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Eight of Swords

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When Caleb was traveling through his familiar, his eyes were like marbles in the light of a hearth. They were still blue, but he wasn't really there. It sent a shiver down Molly’s spine. Not because the emptiness brought back memories (because it didn't) but because it made Caleb so vulnerable. While his mind flied or crept or crawled elsewhere, he was entirely dependent on his companions to keep him safe. It was a kind of trust Molly hadn't known he was ready for until he met this lot and, in particular, this scruffy wizard with his softly-accented voice and quiet demeanor.

At the moment, Caleb was holding onto Fjord as they strolled, fingers nestled into the crook of his elbow. Fjord led him through the market without issue. However, it would have taken more than a guiding hand to divert Jester, who was up to her usual antics. "Caaaleb," she drew out his name, nudging his cheek with a finger.

"As I have told you before, I can still feel that."

Jester winked at Beau, who joined the shenanigans by extending her staff in front of Caleb's shin. He stumbled, eyes flickering as his concentration wavered. The stubbled jaw tighten, but in the end Caleb just shook his head, well aware of the game they were playing. Fjord gave a disapproving cough, and from behind, Yasha spoke in her calm voice. "You know, it's considered rude to touch someone without their consent."

Jester seemed unphased. "Oh, don't worry. We’re just teasing, like good friends do. Isn’t that right, Caleb?" When he didn’t answer, Jester giggled. "Oh, right. But he would definitely agree if he could hear me! Wouldn’t he, Fjord?"

Fjord glanced at the absent wizard, his brow faintly creased. Caleb was a difficult read. It was possible he considered them good friends. However, Molly couldn't help but think of the confusion that came over his face whenever Beau thumped an ale down in front of him, or how his eyes widened when Molly guarded him during a scrimmage, or how he flinched from Jester when she entered his personal space too quickly. In short, probably. But who really knew?

Because he was paying attention, Molly noticed Nott shift into Beau and Jester’s shadow. A smile twitched onto his lips. Should he say something? Before he could properly decide, the deed was done. As they took another step forward, both ladies fell. Somehow, one of the dangling sleeves of Jester’s dress had knotted around Beau’s ankle. Plumes of dust went up as they attempted to free themselves, but they made little progress until Fjord heaved a sigh and went to help.

“Hold still, now,” he said, making deft work of the knot.

However, in going to assist the girls, Fjord left Caleb standing alone in the middle of the road. His head turned, arms drawing in as he realized he’d been left anchorless, but before he gave up his concentration on Frumpkin, Molly stepped neatly into the space Fjord had vacated. The sightless eyes looked at him, frowning. "Fjord?" There was no way to answer with words, so Molly did what came naturally and pressed a kiss to the man's forehead. He could see the tension drain, and Caleb reached searchingly. His thumb found the rings on Molly's fingers. "Mollymauk."

"Correct," Molly said, pleased that Caleb knew him by such small details. He tucked Caleb's hand under his arm and led him beneath an awning. "Let's have a rest, shall we? Even though it is a nice morning for a stroll."

Caleb's face turned to the sky, eyes falling shut. "It is a pretty day."

Molly grinned, caught by surprise. It wasn't what he expected, Caleb making unintentional small talk. By way of answer, he gave their attached hands a squeeze, just as Nott appeared. She didn't say anything, but her expression was stormy. Molly said, "Fear not, friend Nott. Your boy is safe with me. Nice trick, by the way."

"They deserved it."

"Now, now. You know Jester," Molly said. "Pranking is a form of worship for her, but she usually knows not to take it too far, at least with us."

Nott did not look mollified. "He doesn’t like it. Plus it's not fair when he's not here."

It was a decent point, but Molly felt there was more to the frustration etching its way onto Nott's face. Hoping that a gentle nudge would bring out what was truly bothering her, he ventured, "You're upset."

Nott glanced at him, then back at Fjord and the rest, who had untangled themselves but were now distracted by an arm wrestling booth. Jester had her elbow on the table, looking dainty and ditzy as usual, while Beau cackled in the background, probably already counting coin in her mind. Fjord, ever practical, seemed to be negotiating the bet. He was usually the one trying to drag Jester out of her gambling sprees, but even he couldn't look the other way when such a sure mark presented itself. They wouldn't even need to cheat. Beneath those frilly sleeves were biceps that could grapple a grown man.

Nott said, "They’re good people, but they aren’t careful enough." The ’with him’ went unspoken, but was no less understood.

"No, sometimes they aren’t," Molly agreed.

There was a commotion across the way; a man in fine linen clothing was arguing with a merchant. He had a very nice leather pouch and, on his wrists, were several shining bracelets. Molly saw Nott's fingers twitch.

"Go on. That man is definitely grumpy." When she hesitated, he reassured her. "Don’t worry. I won’t leave him."

That was enough, it seemed. Nott darted away. Molly tried to track her progress, but she'd gotten much better at sneaking. There was a slight tug on his arm, a quiet sigh, and then Caleb blinked, his eyes returning to their natural color.

"Have a nice journey?" Molly asked.

Caleb leaned against the building. He snapped his fingers, and Frumpkin wound around their ankles. "We have many things to talk about, I think."

The Mighty Nein were in the town of Pamell, a homely farming village with one major land holding. The owner of that holding was Baron Urim Vector, a retired solider in The Gentleman’s employ. They’d been sent to investigate whether he was selling information to competitors; a simple espionage mission. In the form of Frumpkin, Caleb had been able to scout the manor grounds without rousing suspicion. Now, using a scrap of parchment, he sketched a rough outline of what he’d discovered.

"The grounds are not so heavily defended, though there are guards. Since we know the baron keeps his papers close at hand, we may find a lead if we can get access."

