Tales of Layla: mother, wife, mage-in-training, assassin

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Tales of Layla: mother, wife, mage-in-training, assassin

Post by Graybeard »

With Sister Rose finally enjoying her Happily Ever After time with Argus (at least until the sequel to Errant Story starts), I thought I'd write a few pieces for other major characters in the Errant Road role-playing game. These will be shorter than Rose's epics, maybe five or ten entries per thread. I'll also try to post them more frequently.

First up is my second most active ER character, Layla, a young mother and vintner who also happens to be both a Gewehr Wraith (nominally retired but still a badass with a gun or a knife) and currently a student of magic, studying under her Tsuirakuan close friend Galina, who will also be appearing here. First installment, in this thread, coming this weekend if all goes well, and earlier all goes incredibly well, but don't count on it. Incidentally, readers with a long memory will note that the "wife" part of the title did not describe Layla for any but the first two or three posts where she appeared, but that's what Prologues are for. ;)
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Tales of Layla (I)

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Prologue: A wedding, a reception and a death

“You may now kiss the bride,” the Luminositan priest instructed Ace, and with Layla’s enthusiastic assent, he complied.

Church weddings in the small town (and Gewehr hideaway) of Kugelheim were a relatively rare phenomenon. Most couples desiring a state of matrimony, holy or otherwise, simply appeared in front of the local justice of the peace, and that was that. (The fact that this official was a Gewehr functionary probably had something to do with this.) Layla and Ace were originally planning on this route, but Layla’s mother Faye, a high-level Gewehr personage herself, intervened. When the newlyweds-to-be questioned her about her insistence, she just smiled mysteriously and said, “Trust me.” Layla knew by now not to argue with her mother about such things, and Ace, who considered her nearly the ideal mother-in-law (and vice versa), wasn’t going to interfere.

So it was that with the nuptial kiss completed, she looked out on a surprisingly full sanctuary. The lighting was low and she couldn’t see the people at the rear of the room, but the front was certainly full of people she and Ace knew well, members of the Gewehr presence in the town that served as their quasi-legitimate base. Layla had, and knew she had, something of a “local girl makes good” image in town (being considered to have “made good” because I got good at killing people is kinda weird, she thought, now that she didn’t normally do that anymore), which accounted for much of the crowd; and she and Ace definitely had some non-“professional” friends occupying seats in the hall.

Not everyone in those seats was friendly, however.

She would later remember almost nothing of the ceremony between that kiss and her rapid departure from the sanctuary to get changed for the reception. Before the reception itself, however, came a brief pause in a side room to check on her 9-month-old son Zachary. For her matron of honor, Layla had chosen her friend and magic tutor Galina Scherbatcheff, whose daughter was also in that side room. How nice, thought Layla, for Galina’s husband Kensuke (“Kenny”) Goto to have volunteered to babysit while the service was in progress – and to have applied several layers of security to the room, so that what had almost happened at Layla’s vineyard and Galina’s magic lab would not happen again.

All was well when Kenny opened the door to admit the two mothers; better than well, in fact, as Zachary and little Oxana were giggling happily at a preposterous-looking illusion that their babysitter had cast. As Layla and Galina tried to contain their mirth, Zachary crawled over to Oxana and planted a precocious kiss on her cheek. Layla couldn’t take it anymore; she burst out laughing and turned to her friend and said, “Ah, one’s first love.”

“Looks like we’ll be repeating this in twenty years or so for those two,” Galina chortled back, and after some mommy-love time, they changed into partying outfits for the reception.

And partying there was, in a way that would have horrified the Church of Our Lord Luminosita in Veracia if they’d known about it. (The priest had discreetly decamped moments after the ceremony, precisely so that he, and therefore the Church, would not know; he knew better than to get on a soapbox in Kugelheim.) Layla had made sure that there was a good supply of wine from Bad Ass Wines on hand. Of course, the current vintage, started before she and her mother took control of the vineyard, was rotgut, at least in her opinion. She knew, however, that that wouldn’t matter to the large majority of the revelers. For the few who would know, read, for the wedding party, they’d laid in a small supply of considerably better wine from Kenny Goto’s winery in Volcanenborg.

It was one of the bottles from that better vintage that was instrumental in the incident.

Not all of the guests were altogether welcome. A large, blowsy blonde in the back of the fellowship hall was guzzling wine directly from a bottle, surrounded by laughing, scurrilous-looking men from the town. From the looks of it, she was on her third bottle already, never mind that the reception had only been going for less than half an hour. Worse, she was draining one of the higher-class bottles to go with the hooch she’d already had.

“Oh, Luminosita’s Nuts,” Layla muttered under her breath. “What is she doing here?”

The comment wasn’t really intended for anyone’s ears, but Faye was standing close enough to answer her daughter. “Barb, you mean?” A nod in reply, and Faye continued, “Remember, you opened the invitation list to everyone from – the company.” (Even in Kugelheim, it wouldn’t do to speak the word “Gewehr” out loud.) “You really can’t complain if some of them take you up on it.”

“I know, but I hate that bitch,” Layla grumbled.

“So pretend she isn’t here. You have to circulate and talk to people, but you don’t have to talk to them all.”

