As the party leave the Graunberg dungeons, they are met outside the main throne room by a well dressed prim and proper man matured into his later years.
They soon find out, much to their own grievances, that he is the castle chamberlain, and is certainly not pleased at what is presented to him. He bluntly declares that they are not suitable for an audience with her Ladyship, the Countess Frieda Neufrau von Saponatheim. The party have not washed since Bogenhafen, and some of them still have bloody stains in their clothes, particularly Kall, Godfrey and Borri. Borri gets a few unpleasant looks from the chamberlain who remarks Borri’s presence with a gesture to his nose…
“This will not do at all! These commoners will need to be scrubbed clean of that filth and their rags giving a good cleaning!” At this he claps his hands and a couple of nearby servants approach, and are ordered to take them to the servants quarters and make arrangements for them to be washed thoroughly.
They set off at once and are led down a long corridor and through several rooms until they arrive at the servants quarters, under escort by both the servants and the guards.
There, they are bluntly told to strip as the servants fill the basins. Finja kicks up a fuss about not having any privacy, nor having a brush. The former is provided and the latter gets given to her after her wash-up. Kall spots Eckhardt trying to hide a dagger that the guards missed in a towel as he strips, and helps him by providing his cloak to shield Eckhardt’s ‘dignity’, although nobody offers to shield the dignity of everyone in the room as the dwarf begins to strip down… Nobody likes a naked dwarf, and Eckhardt’s request that the servants leave the room so that privacy could be had is certainly welcomed by one and all.
After cleaning and scrubbing themselves clean for an hour, they are waiting another hour for their clothes to arrive. They do, and despite being somewhat damp, the servants did a decent job in the allotted time given them to scrub most of the dirt and grime off.
Ready to go, they are met just outside the quarters by the castle guard captain who is standing next to Ernst Steurmann. He tells them that the hour is late, and that the Countess will not be seeing any of them. They are to report back to the castle first thing in the morning, and that arrangements have been made for them to stay at the Tumblewood Hostel within the castle courtyard.
Other than a small detour by Kall to checkup on his horse, Belvar, and a brief friendly chat with the stablemaster, they are shown to the hostel, and their escorts leave them be once they enter.
The hostel is a rather bare establishment. Joyless, grey and a bore. Only the barest of comforts is provided, and even stating that is a stretch. As they enter, the floor is littered with sleeping bodies. Over two dozen have made the lobby of the hostel their home. No beds are provided other than bedrolls. However, only two bedrolls remain free, and Kall and Ulrico race to claim one each. Once claimed, they converse with the keeper of this establishment, who hushes them to be quiet. Two brass is provided along with a hardy loaf of stale bread that is given after Kall inquires after food. The bread is instead given to the dwarf, and they bed down for the night. Finja heads outside and decides to sleep in the cold rather than in the stuffy airtight room surrounded by smelly ruffians and other sorts. She’s accosted an hour later trying to dose off but she manages to deal with the situation after the guard discovers she’s here at the Graf’s pleasure.
Meanwhile… Johann Karling, the brother of Liliana, is on a journey. At the request of his father, Johann has been asked to bring his sister back to Marienburg so that she could return to her rightful duties and uphold her past obligations.
His journey is hard and unforgiving as he sets out on a journey that would take him over 2 months to reach Altdorf. He left Marienburg with six of his best and most trusted men, men who he has sailed with and men who he could rely on. However, his father had insisted that they ride out on horseback rather than by river barge. The point was argued, but his father did not relent, and was not keen on paying the new heavy taxes that have apparently burdened the Imperial river trade of late.
So rode out with six men he did, and arrived at Altdorf with just two of his men remaining. Johann was waylaid enroute to Altdorf by bandits. They had ambushed the Karling camp during the night and it was an effective ambush, having taken nearly all of their supplies, forcing Johann to spend much of his own money and that of his men to relieve nearby villages of their own rather dwindling stocks, and paying way over the odds for them too.
Once in Altdorf, one of Johann’s men had succumbed to his injuries during the night. Now it was just him and Udo, one of Johann’s best fighters, and the only reason why he’s still alive. Johann himself is only alive courtesy of the brave actions taken by his own men who didn’t hesitate to get in harms way for the sake of their captain.
