“Where are we going?” Alaria asks of Aroldo, breathing fast as she strives to keep up with the wizard.
Aroldo looks over to his friend and only then notices how fast his stride has gotten, a result of his nerves. He can’t also help but notice Alaria’s shockingly red hair and terribly applied make up. Her teeth were stained brown from the tobacco she was chewing, and the public were oft to look away in disgust every time she spits brown.
“There’s a couple of people I’d like you to meet,” grins Aroldo as Alaria glances around, soaking up the outside in one of her few recent excursions from Aroldo’s manor since her excruciation.
“Alright then,” Alaria responds, unable to disguise the curiosity she’s feeling. “Do we have much further to go?”
Aroldo doesn’t answer, he just gestures slightly with one hand as he suddenly heads down an alleyway. The alleyway smells of piss and rotting garbage, and the view isn’t much better.
The wizard finally pauses at a battered wooden door. He glances back at Alaria, who is wearing a puzzled look. He shoots her a reassuring grin and knocks on the door three times, pauses, then knocks twice more.
A woman’s voice can be heard for a moment, then a few seconds later there is the sound of a bar being lifted and tumblers in a lock turning. The door opens and the pair is confronted by a stern faced crone, the smells of a kitchen wafting past her.
“Good day,” announces Aroldo, bowing ever so slightly. "I have heard your kitchen was home to the best Kintargan Pudding in the whole city!
At this pronouncement, the woman nods slightly, before looking over at Alaria. Her eyes narrow, as if she doesn’t like what she sees. Suddenly a moment of realisation passes across her face. The crone glances at Aroldo who simply nods.
The old woman steps back, opening the door further, gesturing the pair in. As they enter Alaria’s eyes widen at the sight of a man sitting quietly in the corner.
He rises as they enter, and only Aroldo’s hand on Alaria’s back stop her from taking a step back. He’s about 7 foot tall and bulky, an intimidating mixture of fat and muscle. On seeing Aroldo he grins revealing a mouth of perfect teeth. “The mint man!” he exclaims in the voice of a child as he engulfs the wizard in a hug.
Aroldo extract himself from the hug and puts a finger to his lips. The giant claps his hands over his mouth. Aroldo reaches into his haversack and extracts a handful of green candies shaped like leaves. He hands them to the man who puts one quickly into his mouth, the smell of mint mingling with the other scents wafting around the kitchen. From seemingly out of nowhere the old woman appears and smacks the large man with a wooden spoon.
“What did I tell you, Marco?” she asks firmly, holding her other hand out.
“No sweets before dinner,” he mutters, handing his grandmother the lollies. Pocketing them, the woman moves over to another door, waving Alaria and Aroldo over. As they walk over, Alaria is almost certain she saw Aroldo sneak the giant another lolly with a wink.
Alaria is a little surprised to find herself in a small enclosed courtyard. She jumps slightly as the door is slammed shut behind them.
“Which door now?” she asks of her friend, gesturing at the three other doors leading out if the courtyard.
The wizard simply grins, and goes over to a pile of rubbish in the corner. Kicking some away, Aroldo reveals a trapdoor. He opens it, and gestures for Alaria to go down into the cellar.
With some trepidation, the Little Black Swan heads down, only to find herself in a warm, brightly lit room, rather than the dark cellar she was expecting.
There are several rows of stacked benches along one wall, disassembled truths against another. Along a third wall, several large barrels of ale rest, with several crates of bottles – wine and spirits.
Three men sit on stools near the drinks as if on guard. They rise at Alaria’s entrance. Aroldo moves between the men and the bard, grinning.
“Little Black Swan, I’d like you to meet some friends of mine!” Aroldo announces, waving slightly at the men. “They’re the other part of the Organising Committee of the Free Kintargo Society.”
Alaria smiles broadly at the three, and looks around again, as if re-evaluating the room.
The shortest of the three men steps forward, his ragged clothes reminiscent of a jesters. He begins juggling two balls with one hand as he elaborately bows. “I’m Gruckalus, noble ebony swan. I have the privilege of being your announcer, warm-up man, and all round second pair of hands.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” murmurs Alaria, who then claps as Gruckalus reveals 3 more balls and adds them to his juggling.
“And this here is your guide and bodyguard, Marius. Keep him close, and he’ll keep you safe. He can be salty sometimes, but it’s not a surprise, considering where some friends found him!”
The tall, sinuous man raises an eyebrow slightly at the introduction, but nods respectfully at Alaria. “Wherever you want to go, I’ll get you there. And no one is going to lay a hand on you without losing it.” As if to punctuate his statement he produces a dagger and throws it at the opposite wall, where it strikes a candle, snuffing it out.
“I don’t doubt it,” breathes Alaria, before saying more loudly. “If you can do that consistently, we could probably make you one of the performers!”
One corner of Marius’ mouth twitches upwards as the third man steps forward. "You can call me The Barman. Capital T, capital B.”
“No name?” asks the bard.
“Not yet,” replies the heavyset man, as he rubs his bald head." I find the venues, get the drinks, get word out. And sniff out Dottari spies and informers."
“A pleasure,” says Alaria, slightly put off by the lack of a name. “So, are we here to get things started?”
