Phryne sets a dish down on the stove with an audible clank. Chrysal turns to her, taking her hand – and the jewel – along.
— Do you need to go? Chrysal asks the girl.
— I have to work today, yes, Phryne says, facing away. — Take care…
The girl wastes no time slipping out of the door. She would surely be late by now. Strange that she would sleep so late, the way you and Chrysal did.
— I am free of other duties now, honorable Derak, Chrysal says and crosses her fingers on the table. — I will be happy to listen to any story you see fit to confide with me.
— Discard the formality, please, you say, leaning away from the table. — It seems that I have made a companion of you in an enterprise, and there are no ranks between helpmates.
The street etiquette in the City does indeed expect common citizens to use honorable address towards hard men just the same as if they were men of measure; it is an overt acknowledgement of the immediate power of violence you hold over her. In this regard her habit has been exemplary, with her acting as if she has an obligation to let you walk all over her life. It is the way any citizen is expected to treat a violent man touchy of their honor, excepting only the members of virtuous households and those who deem the bravo to be of no concern to them. You expect few in Scarlet to dare test Derak the Puppet on those grounds.
You have never prompted your lessers to adopt familiarity with you before, not even under such flimsy pretense, but for some reason the consistent servility comes to grate you now. It is not like she is really of a lower rank, even were you still to hold onto your lethal reputation; you are both free professionals, as Scarlet considers such things, with the honors little but a sop that helps violent men play by the rules. As it is, hers seems to be the more established position here, with you skulking about like you had enemies to fear.
— Anyway, you continue, standing up altogether. — The fact of the matter is that I have just returned from the Bagsea, and lands thence, having undertaken a venture to the lands of Kiho and beyond, into the backwoods following the great river there.
— That is surely a commendable undertaking, Chrysal replies expectantly. — Were your patrons happy with the adventure?
— There were no patrons, you say, aware of how queer all this sounds. — The whole venture was undertaken in my own expense. The destination was obscure, the mission vague, and I was ultimately the only survivor to return. I brought nothing back except my experiences, and I am hardly the scholar to spin that into gold.
— Why would you do such a thing? Chrysal is quick to ask the implied question in your tale.
— The answer lies in the chest I left in your care, you say, gesturing dramatically towards the back room. — The dark crystal stored therein holds a powerful curse, ever more potent than any street preacher mummeries. Compelled by the curse I was driven to commit my fortunes to a mad journey to the ends of the earth.
Having established the premise of your tale, you launch into a full recounting of your adventure in the Jeweled Swamps. Chrysal listens attentively to your description, letting you arrange the tale as you would. Good thing too, as you find yourself confused at times by the state of your memories, and the proper order of the story. When you get to your meeting with the Fox it comes as a momentarily incomprehensible turn to your audience of one.
— Fox? Chrysal interrupts you, genuinely surprised for the first time. — Our Fox? Why would she follow you out there?
— Did you know her? you ask in turn, stopping in your pacing and turning to look directly at Chrysal.
— No more than I did know you… She had this habit of disguising herself as a courtesan, and for a time the Cytheral House was a hideout for her. What happened to her?
— We fought. I killed her, you answer bluntly. You are distantly aware of how the idea of your dueling would get the tongues wagging in the demimonde, but you never were a braggart, and the event itself feels so distant with everything else that has happened to you.
— Oh, Chrysal says, evidently unable to help herself. — Uh… you probably should let somebody know about that. There’s been money riding on it for a long time, if you weren’t aware. You would know better, but I don’t think that there were any endsmen ranked above the Girl of the Thousand Blades ever since that Pseudoduke affair. The Crook believes you dead and her away on assignment, if anything.
— I don’t think that Daag Sit-Fence will buy me a drink for my self-promotion, you jest bitterly. — It was he who sent the Fox after me, sure as I can be. I know not why, but he sent an entire expedition, scholars and all. It probably wasn’t to settle some open bets, either.
For the first time Chrysal seems intimidated, now that you reveal the name of your foeman to her. She stands up and goes for a drink of water. Sure, she does not descend into hysterics as one might expect, but you can spot the tenseness in her body language. You suppose it understandable; she would be well aware of the influence a man like Daag wields among the common people.