“Whatever,” Layla shrugged, and set about working the room, making sure that her path intersected Ace’s as often as possible, and avoiding her nemesis making a fool of herself.

She hadn’t been mingling for as much as ten minutes when there was a loud, gurgling “URRRKKK!” from the back of the room.

This went largely unnoticed for a few seconds; more than one guest would later punch his or her cookies from overdoing the wine. Layla and Ace, of course, noticed, and they saw that Barb was rising from her table and entourage, clutching her throat, her face beet red. Faye also noticed … and since her specialty in the Gewehr had been poisons, she knew that what she was seeing wasn’t mere overindulgence. She rushed toward the back of the room …

… But before she could get there, the large woman gagged again, then pitched forward onto the table, spilling the half-drained bottle of high-class booze in the process, and dead before she sagged to the floor.
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Re: Tales of Layla (I)

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Chapter One: Whodunit

As the big woman fell, another woman rushed to the scene: Ariel, Kugelheim’s primary Healer, who just happened also to be on the Gewehr payroll, of course. Faye was next, followed by Plato, the Gewehr Enforcer and sort-of-mage who’d got Layla started on the path to becoming a proficient spellcaster. As for Layla herself, she stayed rooted in place, with a surge of resentment that she would find embarrassing later. Damn – just like that bitch to hog all the attention at my, no, our wedding. It passed quickly enough, but she decided that the specialists really didn’t need her getting involved in ministering to the victim of what appeared to be poisoning. Ace simply nodded and took his bride’s hand; he wasn’t going anywhere either.

Layla’s assessment was accurate. It was only a minute or two, and a bit of spellcasting, later when Ariel stood up and shook her head sadly. “She’s gone,” she said. “Nothing I can do here.” She hobbled back to her table on the bum knee that had prevented her from becoming a full-fledged Gewehr operative. Meanwhile, Plato stayed at the scene and cast a spell of his own that Layla did not recognize. Galina, however, did, and she whispered an explanation in Layla’s ear. “Preservation. That’s good. It’ll keep any of the physical or magical evidence from getting swept away when the lookie-lous show up, as they will.”

Despite Galina’s prediction (unexpected death would be more exotic to a Tsuirakuan than to people from this town, Layla reflected), the crowd’s reaction to the Lifemage’s declaration was curiously indifferent. The three men who had been carousing with the late Barb had simply vanished like the wind by the time anyone thought to look for them. Most of the others went back to their drinking quickly enough; the dead woman was not well liked in Kugelheim, apparently. The Luminositan priest was long gone, but a gangling Farrelite teenager wearing the outfit of an advanced novice of the Church remained, keeping out of the way; if last rites were needed, he thought he was authorized to speak them, but he certainly wasn’t going to volunteer for the task unless someone asked him to do it. (He did take advantage of the confusion for a definitely unauthorized sip of wine from the glass of the woman sitting next to him, who was showing more interest in proceedings than most and did not notice this un-churchly action.)

There was another early arrival, a short, well-dressed man with a prominent mustache, and he glared at the spellcaster. This man was “Willard,” known to all as the sheriff of Kugelheim, to most of the men as one of the town’s three barbers, and to many of the Gewehr members, including Layla, as one of their own – unsurprisingly. Few (Layla not among them) knew whether that name was his first or his last. Nobody asked.

His skills also included a commanding voice, which he now used. “Back, everybody. This is a crime scene and I’m in charge of it. All deputies in the hall, join me back here.” He cast a hard glance in Layla’s direction. “And yes, that means you.” And to Faye, who looked like she was about to complain: “It does not, however, mean you. Back to your seat.”

Now what was that all about? Layla wondered as she edged through the crowd, in the process passing her mother, who looked ready to take out a contract on the man. (In fact, their relative ranks in the Gewehr would have allowed this with no questions asked, but the forms had to be observed, at least for the moment.) There turned out to be four deputies in the room, all of whom, including Layla, were Gewehr operatives who had been “deputized” so they would have official cover when out doing their real jobs. Layla knew the other three slightly, but not well; the business of being a Wraith did not encourage camaraderie with one’s colleagues.

Willard was already barking orders when Layla reached the corpse. “You –“ he was pointing to a tough-looking man with a crewcut and a prominent scar on his cheek – “find those three birds that were with her when she died. You –“ to a nondescript man with a distinct barnyard smell about him – “go get a wagon to haul the body over to Plato’s lab so he can figure out what killed her. You –“

He didn’t get to finish the third command, to a small man with slicked-down hair and a mustache, before Plato interrupted. “Wait a minute. Like you said, this is a crime scene. I have to cast a great deal of thaumato-pathology magic here, you know that. The body should not be disturbed until –“

Willard’s turn to interrupt: “Shut up,” he explained. He didn’t elaborate on this explanation, but instead, turned to Layla. “You get busy interviewing people in the room to find out what they saw. Don’t worry, you’re still going to have time to get drunk and screw.” The sheriff had never liked his female deputy, and vice versa.

Layla choked back a riposte, but out of the corner of her eye, she noticed two things. First, Plato was taking advantage of this part of the “orders” to start casting some of the magic that he wanted the body left in place for. She decided to buy him some more time. “Look. There were only four people in the room who saw what happened to Barb, other than the ones at her table: my mother, my husband, my bridesmaid, and myself. Everybody else was facing the wrong direction. They won’t have seen anything useful.”

