The Droning of Friendly Insects

Chapter Four: The Droning of Friendly Insects

It was simply amazing to Prairie how things had never changed between the years. With rulers changing places and people disappearing from the city daily you’d think there would be cause for the intentions of the people ruling it to change. But it was as if they were so comfortable with their level of control they felt arguing and splitting the city between their districts was the only option. This was why Prairie couldn’t buy paper on a regular basis. Take one thing from Prairie, it wasn’t her paper. The three houses had a long and rich history of never getting along as organizations, and yet the people who comprised them weren’t the reason for the divide. All of it was just meaningless competition.

Seated in her place inside the central throne chamber, this time seated across from Byron and Solomon with their lieutenants, Riley, Jessie and herself were under the public’s scrutiny this time. Gathered along and packed into the upper terraces surrounding the room, the city was gathered for the official banquets planning session. If they didn’t discuss who had rights to ascend to the central thrones, then the entire city would be in total war every six months. Byron, as always, looked relaxed. In the past three times the gathering had been called, he’d been elected as the ruler of the white throne by the civilian populace. He didn’t have any aspirations to gain the black throne as well, so he killed his time moderating. And between Solomon and Prairie, not to mention their lieutenants, he’d need to do a good job.

“And that is why you do not deserve the right to fight, Gray King.” Solomon finished, going on a long diatribe about the battered Renard next to him. “We can’t have fights ensuing in the streets between our kings and the regular populace. It’s simply bullying the weak.” He got a rousing round of applause from the reds in the crowd above. Solomon raised his hand to quiet them and stood up. “It’s all fine to me. Renard was correcting someone and hadn’t raised his hand against them. In my kingdom every piece has to work together to assemble peacefully.” Prairie scoffed at his mention of a kingdom. King to the core, Solomon. Prairie’s reply was just as scathing. “Yeah, he just happened to raise his boot instead. If every piece tried to assemble like Renard was, then you’d have baseless anarchy in the red district. We cannot suffer imbalances to the city most of all. I am the only one left in the city capable of collecting our knowledge and keeping it safe. We can’t afford having buffoons ignoring those rules on matters of pride. The damages I caused are halfway to being repaired already, not to mention replacement goods from the stalls are coming in more rapidly. Just admit you’re scared and running from me and we can put this argument to rest.” The grays in the crowd above also began applauding to Prairie’s statement. Byron clapped his big hands together once, nice and loud.

“The way I see it Prairie might have overdone it a bit, but Renard was picking a fight with a fish bigger than his rod. And I think a few bruises is enough punishment. Civilians should have had nothing to do with Renard.” he said simply, looking to his two lieutenants for confirmation. “That being the case, we’ve no reason to contest participation. My lieutenants have even shown interest in this year’s tournament, so we might as well make it a show this time.” Prairie looked at Byron and smiled widely, looking wicked and motivated. “The mirror?” Solomon laughed twice, loudly. “Really? The mirror? If you want to let loose that badly then so be it! House Red stands to fight.” Prairie got to her feet immediately after Solomon had agreed. “House Gray stands to fight!” Byron was laughing to himself and waved his lieutenant forwards. Nannii stood where he was potted and trying his best to speak loudly also declared “H-h-House Green stands to fight!”

A faint glow was starting to be seen in the chalices sitting in front of each king’s seat. All three moved to reach their cups. Solomon seized his and held it forwards, the light wine seeping into it from the bottom until it spilled and evaporated on the floor. Byron stood too and took his cup, a little more politely, and set his hand over the top of it. Prairie kept hers on the podium and ran her finger along its rim, letting the light wine slowly flow from the top and spiral down into it. All three lifted their glasses all the same in a toast. “Tomorrow, at the strike of midnight, the Mirror shall be summoned, and the three kings alongside their lieutenants shall take part in The Banquet!” Solomon declared. Byron too, spoke up. “Drink deep, because tomorrow’s haul is in your hands boys!” Prairie went last, but all she had to say was “Stand fast!” Then the three kings held their cups out, swung them in, and emptied them.

The entire meeting had been background noise to Prairie. It was always the same, argue, then fight, argue, then fight. The pattern never changed, and despite new people like Byron, or even with Solomon losing his memories of past events, the players never changed either. You either wanted power or you didn’t. You either wanted the escape, or were complacent with your lot. Still, with the mirror being summoned and the banquet official, the only thing Prairie could think of while leaving was what she would do. One of the red lieutenants and Nannii weren’t very notable for combat, so chances are they would face one another. Renard would need to be handled. He was no comparison to Prairie, but Renard was still powerful in his own right. The second red lieutenant simply intimidated Prairie. His powers were robust, make no mistake, but the attitude of the man known as Balthazar was something she couldn’t sit with. The green lieutenant other than Nannii, Prairie thought her name was Trilly, didn’t seem notable at all. She was dressed like a nun.

