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A Perfectly Unremarkable Dinner (Sunrise, Luther)

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Luther sighs and leans back in his seat on the sofa. Draining his glass, he nods towards the little silver bell used to summon the staff. "May I have more wine please?"

His timing couldn't be better; at Sunrise's summons, the servants sweep in with more wine as well as the second main course: a spicy lamb stew that pleasantly burns the very tips of her lips. The head server gives her a worried glance, but once reassured that she doesn't need 'rescuing' they leave again, promising to serve dessert whenever the two are ready.

"What I am about to tell you is not common knowledge," Luther says, rolling his eyes. "But I do not feel compelled to keep secrets for the temple of Yondalla. Rik Templeborn is not an ordinary paladin. He has a rare talent which allows him to serve as a conduit for the fertility goddess. She can implant a willing womb with a made-to-order baby. That is how Laerdya conceived Gwyn, and it is how Gwyn is Rik's 'daughter' without having a trace of orc in her. She was divinely created in the image of the human man whose baby Laerdya wanted to bear--the same mix of human and elf that Gwyn would have been if Laerdya had conceived her naturally."

He takes another drink, ignoring his stew for the moment. "Thorn sought help from the Yondallans because he wanted to conceive a child. They ended up convincing him to leave the Redfangs, and Rik impregnated him--or so he believes. However, the ritual was not followed and none of the usual ceremony--a process which includes witnesses and consent forms kept in secret by the temple in case of legal trouble down the line--took place. To be blunt: Rik fucked Thorn rather than ritually knocking him up under the supervision of the Yondallan priestesses. Eight months down the road, twins popped out."

"Legally speaking, the children are Rik Templeborn's progeny because he signed a paper stating as much and the mother signed in consent. From the standpoint of the law, that is fatherhood and it is unassailable. Custody, however, is another matter. Any sperm donor can knock up a womb; not everyone is qualified to be a custodial parent. Here is where Betreygis enters the picture."

He holds up a hand. "One. He is still married to Thorn, and Thorn has not taken legal steps to dissolve the marriage. He can't take such steps until he is safely in the care of, oh, say, the Captain of the Guard or the Commissioner of Feytower; it would be suicide. The law does not care about that, just that steps have not been taken. Two. An eight-month pregnancy looks suspicious. It is not unheard of for mothers to sign new boyfriends as the 'father' to their children when they are not biologically related. While Thorn is alive the document is unassailable, but if he were to die or disappear Betreygis could argue in court that he is the real father and that Thorn signed out of pressure, malice, unstable mind, or any number of things rendering his signature invalid. Without the witness and testimony of the Yondallan high priestesses to the 'miracle' of conception, Rik is just another man. His paladin rank becomes immaterial to the case."

Sighing, he lifts his glass again. "Four. One of the twins bears a birthmark which is undeniably the holy symbol of Olidammara's mask. As one of his clergy, Betreygis will desire custody of the child for that reason alone--and a court may well listen to him on the basis of that mark of divine favor. In short: If Thorn were to die or disappear, Betreygis would have an excellent shot at those children. He has a strong case for not only custodial preference but for adjustment to fatherhood status. And he undoubtedly wants them both; they are heirs to the council seat he's gone to so much trouble to reserve for himself."
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She covers her face with both hands and stays like that for a long time.

Finally she sighs, leans back, and drops her hands. "So. In order to rescue the girl from the bloodthirsty pirate, we also have to rescue the boy - and the babies - from the bloodthirsty priest. Excellent. Let me ask you, then: short of Betreygis meeting with an unfortunate accident, what would have to happen for Thorn and the babies to be safe from him long-term? What can he do to make it no longer worthwhile for the Redfangs to come after them?"
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[DM OOC: This is one of those posts where I have to stress that the NPCs are not the DM. They don't know the same things the DM knows, and their own prejudices and traumas inform their opinions. Luther is not meant to be read as "correct", though he is being truthful from his point of view. Part of the challenges of this game include NPCs being wrong.]

---

[TW: Abuse, Rape, Misgendering, please be very careful reading this post.]