Willard sighed theatrically. “So start by interviewing your mother and your husband and bridesmaid, and then move on to the rest of the crowd.” His eyes narrowed. “And then, I will interview you.” Layla thought there was menace in his voice, but it was too late to undo what was done.

However, that what’s-done-is-done cut both ways. Her new magic skills told her that contrary to what the sheriff wanted, Plato had at least been able to get one spell cast in the time she’d bought him, apparently some kind of forensic spell that she resolved to learn from Galina when she got back from her honeymoon. In some way that she couldn’t yet put her finger on, it was making a connection between the poison in the corpse and the wine that had been spilled on the table. And that got to the second thing she had noticed.

That last, and fatal from the looks of it, bottle was not one of the ones she’d brought from Bad Ass Wines, but rather, one of the superior wines from Kenny’s vineyard – one that was supposed to be reserved for the wedding party. Layla felt another flare of resentment; how had that bitch succeeded in lifting one of the good bottles? They’d all been set up for the table of honor, where the wedding party would sit. But then something else dawned on her, and she felt a cold chill that distracted her from whatever nonsense the sheriff was spouting now to the greasy third deputy:

That poison was intended for us – for me.

Maybe talking to a few other people in the hall wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
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Re: Tales of Layla: mother, wife, mage-in-training, assassin

Post by Graybeard »

Chapter Two: Questioning

“What was that all about?” Ace asked as Layla returned to the head table, figurative smoke pouring from her ears.

“That idiot wants me to question you all,” she answered in a low growl. “And then move on to questioning everyone else.” There was much rolling of eyes, and then Galina broke the ice. “What’s to say? We looked around and saw this woman clutching her throat and dying.” Nodded agreement from the others followed.

From the others who were actually at the table, anyway. Ace’s best man, his cousin Barnaby who had little to do with the Gewehr, had stepped out for a few minutes and had not returned yet. It was hard to imagine this mild-mannered man as a suspect in anything, but Layla was pretty sure that Willard would blow up in her face if she didn’t at least ask the missing man what he had seen.

Speaking of Willard, where was he? He and the third deputy weren’t attending to the crime scene, nor were they elsewhere in the room that she could see. That seemed odd. On the other hand, Plato was probably going to be more useful to the investigation than the sheriff or deputy would, and he was returning to the body now that the sheriff who’d shooed him away was gone. Hopefully, thought Layla, he’d cast some more Forensics magic that would shed more light on what had happened than talking to random bystanders would; but he didn’t appear to be casting anything. On the contrary, he was frowning and waving at Layla to join him.

Good. “So I hereby deputize you three to talk to the guests for me, or to each other,” she told Ace, Galina and her mother. (The latter had a wry smile that the others interpreted, correctly, as meaning that’s my girl.) She made a beeline for where Plato was standing. “Preservation spell was going off,” he told her. “Something is missing from the crime scene … Oh.” They both figured it out at the same time.

“Wine bottle,” Layla growled again. “And it must have been one of those two bastards that took it.”

“It would appear so,” Plato agreed, “but we don’t know for sure. I didn’t have time to build tracking magic into the spell. But either way, damn. That bottle is important evidence. With an hour’s work I could get enough off it to figure out what the poison was and who put it there. That would pretty much sew up the case, wouldn’t it?”

“One would think so. Which in turn means that whoever took it just about automatically becomes the prime suspect.”

“That, or a complete idiot. You can’t rule that out. Speaking of which, who was that fourth deputy with Willard? I didn’t recognize him.”

Layla waved a hand dismissively. “Hersh? The ‘complete idiot’ description comes close to working. Low-level guy at the shipping company.” No explanation was required as to what that was a euphemism for. “He tried to move up in the ranks, but screwed up a couple of jobs so badly that I thought – the boss was going to fire him.” Nor who the boss was, and what being “fired” would entail. “Honestly, not sure why that didn’t happen. He was just hidden away in a job in the warehouse … hmmm … warehouse … I wonder … Excuse me for a minute.” Without waiting for a reply, she hurried back to the wedding party.

Barnaby hadn’t made it back to the table yet when Layla got there. Ace was looking annoyed; Faye, impatient; Galina, just puzzled. Layla followed the majority view, but there was something more important at the moment than tracking down the best man. She decided to “question” her friends after all, and not just so she could tell Willard she’d done it, the more so since he probably would not have liked the way the questioning was going.

The main question was for Galina, and it was simply put. “When you and Kenny brought the good wine down from Volkanenborg, what did you do with it?”

“Just what you said to,” her friend replied, puzzlement still in her face. “Stashed it away in your – company’s warehouse until we needed it.”

“Who took it from you and put it in storage?”

She rubbed her forehead, thinking. “I wasn’t really paying attention. Little dark-complected guy, hair slicked back –“

Layla didn’t wait for the rest of the description, but her eyes narrowed before she asked the next question. Hersh. “And how did it get over here?”

“The traditional way. Barnaby went to get it first thing in the morning, get the white on ice.” Galina smiled a lot, but this one was a little lopsided. “Thaumatic ice, that is. Threw him for a bit of a loop, I don’t think he’d ever seen that before.”

