- Derak the Drifter 29.11.2018
It is time to continue this. Behold:
- A Short History of Serene Scarlet 30.11.2018
The Lover’s score is 2.
As difficult as it is to believe looking at the current state of the place, Scarlet began as an imperial Planned City, similar to any of the ghost towns now dotting the plains. The regular streets forcibly cut squares – city blocks – out of the gently rolling slope of the Marical river plain, heedless of natural geography. The Planned City was perversely sketched out around the Old Hill, some ways away from the actual river estuary; it reflected the military primacy of the imperial city-constructing arts, as Planned Cities always did. Much of the land cleared early on was left bare, ready to accommodate camping soldiers as readily as new building, as future needs would dictate. The empty city template was called Fronesis Quinto, according with the art, and would be for some time.
More than any of the other Planned Cities, however, the last Fronesis was the one that was truly needed. Not by the Golden Empress, but one of the later Lesser Emperors, Rathin Armsman. It was during his time that the imperial court first moved over the plains, seeking to be headquartered in the lush Marical Valley. The rivers and the sea would serve for travel, and as the dangers at this time often came to the Empire over the Ridges and into Marical first, it was only reasonable for the emperor to be there to meet them head-on.
The Planned City on the Old Hill was quick to prove worthless for an emperor’s needs, however, for the limits of its freshwater reserves; while aqueduct constructions were quickly attempted as the need became apparent, it was all too slow, as the city moved itself instead: first the poor who had nothing to do with the Imperial Quarters anyway, then more and more of the burgeoning capital rolled down-hill to embrace the great river and its endless water supply. Fronesis would be a river city, no matter what the philosophers of Hadracia may have intended.
From then on, historical accident continued determining the city’s growth. The river bank having already been claimed by the common rabble, the wealthy chevaliers took the entirety of the river’s southern side for their own, building there what they failed to finish on the Hill. Nobody at the time would imagine bridging the Marical, which meant that the river presented a reasonable distancing factor for the rich (and their slaves) on the Southside, while the detritus of meaningless humanity that always accompanies the birth of a city could accumulate in peace on the the northern bank, the Hillside of the city. The business of government stayed tenaciously on the Hill all through the end of the Imperial era, or otherwise the two river banks might have come to be treated as two entirely separate cities in time.
The boggy banks and numerous islets of the actual Marical estuary were uninhabited at the time, mainly due to the unhealthy miasmas reigning in the area. The first docks of the city were built well up the river, on firm land, and it was only slowly that the habitation even approached the river-mouth, house by house as new inhabitants were pushed to the edges.
The Bitter Years
The age of darkness brought change to Marical Valley as it did to all things: in the Hadracian year 544 the latest emperor left Fronesis to wage mobile war up-river; next year the barbarians descended upon Fronesis itself while the emperor was in full retreat through the plains. The defense of the city proved awkward: the old Planned part of the city on the Hill had its original stone walls, making it quite defensible for a limited number of men; the rest, the great mass of population were forced to escape to the petty islands of the estuary. Much of the Hillside and Southside were destroyed quickly.
Fronesis had a fair population of virtuous men then, wealthy and capable of directing rebuilding, but the task came soon to frustrate the best minds of the provincial elite, as barbarian attacks continued and attempts at defense seemed ever more impossible. While the Old Hill garrison proved viable against raids, the aqueducts were soon destroyed by the relentless enemy, one again making the Hill of limited use in protecting the main mass of citizenry.
The grim condition of barbarian assault continued in the Marical Valley for several years. The various populations failed to mount a defense, being at the mercy of the barbarians; the imperial government had taken much of the warmaking ability of the province with them, no doubt with the intent to return. What happened instead was a period of chaos and great suffering that destroyed most civilized settlement in the valley at the pleasure of the barbarians.
Fronesis, the greatest of the Marical cities, was saved from utter annihilation by desperate adaptation: much of the city’s civilian population was permanently evacuated to the estuary islands where the barbarians could not reach them. The Old Hill remained defended throughout, as the Imperial Quarters and great temples on the Hill were deemed too valuable to be left for rapine. The two populations did what they could to aid each other, although any serious barbarian attack could and would cut them off from each other until the barbarians were forced to retreat for lack of supply.
This time is widely remembered as the “bitter years” in Scarlet folklore; while today living on the estuary has become second nature to the citizens, at the time the constant shortage of building materials, boats, food and above all, fresh drinking water, were a great hardship. The estuary water is barely drinkable, mixed with seawater as it is, but the people generally came to hate it nevertheless.
The bitter years finally came to an end when the virtuous senate of Fronesis managed to make a settlement with the barbarian invaders in 592. By this time Fronesis, and particularly the Old Hill, was practically the last remaining anchor for imperial military action in the entire province, so while the barbarian domination wasn’t in question, the settlement still had some value to the tribal chiefs facing Fronesis in what had by now become a generational stalemate. Making peace also meant legitimacy: the modern city of Sheath, in the far end of Marical Valley, begun as a permanent settlement by the invaders.
The Barbarian Settlement (also known as the Settlement of Sheath) is generally accounted the starting point for not just Scarlet City in its modern form, but also the Plainsdom Magocracy to the south of the valley; the empire never returned for us, you see. The Marical watershed became the practical border of the imperial reminder, the Plainsdom.
Rise of the Serene Scarlet
The next two generations after the Barbarian Settlement were a dynamic time for the entire Marical Valley, and Fronesis above all. While much of the core population had taken to the Estuary as their home by now, returning soldiery from all over the valley were housed in the rebuilt Hillside, with a nigh permanent barbarian settlement started further along the estuary shore, in the Crook. The ruined Southside was also soon to be repurposed into an industrial district as the city started to recover as a production center.
Because the Barbarian Settlement had left the downriver half of the Marical Valley free to incorporate itself, Fronesis was quick to claim its hinterland and secure a permanent grain supply for the first time in decades. The city had developed something of a fishing fleet during the Bitter Years, but improved food stability nevertheless caused the population to start rising rapidly.
Other towns in the “free part” were rebuilt or established around this time, but none really could or would threaten Fronesis, secure in its historical primacy. The barbarian tribes now settling comfortably in the upriver Marical were the only true concern for a city that had survived the worst imaginable catastrophe.
Of key importance in the growth of the city was the successful opening of trade with shoreline communities of the Magocracy Plainsdom and the barbarian principalities that could be reached from Fronesis by following the coast. The strategic position of Scarlet City has always destined it to play a central role in controlling international trade out of the Marical Valley; it was obvious from early on that Fronesis in the new age would be a city of the trades.
The Virtuous Senate kept control of the burgeoning city by emphasizing historical continuity and legitimacy of government. The citizen soldiery posed a danger to the rule of the “virtuous men” in the early years, while later on the senate would be constantly challenged by the rising merchant class and ideological challenges brought on by the new age priesthoods that would come to descent on the city in due time. The senate has collectively managed its grip on power through all these centuries by ruthless adaptation; while the virtuous men individually have always tended towards conservation of their own power foremost of all, the senate has had its purges – such purges, ensuring that only ever the most virtuous of men sit on the benches. The senatorial seat is the corporate stock in the Scarlet City, and it is something that should ever be used to maintain the serenity of the republic.
Scarlet City today
Fronesis is rarely known by its name among the common population today. Rather, it is simply the Scarlet City, known far and wide for the production of the titular dye; simply one of the tricks of trade the city hosts. The scarlet is a senatorial red, worn by kings of many lands. For the population it is pride, for what used to be the color of the emperors is now the color of the greatest republic left in the remains of the empire. The grey Magocracy certainly cannot compete.
The citizenry of Scarlet is essentially dispossessed of all political power, but the population numbers over a hundred thousand in total, a human wave that the Virtuous Senate never could stem should they turn against the oligarchy. Civic pride is therefore maintained by fidelity to archaic morals and manners dating from the imperial days. There are certain requirements in the compact between the rulers and the ruled, even if they are dangerously unspoken and sometimes contradictory.
While the staple crafts and the scarlet dye have maintained Scarlet’s seat as the arbitrator of trade between Marical and the Magocracy since the Settlement, the true strength and significance of Scarlet City has only become evident through the last half-century. The world has been slowly growing smaller, denser and richer in ways that are difficult for the common man to gauge, but that are the true lifeblood of the commerce that sustains the ever-burgeoning Serene Scarlet. Consider:
- Improved sailcraft has helped establish contact with new lands, and new long-distance trade routes have become accessible. The old imperial lands are finally recovering from the collapse, and the main part in bringing the world together benefits Scarlet. Many new opportunities for profit are on offer as the wonders of the world are brought to Scarlet, the city in the center of the web.
- The Marical Valley has become rich in its rebuilding; several lesser cities compete with Scarlet, and with Sheath, its mirror image in the far reaches of upriver Marical. The wealth enables heretofore unseen exertions among nations: Scarlet builds great fleets and raises armsmen to protect itself, paying for it all by its stupendous industrial capacity.
- The Virtuous Rule has become the law of the republic, bringing serenity to all of its complex relations at home and abroad. Foreign masters of every art come to the city, knowing that in a few generations their descendants could well sit in the highest offices. Exotic habits and beliefs are brought to the city, yet all are tamed and made part of the great tapestry of profit and opportunity.
This is the Scarlet City you have always known: a city literally owned by ruthless merchant princes, defended by mercenaries, maintained by crafters, dreamed by a strange amalgam of ideas from all four corners of the world. To survive here means knowing the game of the oligarchs, and being willing to align your little life with their great lives; to prosper means having a dream or following one, bringing some little grace to what otherwise amounts to a meaningless struggle.
