A mystery you have to solve, eh Derak? It is plain that you are rather rudderless tonight, and have been since your return. The old Derak would never have chosen to stick around in the Estuary at night, waiting for hours in the center of Scarlet’s nightlife with what amounts to a treasure chest just to bum a ride you don’t really need now that you have money of your own. Derak used to be a man who saw people for the simple things they were, who would spend his sleepless night solving the real puzzles of geometry and arithmetics underlying the clockwork science.
Your thoughts are rather conflicted as you make your way back towards Veronica, but at the same time – it feels good to live a little, doesn’t it? Sitting with Chrysal and Phryne today felt real in the same way your days with Rai and the Dhole-Men felt out in the Jeweled Swamps. This is a strange experience for Derak the Puppet, and one you did not think to witness here in Serene Scarlet. The City is essentially soulless, it is not… it is not a place where people have hidden depth. Everybody here has their sumptuary labels, right in their clothes, and the masks they wear express the functions of each without fail. Not like the Dhole-Men in their simple village, where everybody is the same but everyone also has their unique nature, just like you. Is it that those with the least to their name are richer in spirit – or is it that Derak is so full of shit that you needed to travel to the edge of the world to learn how to look beyond the surface of man? That a man, or a woman, even has a nature beyond their immediate function.
You have a lot of time to think as you creep through the Lantern City. There aren’t really streets in the Estuary, as there would be no use for wagons on the islets; the boardwalks,bridges and piers are narrow and often congested with traffic. The Lantern City is at times even more busy at night. The only way to not attract attention as a woman with a large carry-on is to wait for the walkway to empty, or join crowds as you can, and stop regularly in pretense of having arrived to discourage attention from fellow foot-traffic. During your frequent stops you drop the chest and sit or stand on it, giving the impression of waiting for someone while checking the boardway for leisurely observers who might have the attention to pay to you. If you were to attract more stalkers now, the violent solution you so facilely chose earlier would be your only option, as seeking help would only draw more attention to the chest.
By the time you arrive at the Veronica Docks, you have convinced yourself that the risk you’re taking is thoroughly unjustified, which makes you only more morose. Now that you’re in place here it’s easier, as you can place the otherwise unremarkable chest in a dark nook and stand a few feet away, maintaining your otherwise ordinary looks while you wait for Chrysal’s arrival. Still, you’re taking a risk to impress a woman here, and in a twice foolish manner, too: the risk itself is a technical fault in streetwise to make a professional cringe, but in no way is it flashy and heroic; furthermore, the worse thing is that you’re not even trying to impress her with your virtues – rather, it is all simply to maintain intimacy. As if you couldn’t just catch a boat, get into an inn for a good night’s sleep and go visit her in the morning if you wanted to. Oh, the tangled webs of a muddled mind!
The chest sits unassuming in the shadow of one of the larger Veronicas while you wander idly nearby, no different to any other wayfarer waiting for a boat. The Veronicas are one of the main guesting docks for the Lantern City, so the traffic moves regularly. After a quarter of an hour you are pretty sure that nobody has tracked you from the warrens, as they surely would have interfered before risking your floating away with a public hire or arranged pick-up. The boatmen pester you for a bit, of course, before you move further from the water to make it clear that you’re waiting for a specific boat. You even realize to clasp your hands together in the way women signal “do not approach”, to discourage proposals.
The depth of your humiliation only becomes more clear as you wait and watch the near-constant trickle of people coming and going, with lonely men occasionally measuring you with their eyes. The night is in full swing and Chrysal still could be a while, if she’s even coming. Her tryst might last until morning, after all.
Your tired mind plays through all kinds of idle scenarios as you wait. What if Chrysal has simply sold your identity to somebody? You can easily imagine her streetwise enough to go to any information broker, or even Daag himself. Or, what if somebody else aside from Chrysal already marked you today, and she’s been captured to make her reveal what she knows? You have caused yourself quite a bit of distress, sheer mental fatigue, by being at once suspicious of the City yet confiding in her. That’s what has led you into the paradoxical position of waiting on a dimly lit boardwalk for a boat that may not come, discreetly watching for anybody else who might tarry here and notice a lone woman guarding a travel chest. The boatsmen are the greatest danger, as some end up idling here for a while waiting for new custom.
You cannot help jerking a bit when the time finally comes; it must be well over midnight by now, and the dock has quieted down a bit, but it still takes you a moment to realize that a boat has silently emerged from the river, and the boatsman now has a green shawl or sash draped over his shoulder, showing clearly under his lantern. The boat has a passenger cabin, and the shawl would be one given to the man by a passenger, or a client sending for a rendez-vous.
Forgetting yourself for a moment, you approach the boat eagerly and see the boatsman gesturing towards you encouragingly. The color is Chrysal’s tonight, certainly. Turning to bring the chest, you approach the boat in an eager and submissive manner unlike Derak the Easterner; no matter, for it fits the role. You can see another lantern in the passenger cabin, indicating occupancy.
— Would you like a ride, red Miss? the boatsman addresses you from his boat as you come closer. — The lady Chrysal is within, and asks for your company.
— I would gladly, you answer without concern for your voice giving you away. You hesitate a moment on how to proceed with the chest, but end up offering it down to the boatsman, who takes and stows it as if it was the most ordinary thing. Then he is offering you his arm the way a swain does for women, so you’re in the boat almost before you know it.
