Greir stomps into the tavern with a copy of the wanted notice in one hand: the stupid thing had been missing a lot of important information, and she'd bet that somebody in here can fill her in on the crucial details before she gets herself involved. "I'll take a beer," she says to the gray-skinned guy behind the bar—and then peers at him a little more closely, just in case. If this is another village where everyone's gone zombie, they can keep their damn gold and she'll find some other suckers to work for.
But no, he doesn't seem to have any bits oozing or falling off, just a nasty complexion problem and flat yellow eyes. "Half a thilver bit," he says as he sets a mug down in front of her.
Greir fishes in her purse for a whole silver bit and hands it over, because it's almost always easier to get information out of someone you're overpaying. "What's the story with this notice?" she asks, flattening it across the bar. REWARD, it says in blocky, angry capitals. DEFEAT THE VAMPIRE LORD. There's a picture, more or less, suggesting a shadowy figure in a cloak with generically menacing intent.
"Oh Gog," the bartender says, grimacing. Greir raises an eyebrow, because that sounded like calling on an uncaring deity, not like a particularly pointless attempt to explain. "That athhole hath been kidnapping the local girlth," he says. "Taking them up to hith cathle."
"And all of your rescue attempts have met with failure," Greir says, which is actually a question.
The bartender makes a face. "Are you kidding?" he says. "Anyone who could kidnap Terethi or Vrithka ith nobody I want to get in a fight with."
Well. That explains the number of zeroes on the reward offer. "I might be interested in taking it on," Greir says. She picks up her mug, eying the relatively comfortable—or at least warm—benches near the fire. "If you see anybody come in who might want to offer a little more information for me to go on, point them over my way."
An afternoon of investigating from her spot by the fire doesn't net Greir all that much to go on. The bartender does send over a few equally gray villagers to tell her what they know, including a stuttering cowherd who might have witnessed one of the abductions, and the writer of the reward posters, who seethes with the same barely-repressed rage his penmanship suggested. She learns that nobody has gotten a really good look at the vampire, nothing more than the flutter of a black cloak and the glow of white skin, and that the girls started disappearing shortly after the castle on the mountainside became occupied.
In short, it's just enough to do the job, but not enough to do it well. So it's with no little foreboding and sense of why do I do this to myself? that she trudges up the rocky mountain path as the sun sets. She has a wooden stake tucked into her belt along with her usual sword, and wonders idly if she should have invested in some anti-vampire armor, too—some sort of thick, fang-proof collar, maybe, the vampiric equivalent of a chastity belt. Possibly with spikes.
She could still turn around, points out the little voice of reason in the back of her head. It sounds like her mother. She hasn't promised anyone anything. She could go find an easier job to take on, or for that matter she could find a nice young man and settle down. Sometimes Greir thinks that if her inner voice of reason didn't sound like her mother, it would be much easier to listen to.
The castle's front gate stretches above her, apparently doing its damnedest to prove that inanimate objects can loom just as menacingly as ogres. Greir glares up at it, not impressed but not excited about trying to scale the stupid thing, either—and then something brightly colored moves in the corner of her field of vision.
Greir spins, hand on the hilt of her sword, and finds herself facing off against a grimacing, ink-black imp in a harlequin costume. It squints at her, makes a rude noise, and beckons once before it lopes off into the rocks outside the castle wall. It stops a few paces further away and turns around, making an even ruder noise when Greir isn't following.
"You could be settling down with a nice young man," Greir mutters to herself, and follows the imp.
It's leading her along an actual trail, she realizes after a few faltering steps. The rocks make it hard to see, but there's a path there that has clearly been used before, winding along beside the castle wall, away from the main road and toward the side of the mountain itself. It ends just out of sight of the main road, where there's a human-sized door set into the wall. The harlequin imp makes a show of fishing in its costume and then brandishes a key triumphantly.
"What," Greir says, "so you work for the vampire? And now I'm supposed to just walk right in, through the door where you have a handy trap waiting?"
The imp stamps its feet, snorting, and opens the door; then it blows Greir a noisy, wet raspberry and disappears inside.
Sadly, even though it's a trap, it's also going to be the easiest way to get in the door. Greir draws her sword and steps carefully through the door.
She can't decide whether she's disappointed that nothing terrible happens immediately. On the one hand, it would have been a good way to break the tension and start feeling like she was getting somewhere. On the other hand, she can appreciate an opponent who doesn't go for the first cliche to come to hand.
Instead there's a woman waiting for her: pale skin just faintly made up, black hair fashionably short and swept up neatly off her face, wearing an elegant green dress and a welcoming—but not that kind of welcoming—smile. She's...dazzling, for lack of a better word. The kind of woman who always makes Greir just a little uncomfortably aware that her hair doesn't like to do anything exciting and her armor is so last year.
"Ah," Greir says, eloquently. "You must be—"
"Kanaya," the woman says warmly. "Welcome to Castle Maryam."
"Thanks," Greir says, waiting for the catch. "I'm—"
"Exhausted from the arduous trek up the mountain, I am sure," Kanaya says. "Particularly after the Servile Scoundrel brought you the long way around to the back door—that mountain path isn't pleasant at the best of times."
