Welcome to Flavortown - Adriana, Captain of the Guard
Adriana, Captain of the Guard | Illustrated by Chris Rallis | Cover Art Design by Luminarch
An Oath Retaken
A better knight would have handled this thought Adriana. If she were stronger, she would put on a brave face when confronted with devastation. Instead, all she was left with was an unyielding sense of despair while she watched the city fall to chaos.
She had seen better days for her burgeoning city. A few dozen citizens gathered around the ransacked buildings as if it were some form of performance. The New Paliano Artificer's Hall, robbed of its gold and materials overnight. The sounds of dying fires and windows being broken didn't quite drown out the squabbling between the owner, a young artificer, and the silver-studded guards that watched with glazed eyelids. The response to this type of event would be sparse in Paliano. The queen would likely offer platitudes of complacency to all, the only tangible retort being a crackdown on the citizens. But for Adriana, this was a direct attack on the home she had made for her people. One she would not take lightly.
The process of establishing New Paliano was a shoddy one. Under the rule of the Black Rose, Old Paliano suffered. Adriana and her loyalists reclaimed a section of the lands for their own development. As if wedging her sword between her freedom and the oppression of the Black Rose, Adriana pried open a space for her people to exist. Within that space was New Paliano. She had watched as culture and community bloomed under the new rule her government had installed. An organization of new leaders, made up from those discarded by the despot. However, lately it felt like every time Adriana left her office, more and more citizens were turning up dead, sick, or robbed. The Palianos had begun to reflect each other.
Entering the ruined laboratory, she saw that the fires had melted the myriad alloys into amorphous masses of raw junk. What was likely once a mechanized arm had folded in on itself, now taking the form of an abstract golden archway. Adriana winced at the sight of it all. Previously, this was a palace of innovation. All of the vital commerce circled through the artificers' hands. These artificers were the beating heart of the New Paliano, pumping the blood of ingenuity through the alleyways and streets. Now someone wanted them gone.
"Care to explain why ransacking bandits are allowed to run wild in the streets?" asked Grinaldi, the city's Chief Artificer. Grinaldi was an elderly, gaunt man. A salt-and-pepper beard ran down his neck, his laboratory coat covered in specks of debris. In the past weeks, he had created a particularly profitable project that involved siphoning mana from the very streets, making him sadly invaluable. The artificer marketed himself as the future of a peaceful Paliano, and he knew his value to the enforcers. "Frankly, I'm starting to question why we serve under you, and not the queen's coffers."
"May I remind you New Paliano is the only place where you can freely experiment?" said Adriana. "Your cogworking would be declared contraband under Marchesa."
"Ah, yes, an Adriana classic. 'We are your only choice.' Truly the mark of freedom."
Adriana scoffed at the man. Grinaldi made great progress in the field of innovation, but charming demeanor still eluded him. He made a salient point, however. The people who funded much of New Paliano had raised more and more complaints with her. Without a major shakeup in how things were run here, she could have a coup of her own on her hands. Rumors of a group of bandits had spread throughout the streets. Best to quash them now.
"I'll tell you this, artificer. By the end of tonight, we'll have the mastermind behind this in cuffs." said Adriana. "My agents have heard word of a Santuo gang that's been making a move on our city. If you have any information-"
"The Codices Library. In the abandoned borough. You'll find them there. They flock to those cesspools." Grinaldi stared at her. "I want you to strike there, and strike hard. Don't think, act." He placed a hand on her shoulder. "Do it for the city. We'll bring the fist of order down on these criminals."
As she looked in the eyes of Grinaldi, Adriana could not help but be reminded of kneeling before the Black Rose.
Travel through the abandoned boroughs was inadvisable without physical and martial protection. A cloth rag tied around her mouth and nose protected her from the pox that lingered in the air, and a platinum sword at her waist dissuaded the approach of any pickpockets. An invisible ring seemed to form around her as the people shuffled away from her. The library's inhabitants seemed weak, unable to fight back against a well-trained and -fed member of the bourgeois knights. The arrival of a knight-errant in this part of the city met trouble for someone. Who that would be remained to be seen.
The Codices Library was quite the seedy part of Paliano, straddling the barrier between Old and New. Sunlight shone in through rain-worn thatched roofing. Where once archives of old lore stood, now the space was filled with boxes stacked atop one another, acting as storage, housing, or storefronts for illicit wares. Physical space had become just as much of a commodity as food or water. Adriana remembered when her father would take her to this place as a child. She'd spend hours reading tomes of knights of the past. An era where chivalrous heroes rode down tyrannical dragons who threatened the kindly nobles. The vision of claiming this story for herself had rooted into her mind. As she looked at the world around her, the stories seemed so far away.
A chill went down her spine, like something was plucking against the individual vertebrae. Her contact appeared in an apparition in front of her, semi-translucent form shimmering in the early morning sun. Don Reverai, killed in the same war that had led to Marchesa's ascension, now took on this form to continue his unfinished business.