Taking her sitting down as a signal to continue, you continue your story about the Dhole-Men you met in the Jeweled Swamp, and about their animalistic shaman, the fearsome Pale Urgaur. You tell her about how the young Rai attached himself to you after you slew Fox, and how they helped you reach the eldritch temple of the dread Shalmali.
Speaking of the Shalmali comes with difficulty… It is likely for the best if you say little for now. Trying, you find yourself reaching for the particulars – what would there be to say, exactly, any words that would cleave to the truth here in the civilized world. A magic of crafting and cunning yes, and of shaping and melding, but that hardly does justice to the metaphysical weight of it. Not mere belief of the hopeful, or a sham orchestrated for the benefit of an audience. A style or form of life so alien that you, a murdered by trade, still cannot understand.
And the being of the dark crystal, what of it? As your story stumbles towards the heart of darkness, as you come to your forest duel with the monstrous swamp bull, and the way your dark passenger revealed itself, you come again to conclude how very little it is that you know of what happened. Much of it has no words in the Basal tongue. It was as if a window had been opened for you, a window that nobody else has even realized was there, and beyond the window a world as exotic and strange to humanity as the demimonde of Scarlet would be to the simple Dhole-Men of the swamp.
— You were possessed by the spirit of the dark crystal? Chrysal prompts as your words run dry. You are unable to answer, having difficulty breathing. A nod is all you can muster, a nod and an audibly shuddering breath you force out. Just like yesterday, you feel the shakes. You have heard of it, it is something shameful that can overcome hard men. Before yesterday you had never experienced it yourself, had in fact thought it something accosting only those made of lesser stuff.
A fleeting shade of a mocking smile forms over her lips, but perhaps she realizes something of your inner turmoil, for she steps alongside even as you turn away to maintain your decorum.
— Sit down, Derak, she orders you, pushing you down on the window-sill. You cannot look, but she does not sound sarcastic. — Sit down and look out, towards the river. You can see the boats from here, if you have sharp eyes.
You sit there with her hand on your shoulder, then. It takes a while, but she never seems to be in any hurry. A spiteful sense of weakness rises within you as you sit there; what even is this, Derak? You have always groomed a clear sense of superiority, an utmost confidence that despises the outward displays of manhood so beloved of the bravo culture. You did not hesitate dressing up as a woman last night, when it was necessary, and that was because you are ever certain of yourself, was it not?
— I got the gist of it, Derak, she finally says as you calm down. — You were taken and used against your will by a powerful spirit. I believe you. Reminiscing over it does no good to you. Rather be thankful that you got away alive.
— There – there is more that I need to say, you complain, brushing her hand away from your shoulder. — The thing in the crystal had been in my head ever since I found the gem. It – it had insidious control over me, made me forget things.
— Yes, yes, she says, putting her hands in your hair of all places, pressing her fingertips firmly against your skull. — I understand. You think that that’s why you don’t remember having met me before. Why else would you forget about the gem itself altogether, and where you put it?
— Yes, that is exactly it, you say, not minding her head-massage. — I think you are very memorable.
— That is kind of you to say, Chrysal exclaims, but she takes hold of your chin and turns your head to look you in the eyes, too. There is a challenge to her smile as she continues: — I will, however, tell you something about Derak the Puppet, so do not be upset: the Puppet is a man who has visited the Cytheral House for several score times over the last five years. He would ever choose the most lavish entertainments, the ones recommended to him. Never would he ask for anybody by name. I have spent two nights with the man myself, remembering well the dread of his displeasure. He was pleased enough, but I am certain that it was no more than chance that he came to pick me a second time. The Puppet is not the kind of man who dwells in the past, and he certainly does not need the help of spirits, dark or light, to forget. I remember somebody saying once – the only reason he drinks is for the prestige of downing the most expensive of wines.
You remember for a moment: that is the exact sort of uppity backtalk that must be punished, for dread of leaving doubt of your habit in the minds of the onlookers. Then you remember not only that you are alone, but also that you take no pleasure in violence. Never have, and in justice you invited her familiarity yourself. Your shoulders slump as you let her finish her piece. Like Papak, she is willing to lecture you.