"Oh, look: you're experiencing the same lovely emotional state I was enjoying several candlemarks ago when no one would ask for my help to protect a boy I knew to be in danger but couldn't say so without betraying the trust of my friend Quivyll," he deadpans at her evident frustration, reaching at last for his stew. He takes several bites and even more deep breaths, composing himself.

"Before I answer your question, here is one of mine," he says, his expression darkening. "You point out that Rik doesn't trust me because I am a stranger to him. Let me point out the obvious corollary: you have no reason to trust him, as he is a stranger to you."

"Let me tell you what I know of Rik Templeborn: he slept with an abused, lonely, emotionally vulnerable boy half his age--Thorn is eighteen while Rik is thirty-six--and knowingly and willfully impregnated him in the midst of a dangerous flight from a rich and politically powerful crime lord. He then spent eleven months isolating Thorn in every possible way, including trying his best to drive away my friend in fits of angry jealousy. Yet despite wanting exclusive sexual and romantic access to this traumatized child, he has made no offer of marriage and Thorn did not know until the day of his delivery whether Rik would even sign the fatherhood papers and rescue the boy's children from deeper association with the dangerous Redfang family. He may, in fact, have only agreed to sign the papers because Quivyll offered to do so if he would not."

Luther's cheeks are flush with anger, a rose blush that barely rises to the surface of his wan complexion. "Then, when placed in a situation where one of the most powerful men in the city states a desperate desire to find and protect Thorn in order to save another eighteen year old child--his own daughter!--and knowing that the Redfangs are tightening the net and are responsible for his own recent murder, he stands by and says... nothing. He is so committed to keeping Thorn locked away that he doesn't leap at the chance to have a connected politician protect her, and in doing so he damns his own daughter to gods know how many more weeks of rape and torture."

His hand is so tight on his wine glass Sunrise can fancy she feels the glass straining to break. "So. In your professional opinion as a blossoming politician, madam, do I consider this man a fool or shall I assume he is yet another abuser trying to keep Thorn isolated and dependent upon him? Does he, do you imagine, have any plan for keeping her safe other than locking her in a dark room for the rest of her life and visiting his captive whenever he wants to treat himself to her smile?"

[OOC: Send me another Insight role.]
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(OOC: 16 - it's no nat 20, but it's not shabby)
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[OOC: I would have felt bad wasting a natural 20. Not my biggest reveal, seeing as how I warned for it in the content note, but at the end where he misgenders Thorn? That is the first time he's come even close to doing that--almost like he's thinking about someone other than Thorn at that point in his rant, rather than just about Thorn himself. He sees some kind of parallel between Thorn's situation and someone else's.

He is also very clearly telling the truth as he sees it, and his anger is genuine rather than one of his acts. He is not deliberately being insulting towards Sunrise, though I realize in retrospect that 'blossoming politician' could be taken as a needle. He is speaking to her the way he imagines Veshti would: as a respected student of a field they are both passionate in.]
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Reaching out, she very, very gently takes the glass from his grasp and sets it down before he can crack it, then takes his hand again and pitches her voice low and soothing. "In my professional opinion? A fool, perhaps, but one driven by genuine fear. He was murdered, and the person who murdered him is likely after Thorn and the babies. I'm not surprised that he's being irrational." She hesitates. "And there's no gentle way to say this, but you have built yourself a reputation." She gives him a small smile. "If you'd asked me yesterday to trust you with the life of a loved one I was desperate to protect, I... well, I probably wouldn't have actually laughed in your face, but I would have thought about it."

She sighs. "We made plans to meet in two days time. I set the time so that we could each have time to think, to start exploring how our particular strengths and contacts can be used, and to lay the groundwork for that... and, yes, so that Rik Templeborn can have a chance to think through the situation without a room full of strangers demanding an immediate answer. I plan to broach the question again when we meet. Especially given what you've told me today, I believe I can bring him around. If not..." She shakes her head. "Well, we'll see. But can we try it that way first?"
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He's puzzled when she takes the glass away, not realizing for a moment how close he came to breaking it. Listening to her gentle voice, a good deal of the tension in his shoulders seems to drain away; muscles in his arms relax from the taut stretched bowstrings they'd been before.