- An Uneasy Homecoming 02.12.2018
The events that took place in the Jeweled Swamps feel like a distant, green dream. A nightmare of sorts, yet elusive and vague like a madman’s fantasy. As I started my journey back towards civilization I was to find out that in order to change the scenery, one needed to change his nightmares as well.
When I finally separated with Pale, he gave me a pouch made of rough leather. It was filled with peculiar, reddish pearls. “Something for the trip,” as he plainly put it. They were far from perfect in their shape and size, yet the color was extraordinary enough for me to barter them one by one into coin, food, lodging or passage during my arduous journey.
The hours were long in the various caravans and ships and there was plenty of time for me to contemplate on what had happened and what would happen next.
I reached some kind of an insight with the former. Indeed I had encountered ill magics, something more real and tangible than what the tricksters and hustlers of Scarlet could ever possess. It was a force that crossed and broke the chains of humanity in a way that was most vile in nature. I quickly realized that the supernatural events I witnessed didn’t get any better by contemplation: my mind naturally shunned away from the intricate and horrible details of my encounters. Perhaps the best for a simple and straightforward man is just to forget. A deed not easily attainable.
I reached a truce of some kind with my inner self as well. Now that I had accustomed to what I had become, I didn’t really want to go back to my old ways. I was convinced, that the meeting with the supernatural was the birthground that sprang my consciousness alive and now that it had been awakened there was no way to go back. Memories of my old life kept bothering my sleep, faces of the dead hadn’t gone away. Arduous travelling helped, as true bodily weariness was the best guarantee for quiet sleep.
There was also my future in Scarlet to be anxious about. What could I do, how would I live? I pondered on the choices I had and nothing of note came to mind at first. I could try my craft with locks and mechanics, but I was not a member of any of the guilds and they controlled the manufacture and trade with rigorous effectiveness. The Free Scholars would no doubtedly drive me away or worse, considering my history with my master Papak in the past. My old profession was out of the question.
More vague ideas came to me often, when I lay in my hammock on a deck of some river-barge under the star riddled sky and when sleep evaded me. It was the emptiness of cause and meaning. If there were powers out there, that could twist humanity, that indeed would twist humanity if they had the chance, then was there anything we could do about it? The old Derak would consider himself special among fellow men, and even though my new self had bursted that bubble to an extent, I felt that perhaps I could still have something meaningful to do, something that would give me cause.
During the voyage, my inner contemplations often conjured the images of people from the past. Yasul and Papak were the most constant visitors. When they did come, they often seemed to speak with me, without asking how I felt about it.
Manual labor is the means for the simplest of us. They give their flesh in exchange for food. Doing so makes you sturdy and strong, yet dull and lacking in finesse. We are strong and swift, yet our form of strength is applied in an instant. Let not the repetitiveness rob you of your senses of touch and feel, of distance and timing.
This was Papak, as lively as ever when I contemplated on a future of manual labor in the Scarlet. “Maybe not then, Papak, if it is avoidable.” I refused to call him master now, as I did back in the day when he was alive. He didn’t seem to mind.
As my journey progressed, the stack of pearls dwindled dangerously. I tried to eat less and buy the cheapest accommodation available but when I managed to do this, it was too late. The pearls finally ended in about ten days journey from the Scarlet and with a heavy heart I had to start selling my devices and potions. The things I bartered were more or less non-essential parts of what I had, but there was no way around it, in the Scarlet I would need to find something quick or face a downward falling spiral that would end in a gutter in Filth Alley.
The idea of my next step came only during the last morning of my travel, when I could already see the familiar silhouette of the city in the distance. It was something Papak had mentioned to me long time ago, when we talked about how information moved through the city.
The Mask Market, Derak. It is the hidden network of information spread anonymously throughout the city. The organisers of this network are individuals who stay in the background, buying and selling their craft. I know some of these mysterious men, and I can say that they are not simply greedy merchants trying to get rich. They have far greater plans. Such plans fulfilled would shake the foundations of this city, perhaps the world even.
I have no coin, I have no profession. But I have information of ancient perils. I have to put my hopes on the fact that I get in contact with people who are willing to pay for them, even a little. Perhaps I could dig a bit into this masked business and see if they have something I could do for a living. Not to mention there is a hole in my past: something I did between the time I touched the dark crystal and woke up in the Ruby Dancer.
I enter the glorious Vineyard Gate with my head held low, and travel garments tarnished by endless miles. Hooded I come and blending into the group of other travellers, filled by a sudden shame of my past in the city, trying not to run into people that could recognize me. There is no going to the Ruby Dancer, its glorious rooms are beyond my grasp at least at the moment. Whether I can find a shelter for the night is questionable. I am as unaccustomed to living in the streets as a poor person as I was in the jungles of the Jeweled Swamps. Maybe this is my lot in life. I push my head deeper into the shadow of the hood and press on.
- Does the Puppet patronize brothels? 05.12.2018
You amble into the city, circling around the Gate Square out of habit, knowing how crossing the cobbled expanse draws attention. The Vineyard gate may be open for all, but it is still watched by the many eyes of the Pseudoduke, and whoever else prizes such knowledge of the comings and goings. Such is the awareness of the citizens that even newcomers to Scarlet get swept away by the habit of the locals to stick to the edges, forming a grand clockwise rotary that you join without second thought.
The real reason to enter through the Vineyard Gate, though, instead of the docks: this is your city, Derak, and has been all your life. The Puppet’s is a face well-known in the Crook, among those bravos and poseurs who live the life of the demimonde and thrill in the exploits of your kind. It is an uncomfortable fame, one built on imaginations more than facts, and never something a titled assassin would actually desire. It is also unlikely that you would have already been so thoroughly forgotten as to allow you to enter the city that way without the knowledge being on Daag’s tavern table by the day’s end.
Surely Daag would be of some concern to you, Derak? Or are you so enlightened now, so embalmed in your new-found morality that a mob boss (or “undermerchant” as Scarlet says) like Daag Sit-Fence does not really merit concern? It was he who financed Papak’s expedition to the Jeweled Swamps. Perhaps Papak merely intended to undercut you on an imagined treasure hunt, but the Fox… she was paid and sent by Daag, was she not? Sent after you, and for reasons you still do not understand.
Yes, keeping out of the Crook until you have decided what to do about Daag is an excellent reason to go to the effort of entering the city from the Hillside. Little happens in the Crook that Daag Sit-Fence doesn’t learn, and as of now you are uncomfortably clueless as to what he even wants of you, if anything.
You still need to keep a low profile in the meantime, and figure out a way to get in touch with the Mask Market for your new scheme. You also need to find the place and the means for maintaining your tools. Staying in Hillside means playing by the clean rules, at least during the day. Living here penniless is not much of an option, though, unless you wait to break into an attic come dark and make an illicit nest that way. If you had the money, you could just enter an inn, of course – not Ruby Dancer, but one of the others perhaps.
You could also catch the free worker’s ferry to Southside, but that means waiting for sundown as well, leaving little time to figure anything out on the other side. Your stash is in the Estuary, but it’s closer to Daag’s usual stomping grounds, and spending your last coins on boating seems like a fool’s gamble when you’re not quite sure if there’s even anything there anymore.
The problem for you Derak is the dearth of friends, really. There are many faces in your memories, certainly, but how many of those will want to see you on their doorstep tonight? If that is the gauge of friendship, them willing to put you up and keep their mouths shut with Daag, then, perhaps you don’t have any? The cold man you have been, the Puppet, maybe he was not one for friends. Which means: you truly are a lonely person. Even coming home, you are alone.
Thinking these cheerful thoughts you exit the square by the Docs Road. This main thoroughfare cuts through the entire Hillside and into the Crook, but for you it’s just the quickest way to get some distance on the square and the old parts of Hillside. You know these parts best, where the old city kisses the Crook; it is where those like you often set themselves in the tapestry of Scarlet; unwilling to rub shoulders with the losers and outlanders of the Crook, yet not proud enough to buy into a hostel in the better parts like the real gentlemen.
You spend the next hour wandering the streets, really. It’s been a long time since you left the City, and it takes time – will take time – for it to feel truly comfortable again. The street senses, they are peculiar: your constant sense of being watched and dread of being recognized are slow to recede now that you are in a place that might as well be a sea of strangers, and you a fish part of the school. You stare too much and move your eyes constantly, habits that will be taken wrong by the hard people here. They are habits you need to lose, get back to your street cool. You need to be aware, yes, but in a way that does not drive you into distraction simply by walking the streets.
In the past you would not have missed an obvious trail like this, frankly. You’ve been spooking at passers-by so much that you have no idea how long they have been following you. At one point you just realize that they’re there: two women walking together, keeping pace with you. The afternoon traffic on the side roads of Hillside is hardly enough to obscure them; rather, the way they hurry after you as you turn the corner couldn’t be much more obvious, particularly the way one pulls the other after you. And still for all the obviousness it takes you a few minutes to make up your mind: they really are following you.
You could certainly lose the pair with their dresses and all by jaunting, or get down to the shore markets and the throngs, but surely finding out what they are about is more important than that? Do they need to be silenced? Saunter over to an old flood vallation, yes, take a confident seat, back against stone. Watch them approach, take their measure.
The pair could be mother and daughter, though on the youthful side both. Craftswomen by the apparel, respectable; they could be from the neighbourhood. The younger is barely a nymphet, dressed virgin-gay, showing virtuous taste in pale yellow. The elder… is her face familiar to you, Derak? How much attention have you paid to the women in your life, the kind of person that you are? You might have forgotten her, easily enough. The face of a victim it is not, for yours do not live; but the face of a widow you’ve made, or that of a passing acquaintance, a nights-desiree? Something you have forgotten, that part taken away by the Magus?