Johann learns that Liliana may be heading for Bogenhafen, and fetches some supplies while Udo readies the horses. However, upon arriving back at the stables on the Konigplatz, Johann discovers that Udo’s horse is gone, and his own horse remains. He curses under his breath, swearing vengeance for this betrayal, but things are set to get worse… He finds out that Udo had sold his horse to the stablemaster, at a bargain apparently. A tense discussion is had, but Johann is left with no choice but to back off. It’s far too public for a fight here, and Johann can’t afford more trouble. He opts instead to spend the night in Altdorf to ‘relieve’ the stablemaster of his horse that rightfully belongs to Johann.
He comes back during the night but finds that two guards are on watch. This isn’t the stables out in some backwoods town… This is Altdorf, and horse thieves are not alien to the ways of wealthy stable owners who can afford their own security. Johann considers to bluff his way past them instead, and manages to get into the stables. He wakes up the stableboy and bluffs the young lad in preparing his horse for him.
The lad is half-way in saddling up when he comes out of his slumber entirely and realizes whats going on. “This is the masters horse… this isn’t yours!”
The boy fetches the master, and the guards keep an eye on Johann. The stablemaster arrives and firmly tells Johann to get lost. Things however get a bit friendlier when Johann scales back his attitude and plays ‘nice guy’ with him. It doesn’t get him his horse back, but at least he can leave Altdorf with one less enemy.
The next morning he sets out on a Ratchet Lines carriage to Bogenhafen. His journey takes him through Weissbruck and several stops are made along the way at various coaching inns. Only a couple of hours from Bogenhafen, he stops at a nearby coaching inn. Johann decides to sit by a nearby river and takes in the air. He’s briefly accosted by some Road Wardens but they disperse once they realize he’s not the one they’re looking for.
The next morning, Johann is again by the river, taking a ‘slash’ before the final leg of the journey to Bogenhafen. There, across the way, he notices a barge pulling out. Along the sides are some words he can just make out, “Berebelli”… Johann recalls his father describing the barge and the name. He starts following the barge up river, all the way to Graunberg on foot, cursing and muttering at how much he must’ve angered Manaan to be saddled with such bad luck.
Its late in the evening when Johann manages to get into Graunberg. However, rather than entering through the gates, he opts instead to stop at the Berebelli and wait…
Next morning, the party are off to to the castle, but not before checking in on Liliana. They meet the barber surgeon outside who attended to the needs of LIliana, and he has some grim news indeed.
“I’m afraid it’s bad… I had to amputate the arm. Some kind of rot had nestled in, a kind I’ve never seen before. I believe I have stopped the spread of it, but as for your companion, I’m afraid she won’t wake up. I’ve tried smelling salts and other assortments, but she just refuses to come too. I’m afraid it’s all I can do right now.”
With that, the party continue on to Graunberg, somewhat solemn from the news given. Unknown to them, Johann and Ernst Steurmann are behind them, about to inquire at the surgeons tent. A few minutes earlier, Steurmann had bumped into Johann, heading for the Berebelli. Johann was in no mood and wasn’t afraid to mince words with Steurmann, but Steurmann bit back. After discovering out that he’s the brother of Liliana, Ernst told him that he better come… and set out to see Liliana.
They gotten to the surgeons tent and an emotional and already unsteady Johann was shown into the tent by Steurmann, after shoving the protesting surgeon out of the way.
Johann broke down into tears, and Steurmann let him be. Finja turns around after hearing an emotional outburst from behind, and see’s Steurmann walking off with an irate surgeon chasing after him. They decide to check in on Liliana, having been refused entry earlier by the surgeon.
There, they see Johann. A rather short fellow at 5,7, dressed in the colors of some house, although the clarity of the colors are stained with mud and the remains of dried blood.. Black greasy looking hair and a weathered look to him, the party cautiously approach. He has a very tense but brief encounter with Finja, and the party decide to leave him be. Ulrico gives Johann his name, and tells him where to find them should he wish to talk further.
They leave him be, and continue onwards to the castle.
There they see that an orderly que has formed outside the main throneroom, and that the chamberlain is at the head of this que, taking notes. Ulrico and company get briskly told to park their asses at the end of the que. After thirty minutes, they get to the front and the chamberlain is not impressed with their current state, but deems it adequate. He tells them, “You are to greet the countess as Her Ladyship, and by no other title. If you are at all capable of common courtesy, you are to bow low before Her Ladyship, and do not speak unless spoken too. Is that understood? Yes? Good!” Ulrico is blunt in letting the chamberlain know exactly what he thinks of him, and moves past him into the throne room, as do the others.
