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The talent assembled was carefully selected for dungeoneering, but in this day and age, actually getting into the dungeon required much more mundane gifts: money and influence. And so the four of them stood carefully out of earshot, as their employer had emphatically instructed, watching Lord Rhadid speak privately with the Imperial soldiers who had just instructed them all to clear off.
Though after the first five minutes, only Owl was still paying attention to his Lordship. Tamara had begun pacing restlessly in the road, and Eric was gazing enraptured at the shape of Manor Dire rising from among the pine trees up ahead. Admestus had begun mimicking each of his companions in turn to pass the time; Owl had ignored him and Tamara had just taken a swing at his head, so now he stood alongside the dwarf, in the same posture, staring at the manor house.
It might have been the home of any rich noble, these days, though for the era in which it was built the lack of any fortifications was unusual. With the pines blanketing its grounds the full spread of the manor itself was hard to discern from this angle, though it was clearly huge. Gabled roofs poked up here and there between the trees, spreading in both directions from the high peak of the central hall, with turrets and towers rising even higher in places. The tallest had a sizable telescope protruding from its domed roof, which would be a rare feature now and had surely been an amazing extravagance when it was installed. The manor itself was perfectly preserved, of course; to look at, it might have been built this year. Only the military presence suggested at a glance that it was more than some aristocrat’s country house.
In addition to the roadblock before the gates, the Army had improvised a barracks in the manor’s old stables, from which the Imperial banner now flew. The road ascended the hill to the house proper, so that even from beyond the gates, most of the manor’s shape was visible above the outer walls and the staff-wielding Imperial soldiers holding the open gateway.
Admestus snuck a sidelong glance down at Eric. The dwarf was so caught up staring at Manor Dire that he had actually dropped his precious satchel.
“Hey,” the half-elf said, nudging Eric’s shoulder with his elbow. “Are we there yet?”
The dwarf turned slowly, blinking in befuddlement, to stare up at Admestus with an expression of disbelief.
“Just ignore him,” Owl advised without shifting his attention from the conversation taking place at the gates. The officer apparently in charge was talking with Lord Rhadid, while the rest watched their group with weapons at the ready. “If you give him attention once he’ll just keep hounding you for it.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” Admestus protested, wagging a chiding finger at Owl. “You can’t go giving away my professional secrets, old man! It’s simply not done. There are codes to be observed, don’t you know?”
Taking his own advice, the thief ignored him, keeping his eyes on their patron.
At that moment, Lord Rhadid shook the officer’s hand, looked back down the road at them, and jerked his head once in the direction of the manor. Then he turned his back and strode through the gates toward the house without waiting for them.
“We’re up, Tam,” said Owl, setting off.
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped automatically, ceasing her pacing and coming after them. Eric and Admestus were already on the way, leaving the mercenary to bring up the rear.
The soldiers gave them no problems; the officer was lounging against the gates with his arms folded, while his troops watched the adventurers pass but said nothing. They kept their weapons in hand and most of them stared particularly at Tamara, who was clad in leather armor and carrying enough obvious weapons to strongly suggest some of her bulging belt pouches contained less obvious ones. With a fully laden wandbelt holding two holstered sidearms at her hips and a heavier-duty shieldbreaker wand at the small of her back, plus a battlestaff and greatsword slung across her back from a bandolier filled with extra power crystals and no less than six visible defensive charms pinned to her hardened leather vest, she looked like she might have been able to break their four-person blockade of the gate by sheer force.
“Best of luck in there, kids,” the officer said sardonically.
Admestus halted, turning to the man and waggling his eyebrows. “Give us a kiss for luck?”
The man’s expression didn’t alter until he actually pursed his lips and started making smooching noises. Before anything could ensue from that, Tamara grabbed him by the collar and hauled him bodily up the path.
Lord Rhadid had at least stopped short of entering the Manor without them, and stood before the doors, atop the short flight of steps leading there. As they drew up to the base of the stairs, he turned from inspecting the great double doors to face them, prompting the group to stop. With the exception of Admestus, who added an extra swagger as he placed his foot on the bottom step, prompting Tamara to grab his collar again. For the moment, then, they paused there, giving the nobleman his impromptu dais from which to look down on them. Noblemen, as they all knew, lived for stuff like that.