“Riley, you’ll take Nannii. Jessie, you’re on Renard. The others should take care of each other. I don’t imagine Nannii doing any fighting.” she said, laughing a bit helplessly. “But we might be surprised. Just give them everything. Chances are it will come down to me and Solomon though. Don’t fuss if you don’t reach your target either. One on one should be the best odds.” she looked at the two of them for their confirmation, and when she got it she stopped her swift pace; took a deep breath, blew it out in a long sigh. Jessie smiled and crossed his arms, Riley just looked satisfied. “You really have no love for meetings do you?” Jessie asked Prairie once they were walking again. Prairie just sneered. “It’s always about money, power, or help. Meetings like that always end the same way.” But Prairie stuck her pinky finger skywards like she was declaring something important. “With its members getting trashed. Either on the field or at a party.” Riley clapped her hands. “You’ve got a party planned?” Prairie turned her eyes on Riley and smiled brightly. “Nope! But you’re going to Alvise’s and getting it ready. Jessie go help her. As soon as I’m ready I’ll be along but first I need to track down Cardinal. He’s always excited when the mirror is involved.” Prairie waved her goodbyes to the pair and rushed down the stairs.

Once Prairie had entered the green district however her eyes were turned immediately instead to a small form she’d grown somewhat accustomed to over the past few days. The child she had earlier comforted in her lessons, who went by the name Milly, was hunched over in the grass and humming a song to herself. Prairie closed in fast and crouched down, setting her chin on top of Milly’s head. “Oooh! Haven’t seen one of those flowers in a long time.” Prairie mentioned, letting the little girl stop fussing over being touched. “Did you find that in the sky gardens?” she asked, moving her head over the girl’s shoulder instead. The locals called the flower a Bellworth. It was named so based on the fact its color was a steely and shining gray, and was bell shaped with eight petals that ended in fuzz, like an old nobleman. Milly was tying it together in a wreath crown using long grass.

Milly was happy to see Prairie anyways. She nodded excitedly and held the crown up to show her. “I used to make them all the time with my momma. She taught me how so when I went out to play I could have a crown and play queen of the woods.” Milly lifted the incomplete crown and held it up to her head to show how it sat. It had several lengths more to go. “See?” Prairie smiled at her and began plucking long grass out too. “I’ll help.” but Milly just shook her and waved the grass she was picking away. “It won’t work if it’s dead in places, see the brown?” The little girl began picking out the blades that she felt were no good. “The nice lady in black taught me that.”

Prairie smiled. “Met another friend huh? I think you can trust most of the people around here. We don’t spend our time picking on kids. Oh, did you hear about tonight?” she asked, moving around to sit herself next to the girl. “I’m going to be in a big fight tonight called the Banquet. It’s going to happen in an entirely different city.” Milly seemed confused and looked around towards the sunset and around it, looking over the vast waters surrounding the city. Prairie laughed. “No, not out there.” and she pointed upwards into the sky. Milly turned her eyes that direction and only saw the tower stretching into the sky. She turned her face at Prairie, now even more confused. Her cheeks were puffed out and her lips were pursed, grumpy, not appreciating being fooled. Prairie just laughed. “Don’t give me that look. You’ll see.”

After a while, Milly finished her crown and began dancing around the grass with it. Prairie relaxed and watched her, thinking the girl must have come from a place where dancing was a regular pastime. She darted around the grass and spun and jumped, singing nonsensical tunes to herself. It reminded Prairie of what it was like when she was really young too. She might not have many pleasant memories past a certain age as far as she knew, but there were just a couple that managed to sneak in when she wasn’t the one trying to remember them. She could feel the burning in her seal, underneath the sleeve on her left hand. She was close to another level in her journey, the seventh and second to last.

Milly must have noticed the strain entering her face. “You have that look on your face momma got when papa came home late.” Prairie was surprised. She had zoned out for only a moment, or maybe longer now, and Milly was right in her face curious and bright eyed, a mere inch away. She could feel her breath! Prairie’s hands came up and gripped the child’s face, mushing her cheeks in then pulling the girl off her feet and into Prairie’s lap. “That’s because the papa in this world never lets me get away with anything.” she said, wrapping her arms around the girl and settling down again. “The stars are the same even if they line up strange, the air I breath doesn’t taste any different but the one thing different about this world is that papa exists here, and his pocket watch is the bane of my very existence!” Prairie started to get dramatic, causing Milly to giggle every time her voice swelled. “Schedules schedules schedules. I was always free, so it figures the one moment I finally get free of all the nagging people another one pops up just like them!” She tilted her head a bit. “Though maybe he’s not as intolerable.” Milly snorted, Prairie tickled her, and she began to kick her legs and squeal with glee before Prairie gave her a break.

“You’re from the green manor right?” Prairie asked her after she’d settled down. “Meaning you get to live near Nannii. You know, the tree man?” Milly smiled and nodded. “He’s really nice! But he kinda scares me.” she admitted. “He doesn’t have feet. I think it’s weird.” Milly wiggled her toes staring at them. Prairie laughed. Milly was maybe a bit too young to appreciate the same things Prairie did about Nannii’s locomotion. “But when he goes away I can sneak into his garden. He was growing this there. So I took it.” she said, poking the flower now donning her grass crown. “I don’t think he’ll be mad. He had a lot of em.”

