When Diplomacy Fails...

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The Zassarian Beer Garden, Junction City, Egalstrom
6:40 PM

"Do you believe in fairy tales, Miss Areval? Because you're in one."

Tara was seething inside at being tricked. Not that having an incorrect recording of the conversation was the end of the world, she only planned to keep the information for her own records anyway, but the fact that he had managed to pull that stunt off on her without her noticing ticked her off. Without a doubt, this was the work of magic. All of the Coulter princes and princesses, being the offspring of the almighty sorceress Adora Coulter, had some degree of magical ability. Tara herself was shit at using magic; she generally found shooting (or stabbing) people and using her brain to come up with decent plans was a functional enough alternative anyway, but most of her step-siblings were better casters than she was. It was clear that Alexander had cast a spell at some point, but when he had done so and how he had gotten away with it without her noticing, that was what Tara needed to figure out, and fast.

The first thing she needed to figure out was what magic Alexander had cast. Somehow he had been able to alter what her recording device had picked up, even though she hadn't yet revealed that she was recording him...

"Actually, for the most part, it is, and that is also what the people around us heard if they were listening in on our conversation."

Then again, if what Alexander had said was true, other people would have heard what the recording had picked up. So that meant... that meant...

She was the one who had heard him wrong. Tara booted the recording back up, and as the conversation played out, she realized that the statements and questions that she had made were as she remembered them, but his replies were different, making for a very disjointed discussion. Alexander's magic hadn't controlled her behavior, only her perceptions. It was a spell straight out of the Maria Coulter School of Illusion Casting, which dictated that the most efficient spells manipulated only the target's sensory inputs, with creative use of such spells bringing about the desired behavior from them.

"You seem perplexed," Alexander noted smugly as Tara turned off her recorder and placed it back in her purse (again making sure to not let it clank against her pistol).

"You could say that," Tara murmured. "So did you use some kind of sorcery or something to do that?"

"You could say that," Alexander retorted.

Tara rolled her eyes. "And how does magic work?"

"I'm so glad you asked," Alexander began. He then went on to explain how a lot of Hontians were innately magical beings, and that those who possessed magic could be trained to utilize it by learning certain incantations and gestures that could be programmed to bring out the desired magic. Tara was already familiar with the fundamentals of magic, she even knew a spell or two, so instead of listening to Alexander, she carefully watched his lips to see if they matched what he was saying. For the most part, he did a good job, but occasionally, his timing was slightly off, with his lips tending to move slightly after something he said. It was apparent to Tara that Alexander was altering both what she saw and what she heard, but could he be manipulating anything else? Considering how much effort it probably took to maintain just this bi-sensory illusion, she guessed not. So how then could she take advantage of that to see through his illusion?

It occurred to her that the recording had picked up nothing that sounded like an incantation. As such, Alexander would need to compensate by casting his spell somatically. One of his hands was clutching his beer glass, from which he took the occasional sip, but the other was under the counter and largely concealed from view. However, when she leaned a certain way, she was able to get a glimpse of it. It didn't seem to be moving, but that didn't surprise Tara too much. He was manipulating her vision, after all, so he probably wouldn't want her to see if his hands were doing anything strange.

She had a plan. After asking a clarifying question to keep him talking while gazing into his face to give off the impression that she was intently listening to him, Tara gently lifted her left leg under the counter and prodded his concealed hand with her foot. She felt it twitching with practiced gestures as she did so, confirming her suspicion that he was using it to cast his spell, while her slight push also obstructed some of his motions. The effect was immediate: with a ring that sounded almost like that of a malfunctioning microphone, the spell was broken, and Alexander's topic of discussion seemingly changed from magic to...

"... that is how a milkshake made all of my dreams come true..."

... a different kind of magic.

"What was that about milkshakes?" Tara smirked.

A look of shock briefly flashed across Alexander's face before quickly returning to his normal patronizing smile. "Ah, I see you figured me out. Perhaps you are more clever than you look."

Tara said nothing. Instead she watched him carefully to see if he would reapply his spell as she held her victorious grin. Alexander studied her right back, resulting in an awkward silence amidst the hubbub in the rest of the pub.

Eventually, Alexander broke the staring contest by inquiring, "So, do you have any more questions?"

"I think I'm good, Mister Sarvos," Tara replied sweetly. The rest of her questions would be much more detailed, and she wanted him to be pinned down and harmless when she got around to asking them. For now, she had learned enough to gauge his personality and had an arsenal of questions she could use to verify if he was lying. All in all, it had been a fairly productive interview.

"So does that mean it is my turn now?"

"Umm, yeah," Tara answered as she brought the story she had come up with to explain the disappearances of Alexander's associates in other parts of the world whom she had hunted down, which had been the bait she had used to bring him to this interview in the first place. Naturally she wasn't going to tell him that she had murdered his colleagues, that would put him on edge even if he didn't believe her. No, what she was going to tell him was...

"Okay, great!" Alexander clasped his hands, interrupting her train of thought. "I will ask you one question, and one question only, and then you can be on your merry way."

"Are you wondering what I learned about Marvin Briles, Susan Lindrem, Zu Biyja, and Erik Cain?" Tara guessed, reciting the aliases used by the Hontian agents she had killed.

"Nay, I think I can hazard a good enough guess as to what has befallen those fellows," Alexander responded. "No, I'd like to ask you a different question, and I would like you to be as honest with me as I was with you..."

"If you call hexing me without my permission nor foreknowledge to be honest, then sure, I can be that honest," Tara retorted.