Rhadid Daraspian was a tall man with the athletic build and sun-darkened complexion of one who liked outdoor sports; though short of middle age, he was already balding, but in a way which gave him a sharp widow’s peak that, if anything, augmented his aquiline features to their advantage.
“Now that we are here,” he stated, “you will all listen once again to a lecture you have already heard. You will do so patiently and attentively. This will be our last chance to review these facts, and they are of paramount importance; if any one of you fails to respect the realities of our situation, it is entirely possible that we will all die—and worse, the years of effort I have devoted toward the arranging of this expedition will have been squandered. Professor Ahlstrom, if you would, please repeat to our fellows the base instructions you have given us for survival and success in Manor Dire.”
Eric cleared his throat and shuffled his feet uncertainly. When Lord Rhadid made no move to yield the position atop the steps, the dwarf contented himself with climbing up onto the first stair and turning to face the rest of them.
“Well, then! As, ah, I’m sure you recall, Manor Dire is the youngest of the great dungeons, having existed for scarcely five hundred years. Many of them date from the time of the Elder Gods at least, but this… Well, it was the home and seat of power of Archmage Direstaan, who is thought to have been the ancestor of House Daraspian.” He turned toward Lord Rhadid and sketched an awkward little bow before continuing. “Basically, it should be treated as the home and demesne of an exceptionally powerful wizard, even in his absence. The house itself has a clear intelligence and a certain…distinctive approach to its treatment of guests. As we explore the Manor, we will be repeatedly tested as it figures out our intentions and capacities. It is of paramount importance that we remain guests of Manor Dire.” Eric paused to clear his throat. “If it begins to view us as invaders, things will go very badly for us, very quickly. So, conduct yourself as you would in the home of any powerful person who you must assume will be aware of anything you do. Don’t damage anything. Don’t steal anything. Even picking up a loose penny could land us in seriously hot water.”
The entire group turned to look at Owl. He didn’t even acknowledge them, the thief simply regarding Eric with a patient expression as he waited for the lecture to continue.
“What we’re looking for is…well, somewhere deep in the house,” Eric continued. “Like all dungeons, Manor Dire contains considerable wealth as well as great danger, but this one is not so easily looted. As I was just saying, anyone who begins picking up treasure in here will be quickly brought to grief. The physical layout of the Manor is malleable as water; we’ll go where it wants us to go. Our goal must be to gain its respect and regard so that it allows us into the innermost regions where the important artifacts are held, and deems us worthy to…” He trailed off, glancing up at Lord Rhadid, who continued to watch them impassively. “To make use of them. Any questions?”
“Yeah.” Tamara made a languid gesture that was only vaguely reminiscent of a student raising her hand in class. “What’s the point of going for the treasure in the deep rooms if we can’t bring it back out with us?”
“The real treasure of Manor Dire is in the use of its facilities, not their extraction,” Eric replied, his voice growing more animated as he warmed to his favorite subject. “Remember, this was the personal citadel of one of the greatest archmages who ever lived. The library in this house is one of the finest in the world. Magnan himself studied here, in Direstaan’s enchanting lab. Likewise the alchemy lab is—” He broke off, glancing once more up at their patron, then changed tracks. “And there’s the observatory! You can see the telescope from the main room, but so far no one who has ventured into the Manor has been granted access to it. That’s arguably the most precious resource within! Direstaan was a pioneer of astroscrying; they say that with the equipment in there, one can count the rings of Drusera and view the moons of Bastila as clearly as modern telescopes can see our own!”
“If nobody’s ever gotten that far,” Admestus asked innocently, “who is this they who says that, and how do you know they aren’t full of it?”
“The observatory is not the goal of this expedition,” Lord Rhadid interjected before Eric had to find an answer. “Are there any other questions? If any of you has a pressing concern you felt uncomfortable raising previously, I encourage you to get it out of your system now, before we are within and subject to the temptation to poke at anything.”
“I’m curious about the composition of this team, m’Lord,” Owl said. “I’m a specialist in traps and locks, Ms. Farahd here is a fighter—those are obvious. I even get the librarian, since he’s such an expert on the house.”
“Archaeologist,” Eric corrected stiffly. “And it is not arrogance to state that I am the foremost expert on Manor Dire among modern academia. I have made it the focus of my entire career!”
