Scuttlebutt!

The town of Scozzese, in the realm of Pavona
The very end of Autumn, IC 2403

Pieter Schout, the army of the VMC’s chief linguister, had been making his was through the army camp to attend upon the general, but as he had time to spare, he stopped a while to speak with Captain Vinco and one of the quartermaster general’s clerks, who were inspecting a recently arrived wine cart.

“This is not good,” said the clerk, Zanobi, as he swilled the contents of the little pewter can he had just taken a sip from, his lips contorted in disgust. “Even thirsty soldiers would not consider this drinkable. These merchants are mocking us. To offer such as this for the price they expect us to pay is an insult.”

“Then it cannot be the same wine the quartermaster general and I tasted of,” said Captain Vinco, reaching out for the can.

The clerk pulled the can away. “I know you to be a brave man, good captain, but there’s no need to face this particular enemy!” He poured out what remained, then folded his arms as he did so often, the empty can disappearing behind the loose sleeves of his orange doublet.

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The captain bowed flamboyantly, as if acknowledging a gracious favour, eliciting a smile from Pieter.

“Dishonesty seems to be trait shared by more than just the merchants of Scozzese,” said Pieter. “There was something deceitful about the town’s councillors who spoke yesterday with the general. When we arrived here, they were welcoming, even ingratiating. Then they turned suddenly sour when Duke Guidobaldo’s letter came …”

“Well that’s surely to be expected?” interrupted Vinco. “Considering the claims contained in the letter concerning our own soldiers.”

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The captain commanded a company of mounted handgunners, but himself preferred the full armour of a man at arms. As he had only just returned from a scouting foray he was even now plated from the neck down, although had discarded his helmet to wear a feathered leather cap instead.

Pieter understood the captain’s point. The duke of Pavona’s letter had slandered the VMC, accusing them of attacking and plundering the villages of Spomanti in Verezzo, even killing Lord Lucca in the process, while disguised as Lord Alessio’s Portomaggioran soldiers, as if too cowardly and ashamed to own what they had done. As the Scozzese councillors were the duke of Pavona’s subjects, it was to be expected they would accept their own lord’s account and so show anger towards the soldiers of the VMC.

Yet even then their anger seemed tempered, as if dulled by some other occult concern. In contrast to their feigned disquiet, Pieter now remembered the flash of real anger in Luccia la Fanciulla’s face when she herself heard the letter’s contents – a far more substantial reaction than that of the councillors, despite her quick efforts to subdue any sign of her emotion. She was a Tilean noblewoman, sworn before the goddess Myrmidia to serve in the army of the VMC, having accepted its cause was honourable. The faction of Marienburg trading interests forming the Vereenigde Marienburg Compagnie had been invited to defend Alcente from Khurnag’s Waagh and, having done just that, was now acting in the defence of the whole of Tilea against the vampire duchess. Luccia’s own honour was bound up with that of the VMC, so to insult it was to insult her.

Captain Vinco laughed. “I can imagine the discomfort they felt when obliged to question our general concerning their own lord’s accusations. There is no pleasant way to address such matters.”

“I know,” said Pieter. “They had no reason to doubt the letter and they were very nervous before the general. But what seemed to me to be dishonest was the way they yielded so quickly when General Valckenburgh answered them and seemed so easily convinced of their error.”

Captain Vinco frowned. “So … you think they should have been obstinate and called the general a liar to his face?”

“Why not, if they were honest?” asked Pieter.

“Cowardice springs to mind,” said the captain. “It’s one thing for such men to defend their lord’s honour when among friends, quite another when faced by an army such as ours.”

“You might have the truth of it,” Pieter agreed. “Indeed, the general seemed to believe fear was behind their sudden acceptance of his argument. If that was so, then they most likely still believed Duke Guidobaldo’s version of events, and were merely pretending to believe the general. Which is dishonesty. And if [i]not[/i] that, then they were truly swayed by the general’s words, readily dismissing their own lord’s report as false. Which is another species of dishonesty, for it breaks the bonds of loyalty between them and their lord. Either dishonesty would explain their sudden amenability.”

The clerk snorted. “Oh, they’re not that amenable, otherwise they’d have delivered what was paid for. Not this vinegar!”

“Perhaps they feel guilty about accepting the general’s word over their own lord’s and so thought to make amends by pursuing bad trade with us?” suggested Captain Vinco, grinning.

