Rites of the Spring Horn

Game 55: The Black Queen

Summary

The transition to Autumn finishes, and everyone in the group swears to King Alter for the changing of the season. The changeling working to restore the chess pieces has a success with one piece, and Asantewaa joins the group.

Log

King Alter is on a throne that is covered in autumn leaves and thorns with small random objects worked in among the leaves and thorns. Asantewaa sets her glaive in front of him when she makes the pledge, then picks it back up when she’s done. He nods at her.

Once all of them have sworn, he says, “Thank you. I humbly accept your pledges, and I hope that Autumn holds for all of you what you want it to hold.”

When that is done, he looks at them and says, “Come closer, come closer!” They all move closer. Amy looks a little excitable. He keeps gesturing until they arrange themselves into a semi-circle. Amy is right at the base, but no one is on the dais. Hank makes sure he’s not standing in front of anyone else. Hulda is standing half a step back from everyone else.

Alter looks at everyone and says, “Now that we’ve gotten that bit of ritual over with, Now, ritual is important, and I actually quite enjoy it in the right move, but when one needs to dispense with it, one needs to dispense with it, don’t you think? Before we left the Green Room, I mentioned that Asantewaa here would be joining Vogelfrei for one mission, and I would like to apologize for forgetting to have all of you introduce yourself to her. In retrospect, it does seem obvious that what one notices when you are a chess piece and what one notices when you are a full size person and whether any of you might not have met her … my apologies.” Hank gives Marcella a skeptical look at the mention of other members of the team having met Asantewaa previously, and she looks confused, then the realization that she forgot to introduce him to the chess pieces hits, and she looks sheepish. “I would also like to apologize for such short notice again,” Alter adds.

“Well, this is kind of awkward … could each of you … go in a circle and introduce yourselves?” Alter looks a bit awkward at asking grown changelings to go in a circle.

Fianna’s first thought is, ’Isn’t this what rich kids do at camp?’

Amy’s first thought is, ‘Um, is this supposed … this sounds like some sort of game, is there supposed to be something I should say along with my name? I don’t remember, I’ll just say my name.”

Alter looks at Amy. “Hi, um, I’m still Amy.”

Hulda says quietly, so others in the room won’t hear that they’re doing the awkward name game, “I’m Hulda.”

Fianna just says, “Fianna.”

Hank nods, “Hank.”

Marcella says, “I’m Marcella.”

“I’m Zia,” Zia introduces herself.

“That settled, another reason I was not able to give all of you that much notice as to when this meeting was, once it became clear that this particular matter needed to be dealt with, it was important that it be dealt with as soon as possible. At the moment, of the motleys – I mean, groups – under Autumn’s purview, you are the group which has shown in general the most promise, and has consistently excelled in all the missions you are given. Do know that we are also pursuing this investigation within the Council and the Courts themselves, however, we felt it was good to have a group on the ground, focusing specifically on this issue.”

Alter clears his throat. “It has come to our notice that over the past several months, maybe as much as the past six months, there have been people disappearing. Comparatively rarely, many people from one place or one part of the city at once, and there is a pattern to it, but it seems to change at irregular times, such that the police seem to think that these are merely the work of several separate people, or, in a few cases, we believe they have not connected the disappearances at all.”

“I assume you mean humans and not changelings,” Marcella asks thoughtfully.

“It has been primarily humans,” Alter replies. “There were two disappearances during the Summer Games which may have been related. Recently, one of the members of my court who keeps very close track of the various disappearances and the other strange things that happen in and around Aachen, was looking at these disappearances again, because as I said, initially we thought that they were separate and most likely human, because as we know, humans are completely capable of committing horrible crimes (this is never in dispute, unfortunately),” Alter says this with a sense of distinct finality. “Once she took another look at the most recent set of disappearances, she started to put it all together. So far, there have been at least four sets of disappearances that we have uncovered at this time. What is interesting about them is that these disappearances go on over an inconsistent period of time. For example, the first set occurred over a fairly condensed period of time, about one week, and then the second set appears to have taken an entire three to four weeks, depending on whether or not – there is one person who does actually belong to that set of disappearances. And then the one after that took pretty much the entire time of the summer games, and it wasn’t until just recently that it appears to have switched over to another set of disappearances. Now, we are not entirely sure that we have actually initially arranged all of these disappearances into the right groups. These are only an initial finding. However, the first set of disappearances that we can confirm (and there might be others further back) occurred in the beginning of May. First, a husband and wife were taken. They both have children, who were not taken. And then, about three days later, a little boy was taken, and one day later, a little girl was taken. And the thing that they all have in common is that all four have the same physical appearance. Not that they are identical, but they all look similar to each other. Were you to see those two children, you could conceivably think that they were related to the two adults who were taken. Around the same time, next door to where the little girl was taken, a dog and a cat disappeared.”