“Bet that makes you a blast at parties,” Owl remarked, still deadpan. “Point is, I get why he’s along. But what the hell is with this guy?” He pointed at Admestus without bothering to look in his direction.
“No one is with Rafe,” the half-elf intoned solemnly, spreading his hands in a gesture of benediction. “Rafe…is with you all.”
Tamara drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly through her teeth.
“Thanks to the Professor’s little lapse, there,” Owl continued, “it’s clear enough our goal is the alchemy lab. But seriously. With all due respect, m’Lord, this group is about two-fifths having any business in a dungeon. We’ve got one fussy academic who doesn’t look like he’s ever been outside before, and the kind of clown who’s likely to get killed in a moderately rough bar, let alone one of the great dungeons. And again, m’Lord, I mean no insult, and I’m sure you’ve been taught to use those weapons, but…well, you know.”
Rhadid indeed had both a golden-hilted rapier and a wand hanging from his belt, and the sword at least he carried with the effortless balance of someone for whom the weapon was an extension of himself. The belt, though, encircled a Punaji-style greatcoat that was perfectly tailored to him, its velvet obviously brushed just that morning, and had thread-of-gold embroidery climbing its lapels and halfway up the sleeves. He did not look like someone who belonged on a dungeon dive.
“I take no insult,” Lord Rhadid said mildly. “Would it assuage your concerns, Owl, to know that I am a veteran of expeditions into Venomfont, the Tomb of Sypraxis, and the Screaming Gardens?”
Owl actually blinked three times in rapid succession, the first sign of surprise or discomfiture he had betrayed since joining the group. “Actually, my lord, it does.”
Rhadid nodded curtly. “I understand your concern. With no insult meant to you, let me be clear: Professor Ahlstrom, Admestus, and myself are essential for this expedition. You two are along as insurance, and for the sake of thoroughness. You will be well-paid when our mission is completed—but you will be paid by me, when we return to Tehvaad. There are no looting rights associated with this excursion, and as you have repeatedly been told, succumbing to the temptation will likely doom us all. Is that understood?”
He arched one eyebrow, staring superciliously down at them until everyone verbally acknowledged the instruction.
“Actually, my lord, I have a question,” Eric said meekly. “That bit with the soldiers… Are you sure our presence here is perfectly legal? I realize that Manor Dire is within your House’s traditional holdings, but it’s also within the Tiraan Empire, of course, and…”
“You should be more aware of the legal gray areas surrounding the great dungeons than most, Professor,” Rhadid answered. “The Imperial Army does not want people entering Manor Dire, but it is not illegal for civilians to do so. Between those two facts is a narrow space of leeway which most people wisely hesitate to navigate, but I assure you that the privilege of rank applies so long as you are with me. Possession is, as they say, nine-tenths of the law.”
“Anyway,” Owl added unexpectedly, “the Empire treats the great dungeons more like frontiers than real estate. Theasia’s too clever to claim sovereignty over a piece of territory troops can’t actually hold. They’ll try to stop you going in, but once you’re in, on your head be it.”
“Ah, very good,” Eric said, smiling. “That’s reassuring.”
“Are you entirely sure that word means what you think it means?” Admestus asked.
“Any other questions?” Rhadid inquired pointedly. “This will be your last chance to ask them in safety.”
They glanced at each other in silence. Admestus picked his nose.
“Then we begin,” Lord Rhadid declared. He turned, grasped the door handles with both hands, and pulled the great double doors wide in a grandiose gesture, then immediately strode into Manor Dire without waiting for them.
Inside, the great entry hall continued to be downright humble as dungeons went. Again, it would have served well to show off the wealth of such a home’s owner, though the interior betrayed its age more than the facade. The great hall was very much a relic of the tastes of five centuries prior, all spare stonework and great exposed beams, with only banners, weapons, and hunting trophies as decorations. The light came from torches rather than modern fairy lamps, or even older oil lamps, creating a flickering dimness that cast deep shadows. In fact, it rather resembled a Shaathist lodge.
It was also not unoccupied.
