- 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 murderer 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
- The Mask Market 18.01.2019
Deacon Plotkin has composed himself by the time you get a cup and a carafe in front of him. The corner tavern is dim and cool in the middle of the day like any number of similar establishments across the City. The place is quiet during the day, perfect for a little chat.
Plotkin struggles visibly with opening his mouth, but finally manages after downing a cup of wine: — I am sorry for earlier outburst, master Derak; the Sharpists have me besides myself with their boundless hubris. However, I couldn’t trouble you with their foolishness any further, not even for the sake of master Papak. I would not wish to imply that Papak was in any debt to the Circle; if anything, it was the other way around, what with his patient support for his lessers.
— Please, Master Plotkin, you begin amiably, even smiling a little as you water your wine. — I would consider your confidence a favour. Papak was a good friend to me – perhaps better than I understood at the time. I never knew much of this side of his life, and right now it feels right for me to follow in his footsteps in some small way. I have hardly had an opportunity to involve myself with the City again anyway, having only recently returned from abroad.
The small deacon looks at you with some suspicion to be certain, but seems to forget it as he goes for the carafe again. It feels surprisingly good to talk about your situation with someone, even if it is in relatively generic terms. Not as good as it was with Chrysal, but still. She did say that you seem to be in search for friends now.
— You seem to have a commendably open attitude towards life, master Derak, he remarks. — It is surprising for a famous endsman, but I am sure that stranger things exist under the sun. One wonders what the Sit-Fence makes of that.
Before you have the opportunity to assess his surprisingly personal remark, Plotkin launches into his explanation as if nothing were amiss: — Regarding the Sharp Circle, they are most of them young fools. Nicolo is a good example, a young man from an up and coming Longax family. The elders of the Circle let them entertain free inquiry, but perhaps that has only allowed wrongheaded ideas to gain sway.
Plotkin stops in his grumbling for just so long as to draw your attention. — I think that they’re entertaining some gentlemen-traders from Sheath. Probably taking donations from them, the fools. I can just imagine what that looks like when the Pseudoduke comes calling.
You pick up your cup absent-mindedly and bring it to your lips before realizing that it is empty. Plotkin is looking at you, and perhaps he is the one observing you rather than the other way around. His distress, a mask for your sake? The implications of his story are very succinct, but you are more concerned about what he said before.
— Back up a bit, master Plotkin, you ask him and put the cup down. — What was it that you said about Daag just now? I take it you are familiar with my reputation, after all? Speaking of endsmen?
— I hope I haven’t said anything else to falsely mislead you, master Derak, the deacon says. Yes, there is a clear smirk to his face now. — Your name is famous among those who concern themselves, is it not?
— But what about Daag? you insist. — Do you know something about our business?
— Only what the street knows, Plotkin lifts his hands off the table in a gesture of surrender. — You would know more yourself, from your broceur.
And so you would, Derak, if it wasn’t the case that your primary broker has been none other than Daag Sit-Fence himself. You remember well how proud Derak the Easterner was when the Sit-Fence took him on several years back; not every endsman gets to work with the master broker. What Daag didn’t know of the events in the City wasn’t worth knowing, and what he didn’t choose to impart to you wasn’t any of your business.
Plotkin’s right, though; you should touch bases with some fixer or a fence, an information broker whose job it is to know the lay of the land. Seems that Plotkin has his ear to the ground… and didn’t Chrysal hint at some knowledge as well? There are stories about you on the streets, and you don’t know what they are. The wannabe-procurers and freeloaders you spent last night with evidently weren’t nothing like as informed as a proper broker. You get what you pay for in that regard, of course, and real information isn’t free.
— Uh, I have been busy since my return, you come back to the deacon. — I haven’t had a chance to hear the latest gossip.
— Oh, is that so, Plotkin says. He sets aside the wine cup now. — Could it be the case that you’ve had a falling-out with your broceur, master Derak? It wouldn’t surprise me, I imagine that few would be willing to deal with you with Daag’s ambience surrounding you.