Closing his eyes, he nods. "That is why I stressed Captain Callahan over myself as a protector," he admits with a quiet sigh. "And, well. What's two more days at this point?" he agrees, his tone laced with grim sorrow. "I'm sorry. This has been going on for awhile for me. I forget you only learned about Gwyn's kidnapping this morning."

Opening his eyes, he turns a worried gaze on her. "When I said Quivyll and Thorn are missing, I meant it. He hasn't reported to me since Rik was killed. I do not know if he's cut me off as part of their deep cover, or if he's been captured or killed as Rik was. Believe me, if he was still in contact with me and I knew where the boy was hiding, I wouldn't wait for Templeborn's permission to move." His brow contracts to a frown. "I should've stepped in before his death, but Quivyll was terrified I would scare the boy. One more child I've failed by moving too cautiously."

His expression sours but he shakes the self-pity and recrimination away as useless right now. "You asked how to protect Thorn from Treygis?" he says, trying to pick up the conversational thread he so roughly tossed aside.
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"Yes," she says firmly. "At what point does Treygis give it up as a lost cause, how do we get to that point, and what do we do if Treygis decides to send a hitman anyway out of sheer pique? I agree that Thorn shouldn't have to live in hiding, but I'll admit I'm having a hard time seeing an alternative."
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Luther gives her an odd side-long glance, faintly surprised to have to state the obvious. "Hiding is actually the most dangerous thing he can do, long-term," he points out calmly. "The longer he stays underground, the easier it is to quietly kill him and rewrite history regarding those infants. He needs to come out. Publicly, using the security and support men like myself can provide. Divorce Treygis, affirm clearly and without pressure Rik's fatherhood, and set up a custodial plan which absolutely and completely cuts the Redfangs out of the babies' lives."

"He'll likely have to reconcile with his father at least publicly," he admits. "Never trust him again, of course; never allow him a speck of power over him. But the more he has the support of the powerful movers and shakers in the city, the more dangerous it would be for the Redfangs to attack him. As it is now, he's powerless and defenseless, and it will never more be in the Redfangs' best interest to kill him than it is right now while his children are claimable."
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Sunrise sips her wine slowly, considering this and weighing her words. "I agree that right now it is in Treygis's interest to move against him, and that it would be less so if he went public as you say," she says slowly, frowning. "But the advantage of hiding is that you are hidden. You can't kill what you can't find. And if you, Commissioner, haven't been able to find them, they must be well-hidden indeed."

Her frown deepens. "Crime families like the Redfangs are rarely forgiving. By leaving without permission, 'humiliating' Treygis, and 'stealing' children Treygis wants to claim as his own, they'll see him as having wronged them. Killing him is always going to be in their best interest whether it materially benefits Treygis or not, if only to send a message to anyone else who might think they could do the same. You talk about providing security and support, but are you planning to supply the boy with bodyguards for life?"
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"You consider the fact that I can't find them to mean they are 'well-hidden'?" he asks, raising an amused eyebrow. "You who just offered to laugh in my face rather than accept my offer to protect your loved ones? And in the face of my demonstrable inability to find Gwyn for weeks on end because slum children don't snitch to officials in uniform? Interesting."

Reaching for his wine, he shakes his head. "The Redfangs are daring, but they are not stupid. At least until this kidnapping--which I still cannot explain to my own satisfaction--they have built their power with care and forethought. Rapidly, yes, but rapidity with a focused purpose. Killing a councilman out of pique would not benefit them and would bring down the arm of the city guard on them. Treygis is a domestic tyrant, but I do not believe him to be a self-destructive fool."

Studying Sunrise, he adds in a quieter voice: "Outside of renouncing his seat and fleeing to somewhere like Jewelness, Thorn will never be 'safe' in the manner you desire. But his choices right now are to hide in a slum hole and pray his children don't cry too loudly for the neighbors to notice and that whoever is bringing him food doesn't sell him out for a king's fortune. Or he can live in a palatial estate in the Sun District surrounded by magical wards, professional guards, and all the comforts power and money can provide."