Directly opposite the entry, the hall ended in an enormous hearth, with seats drawn up to it and a plush bearskin rug draped on the floor in front—white, a rare example of the the now-extinct Kharsa bear, which itself would be worth more than a satchel of jewelry. Stairs rose from either side of the broad fireplace to a landing which was hidden behind the wide stone chimney, but there was a comfortable space in front of the roaring blaze. Sitting there, upon the bear rug, were four gnomes.
As one, they rose to their feet, staring down the length of the great hall at the new arrivals.
Rhadid stopped just inside the doors, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, while the rest of his group trickled in behind him and fanned out to either side, peering around at the sparse furnishings and the unexpected fellow adventurers ahead.
Admestus edged to the side of the group, turning his head back and forth to peer up and down the hall while the two groups stared at each other. After the awkwardness began to stretch out, he cleared his throat and flung out one arm to gesture broadly at everything in the most dramatic fashion possible.
Everyone turned to stare at him.
“Well, right back atcha,” said one of the gnomes, swaggering forward. “You duckies don’t look Imperial, if y’don’t mind me sayin’.”
“Were you expecting an Imperial presence?” Lord Rhadid asked blandly.
“Oh, there’s already an Imperial presence,” she replied, winking. “Least one team workin’ through the Manor as we speak. It’s more we weren’t expectin’ anybody else to make it in here. They’ve mostly given up tryin’ ta stop us from comin’ in, but y’don’t often see the common run of adventurers in a dungeon where they’ve set up shop ’round the entrance.”
“I beg your pardon,” Admestus gasped. “Common run? How very dare—”
“Rafe,” Rhadid interrupted, “shut up.”
“Yes, sir, m’lord, sir. Shutting up, sir, by your will.”
“For my part,” Lord Rhadid continued, inclining his head slightly toward the gnomes, “I’ve no intention of interfering in whatever business you have. Is there going to be a problem here?”
“Oh, now, y’don’t need to worry about us,” she said, grinning amiably and continuing to approach; being in no hurry, it took a while on her short legs. “No honest gnome ever begrudged a fellow adventurer the chance for fun an’ profit! As to whether this is gonna be a problem, that’s rather up to you, innit? Cos the Manor’s fairly discriminatin’ in terms o’ how it handles interlopers, but not too excessively. Could end up bein’ a right nuisance for us if you rile up the house.”
“We fully intend to avoid such an outcome with the greatest care,” Rhadid replied. “I confess I am somewhat more concerned with the presence of Imperial troops, now that I know there is a team within.”
“Aye,” she agreed. Having come within conversational distance of them, the gnome stopped, craning her head back to meet his eyes. Behind, the rest of her group watched in silence from the fireside. “Not the most cautious o’ wanderers, are they? Troopers always wanna poke somethin’ with a battlestaff, an’ then when the inevitable happens, shoot it. I will say, in fairness, this crew’s less slaphappy than most. The Empire’s had their thumb on Manor Dire for a while now; by this point the lackeys they send in have at least some vague idea what the hell they’re doin’. Billie Fallowstone, glad t’know ye!”
She held out her hand, and Rhadid bent forward to shake it firmly.
“Lord Rhadid Daraspian. Charmed, I’m sure.”
“Your Lordship,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “An’ a Daraspian, no less. Here to try an’ assert the ol’ hereditary claim t’the place, if y’don’t mind me askin’?”
He straightened back up, still wearing a thin smile. “I am not inclined to discuss my personal business, though no, I do not mind being asked. I gather the house is fairly quiet at present?”
“Ehh…” She grimaced, and made a wavering gesture with one hand. “Dunno if I’d go that far. She ain’t too stirred up, I’ll say that much. The house’s always a wee bit on edge with this many people stompin’ about. I’d say mind how hard y’put down yer feet an’ odds are you’ll met no trouble, ‘less ye blunder into somebody else’s mess.”
“I thank you for the warning,” he said courteously, inclining his head again. “By your leave, then, I shall wish you good fortune. I am eager to make a start on my own expedition.”
“Aye, no time like the present!” Billie said with irrepressible good cheer, falling into step beside him as Rhadid set off down the center of the great hall. “I wish you the best o’ luck with your quest, then. Winding trails an’ full chests to you all.”
Tamara came to a stop, frowning down at her. “What did you say?”
“It’s an old gnomish benediction, Tam,” Owl explained. “She’s not talking about your chest.”
“But I could, if y’want,” Billie added, waggling her eyebrows.