"The prodigal daughter returns." His ghastly voice seemed to crawl in the air between them. "Tell me, what brings New Paliano's finest here?"
"Rumors of a gang attacking my leadership. They stole valuable materials from a state artificer." Adriana scanned the area around her. "I intend to capture them and bring them to trial."
The spirit snickered. "Awfully confident, waltzing in here, talking of courts and the like. You assume I know something about this?"
"I know you do. Just be happy you aren't implicated in it yet."
Reverai reached into his robes, into a space of formless aether. Revealing a pocketbook, he thumbed through it for a moment. Adriana hated working with his type. So willing to sell out their associates for a pinch of gold. Of course, if it meant apprehending the criminals, it would be worth it. Wouldn't it?
In her ruminations, she heard a rustling above her. Mechanical, but not like Grinaldi's fine cogwork. Instead, this was the sputtering of steam and machine alike. Something, no, someone was watching them. She thought for a moment on what price her armor would fetch on the black market. Whatever it was, it was certainly enough to tempt a blade to come hurling towards her neck.
The knight ushered Reverai into one of the ramshackle buildings. Here, she could duck out of the library at a moment's notice if required of her. The ghost, confused, held out a document to her. "Not sure what this is about, but your man's name is Grenzo. Runs with a group of goblins who call themselves the Havoc Raisers. Bunch of creeps who hide out in the sewers. Bet they smell like absolute--"
Adriana cut him off. "That explains the obsession with Brago-Era machinery." She handed him a bundle of gold pieces which the ghost returned to the same realmspace that hid within his cloak. "You think they're a threat?"
"They're political radicals. Children who think they can forge a new world. Nothing the boot of the Queen can't stomp out."
"You know I don't serve her anymore, Reverai."
"Whatever helps you sleep at night," the ghost said with a hiss in his voice. His spirit faded into the walls and left Adriana with the sinking feeling of being watched.
A fluttering wick of amber candlelight provided the only vision for Adriana within the sewers. Each plink of dripping water echoed on the brick walls, the sound skipping from tile to tile. A carefully trained ear caught the sounds of skittering deeper in the subterranean crypt. More living things were down here, she was certain of it. Adriana was so used to confronting criminals on the streets of Paliano, defending the shops and local regents. But this was their turf. It was different. This was their home. For the first time, Adriana realized she was always an intruder.
Her sword dragged across the floor, sparks flicking from the tip as it left a trail in the stone. Adriana had learned to attune herself to fear as a tactic. While most saw her as simply a manager of the city's guards, there were those who had faced her in combat who knew her as a bulwark of strength. New Paliano had built itself on fear of what could happen if the fist of the knights released, all the while never permitting them to do so.
At the end of the sewers was a steel-bolt door, the hull rusted by the sludge that ran through the systems. If Reverai's documents were to be believed, this was described as Grenzo's fortress. A hub for whatever crimes and dark activities he had planned. She had routed her way through the winding tunnels, finally arriving at the hub of New Paliano's plight. All she had to do was burst in, demand Grenzo stand down, and she could begin to dismantle his group from here. This was the type of thing she had read stories about. The brave knight slays the evildoer and frees the kingdom. Adriana would claim her true knighthood with this capture.
A swift kick from the knight brought the door to the ground. Inside, there were rows of bunk beds, each one filled with various citizens. A cogwork automaton chugged along in front of her, bringing what looked to be medicine to a coughing elf in one of the cots. All eyes were on her as her sword pointed towards a goblin man seated in a mechanized chair.
"By- by order of the city of New Paliano, I order you to stand down!" Ariana shouted, waving the blade widely. There were no armed soldiers, nor criminals seeking immense wealth. These were sick people, being cared for by volunteer doctors. She hadn't been directed to a criminal headquarters. This was a hospital.
"Took you long enough to get down here. Your type tends to struggle in the undercity, eh?" asked the goblin man. His wheelchair hummed with the sound of clicks and whirs as he approached. "Name's Daretti. This here is me and Grenzo's workshop. I believe you're here about the manufacturer's tools we took from Grinaldi?"
Adriana cleared her throat, readying her weapon again. These criminals must have something up their sleeves. "You're the ones that stole from the Chief Artificer! That's high treason against the state. Those belong to the artificers."
"High treason? Oh, no!" Daretti raised his hands in fake shock. "I had no idea we robbed the oh-so-special artificers!"
"You took it from his labs, did you not? Broke in under the cover of night like thieves."
"We certainly did. After we were declared undesirable and had our resources confiscated." Daretti moved closer to Adriana, his chair sending out puffs of steam. "My work, along with the rest of my coalition's, was taken from us and made into that device. One might say it belonged to us, no?"