Amy looks increasingly concerned as Alter describes the first group of disappeared people.

“The next set of disappearances all took place in grocery stores, ranging from people who were actually at the grocery store, who video cameras record entering the store and then they sometimes record them leaving, but if they disappear, they disappear almost immediately upon leaving the store, and on a few occasions, actually disappearing from within the grocery store. This also included grocery store employees, as well as quantities of groceries, various managerial levels of people related to grocery stores across the city. Yes, Amy?” he adds at her raised hand.

“Did all of the groceries that disappeared, were they all taken by the people who disappeared, or did some just disappear?” she asks.

“Of that, we are not quite sure,” he answers. “They have never disappeared separately. They always seem to have disappeared in the same grocery store at the same time someone was taken. Though to be fair, when someone disappears from your grocery store, that’s not really the time you take stock. Though, it could also have been a day later, a day earlier, it’s hard to know. But, I trust you will all investigate it.

“And then, finally, the most recent pattern, which seems to have finished up around the end of the Summer Games was the most curious, in that it does seem to be connected because all of the people who were taken were taken at similar times of day. However, they span multiple social classes. Several socialites were taken – one disappearance got a lot of attention because a politician’s daughter was ‘kidnapped,’ as the news put it.”

Hank nods, as he read that in the newspaper at the time it happened.

“They disappeared. Also, servicemen – several cops, several firemen have disappeared, as well as people from every social class, a wide variety of occupations, and the only thing in common is that almost all of them have disappeared between the hours of five pm and seven pm. And that is what we know at this time. There are a few sets of patterns, of disappearances that right now, we don’t know if they’re connected or not. But now that we’ve realized this is the case, this seems like the level of disappearance that humans are most likely not engaging in. This seems like the kind of strange patterns that might, in some way, be a product of Arcadia or a changeling.”

“Would the freehold know if a True Fae had been in the city?” Marcella asks.

“The freehold would know if a True Fae had been in the city who still had the abilities of the True Fae,” he answers.

“Are there True Fae who don’t still have the abilities of the True Fae?” Marcella asks, confused.

“If a True Fae is banished, they lose many of their abilities,” he says.

“Who has the authority to banish someone who has complete control over their entire universe?” Fianna wonders aloud.

“Well, that is something that we unfortunately do not quite understand,” Alter admits.

“Wait, so True Fae can’t take people from Aachen?” Amy asks.

“They can, but we will know that they have come,” Alter explains.

“So that’s not what happened,” Amy says, looking slightly reassured.

“To our knowledge, no,” he agrees.

Hulda is gazing up and out, thinking through all the myths and stories she can remember about servants of True Fae-type characters who could be taking people out. She wonders whether the number of people who have been taken are close to the number who have come out of Arcadia to Aachen, but it sounds like more have been taken than have come out, unless you count the chess pieces. She is trying to consider who might, mythologically speaking, qualify as not a True Fae for purposes of Aachen’s defenses, but would have the power to take people. She is thinking it’s possible it’s some sort of beast-type creature that is hungry, and plans to do more research. She remembers that there are a wide variety of myths where someone acts on the agency of someone else, which means that there are many choices, too many to narrow down right now. The timing doesn’t quite match up with the changelings who have been coming out of the Hedge to Aachen in great number. That has been happening for about the past 9 months, while these disappearances seem to have started about 6 months ago. It is still possible that this is a response to those disappearances, though.

At this point, Alter is taking questions.

“Who’s been doing the research, and where can I find her?” Hulda asks. “Can I work with her and look at numbers?”