— Your inquisitiveness is making me nervous, you warn the deacon and lean back. — I thought that this was about your problems, not mine.
— It could also be the case that we can help each other, master Derak. You seem like a good man, better than I would have expected. Didn’t you come to me to ask about the Mask Market because I broceured for master Papak for a long time, then?
Well, that changes things. If the deacon has his hand in fencing of some sort, procurement or receiving… he might not be near the unobservant pushover he pretends to be. You really don’t get a strong sense of criminality from him, but not all brokers are brutes, of course. And he’s right in that many might clam up if they thought that helping you will get them on Daag’s bad side.
— I am genuinely surprised, you say honestly and pick up your cup. — I wouldn’t have taken an elderly gentleman like you to be a broker, master Plotkin. I take it that you do not work for Daag, though?
— I certainly don’t! he says, as if offended by the idea. — Not all broceurs live in the Crook, and not everybody is waist-deep into fencing and smuggling. Free scholars have their broceuring needs as well, as you must well know if you’re asking about the Mask Market.
— Speaking of, yes. Tell me about that.
You’re rather on the edge at this point, but do your best to not show it. Plotkin has really had you going with his grandfather act, and that does annoy one such as you, of course it does. The deacon doesn’t seem to consider the Mask Market any great secret, though, so maybe you can at least get your backstory on that now. Difficult to act if you don’t know anything. Besides, a lot of people in this town have their secret barbs; you can hardly expect to get anything useful from a thorough fool, can you.
— So, the Mask Market, Plotkin muses as he picks up his cup and settles low on his chair. Clearly intending to stay a while. — You know how you expect your broceur to know what’s what and where and wherefore? I imagine that an endsman needs a reliable go-between, yes, but they also need to find out things, things like the friends of your endee and such, things that go into pricing a given job. Also, secrets that aid in the task itself; house plans, schedules. You probably rely on your broceur for that kind of far-fetched lore; I am certain that a master endsman has much to concern themselves without concerning themselves over such minutiae.
— All that sounds roughly right, you concede patiently. No need to go into your particular ways with Plotkin.
— Well, ever wonder about how your broceur knows these things, hmm? It’s not like I can just stare at the bottom of my vine cup until the truth emerges. That’s why not everybody can broceur, you have to have your ways. It is a small thing for me to tell you that the Mask Market is one of those ways.
— Is it a… an information market of some sort? you ask him. — Like a marketplace, but for secrets?
— That is a simple way to put it, yes, he confirms your notion. — It’s not so much a place as a… protocol, you know this word? A way to mask information, transfer it. Ask queries of other broceurs, haggle for the price of secrets. Dead drops and trusted couriers. There is a gathering, yes, but it is only once a year. The masks are not the important thing anyway, for a broceur would know their peers. The important thing is to mask what you are looking for, and for what reason.
— Daag is a member, then? Wait, that’s not important. Rather: how can you sell information for money? How does that work?
— You pay your broceur, do you not?
Well, actually you do not; Daag takes his cut off the top. Or you owe him a service. But yes, you suppose that you would pay most brokers.
— No offence meant, master Derak, Plotkin says and raises his cup to you. — Asking for further particulars of how the Mask Market works impinges on my stock in trade; you should ask your broceur if they would reveal the secrets of the trade to you. Suffice to say that the Market has been in the City for many years, and it has powerful backers guaranteeing that the rules are respected. It is an invaluable aid in the broceur’s trade.
You sit in silence for a moment, then. That all actually sounds rather straightforward. You can sort of see how the Derak of old would have been too single-minded to care about a thing like that, so it’s no surprise you hadn’t had much of an idea about the Mask Market.
— You’re not looking for a new broceur, master Derak? the deacon asks idly as you sit in thought. — I am not yet so old as to refuse a new client, if your interests happen to align with my expertise. I cannot say that I’ve ever fixed for endsmen, but I can make the normal queries and represent – even to Daag Sit-Fence, should it be the case that you cannot show your face to him yourself. I can point you to some well-respected scholars who have found my services reliable and confidential. And, of course, I am a credentialed member of the Mask Market.