Prairie just nodded. “I like these flowers too. An old friend of mine got me to like them. Besides, they’re just my color.” Gray really did suit her, mainly because she didn’t feel any brighter colors related to her at all. Green was probably a good choice for most children. “Gray isn’t a very happy color, but it’s a color that reaches everyone else. Because if you mix them all together they become gray. Mix all of them too much and it turns black. So it takes care and consideration to make sure everything is equal. Those are the words she used to tell me, so now I’ll tell them to you. I’m sure Byron would laugh when you said it.” Milly smiled warmly and nodded heavily. “He takes care of all the kids all the time.” Prairie mentioned, rubbing Milly’s black hair roughly. “But a guy his size must be able to care for at least twice as many, not to mention if you told him not to he’d probably be hurt.” Prairie laughed out loud. “How do you think a giant like him turns out to be such a big softy?” she asked, poking at Milly’s sides as she squirmed and grinned. “I dunno! My papa was also a big man.” The child’s face fell. Of course, Prairie didn’t know anything about the girl’s father. Her smile slowly started to fade.

“You loved your papa didn’t you?” Prairie asked, squeezing the kid into her arms once again. Milly nodded, making a meek sound in response. “He was big and kind and took care of your brothers and sisters and friends right?” Prairie asked again, this time Milly’s nod was accompanied by a more confident noise. “Then just hold onto that. I never knew my real father, and my second father was a kind man.” Prairie began to speak softer into Milly’s ears. “Because no matter how awful some things seem, I’m sure there’s always a reason for everything. The people who go out of their way to be kind are the ones we should remember the most. A little homesickness never killed anyone that way.”

Milly sniffed a few times but managed to keep herself from crying. When she turned her head to look back at Prairie she was already smiling, trying to be strong. “Like my momma and my sister!” she said, regaining some of her cheer. Prairie nodded. “See? I don’t remember anything about my mother. Tell me about yours.”

And so, the pair kept to themselves. Prairie had intended to track down Cardinal, but at the moment she was having far more fun with Milly than she would have discussing the odd and strange at Cardinal’s home. Eventually it boiled down to the small things, daily life, why the weather didn’t change but was always sunny, lessons about the city. Eventually as night began to fall Prairie realized they’d spent more than half a day just whittling away their time talking. The time she spent with Milly reminded her of her time with Ariadne. At this point she would have to wake Cardinal up.

“Strange thing, little black toes.” Prairie mentioned, playing with Milly’s feet as she squirmed around. “They just get marked like pitch when you’re born?” Milly nodded as she was walked home with Prairie on her shoulders. “Just marked as black as night before I even know they are. It surprises people where I come from, but it’s a happy surprise. It’s supposed to mean good things.” Milly wiggled her toes while Prairie laughed. People in her world would probably have strange things to say.

“Speaking of, I got this!” Milly said, pulling clumsily at the sleeve on her dress. The seal had appeared on her arm by now. Tiny flowers, one pitch black, the others white and ghostlike. It suited her perfectly because although Milly was nice, even sharp, she didn’t seem much smarter than most folks. It was all new to her and she was finding herself attached to them all. “People said I’d get powers.” Prairie smirked in response. “Flower powers? Like Nannii maybe?” Milly nodded resolutely. “What else!” causing Prairie to laugh. “My name is short short for Millinicis. It’s a flower where I come from. I don’t remember if I even had a name. When I got here someone gave it to me.” The girl smiled brightly. “So I like it!” Prairie smiled as well. “Same way I got my name. All I can remember is the place I came from, which was a large and waving prairie land.”

Once they’d arrived, Prairie waved to the gate guards of the green manor as she dropped Milly off her shoulders. “Now be nice and go speak to Nannii when you can to thank him for the bellworth. He’s a really nice person, cross my heart. You’ll have plenty to talk about too. Especially with flower powers.” Milly just nodded and ran for the house, her bare feet slapping against the stone sharply as she greeted the guards and went straight into the house. Prairie made the opposite direction, and true to her own pastimes, walking down the green district’s main commerce street was just as stimulating as her own was.

Here in the green district the people who settled were typically the folks who were good at making creature comforts. Soaps, furniture, even entertainment items. Some of the women of the city were head over heels for the district with its various shampoos and of course the cosmetologists that lingered around. It also housed a fair number of doctors, and despite the fact their trades were useless here, free from disease as it seemed, they were usually the first ones to catch on to something wrong and had plenty of time to discuss their studies. Everyone here made it their business to make people’s lives better, and that included the small actors like Nannii, who only tended to the plants. The green district’s business was people, plain and simple. “Healing the heart too.” as Byron put it, was also important. After he’d taken over House Green things had improved quite a bit for the civilian populace of the city. Truth was people here would need it too. Milly wouldn’t age another day in this city. Whatever goals or aspirations she had when she grew up were over the second she touched the stones of this city. Some children didn’t know how to cope with that thought. But even a child’s hands could learn to heal or cut someone’s hair.