“Yes, of course. The woman working on the research … let me …” he pulls out a notebook. “The woman working on the research is Miss Marisol Emeraldskin, and you can find her working in the Archives, which are I believe two levels below, in the basement. I will have a note passed along to her to expect you.”

“Thank you,” Hulda nods.

“I assume there hasn’t been any kind of event that would lead to lots of people being unaccounted for?” Asantewaa asks.

“No, there has not,” Alter confirms.

Hulda wonders if there is any particular date or celebration in the Fae calendar which would cause them to take more people, but doesn’t know of any off the top of her head.

“Did the disappearances begin before Summer?” Hank asks.

“Yes, they began in early May,” Alter says. “Now that Miss Emeraldskin is working on this, she may have found some patterns that might go back further than that, but nothing else is confirmed.”

“Is it only in this city?” Amy asks.

“To our knowledge, but we haven’t looked further yet. As I said, literally, while Asantewaa was transforming, Miss Emeraldskin found this information.”

“Mmhmm.” Amy looks pensive and worried.

“Is there a list of individuals who have departed the freehold in that time?” Hank asks.

“A list can be made available.”

“Or, shortly before it’s believed to have begun?” Hank adds.

“Are there any more questions? Anything else I can help you with? Any resources that you would like to be put at your disposal?” Alter asks.

“I think we’ll probably start by talking to Emeraldskin, but we’ll let you know if we have other questions as we continue the investigation,” Marcella replies.

“Excellent. I believe she has all the information regarding the locations and people and dates.”

“Excellent,” Marcella nods.

“Okay. Well, that is everything I have for you. The last question that I wanted to put to all of you was that since you will all be working on this mission, and unfortunately I suspect it will take a while, that you may wish to consider extending to Asantewaa if she would be willing to stay with you, so that you would not all need to come to the freehold simply to discuss this issue. That is of course your call, but my understanding from several informal events that you all have interacted with me at is that you have ample space.”

Marcella looks around at the rest of the group, trying to gauge people’s reactions. Hulda shrugs. Zia smiles and mouths, “New victim.” Marcella rolls her eyes. Fianna edges away from Zia, then contemplates that maybe this means she’s off the hook. Hank does not laugh. Amy is still watching Marcella inquisitively.

“Asantewaa, I – and I believe I speak for the rest of the group – would be happy to have you join us in our house if you wish to do so. The choice, of course is yours. You can, if you wish, come see what it’s like and decide after that. You don’t have to decide now.”

“Well, if it’s not a bother, but I think …” Asantewaa begins.

“We have extra rooms,” Amy adds.

“So many extra rooms,” Fianna agrees.

“We even have a guest room bedroom, actually,” Zia says awkwardly.

“… That probably I need to stay here until we figure out what I do,” Asantewaa finishes.

“What you do?” Zia asks.

“For a job, Zia,” Amy whispers.

“No,” Asantewaa says. “Like, contracts.”

“Ohh,” Zia says.

“Can I have the name of the person I’m supposed to talk to about that?” she asks Alter.

“Oh, of course,” he begins.

“And maybe a map?”

“Of the city, of the freehold …?”

“To get to them,” she finishes. “A name and a map to get to them?”

“Of course. Or, better yet, why not after this … Well, hm. Here, I will let Maria know that you can come speak to her at any point, and she will send someone to take you.”

Amy has just pulled up the city of Aachen on her phone and shows it to Asantewaa.

“What’s on the phone, Amy?” Alter inquires. She shows him. “Ah, a map of Aachen. I’m not sure that’s what she was going for.”

“I think she meant in the freehold,” Marcella adds.”

“Well yeah, but I thought … okay.” Amy trails off.

“But thank you,” Marcella adds.

“In any case, speak to Maria at some point, and she will direct you,” Alter says to Asantewaa.

“Okay,” she nods.

“Or, one of us can show you as well,” Marcella offers. Hank nods.

With that, Alter says, “Thank you very much. If you’ll excuse me,” he sighs, “I have a meeting.” He looks as though he’s waiting for them to leave before he gets off the throne. Hank gives him a sympathetic look, and they all bow or curtsy and begin to leave.

As they’re leaving, Amy shows Asantewaa the map on her phone again and points out, “This is where our house is.”