Might as well go for it at this point, you can’t see how waiting would improve the plan.
— Can you help me sell some information on the Mask Market, master Plotkin? you ask him quietly. — I am not much of a scholar myself, but I was the only one to return from an expedition to a distant land, and there may be value to what I learned. Is this the kind of thing the Mask Market trades in?
The deacon leans forward with clear interest in his eyes. So now he deigns to show the wily interest of a merchant in his habit. No need to doubt his claims of being an information broker, at least.
— Well, yes, you are not wrong, master Derak, he prevaricates. — There could be some value to that kind of thing, and scholarly knowledge is something I am familiar with. The Mask Market could indeed help us find a buyer, or even several. What you would want to do is to hire me for an agent to make the sale for you; no need for you to concern yourself with the internal workings of the Mask Market, and there is finesse involved. We would need to talk about your diaries and chronicles, and any artifacts or proofs you would have retained. We would not be the first attempting to peddle exploration lore, but it is possible, even if there would be great doubt over its veracity…
The deacon slumps visibly as he considers the affair. It doesn’t last long for him to come to a decision: — However, master Derak – it would be bold for you to enter a trade like that, considering what kinds of pulls there might already be on the Market over you. You really should clear the matters with your broceur before engaging in a complex deal of this nature. After all, it does not take much to connect you to any trades made over your own expedition; you could hardly hope to sell your secrets anonymously in a case like this. It could be dangerous, assuming you have enemies out there on the streets.
— Isn’t that something you could find out, master Plotkin?
— Certainly, master Derak. Are you willing to pay for the service? I can tell you that unless my memory fails me, your name has indeed come up on the Mask Market since the last Juvenalia.
— This is like paying a brokering tip, isn’t it? you ask, putting down three ducats. You can afford the relatively paltry sum, even if there’s not much point to it.
— It is precisely that, my boy. You pay me, and I am honor-bound to serve a well-paying client well. Besides, a broceur has to eat, too.
Plotkin draws a book out of his cassock. Well-bound, but the dense writing makes it seem like a notebook. Seems like an obscure cipher, probably personal mnemonics.
— Now, let me give you a sample of my talents, master Derak, Plotkin muses as he turns the pages of his book. — It is as I knew, you are indeed implicated in the social lore. You probably know that there are open bets with several bookers out there, probably to be resolved by your simply showing up in the City again. They started betting against your survival in last summer already. But did you know that the same is true of the Fox, your great rival in endsmanship? She disappeared around the same time you did.
— I can imagine, you say dryly, but Plotkin hardly listens, poring over his book.
— You should pay me a retainer, I could find out the current situation for you, a proper report… but ah, this here is exactly why the old Plotkin is your choice of broceur: no illiterate would remember old things like these, from several months back. It’s in through one ear, out from the other with them.
— Do you have something or not?
— Oh yes, I do. I remember this now, two separate queries specifically on you in the Mask Market rolls. Firstly, a broceur who I very much expect to be Daag Sit-Fence has set an open call for your whereabouts around the port closure last winter. Secondly, and more importantly: around a year ago, a few months after you left for the foreign parts, an anonymous bounty was set on your apprehension. 500 ducats; a nice round sum to be sure, but probably just an opening bid, unless they expected some common bravo to just stumble on you by accident. An accomplished endsman should score a dozen times that if they were expecting to attract the best hunters.
Plotkin seems so wrapped up in his notes that he doesn’t quite realize how concerning that sounds. Not the Daag part, but the other thing.
— What’s that about a bounty, Plotkin? Run that by me again, would you?