“Heal the heart too.” Prairie repeated to herself, stepping through the gates to the gray district of the city and regaining a pleasant smile. It was a sad thought. Byron and Ariadne would have gotten along quite famously she was sure. Her eyes caught sight of a group of people standing out front of Alvise’s bar however, one of the finest and quietest establishments in the entire city, and nestled proudly right inside the gray districts commerce area. All one had to do was take a single back alley to the lonely road leading to the dead end where it sat. The front was clean and swept, the glass too dark to see through inside, and a single black chalkboard sign sitting outside the door showed the bar was open for business in refined cursive writing with any food specials they had for the day. The place bled class despite its location.

Gathered out front was Jessie, Agni, and Alvise, the man himself. Prairie liked Alvise. His outlook on life was nearly the same as hers, and while people knew little about him, the quiet man in the mask that kept bar for the locals was one of the ones they always trusted. Prairie didn’t trust him because he took things seriously, or because he could be counted on, which with how darkly he tended to think, usually meant he was the most dangerous type of person. She didn’t even like him for his poor reputation of being scary. The only time someone had acted up in his bar that Prairie had witnessed Alvise had handled without lifting a finger. But no, the reason why Prairie liked Alvise was two fold. Alvise had fashioned his own mask. Much like doctors you’d read about in old books, he wore it because he was afraid. Alvise viewed the world through two large dark orbs fashioned on the front of his birdlike mask. He did everything past it, breathing, drinking, eating, all through a hatch in the front that opened his beak and let fluids and solids past a complex receiver. When he drank or ate, he did so like a bird. She admired him for having designed and created it himself. The second reason Prairie liked him was he seemed not to care even the slightest of how strange he looked. He always wore a loose suit, looking like a strange pairing next to the always dapper Jessie and the more casually suited Agni, but despite that facts his clothes were very unique. They gave off the airs of a gentleman or nobleman, but were so poor in condition they had numerous, well managed, repairs done to them. Alvise had kept his clothes in working order longer than they would have done so themselves, and clearly for a very long time without sacrificing what made them so brilliant. They meant something to him; enough for him to care for them so carefully. The three had become a set the moment they’d met each other, and even Alvise himself couldn’t quite recall how long he’d been in the city.

“It seems the lady of the evening has graced us with her presence finally.” Alvise’s voice came out, deep and smooth, extra refined. He’d been from high society before his arrival in the city. Prairie couldn’t help but snort after the man lifted a gloved hand to pick the cigarette out of his beak with a slight squeak in the hinges, putting it out on the ash tray he’d left along the front of his building. “Which I believe means my break is over. Gentlemen.” he said, looking to Jessie and Agni and nodding his temporary goodbyes to them before stepping to the door and disappearing into the gloom in his bar.

Jessie saw fit to follow, waving to Prairie. Agni simply lingered, not quite done smoking. “Lady of the evening is a title that suits you.” Agni joked. Prairie simply looked away with a “Hmph.” before she came right up to the man and leaned against the wall next to him. She didn’t mind the smell of smoke. “I hate all the pomp and procession. To be honest I’m more glad everyone’s just gathered up and ready for the fight tonight. If we could get away with this every day I think I’d never want to leave.” She glanced up Agni, noting how tall he always seemed compared to her. Agni stared downwards back at her, but then he got a smirk on his face. “You were thinking I’m a giant again weren’t you?” he asked, spot on. Prairie looked away and sulked. “Just waiting for my growth spurt.” she said, grumbling and crossing her arms.

Agni smiled and stared down the empty street, waving to a pair who crossed it some ways down. “Well I think hopes of that are dried up for someone at your age now. Location aside.” Agni teased, putting the smoke back into his mouth. “Think I should be glad. This is the first time I’ve shown up where you didn’t question what a red was doing at a Gray party.” He lifted his foot and put his cigarette out on his heel before tossing it into the ashtray next to them. The item always remained empty, whatever was put into it vanishing without a trace moments later like all the litter in the city did. “But you’re going to hate me this time too. I couldn’t stop Byron walking in the door.” he said with a sigh. “Not that he’d listen to a red anyways, but thought I’d give it a shot.”

Prairie nodded. “It’s fine. I like drinking with Byron anyways, and his stories are good enough to be written down. Think I have one of those at home somewhere.” She smiled and looked up at him, but then found his expression was still sorry. At least as sorry as Agni ever got. Prairie caught on. “Who else?” she asked sharply, knowing she wasn’t going to like the answer. “Well, Byron really only has one drinking buddy and...” Agni stated, letting his eyes move elsewhere to avoid Prairie’s reaction. Her head tilted back, her mouth opened wide, and she let out an angry and subdued roaring sound. Agni’s eyes closed and he held his breath. If he looked at her while she was doing that he’d start laughing, and that was a hornet’s nest he wasn’t interested in prodding. “Why does Solomon get to spend all day chewing my ear off about business and then show up and force me to think about his giant... Ugly... Over inflated face while not working!” she went on, starting to pace in circles and poking her cheeks, then pulling them in frustration. When she was really agitated she tended to get as animated as Byron did, which was a show to Agni. But if he started to be entertained by it he’d never hear the end of it either. Let Prairie get it out of her system, and when she was fine he could joke about it later.

