Scene 13: Missing
Rows of segmented, tall, purple-brown stalks filled the open clearing; each stalk stood almost an ock high, towering over even the living muscle statue that was Camille, and they were crowned by messy mops of long, straight leaves. They showed signs of detailed care, but were currently completely unattended.
"This doesn't make any fucking sense at all," Polly complained, marching through the rows. "It's Scorchsun! There's only two months until the sugarcane harvest. Should be workers all the way through here, pulling off pests and watering the plants. Where the hell are they?"
"Well, there's not," came a voice from above. "I flew across the whole field. There's no one working the crops or coming and going or anything like that, it's as empty as the dunes. I wonder if that monster from last night..."
Knickers alighted upon the ground from the sky, landing on the ball of one foot and gracefully descending until he was standing in an empty space between the crops and the large white central farmhouse.
"Oh, would you shut up about your monster from last night?" Polly snarled as she walked up next to him, on a dirt road covered with sparse gravel. Mara and Camille were already there, waiting; the former was holding a leg-sized stalk of cane in her hand and looking at it for inspection, while the latter was leaning silently against a wall with her arms folded over her chest.
Mara coughed politely. "So this is where we get sugar from, huh? Never went in much for the edible kind of alchemy."
"What, sugarcane doesn't have anything useful to you at all?" Knick turned to look over at her.
"Sugar, sugar, and more damn sugar. That's about it. I heard about it, but from what I read it'd be so expensive to get enough sugarcane to use for anything but making sugar or molasses that it was never worth it. And this is where sugar comes from. Hah!" Mara shrugged.
"Yeah, it's kind of strange for me to think about molasses coming from a plant," Knickers agreed.
Polly snapped. "Oh, shut it, bookworms. What's our fearless leader doing? Sleeping standing up? She hasn't said a word." Polly pointed over at where Camille was propped up against the farmhouse wall, completely ignoring the indignance etched on Knick's face.
Mara nodded. "She's been doing that the whole time you and the Sergeant were zooming around. I haven't heard her say anything either."
"'Cuz I been thinkin'," Camille finally spoke up. "Not that you lot make it any easier. The plants're ensorcelled, this ain't natural."
"No, Farthingale, not witchery. Not witchery 'tall." Camille stood up straight and cast a hard look at Polly, her violet eye threatening to burn a hole in the slender woman. "The opposite, in fact. Magery's more appropriate, 'cept mages don't normally learn how to do this kinda thing to a plant. Witches do, but it goes against everythin' a witch is supposed t'do. Someone went t'great expense t' ensorcel this whole farm — it ain't natural."
"Not natural how?" Mara asked.
Camille's eye flew open and swooped around to focus on Mara. "Notice there ain't no armorskites near here 'tall? Repels animals, keeps 'em watered an' fed, hell, half-expect they're enchanted t' cut themselves down. Fer sugar. Ain't right. An' what's more, takes a lotta magic to power somethin' like that for long."
Knick suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Covens were famous for saying various inventions were unnatural. "Okay, so maybe it's a big deal but — it's not our problem. Not right now. We're on a pretty tight schedule — more than ten minutes more here and I think we're spending too much time. Remember, the whole aerie's counting on us. Permission to loot their booty?" He flashed a big, saucy wink.
Everyone just stared at him. Knick sighed and threw his hands up; what a bunch of prudes. "You know what I mean."
"With absolutely no respect, 'sir', no — I don't." Polly turned to wander off.
"Jokes 'side, Sergeant Rose has a point." Camille's voice sounded strange, but not with anger. More like she had a lot on her mind. "Loot away, be brief about it. I'm goin' t' return t' the perimeter." She dismissed the others with a wave and began to walk away from the big house, while Polly, Knicks, and Mara headed for the entrance.
Polly gestured for the others to stop while she knelt beside the door. "Hold on. There's always some fucking spell traps at places like these, even if there's no body security. Makes my damn skin crawl."
She squinted and ran her hand over the door frame for a good moment before she seemed to find what she was looking for — a rune very subtly carved into the wood and painted over until the whitewash had obscured its existence. She used a small knife to cancel out the rune with a few slices, then stood up.
"There, now none of us are gonna get fireballed or some shit like that. C'mon."
The interior bore walls just as stately white as the exterior — these, however, were not bare but decorated with paintings of distant vistas throughout the Empire and the Marches. However, the interior was dark; the only illumination was that which crept in via scattering on the many heavy shades that were kept rolled down. At least until Polly opened the heavy wooden double doors, a slice of bright light cutting into the gloom.
"So this is what it's like to be rich, huh? I couldn't afford wallpaper in my farmhouse," Mara remarked as she stepped in.
"You get used to it after your fifth or sixth time robbing one of these things," Knick joked, following her inside. "You used to be a farmer? Not exactly common for an alchemist."
"You should talk, circus boy," Mara shot back with a laugh. "But my parents were. Soil wasn't any better than sand when it was my turn. Had to choose other ways to make money."