— Well, it’s old news, not like many would even remember it anymore. It’s an open call, though, and I haven’t marked it out, so it must still be current in the books. The buyer is hard-masked and has too few other showings in my notes to tell who they are… the only other thing in here from them is a, oh, 2000 ducat bounty on a “dark crystal”, there’s probably some detail on that in the actual files. That one’s still current, too, but likely forgotten by hunters by now, months-old as it is. Not very lucky, this fellow. Bold one, though, to put a bounty on someone like you.
Rolled a ‘4’.
Hero dice: 4, 4, 2
Monster dice: 4, 4
- Investigation and resolution 24.01.2019
Ominous as it seems, there is really no room for me to back off now. I knew there would be trouble ahead when I decided to come back and try to reorganize my life. At first, when I arrived I was reluctant, like a shy boy in front of a strange, but exotic girl. But now I have set my path and I need to walk through it.
Master Plotkin really surprised me with his antics, yet I get no bad feeling about him. Perhaps he (as well as Chrysal, I dare to hope) are keys that can unlock some potential of my future life. For this I need to make him part of my future.
— Your insights about me are not incorrect, master Plotkin. Let’s say that the Derak the Endsman and the Derak you see in front of you are two different people. The old one was at the top, if you understand what I mean, yet he was a man without direction or conscience. The man before you now might have less confidence but he is searching for a cause good enough for his talents and conscience alike. The trip I took …. altered me. You might say I have seen things no human should ever have to see. Something that casts our petty rivalries here in a shady light. And there are mysteries still I do not understand.
I lean over the table towards him for the final phrase. — And some of those mysteries linger in this city as well.
If my little speech had an effect on Plotkin, he surely hides it well. It is just a sparkle in the corner of his eye that betrays his keen interest on the matter.
— I understand master Derak. Perhaps we can proceed on paths of mutual benefits when you have settled your affairs with your current broker.
— Before I go, I leave two bits on the table here. The first is this: I am willing to help you with the Sharp Circle, if you think there is anything I can do. Murdering is off the table, but of anything else I am willing to negotiate. The second bit is more useful for you immediately, and perhaps something of an entry fee for your services: you mentioned there are open bets for Fox. If I were you, I would bet heavily on the fact that she will not be joining us in this life.
— Is it so, Plotkin mumbles to himself while writing it down on his cryptic book of things.
I stand up from my end of the table.
— It was a real pleasure meeting you, master Plotkin. I wish we can meet again soon.
— As do I, master Derak. May the Hidden Master guide your way.
— Currently I am residing at the Ruby Dancer inn, but I guess you knew it already.
He simply nods, and when we part, he does a weird symbol with his hands, a gesture of farewell of his faith for sure. I bow as one does for an equal and then we head in our ways.
The streets are lazy in the late afternoon as most people are resting through the hottest time of the day. I have no time to rest as there is plenty to do today still. I rush the streets back towards the Ruby Dancer, with best possible speed. I do not go the straightest route, as using one of my usual precautions I circle and go through different alleyways in zig-zag at the same time keeping an eye on the people around me going about their business. This is an easy way to pick up whether I am being followed. It seems that I am not, or then the followers have skills of shadowing that surpass my abilities.
When I reach Ruby Dancer, I get my chest from the safety box. After making sure I will not be bothered, I put the chest in the middle of my bed and open it.
This is the first time I see it after the incident on Chrysal’s apartment, and I can’t help to feel invisible fingers on my throat again. The surface of the crystal is glossy, yet I get a distinct feeling it glows a kind of half-light on its own, that surrounds it and makes its edges blurry.
I need to master myself. If I am ever to start over, I have to face the past and try to do what I can. The jewel might be empty, and it might be not. There is no way to tell. I just have to be careful.
I grab the chest, avoiding touching the jewel itself with any part of my body. I slowly turn the chest over so that the jewel drops down on top of my pillows. This makes it possible for me to investigate the chest and what else it might contain.
As I remembered, the jewel was nested over a bed of papers. When I grab them I notice they are not just blank papers but instead have a writing on them. Some of the papers have taken a toll in the stash, but most of them are completely intact.