They notice that you’ve stopped, the elder gesturing at the younger to stop as well. They trade words, and the younger departs back the way they came; the woman of the two approaches. She’s dressed demurely, nearly offensively plain for Scarlet-outside-the-walls: brown skirt with white pleats, brown doublet with white camisole. Brown hair in a bun and likely brown eyes to go with the ensemble. Something about her looks… she dresses near enough to be thought poorly, and the face is strong, the nose and brows prominent in a way uncharacteristic of Marical women – mixed blood, perhaps. Intriguing, particularly for that feeling of familiarity.
You say nothing as she makes her approach, letting her address you if she would.
— It is you, is it not? Derak the Puppet? she asks, leaving you grappling with your uncertainty over her identity. She pronounces it like the civilians, PO-peit, unfamiliar with the word and the deadly conceit it expresses.
The silence stretches as you ponder your words.
— That may be the case, you finally answer her in the blunt manner of the city. — But the question is, what is that to you?
— You disappeared for over a year, she says in a voice tinged with reproach. — I… lost my place at the Cytheral after the Midwinter post, and did not know how to reach you. I had hold of your package, and still have, but it is yours. It was a humble concern of mine that should the Puppet not find me at the Cytheral to complete his strange arrangement…
She’s thinking that you would kill her for cutting you off. Not a baseless fear, as the truth is that you are, despite your play at gentleness, one of the hard men. Harder; comparing one such as you to a common bravo has been known to be taken as an insult.
— Regardless, I never intended to run off with your package, honored Puppet, she continues while staring at your eyes, seeking signs of anger. — I held onto it as you told me to, and when I espied you on the street just now, I promptly followed to address your honor. If you want it back, I have it back home… I could fetch it to your inn, or take you to it right now.
It seems you have arranged for a pick-up with her before you left the City. Thing is, you remember nothing whatsoever about any package like that.
Want a dialogue here?
- Trust and Paranoia 06.12.2018
I recorded the dialogue:
— Regardless, I never intended to run off with your package, honored Puppet, she continues while staring at your eyes, seeking signs of anger. — I held onto it as you told me to, and when I espied you on the street just now, I promptly followed to address your honor. If you want it back, I have it back home… I could fetch it to your inn, or take you to it right now.
It seems you have arranged for a pick-up with her before you left the City. Thing is, you remember nothing whatsoever about any package like that.
I am torn between curiosity and caution. The strange sense of familiarity to this woman puzzles me, and a promise of answers and perhaps a leverage for starting a new life. But I have lived long enough in the city to honor my carefulness.
— Before I have any of it, I want to know who you are and especially, who was she who came with you? Why did she leave, did you order her to report my location?
So far I have sat with a relaxed posture, but now I lean forward, faking confidence and silent threat. Casually I observe our surroundings, it is not the first time when someone gets caught or worse focusing too much on a certain thing. Soft eyes, not to fix in one spot, they are the key.
She leans away from you curiously.
— The Puppet may not remember me in the particular, then. I put myself forth at the Cytheral House ’till midwinter. I had the honor of hosting you there on the night you left the package, and once before on the year before last. My name is Chrysal, and though I left the Cytheral, there is no hurt to my reputation over it. Perhaps it was no great matter for you, and I have been concerned over nothing these last months.
She watches you carefully, evidently expecting you to drop the rest of your questions.
— What about your companion? Where did you send her off to?
Chrysal begins to gesture dismissively, but lowers her hands as she realizes your seriousness.
— Home, I sent her home. I live with her now. Her name is Phryne, but she… she has nothing to do with this, that’s all.
I stand up, quickly, giving her no time to draw back as I close in. Still I keep my movement casual so that any passer-by wouldn’t be alerted of my actions. It is enough that she knows I mean business. I am in trouble, I can’t let her go and miss an opportunity for discovery of my past. It may be that I have to dare.
— Where do you live? Lead me there now. If what you say is true, there will be no need to fear me.
— Yes, of course Puppet, she begins bobbing her head like an anxious servant at your sudden movement. — We live nearby, in the Tabrams… they’re the row of maisons over there.
She gestures, but you already know the houses she means. Part of the new Hillside, been there since before your time. Rent property, home to everybody and anybody with some income. Your head does not turn to her gesture, but you allow her to move by you and start back up the street.
— It is just a few blocks away, she says, trying to keep watch of you while leading the way. — You will see that we have nothing to hide, and little worth taking. I want nothing of yours, honorable Puppet…
I stop her on her tracks as an idea comes up. Kind of a warm feeling of familiarty from the past. Perhaps getting bit back to my surroundings and trying to be in control.
— No, not this way we don’t. I know what houses you mean. I go ahead and you will follow on your own. We will meet there.
It colds my heart to take the risk. Perhaps she just disappears into the crowd and I will never see her again. Still, I will not be walked to any grisly fate. Without turning back to check, I head off briskly into the direction of the houses she meant. After a while I check her position from the corner of my eye.
She seems to be following you of her own volition. You keep up a pace and slow down to watch her from time to time, but you see nothing suspicious. There is a street vendor on the last corner who ignores you but nods to her, but she does not stop, and only nods to him in reply.
The Tabram maisons are four-storey townhouses, the sort built in Hillside and Southside to keep up with the growth of the city. Honest people for the most part, if not virtuous in the senatorial sense. The two bottom storeys are stone, ensuring that building these blockhouses remains a merchant prince enterprise, profitable as they are. The Tabrams alone take half a dozen blocks in a straight line here.
You watch as Chrysal stops at one of the gates, looking at you before entering. She raises her hand fingers splayed, clearly indicating the fourth floor before slipping inside.
I wait a while, then enter the building. Is there a pair of eyes gazing at me from one of the windows. I feel a chill in my spine, perhaps I am but a mouse entering in a well-oiled trap. Instinctively I draw out my mainblades a bit. The left one lets out a creak, indicating I need a way to maintain my wares.
I curse the dimness. After the outside sun I feel blind as a bat. At least a bat with claws.
The stairs are stainwood, old but well-kept. Solid doors keep you in the stairway as far as the first two floors are concerned, while the third has a long hallway. Cheaper, smaller apartments. The fourth floor has just two doors, one of which is invitingly ajar.
Having not been ambushed in the hallway, you have little choice but to peer carefully into the room through the half-open doorway. Sunlight in the room, and the wall opposing seems to have a clean white plaster – fancy. You can hear low mumbling, but it is a female voice.
Finally entering, you witness a sparsely furnished loft apartment furnished in pale colors. The aesthetic is near sun-bleached. While only the interior wall is plastered white, a pale yellow curtain and what must be white sand on the sills complement the large windows open to the south. There is a second room as well, the doorway next to the window obscured by a darker curtain.
The occupants give the impression of having waited for you. Chrysal and her companion – Phryne – sit at a table in a niche between the door and the window. The arrangement is noticeably confined, it would take them valuable seconds to extricate themselves from between the furniture.
— Welcome, Puppet, Chrysal says after a moment. You notice her holding the girl’s hand. — There are no other people in the apartment. Your honor will excuse Phryne; she is not used to the hard men, and the thought of a titled endsman in her home has her out of sorts.
I make sure she speaks the truth with one casual glance around me and the door closed I release my guard an inch.
— Do not worry, little flower, I gesture to the younger girl. — There is no harm held for you in my hand.
The word “endsman” bothers me for some reason. Sure, I know who I was, but nonetheless. I turn my gaze back to Chrysal.
— And now, with the business of the package. Shall we?
— Of course, Puppet, she answers readily and slowly wriggles herself out from behind the table. You step to the window yourself, checking the view. The afternoon seems quiet and sunny; the women will want to draw their shades soon to curtail the heat. While the topmost floor in this type of house is disadvantaged by a low ceiling, the view over the lower roofs is a privilege of sorts.
Chrysal moves around you, entering the other room for a moment. She takes the moment to tie the curtain out of the way, ensuring that you can see her at all times. Not much fear in this one, after all’s said and done – merely practical submission to your every whim. Perhaps she knows how unlikely it would be for a professional to slay her on a whim.
— Here it is, Puppet, she says, carrying out a small leather-covered chest. She sets it on the table for you. — It is the way you left it, and has lain unopened among my possessions since then. Nobody else knows that I held it for you. Phryne knew not what it was until today.
The box is familiar to you, of course. It is part of a set of two you had commissioned for your tools a few years ago. One was mainly an affectation, something to hold a spare set of your blades, but the other you used for a selection of the small, specialized metal-working tools necessary for your art.
Staring at the familiar box, your nerves start to grow tense again. The vague sense of danger at your back, you gesture at the woman Chrysal:
— Open the box, woman, you rasp while turning slowly sideways to it. — The leather straps are on the sides.
You pay no attention to the younger girl, but Chrysal does not seem flustered by your mercurial attitude. She follows instructions slowly and carefully, loosening the straps and moving the box lid sideways until it clicks and releases, springing silently open to her surprise.
The sunlight leaves little to imagination. Right on top, nestled on a bed of paper, lies the dark crystal.
If it please, I’m cool with stopping here. Your Go next.
- Deconstruction and Regroup 06.12.2018
The dark crystal. During the months of preparation and contemplation I have gone through dozens of scenarios in my head over how the homecoming would end. Some of them were tragic, others successful, yet I gave zero thoughts to the dark crystal besides the ones I met in my nightmares.
I feel the grasp of invisible, cold fingers wrapping around my throat, accompanied by a hot, dusty wind that carries with it a faint scent of death and decay. The memory of the Maguses, is like a scar tissue in my mind, inflexible and slow on circulation. It made a new man out of me, yet like a scar it is forever there. And now, in the presence of the crystal it bleeds.