Layla nodded. “Damn. I really wish he’d get back here. Wonder what’s taking him so long? If we can pin down when the bottle was tampered with, we could probably get who did it – hey, what’s going on?” The crowd wasn’t paying attention to their drinks anymore, and gasps aplenty were being heard in the room …

… As Barnaby was staggering through the side door, a trail of blood behind him, emanating from the steak knife embedded in his back. His face looked like he’d seen the devil coming to carry him away.

“He – he --“ was all he could get out before it was his own turn to collapse onto the nearest table, starting to gag and choke just like the first person in the hall to die today.
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Re: Tales of Layla: mother, wife, mage-in-training, assassin

Post by Graybeard »

Chapter Three: Fight for life

Once again, Layla got out of the way so that the practitioners of life-saving magic could do their best. This time, however, she did not linger in the banquet hall, but rather, hurried to the room where her son was being baby-sat. She wanted to see to his safety, of course, but there was another, almost equally urgent reason for the visit: to retrieve one particular, carefully hidden item from his diaper bag. (She didn’t have much ammunition for it, but it was better than nothing.) The two babies were both sound asleep, so she contented herself with a quick, barely-felt kiss to Zachary’s smiling cheek rather than the full dose of mommy-love, and hustled back to the hall.

She had only been gone for two or three minutes, but the scene in the room had changed greatly in that short time. Fully half of the guests had made a hurried exit already, with more heading for the crowded outside doors. Ariel, Galina and Plato were standing in a circle around the felled Barnaby, shaking their heads sadly. Ace, for his part, was staring off into space, his eyes glassy, his face ashen. Faye was nowhere to be seen at first, but as Layla reached the table, she pushed back through the remaining crowd ... with an iron grip on the hand of the young Veracian priest-to-be.

“I’m so sorry, Ace,” Plato said to the bridegroom. “I hoped we could save him, the knife wound wasn’t as bad as it looked. But …”

“Poison,” Faye said tightly, arriving at the table. Plato nodded sadly. “Afraid so. We couldn’t tell what it was.”

“Th- thank you,” Ace stammered. “You did what you could…” And Layla did what she could; she embraced her new husband in the most comforting hug she could manage.

“Rite of Repose,” Faye hissed at the young priest-in-training. “You know how to do that, right?” The young man’s eyes widened as he replied, “Yes’m, but I’m not sure –“

”Now.” Her grip on the youth’s arm tightened.

Plato drew himself up to his not-very-imposing full height. “Well, at least with that jackass sheriff not around, I can preserve the evidence.” He set about casting the Preservation spell; and as he did, Layla paused long enough in her marital comforting to notice something.

“Look at that knife,” she said. “It’s not from our pattern.” A quick glance confirmed this, and Faye, who had finally released her iron grip on the young man, instantly picked up the theme. “You’re right. Meaning it wasn’t just randomly picked up by someone in the hall. Which means …”

“It was a setup.” And there was something else. “And it was a poisoned blade. With the same crap that was in the bottle? Symptoms were similar.”

Faye considered; poisons were something of a specialty with her, after all. “No guarantees. Lots of different things cause respiratory or cardiac arrest. But yeah, if I was placing a bet, I’d bet on yes.”

“So whoever did the one, probably did the other, and isn’t in the hall now. Meaning…” Layla’s voice trailed off.

“One of those idiots who was partying with Barb. Or Hersh.” Faye sighed. “We need to run them down.” But there was another possibility that she wasn’t talking about …

“Or Willard,” Layla said through clenched teeth.
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Re: Tales of Layla: mother, wife, mage-in-training, assassin

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Chapter Four: Evidence

As if on cue, that selfsame Sheriff Willard reappeared in the now nearly empty hall. Joining him were Hersh and the tough-looking deputy Willard had sent to round up the late Barb’s drinking friends; his name was Absalom, but everyone just called him “Ape” for obvious reasons. To Layla’s surprise, the drinking buddies were also coming back into the room, and they were hauling what looked like a crude coffin. This they dropped on the floor next to the body with a clatter, apparently unconcerned that the body they were about to load into it had been a drinking partner minutes earlier.

Back in her working Wraith days, Layla might have been similarly cavalier about the handling of a corpse. However, motherhood had changed her, and so had the move away from “wet work” toward being one of the Gewehr’s few magic specialists (and a rising star in the “business” side of things as well). It was therefore with some satisfaction, if a bit of surprise, that she watched Ape and the trio bend to lift Barb’s body into the coffin – only to recoil in shock (literally) when magical sparks arced from the body to their hands. The Ward that Plato had managed to get in place, after the sheriff left, was doing its job.

This bit of professionalism was lost on Willard, who turned crimson with rage as the other four recoiled in pain. “PLATO!!” he roared. “GET YOUR SORRY ASS DOWN HERE AND LIFT THIS THING!” The mage politely excused himself from the group standing around the fallen Barnaby, pointedly not lifting the Ward he’d placed on that body, and headed for the coffin.

Layla was too busy trying to make sense out of what had happened to Barnaby (and, of course, comforting her new husband) to pay attention to events at the other end of the hall. Her mother, however, was not, and she was keeping a careful eye on proceedings there. She could see that an unhappy-looking Plato was casting something, most probably a Dispel to get rid of the Ward, all the time being harangued by the sheriff. Yes, the Ward had to be gone; Ape and the other goons were placing the corpse in the coffin, and then hauling it out through the large rear doors, to where a wagon could be seen.