“Well,” Agni began, clearing his throat to cover a small laugh. “Rant and rave all you want I guess. You don’t need to drink with him anyways. You’ve got other possibilities open to you too.” Prairie took a deep breath, her custom to return to square one, and gathered her nerves. “You’re right.” she said, feeling better now. “What’s a red like you doing at one of my parties anyways?” she asked, the customary knife in the back to Agni. All he did was laugh it off and reach for the door handle. “I’m here to open the door for you, in this case.”

Once inside the mood changed. When Prairie got inside the door a round of cheers rose up from the gathered members of the gray house. Jessie and Riley were seated at the bar together, waving to Prairie as she entered but apparently absorbed in their conversation with one another. Members of House Green were scattered inside, no sign of Nannii, but Byron and Solomon were already five mugs or so in, leaned over their table and grinning like a pair of workers off shift. Neither of them really bothered to notice Prairie either.

“I’ll come and keep you company later.” Agni mentioned to Prairies back. “Business to attend to.” He moved off towards Solomon. Prairie had to keep reminding herself he was still a member of the red house. Agni had sworn his pride over to Solomon in return for his place in the city. Agni didn’t want to get involved in the house politics of it all, but where he came from he’d been a detective. In this city sometimes that was a good thing to have around. Solomon had agreed to their terms. Agni wouldn’t be good for a fight or anything dealing in politics, but when there was a trouble that needed getting to the bottom of, Agni was the man the red king went to see. And all he had to trade for it was staking his life on his honor. Solomon had agreed without question even after Agni had promised to eat his heart.

Regardless of those facts, Agni remained a friend of the gray house. Ariadne had lured Prairie into the dark temptations of books and paper that Agni kept on hand after she’d gotten used to the city, and most notably, the vault in which the gray manor’s knowledge was held, alongside Ariadne’s personal book collections. Prairie became addicted every bit the same as she had when she was little with the stories of grand quests and deep mysteries, and since Agni used, at least typically, his power of negotiation to obtain those items it had instantly sealed the two as an odd pair, despite how they had met.

“The draft will ruffle your frills if you stay near the door!” called out Jessie from the bar top. Prairie, finally dragged back from her thoughts walked right up to the counter where Alvise was tending and put her hand down on top. “The usual.” she said, casually, now finally in a good mood. Once she had a glass of some wine or another in her hand she lifted it to the room and declared loudly “Tomorrow I’ll sit on the black throne! I better see every one of your faces staring down at me from that mirror and cheering until your guts spill out!” To this, the room gave a loud cheer, the gathered members of the gray manor starting their party off in good form. Prairie’s eye met Byron and Solomon’s, both of them just smiling either to themselves or to Prairie’s verve. “So! Buy those two drinks! Because Solomon is not going to like the view!” she continued, pointing towards the other two kings and making sure they knew it. “Because come this time tomorrow they’ll be too hungover to care, and I want them to have more than enough to comfort them the rest of the year!” The second cheer was much louder and rowdier, and with that people got back to the business of planning, yelling, cheering, even fighting amongst themselves as everyone took their drinks. No planning was going to be necessary now. Jessie and Riley had their assignments tomorrow and Prairie had her own task. The time now was just getting the rest of the house ready to show up. Morale began and ended wars after all.

“My brother, the youngest, had the same sort of attitude, you know?” Alvise mentioned idly, wiping a glass clean in the almost iconic way you’d expect him to. It was a shame the entire thing was turned on its head by that bird like mask, but it was still comforting to know some things wouldn’t ever be different no matter the person in charge. “He had a thing for wines and boasting, you see. It’s only by a very good stroke of luck your glass is filled with one of his right now. The probability was very low, but there it is slipped right in between your fingers.” The way he talked implied an accent, but he wasn’t trying too hard to embellish it despite talking about his family. The very little people knew about Alvise was he came from a city by the sea, and his name. The tone of his statement was always ironic in some fashion. He always mentioned how talented his brother had been but never sounded happy.

“Why do you wear the mask?” Prairie asked, then sipping at the wine in her hand and visibly marveling at the taste. It got a chuckle from Alvise. “I mean, I already know you don’t want anything to get to you, but why did you start wearing it in the first place?” she asked, setting her cup down and seating herself at the bar. Jessie and Riley had already moved to join another group of people leaving Prairie all alone with the man.