Something inside me breaks. The careful walls of caution and preparation come crashing down there, in the simple room of these two strangers.
Somewhere in the far reaches of my consciousness I hear Phryne scream. Perhaps the look on my face. I take drunken, backward steps from the chest, both mainblades are out instinctively. Later I think it was a good thing I didn’t fire my boot-springs or the ceiling would have killed me in the spot. Perhaps it would have been a fitting end to it all.
— Keep away from the crystal, I hiss like a broken snake. An odd object of sorts touches my leg in my backwards-stumble and instinctively I pivot and put my mainblade through it. It is a small stool made of polished hardwood and my blade sinks in five inches and sticks. Gyroscopes and tools of orientation go haywire, or are they my overstressed nerves. A drunken haze fills my vision and then darkness follows.
* * *
When I come to my senses, I am lying prone on the floor, Chrysal bending over me, wiping my face with a wet cloth, her faint scent overriding the smell of death.
I spring up into a sitting position, causing her to jerk backwards for the first time. I really can’t blame her, my mainblades are still out and the other still buried in the small stool now fallen over just as its proud piercer.
— Tell me you didn’t touch the crystal, woman!
— N…no, we didn’t touch it, Puppet.
She looks extremely troubled, like wanting to say something.
— What is it, woman, speak up?
— Well, Puppet. I was going to ask are you all right? The jewel seemed to …. bother you.
— No, I am not allright! I notice myself yelling to her, and she shrinks down a bit.
I draw back my left mainblade and in the uncomfortable silence its creak bounces from the walls, making me grind my teeth. I place my now unarmed hand on her shoulder.
— I am sorry. This is none of your fault. To tell you the truth, I am not all right at all, and the reason for this is just that black crystal. Or perhaps another like it, who can tell. Because of it I have seen things that wrenches the soul of man until he is just a gibbering fool. Things long forgotten that would blast and mold the very humanity.
She doesn’t answer. How could she? What could she possibly say to that.
I spring into action. Pulling the mainblade out from the stool with a mighty effort, then proceeding to close the chest making sure nothing of me touches it. Perhaps I can investigate the rest of the chest in some later time, when my nerves will allow it.
Phryne has drawn herself to the far corner of the room. She is inspecting me from there, her eyes like that of a chased deer.
— I am sorry, little flower. That will not happen again.
Uncomfortable silence returns. I try to collect the shards of my confidence. I suddenly realize I haven’t really eaten in few days.
— Do you have any food?
Chrysal springs into it, drowning confusion in familiar action.
— Well, yes, honorable Puppet.
— Please, call me Derak instead.
She arranges a small platter of cheese, grapes, olives and a loaf of bread, with a simple carafe of cheap pazzine. I dig into the meal with a relish of a man half-starving. If she had decided to poison me there, a deed would have been accomplished unchecked. The women collect themselves while I eat, getting a seat across the table again. The closed chest lies on the table ominously. I do the best I can to collect my wits during the meal and when I’m done I am ready to continue.
— Nonetheless, I thank you for your hospitality and your commitment to my possession. And even though it is dangerous, it seems to be that only when touched as you have kept it without harm for so long. Now I have to ask a huge favor from you. I need you to keep the chest still for a short while, tell nobody of it or what it contains. I can make your troubles worthwile, once I can get to my stash in Estuary tonight. And for that I need another favor from you. I need your help on disguising as I am not going there as Derak the Puppet.
- Take a Night Shape 10.12.2018
A moment of silence answers your request, only to be broken as Chrysal moves to lock down the straps on your chest. You can’t help flinching at it, but you compose yourself as she looks up and moves to take the chest to the back room. The girl, Phryne, stays seated, conspicuously unmoving.
— You are indeed recognizable on the street, Derak the Easterner, Chrysal says as she returns, her voice now calm. — Even in Serene Scarlet your people are a rare sight. Perhaps it is that you need to show your face where you need to go, yet nevertheless you cannot.
— Are we going to help him? the girl asks of Chrysal, looking at her timidly.
— Of course we are, you little fool, Chrysal says with no heat to her voice. — You know all this. He is a man of measure. Not even his enemies would blame us, unattached as we are, for doing as he tells us. It would be outright boorish to ask him to threaten us.
She looks sideways at you before continuing. — If ill has been made against another virtuous man by holding the possessions of this one, and by not confiding the matter to the madam or a man of measure to begin with, then the mistake was mine and has already been long in the past.
Chrysal stares at the girl until satisfied, before turning fully towards you. The turn of her phrase, as well as her calm demeanor, make it obvious to you that she is used to dealing with the hard men who make up so much of Scarlet’s citizenry. She has treated you deferently thorough despite your extended absence from the City, and the lacking finesse of your dress that casts your status to question. It is a simply straightforward deference if you are to judge, with no false layers or mocking intent to it; perhaps she is simply intent to not make an enemy of you, and nothing more.
— Forgive our domestic quarrel, Derak, Chrysal bows slightly as she addresses you. — It is no concern of yours. Please rest a while, and we will arrange for your disguise; I need to dress up myself for the night, and it will go most facilely if we arrange for you alongside.
— Phryne, she turns to the girl and takes hold of her hand. — Will you please fetch your paints and attend to me on the sill? I shall be entertaining a virtuous client tonight, and I would look my best. There is only so much of daylight left, and I know you do your best work in natural light.
Her attention seems to sway Phryne into forgetting your intrusive presence for now. The girl gets up and slips between you and Chrysal to enter the second room. Chrysal herself steps around you to the large window, where you can see that the sun has indeed started its dip towads the twilight. She starts untying her bodice in a habitual way, not really vying for your attention. Her gaze wanders away from you, turning out of the window altogether, and you turn your attention away likewise, uncertain of how to take the situation.
The moment reminds you to look to your own dress as well: your gyroscopes well could be failing, as much of your equipment has done on your long journey. Even if your sudden weakness just now was something else, the concern over equipment is second nature to you. The three gyroscopes embedded in your cincher belt help maintain your absolute spatial sense, but wearing them constantly does mean that even minor dysfunction of their subtle needling could cause you sea-sickness as your natural and trained senses come to disagreement.
Chrysal continues to undress right there at the window; you are peripherally aware of her dropping her skirt and underskirts to the floor. Phryne’s return attracts your eye from the gyroscope you’re hunched over; her gaze shies away from you as she sets her tools on the windowsill, preparing to apply her cosmetics. You stop to stare at the impressive jars of paste-like paints, sponge and buckets, realizing that the girl is going to attempt some type of body art with them. Chrysal looks at you over her shoulder, and you look away in reaction.
The gyroscope is acting sluggish; it probably needs its oil changed. You huff and stand up to loosen the entire cincher from under your clothes – it should be stored in your bodybag until full renovation, truthfully. You actually feel rather naked without the constant pressure on your torso as you sit down again.
Your eye roams a while yet, but who are you kidding; the painting is going to take a while yet, and is truthfully the only interesting thing in the small living room. Lack of privacy is often a fact of life in the City, yet the women could have as well sent you away if you were a bother to them. You are a man of Scarlet, as much as of any place, and you feel keenly the paradox of a city that exalts public mores while ridiculing any private sense of prudence; you might not think of it in so many words, but the truth is that the women might as well laugh at you for conspicuously avoiding their display as to treat it as any kind of consideration.
Chrysal is sitting sideways on the windowsill, leaning against the frame as Phryne, sitting on a small stool, leans over her left arm in concentration. Her small hands wield a petty bit of sponge to dap and spread color on Chrysal’s skin; having worked her way halfway up the arm from the wrist, you can see that she is creating a thick daub, predominantly green with bright yellow slits or cocoons underneath. The underarm is being left natural beige, which likely means that she will add a geometric borderline as well; you have seen this type of masque before; it is a stylized conceit of surprisingly high class for this place, here and now. The brushes standing on the sill are to be used for skilled detail work, no doubt.
Chrysal herself sits unmoving but for her head, leaning in as she whispers advice or remark to her painter. In her nudity she is revealed a well-kept beauty, with shaven and soft-skinned calves you cannot help but admire beside the painter’s study. Her thighs and hips are wide, the breasts fully ripe yet still somewhat proud nevertheless; she is fully a woman, yet never a mother in your judgement of flesh. You could see yourself having chosen a woman of her type at the Cytheral House a few years past.
— You really do not remember me from before, Derak of the East? she asks suddenly, looking directly at you over Phryne’s head. — Men oft tell me that I have a memorable face, if not perhaps the rest. I certainly remember you, and recognized you when you came to me with that chest.
It is true that Chrysal’s face is not quite the perfect picture of Marical beauty. She does look memorable with her strong nose and brows, distinct in degree from the soft and childlike features typical to Scarlet. Likely she is another foreigner, as are you, brought to Scarlet by the ever voracious growth of the City. Looking at her, it is certainly not for lack of character that you forget her – perhaps it reveals something of you, and how little a passing night’s pleasure has meant to you in the past.
Phryne whispers something and stands up. Chrysal in response moves, bringing her legs down to the floor, keeping them chastely together. Seemingly unbothered by your gaze, she gestures for Phryne to get up to the sill with her. The girl complies, kneeling with one foot on the sill, and continues spreading paint on Chrysal’s shoulder and chest. Silence falls and you forget to answer any question Chrysal might have had as you observe Phryne’s deftness in drawing paints around the breast and over it, even lifting it gently to cover the underside. You can see by now that she is doing an asymmetric half-paint of the upper body, leaving the right side its natural tan.
