We left Therell Kell's shop in a panic, having learned that a number of captured lordlings, including Leolin, were to be executed in a public display of anti-aristocracy anger by the Peristeri Wing. We knew that the lordlings were currently being held in the Palace of the Hetarai, where we had stolen the Tehokivi just a day or so before. And we knew the place where they were to be executed: the Duskfields Court just outside the Middle City wall in the lower City. We also knew that the lordlings had been taken from the Black Cornix syndicate by the Peristeri Wing not too long ago, killing at least five Cornix members in the process.
Our current plan was to leverage this intramural animosity between the Cornix and the Peristeri. If Therell Kell knew about the execution, then so did the Cornix. And given the interest they had shown in capturing Leolin, it was a certainty that the Cornix were going to attempt to disrupt the execution. Could we take advantage of this somehow? Our main constraint, however, was that we could not blow Evendur's cover when it came to the Cornix. They still believed him to be an active member, and so any hint that he was acting on behalf of a different party would lead to complications for him that he made us swear to avoid.
We discussed all of these things as Evendur led us on the way to Kendler Alley, where the Black Cornix had their headquarters. Ultimately, we decided that Evendur would attempt to reconnect with the Cornix and try to learn any details of whatever their plan might be to foil the Peristeri plans. He would then report back. Once we knew what they were up to, we could decide how best to take advantage of their efforts. Were they going to set up an ambush along the route from the Hetarai Palace to Duskfields Court? Maybe we could make off with Leolin in the confusion, or something like that.
And so, we posted up at the mouth of the alley and Evendur prepared to enter the Cornix headquarters. As he did so, he caught sight of someone skulking through one of the side alleys, and then did a double take. It was Matrim Drusella, the lordling that Evendur had shown up to Lord Eglon's gala with, in order to get Fenn and himself into the party. What was Matrim doing here? Evendur decided this was a strange enough occurrence to warrant a short detour, and he confronted Matrim.
"What are you doing here?" he hissed at the lordling, who jumped in fright.
"I… I… left some money here earlier when you found me in that closet, and I came back to get it," he replied. "When you rescued me I didn't know who you were or if I could trust you so I dropped my coin there."
"Why on earth would you come back, you fool!" Evendur said in response.
"It's everything I have!" Matrim whined. "My family is still low in status and I can't lose this money. I need it."
"Fine, it's your life," Evendur snapped. It wasn't the time to worry about a foolish lordling when our whole mission was on the line. Evendur redirected himself to the entrance to the Cornix meeting house, and was met by a guard. Evendur made the appropriate attestations and was let into the house, where learned that a council of the Cornix higher-ups was currently in session. Evendur walked to the entrance of their meeting room and attempted to bluff his way past this second, much more serious-looking guard, who challenged him and asked his business.
"I've been called into the council," Evendur said. The guard was suspicious, but after some insistence on Evendur's part, sighed and walked in with Evendur, making a fair approximation of Evendur's last words to Matrim just a moment prior. In the deep interior room of the house, the meeting stopped at the guard's entrance.
"He says he was called in," the guard announced, and turned to leave. One of the Cornix leaders spoke in a half sneer.
"We didn't invite you," they said. Evendur shrugged.
"All I know is that I received a message to come to this council," he bluffed again. The leaders looked at one another, and then back to Evendur, completely unconvinced.
"Well, then there was a miscommunication that we don't have time to get to the bottom of right now. Nor do we have time to deal with killing you and cleaning up the mess. You're clearly from the Syndicate, but you are in the wrong place right now. Leave, and count yourself lucky." Evendur then decided to risk it all on one last ploy, which actually involved a fair bit of truth.
"I think this may have something to do with the intelligence that I've collected: the Peristeri Wing know more than you think they do. They know where it is." The group of Cornix was silent for a moment. Then one of them spoke up.