The letters on the paper are smooth, yet bit crude, I can easily recognize my own handwriting. The text itself is gibberish to me, though. There are pages and pages full of exotic-looking formulas and some side notes in language quite unknown for me. This must be something I …. or the magus has been doing during my blackout. Perhaps they are of some value in the future.
I fold the papers carefully and put them in my body bag for further use. I line the chest with blank paper, taken from the pile in the table where the writing equipment are left from my letter-writing this morning. Then I maneuver the jewel back to the chest, not an easy task when one is unable to touch it but not impossible for my nimble hands.
The jewel is now searched by someone, and for quite a price. This means I have to destroy it if possible. If there is even a remote chance for someone like the Magus to be released into the world again, then I must do what it takes to stop it from happening. But doing that would require tools and for some reason I have a vague feeling it wouldn’t work. Perhaps it has something to do with the flashback I had earlier about working on the crystal in some kind of a laboratory.
If I couldn’t destroy it, then perhaps I can lose it permanently, so that nobody can get their hands on it. The sea it must be! A few day long river cruise that would take me to the sea for a while would do the trick. There during the night it would be an easy task to throw it overboard and never see the accursed thing again.
Would Chrysal accompany me to such a cruise? The night is young and even though I sent her a message of a meeting tomorrow, I am feeling particularly bold. There is only one way to find out.
- Romantic Encounter 29.01.2019
That cruise sounds like a great idea, Derak; you can just imagine how blue and calm the sea could be in the blazing sunlight of the season. Chrysal… who knows how she might wind down, taken away from the urban environment for a bit of the sea breeze. A small boat, with a discreet boatsman or two. You could cross over the gulf to Delmassa, passing over the deepest parts, spend the night at some garden estate and come back the next day. Why ever not.
Thinking such thoughts, you return the nefarious jewel chest to the innkeeper. Chrysal hasn’t replied to your letter yet, but that’s probably because she plans to answer in form, and hasn’t had time yet to compose her reply. If you hurry up, you can save her the trouble by visiting in person.
You take to the streets, glancing at the afternoon sun. If she is working – if she has an appointment tonight, it is unlikely that she’s left for it yet. You’ll have time for a quick word. Perhaps you should call on her windowsill rather than the door, bring a bit of levity with you… for you that kind of thing would be well doable, the climb could be worked at least three different ways… She would probably be impressed by a casual show of your professional skills… Impressed, but controlled, she wouldn’t lose her composure. There’d be some witty remarks.
You turn uphill as you daydream, enjoying the slope. Yes, this might be the night for a bit of frivolous jaunting. You haven’t had much of a chance to climb the rooftops lately, anyway. If you went out the top-way after visiting Chrysal, you could take the roofs back to the Inn. Might even spot the Contortionists out there, or some other roofsfolks on the way to their business in the twilight. You’re feeling pretty friendly today, Derak, and roofsfolk don’t generally stand in each others way. Any chance meeting would likely be amiable. You’ve always gotten along with other jaunters and such.
You’re just a couple of blocks away from the first of the Tabrams when you slowly grow aware of the tail – you’ve been followed for a while now. Probably from the Inn already. Two people, street bravos from the look of it. It is difficult to spot these things in the City at best of times, but this time you are forced to blame yourself; the two are sloppy, actually getting uncomfortable close to you as you turn the corner to the alongside street. This kind of casing shouldn’t get by you. How come it’s so hard for you to maintain your vigilance, Derak? It is one of the things the Puppet is known for. Some would have called you paranoid in the past. Stand-offish and suspicious, too.
Well, you spotted them before they saw where you were going. No harm done. Better confront them now and get it over with. You slow down slightly, then stop to look at the first of the Tabrams houses. Wondering where you’re going, let’s see how close they get.
— Hey! you shout and dash back towards the two men. The street’s mostly empty, no obstacles. Only ten steps between you at the most. One’s clearly surprised, but the other spins around immediately to sprint off, confirming your suspicions. Straw-ish hair there, untypical.