“The freehold’s right there,” Marcella adds, pointing to approximately where they currently are on the map.

“I don’t speak any German,” Asantewaa says.

“Huh? It’s in English. I don’t speak German either,” Amy says, a little confused.

“But that doesn’t help me navigate once I leave the freehold,” Asantewaa replies.

“As it turns out, most people in Aachen do speak a little English,” Hank says to Asantewaa. He has an accent that is bizzarely familiar to Asantewaa when he speaks in English.

“Fianna doesn’t speak German either. We’re learning,” Amy says sympathetically.

“I will not have any more people comment …” Fianna devolves into muttering about “that bar” and “those people.”

“Esque parlaiz-vous francais?” Hank asks Asantewaa suddenly.

“Oui,” she replies.

“Oh, bien!” Hank continues the conversation in French about people in Aachen and what they speak. All speak German, many speak English, and a large number also speak French.

Amy mouths “what are they saying?” to Fianna. Fianna shrugs.

“Well, Asantewaa, we could show you to Maria now, or we could go talk to Emeraldskin,” Marcella says once they’re all outside the throne room.

“I don’t know that we all need to go talk to her,” Hulda says. “I’d like to get some more information, I have some ideas …”

“I need to talk to her,” Amy says firmly.

“About something particular?” Hank asks Amy.

“It sounds … I’m not sure about all of them. I mean, I’m not sure about … The first one, and maybe the others too, which is why I want to hear more … it sounds like my keeper,” she finishes quietly. “The jobs … I need to know what their jobs were.” There is silence for a moment.

“What would that tell you?” Marcella asks her.

Amy is staring at the ground, shifting. “My keeper … likes … human stories. So, a family with pets, and … and and and all the parts of a grocery store … and I don’t know about five to seven, that one’s the weirdest, but if the jobs are like a policeman, and a firefighter, and there’s a doctor, and um … I don’t know, other … maybe, maybe someone military, and stuff like that, then I …. then that would be bad.”

“Yes, it would,” Marcella agrees solemnly. Fianna doesn’t say anything, but she steps over to Amy and stands there, not quite touching her.

“Hey Amy,” Zia asks. “Did … I’m sorry to ask, but … it sounds like the True Fae haven’t been in Aachen. Were you taken by someone else and given to your keeper, or did your keeper take you?”

“My keeper, but he has … a lot of changelings, and I don’t know how they all got there.”

“Okay,” Zia says quietly.

“He … he likes to make stories, but he doesn’t quite understand, so they don’t come out quite right, so there’s … things you can look for.” Amy continues.

“Well, that first group in particular did sound like a family group, so that’s definitely a possibility to keep in mind,” Marcella looks kind of pissed. “Well, I think you’re right, Hulda,” she continues after a moment, “we probably don’t need everyone to go down and overwhelm poor Emeraldskin at once. If you and Amy and whoever else wishes to go could bring the information back to the rest of us, I can take Asantewaa to go see Maria now. We can’t do much more until we know where to go to investigate, so …”

Amy is still looking very upset. “Amy, are you all right?” Zia asks.

“It doesn’t … matter unless the jobs are right,” she says.

“Let’s go find out,” Hulda says.

Both of these things sound boring to Fianna, but she decides to go where Amy is going. “I’ll go with you guys,” Zia says to Hulda. Hank seems not to have a preference about where to go.

Marcella says to Hank, “I know many of the offices in the freehold, but I don’t know quite all of them, so if you wouldn’t mind coming with me and Asantewaa, if it’s somewhere I don’t know how to get to, your help would be appreciated.” He agrees to this.

Hulda, Amy, Zia, Fianna

Now that Hulda and her group have found their way through the library to Marisol Emeraldskin’s office, Hulda realizes she has seen her before, though never interacted with her. She is a short, moderately squat person. She is a treasured, and her entire face is essentially an emerald mask with stylized features. She has other strange markings on her body, and looks like someone did a bad interpretation of an Aztec statue. She is working in a very small office with both her name and another person’s name on the door. There is only one desk, with a computer and very neat stacks of paper. One half of the room looks like one person’s storage, and the other half looks like someone else’s. One half is incredibly precisely filed, and the other is in between and looks only partially organized.