Alvise didn’t move, simply kept cleaning his glass while he considered the question with a low and deep hmm. After he’d thought of it he set the glass down gently. “In the end, it was to prevent them from stealing my face I think. You see the wine you’re tasting came from extremely talented hands, have no doubts, but in the end my brother betrayed me for control of our house. I was at first a noble and a hero, then I was betrayed and became a composer. I met my wife, then lost her, my dear Parijan, rest her soul. So finally, I became a doctor. All that time my brother was looking for methods to further my sadness. My face became my own enemy. I don’t blame him. His sadness was a result of my own madness anyways.” Picking up another glass, Alvise began cleaning this one as well. “In all those times, changing names and professions from one manner of incident to another, and I didn’t even recognize myself any longer. I had lost my home, my profession, my fame, and my family twice. The man I was looking at in the mirror wasn’t me any longer. So in those days where I endeavored to heal the weak and impure, I donned my mask, and broke all my mirrors. I did not need to be the man known as Alvise Vincere any longer.” The now clean second glass was set down as well, sparkling under the lanterns that dimly coated their surroundings in a subtle yellow light.

“I imagine that’s why we get along. Not because of the methods our lives had seen to let us suffer, but because by the time we arrived here, both of us were monsters.” Alvise looked across the bar at the gathered people, collecting his thoughts. Prairie did the same, as the last time she recalled Alvise ever fighting someone was that one incident he had done almost nothing at all. The man had been known by the name of Harbrom. A regular to bars across the city at the time Harbrom didn’t represent any house, and spent a great deal of his time drinking. One day, as was his usual pattern, he’d started a fight inside Alvise’s bar and instead of taking it outside he picked a fight with Alvise as well when he came to break it up.

Alvise took the man into the street, and standing with his hands behind his back, simply talked to Harbrom. About ten minutes in people started to notice something was strange about him. Harbrom had started answering questions incorrectly, his growing confusion and actions showing that inside his mind he was apparently in a very real fight, but he was helpless against whatever it was assailing him. Alvise stopped talking halfway through leaving Harbrom to his own devices as he spiraled into madness. At the end, it was as if Harbrom had been lit aflame, screaming and flailing, panicking and terrified, begging. The crowd gathered, Ariadne and Prairie included, stood aside the scene. Harbrom hit the ground and writhed only so much longer. He perished without a single scratch on him and unraveled like a bolt of cloth right in front of everyone. Alvise had broken the taboo of killing another resident without good reason. But all he did was walk back inside and resume business. Whatever Alvise had done, Harbrom had effected onlookers as well. A man who had burned to death in his own mind and simply shriveled until he couldn’t stand it any longer. But the thing Prairie noticed; was as Harbrom burned in his mind, Alvise seemed so focused. Alvise had been staring unwavering, gazing calmly into those very same flames without flinching. He had either relished it, or forgotten entirely why he should be turned away. Harbrom never returned as a revenant, a mystery to this day.

“But we know our places, don’t we?” he finished, turning to look back at Prairie. “I was put here for a reason. The things I recall doing in life paint me ever more the faceless abomination people think I am. I donned this mask so people couldn’t steal my face. But the face of Alvise Vincere must be a worrying sight indeed. Now when I look in the mirror I see only this mask reflected back at me. My eyes cannot accuse me of any of my crimes now. All that stares back are the same, empty black eyes I see in the monster.” He picked up a glass to stare at it, seeing the reflections of the black orbs affixed to the front of his mask. “But yes, for a reason. It’s not so bad you know, living my life quietly like this. With everything I’ve done in my exceptionally long life, with all the worlds I’ve touched, and the people I’ve lost or sacrificed over the years, it’s nice to be able to simply sit still. I’ve an exceptionally large mind. It takes a bit to get it organized you see. After I was sent here I made that decision. If this really is purgatory as everyone wishes to see it, then I will wait out my time here tending bar, and ruminating on the many actions I took in order to get here. This very bar me and my brother’s built with our own hands back home. It’s catharsis, now that I think about it. The man who sent me here has done me a justice.”

A slow smile crept onto Prairie’s face a she listened. “How did a man like you manage to get himself killed?” she asked, looking to her wine glass quickly emptying itself. Alvise chuckled. “Who can tell? After all, this place. I always boasted that a person could never stab me. I’d have said I was unkillable, but time kills everything eventually.” was his reply, his tone becoming teasing as he avoided the answer. Then moving himself to the racks lining the back of the room he pointed his finger along until he found the bottle he was looking for. “Ah. Well what I can tell you is that my arrival here was certainly unexpected, regardless of death.” He turned back to the counter and poured more wine into Prairie’s glass. “Then again, everything seems a little unusual in my days. I could never tell which parts of my experiences were true or false, or which I had brought to fruition with my own hands. It’s all a long chain, you see. The smallest action I performed in one place would inevitably lead to the next in a chain so long and discreet, even a mind such as mine could not keep up with it. I’m thankful for the rest Cie gives me. What better lair could a monster want?” He set the bottle on the counter and sighed, then folded his hands on the counter and stared at the patrons. “Though I will say it’s nice to have regular acquaintances again, most of all.”