The slower of the two surprises you with a throw, which you dodge with a hard sway towards the street wall, which allows you to straighten yourself with a push and a turn, hardly losing a step. A jump towards the man, but he’s quick as well, and backpedaling, and he just manages to turn and run. You brush his coat – northern make – but a brush is not a catch.
You should’ve used the spring-heel to tackle the man, but your knee’s still sore, so perhaps that’s why you hesitated. Your sprint’s not quite in top form, but you’re not limping either, not as long as you hold onto some sense here. You’re quicker than most, should be able to run one of the two down.
They’re fleet-footed, though. The quicker one isn’t waiting for it, but the other accelerates and turns back the way you came. You push, but he’s younger and of similar build to you. A runner. The first man is already dodging in between buildings, no doubt meaning to break line of sight to climb a wall or hide somewhere. Your target makes it easy on you, shoots for the same alley. A good choice, you have the sense that this one might be a dead end.
And so it is – rather than a narrow lane between houses, it’s just a backdoor cul-de-sac. A large locked gate, house walls to either side. The first man already turning to defend himself, the second making to join his fellow before you can grab his collar. Better slow down, they’re not going anywhere now. They’re likely to know you, and fear you. Get them talking.
Getting closer, you remark that both men are dressed in those northern style wide-sleeved overcoats that go in place of the cape. Hats hanging on string. Bravo wear around here, but pretty common in upriver Marical, and more so in the Ridges. Might be hiding surprisingly long dirks in those sleeves. No might about it, both draw their arms as you approach.
The young man you chased seems the more nervous of the two. The other is a bearded man, confident. Surprisingly so, if he knows of you; most bravos acknowledge the skills of the Scarlet assassin. Often to ridiculous degree, in fact. They’re the kind of men in want of paragons, and when it’s not some venture captain or champion prizefighter they’re fawning over, the role often enough falls to somebody like you. They should well know that an endsman has his ploys, honed to a lethal excellence far past everyday street bravado.
— Be wary now, Puppet, the man challenges you in a lazily confident drawl. Swirls his dirk in your direction slowly, but it’s not the dirk he means – he’s looking over your shoulder. There’s a fair 20 paces between, you can afford to look.
It is a daylight ambush, of course. Four men more, and who knows of the rear guard outside the alley. Gang bravos, dressed the same. White hair on them all, now…
Should have noticed the stink of bleach, really. The Whitehairs are a Longax gang in the Crook, known for their tight-knit pack. Loyal to their white-haired boss, like to emulate him. Business-like, as far as you know.
— Wait for Albin now, the lure adds unnecessarily; you’ve spotted the man coming in behind his crew. Deceptively frail-seeming, but he’s not old as much as strange. Red eyes, white hair, Albin. The sort of strangeness that sells well in Scarlet. Attracts attention and the loyalty of the desperate. Not unlike yourself, really. He’s not an endsman, but you have heard bravos speak of him nevertheless. An unknown quantity to you.
— What do you want? you ask the boss as he approaches. It’s a bit awkward to address him without turning you back to the two beyond you. The rest stop at the alley mouth, satisfied with keeping you from running for now.
— Nothing much, Puppet, he answers softly, raising his eyes to squint at you in the shade. — Heard you were back in town. Got paid to take you in. Seems you’ve been putting off an appointment.
Rolled a ‘3’.
Hero dice: 4, 4, 2
Monster dice: 4, 4, 3
- Metronomes and Alchemies 07.02.2019
A possibility of violence hangs in the air like a suffocating blanket. It is something every hard man of Scarlet has to have built a standing towards. For the old Derak, it has always been a source of clarity and presence as well as income. For what it is to me now, I don’t really know. At least it is not something I am seeking intentionally.
Albin sure is a known fellow in the underbelly of Scarlet. I remember vague tales from his past as a duelist and a well-paid gladiator. Not that I have followed his endeavors closely enough to say which of them are fabricated and which are not.