"I did that because I wanted to be able to tell you the truth without telling everyone else the truth," Alexander explained. "Now, are you ready for my question?"

Tara rolled her eyes. "Whatever, ask your question, bridgekeeper, I'm not afraid."

His expression dead serious, Alexander asked, "What is your name?"

That was definitely not the super-mega-important question-to-end-all-questions that Tara had been expecting. Barely missing a beat, she answered, "Tiffany Areval. I thought I had introduced myself as such over the phone."

Alexander made a long, exaggerated sigh. "Do you think that I am such a fool, Miss Tiffany Areval, supposed freelance investigative reporter extraordinaire whom I have never heard of, that I wouldn't recognize a false identity when I saw one? I have done my homework, girl, and your name is completely unknown, and independent investigative reporting is far from a profitable enterprise when you haven't made a name for yourself. And please don't tell me you could afford to travel the world to meet my friends while living off of a part-time job in your parent's basement."

"Maybe I use a pseudonym," Tara mumbled, unhappy with where this was going. Getting caught in a lie was never a fun experience.

"Perhaps, you do," Alexander growled. "So tell me, what is your real name?"

Tara sighed for dramatic effect, then muttered, "Lauren Wilson."

"Will I find any reports under that name?"

"If you know where to loo-ckk" Tara gagged as Alexander reached across the counter, grasped her by the collar swift as a whip, and yanked her toward him until their faces were about an inch apart.

"There is one thing you must understand about me, Miss. I really detest it when people lie to me," Alexander snarled. This close to his face, Tara was able to see through what she realized was a glamour, for now, his previously kind brown eyes were a malevolent reddish-purple, and his flawless skin was now marred by a deep scar in his right cheek. "So let's try one more time. What is your name?"

"Serana," Tara gasped, his hot breath on her face. As her gaze was forced into his hypnotic eyes, she found that her mind would not work; that she could not think of a last name. However, if she didn't come up with something quick, he'd know she was lying, so she just blurted the first thing on her lips...

"Gofuckyourself."

Wait, did I really just say that? By the Empress I'm getting sloppy...

The offensive name/statement hung in the air for an awkward moment as Alexander's visage contorted in rage (while still holding her uncomfortably close). Then, Tara detected a blur of motion to her right, and she instinctively moved her right hand (which had been clutching the hand Alexander was using to destroy her poor jacket collar in order to make room for her to breath) to intercept the incoming attack. She blocked his strike (which appeared to have been intended to be a slap across her face based on his open hand) and then fluidly grabbed his thumb with her right hand while bringing her left hand across her body and grabbing the blade of his left hand while pinning his right hand to her chest with her elbow. She then twisted his left hand into a joint lock, forcing him down into the counter.

Placing her elbow on his head, pressing his face into the table in the process, Tara chastised, "That wasn't very gentlemanly, Mister Sarvos. Now, I don't think either one of us really wants to be here any longer, and I have answered your question; whether or not you believe my answer to be true is irrelevant. So here is what we are going to do, unless you want me to do terrible things to your wri..."

Just then, Alexander delivered a violent kick to her stool, and Tara had put enough of her weight on the counter (and Alexander's head) that the stool flew out from underneath her. Tara scrambled to find something to hold on to but failed, resulting in her brow striking the counter on the way down and the back of her head hitting the hard cement floor as she collapsed into a heap. However, graceless as her fall had been, she had not left Alexander unscathed, for she had done the very thing to his wrist that she been threatening to just before she lost her grip, eliciting a roar of pain from him.

Although part of her understood that she was in grave danger, Tara could not get herself to move as the fiery pain of her head injuries took hold. For a moment, everything went black, but she quickly came to, only to behold a very angry looking Alexander (with a swollen left wrist) standing over her, murderous intent in his eyes. He started to toward her with his good hand, but then the sound of a shotgun being pumped caused the whole room to go quiet. Alexander froze, and slowly turned to look toward the source of the noise.

"Walk away from the girl and get out of this establishment. Now!"

Despite the throbbing in her head, Tara couldn't help but smile. She had befriended the bartender a week prior when she had been searching for a place to set this meeting at, and she had made sure to time the meeting to a night when the bartender was working. That decision might have just saved her life.

Alexander grimaced, then glared down at Tara, massaging his swollen wrist. "Well, it was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Gofuckyourself," he growled before stomping out of the bar.

Tara breathed in relief and continued to lie on the hard concrete floor as she waited for the pain in her head to subside. After a few moments, she noticed the bartender standing over her, a shotgun tucked under one arm. "You alright, Tiffany?" he asked, extending his free hand toward her.

"I think I'll live," Tara moaned, taking his offered hand and letting him pull her to her feet. Stabilizing herself on the counter she and Alexander had been seated at, Tara remarked, "Thanks for the save there, Barry. He was about to horribly violate my dress. He really did have something against my dress..."

"Matt," the bartender corrected. When Tara gave him a blank look, he explained, "My name is Matt, not Barry."

"Did I say Barry? My bad, Matt, I must have hit my head harder than I'd thought," Tara murmured, gently rubbing the back of her head. To her dismay, she felt a sticky substance on her hand, and when she went to look at it, she saw her fingers were red with blood.

"Are you going to be okay?" Matt asked, concerned.

"Yeah, I'll be fine in a bit, but unfortunately, I have to go, and I fear my vengeful boyfriend is waiting for me outside. Is there another exit I can take to get out of here?"

"There is a fire exit, but using that will set off the fire alarm..."

"How about a window?" Tara suggested.

"A window? There is one near the bathrooms..." Matt stammered uncertainly

"Lead on."

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