Adriana found herself on the backfoot. Daretti signaled for the rest of the doctors to stand behind him, shielding them from whatever the knight might do. No matter; Adriana had fought worse in the form of Muzzio's insurrection, or the war against Old Paliano. An aging artificer would be an easy apprehension.
"Tell me, knight," asked Daretti. "Did Grinaldi mine the copper that went into the wires? Did he ferry the materials across land from the mines? Did he hammer the steel into bolts? Unless he did, that device is the work of the many, and it ought to be for the many."
"No matter what spin you put on it, you ravaged the city and took what was legally his. As a keeper of order, my duty is to take it from you." Adriana marched towards the man, ready to swing down on his face.
"Please, before you hurt the moneymaker, take it if you wish." Daretti gestured to the machine. It was a massive device, nearly the height of Adriana. Its various switches and lights blinked in dazzling rainbow colors. Tubing pumped a myriad of liquids, all of them distilled into a single vial of pink sludge. One of the cogwork machines picked up the vial and took it to one of the elves in the cots.
"You're not making weapons, Adriana said. "You're making medicine."
The goblin artificer laughed. "Of course we are. Tell me, is your helmet so tight you think that we do crimes because they're fun?" He patted her on the shoulder as the elven women drank the potion, color flooding back into her pale skin. "Your artificers' meddling are sapping the mana and money from our folks. We break laws because we're being killed, basically forced to."
"I had no idea. I serve the city, I'm on the streets every single day--"
"Bah! You serve the city, not the people. Out there every day arresting people for loitering. While the real criminals are killing and robbing us blind. You just call that politics, though." Daretti narrowed his eyes at her. "I've seen tyrants like you across the planes. All the same. No knight that did their job ever fought for the people. Grinaldi is going to use that machine to fuel the system that oppresses us. Probably cooking them up now. We're using it to make life-saving medicine. Tell me, who should you serve?"
Adriana, Daretti, Grenzo, and the entirety of the people's union stood outside the Chief Artificer's court. Livio, a former knight who'd joined up with the goblins, eyed the assemblage carefully. They had made their demands clear. Grinaldi would admit to his crimes, cease the harmful experiments, and begin the process of halting his machinations.
"I'll just warn you, Adriana," said Grenzo, "that working with these types never goes smoothly." The man hefted a massive battlehammer over his shoulder. While they agreed to use it as a last resort, there was a nonzero chance that this came to blows. Adriana readied her weapon again, finally ready to use it against the real tyrants.
Before she could charge in, the group felt their legs go weak, as if the very mana of the world was being sucked from their bodies into the laboratory. The humming of machinery filled their ears. As they went to ready themselves, the earth below them exploded open in a flurry of stone and steel. A mechanized wurm made of brass and gears swallowed some of their forces whole. Letting out a guttural roar, Adriana stared into the eyes of the creation. When Grinaldi spoke of a "device to ensure New Paliano's safety", this is what he meant.
The artificer had spoken of his vision of New Paliano. He saw the people of the city as disorganized and chaotic. The beggars on the street were "blights on the city's appearance." The expansion of affordable houses were "wastes of valuable real estate." Grinaldi thought that a tighter grip around the people was the solution. And so, he had proposed a project to the guards. One Adriana signed off on without a second thought. A device he called "The Fist of Order."
The group fanned out. Daretti scrambled over the rubble, scooping up the injured with his many mechanized arms. Livio and Grenzo joined battled with the beast, chipping away at its bronze hull. Adriana stood rigid in the spot. Frozen in absolute fear. Days prior, she was a servant of the city; now she took up arms with the rebels. Here, it was act or die.
Before the beast could rip through Grenzo, Adriana tore into its side with her broadsword. The beast screeched as they scrambled to attack. Livio's magic warded them from the worst of the damage, leaving Adriana free to swing wildly at The Fist of Order. Ripping and tearing through the beast's mechanical hull, for the first time she saw herself fighting with the people. In all her years as a knight, she was always putting someone in cuffs, taking goods from someone, or collecting tithes. But this was something for the people, something to fight for them.
As Adriana plunged the sword into the head of the wurm, she felt like the knights she read stories about.
In the aftermath, Daretti and Grenzo reconfigured the city's automatons to repair the damage. Grinaldi had gone missing during the melee, likely running through the streets in search of some allies. He was a problem for another day. Now, New Paliano had more pressing matters at hand.
The coming days were quite full. An establishment of a new government, one enacted by the people. Adriana knew it would take many iterations, and perhaps fail. But the version they had cobbled together was serviceable for now. The city had to be forged anew, metal filling the breaks in the concrete, a symbol of Daretti's alliance with the people's Paliano. And finally, a taking of a new oath for a citizen who had found her purpose without her knighthood.
"I pledge myself not to the usurper, nor to the throne, nor to the city. I pledge myself to the people."