In a flurry of thoughts I momentarily think of Vansittart Gabaldon. If it is him, who organized this he goes for great lengths to fulfill my audience. But for what? It could also be Daag, but this doesn’t really suit his style. Daag knows and understands the extent of my abilities, at least roughly. He would know that an effort like this is far from easy to pull off. Also an established crime boss doesn’t waste his people by sending them to die in vain in the blades of the enemy.
A cold smile escapes from my lips. This is something I know. Self-preservation through violence. There is no moral ambiguity to cloud my judgement, no time available to ponder over my choices indefinitely. As other hard men, Derak of the old also preferred to keep his blades sheathed, but sometimes it was necessary to pull them out to re-establish the position of power. Crude, yes, but effective.
— You think you can deliver someone like the Puppet against his will? I throw at him in midst of my contemplations. I casually observe the location. Possible places of danger such as rubble or odd objects that could trip me down. I also check the weapons of the ambushers. I draw in signals of their posture and movement. There is no time for analytical thinking, but intuition works quickly. It draws conclusions of details in a flash, based on countless hours of training and dozens of meetings with death. It is rarely wrong. It can’t be, otherwise I wouldn’t be alive to see this day.
— Better to come quietly. Easier for us all that way.
I covertly activate my death-metronome. It beats in odd rhythm as usual, filling me with cold determination.
I answer with a flurry of movement. My mainblades are out. Oiled and shiny they greet the sunny day with fierce attack against Albin. He steps backwards as fast as he can blocking strikes and thrusts left and right, without even trying to fight back. I wonder what his plan is, when I am forced to disengage as the two runners behind me join in the fight from behind me. The four other bravos rush to help their friends and the board is set.
Fighting alone against multiple opponents is a talent in its own right, geometric and dangerous. They come in a flurry hacking and stabbing with their weapons. I move so that in their approach they stumble and hamper each other in their ever-continuing quest to get me. And when they are going down, the final acts of their bodies is to shield me and unbalance their brothers in arms.
More fighters seem to flow in from the alley, I notice in the middle of it all. Indeed and Albin seems to draw himself out from the fight. I still wonder what he is after? The street bravos are no match for me and he must know it, why is he not participating? Doesn’t he care of his friends lives at all?
My answer comes during the next, vicious attack of the bravos. They try to shoehorn me in a corner that is formed between two partially crumbled houses and they force me to jump over pieces of large tiles and crouch between them to avoid their blades. In midst of it all, I feel a little sting in the back of my neck. Nothing much, when the flower of battle is in full blossom, yet enough for me to notice and check what it was as soon as I get some breathing space.
A short-bladed dart sticking out from my skin, delivering whatever it was supposed to deliver. The bravos back away from me in Albin’s command as I start to feel it. A numbness spreading quickly from my neck towards my arms.
— Poison, I spit out in contempt towards Albin. — An insult between us professionals.
— I do what I must to get the job done. Don’t worry, it won’t be long now.
I feel my pulse slowing even in the midst of all the anxiety. Perhaps not a poison, but rather an agent to render me incapacitated. A neat, meaty package to be delivered wherever.
But it is not that easy. I reach for my bag of alchemy and for a certain vial containing dark blue liquid. Cap off, I drink half of it without hesitation and feel the almost immediate boil of my blood. The Bending Spirit, a liquid oozed from the strangling vines of tiger-haunted forests of Khar Butan far in the east. Used in minor doses it causes a rush of blood and heightened heartbeat. Overdose causes hallucinations from the past. I drank five doses at once. Can’t be too careful in these circumstances.
A frown in the face of Albin deepens as I step out from the corner, mainblades out, spinning with a speed that blurs the eye. The men hesitate now to approach me. Corpses lying around are a silent testament for what they are up against, now that their plan seems to have failed.
The foes retreat, and I let them, jaunting myself up on the rooftops as soon as I can.