— We hardly could do this in the windowless bedroom, you know, Chrysal suddenly breaks your reverie. She’s not quite smirking, but it is the hint of a smile in an ever-so-proper habit – perhaps an invitation to acknowledge the intimacy of the moment. A careful feeler perhaps, testing the nature of the fearsome assassin. You, unsettled in your identity, are bereft of facile response. Looking away, your blush admits the obvious.
— You should begin the finish, Phryne, Chrysal admonishes the girl aloud after a moment. — The twilight is upon us, and we still need to dress up. You can leave the back, the dress will cover it up.
Phryne moves on to brushes and a set of more vivid colors, going back to the stool to go over the arm again. It would make sense for her to pay particular attention to the wrist that Chrysal will no doubt be showcasing tonight for closer perusal.
— I imagine, Phryne, that the Puppet has recently returned to Scarlet from the foreign parts, Chrysal converses distinctly. — He used to hold a room at a local inn, but there are probably reasons for his return to be convoluted. A man in his position may attracts enemies, after all.
— It is true, you acknowledge her round-about question. — I should not as of yet enter the City openly. It is but an accident that you recognized me on the street. A happy accident for us all, I hope.
Chrysal seems to accept your explanation with a subtle nod. The gleam of the greens on her chest have dried up towards dull brown, allowing Phryne to work eye-catching orange decorations around the nipple.
— Honorable Derak, Chrysal addresses you further, seeming to pay no further heed to the progressing painting. — If your destination tonight is in the Estuary, we could share a boat, as I am soon leaving for those parts as well. As regards disguise, it is a simple matter: I will lend you some clothes; a skirt and a shawl, and none will recognize you for a fleet-footed endsman.
You start to open your mouth, but as a practical-minded man there’s really not much to object to here; the plan suits the circumstances you are likely to encounter at the Estuary.
As Phryne finished with the body art, Chrysal wastes no time bringing out a shaving kit. — Get him shaved, Phryne, she orders curtly before disappearing again into the bedroom. Phryne does set out to wet a towel for you, but her handling of the razor makes it clear that her heart’s not in it. You try a few calming gestures, but ultimately end up taking the blade yourself to scrape your chin clear. Fortunately you don’t grow much of a beard at the best of times.
Chrysal comes back in a green-orange skirt and slippers matching her body art, carrying further clothing for you. You’re not the heaviest-built of men, Derak, so it comes as no great surprise that her clothes fit you well enough. Chrysal has chosen for you a closely fitting bodice similar to her earlier daywear, with a corselet rather similar to your cinch belt to put on underneath.
— A white chemise with a dark bodice will be unquestionably feminine in the dark, Chrysal explains, perhaps imagining objections on your part rather than grim determination. She probably decides to desist from further comments when she sees you unhesitatingly strip your upper body and wrap the corselet around your torso. Instead, she takes hold of the straps to tighten the garment on your waist.
You wriggle into the off-white chemise and the brown bodice while Chrysal has Phryne help her with a loose blouse or cape that falls off one shoulder and covers her nude half while leaving the body art uncovered. You can appreciate the overall idea of the ensemble in the twilight, as the body art understates the size of Chrysal’s bosom and obscures the slight sag of her breast on plain display, combining a complexity hinting at class with an illusion of youth. She may be nearing the age where a woman can no longer carry an open dress without vulgarity, but this look… it is good on her.
Phryne lighting a lantern reminds you to pull the skirt on yourself, covering your pants and boots. Chrysal makes a point of arranging your bodice, tightening it again firmly around your waist. She herself gets an attention-grabbing dark orange bonnet placed on her head by the girl as she fuzzes over you.
— Tie your purse under the skirt, Chrysal instructs you as you grab your bodybag. — Droop it low over your hips, and it will be indistinguishable from your bottom under the skirt. That bag looks like nothing a lady would carry.
— It seems that you’re not doing this today for the first time, you observe as you follow her instructions. You make a point of looping the bag’s straps through the bodice strings to keep it from falling.
— Well, yes. I do this every night, she answers, smiling tightly. — Here, a shawl is the last part. Make sure it falls deeply over your head, breaking the overall shape of your face to casual glances.
The shawl Chrysal hands you is large and dark red as dried blood, the impure poor man’s scarlet. She arranges it to cover your hair entirely, draping down to your shoulders.
— What do you say, Phryne? Chrysal turns to her while arranging her own bonnet. — I’d say he will do just fine. Better than most, with his lithe frame and small face. I cannot say that I dislike this.
You raise your eyes in time to see Phryne cover her face. The small smile on Chrysal convinces you that that was intentional – and bold – teasing. Asking a born Scarlet woman to insult a bravo’s dress, or to compliment his femininity; lethal alternatives both. Chrysal may not fear you – or perhaps she hast lost the will to let fear guide her actions, driving her to recklessness. You have seen that in Scarlet often enough.
Chrysal grows even bolder as you move out, taking firm hold of your arm to keep you on her side as you descent to the street. Perhaps she wants you to pay attention to your pace. She carries the lantern in her other hand, ward against darkness that will surely be all the deeper by the time she returns.
—So, honorable Derak, she speaks to you in a low voice as you turn towards the river. — What is it that you have in your stash? Weapons, or money?
Seeing little point in prevaricating, you answer truthfully. — A little bit of both, assuming it still exists. You will have your share, never fear; I will have to get my chest back, after all.
You walk down to the riverside in silence, passing a few other pedestrians as you go. Chrysal draws attention as she goes, but bears it calmly. You realize that you are now part of an entirely common tableau of the Scarlet evening, a pair of nights-desirees traveling to an evening’s appointment. One of them in High Style, too, or near enough like a courtesan. Surprisingly so, considering her home.
—Is Phryne your servant, then? you ask Chrysal as you turn to the riverside road. Admittedly, you’ve grown somewhat curious about the pair.
—Dear no, just a friend. It’s her apartment, she replies looking at you sideways. — She’s a bit shy in general, so do not take offense, honorable Derak.
Chrysal wastes no time picking a boat; there are moorings all along the riverbank from the Hillside to the Crook, with hundreds of boats on the piers at all times of day. Chrysal speaks freely with the boatman, and dickers with his wife for the trip, making no secret of her intent to have her paramour tip generously on arrival. You let her; best you save the little coin you have for now, even if it could be interesting to test your disguise a bit.
You’re feeling pretty good as you descend to the boat and sit besides Chrysal. Although the hard men of the sort likely to recognize you by sight are more likely to be on the move at night, you are not likely to draw much more than a passing glance dressed as you are. The boatsman ogles, if mostly at Chrysal, but you adjust your shawl and he immediately turns his eyes away. Citizens are generally good about respecting a woman’s privacy; after all, that good name might belong to a man willing to make a point of it.
Chrysal leans against you and whispers: — If you require paid fare back to Hillside as well, it is well likely that I could pick you up on my way back. This is likely to be an hour after midnight, if at all.
- Gears in the Night 12.12.2018
Soon enough we arrive at Docks of Veronica. They are one of the main junction points in the Estuary District, named after a famous, half-legendary girl who defended the citizens during the Bitter Years. The practical side of this renown are the statues. The docs are littered with Veronicas, both big and small. Past trends of art can easily be seen here, as when the fashions changed, the old statues were still left where they are and new built next to them.
Our parting is a quick endeavor with Chrysal restating the possibility to travel with her back from the Estuary and me replying with a slight nod. Does her courtesy towards me transcend simple greed and the difference between our standings in social ladder? If it does, I wonder why? Does it have something to do with our previous meetings, which are in the dark?
The evening descends quickly as always in Scarlet, transforming the Estuary into a glimmering sea of lanterns and their reflections. It is a hopeless maze of waterways, corridors and bridges. Ancient buildings of which few have stood against the test of time proudly, where others seem to slowly lose the battle. The myriad of smells and ambient sounds are everywhere, as the Lantern City lives busily far into the night.
Through all of this I travel dressed as a simple nights desiree. After all that has happened, I can still feel the pulse of the city, and my heart beats with it in unison. If I could even once lose myself in it in a wild abandon and experience again the rush as it once was. But alas, the puppet’s strings are caught and restricted. I wonder, if there ever will be a cause big enough to warrant it?
I navigate through the narrow bridges and walkways that surround the houses, walk through piers and wait for ferries. From the corner of my eye I can see the watchers, people who are blending in with the crowd yet are there for a reason. And some of the watchers are there to keep an eye of the other watchers. I am of course familiar with all this. The Contortionist Squad, The Reds, The Firestarters and many others. And perhaps somewhere, out of my reach, the operatives of the Mask Market. My play is of casual this evening, so I try to avoid pimps, drunkards and foreign adventurers, keeping my image of a nights desiree with a designated place to go to.
Once as I am crossing a path of lesser light I am confronted by a drunken sailor, who stumbles towards me with a peculiar manner. There is really no room for me to evade, as the pier I walk is only few paces wide, so I prepare to push him aside on the point of contact. Just before he comes, my gut warns me. It is his attire that seems too perfectly ruffled and patches of skin that I can see in the half-light that look too clean and not weather-beaten enough for a sailor. He bounces against me squarely and babbles incoherently. My assurance of their goals is confirmed by a creak of the floor-board behind me as the accomplice of this merry fellow is rushing to finish the job. Their plan is no doubtedly simple and straightforward robbery as this is not nearly remote enough for them to get away with a murder. So I calm my senses and prepare for his arrival.
I listen for his steps. A man who is coming to stab you in the back moves differently from one that is there to curl his daggered hand against a throat of a simple woman of the night. His gait follows the path of the latter allowing me to postpone my actions for a little longer.