"Well," Greir hedges. Exhausted is an exaggeration, but it was a long walk. "I wouldn't say—"
"Do come inside," Kanaya goes on blithely, and it's so rare for people to walk all over Greir conversationally or otherwise that she doesn't really protest. "I can send the Hulking Butler to the kitchens to have some food brought up for you—the kitchen staff would be thrilled to have something interesting to work on. They see so few chances to challenge themselves."
Greir stares at her suspiciously. "You should know I'm immune to most poisons," she says, which is overstating the case a little—well, a lot—but it never hurts to bluff helpfully at a time like this.
Kanaya raises one perfectly sculpted eyebrow. "You should know I am unimpressed by suggestions that my hospitality is offered under false pretenses."
That one takes a second. "Sorry," Greir says grudgingly. "Food would be nice."
"This way, then," Kanaya says, as if that was apology enough, and leads Greir from the courtyard into the castle itself.
It's...pretty nice inside, as brooding spooky castles go. Somebody has clearly been making an effort to decorate the place. Lots of gauzy curtains, not so much with the blood and skulls of the damned. While Kanaya talks to the Hulking Butler—another one of those harlequin imp guys, though maybe when they get this big they're harlequin orcs—Greir studies one of the pictures on the wall: some glittery-looking guy making puppy eyes at a girl who mostly seems bored. Not thrilling, as art goes, but not threatening either.
"Sorry to make you wait," Kanaya says when she's sent the Hulking Butler off. "Perhaps you would like a glass of wine while we wait for supper to be ready?"
Greir stares at her. Maybe Kanaya has been hit in the head, or something. Has she really not figured out why Greir showed up in the first place? "You really want to just sit around here sipping wine with me?"
"Oh, no, I'm afraid I would not be partaking," Kanaya says. "I never drink...wine."
That's clearly an invitation to say something horrible, and Greir is taking a breath to do so when there's a crash from one of the upper levels of the castle, and then what sounds like an extremely loud cat yowling in distress.
"Drat," Kanaya says with feeling. "I'm sorry. I'll only be a moment." She turns to abscond, and Greir thinks this is reaching the point of being ridiculous, and then in the aftermath of the caterwauls there are girls' voices yelling.
She's here for the missing girls. Greir follows.
The yelling—and the flutter of Kanaya's dress—leads Greir to a fancy sitting room upstairs. The girls having a face-off in the sitting room are almost definitely the ones missing from the village, if their flawless granite complexions are anything to go by, but they're sure not dressed like peasant villagers. Those frilly, gauzy things they have on wouldn't stand up to a day's work in a brothel, much less behind a plow.
There are two of them on each side of the room, and Kanaya glowing like a fashionable avenging spirit in the middle, hands on her hips as she demands, "What is it this time?"
"Vriskers started it!" says the smallest one, hiding behind her ally.
"Oh please, you're so oversensitive," says the one with blue ribbons on her...dress. "All I said was that he's—"
"We are all aware of your opinions on Equius," the little one's ally says coldly. "They do not become more charming through repetition."
The one who hasn't spoken yet giggles, a definitively not-laughing-with-you sort of sound. "Poor Aradia. You really do have it bad for him, don't you?"
"All of you, stop it," Kanaya says before they can keep going. "I am certain you all have better things to do than antagonize each other."
The blue-ribboned one—Vriskers?—looks about to say something back, and Greir intervenes because there was at least one part of that mess that sounded relevant. "Is this Equius the vampire lord, then?"
They all turn to look at her like they hadn't even realized she was there. Then Vriskers and her friend both burst out giggling like a pair of Xoan hyenas. Kanaya steps pointedly between them and Greir. "No," she says, "Equius is not a rainbow drinker."
"That's a euphemism I haven't heard before," Greir says, raising an eyebrow.
Kanaya pretends like she didn't hear that. "He is an acquaintance of mine," she says, "and his castle is fairly nearby, as these things go. When he took an interest in Aradia—"
"It was so romantic," the little one interrupts. "He was out riding his horse, and he saw Aradia picking flowers, and—"
"Nepeta, hush," Aradia, says, but she might be blushing a little—it's hard to tell, under the gray. She is pretty, if you like that winsome maiden thing.
"He requested my presence as a chaperone," Kanaya says, "since it would hardly have been proper for him to see her alone."
"And that was a problem for him?" Greir asks. She thinks of the various nobles she's run into on various jobs. "He's not a vampire, he's a unicorn."
"Ha!" Vriskers says. "I toooooooold you." She folds her arms over her chest triumphantly.
"Vriska, you are giving me a headache," Kanaya says. She turns pointedly back to Greir. "I invited Aradia to come stay with me so Equius could visit her without worrying; Nepeta came with her."
"And it was booooooooring sitting around town wondering what Aradia was doing," Vriska explains.
"And Vriska makes trouble if I'm not there to keep a sharp eye on her," her friend says, and Vriska aims an elbow at her middle.
Greir massages the bridge of her nose. Kanaya isn't the only one getting a headache. "So what you're telling me is that there is no vampire lord," she ticks off points on her fingers, "there have been no kidnappings, and I'm not getting paid."
"Oh dear," Kanaya says. "Well. I'm afraid that is...all true, as far as it goes." But then she smiles at Greir and her eyes sparkle a little and this time it is that kind of welcoming smile, which ought to be irritating but instead seems to be giving Greir goosebumps. "Perhaps I can find some way to make it up to you?"
"Maybe," Greir says, even though she knows better. There's just something about Kanaya's smile. "What did you have in mind?"