For Caldus Agaro, Kupopolis was always the City. He spent a lot of his youth here. When he was young, he was not an Esperian citizen, and the enmity of a Great Power – even if that enmity was more imagined than real – made Kupopolis popular. It had a centrality to the Web of Worlds, where small Gates connected every dimension to the other. It was a place to be lost in, without cutting oneself off from everything. He grew up there, until he was six, and then he returned to the Esper Union with family members who had more sense than a disgraced cavalry captain.
It was a homecoming, but a complicated one. His memories of the City were not all happy. The days of paranoia and fear, of dreading that shadows would come and rip him away, still clung to the old stone walls of the City. As he stepped from a Gate, and onto the narrow streets of Kupopolis, the gothic architecture promised those shadows were hiding and waiting.
It was tempting to slide back into the past, but it was a desire that he fought off.
It was easier when Lera looked back at him. She looked amazed, with her green eyes lit up with delight, and that reaction was not a surprise. “It’s rare to see a city as old and as large as this,” Cal said as he stepped closer. “And the size.”
“Half of it’s scaled for a moogle,” she said. “And the other half isn’t. The way the doorways and windows fit… I don’t really see a lot like this.”
“I know,” Cal said. “I was always fond of it.”
She looked at him, surprise registering on her face. The two Knights were assigned to be partners, and had become good friends as a result – the difficulties presented by the designs of their families aside – but there was also a lot that they did not know. She opened her mouth, to ask more, but then the annoyance made himself known.
Teddy Halberg stepped up between the two of them, bag still slung over one shoulder, and looked between them. “I understand you have our hotel arranged already, Mister Agaro.” His insistence on less formal titles, rather than the formal appellations expected, was meant to rub Caldus the wrong way. It didn’t.
He frowned, before he turned his head, and looked down the street. “I do,” he said. “The Hallenmark, an old hotel that my uncle liked.”
“Good,” he said. “Josef’s party is in two hours. We should make haste.”
Caldus frowned. Gallivanting across the City with the scion of the Halbergs, hobnobbing at parties, and buying various and sundry artifacts was not what Cal had hoped for – but he also couldn’t deny that it was an easier job than what might come. He sighed, but relented. “All right, then. If you’ll follow me.”
Try as he might, he couldn’t find more important things for the Knights to be doing. That fact bothered Cal, too; like the shadows of the City, he pushed that thought down.
People didn’t understand Ned Halberg. They expected him to be his grandfather or his mother: a brilliant military officer or politician, an intelligent and charismatic force of personality, and destined to change the structure of the Esper Union – or be a tragic but competent reminder of past glories. They called him Teddy Halberg, because he was meant to be his grandfather reborn. Ned was no such thing.
Ned saw his role differently, and he pursued that role with the blessing of his mother. Her love did not mean her understanding, but it was enough to support him.
Some things he hid from her until he was sure.
The truth, at times, came too close to the criticisms. Some people called him a spoiled, foolish young man who treated life like a game. He would have liked to say they were wrong – but there was a game afoot, even if the stakes were not ones they imagined. His actions may have been a game to him, but it was a game of deadly importance. At some point, he would need to tell Lera and Caldus about that, but only after he had a better read on both.
For now, he needed to speak with one of his few friends who knew him as he was, not the boy that that they expected. Josef von Muselheim, the titular king of Tasnica – sometimes styled as the Kaiser, to imply that he was emperor of Tasnica’s empire – knew Ned from their days in preparatory school, and Ned knew Josef well enough. He styled himself as a socialite and a fop; the sort of suit-wearing, dark-haired man who looked like he might belong in a boardroom. The sort of man people could think would seriously claim himself king of a democracy.
The sort of man who was easy to underestimate.
Like all of Josef’s parties, this was one was over the top. He had rented out a massive manor in Kupopolis; a gothic thing, built like the castle constructed by Strahd von Zarovich. The buttresses and vaulted chambers of the interior had chandeliers and limelights, rather than electric lights. Mages made spectral servants, in the form of armored knights, move and bring people drinks and hors d’ouevres that were quite real.
It was a party to celebrate a victory that had not been won yet. It was ridiculous on the face of it, and Ned suspected the irony was what his friend meant. He glanced about the room, took note that Lera and Caldus were speaking with a few of the guards but keeping an eye out, and then looked about the room until he found Josef.
He was ostentatious in his modernity, dressed like a modern Tasnican, and yet with a big smile and a winning grin. Ned, wearing his glasses and with his dark hair a little too shaggy, was quite the contrast with him. He adjusted his collar as he approached, and a couple of the hangers-on around Josef looked at him as if they sniffed blood in the water. Josef quieted the sharks with a look, and then a loud: “Ah, Ned!”
“Josef,” he said. “I see your old habits don’t change much.”
“Of course not, old friend!” the would-be king laughed. They were three years apart in age, but there was a closeness born of days in school together – and Josef’s protection of him. The twinkle in his eye said more than his words. “But, I’m surprised you’re here. I thought you’d call my plan… well… silly.”
“I would,” Ned said. A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. “But you wouldn’t listen.”
“Right you are! So what, then?” He laughed theatrically, and some of the champagne in his glass slushed when he did. “Ah, but don’t tell me. I think I know.” Josef leaned in close. “The game, isn’t it? The thing that always lures you here.”
Ned nodded his head, dropping his voice. “It moves to Owzer’s… auction. A shipping manifest, meant to be hidden, but hidden so thoroughly that – when I thought to look for it – it was easy to find.”
“And on that manifest?”
“It’s best if you not know, Josef.”
A frown crossed his friend’s features. His eyes were sharper, then, with the cunning intellect that he knew lay behind them. Then, the lazy, confident smile that he affected came back, and Josef nodded. “Very well, then. And you’ll need entry into this place?”
“I will,” Josef said. “For three. I’ve followed your advice and brought bodyguards–not that they know it yet.”
“I’ll make the arrangements. I’ll be leaving after the party, but… of course, I’ve been invited,” Josef said. “Who wouldn’t invite the rightful king and emperor of all Taznikanze? Why, it would be a scandal of the like that the Web of Worlds hasn’t seen. But, as my royal personage will be involved in sport–well, I can part with my invitations. All three of them.”
“Grand,” Ned said, a little flatly. It was part of the play-acting expected of him. “Direct them to the Hallenmark.”
“That old thing? Oh, very well. But you must tell me, at some point, what prize you’re after, old friend.”
“With any luck, I’ll plan on it,” Ned said.