When they come in, she looks up and says in English with a flowing Spanish accent with disinterest, “Ah, you would be Vogelfrei? Yes? I was expecting you, given the information that I assume King Alter has given.”

Hulda and Amy nod.

“I was told you would be coming. So, how can I help you?”

“Can we see the list of the people who were taken?” Amy asks.

“Of course, one moment.” She types on the computer for a moment, hits a button, prints a list of names, dates, and groupings which is three pages long.

Amy asks if she knows the jobs of the third group, and she says that she is still in the process of acquiring that information. “As of yet, we have the following confirmed. There are three people who have no profession as such, but are politicians or people related to politicians who do not work. One of these people has spent much time working as a … oh goodness, what is the word … a lobbyist. But, not too long, because well, here in Germany we haven’t allowed lobbyists for long.

“In any case, one was a young woman you’ve probably heard about on the news, Miss Doring. She disappeared at the height of the Summer Games. She is the daughter of a prominent politician. Her occupation at the time was as the head of a charity she had started all on her own. Very touching, I’m sure.” Hulda laughs quietly under her breath.

“Ah, and then we also have the police chief for one of the local departments, several policemen from around the city, a single fireman, a faith healer, a neurologist, a variety of businessmen, approximately seven children (who presumably do not yet have occupations; I have not yet investigated those), about … hm, this is interesting. A variety of people who have mostly held part time or transitional jobs at least three of whom are from some of the older families in Aachen. Their families are generally part of politics, trade, business … other big names, in other words, in Aachen. For the most part, those taken from these families were between 15 and 25. Janitors were taken. Several women who cleaned hotels, restaurants, etcetera … a librarian was taken. There are more, do you want me to keep going?” Hulda looks a little surprised at the last one.

“No, I think … it’s not what I was thinking, I don’t think,” Amy says.

“What were you thinking?” Emeraldskin asks.

“It’s not … representative?” Amy clarifies hesitantly.

“Representative of …?”’

“A city.”

“Hm. It seems comparatively representative to me,” Emeraldskin says.

“Is it because of the duplicates, Amy?” Hulda asks.

Amy nods. “There’s too many. And they’re not all the right duplicates. And there’s kids.” Amy hands the list to Hulda, but keeps looking over her shoulder. Hulda is looking at the dates. She can confirm that the patterns of dates seem to be about as Alter told them – the three groupings seem distinct. The family-like group disappeared over the course of a week, then there was a break of five days. The grocery-related disappearances happened between the second half of the second week of May into about the end of June (about 6 weeks, and about 30 people). From the end of June, there was a break until mid-July. There’s a small note that says “potential disappearances not yet confirmed.” Around July 20th to the very end of August, the people related to the five to seven timeframe disappeared (around 60 people). The disappearances stop around the time that Iris disappeared. There’s another note about a potential pattern that has not been confirmed since then.

Amy says, “It’s too many, anyway. It would have to be more than one.”

Hulda agrees. “Yeah, I was looking for a pattern, but I don’t see one there.” She sighs and looks at Emeraldskin. “Do you know if anyone has looked into anything specific keepers, or the Fae calendar, or thought about the fact that the numbers are not dissimilar to the number of escaped changelings who have come to Aachen, or thought about what could be doing this – some kind of Fae servant – or should I assume that we should start from scratch?”

“Well, for starters, I broke this pattern yesterday,” Emeraldskin says flatly.

“No, I’m just asking if there’s anyone who’s started to work on those, that’s just what’s popped into my head,” Hulda clarifies hastily.

“No,” Emeraldskin says with a sigh, “it’s comparatively unlikely that it’s related to any kind of Fae calendar, I mean come on now. They don’t keep calendars. Everyone knows that time passes differently there.”

“They don’t like it when spring doesn’t come,” Amy murmurs.

Emeraldskin looks at her. “Explain your comment.”

“They were talking … yeah, they were talking about how spring wasn’t coming,” Amy says. “And they were mad.”

“Hm, I see. Well, it could play in, but … that does not seem like a useful thing to explore. But the numbers, I agree, they are roughly even. However, to say so implies that those Fae know where these changelings are going. And if all of those Fae, all of those keepers, know that you are all coming to Aachen, why haven’t they come to claim you? Instead of taking new humans, why not take the ones you’ve already fucked up?”