"This is not news to us. Now, leave." And then they turned back to their meeting, giving Evendur his last chance to depart with his life intact. Defeated, he exited the room and the building, then returned to his party and relayed what had happened. Sighing, we went back to the drawing board. Without knowledge of what the Cornix were going to attempt, we would be just as likely to run afoul of their operation as to benefit from it. We started to think instead about how we might preempt the execution entirely and thought about the routes the execution party might take from the Palace to the Lower City. Unfortunately, there were several options, some through the streets of the Middle City and some through the network of underground sewers. If we were going to set up an ambush we would have to take our chances on a single route, and without any specific intelligence to tell us which one to choose. It all seemed like too much of a gamble.
After much back and forth, and with awareness that we were rapidly losing time to do anything at all, Fenn suggested that we focus instead on the plaza where the execution was to take place: the Duskfields Court. We had some time now for reconnaissance, which we could use to set up some kind of plan to foil the execution and maybe get out with Leolin and our lives on top. If the Cornix had another plan in motion and stole the lordlings away before the execution, well then at least we would have earned a reprieve, and could come up with another plan to rescue Leolin from the Cornix. But for now, the only guaranteed point of encounter was the execution spot, and so we headed there. On the way we laid the groundwork for a basic plan that we could alter as needed: Rianne would hide at some distance and provide cover with her bow or hand crossbow. Eoin, our newest party member, would create some kind of distraction that would hopefully keep the eyes of the crowd and the executioners somewhere other than on Fenn and Evendur, who would be the ones attempting to spirit away the hostages. It was an impossible task, no matter how we looked at it. Not only would there be Peristeri guards, but the whole court would be full of citizens ripe for violence themselves.
And true enough, when we got to the Court, it was like tinder ready to go. Hundreds of people were already packed in the open space, and the air crackled with the anticipation of spectacle and death. At least thirty or forty of the crowd appeared heavily armed enough to be either Cornix or Peristeri, but we could not tell which, or what their purpose was. At the far end of the large square loomed the wall separating us from the Middle City, with heavy, closed gates at either corner of the Court. Almost right up against the wall was a raised gallows with three nooses set up and ready for their dark business.
We examined the terrain, feeling less and less confident of any possibility of success. The buildings opposite the gallows were too far away for Rianne to hide on a roof and provide reliable archery cover. She would have to hide herself in the crowd and stick to her hand crossbow. For his part, Eoin's job seemed pretty obvious, as there was already a stage set up. He just needed to get on it. Given the manner of execution, Fenn and Evendur decided that their best bet was to somehow sneak under the gallows and at the right moment disable the trap door mechanism that would drop the unfortunate lordlings to their hanging doom. We would need to take advantage of the resulting confusion to rescue Leolin, and the other lordlings if possible, though we were increasingly certain that getting just one hostage out of the plaza would be a miracle. Leolin was our target, and if we had to leave some of his friends behind to save him, we would do it. Fenn and Evendur's work would be made even more difficult by the fact that six or so guards stood in front of and beside the gallows. Hiding underneath would take some doing with that kind of entourage.
We still had no idea how we would escape even if we managed to secure Leolin. We looked around for some kind of cart that we could maybe set on fire and use as a barrier while we attempted to go to the gate or even scale the Middle City wall, but we were sure that in a moment of chaos the gates would not open for anyone, and the wall seemed completely unscalable, particularly while carrying one or more presumably helpless lordlings. As we were casting about, we noticed two carriages coming through the crowd towards the gallows, being pulled by Kotopoio. These beasts didn't seem particularly domestic, but they were well secured to the carriages and driven by armed guards. Then, before we had time to finish our planning, one of the carriages opened and out stepped three lordlings, made to walk up the gallows by one Peristeri guard each. The execution was happening now! And unfortunately, Leolin did not appear to be among the first set on the stage. They were probably saving him for last. And sure enough, there he was, being directed out of the second carriage and made to stand next to the gallows.
Planning was over. It was time to act. Rianne was already hidden in the crowd on the left front edge near the gallows, and Fenn and Evendur were along the wall, waiting for a time to sneak along it and attempt to get under the gallows while the guards were all facing the crowd, and the crowd's attention was on whatever Eoin was going to do. A man was on the gallows already, pontificating about the decadence and ineptitude of the aristocracy. It was time to steal the show—and Eoin stepped to the stage. It would have taken too long to get all the way to the other side of the gallows and up the stairs, so Eoin bellowed in a loud voice as he walked over, raising his hands and putting on his best showman:
"People of Nauem! Are you ready for an execution?"