"We’ve cracked tougher nuts. Our real problem is them." Fjord leaned back, glaring around the tavern, where several seasoned fighters were mixing with the usual denizens of a sleepy town like Pamell. They were easy enough to spot, the hilts of their weapons visible on their belts or strapped over their backs. A bard had her foot propped on a bench and was playing a song about the defeat of an incubus in very...colorful detail. "Damned obnoxious."

Molly shrugged in a ‘what can you do’ kind of way. As it turned out, they’d arrived in time for a tournament in honor of the harvest festival. It was apparently a big deal; every warrior with a sword and a sharp eye seemed to have gathered, and not-a-few of them had given the Nein a once-over. Molly stifled a laugh, wondering what they looked like from the outside. Probably a bunch of thugs.

"Well, the reward is pretty good," Jester said. She had somehow managed to steal a quill and was busy drawing tiny mounds of poop on the table surface. She attempted to doddle a tiny one on the junction of Beau's thumb and forefinger, but was noticed. The quill disintegrated with an audible snap. "Beau! That was Caleb's quill."

Caleb sighed, a sound that came from deep within. "Jester is right. About the reward, I mean."

"You can say that again!" The tournament flier swam up before Molly's eyes, along with a tantalizing figure: three thousand gold. By the Maker, it was enough to start up a whole new life! Or at least to live in the lap of luxury for a considerable time.

"It means we must be extra cautious," Caleb said, though his expression wasn't hopeful. Molly caught his eye and winked. Yeah. Cautious might be a bit too much to ask for with this lot.

"What is our plan of attack, then?"

“I say we take advantage of the situation,” Molly suggested. “Let’s join the tournament!”

Beau perked up. “Say that again, Mollymauk.”

This time he did laugh. “I’m serious. The timing could actually be perfect. Think about it. This kind of event is a huge undertaking, and I’ll bet you anything the baron and everyone he employs are distracted by the preparations. On the day of the tournament itself, things will be even more chaotic.”

“The household was very busy,” Caleb confirmed. “Many people going in and out.”

“Right. So what we really need is for all of Pamell to show up for this tournament. Clear the field, as it were. Nobody on the streets around the manor, nobody in the house. Just plenty of time to take care of business while everyone else enjoys the show. And what a show we could make of it. Don’t you think?”

Fjord shifted. “I don’t know. Aren’t their rules?”

“Three-on-three,” Yasha repeated what they’d all heard at the market that day. “A swordsman, an unarmed fighter, and a mage in mixed melee combat.”

Beau looked close to rapture. “Oh, please, Fjord. We have to. I’m begging you.”

Fjord himself looked like he was having uneasy flashbacks of the Victory Pit, but, hey, that had been kind of fun, if you ignored the parts where they nearly died. Jester was nodding vigorously. “Oh, oh, I can see it, you guys,” she said. “We are really, really good at attracting attention.”

Molly rapped his claws on the tabletop. “So what do you all say?”

“I’m in,” Beau said without hesitation, and Jester wasn’t far behind.

Yasha gave a slow nod. “I like the idea of drawing attention away from those who have to enter the baron’s house.”

“Fjord?” Molly asked.

Fjord’s chin was sunk in thought as he weighing the risk and rewards. They’d never made it official, but they had a tendency to leave final decisions to him. Fjord was careful and strategic, but not over-cautious. He came to a verdict. “It seems like we have a plan.”

"Alright!” Beau cheered. “Tomorrow we get our swagger on. Make a lot of noise, look tough. Then, when the tournament comes around, we kick everybody’s asses while the sneaky people wiggle their way into the manor. Done and done." She rubbed her hands together with relish.

"I would rather you not have to risk so much. Some of these people look dangerous," Caleb said, and there was the other side of the coin in their little party.

Caleb called himself a coward, but it wasn't weakness that made him turn from violence. It was apparent to anyone who knew him that Caleb had been ravaged by the cruelty of others. Molly didn't know what form that cruelty had taken, but it came out in foibles: averted eyes, slow, awkward interactions with others. Sometimes Molly had a temptation to squeeze the anxiety out of him. Of course, that would have made Celeb deeply uncomfortable, but that didn’t stop Molly from wanting more moments like today, relaxing in the sunshine.

Beau dug a knuckle into her cheek. "Aw, Caleb. Are you worried about us?"

"Yes, very. I’m worried you will be crushed by that barbarian we saw, or have your heart stopped by a thunderbolt, or have your limbs severed by an opponent with a longsword."

Nott shuddered. "Do we have to talk about this?"

Jester patted her head over the hood. "Don't worry, Nott. You will be sneaking, safe and sound, not standing in the ring with Beau when her heart gets stopped."

"What if I get caught while you’re off somewhere else?"

"You will not be alone," Caleb said. "You and I, we will be very careful, quiet, and swift. And our friends will be creating such a scene that all eyes will be turned in their direction."

Nott gripped the edge of his coat. "If you say so, Caleb, I believe you."

"It’s settled then," Fjord said. "Tomorrow we sign up for the tournament. But let’s try not to pick any fights until then, alright?"

"I thought attracting a lot of attention was kind of our jam on this one. Won't it make things better if we mix it up a bit, create a little excitement?"

Molly leaned into Beau’s space. "You're adorable, and while I’m generally in full support of your reckless self-destruction, we've got a fine line to walk here. Sure, we want people to have their eyes on the ring, but Caleb’s right. There are some powerful people here, and if we provoke the wrong person, we could end up biting off more than we can chew. And that would – ?”

"Sabotage the mission," Beau finished, her shoulders wilting. "Yeah, yeah, I get it."