Doing an open attack is quite the step for you, Derak. An endsman prides himself on his untouchability; a mad amok is what the desperate or gullible would do. But then, you’re not an endsman anymore. And it is true that even means that would slow or avert an endsman will do little against an assassin willing to die for their mission.
The idea of descending into assassination in this sense bothers you only in the abstract, though. After all, you are not seduced into a suicidal charge by the soft-spoken words of someone like brother Niccolo, nor drugged out of your mind; it is your own choice, and yours alone.
Thinking these glum thoughts you return to the north shore, and the Cytheral House. The streets seem calm in the exhausting afternoon heat; you cannot quite convince yourself about being followed, nor can you quite muster to care. All your thoughts are on tomorrow, and what may become your last design of death.
The water feature in the Cytheral main hall keeps it cool through such days. The women of the house are up and about. The doorman gives you no trouble, having no doubt been instructed to give you special treatment. All their stares follow you upstairs.
Plotkin seems to have settled down in the Madam’s office, writing. You give him cursory regards for now, and he seems to be hopeful about arranging matters with the Unbroken Circle. No need to get involved with him any more for now.
You expect to find a bedroom by opening a random door in the north wing corridor, and so you do – you might even have visited the room before. A cloyingly feminine room, and you tense at the thought of having to shoo out a bird from its nest, but the place seems deserted for now. The smell of incense still lingers in the air, and diaphanous curtains cover the walls, giving the room a dreamy quality. There is a bed there, which matters the most.
You awaken around the sunset, near as you can tell through the narrow ventilation gap on the outside wall. Nobody disturbed your sleep, and there is a dinner plate on the bedside table. Your equipment, lying next to the bed in a pile, has not been touched as far as you can discern. You notice a girl sitting in the service position next to the door, but say nothing as you get out.
You need the darkness of night to prepare for the masquerade tomorrow. Might as well spend some time making sure nobody has an interested eye on you. Not Daag, not anybody. You take your time getting to the Crook, spending a leisurely time sitting in occluded places. The arm feels numb; should change the bandaging tonight.
The river-shore in the Crook is riddled with small fishing docs, and has been for ages; there is little of the shore not lined with wooden docks or walkways. The housing tends to encroach on the docs as fishermen build their homes close to the work. The high stone-masonry of the great cargo harbor facing the Estuary make the only exception, cutting a great wedge into the otherwise small-time homes of the humble working men.
Here, west of the harbor proper, an otherwise unnamed bit of boardwalk runs over the muddy shore. There are new houses now, which always disorients you coming this way; you survived here for years. Or not here, but rather in the grand entrepot Yasul extorted for his use. Burned now, and long rebuilt into humble homes.
The gibbous moon does its best over a cloudless sky, and for you that is more than enough. Leaving your boots yet grabbing a coil of light rope, you descend down the dockworks and into the frigid estuary. The task takes its time, it is not easy to find a long submerged tow line in the darkness. It is still attached to one of the posts of the old broadwalk, and you catch hold of the line in your own good time.
After connecting your rope to the tow line and getting back up from the water, the rest of it is a matter of pulling. It is a grueling task as your sinews struggle against the bottom silt or whatever unnamed resistance may keep hold of your prize. Even just dragging the water-logged tow itself is heavy work, and then it stops giving in altogether. It is well possible that the trunk, so carefully placed, has been moved by the waters; should it have sunk into the mud, there is no way for you to ever retain it. Not alone.
But the tow does give out in face of your strength, at least a little bit. Handspan by handspan you dredge it loose from the bottom. You start dragging it at an angle to ascertain that the trunk is loose, and then promptly tie it off to give yourself a rest. The wound in your arm throbs in dull pain.
The trunk is heavy, requiring all of your concentration. You pull a fathom at a time, the sailor’s deadlift, and deftly loop the tow on a post after every pull to rest your arms. When it breaks the water surface it becomes only heavier, but by then you can descend and attach your second rope to the other end. Given two points to raise one at a time, you slowly gain height and finally drag your inheritance to the quiet boardwalk.