“Oy, Fallowstone,” one of the other gnomes said with open exasperation. “For once in yer life could ya not agitate the tall folk?”
Rhadid had already turned aside in the wide space around the fireplace, where in addition to the ascending stairs several corridors branched out at ground level. Owl and Eric were already following him, Tamara with a lingering suspicious look at Billie.
Admestus fell to one knee, holding out a hand to the gnome, and was somewhat surprised when she took it; rarely did people obligingly play along.
“Alas,” he declaimed, “that our acquaintance must be so brief, and our parting so swift! Know, fairest maiden, that I shall count the very heartbeats that mark our cruel separation.”
“Oh, baby,” she cooed, hopping nimbly up to straddle his outstretched knee. Billie grabbed him by the cheeks and planted an exuberant smooch right on his lips.
A moment later she was sent tumbling to the floor with a playful squeak when Tamara grabbed Admestus’s collar yet again and hauled him physically away down the hall, not pausing to let him get his feet under himself.
“Wait for me, my darling!” he cried despairingly, extending a longing hand as he was dragged away.
“Till the very stars fall, ‘andsome!” she replied playfully.
“Honestly,” one of Billie’s friends said as he was pulled around the corner, “are you gonna let the poor sod go off thinkin’ you’re a maiden?”
“I guarantee ‘e doesn’t think that,” another replied.
“Listen, dumbshit,” Tamara growled, hiking Admestus upright and setting him roughly on his feet. “I don’t care what the tavern wenches think is cute back in whatever university town it is you come from. You act the cut-up in here, and we all die. So you cut it the fuck out, is that understood?”
“Scuze me, missy, but you’re not the boss of me,” he said imperiously, then leaned around her to stare at the rest of the group, who had finally paused for them. “What about it, boss of me? Shall I cut it the fuck out?”
“Do exercise a modicum of restraint, Admestus,” said Rhadid. “But that was well handled. Now come along, all, time is precious.”
“Well-handled?” Tamara muttered while Admestus skipped past her to join Eric just behind Rhadid. “What the hell?”
“Situation’s a bit different than we expected,” Owl said laconically. “It’s not just a dungeon crawl anymore; now it turns out the gnomes and the Empire are vying for control of the Manor. And we just walked right into the middle of it. I’m not gonna give Asshat the Alchemist credit for doing that on purpose, but it’s prob’ly best if they both think we’re not to be taken seriously, and stick to worrying about each other.”
“Control?” Tamara asked. “Gnomes? What?”
“One of the major factors which characterizes the great dungeons,” Eric explained as they walked, “as opposed to other dangerous ruins that might or might not contain treasure, is their self-regenerating properties. No matter how carefully cleared out, a dungeon always has more hazards—and usually, more rewards for those willing to risk it and strong enough to succeed. This also makes them a consistent source of profit, which is why adventurers keep going into them. Ever since the Enchanter Wars, gnomes have been setting up colonies in great dungeons to continuously delve them for resources. Since Empress Theasia was crowned, the Empire has followed suit, and now there is something of a race on between the two parties to seize control of the various dungeons.” He sighed. “This…may well be the last opportunity for any un-aligned party to explore this one. Manor Dire has a mind of its own and won’t be as easy to suborn, but I fear one or the other group will find a way.”
“All the more reason to finish our business and get out,” said Rhadid, “before either plants a flag, so to speak. Or worse, engages in an outright battle for control with us in the crossfire. Join me, Professor; I believe you are most qualified to determine our course from here on.”
“Uh, yeah,” Admestus added. “We’re walking past an awful lot of doors, here. Shouldn’t we, y’know…look around?”
“That’s one approach,” Eric agreed, looking diffidently up at Lord Rhadid as he trundled along beside their benefactor. “Our objective is to penetrate deeper into the Manor and ultimately reach its laboratories—which will happen when the Manor decides to permit it. We achieve that end by impressing it as worthy guests, which is done by surmounting its challenges and behaving respectfully. We could proceed directly through the halls and wait for challenges to present themselves, or take our time and explore each room we pass. Practically speaking, the end result will be the same, so, really, it’s up to you, m’lord.”
