The trip to Vauntil was uneventful, despite leaving the bodyguards in Rozenport. The custom at the Last Breath is to attend sans entourage, which both precludes attendance by the highest-ranking nobility, and ensures that those who do attend have a reasonable chance at a room instead of being forced to make do in a tent. Having nobles squabbling over rooms like common merchants is hardly the image anyone wishes to present, so reservations are made far in advance, and secured by deposits. This is not a perfect guarantee of accommodation, of course- there is still a bounty on the prankster who forged a cancelation for some Baronet’s reservation three years’ back. The innkeeper ended up offering his own room to the Baronet to honor the reservation, with some unspecified enticement to make up for the inconvenience. The poor fellow ended up spending the festival sleeping in his cold, damp cellar, and there are still rumors- denied, of course- that his wife was the enticement. Nobody has identified the prankster, and it is unknown if the Baronet or the Innkeeper was the intended victim of the prank.
I was not the victim of such shenanigans. Both the room and the stall for my mount were ready as specified, with an armor rack and hot bath waiting. After changing from my riding armor to festival attire, I reported to the judge’s booth to register. This was my first year attending, and my friends in Rozenport had strongly recommended that I act as a judge, heaping overly-exaggerated praise upon my 'refined' tastes and laughing at some private joke. Signing up was uneventful, the orientation boringly mundane. At first I was a bit perplexed at why the committee put so much emphasis on ensuring judges knew the locations of the exhibitors of seafood, and the alchemist’s. Once I left the Judge's tent, it quickly became apparent that Judges were treated differently- upon seeing the amulet, I was all but dragged from booth to booth, and ushered into ‘private sampling tents’ where I could ‘enjoy and focus on the delicacies without distractions’.
Without distractions? Ha! The event is a contest, winning can make someone’s reputation and fortune for years after. Even placing second or third can attract sufficient clients to ensure prosperity. High stakes intensifies the competition, which is conducted at every level. While the same delicacies are served, the booths for attendees are all about serving as many as quickly as possible. In the tents, presentation is raised to an art. Wine is poured slowly, by attractive ladies in low-cut dresses, who invariably turn the pour into a bow. The cheeses, sweets and other delights are served from platters held just so. Choice bits of beast are served, with a running commentary on the creature it came from and how it was prepared, by a buxom lass who spares the judge the tedious effort of making his own selections, picking it up, and putting it in the mouth. All one must do is open the mouth, chew, and swallow, opening the mouth when ready for the next morsel. And always, the offers of more, to be delivered to your room that evening, to freshen one's memory after a busy day.
It was by far the most decadent experience I have ever had. Moving from tent to tent, I eventually came to one serving sugary confections. I was the only judge present, and began to succumb to the abundance of good wine and rich food, closing my eyes for just a moment. I heard my server ask if I wanted to try the next morsel ‘au Taldan’, and she took my ‘hm?’ as an affirmative. After a moment of rustling sounds, I felt her move onto my lap and place her hand on the back of my head. When I opened my eyes, I saw she had placed the next treat in her décolletage, and was pulling my head towards it.
I contemplated resistance, but before words could escape my lips, integrity was smothered in an abundance of soft flesh. My heartbeat quickened, and I experienced a moment of perfect clarity, as the wine I had consumed earlier in the day suddenly ceased to cloud my mind. An epiphany struck, all the oddities I had noticed fell into place like pieces of a puzzle. The reason the registration staff had emphasized the herbalists’ booths and the seafood vendors. Why so many of the exhibitors have private tents for the judges. The profits to be made by the winners. The offers of additional samples in the evening. Why the organizers can charge such an absurd amount of gold to serve as judge. Unfortunately, this moment of insight into the economic workings of Ustalav was derailed as the blood flow to the brain dropped below the level required for deep analysis. What was left was the Nobility’s cosmopolitan tradition of respecting local custom, and one point of intense physical discomfort. At least, that’s how I think of it now, after twenty hours on horseback chasing goblins through a forest. Truth be told, starting the day sampling the wines had been a mistake, even if I had managed to secure two casks of the Prince’s favorite. In that moment, all that mattered was that she was beautiful, in my lap, and clearly willing to satisfy my need. Perhaps she expected a quid pro quo, but nothing was said. Lust took advantage of the distraction to ambush my conscience, and discreetly disposed of the remains. If anyone outside the tent suspected the moans of delight were due to anything other than the sweets, they kept it to themselves.
After exiting the tent, I looked at the festival with newly-opened eyes, and resolved to make the most of this unexpected opportunity, with the ambition and vigor of a 20 year old… and perhaps a bit extra. Spotting an Alchemists’ stand, I walked over, and requested a sample. The vendor, a Dwarf who was clearly not new to the festival, saw my judges’ amulet and promptly handed over a vial of light blue fluid, beginning a spiel about how it was the strongest formula he could responsibly sell to humans, “…guaranteed to ward off all forms of exhaustion, weakness, and fatigue for a day and a night”, with a wink. I popped the cork and took the dose in one gulp, disregarding the strong taste and slimy texture.
“If it lives up to that claim, you’ll have my vote in the morning”.
“I assure you, m’Lord, you will not be disappointed.”
Our eyes met, and we both smiled, understanding each other perfectly.
The next stop on the itinerary was the latrine- it would be at least a few minutes before the elixir took effect, and it was time to make room for more wine. Returning to the festivities via an alleyway, I heard a commotion ahead- shouts, sounds of alarm, some screams- a pack of goblins had snuck onto the grounds and were attacking attendees! One came around the corner and began to accost a lady, with whom I was unacquainted, but she was clearly noble, and defenseless. Drawing my rapier- and wishing mightily that I had a more substantial blade- I leapt to her defense, running the goblin through with a single blow. It fell to the ground, the lady made appreciative noises, but I was too busy evaluating the scene of the battle to attend to her words. To my left, three goblins were rampaging through the stalls, more concerned with creating chaos and stuffing their faces with snatched delicacies than causing harm. Directly ahead, another pair were engaged in a struggle with a large, misshapen fellow- possibly a caliban. He appeared more than capable of handling himself. Beyond him, some goblins were tormenting an unfortunate dog. To my right, things were more serious, a half-dozen goblins, led by one that was almost man-sized, were engaged in melee with two of the Vauntil guard and a half-elf- possibly a mercenary, he was in armor, but not wearing guard insignia. Behind them, more goblins were attempting to ignite a fire. This appeared to be the main body of the enemy. I swept to the right, joining the guards and running through another goblin, hoping my sudden arrival and decisive strike would help overwhelm the goblins and allow us to take the offense.
The guards were rather less proficient than I had hoped, wasting the opportunity. The goblins were more competent, recognized the danger, and immediately reinforced, including one who leapt from the second story of the in to attack me. The attack came from an unexpected direction, and wounded me, at a cost- he broke his own leg in a bad landing. The half-elf was doing the work of four, holding off several goblins single-handed, forcing them to face him instead of lighting the fire. The festival attendees who could fled the melee, and the goblins shifted focus to those who remained. After a few more swings, the half-elf landed a telling blow on the man-sized goblin, which seemed to have broken their morale. Without fear of the largest to keep them in the fight, they snatched up whatever was near and fled, leaving their dead and wounded.
The next several minutes were spent helping the wounded and assessing losses. While there were many wounded, remarkably few were dead. The tactics the goblins had used suggested that their goal was something other than murder. If they had wanted to just kill people, quietly ambushing drunks at the latrines or inside the tents could have gone on for some time before anyone noticed. As I discussed this with the guard Captain, a runner came, shouting about a wagon full of people being driven by goblins, departing from the north.