The hand comes as I foresaw it and is accompanied by a dull gleam of the blade. I do not start my metronome, as I plan not to fight with them. I can’t escape using my boot-strings either, as firing them without gyroscopes can be life-threateningly dangerous. Firing a device of such power to propel oneself without a perfect alignment of one’s body could lead to a leg completely torn away from the body or a complete paralysis by a twisted spine. But there are other ways they can be used.
I think while I act. I grab the incoming knife-hand lightly, duck under the arm and twist. Jolt of pain follows and the knife drops from his hand but I do not stop there. A sidestep with a pivot turns the once-armed assailant against his partner in crime. While they clash I feather-fall on my back against the slippery boards of the pier under me. Lifting my left leg I place my bootheel against the now completely surprised assailant’s back. I tap it lightly to release the mechanism. My leg is traight, my back aligned against the strong floor, giving me a perfect base of support for the spring to release its energy completely forward.
I feel the pulse in the base of my spine and in my knee. That knee will need an ointment of some kind after the nights ordeal is over, but my assailants now become clumps of flesh rotating around every possible axis in their few yards flight that ends in the dark waters near the pier. As soon as the spring retracts I am back on my feet, quietly observing my surroundings. It seems to me that nobody saw my stunt, but you can never be sure.
I feel a pinch afterwards as I walk away as casually as possible. I do not hear any sounds from the dark waters. Perhaps the shock of my boot-spring knocked them unconscious in which case they now found their watery graves. While gaining distance I fall on one of my never-ending contemplations. How does my life differ from the one I had previously? I still seem to kill at every possible opportunity, except that now I am a master of nothing and do it to simply stay alive. Am I not more of a victim now than I was before? If there is a cause for me out there, it felt now more distant than ever before.
How is it possible to have a stash in Estuary, full of people? The only way is to hide it in plain sight, but in such a way that it is inapproachable by others. In this case it is a small statue of a wicked-looking mermaid in one of the endless back-alleys and crooked waterways. And it is still there, as statues are pretty much the only thing that nobody in the city seems to disturb.
A small stone of rectangular shape fits in behind the ear of the mermaid, giving me an opportunity to open the head of the statue with most grotesque manner. Inside there is a mechanical puzzle, myriad of pieces that each move only in certain axis. They are colored blue and yellow, but in the darkness of the night they seem black and grey. For a moment I hesitate, looking around but then proceed to fiddle with the gadgetry with sure hands. It was Yasul who tormented me with these puzzles, often first tying me upside down to make my anguish greater. A cold smile escapes my lips. I am what I am today partly because of him.
The stash opens releasing a largeish chest that contains a small stash of coins and jewels. But perhaps more importantly it has oils and spare parts for my gadgetry. A night of loving care with them would restore my power. If I would just check in to a nearest inn and bar myself in my room this could be accomplished.
Instead I lift the chest to my shoulder using its leather strap and start to maneuver back towards Docks of Veronica and the boat back with Chrysal. A fool’s errand, part of me cries as carrying such a chest with this uniform could be seen odd at best. But that part of me is quickly silenced. She is a mystery I have to solve.
- Doubting Your Streetwise Here 17.12.2018
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.
- The Die is Cast 19.12.2018
The waking comes as it has for a long time now: sharp and quick, rousing the consciousness up violently in mid-breath. Perhaps it is something acquired in my travels in the jungles, where the time between sleep and wakedness could bring death. Not that such danger wouldn’t exist in the jungle of man as well.
It is near noon, I figure, but the half-light presented speaks of a cloudy day outside, a rarity of sorts at this time of the summer. A quick inspection of my surroundings also reveals that my two hostesses are both still asleep — something not very special considering the way the City, and especially citizens like they live.
My attention is caught on sleeping Chrysal, her figure painted clearly to my eyes through the thin blanket she is covered under. She sleeps facing me, without paint, her chest slowly heaving in the rhythm of her sleep. I can see the faintest of lines that have started to manifest around her eyes. She can still cover them easily enough, but nothing lasts forever. The old Derak would probably frown at her at this state, yet the man who I am now is filled with only confusion and longing.
The stunt I pulled last night shouldn’t have succeeded! It goes against everything I think is professional or rational. Still, as I see my chest lying there near my makeshift mattress I feel relieved that it is now behind me.
I proceed in getting back to my own garb silently enough so that my hosts are not awakened. It seems that I will need new clothes, now that I can afford it. I then move my focus towards my chest.
I start with the blades and their machinery. Carefully I dismantle the springwork and straps that hold them in their place. Then the gyros and kestros are coming out one by one. The broken ones, go in the pile last, including one of the main gyroscopes that ceased to function yesterday.
Dull ache in my left knee wakes me up from my work and I realize my hosts have awakened and are following my actions with curious eyes. I simply nod to them and continue my work, after spreading one of my ointments amply around the painful area. This is certainly not the first time my joints have taken a toll from the line of my work and nor will it be the last.
My hosts stay quiet, perhaps they do not wish to interfere with my work. I am filled with odd shyness. What I am to do now with Chrysal now that I have managed to get to her with such a great effort.
I continue my work. I use brushes from small to extremely tiny to clean up the parts that have aggregated dust or grime. I apply various oils of different fluency according to the requirements of each part. The broken machinery I dismantle and start to fix them. I inspect the casing of my mainspring. Luckily it is still in perfect working order, as it is something I could not fix easily if not.
— Cloudy day outside, I start and immediately reprimand myself inside. What a dimwit start for a conversation. Is that a smile in the corner of Chrysal’s mouth?
— Yes it is. Perhaps we should eat some breakfast and then proceed to settling our matters.
That has an ominously final ring to it in my ears. Still I nod and continue my work. Sharpening of the various blades is next. As my hosts are working on breakfast, I take care every blade until they are razor-sharp and ready for anything. Now I only need to go through the rest of my stash and arrange my bodybag for my alchemy and the jewels from my stash.
Putting my gear together fills me with newfound confidence. Just like an old man’s cane the familiar things tend to get me back on track. Surely I have to do something! I am not a coward, even with my newfound conscience. It is not possible to run away from my past forever. I have to reconcile it with my head held high or fall trying. Everything I can do to prepare for it can be done in this room, today.
I smile to the women as I attend to the breakfast they have conjured. It is much the same than the meal I had with them yesterday. Perhaps a bit more fruit and less cheese than the one before but nonetheless.
— What are you going to do next, Chrysal asks between the bites. A bold question, in line of bold statements and actions done on her part. I am not to stay in her shadow though. If I am to take horrible risks just to stay close to her, I need to try to make the best of it.
— Three things. Firstly I am going to give you this.
I drop a ruby of considerable value to her hand. I keep my grasp on her wrist for a few seconds and look her straight in the eyes.
— And thank you for all your troubles you have taken for my account. Secondly, I am going to tell you my story of my trip to the faraway lands. It will take a while and will sound like a ramblings of a madman, but nonetheless all of it is true and it explains why I didn’t recognize you even though I should have when you approached me.
— Thirdly I am going to search for the Mask Market using the name of my former mentor Papak as way to get an audience. And when you have heard my story you will undestand why, as it is that I can never be an endsman anymore.
After a small pause I take her hand into mine.
— I would gladly wish to hear your story as well. Perhaps we can have a part in each other’s stories of the future.
The match starts.
- Derak in the Jeweled Swamps, revised 21.12.2018
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.
- A Dinner of Thoughts and Plans 27.12.2018
Dozens of white candles bring a soft half-light in the large dining room of the Ruby Dancer. The tables are half-full. The people consist of mostly merchants of the upper-middle class: people doing well enough to spend some money but not high enough to attain the place among the Virtuous. Perhaps among them are few professionals of various arts and crafts, just like me.
I have always liked the Ruby Dancer. It is a classy inn in the Hillside district and is now managed by the third generation of inn-keepers. A place of fine dining, accommodation and activities, especially acts involving dancing and expressions of the human body.
A soft boom of a small silvery gong is heard, and the waiters emerge among the tables to serve the first course of the dinner. My waiter is a woman with curvy lips and red hair. She brings me sparrow and oysters in bitterish sauce. An excellent balance to clear the palate and wake the appetite.
It is weird how quickly one falls back into his old ways, even though almost everything has changed. I taste the sauce and sip the wine just like I have done countless times before. Yet where body and senses settle in with the old, the mind cannot.
I bade farewell to Chrysal quickly, filled with combination of shame, longing and confusion. She was right of course, there was no way for me to leave my past without confronting it first. Confiding to Chrysal was the first part, but not nearly enough. Now that I had resources, I must face my adversities head on, to re-establish my presence in the city at least long enough to get access to Mask Market and perhaps something worthwile to accomplish.
My day was long and arduous. I carried my belongings in broad daylight and in my own garb. Getting settled in Ruby Dancer was mundane affair, even though after calculating my remaining wealth it is obvious that I could only reside there somewhere around a month until my funds would run out. That is, unless I can find something to reverse the flow.
Next I went shopping. Before the afternoon was finished I had bought few attires for different occasions along with the every-day trivialities a member of the city folk would need. I decided to skip tailor-made clothes at least for now.
It was not long, until I was met with a boy, perhaps ten years old. His presence was as clear to me as was the rising of sun in the morning. I was noticed and a street urchin was set on my trail to see what I was up to. I dropped a copper penny in his dirty palm and smiled.
— You can deliver a message to your master. Derak the Easterner has returned from his long voyage.
Perhaps he was sent by Daag. Even if he was not, Daag would probably get the word before long.
I used the remaining hours of daylight in contemplation of my plans. Daag, or some of his “lieutenants” would probably send an invitation at some point, as he was a man who sought you out instead of letting anyone seek him. He could hold many answers to questions that lingered in my head, yet he would as surely bring new problems to the table as well.