Faye made a decision. She walked briskly down to the scene at the rear of the hall, and spoke one simple sentence to Willard, one that anybody in town would know and understand. “The company isn’t going to like this.”

Something happened that Faye, who was quite highly placed in the Gewehr, had never seen before when this incantation (might as well call it what it was) was pronounced. The sheriff, who in turn was well aware of Faye’s position and the threat behind what she said, simply turned his back on her and walked out the door. He boarded the wagon and took off with the coffin without another word.

Faye raised an eyebrow in his wake. “Well, he’s got guts,” she muttered to herself, well aware that after that sort-of-exchange, she could cause those guts to be splattered on the street and nobody would bat an eye. She was seriously considering issuing an order when she got home from the wedding that would make it so, but for now, she merely shrugged and went back to the other, undisturbed corpse.

Ace and his late cousin had been close enough that he wasn’t good for much at the moment, meaning that Layla in turn wasn’t good for much other than comforting him. That left Galina and Plato, having finished the Dispel, to talk magic, and to look more carefully at the scene of the crime. Dead bodies were not completely unknown to either of them; Plato had seen more than one or two in his role supporting Gewehr operations, and Galina had worked for Seiko Mesuinu, with all that that implied. They set to work with such Forensics magic as they could muster.

The knife was yielding few clues; surprisingly few, almost weirdly few. There were no foreign substances on the blade, just Barnaby’s (or at least someone’s) blood and a few threads from the shirt it had pierced. Did that mean the poison had been introduced to his body by something else? It seemed like a question worth thinking about. The fact that there were no signs of cooked meat on the blade might be important too; it suggested that someone had been holding onto the knife for use on its victim, rather than eating with it. The handle was also surprisingly clean, with no residues on it except traces of a white powder that neither Plato nor Galina recognized …

… Yet.

As soon as Faye reached the table, the mages interrupted the newlyweds long enough to report what they’d learned. As soon as Layla heard about the white powder, her eyes narrowed. “Drugs of some kind?”

Plato, who was no stranger to bodies found with drugs in or on them, shook his head. “Doesn’t appear to be. I ran some basic thaumatic tests. I’ll have to take the knife back to my place to do anything comprehensive, but I don’t expect anything.”

“Something as basic as sugar or salt?” Ace managed to get out.

“Hm,” Galina said. “Didn’t test for that, but it’s easy to do.” (Nobody was volunteering to simply taste the stuff, given that it was on a possibly poisoned knife.) “Give me a second.” She muttered something as her hands glowed with magic. So did the salt shaker and sugar bowl on the table. The knife did not. “Basic Affinities spell,” she explained. “Complete one takes a lot of time and energy to cast, but for just two things, it’s not difficult. There would have been a magical glow on the handle if there’d been a match.”

“Flour, maybe?” Faye ventured, but Galina grimaced and shook her head. “Maybe, maybe not, can’t tell unless I can get a sample to compare it with.” It didn’t need to be pointed out that there was no flour on a dining-hall table.

There were several nods, and then Layla said what the others were thinking. “We’d better check the kitchen. They’ll have –“ But then she stopped mid-sentence. “Let me see that thing again.” And with the eye of both a mother and an assassin, she didn’t need magic to recognize the small dabs of white stuff.

“Talcum powder. I’m just sure of it. Probably from gloves the bad guy was wearing, to keep the poison off his hands. If you want to check that, I’ve got some back in the other room, in my diaper bag.” Galina nodded; she had some as well, diaper rash being what it was.

Faye was on that one quickly. “You think the killer had access to those bags?”

It was dawning on Layla that there was one other person who might have had access to that room in the last half hour or so. “I'd been thinking it came from somebody's gloves, but I wonder … We’d better find out. Come on, sweetheart. We have some paperwork to check.” She took her husband’s hand and started out of the hall, leaving everyone else wondering just what brainstorm she’d had that triggered that last non sequitur.
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Re: Tales of Layla: mother, wife, mage-in-training, assassin

Post by Graybeard »

Chapter Five: A suspect

Layla was almost half way to the nursery, dragging a perplexed Ace along, when Faye’s voice rang out behind her. “Wait a minute. You think Kenny did it?”

She stopped in mid-stride, and was almost run over by her considerably larger husband. No, that hadn’t been what she was thinking, not at all. Come to think of it, though, could she be sure that Galina’s husband wasn’t at least involved? She didn’t know much about the man, other than that he ran a winery, he had graduated from Sashi Mu, and to all appearances, he and Galina were deliriously happy together. But what skeletons might be lurking in his closet?

“You’re tooled up, right?” Faye said as she joined the couple, puffing slightly. “Then let me go in and ask the questions while you cover me.” She headed for the door of the nursery.

It couldn’t be … or maybe it could, thought Layla. She had the magic skills to temporarily disable the Wards, which Faye did not, so she pushed back to the front of the line, dispelled the Wards, and sank back behind her mother as the door opened to reveal …

… Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Zachary and Oxana were still sound asleep, faces bearing wee smiles, arms entwined. They looked for all the world like lovers twenty or twenty-five years older who’d fallen asleep after activities more associated with making babies than tending them. Faye couldn’t help it. A big grin on her face, she pushed over to where Kenny was sitting and reading a book (a simplified history of Veracia, she noted with added amusement). “They didn’t, did they?”