There was a moment of silence, and the somewhat dull Peristeri pontificator paused in surprise as the crowd turned its eyes to Eoin. He smiled grandly. He had their attention. And now he needed to keep it.
In that moment, Evendur made his move, creeping along the wall towards the back of the gallows, trusting that the guards would remain facing the bardic interloper. As he did so, he looked down at the ground where it intersected the wall, and saw something that seemed extremely valuable for our party—a grate on top of a chute leading down to the sewers, covered partially by detritus that had been swept out of the Court to make way for the gallows. Evendur could even see a flight of stairs, indicating that this was some kind of maintenance access to the sewer system. Assuming we could figure out how to unlock and remove the grate at the right time, this was our best chance of making it out of the Court in the midst of what would presumably become mass chaos before much longer.
Sadly, this investigation cost Evendur. Making some kind of noise, a guard on the far side of the gallows noticed him walking behind the platform. The guard was obviously paying attention to Eoin, and didn't appear to see Evendur as an obvious threat, but did start to move towards Evendur's position, making it obvious that Evendur had no business being back there.
At this point, it was up to Eoin to do something with the crowd's attention. And so he began a charismatic diatribe against the decadent Lords of the Inner City, hiding behind their walls and throwing parties while the rest of Nauem turned to chaos. It was time to show them that they were not safe! Down with the lords! Let's execute these silly fops! And so on. The crowd was murmuring and then shouting in agreement, and Eoin played on their emotion some more, throwing his hands in the air in some kind of well-understood gesture before slinging his bagpipes into playing position and letting loose with their cathartic wail.
Fenn took advantage of this activity to raise his own hands, though for the purpose of maintaining a holy focus long enough to call upon his god in prayer. His arms grew warm with energy in response, and he knew that his prayer had been answered. For a short time, his allies would be shielded from some degree of harm, and would be able to move more quickly and stealthily; something that seemed entirely appropriate for this moment.
During all of this, Rianne stayed put in the crowd, knowing that her time to act had not yet come. It was obviously a powder keg out there, and if the crowd's attention wavered from Eoin for even a moment, and discovered what she and her friends were up to, crossbow bolts and blades would be whirring thickly through the square.
Evendur, having been spotted already, figured that there was no good way to sneak under the platform. But the second best thing was to be close at hand whenever Eoin reached the culmination of his distraction. So he ignored the guard's ominous approach and kept moving himself along nonchalantly. The two of them met just behind the very middle of the gallows.
"You can't be here," growled the guard, and pointed away from the gallows.
In reply, Evendur stabbed him. He grunted in pain, but Evendur's blade skittered partly across some kind of armor, leaving only a shallow cut. The guard's exclamation caused four of his comrades, protecting the front of the gallows, to turn around and peer underneath, to see what was going on. They saw their fellow pull out his weapon and slash at Evendur in turn, scoring a much deeper hit. So much for stealth. And Evendur was now wounded, though not as badly as he would have been without the benefit of Fenn's prayer still in effect.
Fenn, seeing all of this, and that our cover was blown in terms of the Peristeri guards at least, rushed to Evendur's aid, shooting a crossbow bolt at his attacker on the way. The guard fell down dead even as his comrades moved beneath the gallows in order to intercept. Miraculously, all of this was happening beneath the notice of those crowding the square, due to Eoin's magnetizing, and loud, performance. But as he sensed the guards beside him disappearing, he knew that something must be wrong, and redoubled his efforts to keep the audience in sway.
Rianne also saw her friends involved in earnest struggle, and wanted to help, but was afraid that by shooting from her position she would dissolve Eoin's spell and cause those around her to erupt in violence, something that would not end well for us or our mission. But she needed to do something. So she stepped back a bit in order to be behind the main ring of onlookers, and surreptitiously fired a crossbow bolt at a long range target: one of the Kotopoio linked to a carriage, on the other side of the gallows. This effort to create a more violent distraction was not successful, but fortunately the missed shot was not noticed by the crowd, who remained spellbound by Eoin's performance.