Polly was silent even if her compatriots were not; something about this place made her hair stand on end, though if you paid her a platinum she couldn't tell you why that was. She let them walk off; she was more interested in the mirror in front of her. That drew her attention for a moment, if only a moment; seeing herself in this place was weird. Real glass mirrors — if she wanted to look at her face as a bandit, the best she could have ever managed was a hand-size polished nickel plate. Anything nicer, even if you stole it off someone, was guaranteed to break or get stolen in that life.
There were toys here; lots of toys. The sort of thing Peggy loved, but Polly wasn't her cousin. She rushed past the useless satins and silks wasted on porcelain bodies, heading for the larder. Something to eat besides goddamned hardtack. Maybe, if they were real lucky, a mage's baguette. And why not? There was clearly a lot of magic here.
"What are we looking for exactly?" Mara asked, jogging up the stairs a ways away from Polly, and following Knickers' lead.
"You mean besides alchemy supplies? Food mostly. Really light valuables, especially magic shit can be good; sell those to the QM, they take a generous cut but still give you a lot and they find a use for it in the rest of the revolution usually. But I like to do a quick check to see if there's anything else we can use. It's how I build my wardrobe, doncha know." He paused, turned, and struck a pose to drape himself over the bannister before springing up the last few steps, doing a pirouette on the hardwood floor, and sprinting off to the side. "Don't think I'll be bothering this time, though, can't waste time on seeing what fits me. You search right, I'll take left!"
Upon reaching the top step, Mara stopped to take some air in and give her knees a pause. An acrobat she was not, nor a spring chicken. But a soldier she still was; she hurried off to the right once she had her breath. The first room she came across was an office. Desk opposite the window, bookshelves lining the walls. Like with the rest of the rooms in the house, shades were drawn over the windows.
What struck Mara most was how... lived-in it was. Nothing was dusty, and there was a slight disorganization to it all, as if whoever had been there had simply left in the middle of what they were doing for bedtime and not come back yet. She shook her head and walked in, pulling open the drawers sequentially; anything that looked to be a bottle of liquid or powder, she uncorked, sniffed, considered if it was reasonably likely to explode in her pack and then tossed it in. It was mostly ink and other pigments — but people didn't appreciate how many of those were ultimately explosive or poisonous.
Knickers walked into a bedroom, on the other hand — the master bedroom, it looked like. Large bed with curtains of its own hanging off of thick redwood posts, vast wardrobes of matching color and fine decorative engraving at the edges. He sighed longingly at those for a moment, but steeled himself. If he opened them up, it'd be a waste of time that'd just make him sadder. Mission first, after all. Even if it was some really, really nice frilly stuff, because only the heavens knew just how much rich people liked their frillies. Instead, he ran straight for the vanity, plucking necklaces and rings off the table, all the while keeping a mental tally in his head of how many seconds had elapsed since they'd entered the building. They had until about 600 before it'd be way too much of a detour. He had it at 130... 131... 132...
Polly was finding herself creeped out by the pantry. It was a large room — a very large and empty room. No spices hung from the ceiling, though she could still — if she tried — smell them in their absence. No meat cured in the side. There was no ash in the kitchen fireplace, and the larder stored only casks of wine. There was no food here for them to take. What kind of a strange house was this?
Mara moved onto the next room — a smaller bedroom. Austere and musty, it looked like it was from someone's childhood, preserved in fond memory. The small round bed with its great big kossowood posts that went up to the ceiling was impossibly precious in the amount of dolls and big soft pillows that covered it. It was clearly for ornamentation rather than use anymore. She couldn't help but tiptoe in a little and take a look around; how she would have loved to have something like this as a kid! She picked up one of the dolls off the bed and held it up next to her face. He was ostentatious in the blues and golds of his fanciful tuxedo, with big black eyelashes that could strain water.
"...No one'll miss you, right? Right." She snuck the doll into her bag.
Knickers had just about cleaned the master bedroom out — or more accurately, he was running out of room in his backpack to stuff anymore. It was getting to the point that he was having to perform treasure triage, deciding what was likely less valuable and more valuable and putting some of it back. How rich was this person? 423... 424... 425...
Absolutely no food anywhere in the house proper. Polly had opened every single door and piece of furniture in the larder, the pantry, the kitchen, all of it completely empty, and now a trail of senselessly open objects behind her. She sniffed with irritation. The smells were ever-present if faint, but the substance was never there. Was there a cellar? There had to be a cellar. She just had to find the cellar-
Mara jumped with surprise and drew her pistol.
Bang. Knickers frowned as he tried to calculate the origin.
Bang. Polly went sprinting out the door. Seconds later, Knickers sprinted out, then Mara followed.
They were greeted by the sound of another shot outside, at a distance, with the muzzle flash somewhere in the treetops near where they'd come from. It had to be Gerry firing.
"Bobbin!" Knickers sprinted at top speed; he didn't engage his wings, but he did leap up into the air and fire a rocket burst, barreling forward two ocks before sliding and tumbling to a stop on one knee, drawing and readying both of his overlarge pistols in one smooth motion.
He saw a black shadow flying away in the background. He saw Gerry's pack on the ground. He saw Gerry in the canopy above. He didn't see Camille. He didn't see Paddywhack. And he didn't see Bobbin.