“If you have an understanding of Pavonans, good captain,” said the clerk, “then you have a rare skill my friend. I heard they banished every dwarf from their realm, for reasons no-one can make head nor tail of.”

“I’ll warrant the reason was to do with gold,” said the captain. “Duke Guidobaldo will have profited somehow from their departure.”

“Perhaps he just hates short people?” suggested Pieter, only half joking. “From the way the Verezzan halflings were talking, the hatred is reciprocated.”

Only the day before a company of halfling rangers had arrived at the camp, from the realm of Verezzo where there was said to be an entire town and several villages of their kind. They too demanded an audience with the general, who had joked to his closest advisers that it was becoming hard to command the army what with all the guests he had to welcome.

“You mean this Pettirosso?” asked Captain Vinco. “You were present when he spoke to the general?”

“I was,” said Pieter. “It was thought a linguister might be needed in case they spoke to each other in a halfling tongue.”

“I knew you possessed an abundance of tongues but had no idea you spoke a halfling language,” said the captain

“Only after a fashion, for it is more a dialect of the Empire. It turned out Pettirosso spoke only Tilean, which made me somewhat redundant.”

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Captain Vinco and Zanobi stared at Pieter, which at first confused him, until he realised they most likely had no idea what was said at the meeting.

“Well, I suppose it is no secret,” he began, “Or at least I have not been bound to keep it so from our own officers and clerks. It was this Pettirosso who brought news of the Pavonans crossing the River Remo, and a new account concerning what exactly happened at Spomanti.”

“Everyone knows the duke lied in his letter,” declared Zanobi.

“Everyone here knows, of course,” countered the captain. “I think we ourselves would have noticed if it was is doing the robbing! But the rest of Tilea might well believe the duke’s lies!”

“This Pettirosso fellow claimed the duke had done much more than lied,” continued Pieter. “It seems he and his rangers were there when Lord Lucca died, and their tale began very much like the Duke of Pavona’s letter. A force, Portomaggioran by their standards and livery, did indeed attack Spomanti. Their beloved Lord Lucca rushed to its aid, sending orders to the rangers to support his counterattack, along with more of Terrene’s halfling soldiers. When they were defeated, their lord killed, Pettirosso and his band were just about the only ones to escape. Knowing the land well and very talented at ‘sneaking about’ they not only evaded the enemy’s clutches but remained to spy on the so-called Portomaggiorans.”

“‘Sneaking you say? How so?” asked the clerk.

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Captain Vinco shushed the clerk, saying, “Hold your tongue, Master Zanobi. Pieter’s about to tell us the part we don’t know.”

“No, no, I will answer,” said Pieter. “For to know the nature of he who delivered a story, is to better judge how far said story can be trusted. A ‘Pettirosso’ is what the Verezzans call a Robin Redbreast, and it is a somewhat famous nickname in these parts. His real name is Roberto Cappuccio. He was once an outlaw, a ‘goodfellow’ who declared a love of righting wrongs. He was set against the tyrant who was Lord Lucca’s father, stealing from him and his most cruel officers, and apparently doling out much of what was stolen to the poorest of folk. Once Lucca became ruler, the thief recognised this philosopher son was nothing like his father, and when he daringly approached Lord Lucca to offer himself for wise judgement, to the astonishment of the court, he was accepted as a loyal servant for his ‘good deeds’, and he and his rangers, skilled archers all, became part of Lord Lucca’s marching army.

Captain Vinco laughed. “Bravo! Quite the story. It would be fascinating to know the truth behind it. Still, I see how knowing this Pettirosso’s reputation might colour our perception of what he had to say.”

“Maybe so,” agreed Pieter. “There could be several species of lies concealed in what such a fellow has to say. Anyway, he claimed the enemy, having stripped all the loot they could from Spomanti, moved off northwards. After a while they halted, burned the flags and changed some of their clothes – the knights, however, keeping their blue and white livery. Then a company of Southland’s crossbowmen, mercenaries for sure, and a handful of the knights went off further north, escorting the loot, while a regiment of bravi-swords and the rest of the knights, along with their commander, headed off east-by-south. Pettirosso did not want to divide his little band, so he decided to follow the loot and thus discover who and where it was going to.