Evendur, now freed from his first assailant, knew that the plan was in utter shambles and decided we had only one option left: rush to Leolin, grab him, and fight our way out. So he ran the rest of the way to the other side of the gallows, where Leolin was being held by a Peristeri guard. The guard saw him coming, though, and moved Leolin partially under the gallows in a more protected position. The other guards ran after Evendur, and together they delivered several more blows, though not before Evendur disemboweled Leolin's minder. Fenn rushed underneath the gallows from the back and grabbed Leolin in this moment, telling him that we were there to rescue him and to come with us. Evendur twirled out of reach of his enemies and shouted at Fenn:
"Give him to me!" Fenn nodded and let Evendur drag Leolin as Fenn faced four guards arranged in a neat semicircle around him. Wasting no time, Fenn struck with his sword and cut one of the guards down, but this gave the others an opportunity for unguarded attacks, and Fenn was now wounded too beneath his armor. Several more rounds of this occurred, with Eoin's bagpipes bellowing all the while. The wounded Evendur continued to slowly drag Leolin back under the gallows and towards the sewer entrance along the wall. Rianne saw this happening and moved to a defensive position where she could cover our retreat should we be able to make it. A guard on the side of the gallows nearest to her, the one right by Eoin and thus the most distracted by him, saw Rianne in her suspicious movement and approached her.
Meanwhile, Fenn was still surrounded by at least three enemies. He knew he needed to keep them off Evendur but he also knew he wouldn't survive long in this fashion. He was much closer to the Kotopoio than Rianne had been, and so he made a wild dive out of the way of the guards to slice through the Kotopoio's harness. The maddened beast charged immediately forward into the crowd, scattering and biting and killing people in a wide swath.
Eoin's distraction had now been replaced by a more deadly one. Another guard, seeing all of this, decided that this crazed bard must have something to do with the general chaos, and moved to attack, but Eoin, in a grand and climactic flourish, flung his arms wide and bowed, saying, "Thank you, Nauem! What a day!" As he flung out his arms, a pouch full of sand went with them, blinding the guard who had approached him. He struck out with his weapon nonetheless, and it connected with Eoin's back as the bard turned to flee. Still, this final distraction gave Eoin time to rush back towards Rianne and Evendur while the rampaging Kotopoio continued to take centre stage.
Rianne was being rushed by a guard, and so she met him head on. But as she moved to swipe with her daggers, her foot slipped in the ever-present seasonal mud and she dropped her daggers instead, giving her attacker an opportunity to slash her with his sword, leaving a large gash across Rianne's thigh. Her assailant didn't expect Rianne's counterattack though—Rianne reared back her head and then crashed it into the guard's, knocking him out cold. (Rianne, it is to be remembered, is a pirate). This maneuver freed up Rianne, so she could also move towards the sewer grate, where Evendur had unleashed his set of thieves' tools on the problem of the lock. It had rusted somewhat and wasn't very pliant, so Rianne joined him and added some muscle. The grate creaked with the strain, but was not yet fully open.
Meanwhile, Fenn found himself surrounded by enemy fighters without the aid of his friends, and decided that his job of maintaining the ire of the guards was complete. He turned and ran towards his party, but not before cleanly decapitating one more of the guards. Still, as he fled, he received a few more, and deep, slashes from the remaining guards, who were now hampered by the general mayhem that was developing and the threat of Kotopoio. And so Fenn was able to dash over to his friends, using the gallows as cover. Luckily, while the plaza was now in chaos, it appeared that the only actors who had specifically noticed our involvement were the Peristeri guards that we had killed or taken our leave of. And so, with three lordlings still cowering on the gallows, and only Leolin in our midst, we heaved at the gate until it sprang free of its hinges, and crashed down the stairs into the sewers.
We waited a moment so that Fenn could pray for Evendur's healing; he had bled much during the fight and was close to unconsciousness. After having recovered a bit thanks to the miraculous healing of Fenn's god, we listened for any pursuers. No doubt, enemies would not be far behind. But for now, we had Leolin, and we had our lives. Now we just needed to keep them as we found our way, wounded, back to the Academy. And we needed to pray that our disturbance had halted or at least postponed the execution of Leolin's friends, whom we had not been able to save.