“I never had that myself. But now, these days I can at least see what you mean.” Prairie said, turning around to look at the gathered people. Jessie and Riley were still keeping to themselves. They were pointing over bits of paper that Riley was scribbling on. Obviously planning for the bout later in the night, but if the impending conflict wasn’t there you could have sworn they simply enjoyed spending time together. Her paired tormentors. The mere thought of them becoming a couple to double her suffering with their incessant cuddling and schedules would likely cause Prairie’s brain to shut down from sheer refusal and annoyance. But watching them laughing and having a good time was fairly comforting. Prairie simply hoped they didn’t get any ideas.

Across the room Agni had been roped in by Byron to the table and the three were making their own share of noise. At least, Byron and Solomon were while Agni looked mildly irritated and tried to fit in. Prairie didn’t envy Agni at the moment, but his face was one of the only sour ones in the room. That is until Prairie’s eyes caught the door opening and in through the door walked Renard and a handful of other house members. It seemed he did have friends, even amongst the green house. Maybe she’d misjudged him. Just a little though.

It wasn’t until Renard had spotted her that she felt the pleasantness afforded by the wine wearing off. The room at large also became half as loud, noting the debacle that had happened in the red district the other day. Thankfully before Renard had a chance to open his mouth Solomon stood up and bellowed to get the room attention. “All the players are gathered!” he shouted to the room. Byron, following suit, got up from his seat and laughed. “Right! I get what you’re playing at.” Byron looked directly at Prairie. “What say we have ourselves a little wager?” His grin was wide. Clearly the pair had been discussing what to do if things ended up like this, but more importantly, they were probably planning it the entire time, and she knew what was coming next. Prairie sighed, then shook her head helplessly. “What are we betting?”

Solomon and Byron looked at each other and thought it over. Byron then smiled. “Go ahead and set one for me. I pick Prairie and she’ll pick you. Fair?” Solomon laughed. “Interesting.” he said, then crossing his arms and considering his friend closely. “Then if the red house wins, you’ll have to stay on your throne.” Byron chuckled before Solomon held up his hand. “For three days. Without moving.” he said, displaying the fingers in a sinister manner. That wiped the confident smile from Byron’s face. Well, not that he wasn’t still smiling. “You’re going to kill me like that Sully.” But his smile came back in good form. “But fair’s fair.” Prairie was honestly surprised Byron agreed. Sitting still for him was slow death. But she doubly disliked the look she was getting from him now. He would face his torment head on, meaning suddenly Prairie couldn’t back down either.

“I think if green wins this thing out, then I believe our tomboy king will be wearing a dress to the next gathering.” Prairie felt her grip over her glass tighten, so much so the glass snapped and spilled onto the counter much to the surprise and mirth of the room, even as her face remained blank. Byron laughed and took on a sinister tone of his own. “Something nice and frilly, a proper nobles bit.” he then laughed watching Prairie. She really couldn’t help herself. It was a bit of a weakness for her. Not only did that kind of outfit take entirely too long to put on, as well as being complicated, she couldn’t move freely in them and god forbid she looked like a walking doily crammed into a tin can at the waist. Her clothes were practical, and her poet’s jacket was even made for men. It’s not that she opposed wearing dresses, she actually liked it, it was just the one that Byron and Solomon would pick for her. Her visible shudder raised cheers and laughter from the gathered crowd. But Prairie took a deep breath, back to square one, and then smiled, staring directly at Solomon. “Then I levy the same bet against Solomon. Hope we can find one in his size!”

The crowds reaction afterwards brought her spirits back. Hell, if it gave Solomon all the more reason to fight seriously, and let her have a good bit of exercise she was all for it. The bigger the show the more people would be swayed by the manor houses. What little control they got for being heroic turned into a lot of influence here in Cie, and it never hurt to make sure everyone in the city was occasionally entertained. This place only had to be a quiet purgatory if that’s what they made of it. But now Prairie had an even more sinister plan. She had doubts she could beat Solomon in a straight fight, so she wasn’t risking a getup like that over the Banquet. So she aimed a different direction.

“Then what’s the contest?” Prairie yelled over the crowd, getting them to quiet down for the moment. “Clearly we’re not the ones that are going to participate. We have the throne to worry over.” She glanced around the room to the gathered gray members and then smirked right at Solomon. “Why don’t we let the regulars handle it? A contest with the drinks on Al.” The room let out a cheer and round of applause, looking directly at Alvise as he wiped the counter down and removed broken glass. He only shook his head until they stopped being loud, then, all eyes on him, he sighed and stood up straight. “Do as you like.” he said to Prairie kindly, giving in just like that.

The tables were gathered in the center of the room and bottle after bottle was placed on top of it. Alvise, deciding to sit away from the excitement stayed cleaning his bar top while the others began to gather to watch. Renard and ten others sat themselves at the table. Amongst them Riley, Jessie, and Agni were all present. Renard was the first to speak. “The game is simple but requires your wits about you. First one to go,” Renard hit both his fists on the table. “Makes a move. Moving left around the table the next player has to mimic them.” Riley, seated next to Renard thumped her fists on the table. “Next person mimics the first and adds their own.” Jessie, picking up, smacked his fists on the table then brought his hands in to meet his arms, slapping his elbows. Renard nodded. “That pattern continues. You never drop the original pattern, and every two someone adds something new. Every round you pass you take a drink and the other team wins a point. Either time runs through, or you screw up and someone reaches twenty points. If you fall drunk, you’re out, and if everyone falls last one standing wins.” Renard looked around the table. The people seated were of different sizes and sorts, so the playing field was even here. “Does that sound about right?”