Kenny looked up, puzzled. “Didn’t what?” And then the innuendo dawned and he got a sheepish grin of his own. “No, of course not. They’re not even a year old yet. Kids are starting younger these days than we were kids –“ As has been said by every generation in the last five hundred years, thought Faye, never mind that it has never been true… “but not that young.” The sheepish grin widened.

Layla carefully concealed her sidearm before stepping into the room. “Well, looks like all’s well here,” she said quite sincerely; Kensuke Goto didn’t seem the type to conceal a deep dark secret without it showing. “We – needed to check on something. Has anybody else been in here since the end of the service?”

Kenny thought, shrugged. “Just Father Amvrosy.”

“Huh?” As far as the wedding party knew, the presiding priest had got out of the way as quickly as possible so that he wouldn’t have to deal with (horrors!) a Tsuirakuan again; signing the paperwork before the service seemed to have made him nervous enough. (About what? Layla was starting to wonder, and she was not alone.)

Kenny’s turn for puzzlement. “He said you needed your diaper bag for something. He went off with it for –“

Layla interrupted, suspicion in her mind turning into near-certainty. “I didn’t ask him to bring me my diaper bag.”

“But he brought it right back,” Kenny insisted. “Then you came back and rummaged around in it, and –“

“And I missed something, I bet,” Layla said tightly. “Let me see it again.”

Kenny had misunderstood something. “Rummaging around” was not needed for finding things in this bag; Layla was a well organized person by nature, and everything in Zachary’s bag was in its place. That included the handgun that was carefully concealed beneath a false bottom to the bag. To get to that gun, she’d had to remove most of the contents, which would have confused a bystander. (That was partially the point.)

Now, however, she was indeed “rummaging around” in the bag, as she looked for evidence of something out of place, something that had been tampered with, something wrong. And it didn’t take long for her to find such a thing. Dare I handle this with a diaper? She decided she didn’t have much choice. “Look,” she said to her mother, as she extracted one of Zachary’s bottles of formula.

It had been many years, twenty-five or so, since Faye herself had been a young mother, but she knew what a bottle of formula was supposed to look like. She knew, as her daughter did, that it was not supposed to have a faint blue coloration.

“That son of a bitch put poison in this thing,” Layla snarled. “As soon as I gave it to my son, he – what?”

Faye was holding up her hand. “Not poison, at least not any that I’ve ever seen.” Both women knew that Faye was the Gewehr’s expert on poisons, venoms, hallucinogens, and so on. “It’s something else.” And in a flash, the two women, as well as Ace (who’d been silent up until now), knew what.

Back in her days as an active Wraith, when going on a murder mission, Layla would put on a poker face, an emotional mask to conceal whatever was going through her mind at the prospect of taking a life. (Of course, those were the pre-Zachary days, so the most likely content would have been “Okay, let’s do this.”) Now, that same mask reappeared for a moment, unsettling Kenny (this was a common reaction among those who saw the mask), before she took Ace by the hand, and said something that would come only from a member of a Farrelian guild. “Come on, sweetheart. We gotta kill somebody.” Gun in the other hand, she and Ace moved carefully down the hall toward the office that doubled as a rectory when the priest came visiting on his rounds through the region, as Father Amvrosy was.

Theoretically.

They were in luck; the door was cracked open. Even better, they could see movement inside; the priest was apparently getting out of his vestments, having put on the whole cumbersome, formal outfit for the wedding. (And, Layla felt certain, to conceal certain things.) On a signal from Layla, Ace kicked the door open wide.

“Who – what?” Amvrosy sputtered, but he responded much more quickly than a normal priest should (probably). He quickly reached for a knife on his desk; a knife, Layla saw in the brief moment for observation rather than action, that matched the pattern of the one that had been embedded in Barnaby’s back. Good, said a voice in the back of her mind that she would consult in more detail shortly. I was right.

For now, however, Wraith reflexes took over. The man was still bringing the knife up, whether to wield or to throw no longer mattering, for he’d lost the battle of response time even before it started.

Layla dropped into a crouch, and without even consciously sighting the handgun, fired.
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Re: Tales of Layla: mother, wife, mage-in-training, assassin

Post by Graybeard »

[A bit delayed owing to family matters, and the next installment is also likely to be delayed, as I'll be out of the house for several days dodging a forest fire. :shock: Only one or two chapters left, though.]

Chapter Six: Interrogation

In the coming weeks, Layla would occasionally wonder whether she’d had the interrogation idea when she fired, or whether she’d simply missed her target – by an inexcusably wide margin for a Wraith. Just to be on the safe side, she would take some extra target practice. Whatever the explanation, her bullet struck the priest in the belly, rather than in his heart or head that would have produced an instant kill.

Even a silenced gun makes enough noise to briefly startle those nearby who are not expecting it. Faye had been around enough gunplay that she held her ground, but Ace flinched back out into the hallway, his ears ringing. When he regained his composure, he decided to stay there and keep a lookout while his wife and mother-in-law did what they were going to do; he’d seen the occasional Wraith in action, after all.