You sit on the heavy trunk a while to catch your breath. Your night senses are calm, surely nobody is observing you right now, nobody except your own unsurpassed awareness of your own breathing, the cold and the strain on your arms. You can see the Estuary islands off over the water; even on the nundines eve the islands are alight, shining brightly like a pile of gems on the dark velvet of the sea.
Dragging the trunk back to the Cytheral would be deftly accomplished with the aid of a minor lifting tool, a lever balanced on a wheel… it is something that Yasul often used to move great weights. In fact, you remember now: there should be one in the trunk itself. The young Derak was a practical boy, thinking ahead ever so carefully. Even then you were fully assuming that if you were ever to retrieve the trunk, it would be alone and unaided.
It takes some work to get the pressure seal to give out, but that’s something you would have to do sooner or later anyway. Inside the trunk, there is indeed a disassembled hand truck just like you remember, carefully oiled and wrapped. Even in the dark it does not take you long to put it together. The wheels turn silently, and continue to do so even after you drag the trunk itself on the flimsy device; the bearings are steel, very probably the make of mad Yasul himself.
The return journey to the Hillside is mainly tedious. The street is far from even under the small wheels, so keeping the trunk upright takes much of your attention. Taking the cobble-paved Docs Road is worth it even with the slim chance of getting caught by your enemies.
Back at the Cytheral House you have some trouble commandeering a room; its not that the house would be very busy on the nundines eve, but the first room you stumble into actually houses sleeping occupants. The bleary-eyed confusion of the pair of nights-desirees turns into visible alarm as they recognize you, struggling to fit the large trunk through the doorway. Giving up on that, obviously, but you do need a downstairs room – no way you’re hauling the trunk upstairs.
— Derak, hey! Plotkin tries to interrupt you flipping open doors in the back part of the house. He’s actually wearing his night-shirt now.
— Ah, Plotkin, you mutter while peering towards the end of the hall. — You wouldn’t happen to know if there are any empty rooms beyond the kitchen there? I need a place to stow this trunk, you see…
Plotkin does accede to helping you navigate the house, and even gets one of the guards to help move the trunk. Not that you don’t keep a sharp eye on it; the idea of you dying tomorrow and the trunk just getting out there feels like something you’ll have to think about sometime when you’re doing less running ahead of your impending doom.
Speaking of, Plotkin seems to think that there is something wrong: — Is something bothering you, Derak? What is going on, that you act so like a common bravo? Madam Meliore has graciously invited us to stay here for the time, but you shouldn’t press her patience so.
— I am disturbed by deadly thoughts, you growl. — You should not worry, however, for I will put everything right in the house of Gabaldon.
— I won’t say that you should not, Plotkin says. — But for what it is worth, I should tell you that I have had encouraging correspondence with master Nasar of the Unbroken Circle today; he assures me that the uncommon disturbance and high-handedness of the sharpist brothers has been remarked, and disciplinary action will soon be taken. It may well be that the masters will censure Niccolo and put our house in order; I could not imagine otherwise after the account I made in writing.
Plotkin seems admirably unperturbed by your acting up. You do realize on some level that this… excitement you feel about the impending tomorrow is making you fey tonight. It does mean that you care little about his cult business, of course.
— I think having something to eat would do you good, Derak, Plotkin continues after you say nothing. — Food, and change that bandage of yours. Sleep. Everything will be clearer in the morning.
You allow Plotkin to shepherd you through the practicalities for now, well-intended as he seems. Your mind, however, is far away already. Making plans. Designs, rather. You have a masque to attend.
When you wake up in the Cytheral House for the second time, it is already morning. The slumber had you forget your troubles, and for a long moment after awakening you simply enjoy the feel and smell of the soft bedding before remembering the day’s task.
Your equipment seems untouched, and there is food set to await your awakening. This time, however, you gesture at the girl perched at the door.
— Come closer, you, you say with a calm tone.
— Ah, yes… yes master endsman! she jolts awake. — My name is Nanda, Madam asked me to cater to your needs. If you want for entertainment or companionship I am to introduce you to some of the elder sisters.