“They shadowed the little force, until they saw it approaching the river crossing over the Remo at Casoli, which they said proved their suspicions – the looters were not Portomaggioran as duke of Pavona claimed. They were the duke’s own men! Not that the Pettirosso knew of the claims made by Duke Guidobaldo’s letter. He simply reported what he himself claimed to have discovered.

“Later that same day, the Pettirosso spotted our own scouts, and looking for potential allies, he trailed them and thus discovered us.”

Captain Vinco laughed loudly. “And, being a bold, little fellow, marched right on into our camp to demand an audience with the general!”

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The clerk had a furrowed brow, obviously pondering all that he had heard. “So, we have only the word of a famous ex-thief?” he said. “Whose dead lord happened to be an enemy of the duke of Pavona? What did the general say?”

“General Valkenburgh is ever the diplomat,” answered Pieter. “He thanked the fellow; expressed sorrow for his loss but said that because he himself was no Tilean he would have to tread carefully when dealing with such serious claims. Then, as a kindness, he offered the rangers employment as scouts in our army, howsoever temporarily, that they might not be without bread.”

“Ha ha!” chuckled Captain Vinco. “A proud, strutting Robin Redbreast made to feel like a beggar!”

“Indeed,” agreed Pieter. “It may not have been the general’s best judged answer. The attempted act of charity changed the Pettirosso’s demeanour considerably – the fellow’s face went bright red with anger, his eyes showing more than a glimpse of the rebel he’s said to have once been. As bold as you like, he launched into an impassioned tirade, telling the general that Lord Lucca was murdered by dishonourable thieves led by a coward who disguised himself and his men as Portomaggiorans. He said that such a crime went beyond robbery and murder, being an attempt to ferment war between several Tilean realms, and this at the very time they must instead unite to fight the terrible enemies from the north. Then he told the general that ‘treading carefully’ was not way to answer such a crime, and certainly not one that was even now ongoing.”

“How did the general take that?” asked Zanobi.

“Oh, he was as inscrutable as ever, as if no offence at all had been given, nor had any been intended.”

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“He’s here to profit the company,” said Vinco, “not to get all heated about slights and Tilean honour.”

Now Zanobi snorted. “He got heated enough when he ordered the burning of Camponeffro as punishment for what the Ravernans did.”

“Aye, but even then the company profited, or at the least made no loss, for we took everything of value before setting the fires,” said the captain. Then he asked, “Pieter, what did the general say to this petty arabiatti?”

“He just asked what the halfling meant by it being an ‘ongoing’ crime. It turned out that the stolen loot, on a lumbering, overloaded caravan, guarded by a mere handful of soldiers, is apparently, right now, within our reach, still on this side of the river and waiting to cross. The Pettirosso said that a quick force of horsemen, as well as his own lads, who for revenge he claimed would happily run until their lungs burned, could reach the loot and easily dispatch the handful of guards. ‘You have horse soldiers, do you not, my lord?’ says he, as if making an idle enquiry at supper. ‘Why not act now?’ he asked, ‘And so retrieve that which was stolen. Let’s teach these murderers a lesson they shall not forget!’”

“Bolder and bolder,” said the captain.

“Oh, he did not stop there. When the general did not answer immediately, the halfling suggested that the Portomaggiorans, whose brave ruler Lord Alessio was even now leading the mighty alliance army in the north, would surely be more than grateful if the general both cleared his name and punished those who were attempting to besmear his reputation. The Portomaggiorans would be in the general’s debt, he said, as would all those who love the truth. Then, his impatience perhaps getting the better of him, he said that if the general will not help him before it is too late, then he would find another way, or die trying. He loved his master for conscience sake, with all his heart, says he, and would not risk allowing this crime to go unpunished.

“When the general answered that he would have to consider the matter, and take advice from his Tilean lawyers, the Pettirosso finally went too far. He looked the general in the eye, as bold as brass, and says: ‘As you are merchants from the north and cannot understand honour like a Tilean, I would willingly pay you half what was stolen, if you will lend help, and if I am allowed to return home with the rest.’”

Captain Vinco shook his head in disbelief, with closed eyes, while the clerk rolled his eyes to the heavens.

“I think then, even the halfling noticed the mood had changed. Yet still the general simply nodded, declaring he would think upon it all. Before the ranger could dig himself any deeper, the general dismissed the fellow, ordering him and his men to eat, rest, and so prepare themselves for what must be done in the morrow.”

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