"This isn't a choice between Thorn being safe versus him taking a risk and facing Treygis. This is a choice between whether Thorn faces Treygis with money, political power, allies, and magical aid on his side versus facing him alone, poor, and powerless. Make no mistake: it is only a matter of time before someone sells him out or Treygis' soldiers find him by process of elimination. Brilight is big, but it is not infinite."
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She considers all of this, her frown deepening. "You're right," she admits with a sigh. "I don't like it, but you're right. Do we know that Immeral will reconcile with him?"
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Luther's expression, which had been almost gentle, now shifts into a blank mask completely devoid of any emotion whatsoever: a perfect card-shark's face. "He will," he says with perfect assurance. "Leave that to me."
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The corners of her eyes crinkle at the change in his expression. "Good enough for me."

Her posture shifts. "What do we know about Immeral? Other than that he's reclusive? Is it possible he's providing money or resources to the Redfangs for the kidnapping, or do you think he's ignorant of it?"
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Leaning back in his seat, his expression turns thoughtful. "He's not in my social circle," he admits in a dry tone, "so most of what I know is from passing interaction with him as a councilmember and the research I've conducted since Gwyn's disappearance. I know he was the second of two sons and went into soldiering rather than politics--not the worst move, since 'spares' for the ancestral seats are rarely given positions of power or influence since they might have to take a council seat at any time and would leave an unexpected vacancy in their old position."

"He joined the Brilight army but transferred to Jewelness to chase an elven girl who had sailed down to Brilight for a visit and caught his eye. Arden Vyshan is her name; by all accounts a meek and mild heiress. Immeral's marriage to her assured his fortune. He could have retired from the army, but interestingly did not. When Jewelness mobilized against the Carcarel orcs on the border, he went with them and dragged his poor wife along. I can't imagine she enjoyed the journey."

"In the border skirmishes, he made a name for himself as a fierce fighter. I was able to dig up that he was assigned to an elite strike team; the assignment appears to have been based on merit, not name. Several files regarding their work were unavailable, which suggests something either secret or very bad. Or both. After the treaty was ratified, he and his wife returned to Brilight just in time for her to produce an orcish child. Immeral named the infant Xiloscient instead of Vyshan, effectively alienating the appalled local political elven community."

"The child was named 'Ellwythorn', which roughly translates to 'dark elf woman'. The darkness in question is of a moral character, not coloration." Luther presses his lips together. "The only thing I can think is that he was asserting her elven bloodline while acknowledging the 'taint' of her orcish features and ancestry. It is not, however, a name I would burden a child with."

"Shortly after the child was born, his brother died in a street duel. Despite being illegal, the authorities turn a winking eye at such affairs, largely because they are not usually lethal. His father died soon after, presumably of grief; older elves mourn hard." A shadow crosses his face; frustration and exasperation mingled with sorrow. "As you've seen with Laerdya. The seat passed to Immeral and he began an entirely run-of-the-mill political career. He isn't the best, he isn't the worst, and he doesn't stand out. Doesn't talk in council meetings, votes with the majority and in favor of the elves, goes home after without mingling."

He shakes his head and reaches for his wine. "The picture I have of him is contradictory. He is placid in council, but a vicious killer on the battlefield. He is selfish enough to woo an heiress for her money and drag her on campaign like a common camp follower, but besotted enough to pretend to be the father of her byblow. He remained in the army when he didn't need to, went on a grueling campaign, and accepted dangerous special assignments: he is either fanatically patriotic or he hates orcs and enjoys killing them. Yet he raises an orc's child as his own and arranges a marriage to an orcish family. Was all that out of love for Arden? If so, he is a hopeless romantic. Yet that is not my read on him, from the few interactions we have had."

"That is what I know. We now enter the realm of speculation. Unless you have any questions so far?"
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"Only about a million," she sighs. She sits back now, having leaned forward while listening to this tale with avid interest. "Probably all the same ones you have." She gives him a look full of gallows humor. "I'm calling it now, and you're my witness: if Immeral or Arden turn out to secretly be orcs in disguise, you heard it here first."

She frowns then, considering things. "Those secret files. Who would have access to them?"
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"The original files are in Jewelness, of course," he says as he returns his attention to his stew, apparently understanding this to be obvious. "The fact that reproductions were not sent here means something in them is being covered up by the crown: something that would make the crown look bad, or which might reignite tensions along the border. I don't believe the files were later redacted; I think our records library never received them at all. That's a dead end, I'm afraid."