Yes, that would obviously be what you would want today.
— Thank you, little Nanda, you respond and gesture for her to stand. — I need for nothing, but I wanted to apologize for my curtness in the evening. I was wonderfully concentrated then. Please give the Madam my regards, and assure her that I am in her debt.
Thinking on your plans, you add: — I will spend the day in preparation, and then be off your hair for good. I will have need for certain things, all available on the great market today; can I trust you to run me some errands, Nanda?
— Of course! she is quick to affirm. Her nodding does seem a bit too much like “please don’t kill me”, but perhaps that’s the best you can expect in this town, or expect until you learn to talk to people normally, or whatever.
— Very well, you say, doing your best to sound amiable. — I brought a trunk into the house yesterday and left it downstairs; for all that it pains me, I seem to be forced to extend trust in all kinds of little ways. For this work, however, it is best if it is private. I will move to it immediately after breakfast.
— We, uh… she actually takes little nervous steps like a bird on a thin branch. — We moved your chest. I hope that is not a problem? Madam had it put in Alethea’s room.
That does seem like all kinds of problem, as far as your instincts are concerned, but you have somewhat more pressing concerns today than that.
— Well, I am sure that she would know best, wouldn’t she? you ask rhetorically and pick up the cheese plate. No need to scare the little waif any further.
You spend the rest of the day in intense preparation. There needs to be a costume appropriate to the event, and something for the… entertainment. You are a man of Scarlet, know what a proper showing looks like, and by Coinbiter’s clubfoot it is something you will deliver tonight!
I would ask for your input here, really I would, except for the time running so short. You will just have to fill in the gaps later on, surprise us with your cunning and craft.
You’ve actually managed to inventory your tools and materials, laying it all out, before you realize that the room the Madam chose for you has seen the touch of another one of your trade… Fox, you heard that she used to hide here. The first impression is of any bedroom in the decadent hostel, but the long work tables and the actual alembic you discover in one of the closets puts the lie to that; you can just imagine her sitting here with her maps, putting together some devilish concoction of her magery. Maybe you would not want to actually sleep in her bed, but fortunately that is not going to be a problem.
At first the women of the house perform this… fluttering at your door, but the room actually has a rather heavy-duty bar inside, so for the most part you get to perform your craft in peace. What needs you have, the girl Nanda runs quickly to fulfill.
Come the evening, you are ready for your night out. The costume is admittedly somewhat unconventional, but with the time being as short as it is, you had to go with the first idea instead of waiting for a better one: you are going as a “forest witch”, which is certainly a classical figure of the masque, but also one traditionally played by women. A minor embarrassment if that, considering your position.
The basic forest witch is somewhat akin to a walking, or comically waddling cone, visually speaking: the dress falls as narrow as can be off the shoulders, but billows in a pear-like symmetric form towards the hem, the wider the better. The pointy yet floppy hat adds to the impression of being more of a spire than a woman. High shoes add to the effect, and there are supposed to be small bells attached inside the large bell-like skirt in such a clever manner that any accidental touching of the witch will cause them to tinkle despite her gliding or waddling around soundlessly herself.
You get the girl Nanda to help dress you up at the end, for she is unlikely to understand much of the particulars of what you are attaching to yourself, and likely to follow your instructions as precisely as she can. You need to help her raise the steel parts, of course, considering their weight. She understands well enough to not injure herself on the sharp edges.
Looking at the mirror in the end, the effect is grim enough to draw a small, tense smile on your own lips. Nanda says nothing, likely recognizing something of the transformation you’ve attempted. You do not really care about the other women of the house peeking in as you lather white face-paint on all visible skin; they will see you anyway as you depart, as will any clients of the house on this busy night. Perhaps they will talk of it, the City.
Your forest witch is dressed in all black, of course, and stands at an ambitiously towering height thanks to her heightened shoes. Her white face, unmasked, peeks from between the hat’s floppy brim and the high collar of the gown like the moon; you even had Nanda scare up a lunar-themed fan to support the conceit. The lower arms have attached prosthetics covered in the gown satin, making the witch’s arms seem unnaturally long while allowing you to let go of the handles and leave the prosthetics hanging free if you need to use your real hands. And of course, the sound: any scrunching of the black, billowy satin of your skirt causes the unmistakable scrape of steel – of blades – just the way it should.