I would need to do an another nightly journey to hide the chest with the black crystal in one of my stashes around the city. I trusted the staff at Ruby Dancer to some extent, but it was very clear that their professional expertise would go only so far in protecting my possessions.
The main course of the evening is sautéed veel with special sauce of The Ruby, kept as a secret for three generations. A spectacular ensemble to my taste buds, which had been suffering for the most part of the last year. I couldn’t help but to wonder the senseless in all of it, regardless of the great taste.
I would need to get started on my inquiries with the Mask Market. I reviewed my sketchy memories of the matter, which mostly consisted of fragmented discussions with Papak. Nonetheless I decided that my plan would be to visit a temple of the Cult of the Unbroken Circle. I was under the impression that they were somehow related to the information exchange in the city. I vaguely remembered Papak describing the cult as a philosophical sect that was trying to abolish hierarchies from the society. Among the countless cults in the city, this one was surely not winning any competitions of popularity. I distinctively remembered laughing at the very notion when Papak brought it up, but it was not like I had anything more substantial to begin with.
The dinner was slowly descending towards a grand dessert: a combination of a sweet pie with equally sweet wine to accompany it. I spoon the pie down with absent-mindedness that surely didn’t do credit for the quality of the experience.
If I wouldn’t have restrained myself, I would have contacted Chrysal already. But what was left of my pride and dignity fought back. I needed something substantial before I would go on to set up a meeting with her. I don’t want to be a whipped dog, groveling my way to her presence.
rolled a ‘4’
Hero dice 4, 4
- Let’s try something different 01.01.2019
You can almost see how the word about your return has started rippling out through the day. For instance, the cycling night shift at Ruby Dancer just happens to be filled with familiar faces. Overly-familiar, often enough, in the way they trip on each other to remind you of prior acquaintance in ways that skirt on rudeness. Two fellows, one working the kitchen and the other an entertainer, and both would like to think of themselves as your personal procurer. A hostess with seeming infinite patience for pretending to be your “girl” to others. A bunch of interchangeable “free scholars”, spare noble sons with nothing better to do than hang around dangerous people in taverns. If all these people have heard of your return, then surely has anybody else with their ear to the ground.
You do take advantage of the event and hold court a bit before going to bed. Your straightforward and emotionless habit has never seemed to force people away, which in its way says much about the ways of Serene Scarlet: it is never about the person so much as it is about perceived success and position. You need say nothing tonight about your doubts or plans to these fair-weather friends; your returning at all is proof enough that you have come back triumphant, for why come back otherwise?
While Derak would ordinarily merely stomach this superficial bustle as part and parcel of holding his name in view, tonight the pretense can be of some little use: even as they pretend at being your friends, let you pretend to be alike to Daag Sit-Fence. Let them feel important, ask your questions. Get some answers. Ask about the Unbroken Circle, for one.
Yes, of course we know of the Circle, those of us given to peculiar experiences. One of the layabouts has visited the cult’s communion, even. Their hall is right next to the Hill wall, sort of like if they wanted to be inside but can’t quite swing the expense. The Circle is mainly known for catering to men of substance wanting to rub shoulders with the poor; the rich patrons pay for these community dinners, and the cult handlers apparently corral poors from the Crook to fill the tables so they can get a little taste of how the other side lives. The appeal of the affair is lost on your tablemates, but they seem to have been paddling water well enough for long enough to be considered a fixture. Not much of a vehicle for wealth or political mobilization, which is what the actually significant cults generally amount to. Nobody seems to remember them participating in the festivals, which all but the most barebones cults tend to gear up for.
Aside from that, your idle information-gathering amounts to the sort of gossip you barely paid attention to before. Which Virtuous families are going up, who are down on their luck, that sort of thing. As a colleague once said, a referee needs to know the rules, not the players. The professional assassin tends to hold to that bit of pride, a certain sense of alienation from the game of wealth: you are there at the end for those who fall from virtue, no matter who they are.
You finally leave the bores to jap at each other and retire to your room for the night. There are your usual safeguards while sleeping in-doors, silent alarms for your benefit, but tonight proves calm: you sleep undisturbed, only awakening to the floor servant’s knocking in the morning.
Releasing your trap-lines, you let them in with your morning shave and breakfast.
— Good morning, honorable Derak, the servant bows, uncaring of your nudity. You eye him idly as he bustles about airing up the room and emptying the bedpan; it’s a vaguely familiar face, he’s probably been with the house for a while. There is a certain combination of deference and confidence in him that only happens when people know who you are, but also know you well enough to trust that you won’t kill them for a fart.
— There is fresh mail addressed to your honor, the servant says, drawing a letter from his tray. This would be on top of the ones the inn had kept for you from before your departure; it would have been written late last night, or early in the morning.
The paper is thick and there is a stamped seal, indicating a semi-formal letter more than a simple note. Unfolding it, you recognize it at a glance as an invitation – a summons really – from a man of means, possibly of the highest rank. The letter is stamped for, but undersigned by a secretary, emphasizing the sender’s status in not having to address you directly. “My master sends his regards”, “pleased to hear of your safe return to the Serenissima” and so on, spiraling down to “request for urgent professional consultation at noon today.”
The man’s name – Vansittart Gabaldon – doesn’t mean anything to you aside from its distinctly barbarian sound. He seems to hold a residence in the Estuary, which seems vaguely strange until you realize that those large island houses rarely change hands, which should mean that it’s an old family house. However, this Vansittart displays a poor sense of the Trade for a citizen; while there are endsmen who would make open house calls, enjoying the gentleman’s role, this never was the Puppet’s style: the client would contact you through established middle-men and meet only at your convenience, if at all. Most of your work was ever on open call, really, as much as you valued your independence. Everybody in the demimonde knows that you don’t hold open business hours, so who’s advice is this Vansittart fellow taking?
Whoever it might be, this is to your inconvenience: ignoring the invitation would be an insult to an apparent man of measure, with all that implies, while actually going would be… very much not at all in the Puppet’s character. Do they just expect you to directly walk into a trap as long as the doorstep’s papered with a nice invitation? Is it really that simple?
rolled a ‘4’
Hero dice 4, 4
Monster dice 4
- Pen Pals 03.01.2019
This is it then. Whatever events and possibilities I thought I would have in the Scarlet after my return, there is one inevitable thing in my near-future: There will be the offer for a job and the need for me to acknowledge what I have become and stand up for what I am. To face the consequences.
What manner of fantasy-thinking has lead me to this situation? Would I end my career as an endsman in the form of a floating body in some forgotten sewer, childish dreams and body slowly rotting and being eaten away by things more real than what I have become. Causing conflict would be inevitable.
An anger of sorts rises from the depths. An anger of man’s inability to change what he is. A reckless one inside tells me to ignore the request whatever the cost. The sensible in me can’t, but perhaps there is something in between.
— Bring me writing equipment. I need to write a letter.
The servant complies with efficiency and delivering me what I want. I dip the quill and remember how much I hate writing letters. Brings back memories from the time spent with Papak. How he demanded a perfect grasp of the quill, a smooth curve in each letter. I threw such tantrums over it, as I wanted to only learn swordmanship and the exotic dances. “The pen and the sword complete each other,” he used to say. Such an eloquent hypocrite, the bastard.
I write a response using old, eloquent style. How I feel and how I write couldn’t contradict more but this is the way these things are handled and second nature to all people of Scarlet.
To Most Honored Vansittart Gabaldon
My heart rejoices in this incident of a man of the Virtuous order to extend the courtesy of his golden influence on top of this humble servant.
Nothing would please me more than to consult you in professional matters and I assure you that I will bring forth all of my skill and knowledge. However, in a most saddest of notes I must add that it is not possible for me to take an assignment at the moment. I am still preoccupied with the events that led to my long journey away from Serenissima and until I have resolved it I am unable to take an assignment.
Do know, Honored Sir, that I will double my efforts on solving these difficulties, so that it would again be possible for me to serve You.
In dearest and sincerest apologies.
Derak the Eastern-Born
Streching my fingers after the exercise I decide to write another one.
Most clearest of days and sunshine to you and your household. I decided to drop you this note to check, whether you were still interested in pursuing our joined partnership in, as you suggested, professional basis. If so, I would like to invite you to dinner at Three Lanterns. It is a particularly interesting establishment and can offer us both privacy to conduct our businesses as well as an exquisite experience of food and drink.
Any evening from tomorrow on would work for me. If you are interested, please let me know. I am staying in the Ruby Dancer Inn and a message sent here will reach me.
Your in partnership and thoughts
Derak the Eastern-Born
I seal both letters and send a courier to dispatch them as soon as possible to their desired destinations.
I then choose a quick morning routine. Breathing exercises followed by twisting and turning of joints around all possible ranges of motion. Then centering and movement drills. I have honed this condensed routine during the years when I haven’t had a possibility to allocate much time for training. I will have to do so in the near future. The strings of the Puppet are strong and without me being equally strong they will rip me to shreads.
I have a busy day ahead of me. First I will go and see the Unbroken Circle. After learning more details of its nature I am even more puzzled of how it could help me in my quest for the Mask Market and the vague idea of my future. I will have to enter with open eyes, and mentions of Papak Vicente and hope to gain some more insights.
Then there is the dark crystal. In the evening I have to skulk yet for another nightly adventure in the Estuary. The chest containing the Dark Crystal needs to be hidden in the stash as soon as possible. I am becoming more and more visible in the city and the thought of it going in the wrong hands — in any hands to be particular, fills me with dread.
- The Unbroken Circle 10.01.2019
You find the compound of the Unbroken Circle easily enough by going up the Hill and following the wall. It doesn’t have distinctive decorations, but then not all cults do. A beggar on the corner clues you towards the open gate on the otherwise residential street, leading to the yard of an ordinary-seeming townhouse.