Layla cast a quick smile over her shoulder at her husband; he’d be useful in the lookout role, while the women had work to do. She took a few seconds to compose herself (I’m glad Zachary isn’t here to see this, she thought), and turned to the man on the floor, blood emerging from his midsection and his mouth, a continuing groan for audio. “Okay, then,” she said in an almost conversational tone of voice. “We can play this either of two ways. One, you answer some questions, and then I give you a quick, painless death. The other, we just let you lie here and bleed out, maybe with another bullet wound for added blood and pain. So which is it going to be, whoever you are since you obviously aren’t Father Amvrosy?” She made an unnecessarily elaborate show of sighting the gun as if to show that she was ready for option number two.

“I – urgh – I’ll talk,” the shattered man gasped. Maybe they’d actually take pity on him with a Heal after he said his piece; probably not, but one could hope.

“I bet you will,” Layla murmured, but there was something Faye wanted to ask first. “Wait a minute. This isn’t Amvrosy?”

“Nope. Damn good disguise, though. You had me fooled all the way through the service, until just a few minutes ago. But not now. So where’s Amvrosy?”

The flow of blood from the man’s stomach, though still rapid, seemed to be slowing a bit. Layla considered giving him another hole to bleed from, to encourage an answer, but he pulled himself together (literally) enough to answer the question. “He’s dead.”

Layla sighed theatrically. “I know that. Now tell me something I don’t know. Now.” Her grip on her gun tightened. “Where’s the body?”

“I – in the carriage house – urrk!” The answer was interrupted by a bout of coughing that brought up blood; he wouldn’t last long now.

“But why?” Faye contributed. “Why would you want to kill my daughter? Or son-in-law? Or me?”

“Wasn’t … you … was Barb.” The responses, such as they were, were getting weaker, but this one still caught the women’s attention.

“Wait a minute,” Layla objected. “You’re trying to tell me that poisoning her with our wine was planned?”

“Y-yes…”

How?” And then it all came together. “Barnaby ‘saved’ a bottle for you, didn’t he? And when all the shit hit the fan, he had to die, so we wouldn’t figure it out?”

“Yes… Thought she’d wait until … later … to drink that bottle … but she didn’t …”

“You bastard,” Layla seethed, but before she could continue, someone unexpected interrupted her. “Give me that,” Ace commanded, in a Veracia-like husband-to-wife tone that he would never use again, knowing, after all, what was good for him. Layla, for her part, handed him the gun without much thought. All she said was, “In the balls,” although she was pretty sure that that was the way that Ace was already thinking. A bit of very un-honeymoon-like “discussion” later would confirm this.

“Got it,” Ace grunted, and the room again filled with sound.

The bullet struck its intended target. The man on the floor emitted a gurgling scream; that was the point, after all, and the way the second wound was planned. Then he gagged, convulsed, and lay still. That was not.

“Damn,” Ace muttered, handing the weapon back to his wife. “I just wanted him to hurt worse, save killing him for later.” (What a Wraith-like way of putting it, thought both Layla and Faye.) “Now we’ll never know the why.” But he was wrong.

“Stand down, please,” another unexpected voice came from behind them in the hall. “I can explain…”
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Re: Tales of Layla: mother, wife, mage-in-training, assassin

Post by Graybeard »

[Short one, and a minor spoiler: the next chapter will be the last, in this short piece but certainly not of Layla and her entourage. I was writer's blocked on putting it all into one installment, so let's at least get this part out there.]

Chapter Seven: One arrival, one departure

Despite being large and rough-hewn, the deputy known generally as “Ape” was surprisingly soft-spoken. However, he had the group’s full attention. Layla briefly considered keeping her gun drawn, but holstered it as requested; after all, she was pretty sure she was quicker on the draw than Ape was, and besides, he could have killed all three of the surviving people in the room if he’d wanted to. (Careless to drop our guard like that, Layla thought, but now wasn’t the time for recriminations.) “Go on,” she said neutrally as she turned to face the newcomer.

“You’ve done the – our company a service here,” Ape said, as calmly as though he was praising someone for catching a bookkeeping error. The face that he was waving a hand at the dead man made it clear that bookkeeping had nothing to do with the “service.”

“What do you mean, a serv—“ Ace began, but Faye interrupted with an edgy “Says who?” as Layla’s hand moved a millimeter closer to her gun.

“Please go fetch the matron of honor,” the deputy commanded Ace; his quiet voice had an unexpected ring of authority to it. (Magic, somehow? Layla wondered, and would wonder for some time.) “She will be helpful in answering that.” Puzzled, Ace headed down the hall. Shouting could be heard outdoors, in the opposite direction, followed by the whinnying of terrified horses and what might, or might not, have been a single gunshot.

Layla was getting annoyed; well beyond annoyed, in fact. “Another death? What are we running here, a damned meat market?” But the rough man kept his composure. “Patience,” he said, as calmly as before. A few seconds later, Ace and Galina came to the door.

Ape turned to the Tsuirakuan. “Ms. Scherbatcheff, you’re reputed to have unusual magical skills. Can you cast a Damping spell that will enclose only myself and the mother of the bride? It’ll just be needed for a few seconds.”