Fine sartorial work, if you may be allowed to judge your own genius. This, and your planned entertainment, will surely make you the belle of the ball. At least it silences the Cytheral House completely as you finesse yourself through the doors. The gown just about fits through a doorway.
The boatmen of the river know of the Gabaldon house, of course, so finding your way to the masquerade proves simple. Sitting down on the boat perhaps less so, but not only are you rather indifferent to the boatman’s opinion, but also it’s probably rather commonplace for women to have trouble with these fancy costumes, too. Your being on the move alone is more unusual, anyway. You end up crouching at the back of the boat like a large crow rather than trying to fit inside the passenger cabin.
The Gabaldon house is in the inner parts of the Estuary isles, on the fringes of the Lantern City, where the space is at premium and even merchant princes have to accept rather close neighbourhoods. The house is lit up for the masque with so many lights it might as well be daytime. The entire canal rings with the river-singers hired to attract attention and signal in-coming guests of all being in readiness. Vansittart certainly plays house with the best of them. It is a masquerade party, not dissimilar to any that a merchant prince might throw in the weeks before the Summer Post.
You arrival is timed well, for other guests are off-loading from their boats as well. The boatsman helps you keep your balance while stepping to the pier stairs, and he seems happy with your performance, offering his well-wishes to the lady in the night’s reveils. Good enough.
Looking around you, the guests seem to be drifting slowly towards the main doors of the house, greeting acquaintances casually. Not too quickly, as nobody wants to be seen actually waiting in line at the door. On the other hand, a man of measure should not hold back, either, or others might have to wait as well, or worse still appear to cut in front of the important man.
You are somewhat conspicuous for being unaccompanied, admittedly. Bad enough for a man, even stranger for a woman. Then again, anything is forgiven to the bold: you might as well stand straight and tall, and let them wonder. You’re not exactly sneaking in tonight.
Your dress, exotic as it is, is not really out of place at all in a soiree of this sort. The City has developed a taste for the extraordinary over its years of wealth, and that shows best of all in the plumage of the masquerade: some of the men may be subdued in comparison with their simple masks and capes, but among the women yours is by no means the most fantastical contraption of a costume. There are probably one or two other forest witches here tonight, though probably none of the sheer size of your ensemble. As you move closer to the doors, guests even try brushing on you “accidentally”, to test your bells. Needless to say, the soft screech of metal makes its own impression.
One more thing you observe on the approach: the house has a Karstite guard tonight, unmistakably dressed in their grey and black. Probably not on permanent retainer, but surely a good idea for any gathering of important men. A Karstite bogatyr, perhaps, leading a number of grim and ruthless men. The Karst is home to a cruel kind of man, fit for mercenary work; they are known for their discipline in Scarlet, and are likely to pride themselves on a sharp and merciless execution of order. Could be a favorable sign to you, who also chose to dress for the moon tonight.
You approach the door boldly, and the other guests seem generally happy about letting you go first. Could simply be the costume and nothing more; the forest witch is a costume choice of a mature woman, and somewhat counter-respectable in that it is not something you wear if fear what others think. It takes poise, and naturally everybody here in the yard assumes that I am somebody important for the sheer gall the costume implies.
The steward of the house is at the door, taking names and instructing heralds. You see little reason to prevaricate; if Vansittart wants to do it here, you are ready. The mercenary guard may well have cross-bows, but just those will not be up to the proof tonight. Rising up the stairs and entering the great doorway, you positively loom over the herald.
— Derak, the endsman titled the “Puppet”, you speak your name to the steward.
— Very good, Miss Derak, the steward replies, barely raising an eyebrow at your circumstances. — An unannounced arrival, yes?
Confirming you on his list, the man waves you through and to the right, to the grand ballroom. Seems that the house will today be rather full of Vansittart’s friends and acquaintances. Probably many professionals like you among them. Well, not exactly like you.