You crouch to enter the passenger cabin, and indeed find Chrysal within. Your stomach twists a bit at the sudden excitement after the long wait, but you force yourself to sit down opposite her impassively. She does not hesitate giving the sign through the side window, launching the boatsman to his work. First thing, he offers the shawl back to Chrysal who wraps it around her shoulders.
The closed cabin in the better class of passenger boat affords you privacy – not only from on-lookers, but the boatsman as well. You knock knees with Chrysal in the cramped quarters, but it is nevertheless a familiar luxury. You feel yourself drooping against the seat, relaxing in the boat’s gentle rocking.
The waters are pitch dark, with only the lights of the City hinting at the direction when the boatsman begins his sculling. It would be easy to close your eyes for a bit, but the need to address Chrysal, acknowledge her presence, is stronger still.
You look at her, but find yourself at loss for words. She is looking at you over the lantern as well, her face shaded by the lamp’s frame. Tired, too, if you are any judge. The light is cast directly on her body, but for the way she wraps the shawl around her. It is a closed manner, if you are any judge of body language.
— Was your night everything hoped for, honorable Derak? she finally asks you. It has the feel of an idle query, nearing bland politeness.
— I did recover my chest, if that is the question, you answer. Feeling the urge to say more, you continue. — However, I left two men for dead on the way.
The casual confession does not raise her ire, it seems. The silence remains expectant, however.
— They were near certainly cutpurses, you continue. — Risking anything more on random passersby would make for a dangerous career here.
— I know what you mean, honorable Derak, she finally answers, clasping her hands on her lap. — They could never know who it is that they accost.
Not that being mere thieves protected them in this case, you think. You are perfectly well aware that normally a titled assassin would flaunt their name rather than hide it, precisely to prevent this kind of exchange. At least then none would call it murder, but rather suicide.
You sit silent for a while, listening to the scrape of the oar. Chrysal watches the slowly approaching river bank. You watch her. The complex paintwork on her left wrist has been smudged. You look at her chest, revealed now by the shawl. It is a subtle and strange feeling, but you feel strangled for a moment at the sheer obscenity of how the yellow and green paints have been smeared over her breasts, leaving both a muddled brown.
— I entertained at one of the Residences tonight, she finally continues the conversation. — We went over well with the virtuous men in attendance.
You remain silent, not quite knowing what to say to that. A certain ambivalence stubbornly remains in her manner and words, making you uncertain of how to precisely categorize the nature of her work – the nature of her, if you will. Flesh trade, yes, but she no longer works a brothel. Her having clients at an Estuary Residence is not streetwalker business, and she presents too highly for that, but then again a courtesan would surely not live so poorly; it would shame her virtuous men.
Perhaps sensing something of your curiousity, she continues:
— There has been a maudlin sentiment in the City air recently, particularly among the virtuous. Ever since the Juvenalia, where much was made of humbling the vain this year. It has become something of a mode, an expensive entertainment, to have expensive chamber entertainments meticulously taken apart.
She certainly has a talent for ambiguity wrapped in seeming precision. You have seen the world of the rich yourself, having been invited to intrude many times, so you have some inkling of what she means. The virtuous often live strange lives behind closed doors, the kind that follows its own peculiar dream logic. It would not be unfair to say that you, Derak, and the rest of your kind are very much led by this lodestone in your simple lives: imagining what the manorial life must be like, dreaming of ascending to it yourself one day. Jealousy of the virtuous, as much as anything, has surely ever determined the long arc of conspicuous consumption for Derak the Easterner as well as other men of note in your constellation of assassins.
The boat arrives at Hillside safely, docking at a seemingly arbitrary mooring point. You wait for the boatsman to bump the cabin before dragging yourself out and straightening in the night air. This is all something you have done innumerable times, so much so that you forget your skirts and simply leap up, pulling yourself to the flagstones without waiting for the boatman’s paw. In fact, you might as well save Chrysal from that oft straying appendage; just as soon as you get your chest, you offer a hand to Chrysal, too, pulling her up deftly. You can clearly see her smirk a bit at being saved from the little game of tip-or-grope that most women put up with in Scarlet. She still tips the boatsman, you note, crouching to drop a coin down to his waiting hands.
— I see that you have grown accustomed to your dress, honorable Derak, Chrysal observes rather boldly. You make a point of smiling at the remark; it is a happy thing that she judges you friendly enough to jest.
— Will you come along and stay overnight at our home? she continues, pointing the way with her lantern. — It is late, and perhaps in the morning we can finish our business.
You accede easily to this plan, being so tired that having any place to sleep sounds good right now. You limp after Chrysal, taking a while to notice her slight limp. Remembering her habit in the evening, you move to take her arm in yours while cradling the chest under your other arm.
You arrive at the Tabrams without incident, and soon stumble into Chrysal’s dark and quiet apartment. You feel a certain kinship with her, you both being obviously too tired to put much work into your ablutions. She quickly loosens your corselet enough to sleep on and pushes you into the pitch dark bedroom, letting you sprawl yourself on something close enough to a mattress, perhaps the end of a low bed. You don’t really care at this point; maybe you can hear Phryne snoring somewhere in the room, but for now it suffices to get your feet out of your boots and your spinning head down. Even the sight of Chrysal washing paint off herself in the other room, lit by the soft light of the lantern, cannot rouse you tonight.