Looking around, she sees all four men nodding. They rustle up two more stools for the new arrivals…
“Well, that went well!” Exclaims Alaria once back at the manor. “I can’t wait to get started!”
All Aroldo can do is smile slightly, sadly thinking Alaria may be underestimating the difficulty of their venture. Then he remembers the excruciation, and realises Alaria knows what’s at risk.
“I can’t wait to see you perform again,” Aroldo tells her as he uncorks a bottle of wine. “To our new venture,” he announces raising his glass.
Alaria takes a sip, “Can I ask a favour?”
“Of course,” replies the wizard. “What is it?”
“One moment,” she responds and leaves the room. A minute later she returns, putting something on the table in front of the man, before returning to her seat.
“Where did you find these?” Aroldo asks her as he picks up the deck of worn Harrow cards.
“Oh, just around,” Alaria responds, unwilling to admit rummaging through the house after giving in to her curiousity.
Aroldo flicks through some of the cards, then begins shuffling absentmindedly." I haven’t performed a reading in… well, since Livia died. She bought me this deck when we were courting. She believed in the Harrow, and she thought me being a wizard would add heft to a reading."
“I know. She used to tell me about them sometimes. She used to put great faith in them. Both pause for a moment in reflection on the woman who in a small way that has put them on this path.
“I was hoping you would do a reading for me. On how successful I will be in this Free Kintargo Society.”
Aroldo looks the bard in the eyes for a few moments, licks his lips before nodding. He stops shuffling and picks through the deck, removing all the Key cards.
“Choose one of these,” Aroldo waves at the Key cards, “It will have a message for you.”
Alaria reaches over and chooses one from them the wizard has spread before her. The bard reaches out and slides one away from the rest, before flipping it over.
“The Peacock,” muses Aroldo, “A card representing great beauty, but a reminder that beauty of that nature is fleeting. It normally indicates a change of belief or held ideals. It can also signify times of social development or change.”
Alaria blinks several times, as if she was expecting little and had received more than she expected. She clears her throat several times before managing to find her voice." Wow, Ok. Um… yeah I think I already know that message."
The wizard is gathering the key cards up and shuffling them into the rest of the deck. “We don’t have to continue if you don’t want to,” Aroldo mentions.
“No, go on,” replies Alaria, cutting the deck when the wizard offers it.
He deals out 9 cards, three rows of three. “The first column indicates the past. The top positive, the midde unclear and the bottom negative."
Flipping the cards the wizard reveals the Idiot, The Empty throne and The Locksmith. Alaria looks at the cards, taking them in before looking to Aroldo for interpretation.
“The Idiot, misaligned. Likely to indicate someone has been hiding their true talents. When the time is right, their strengths will be revealed, but until then… " the wizard trails off and shrug.
“The Empty Throne. Seeing past the obvious to the deeper thing. Situated there, it could mean you’ve realised what you thought was right is wrong, but you’ve yet to see the ultimate truth. Often, someone who is now passed was trying to show this to you, but you didn’t see at the time.”
Alaria scratches at her nose a moment. “Yeah, like realising Kintargo has problems. I see that now.”
Aroldo makes no comment, pointing to The Locksmith. “The Locksmith provides the tools to unlock your destiny. He won’t tell you what to do, or help. Just provide access.”
Neither of the two say anything, but both think of Alaria’s excruciation, a negative event that has put them on a new path-is it their destiny to free Kintargo? Or to die trying?
Aroldo coughs slightly, and moves to the column indicating the present. “The first card here is The Cyclone. A destructive, indiscriminant force that cannot be stopped,” At this, the bards shoulders sink. "But positioned here, well, it indicates the possibility of renewal. That sometimes you have to destroy the old to create the new”
Alaria looks a little buoyed by Aroldo’s interpretation.
“Next is the Hidden Truth. Well this card is hidden to me,” he announces as he gets no feelings from it regarding the Free Kintargo society. Still, he thinks to himself, could this card be for me? Why did I think of the Kintargo Contract immediately?
“And presently opposing you is The Bear. Brute, raw strength. Those who stand against you will use their fist, not their head. But all is not lost. The Bear cannot be controlled. If the blow goes astray, there may be opportunities to strike back.
Alaria nods slowly as she ponders what has been revealed so far." Alright then. So what does the future hold?"
The wizard reveals the last three cards. On seeing them Alaria goes pale.
“Yes, The Liar. Sounds bad. But, in this position, perhaps not so bad. Here, it indicates friendship or love, but the beginnings of such disguised, or coming from an unlikely place.”
“I’ll be sure to keep on my toes.”
“Good idea, regardless of a Harrow reading,” smiles Aroldo." Next, The Tangled Briar! Aroldo pauses and considers the card. “Something from long ago is going to have an unexpected impact on someone close to you.”
“Impact, what do you mean?”
“Hard to say, but… it’s not likely to be positive, being the Tangled Briar,” Aroldo doesn’t give the bard much time to digest this and moves on to the last card.
“The Betrayal,” the wizard licks his lips I wondering if there’s any kind of positive or even ambiguousness he could use in an interpretation. But there is not. Not in this location.
“Before the end, someone will turn against you.”
Alaria says nothing, just reaches for the wine bottle with a shaking hand to refill her glass.
Finally she speaks. “Well, I did want the reading…”