Once inside, they are somewhat deflated at the size of the que. At least forty are waiting for an audience with the countess. They bide their time as they get in line. From their vantage point, they can spy the countess. A beautiful young woman with fair skin and dressed in a fine glistening dress that sparkles as the rays of the morning sun shine through.
Now and again she lets out a visible yawn, and seems somewhat bored from the ongoing proceedings.
As they wait for over a couple of hours, they pick up on some gossip and rumors within the line.
They overhear a husband and wife argue between themselves further up in the line. The husband is trying to shush the wife, while the wife is complaining about the lack of care and action given by the countess. It seems that a recent tax hike is at the heart of the issue. She’s not alone in this grievance. Eckhardt had picked up similar gossip at the hostel regarding grumbling about taxes and such. There was also some curious and rather peculiar news regarding the apparent legality status of mutants in the Empire. It gets picked up further as they wait. Apparently the Emperor has issued an edict stating that mutants are now legal, and to hunt them down and to deliver swift justice to these abominations is now illegal. Nearly everyone calls it madness, and most believe that the edict is some sort of practical joke, and not one issued by the Emperor. Eckhardt himself shouts, “Here Here!” when a general cry calls out that its utter madness!
They do pick up some rumors however relating to Ilse, although not of much use. Some say that she was spotted in Weissbruck, others, say she was believed to be heading to Bretonnia. One elderly woman, who is standing by a child, points to the child and remarks that this is ‘Ilse,’ which gets a few laughs, but the woman is kindly and gently persuaded not to approach the countess with such a notion… for her own safety.
She soon leaves the que.
The party are getting nearer now. However, the woman and her husband who were arguing earlier are in front, and make their way to the center. The husband speaks up, bowing low first.
“Your Ladyship, my name is Steffen Blaustein, your Ladyship. I own a small farm just on the edge of Skaag Hills, about an hours walk from here, your Ladyship. I have served the Graf and your Ladyship for many years, providing bountiful livestock and produce at your leisure, and will continue to do so under your benevolent and kind rule. I come to you now your Ladyship as a simple man who has suffered much under the weight of these taxes. I am under much strain, your Ladyship, as these taxes have punished me and others like myself in my trade. I can barely make ends meet. My work mules are sick and I cannot pay for a veterinarian. My wife and I have had to eat through our own supplies that was meant for the markets. I plead with…” the countess cuts him off with a gesture of her hand, and begins to speak.
“You are right to come to me with your grievances, but they are not of my concern. It is not I that has laid this burden upon you. It is the Emperor, his Grace and Just ruler of this glorious Empire, that you should take your grievances upon. It is he, that has laid you with these burdens, not I. I too have been burdened with such taxes, you are not alone in this suffering. I suggest you continue with your harvest. Perhaps a more positive attitude may yield you better results. That is all.”
The husband sighs, and bows, and is about to leave when his wife grabs his straw hat, and throws it onto the ground in front of the countess. She roars with fury as she points a finger at the countess, “You vile woman! How dare you sit there in all your wealth and sublime and say that we must carry on with the harvest! It is you that has laid these taxes upon us! You speak lies with a forked tongue! The Emperor is taxing you! And you issue new taxes upon us so that you continue sitting on that lovely throne of yours while we suffer!”
Several calls for SILENCE! went out to no avail as the woman continues her tirade. Nearly out of breath, she finishes, waiting for the reaction of the countess. The whole throne room has gone silent, and everyone is staring at the countess…
She rises from her throne and, her voice booming, “You wretched little commoner. Such insolence, such stupidity. You stain the very ground you stand on with your vile words. Yet… such audacity, such brevity,” she chucks her head back and begins to laugh, no longer the apparent step mother grieving for her step daughter, but some demented woman taking pleasure in the plight of this woman and her husband.
She slumps back into the throne, saying, “Impressive. I had no idea such wretched little things like you had it in you. I have to say you turned a rather dull day into an exciting one, I applaud you for that. Now, applaud her! I command it that everyone applaud her!”