“Somebody knows,” Amy says. “We all got here somehow. They don’t have to all know, just somebody.”

“Are you implying that the somebody sending all of these changelings to this city is a True Fae? Is that what you’re implying?”

“… No? I’m not implying that they are or aren’t, I’m implying that somebody knows. Saying that, even.” Amy is looking at Emeraldskin askance.

“Well, hmph. In any case, you had further questions, but you said about five of them at once. Would you care to state one at a time?” she asks Hulda.

“No … I think I’ve got what I need, actually,” Hulda replies.

“Good,” she calms down and looks back at her data, “I do have extensive data, and as soon as I am done getting all the information that I can on each individual, I will have the information provided to you. Should I have the information sent to you in your work at the library?”

“That might be the easiest,” Hulda agrees.

“Excellent. I assume you are computer literate?”

“Yes.”

“I will send it to you via email.”

Once they leave Emeraldskin’s office, Hulda says, “If you guys want to go find everyone else, I’m going to go start researching things.”

“I … I need to go talk to someone,” Amy says. “I’ll be back.”

“Okay, if you guys want to go tell the rest of them … I’m going to keep working,” Hulda says.

“Amy, do you want company?” Zia asks.

“No … no thank you.”

“Would you accept company?” Fianna asks pointedly?

“… If you want to,” Amy agrees.

“Okay then.”

Zia says to Hulda, “I’m going to go check on the chess pieces and craftsman Hobbs, since I don’t actually know where the others went.”

Hulda texts everyone else that she got the information from Emeraldskin (what there was of it), Amy doesn’t think the last group is her keeper?, and Hulda will be researching for who knows how long.


When Marcella, Hank, and Asantewaa reach Maria, she is working away in her office. Her other assistant is there. The annoyingly-voiced child is there, and kind of bouncing, like ‘is it my turn to go do a thing? Is it my turn to go do a thing?’

Maria sighs. “Good afternoon Vogelfrei, what would you have of me right now?”

“Hey Maria. His Majesty said that there was someone that Asantewaa could talk to help figure out her contracts …?”

“Ah, yes. And you said that King Alter recommended it?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Very well. In general, for your reference, the individuals trained in the use of the device which allows people to figure out their contracts (as it is not an uncommon problem) are generally the oathtakers of the courts, since they often serve in capacities where it is important to make sure that everyone knows that everyone can do. In your case, since King Alter requested it, I suggest that you speak with Asmodea. You might recognize him as one of the oathtakers that participated in the trial.”

Marcella nods. “Yes.”

“Well, let me see … it looks like he is in the freehold today. He is working on something else, but I will send this one,” she gives the child an unenthusiastic look, “to go get him, and he will meet you in the appropriate room.”

Marcella ruffles the kid’s hair, and she says, “Hi Marcella!” very enthusiastically. Marcella says hi back.

“Marcella, I imagine you at this point can … I imagine you recall the room where you all stayed prior to the trial?” Marcella nods. “Next to it is a smaller door (a much, much smaller door) of simple wood, carved with a question mark and an hourglass. Asmodea will meet you there.”

“Alright, sounds good. can we head there now?”

Maria sends them on their way as Anya shows up for her shift and the kid dashes off.

Next to the Bronze Room is the door Maria told them about. Marcella knocks when they arrive. The man who opens the door is tall, with chiseled features that look as though they were actually carved from wood. He is bald, with hints of scales around his face and on his hands. He says, “Yes, yes, which of you am I seeing today?”

“This is Asantewaa,” Marcella says, gesturing. “And you are?”

“I’m Asmodea,” he says flatly.

“Nice to meet you,” she says.

“Well, come inside, this shouldn’t take long.” Marcella follows him inside. Hank only barely fits through the door.

Asmodea rifles around on a cluttered shelf nearby and pulls out an object that looks sort of like a tuning fork with a bracelet attached. It has a keypad with an array of buttons. “Tell me a bit about yourself, so I can program this thing properly,” he says to Asantewaa.

“What do you want to know?” she asks hesitantly.

“Tell me a little bit – you don’t have to go into details, unless you think they’re important – about your durance.”