— That is… it is a big part of my problem, you admit to her. — I have not told all about what happened…
— You don’t need to, truly, Chrysal says, keeping her finger on your cheek. — Trust me on this. You clearly are not ready to talk about it. You don’t want to go to the Mask Market with this story yet, either. You need to make your peace with it first. Wounds of the soul do not heal overnight.
— Nevertheless, you stand up and she stands back. — I will say this, and then hold my peace on the rest: I cannot continue being an assassin. Something changed in my mind when I was overtaken by the dark passenger. At first I thought that it was a vile magic of the curse, but later I realized that it was simply me: some strange alchemy of the soul, where I had once been known for a particularly grim man, I had now become soft to the sufferings of others. That thing was so vile that it made me reassert anything and everything that I could of my own humanity, doubtful as it may be.
— Are you then free of the curse? she asks. — You speak as if it was something you have triumphed, but clearly the memory of it is still very raw for you.
Just as you make to answer, a knock on the door interrupts you. You both turn towards it.
— You should go into the bedroom, Derak, Chrysal suggests as she moves towards the door. — It is likely my client’s man, carrying regards for last night. You likely do not want to be seen quite yet, and I certainly do not want you seen here.
You do as she says, but make sure to leave a crack in the curtain to see what happens. Chrysal is dressed in little but a chemise, with her hair unmade, but that seems to suffice as she cracks the door open. Words are exchanged, but she does not invite the visitor in. Finally, she closes the door and gestures for you to come out.
— The client was indeed particularly happy with me, she says, putting down a leather coin-snag on the table. — He wants me back soon, too.
You have seen these ostensible jewelries made of spendable gold coin, favoured by those of virtuous sensibility in making purchases. You have only ever paid with straight cash yourself, but they are presumably useful for the virtuous men, as they sometimes desire to pretend to money being of no import, and commerce being an exchange of gifts. Of course only something to be gifted to the common people, whose thirst for money remains constant and unquenched. You have received some yourself, long belts decorated with coins that you would soon come to clip out and put to better use.
— Come, come sit at the table, Derak, Chrysal gestures and sits down herself. As you do so, she continues: — I understand that much changed for you on your adventure. You might also have enemies in Scarlet, or at least unresolved business with Daag himself. On top of that, you think yourself unable to work. That is something you probably want to keep under the wraps; it is uncomfortable that you confide that much to me, just imagine what injury it could make you if that became known in the Crook.
— I’m sorry, you interject. — I have come to trust you here, it is true, but that is because one needs to trust somebody in Scarlet.
— Not you, I warrant, not Derak the Puppet; I doubt he ever has trusted much. Also, I am a trustworthy sort, and you are a man in search of friends if I ever saw one; you shouldn’t trust an instinct like that.
You don’t know what to say to that. You observe Chrysal’s face, the way her long fingers curl around each other. Have you been too forward then, or misread her signs? You in fact have no idea. You hardly understand your own feelings. Dare to say what it is you even want of her?
— But be that as it may, she continues, taking hold of your hand. — Thank you for your confidence, and for a fair wage on what little help we could be to you. You need to be on your way now, though; I understand that you do not have a home anymore here, but you can hardly lounge in our place all day, either. It will do you good to get yourself set up in your accustomed way, anyway. And you have to do something about Daag, nobody’s going to want anything to do with you with that kind of heat hanging over your head.
It takes you a moment to realize how dejected you must look at that. But really, it would be quite imposing of you to insist on hiding out here, even if the women had room to share.
— Hey, Derak, Chrysal continues after the silence has continued just a tiny bit too long. She smiles even, which immediately lifts your spirits. — I believe that I understand just a little bit about what you’re going through. Call it professional experience if you’d like, in a sense that an endsman would understand. You seem much less high-strung than I ever saw you out there, but injured and aimless, too. I might be able to help you a little bit more with your… issues. If you’re interested. You clearly need to get your head together, and it may be that you could use some pointers.
Looking at you for interest, she continues: — This would have to be on a professional basis, however. You can’t come here. Get yourself a place somewhere and send word. We can meet up and talk some more, you know? I can only imagine that you’ll come to worry over your secrets later on if we don’t get to know each other a little bit more.