Galina cast a doubtful look at Layla, who nodded; with this call for spellcasting (she thought she could have cast the Damping herself, but no need to tip her hand on that), she was starting to figure out what was going on. Thus encouraged, Galina cast, and magic flared around Faye and Ape …

… Just long enough, as Faye would later confide to her daughter, for the deputy to whisper a name in her ear; the name of a very highly placed member of the Gewehr, one on the senior council, a man who was responsible for what might be termed “internal security” in the outfit. This fact was known to Faye and to few others outside the council. If Ape knew it, no further authentication was required. He then whispered two more words before nodding to Galina to drop the spell: “My father.” Faye blinked twice, looked carefully at the man; now that she thought about it, the family resemblance was clear enough.

There was more shouting from the outside, and Ape shook his disheveled head sadly, at least to outward appearances. “Looks like the town may be in the market for a new sheriff. Quite a tragedy, don’t you think?” Of course, the “tragic” aspect of this announcement was lost on all concerned…
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Re: Tales of Layla: mother, wife, mage-in-training, assassin

Post by Graybeard »

[Not entirely happy with this, but it's time to move on to some of the other unfinished business...]

Chapter Eight: Shop talk

Faye had heard enough by this point to know that some things needed to be discussed without any non-Gewehr ears listening. So, as it happened, did Galina, who excused herself gracefully – “I’d better go nurse my daughter”—so that a guild-only conversation could occur. To Layla’s lasting admiration, she paused at the door to cast another Damping spell before heading for the nursery. What was said in the rectory, at least for a while, would be heard nowhere else, including by Galina and Kenny.

“I think I’m getting the picture,” Layla said to Ape. “Just who is this so-called Amvrosy?”

“Amvrosy.”

“Huh?” said three other voices in unison.

The deputy wiped his brow. “We think that Amvrosy is his real name. That would have made it easier to pass a Truth spell. It might even have been Amvrosy Vartanovich, like our priest. They must have gone to a helluva lot of trouble to find this guy. Speaking of which, could you pass me your son’s bottle from your bag?”

Layla was nonplussed at the apparent change of subject, but with an encouraging nod from her mother, she complied. “They went to some trouble to find this stuff, too,” Ape said, tapping the side of the bottle. “High explosive that will still work when watered down. We thought they were going to use it with some of the wine.” A sardonic look at Layla. “This use never occurred to us.”

Layla nodded grimly; she and her mother had figured that part out when she looked at the bottle a few minutes earlier. “Fitted with some kind of contact fuse in the nipple, I bet?”

“Probably. I’m not going to squeeze it to find out.” He started to slip the bottle into his pack, taking care not to jostle the cap protecting the nipple, but Layla objected. “Wait a minute. That crap isn’t safe to handle. I remember something from my Transformation class that I think can do a render-safe. I –“

“We want it just as is,” Ape interrupted her. “This is beyond what we can do with explosives. You know that.” (Layla did, courtesy of a relatively recent experience with things that went boom.) “We want Plato to take a look at it while it’s still – effective. That means –“

“I didn’t mean the stuff in the bottle,” Layla interrupted in her turn. “I meant the nipple.” She didn’t wait for permission, but magic twinkled from her hands and encased the cap. “That’ll hold it on until you get to somewhere where you can handle it safely.” (Did the big man breathe a slight sigh of relief?) “But I still don’t understand why. Why Barb, for starters?”

Ape looked uncomfortable. “There was more to her than you gave her credit for,” he said. “She had figured out some of what was going on, started getting friendly with – some of the key players –“

“Willard,” Faye interrupted; she’d suspected the man for a while, and now her suspicions were being confirmed.

“Apparently. We weren’t sure. Anyway, she made a fatal mistake somewhere. They took her out.” He turned to Ace. “And I’m sorry, they killed Barnaby too, as someone who knew too much.” Ace had briefly forgotten about the death of his cousin, but he remembered it now.

Layla emitted a low-pitched growl quite different from her usual speaking voice. “You’re dodging me. Who are ‘they,’ and why are they leaving a trail of Luminosita-damned bodies?”

“I can tell you the why, but not the who. Some other outfit trying to muscle in on what we do. And don’t worry, with this guy now available for study –“ he pointed to the dead false priest – “we can figure out how to go after them.”

Another growl from Layla. “I will be a part of that. They tried to kill my son. As many of them must die at my hands as – what?”

“No, you won’t, honey,” her mother said mildly, placing a hand over the gun that Layla was at the point of drawing. “This is above your pay grade now. Luminosita’s Nuts, it may be above mine. And you have a family, not to mention a honeymoon to go on. Speaking of which, I think I hear your coach now.” The final statement may or may not have been accurate as spoken, but it soon would be.

“But Moooom…” a moan to make Jamie proud … “They tried to kill Zachary.”

“But they didn’t. Besides, the bastard that set up that bomb is right there, splattered all over the floor. You have already killed the one that did it. Both of you.” After all, Ace had fired the second shot. “A bit of togetherness. Think of it that way.”

Layla gave in, just in time for tall Ace to take her hands and lean down for a kiss. “Come on,” one of them said, it really didn’t matter which one. “We need to get our son …” definitely a coach outside now … “and go on our honeymoon.”

They went.

- FIN -
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