“Oh, I was the black queen.”

“Okay, well, I guess that gives me more than I had … that explains a lot, actually.” He punches some buttons on the machine, and it makes a strange whirring sound. The prongs of the tuning fork begin to send charges back and forth, through the space between them. Looking at it, Asantewaa realizes that Hobbs at one point tried a similar device to turn the chess pieces full size again, but it didn’t work.

Asmodea unsnaps the bracelet-like piece and gestures. “Hold out your wrist.” Marcella takes Asantewaa’s glaive for her.

“I think Hobbs tried to use something like this before,” Asantewaa comments as she holds out her arm.

“Well, I’m not surprised,” he says. “Which is your dominant hand?” She holds out her right arm, and he snaps the bracelet over her wrist.

He starts fiddling with the punchouts, every so often asking, “What does this feel like?” Asantewaa gets different humming or tingling sensations through her arm, sometimes sharp shooting pains. She describes the sensations, and he seems to hone in on the sensations that are not painful, but still feel quite strange. He fiddles for about 15 minutes of poking buttons and asking questions about how things feel.

While this happens, Hank is observing all this rather closely, but he is not taking notes. In fact, Marcella doesn’t recall having seen him take out his notebook at all today.

Finally, Asmodea presses a button, and the device stops crackling. He waits a few seconds to let it finish, unsnaps her wrist, and puts it back up on the shelf. He walks over to an equally cluttered desk, grabs a piece of paper and pen, and starts writing.

Marcella is leaning against a workbench, arms crossed. She sighs and murmurs, “I’ve spent a lot of time waiting in workshops the last two days.”

Hank takes the opportunity to give her a look and ask, “So. Chess pieces?”

Marcella winces. “Sorry, I meant to bring you to meet them … we should go meet the rest of the chess pieces later. I … brought them out with me.”

Asmodea finally finishes and turns to Asantewaa. “Unsurprisingly, given what you are, you have an affinity with both the control and use of both stone and wood … haven’t seen dual elemental affinities in a while. Congratulations, those are both very versatile.” He is writing down the details of the contracts as well.

“I’m pretty sure you don’t have any of the higher ones. Looks like you might have gotten to at least the middling level. I’m going to write down some of the specifics of the higher ones so you can give them a try. If nothing happens, don’t try to push it any further. Bad things can happen. If you want to go further, you can find someone in the freehold to teach you. Also, unsurprisingly, given your origins, you have a bit of skill with contracts of Board, which is kind of a rare thing around here. We don’t get much of that. At the very least, you have the first one, so you can tell if someone is cheating at a game. You also seem to have something of a talent for communicating with the dead, as well as the more wild spaces.” Asantewaa looks confused at that.

“Oh, and this is a good one – you’ve got one of the Spring contracts. Don’t normally see people with these until they’ve been around a freehold for a while. It’s called Gift of Warm Breath,” and he explains what it does.

He finishes writing some things down. “Here is what you have. In short, you have a rather eclectic set of abilities, more contracts than normal for a beginner to the life of a changeling, but as I understand it, you came to us somewhat irregularly.”

“You could say that,” Marcella agrees.

“Marcella brought us,” Asantewaa says.

“You have several avenues of study, should you wish to pursue them. If you do, in fact, wish to pursue them, Maria or Anya (I suppose Anya at this exact moment) could get you set up with someone willing to teach you.”

“Thank you.” Asantewaa has a stack of about 10 pages of hand-scribbled pages. His handwriting is legible, but barely, written in English.

“Are there any other questions?”

“Um … I don’t think so?” Asantewaa says.

“All right then. Have a nice day.”

“Thank you, Asmodea,” Marcella adds.

Marcella checks the time, and sees that it’s about 6:30. She sees the text from Hulda.

Asantewaa says, “Before we go elsewhere, I would like to check on my … we should check on our warriors.”

“Yes, I should introduce Hank as well,” Marcella agrees. “Why don’t we all head down there?”

Marcella texts the group, “Finished talking to the dude, heading to talk to chess pieces. Let’s meet back at home later.”

Zia texts back, “I’m here already.”

Hulda glances at her texts long enough to see it’s not something she has to worry about, and puts her face back into the 17 different books she is looking at.