No disagreement was heard. Everyone in the room were adults and never turned away from a drink. A few rules were introduced after they knew the structure of the game, such as if you didn’t perform the actions fast enough and were called on it, it was a failure. One red was caught for not actually drinking from his bottle and banished from the table. All the while the people gathered played the game, getting progressively less sober as they went. Jessie’s stiff face was still infallible, even with a red tint from the drinking. He seemed like a shoe-in to win. Riley was also surprisingly good at it. Eventually she got drunk enough that she stood herself up at the table every time it was her move and she’d turned it into a dance. Agni, unfortunate for him, didn’t seem very good. Maybe he didn’t hold his liquor well, as he seemed to simply be getting more and more sullen as time carried on. All the while the crowd cheered and clapped along at the pace of the moves. Others who joined the party even brought instruments to make it more lively. Eventually the party got rowdy enough watching the game everyone was thumping their fists on walls, counters and tables, turning the music and the game into something to behold.

It boiled down roughly an hour later. The combinations were getting so long players opted to rest between the rounds. All that was left after Agni forfeited was Riley, Renard, and Jessie who was hiccuping now and then as seconds passed. Renard looked like he’d been through war. “You’re a lot tougher than I took you for.” he grumbled, lifting his bottle when it wasn’t even his turn to drink. Riley, now across the table from the other two had a serene expression on, swaying back and forth in her seat. Her only reply was a very delayed and uncontrolled laugh. She didn’t even have any strength to put volume behind it. “I like you too Humphrey.” she mentioned sloppily. Jessie remained silent. Prairie had gone through a fair amount of drinks by that time as well. Everyone was in such a good mood it was hard to take their tasks later seriously. In a few scant hours the people in the room would be fighting like they wanted to kill each other, and yet here they were partying and drinking like they didn’t have a single obligation in the world. That and her odds were good in winning. Thinking about it to herself, since the residents didn’t pay rent or have to work other than to keep themselves busy, they actually didn’t have any obligations. Prairie burst out laughing loudly as the final round started and Jessie stumbled on his combination. After spending several seconds trying to remember the next step as the room chided him on, he fell out of his chair and onto the floor. Then there were two.

The game still managed to run another hour between Renard and Riley. Renard had practice, and Riley had a particularly odd memory. The pair fighting each other in the ring of the bottle was something to be seen, really. Eventually Renard conceded victory and slumped on the table with an expressive groan. Riley, still the same she had been the entire game threw up her hands with a high pitched “Woo!” and promptly fell out of her seat and onto Jessie, laughing clumsily to herself as Jessie struggled to keep his stomach from exploding. At the end of it all the party picked up again between the usual members. But there must have been something in Prairie’s eye, because they were watering as she laughed, and she was staring at Solomon. The man had been drinking with Byron and joining in with the crowd, but in his own state it had taken him several moments to recall the wager they’d made at the start of the game. His face looked stony and severe, and not in the way Solomon usually planned to display. No, this was the look of a man staring into the future and not liking what he saw.

“Make it red.” When Solomon finally replied the room cheered and applauded. But Prairie was leaning on the bar top and laughing more. Byron was grinning ear to ear, so red in the face he looked like a tomato. “Well I don’t see a problem with that. Pink is a kind of red, isn’t it Prairie?” She couldn’t even answer, still recovering from her own outburst, but she waved her hand at Byron and gave him the thumbs up. She shouldn’t have looked at Solomon again after that though. Solomon looked about ready to simultaneously throw up and light the bar on fire. Prairie turned around and curled up over the bar, her back shaking wildly as she stifled her laughter from being uproarious. Past that the party was as loud and rowdy as one would expect. So much so that the tower guard showed up once things started getting damaged. Splitting ways from the bar there were a few fist fights that managed to break out. People were starting to get excited by the night’s events. Even people in the streets were making an event of it. The night was lit and alive with people all waiting for the appearance of the infamous mirror in the sky.

Among the crowds and the screams of the celebration, no one would notice a few extra shadows wandering amongst the populace. But as Prairie made her way back towards the gray manor, swaying this way and that as her steps went left and right, her eye caught something off to the wayside. Milly was speaking to someone around a corner in an alleyway, accepting another bellworth before waving to the person as they went away. A mere second later Prairie saw down that alleyway the girl was waving into, and she didn’t see anyone at all. Her pace stopped, and as the crowd swarmed around her slapping her shoulders and giving good lucks for the battle ahead, Prairie’s drunk mind was racing to remember why what she just witnessed was important.

Next Chapter: The Banquet