The house doesn’t seem very active during the day, at least, but you do notice a drowsy gatekeeper sitting in the gate-nook. He proves remarkably insolent at being prodded, but a closer look at your gentlemanly habit quickly turns him to scurrying for the master of the house. Judging by the poor attire and manners of the gatekeeper, he may well be one of the unfortunates the Unbroken Circle seems to foster.
The yard gives the impression of regular activity, what with the carts and stable facing the house. There is glass in the upper storey windows, affirming the notion of some wealth in the place. You don’t have much time for snooping, however, before the gateskeep returns with his superior. The man seems a butler in essence, yet a wide white sash brings a touch of formality foreign to the role. You cannot help but notice the way he scopes the gateway, perhaps ascertaining that you are the only immediate visitor.
— I am sorry for a gentleman being held up but a moment in the yard, the man starts talking at twenty paces, approaching energetically. — It is a rest day for the Unbroken Circle, yet welcome be!
— I am known as Derak the Easterner, good master, you introduce yourself with the shallow bow. — I am sorry for disturbing the peace of the house.
The man stops in his step at your bow, responding with a similar one despite still being ten paces out. He shows an undisturbed smile and continues to approach. — No worries, master Derak; it is my task to greet men of substance, and bid you welcome to the house. I am Plotkin, a deacon of the Circle, and glad to be of assistance.
The deacon approaches for a handshake, but you cross your arms over the chest and bow again, in the manner of the bravo with a blade up their sleeve. Which is, of course, precisely the case with you. A man more familiar with your reputation would know that you do not shake hands.
Undismayed by the intimidating second bow, deacon Plotkin bids you to enter the house proper. — The Unbroken Circle welcomes all guests, and I would be happy to hear your concerns in a more comfortable place, out of the sun.
Entering the house, you accept guidance to a spacious parlor. There seem to be at least some servants, dressed in white knee-length skirts, and the deacon is quick to offer you appropriate hospitality by serving a draught of pazzine for you both from a chilled carafe. It seems like the house expects visitors to pop up unannounced.
— Your community was recommended to me by an old friend, Papak Vicente, you throw your cards on the table.
— Oh yes, master Papak, the deacon responds to the name with an eager smile. — He is an old friend of the Unbroken Circle from back in the day. How fares he?
— I am afraid that Papak has passed away in a far away land, you respond gravely.
— That is sad news indeed, master Derak, deacon Plotkin says in a regretful voice. — Master Papak was a gentleman and a scholar. I would hear more about the circumstances of his passing, if possible.
The deacon seems apologetic over the sad news, and naturally assumes this to be the reason for your visit.
— Perhaps later, master Plotkin, you aver for now. Better to find out more first. You could drive directly at the reason of your visit, but as the deacon seems hospitable and willing to share, you might as well let him enlighten you about the Unbroken Circle. For all you know, it may pertain to your quest.
The vague prompt seems to well suffice for the personable deacon, and he does not hesitate to regale you with what probably amounts to the cult’s standard pitch: they are, by their own definition, an honorable fellowship of free scholars dedicated to the study and celebration of the Hidden Master, one Theudas Elchasar, whose teaching has survived from the imperial times in the southern lands. The wisdom of the Unbroken Circle promises the usual concerns of religion, ranging from fulfillment and healing to salvation, all springing from the intense contemplation of the Hidden Master who has ascended to timeless Ataraxia and now watches over his adherents as an amiable, transcendent figure.
— Those are some quite extraordinary claims, you interject politely. It wouldn’t do to be impolite, and a pretense of gullibility would certainly be that.
— I am sure that you have heard similar in the past, the deacon concedes easily. — However, a learned man such as yourself might nevertheless enjoy a study of the more unique aspects of our philosophy. Many have judged the words of the Master to be some of the most persuasive on the question of human equality. We have even been graced with accusations of radicalism by the most strident followers of imperial mores; such accusations we carry with pride, in the spirit of the great philosophers.
— You make the Hidden Master sound more like a philosopher than a prophet. Somebody to be studied rather than revered.
Deacon Plotkin leans towards you as if passing on a minor confidence: — The Unbroken Circle is not zealous about doctrine in the way the old cults are. I often encourage free scholars to consider us more akin to a school than a cult. It wouldn’t be entirely false to say that the Hidden Master is an useful conceit in orienting people towards a search of the eternal truths taught by all the great philosophers.
Well, you could while away time finding out more about the cult, but the impression you get is not that different from one of the many schools and clubs that appear in the City to cater to the social and intellectual needs of various free professionals. The deacon probably downplays the more vulgar crowd-pleasing aspects of the business, but you’re not here on behalf of the Pseudoduke anyway, so who cares. Time to dig deeper.
- Circles and Splinters 14.01.2019
As the soft voice of Plotkin fills the room I think again and again of Papak and his relationship to this cult. As a professional I used to regard highly of my ability to read the essence of people and if anything, Papak was not a man who was into religious life. The answer then, must lie to the philosophical aspects of the cult, or the Mask Market and their connection to it.
— I would surely like to hear more about the philosophical aspects of the Unbroken Circle, if you have the time and then I would like to ask you a question and tell you of the fate of Papak.
— You know the symbol of our order, right? The unending spiral that opens upwards. This has been our symbol after the Hidden Master drew it on the Tree of Wisdom. Through this spiral, many of our core concepts can be explained. Firstly it conveys the meaning of ascension. Through the search of Kindness, Knowledge and Meaning, each person can spiral upwards towards the heavens until we are united in the perfect circle. Among the enlightened there are no rulers and servants, no masters and subjects. This is the Vision, a heaven on earth without need and suffering through inequality. Inside everyone there is unmeasurable power to make life a better place for everyone.
— That sounds quite …. difficult. I wonder what the rulers have to say about your doctrine as it could be interpreted as … revolutionary.
For the first time I see Plotkin lose his formal and relaxed demeanor. And it is only for an instant, until he is again control of himself.
— Oh there is no need to worry. The official standing of the Unbroken Circle is, that nothing can be changed for the good through violent and forceful manner. We are happy with our leaders as they represent the current state of mankind. It is only important to cultivate the change to improvement of the individual. The state will reorganize itself when the time is right. This is why we do not shun other cults and the pilosophy of the ages. We feel that all knowledge of the world is there to ascend us. The philosophers help us in our path regardless of their origins.
— I see the meaning behind the Circle. But why Unbroken?
— Well, the Circle can be broken in so many ways. Through our sins of greed or envy, or our pathological desire for violence and decadence. This is why we haven’t reached the Circle yet, but are constantly struggling to forge the spiral whole. One of our main activities is to organize social events where rich and poor can coexist and interact. This has been carried out for a long time, as means to make us all closer of each other as human beings. If I might ask, Master Derak, are you perhaps interested on becoming a patron of our order just as Papak was?
— Well, I might consider patronage but first I need to ask you something. Do you know the concept of Mask Market and if so, does your cult have a connection to it?
Plotkin draws a deep breath and is considering his words when suddenly the door to the parlor crashes open. In bursts a tall, young man in simple robes. His eyes are deep blue wells that seem to blink from deep within his skull. Through his simple garb the man radiates a keen power of mind.
— Plotkin! What are you doing here? I thought we agreed that the parlor is today reserved for the meeting of the Sharp Circle.
— Ah, honored brother Nicolo. I am so sorry I forgot. But as you can see I have a guest here…
— Guest or no guest, out, now!
Plotkin is drawn between obeying his obviously more powerful brother and honoring the courtesy presented to me. His momentary indeciveness irritates the wild-tempered youth enough for him to grab the older man by his collar and shoving him head first towards the door. Plotkin cowers in the shadow there unable to leave without his guest but afraid to oppose the young firecracker.
Nicolo turns his wild temper against me.
— Now our pampered guest, your audience is over.
He approaches me, perhaps intending to give me the same treatment than Plotkin had. He stops few steps short, perhaps due to my body language. Bullies often seek for confirmation for their actions from their prey’s body language and in absense of them lose part of their confidence. His demeanor is absurd anyway. Even if I were just a pampered rich man, I could have him killed for touching me. The man must be mad or in a deathwish.
I rise from the chair intantionally slowly to face him. He is so tall I have to look upwards. I gesture him to move aside and he does so reluctantly. After few steps I am at the door and in a flash it it all over.
— I …. I am sorry master Derak, Plotkin staggers with his words right outside the parlor.
I feel sorry for the man, and find myself slapping him in his shoulder in very unprofessional manner.
— Don’t worry, master Plotkin. I have seen his type before. What was he talking about, Sharp Circle.
— Well, it is no matter for outsiders, Plotkin starts. If possible his head dives even deeper between his round shoulders.
— Perhaps I can help you with your problem. I am surprised by my own words. Why would I help him, a complete stranger. A life choice based on a recently obtained aversion towards bullies. There truly is a crop that will not end by harvesting.
— Eh, well. If in honor of Papak Vicente’s memory then. Sharp Circle is a collection of few of our brothers who think that we have failed as an order and must proceed with more decisive actions to regain the Heaven on earth. It is like something inside him breaks and he starts to sob. — We should have reported them to the Pseudoduke, but we dare not. If we draw their attention to the cult there is no knowing what they will do. I am afraid they are going to do something irreversible soon, and then Pseudoduke has no choice but to purge us from the city for good.
— Perhaps I can offer you a drink in some nearby establishment and then you can tell me more. You forgot to tell me about the Mask Market as well, but perhaps we can get to it later.
Rolled a ‘2’
Hero dice 4, 4, 2
Monster dice 4