Marcella leads the way down to the workshop, reassures the chess pieces that Asantewaa is fine, and introduces Hank to the other 30 chess pieces. Zia is there, having an unexpectedly polite discussion with Dumar about the fashions of various time periods. Hank thinks that this is the weirdest thing that has happened to him since he came out of the Hedge.

Hank asks Zia where the Autumn craftmaster’s workshop is in the freehold. she says, “Oh, his workshop is one floor up, and all the way in the back. It’s one of the biggest rooms in that area. I think his name is on it?”

“Asmodea said that Asantewaa has a wood affinity, in addition to a stone affinity, and I figured he would be the person to ask about instructors,” Hank explains. This is the first time Hank has mentioned to Zia that he knows this person, or that he knows that Zia knows this person.

Hank greets all the chess pieces, somewhat bemusedly. They are very tiny, and he is very large.

Asantewaa is carefully taking time with all of the chess pieces, at least all of the black ones. If the white ones want to seem to talk to her, she will talk to them too, except for Dumar. Some of them do want to talk to her, and some of them don’t really care.

Everyone except Hulda, Amy, and Fianna heads back to Vogelfrei’s house afterwards. Asantewaa picks up her things first, including the many petticoats of the dress she escaped from Arcadia in. Zia is very appreciative of the petticoats. “Oh, is this how you prefer to dress? I can help!”

“They’re not practical, I can’t put them on myself,” Asantewaa says.

“Yeah, it took like half an hour to get that off her,” Marcella agrees.

“I could come up with something that you could take on and off yourself on your own, I think,” Zia says, looking thoughtful. “Yes, I will work on that for you. What colors do you favor?”

“I should also be able to fight, if necessary,” Asantewaa says.

“That can be accomplished. It’s a challenge!”

“Okay …” Asantewaa allows Zia to just go for a minute.

“But really, what colors do you prefer?” Zia persists as they walk out towards the bus. Asantewaa is rather overwhelmed by her. Hank is carrying a mound of petticoats behind them. Marcella takes them before Hank has to get on his bike.

Asantewaa looks as the bus for a minute, then turns to start walking. Zia and Marcella stop her, telling her they will cover her fare. Asantewaa points out that she can’t take the glaive on the bus, and she can try walking. Zia suggests that they see if the freehold could lend them a car, and goes to finagle one out of Anya. After some negotiation about how the car will get returned (since Marcella can’t drive it back, not having a license), they agree that Hulda or Hank can bring it back.

Zia retrieves the car, and pulls up so everyone can get in. Hank has disassembled the wheel off of his bike so that it will fit in the car. The glaive stretches across much of the car, but fits, and they drive back to Vogelfrei’s house. What Asantewaa sees is a large, rambling house, semi-mansion-like, that has clearly had some recent work done to it of varying skill levels. They drive up, park the car, and all get out.

They enter into a front parlor-like room. To the right is a living room type space that is very clearly lived in. Zia say, “Well, this is our house. We do have a guest room, as long as you don’t mind sharing a bathroom with me.”

“Or many other rooms, if you don’t like that arrangement, which we could move a bed into,” Marcella adds.

“Should I care about sharing a bathroom with you?” Asantewaa asks, confused.

“I don’t know, that’s why I was asking,” Zia says. “But, since you seem not to care, let’s do that.”

“Are you intending to randomly come in while I’m in the bathroom …?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then it should be fine.”

“Okay, lovely.” Zia leads Asantewaa up a stair and across a hall. The guest room is fairly small, with a door into a bathroom, as well as a door that leads directly to Zia’s room. The bedroom is clearly a room which is in process, in terms of decoration. It seems like one half of the room is decidedly rainbow-like, and the other half is almost colorless. In general, it seems like it’s being furnished for a mature child.

Zia says, “The sheets are clean. Do you have any idea … you probably don’t know what size you are, I’m assuming.”

Asantewaa tells her the measurements she was given that morning.

“Ah, lovely! I’ll be back in a moment.”

“Uh, okay. I have a frilly nightgown … thing …” Asantewaa looks at it sort of skeptically.

“Ah, good. Well, we can get you some clothes in the morning.”

Asantewaa goes through her petticoats and tries to turn one into something bag-like.

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