The party is still filling up, but to you it seems largely of the sort you expect and have come to know. Perhaps being invited to one is somewhat rare for you, but it is not once, but actually twice that you have been specifically hired to conduct a kill during similar parties. You actually understand the impulse well: there is something about the bright dresses, ample food, the blood-red wine and the false smiles that invites death as part of the tapestry of the banquet. Sometimes you think that these people actually almost expect somebody to die during the revelry. You certainly do.
You enter the ballroom without incident, blending into the lurid scenery, but your attention is quickly attracted when you notice her: Chrysal is here, and you do feel glad for her being alive and whole, despite everything. Her presentation is courtly rather than servile, unless you miss some slight nuance from afar; as before, she seems to wear a painting even more elaborate and much more colorful than before, coupled with a skirt, shawl and a feathered hat. Like you, she wears no mask, having had her face painted instead with… an arrangement of excess eyes? Perhaps it is more alluring up front.
Chrysal seems to be entertaining a herd of guests, three pairs or so. You would have to approach to learn more, but from across the room she seems restrained, not unlike the way she was with you. She is letting the men do the talking, but clearly adding some wan remark to make them happy. They’re talking about her body art, most likely, as she lets her shawl drop for a moment, uncovering her chest and back to loud claps of appreciation.
Although it was not your intent, you do forget yourself for a moment, watching her and wondering what might have been. She seems like a woman who is sensitive to the nature of the City is… a former slave, like you. It is a shame she is so weak.
— There is something to her, is there not? She is frailer than she looks, believe me – I know weakness. Won’t last long once the tough get going, if I am any judge.
You turn slowly around, appalled at your carelessness. It is Vansittart Gabaldon, the master of the house himself who sidled up to you in your moment of distraction. You recognize the imposing frame of the man despite the nominal domino mask covering his upper face. Vansittart is dressed to kill, metaphorically speaking: his bold white dress shirt is actually pinned back from the hem, exposing his stomach and much of the unshaven chest. The powerfully barbaric, raw presentation is balanced by the expensive pink rosette holding the shirt collar together. Even then, the trailing ribbons of the rosette draw the eye inexorably southwards. His belt glitters in gold and black, drawing the eye to a magnificent dress sword.
— I would offer my superficial apology, master Derak, for not welcoming you into my home sooner, Vansittart continues as you gauge him silently. — I was delayed due to not expecting you to appear in such… lurid apparel. I suppose that endsmen truly live by their own rules, and I am sure that you make the most delightful lady if one were to get to know you better.
Vansittart looks you straight in the eyes as he speaks, rather unblinking. He is just as tall as you, and his boots (damn, made you look!) don’t seem to have much of a heel compared to the stilts you wear.
Also, you absolutely need to get some control over this conversation right now. Or make your move, either or.
— I did feel pretty witchy tonight, you manage. — Pretty and witchy. As for Miss Chrysal, I agree about her weakness; I was just thinking of how very little I care of her.
You move your waist slightly forward, brushing Vansittart with your gown for emphasis. The way he grimaces at the sound is quite satisfying.
— You should not worry your pretty little head with Chrysal, Vansittart says. — You must be worried of the punishment involved in snooping around the woman of a better man, but have no fear; it is obvious to me that you are no threat to my amorous designs. The extent of the divide between our estates, as the saying goes, is insurmountable.
A bravo would never get that far in a put-down, not if their foe had any honor. What stays your hand, paradoxically, is indeed your own uncertainty of your honor. Is this the moment? For a bravo fearful of their pride it would be, indeed the only moment. But are not your pretensions towards something more than that?
— I hope she will serve you well, master Vansittart, you speak with utter calm.
Vansittart snorts at you taking his words. He actually offers his hand to you.
— Well, I am glad that you have chosen to join us tonight, Miss. It is the right choice. If you will follow me, we can talk further on matters. On Fate, and the designs it has on us both. You might be surprised.
He puts his hand on your arm and draws himself close, uncaring of the loud screech of steel against steel. It attracts glances, but no more than that, as Vansittart moves to lead you across the ballroom.