He pauses, savoring a chunk of lamb and looking thoughtful. "Though, it's just possible Immeral might have a copy."
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She tilts her head. "Which brings me to my original thought regarding Immeral: how does one arrange a visit with someone who is notoriously reclusive? I was thinking along the lines of having Veshti help me arrange either a meeting or a private performance in his home - and then find or make an opportunity to explore - but now it looks like that's less likely."

She shakes her head then and sighs. "Of course, that assumes that his secrets, whatever they are, are relevant to getting Gwyn back. His connection to the Redfangs make me think it's worth pursuing, but we don't have unlimited time to waste. I may be barking up the wrong tree."
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"Now we come back to the realm of speculation," he observes with mild amusement. "I do not know whether he's involved in the kidnapping or not. My gut feeling is he's not a direct player? I simply cannot see any way Gwyn's disappearance would help him, and the risk is phenomenal: if he were found out, he could lose his seat, his freedom, and his life."

He sighs. "But, then, that is logical and nothing about this situation has been so. There is something between him and the Redfangs, above and beyond the arranged marriage. He sends his servants to buy from Redfang shops exclusively, and my agents tell me he's paying an extra markup that other customers aren't. He's funneling money to them--not a lot, but not coppers--and I can't work out why. When his son was living with them it made sense to support the family, but why now? They're his allies, yes, but they need him more than he needs them. Yet he acts like the submissive in their relationship, not the dominant."

Leaning back, he eyes Sunrise with fresh appraisal. "Veshti is involved with the elven political scene," he muses. "A private performance wouldn't interest him... unless she used it to bring in a few plum supporters for him to woo..." A slow grin spreads over his face. "She's quite the kitten with claws when she wants to be, you know. She'll stick him with the bill for drinks and dinner, and convince him to host the venue, and he'll beg her for the privilege. All she provides is the singer." He tilts his head with a smile. "And she'll be there with her wards, including a pretty little half-elf who couldn't be trusted to stay out of Laerdya's drawers this afternoon."
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"That wasn't her fault, by the way." She shakes her head. "You weren't mad so I didn't say anything, but I put her up to it."

She considers this. "And if Veshti's willing to do the political wrangling, then even if it's a bust it's only one evening wasted from the investigation. That's not a bad investment."
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"I was not mad," he agrees, shaking his head at the memory. "I confess to being astonished at her vehemence. I really had thought it was obvious when we hired a thief for this job that we expected her to, well, thieve. Please convey again that I have absolutely no interest in murdering a valuable resource?"

He nods at her assessment of the time investiture. "I imagine it will take Veshti a few days to arrange, but I think there is value in trying. If he is involved in all this, it would be valuable to procure evidence for the trials which will need to be arranged once Gwyn is found."

His lips twitch in amusement. "Although, depending on the evidence and the level of involvement, blackmailing him into stepping down from his seat in favor of Thorn might be easier on everyone and in the better interests of the city."
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She smiles. "There's a certain elegance to it. And it's even possible that he could be pressured to reveal information about Gwyn."
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"That is a thing I am very much in favor of," Luther agrees, nodding grimly.

"Well," he says briskly after another sip of wine. "Am I staying for dessert or have you enough of me for one night, madam?"
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"Neither," she says with a smile. "I find I'm enjoying your company a great deal, but I do have another engagement with other members of our little cabal tonight, and I'm going to need to change into something less... white."
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He snorts at this and stands with elegant grace, offering her a low courtly bow which seems somehow older than he is--probably he came from a family which emphasized the 'old ways' as the best ways.

He's turning to go when he pauses and turns back to her with a concerned expression. "I do have to ask you, ah. The gnome in your group, the one with the strange familiar? Is she... well? Mentally, I mean?" His expression turns embarrassed. "Laerdya was crying about muffins and yelling and people shouting--I didn't really understand it all--and then, well. Not... many people ask me where babies come from. So I thought I would check. I don't want an innocent to be hurt, not even for Gywn's sake."
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