The four load the pack mules with the firebrass, hardsilver, and a selection of the finest looking masterwork weapons and pieces of armor. They bury the remainder in a hidden cache, and begin the trek back to Zelezka.
Before they reach the city, Mika splits off from the others and slips innocuously through the gates. The other three enter openly. They — Gena in particular — speak as if mourning their fallen comrade, the young witch who was lost in combat against the Ruin’s warband. Once they’ve rented a warehouse, placed their plunder from the Luskrin armory inside with some hired guards, they move to rent a barge with the public intention of taking the spoils upriver.
Anfisa’s reputation precedes her. Not only is she able to get an excellent price on renting a barge, but a pair of sellswords volunteer to help the trollslayer out with her next escapade. The prospect of fighting ogres on the river doesn’t deter Zilya and Kovor at all, who think the idea sounds glorious. Anfisa also finds a refugee from Horograd who has seen one of the ogre attacks firsthand. He is able to describe the area where the attack happened, and the fact that the ogres seemed especially interested in their cargo of rimespinner silk.
Kazimeer drops by Iissa’s houseboat and confers with the Maliokis. Belzec tells him a tale they’ve picked up regarding Grandfather Darkroot. Reputedly the leshy attempted to befriend Fair Mirinka, asking her to groom his beard. He grew offensive, and she injured him; to this day, her scissors are tangled in his beard.
Gena continues to spin the tales of their heroism in Zelezka’s taverns. Mika, disguised, sits at the far end of the common room and discreetly glares at him as the recounting of her heroic final moments becomes more and more grandiose. Then she’s no longer alone. A gambler sits down with her, placing a card on the table before her. He tells her in somewhat cryptic language that she has been invited to the Crooked Tower, seat of Prince Casivir the Betrayer. The invitation is at her convenience, and she’s welcome to bring her friends. She turns over the card as the gambler leaves, and stares at the Knight of Cloaks.
Mika finds the others. They’re surprised to see her genuinely anxious for a change. They all agree to accompany her to her audience, and when they set out, even Kostya comes along.
The Crooked Tower is remarkably nondescript on the exterior for the seat of a Trump. On the inside, the tower is dim and labyrinthine. A servant guides the bogatyrs up a tall set of rickety stairs to the court of the Rogue. A few of the Prince’s courtiers stand about the room — a nervous-looking woman whose arcanist robes are marked with a hare emblem, a bearded warrior with a scar across his bald scalp, a quiet woman in court uniform — but it’s the Prince who speaks.
Casivir offers pleasantries to Mika first. He compares her to an otter that makes few ripples as she swims. He then turns his attention to the others, and displays some knowledge of each of them — Gena’s books, Kazimeer’s connection to Alsvedun the Magnificent, Anfisa’s hunts. The bogatyrs respond politely and cautiously, and before long Casivir cuts to the point. He states he’s aware of the tensions between them and the Iron Tsar. Olek’s delegation is coming for another visit, and Prince Casivir offers them the opportunity to listen in on the audience.
The bogatyrs agree after a bit of consultation. They step to one side of the room, and Casivir’s arcanist draws an invisible curtain across the space. Their view of the courtroom is only slightly blurred as Olek arrives with General Roskoy, Lt. Teskina and Radenza in tow.
Olek addresses Casivir with a deference that stops short of sycophantry — or outright dread. The Traitor Prince responds pleasantly enough, then cuts short the formalities and declares he’d prefer to speak to Olek’s master. Olek seems startled for a moment, then nods. He pulls away the fabric from his neck, revealing a brand across his throat. His head drops back, and the brand pulses once, and then when he returns his gaze to Casivir, his voice has changed.
“Doryevni. Ah, Lord Gorinstal. My apologies.”
The bogatyrs quietly watch as the conversation unfolds. Casivir admits to having deduced that the Donjon card allows the master to speak through the voice of the servant. He then asks Gorinstal to cut to the point and tell him — in his own words — just what he wants. Gorinstal-through-Olek responds that he was hoping for an alliance. He would sweeten the arrangement, of course; if Casivir agrees to wear the Donjon’s brand, then he’ll have all the power of the Rogue card and a portion of the Donjon’s. “I expect you to try removing it,” says the Iron Tsar, “but once you’ve tasted the power, why would you?”
“Just why do you want me to wear your brand?”
“Because I need to trust you. People can’t work with people they can’t trust.”
“Of course they can. That’s why we invented money.” Prince Casivir smirks. “What’s this really about, Doryevni? You must need more allies.”
“Yes. Not all the powers in the land understand my claim. But some are willing to listen.”
“Not the Fool, obviously, or the Void. Or the Ruin…” Casivir paces for a moment. “The Skull.”
“Well, an alliance wouldn’t do us much good with so much space between us. We’re on opposite sides of the nation.”
Olek smiles the smile of the Iron Tsar. “And what if I were in Miska?”
“I doubt that will happen.”
Olek staggers and returns to himself. Casivir thanks him for his promptness, and dismisses the delegation, citing a desire to go to bed. Once the Donjon’s men have departed, the mage draws the curtain back.
“And there you have it,” says Prince Casivir.
The bogatyrs thank Casivir, and depart. They return to the barge and spend some time thinking about the ramifications of what they’ve overheard. Mika proposes a trip to the city of Tyurin once their business on the river is finished — the attention of the Rogue has crystallized a desire to see for herself just what the Throne’s true intentions are.
In the morning, a new distraction presents itself. A halfling merchant introduces herself as a representative of Guildmistress Marcadda Manyrings, the holder of the Gem. She offers to purchase the metal and weapons they took from the Luskrin armory at a fair price. After a bit of discussion they agree to sell most of the hoard, keeping back only the weapons they’d already claimed for personal use and a few bars of hardsilver and firebrass. It takes most of the day to run though the verifications and formalize the sale, but at the end of it all the four are largely relieved to be relieved of the burden and carrying plenty of coin, gems, and letters of credit. By their reckoning, the ogres’ informer Bradak must already have sent word of the shipment heading north. They depart that evening, with Mika on board hidden among the barge’s crew.
They spend the first night on the river, travel another day upstream, and spend the same night roughly as the first. Light sleet falls the following morning. Zilya and Kovor make a point of walking the deck half-naked, to face the elements properly. Mika brews them some of her… special tea as a response.
Thanks to the warning Anfisa received, the group is well-prepared to recognize the most probable location of the attack. They are more than ready when the mist rolls down the river. A massive shape looms quickly out of the fog. The ogres’ craft is nearly three times the size of theirs, lashed and nailed together from the remains of three river barges. A pair of ogres swing huge chain grapnels as the vessel bears down on its prey, and a group of ogrinka stand ready to board.
The bogatyrs launch initial volleys, scoring a few wounds before the ogres with grapnels hook their barge and draw the two craft together. The ogrinka are the first to board as the ogres secure the chains. Behind them, a third ogre, with long root-like tendrils growing from under her skin, advances from her position at the helm.
Blood flows freely during the boarding action. The ogrinka are first to fall, but Mika is badly pummeled by the ogre’s spears, her armor protecting her from being outright impaled. She flees behind Gena as the melee continues. Kovor and Zilya are heavily injured in the process of dropping their foe. The overgrown ogre lashes out with her symbiotic vines, but whatever power she may have gained from the leshy doesn’t protect her.
When the last of the ogres falls, the bogatyrs face their remaining problem: their barge is still chained to the ogres’ vessel, and their crew doesn’t have near the strength to keep the two under control. The barges go twisting down the river.