— I have heard from Daag, Vansittart remarks as he leads the way. — I understand from him that you have struggled mightily to put a stop to the little schemistry revolving around the Summer Festival?
— Your being so calm about it does confuse me, you can’t help but admit. It used to be that your silence protected you, but nowadays it is difficult to keep your calm… and Vansittart is personable in his own way, it is difficult to not answer his prodding in some way.
— You do know, master endsman, how fey we are, us people of Scarlet. Schemes come and go. The important thing, what truly separates the honorable from the chaff, is that we don’t give a damn. Bet your money, not your life. Certainly some might say that you have snubbed me, but if we choose to ignore it, who would know better? Soon enough you might be helping me yourself. Different means, but the destination remains the same.
You’ve passed Chrysal’s little soiree unacknowledged, headed towards the back doors of the room as you are. Another small group of early guests seems to be gathered here, and Vansittart doesn’t seem to be avoiding them.
— Ah, Theognis Andor and his little coterie. Let’s go say hello.
Vansittart strides boldly, forcing you to resentfully hold onto his arm to keep up.
— Master Theognis, Vansittart greets his peer amiably. — I hope you have enjoyed the repast. I have an affair to settle upstairs with my companion here, but we thought to stop by for introduction’s sake.
— We have been enjoying ourselves, master Vansittart, the elderly gentleman acknowledges, nodding amiably. It is more difficult to tell with the elder man, but his younger companions are probably Longaxi.
At least the etiquette does not actually require you to say anything unless directly addressed.
— Let me make the introductions, Vansittart says, not letting go of your arm as such. — Dear, the honorable Theognis here is a master trader hailing from the city of Sheath; an interesting man whom we might get to know better some time in the future. The gentlemen are his sons and advisors, I think? Either way, my charming companion here is, you should know, none other than the infamous endsman Derak the Puppet.
That certainly gets a reaction, almost unfortunately so – as one of the younger men scampers away you can just feel the sights of a Karstite guardsman following his movements.
— Please calm down, gentlemen, Vansittart says, enjoying himself and your seeming agreeability in an entirely guileless way. — I will freely admit that the Puppet is an extraordinary endsman, but tonight he is a guest of the house, not on a mission. I will not hold it against you if you are a bit shy, but at least shake his hand, will you. You don’t get to do that with such a peculiar man every day. Did you know, he even slew my brother Albin this past week? An honorable duel, of course, but still – remarkable, isn’t he? Ha ha ha!
That last part certainly sounded just a touch manic, particularly the laugh. You can see that you’re not the only one here uncertain about Vansittart’s… thing. However, he is the master of the house, so what if he’s a bit peculiar? Confidence takes you far in Scarlet, anyway, and money means even more. It’s not like there aren’t practically gibbering senators, too.
Rolled a ‘2’
Hero dice: 4, 4, 2, 6, 2, 4
Monster dice: 4, 4, 3, 1, 2
The Match ends – Monster’s score is 5.
Monster total: 14
Hero total: 22
Hero wins the Match.
The Climax begins.
The Hero has 6 Good Dice, equaling 3 Picks.
Choices that must be made:
- Achieve your Goal, to discover your purpose – achieved by winning the Match.
- Avoid being injured or deprived by Vansittart Gabaldon | Otherwise, Vansittart Gabaldon hurts you severely.
- Kill, permanently imprison or disenfranchise Vansittart Gabaldon | Otherwise Vansittart Gabaldon makes senator sooner or later.
- Save Chrysal from her choices | Otherwise she is left to the mercies of her situation.
- Judge Daag | Otherwise he gets his from this mess.
- Sway Tassava Gilo | Otherwise nothing changes for Scarlet as a whole.
- Save the Unbroken Circle | Otherwise the Circle will be torn apart.
- Destroy the Dark Crystal | Otherwise the crystal continues its rounds.
- Repay your friends in Scarlet | Otherwise you cannot afford any goodbyes.
- Root out Sheath | Otherwise agents will continue destabilizing Scarlet.
Whatever you do not pick, the contrary must happen.