People start slowly clapping, commoners and castle attendants alike begin a slow cap, and are silenced mere seconds later.
The countess has an amusing smile on her face, “O, you look disappointed. What’s wrong? Did you expect me to call for your head? That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? Such a shame… Yet as much as I enjoyed our little tit for tat, I must say, I do need to exact punishment.”
She gazes towards the wife’s husband, and after giving him a tirade about how he should keep his spouse in check, she commands that his head be removed, and that the wife receive 100 lashes. They are marched out of the throne room as the wife begins to break down in tears.
“Next!” a nearby servant shouts, and the party shudder as they realize they are next…
They approach as the servant states, “You approach Her Ladyship, state your intentions and wishes!”
A few seconds of silence, which is then broken up by Ulrico stepping forward, bowing lightly and proclaiming their reason for being here is to find her step-daughter.
The nearby servant has a few whispered words in the countess’s ear, and the countess perks up as she realizes who these people are in front of them.
“Ah yes… are you aware of the circumstances of my beloved Ilse’s disappearance?”
“No, your Ladyship,” Ulrico replies.
“Then, let me tell you… Several months ago, we have been struck with grief over the tragic loss of princess Ilse. She was last seen walking into the Reikwald forest, and has been presumed dead, until now. Her body was never found, but my lords best hunter swore that he could read the track in the forest like an open book: Little Ilse was most likely consumed by wild beasts, according to this hunter. Since that day, we’ve been mourning her. Until… recently, when we received information suggesting Illse might be alive after all. We want you to find her.
“The hunter who swore that Ilse was dead is a man named Handrik Grimm. Unfortunately, he left our service last year, but he should still be nearby. We want you to locate him and ask him how he can be so sure that Ilse died in the forest. Tell him that we, the countess, command him to help you locate the girl’s remains, lest he lose his head. Handrik comes from the town of Weissbruck, and his family might know where to find him. We also want you to keep us informed about everything you discover regarding this matter. If you have no further questions, that will be all.”
Finja pipes up, and asks about the circumstances of Ilse’s disappearance and why she walked into the forest. “She’s a spirited young child of a curious nature. She’s always been rather adventurous,” the countess replies. Finja then inquires about her marriage with the Graf, but is told bluntly, “That is not of your concern and has no business in the matter of my missing step daughter.” Finja wisely does not pursue that line of questioning.
They leave the throne room and meet the Chamberlain outside. They are told that rooms have been arranged for them within the castle itself, and that a carriage will be arriving on the morrow, bringing them to Weissbruck. At this moment, Finja spews up her morning and rather unpleasant breakfast that she had at the hostel, and does so all over the Champerlain. He’s not happy… and storms off after commanding the servants to show them to their rooms, which they do, but not before removing all the silverware and other valuables.
Outside, they meet up with Johann who is carting the unconscious Liliana around in a coffin cart. Finja and Ulrico convince him to bring her into the castle, and Finja negotiates with the guards to let them bring Liliana to her room. With the help of the barber surgeon, they manage to do so.
Kall and Eckhardt have been browsing the market stalls when they bump into Ernst Steurmann, whose got Sam, Eckhardt’s often forgotten about pig. Eckhardt brings him over to the stables and gets him fed while Ernst says his goodbyes to his nephew.
They hug and embrace as Ernst explains that he will be leaving, “I’ve been ordered by that… by the countess, to track down a group of brigands just on the outskirts of Graunberg. I shouldn’t expect much trouble, I’m told there’s not many, and I reckon we can run them out.”
However, Kall remembers that on his way to Graunberg the first time round, he saw a camp with over a dozen men in it… He reported this to the Graf, but the Graf waved it off as possible visitors heading to sign up to seek out his daughter.
Kall tells Ernst his fears, and regarding how many brigands there might be. Ernst is furious and shocked… “I was given only six men, and you say there’s over a dozen? Yet I received reports there was at least 3, if not 4 at most… Something is not right about this at all.”
Fearing that someone might want his uncle dead, Kall offers to help, and they head off to inform the others…
Back up in the castle room, the surgeon is looking after the injured. He does a good job at patching them up, however, Godfrey, who is still suffering from the wound he received from the vampire, collapses… The surgeon notes this as odd, and offers to examine him further in privacy. The servants soon remove him to his own room.