feeling that was all just a set-up--"
"But of course it was. The Faceless Lords, the Corruption trade, the Ignobles; they do not usually operate openly, not even in this place, especially in this place. No one operates in the open in this place. My dear wife Yushgra can help me explain things better, I am but the child of a small clan of poor refugees who wandered into this place by mistake."
"My husband is too modest. His people came here through the Glowfields. They braved many dangers. Faced many challenges..."
Bujilli looked about the room. Mistress Yushgra's voice seemed to be coming from beside Morquin, but he could see nothing, no one there.
"Yushgra my love, you taunt the boy needlessly."
Silk scarves swirled up into the air. Spinning, whirling, wrapping around the invisible body of Mistress Yushgra.
"You are of the Abseen--" Leeja's eyes went wide in shock.
"No. I am of the Perdu. My mother was Abseen. My father...was more purely of the blood, thus making my place among my people a bit...complicated. something I imagine you can well appreciate Leeja." She paused for a bare instant but Leeja could feel the weight of Yushgra's gaze, her undivided attention focused upon her; "You are familiar with our peoples?" Yushgra donned a pallid velvet mask and gloves, drawing them up over her limbs in a reversal of the usual strip-tease. It was simultaneously sensual and threatening.
"Only from my studies. I've never seen...met...one of..."
"Well, you have met one of us now. Why have you come here?" Yushgra chuckled. It had been her express intent to throw Leeja off-balance. Another game being played out. It bothered Bujilli. He was getting tired of all the pretentious manipulations and flaunting of his ignorance. It was galling how in a place of larning and knowledge it was always ones ignorance that was being scored off of, endlessly pointed out and preyed upon by those who supposedly knew more, knew better, knew things others did not. It felt like a buffet where the cooks were actually beggars, each holding back one dish and parceling out only small samples to their chosen few. It offended him. Deeply.
"Headmistress Shael asked us to come here, to request--"
"Hold. She 'asked' you? Who are you that she would 'ask' you to come to us, and not simply order you about like common students?"
"You are neither one of you 'common students,' that much is for certain. You carry the favor of several tenured professors, some of whom carry the oak staves. I do not know this Gnosiomandus, but my mate recognizes his name, so that is enough for me, for now."
"Shael wants our help." Morquin grew serious.
"Indeed?" Yushgra leaned languidly against Morquin; "Why?"
"There has been an attack--"
Klush re-entered the room. A small parade of gaudily-dressed mice, moles, a bogle-runt, two blue zoogs, three hobyahs and a wombat wearing a bow-tie filed into the room carrying platters of biscuits, tea cups, honey, three kinds of milk and a selection of teas, both in-the-bag and loose. He carried a pair of tea pots, one in each hand, himself, as if not trusting the servants to carry them without incident. The wombat set up an ebony trestle-table and everything was quickly arranged, then Klush shooed the serving animals away.
"Thank you Klush. You may attend to your other tasks now." Morquin dismissed the fat man before he could make his mind known. With a bow he left. His brow furrowed in frustration.
Morquin shifted position, prepared a pair of cups, presented one to his wife, took up the other, then gestured to Bujilli and Leeja; "Feel free to fix your tea however you prefer. We have a good selection of--"
"It's quite excellent Master Morquin." Leeja happily set about fixing a pair of cups of tea. Some of the herbs looked more like fungi to Bujilli, but he held his tongue and let her tend to the tea-making. He felt a little sad that there was no yak butter. At least there was honey and some sot of sage, from the smell of it.
"You have an interesting selection of servants." Bujilli observed.
"Orphans. All of them were retrieved and rescued from various battle-fields, out past the Baffles, down among the Jumbles, as far away as the Black Woods, the Big Valley, the Black Water Bogs and the Monoliths of the Downcast Moon."
"We take them in, teach them their letters and give them a home, food and education. Most of them stay on as researchers, assistants, or in other capacities." Yushgra sounded bored.
"You are both very kind--"
"Hardly. We value loyalty. Those whom we take in appreciate what we do on their behalf. Those who remain in our service are dedicated, loyal." Morquin sipped his tea.
"Those who go on to other stations, other pursuits remain well-disposed towards us, often they feel a sense of indebtedness, another form of loyalty. It has proven to be quite useful in the past." Yushgra sipped her tea.
"An interesting way of doing things. Too bad others are so much less enlightened about such things." Bujilli closed his eyes and saw the severed head of a child rotting away at the door to this place. Even the simplest things came at such a harsh price in this place. No one ever did things nice and easy.
"Like those who sent the child soldiers to shoot up my atrium?" Morquin grinned from behind his tea cup, as though guessing the thoughts troubling Bujilli. Morquin was an astute observer, a talented judge of people.
"Ah. You are an idealist. You have come to a strange place indeed, if you intend to retain your ideal intact." Morquin sighed sadly. It was impossible to tell if he was mocking or serious.
"I came here to learn..."
"Yes? But to learn what?" Yushgra leaned forward, her silk wrap slid down, revealing the absence of her body beneath the voluptuously contoured fabric that remained in-place.
"You did not come her seeking power? No. I can see it now; you desire knowledge. Ah, but such knowledge changes things, transforms us even as we try to come to terms with it, and it's implications. You wish to learn, but are you willing to change in accordance with what you learn?"
Bujilli considered Morquin's words. He did not wish to appear hasty in his response.
"Oh ho! I really think he means it." Morquin laughed heartily.
"Yes. He does." Yushgra sat back on her cushions.
"So will you go to meet with Headmistress Shael?" Bujilli asked, if only to change the subject.
"I have not decided. What do you advise?"
"What do you advise me to do in this situation? You know more of what is going on out there than I do at the moment. You say that you are ignorant of the political realities going on around you. Your Headmistress asks you to perform her errands, instead of ordering you to do her bidding. No less than three of the old factions have tried to recruit or abduct or neutralize you before my very door. I say you are the best possible person to advise me in this matter; so what do you think I should do?"
"The Athenaeum is part of the Academy, yes?"
"Then as part of the Academy, you do owe the Headmistress that much. Go. Listen to what she has to say. Then make up your own mind as to what you want to do."
"Fair enough. We'll go listen to Headmistress Shael then. But if she's reaching out to me, then she's very likely stirring-up the hornet's nest and reaching out to others, and not reaching out to still others. It may well be as important whom she does not reach out to, as anyone she does try to contact. There are a lot of barely buried rivalries, simmering feuds, all sorts of land-mines and bad blood all through this place, all through Wermspittle and beyond. As far as I know the damned war is still going on, somewhere."
"Nothing is quite as simple as it might at first appear..." Bujilli sighed.
"Oh a few things are. Death. Sometimes."
"Speaking of death; you might wish to take a different route back than the one you came here by. Unless you wish to continue your conversation with those three..." Yushgra gestured vaguely towards the direction of the doorway they had used.
"Are they still out there?" Leeja hissed incredulously.
"Oh yes. They'll wait there for as long as they know you're still inside."
"Then we'd appreciate it if you might point out another route we can take to return to our, to my room."
"Certainly. You can take a stroll through the catacombs, take your chances poling a raft along the Buried Canal, or you could take to the roofs, if that appeals to you, though it is raining."