Rhadid came to a stop, forcing the rest to do likewise, and looked around thoughtfully. They were in a wood-paneled corridor with heavy oaken doors along it at intervals; a few yards ahead it ended in a T-intersection. There were no visible windows, but the torches were spaced closely enough to provide adequate light.
“What do you anticipate in the way of challenges, Professor?” he asked.
“Well,” said Eric, “some monsters to fight, eventually, but Manor Dire tends more to favor traps and puzzles. We should be on the alert for surprises, of course. As a general rule, little of danger or consequence will appear this close to the entrance—or rather, this soon after our entry. Distance and location mean little in here; our progress is better judged by the impression we have made upon the Manor. Oh! You should know that bedrooms are generally safe. If the Manor offers us a place to sleep, we can be relatively sure there will be no attacks or shenanigans while we avail ourselves. Food and drink likewise; I know we brought provisions, but the Manor does not drug people except when the potables in question are obviously a component of a puzzle.”
“Puzzles,” Tamara muttered, peering around. “Fucking ridiculous…”
“Let us proceed,” Lord Rhadid decided. “The Manor may test us in whatever way it deems proper. All of you, remember to behave with the appropriate respect.”
He continued on, then turned left at the fork. They followed the corridor in silence for a time, then listening to Admestus’s off-key whistling until Tamara punched him in the ear. Then more silence.
Once it became clear that Rhadid had no intention of exploring any of the doors they passed, the Manor evidently tired of waiting on him to show initiative. The corridor abruptly turned to the right, and a few yards farther on, opened out into a sizable room.
Rounding the corner, the whole group slowed. Up ahead there was brighter, steadier light than the torches provided, along with a rhythmic hissing noise and the incongruous sound of a woman humming. Lord Rhadid gave them a firm look, then resumed course. In moments they had emerged from the hallway into a comfortable sitting room.
It was not luxurious by modern standards, reflecting the same rough sensibilities as the great hall. There was another fireplace, and large stuffed armchairs draped with shaggy bison furs. Along one entire wall ran a glass-topped display case containing skeletons of strange creatures no bigger than a cat; in one corner stood a taxidermied cat bigger than a wolf with enormous fangs the length of a human forearm, while another held a wired skeleton of a creature about the size of a dog which looked like a cross between a bird and a lizard. The fire was not lit, but the row of candles atop the mantle were, as well as two oil lamps set upon end tables next to the armchairs.
A slim woman stood with her back to them, sweeping the floor. The sound of her broom upon the floorboards caused the hiss they had heard. At their entry, she stopped humming, turning to study them critically. The apparent housemaid was, incongruously, a wood elf. For the most part she was attired as such, in a blousy green shirt with a brown vest and trousers above beaded moccasins. Her golden hair was covered by a kerchief such as any human housewife might wear, and she wore a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.
She didn’t talk like a servant, either.
“Admestus Rafe,” the woman said stridently in Tanglish, flinging her broom to the floor and planting her hands on her hips. “Just what in blazes do you think you are doing?”
He straightened up in surprise, blinking, while the others all turned to stare at him again. “Ah… Would I be correct in guessing this is one of those situations where the correct answer isn’t going to cut it? Because the correct answer is ‘doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,’ but I get the feeling you’re fishing for something a bit more—”
“You couldn’t find anywhere else to do an honest day’s work than Manor bloody Dire?” the elf spat. “Do your parents know you’re in here?”
“Admestus,” Rhadid said calmly, “why don’t you introduce us to your…acquaintance?”
“Oh, of course, terribly sorry, m’lord,” he babbled. “You know me, so absent-minded, leave my head behind one of these days. Well! This, of course, is Lord Rhadid Daraspian, my esteemed employer and wearer of the coolest coat I have ever seen in my life. Seriously, look at him! Did you ever see such dapperness? To his left, Professor Eric Ahlstrom, who teaches something or other in some school or other up in Isilond. Or was it Stavulheim? Ah, well, doesn’t matter. These two are just muscle, you can forget about them.”
“I’m gonna strangle him,” Tamara said aloud to no one in particular. “I can see it coming. This whole shitshow ends with my hands around his skinny neck.”
“And everyone,” Admestus continued, gesturing grandly to the elf, “this, of course, is my very good… That is, the most honorable…” Slowly he turned to her, frowning. “Oh, yes, that reminds me. Just who the bloody hell are you?”