The alchemy of Albin is strong. Normally after five doses of Bending Spirit I would be all over the place, but now I feel almost normal, with the jagged feeling of numbness near the puncture point of the dart.
Oh yeah, and there is Papak now, lying comfortably next to me on the rooftop, resting his head on his hand.
I knew you to be stupid, Derak, but this beats everything previously seen. Why did you come to this town, if you are not planning on engaging anything. A moron trying to find a cause amidst the filth of the streets.
I leave my scolding mentor without a word. He is right as always. Why did I come here at all? Why not start over in some other city without a past that is dragging me into an early grave. Perhaps I can sell everything I know to Plotkin and then depart. But what about Chrysal.
However, I have more immediate concerns. Do I have enough Spirit to fight off the poison? If not, then I am to collapse in a heap of flesh at the mercy of people around me. If yes, can I cope with the past rolling over me? This meeting with Papak surely is just a start.
I head towards Chrysal’s place as quickly as I can.
Hero dice: 4, 4, 2
Monster dice: 4, 4, 3
- Princess in Her Tower 11.02.2019
Yes Derak, jaunting over the rooftops is something you should be doing while hopped up on drugs. You can see the Whitehairs when they finally get up to the roofs, but by then you are already a block away and it’s an easy matter to keep below the roof slopes, leaving them to seek for you in the wrong directions as you approach the Tabrams.
The custom of the hard men is entirely clear, Derak! You return a survivor, and you cross those who tried to cross you. That’s how the game goes! And after Daag’s dead you become Daag. Take what’s his and make it yours.
Better to not engage the hallucinations at all, it’s not that bad compared to how your head’s been messed with before. Embarrassingly you lose count of the Tabrams as your attention drifts, forcing you to backtrack simply to make sure you’re climbing the right building; they all look the same. The physical exertion of climbing helps keep you awake, at least. The southside windows of the Tabrams all have awnings against the sun, making the ascend easy for you.
Killing is easy, but unmaking the harm is ever so difficult. That is why healthy people shy away from the violent ways, they intuit the one-way slope of it… Why do I even try to tell you things, Puppet? You listen, but I think you aren’t really equipped to understand. You only bear with me because nobody else would stitch your wounds.
The girls have their living room window open wide to the light and breeze, as you expected. You stop for a moment to consider knocking, but can’t quite figure out how to manage that while clinging to a brick cotter on the outside wall of the house, so a grab at the windowsill and a swift pull has to do.
Chrysal seems to be sitting at the table, taking advantage of the sun to work on her correspondence. A white deshabille, very nice. Phryne’s there as well, you see, sitting on the floor with some pencils and inks of her own. Also some… pit-fighters you once knew, but you have focus, training – easy to tell they’re not real.
Oh, you probably should greet them. The women, they’re likely there for real. Maybe even climb in before your arms give out. You must seem pretty strange halfway in their window, the way they all stare at your sudden appearance.
— Uh, hello, you start, waving in greeting.
Don’t wave, Derak, that’s how the gravity gets you. A great way to scare people, dropping out of their window like that.
— Ah, as I was saying, you continue after floundering back up. Both hands in a deathgrip over the sill. — I’m in a smidgen of difficulty here. Please don’t scream so little flower, girl, there’s nothing wrong… I’m just fine, as long as I don’t fall asleep where they can get at me…
You realize that the mix of drugs is making to ramble, but at least you have the presence of mind to climb (crawl) over the windowsill while mumbling to yourself. Very dramatic entrance, Derak.
You and me, boy, we could make a great team again. You’re no thinker, not like you could figure out this thing with the Longaxi and the Circle yourself. Luckily you have me; I can pick the targets like nobody’s business. And we always get paid, always.
Gasp a bit Derak, but don’t take too long. Still no idea which drug will take over.
— I am, ah, under the influence of poisons most foul, you continue. — Administered a counter-agent, but… It’s probably some strange Koralian sedative from up north, would be just like the Longaxi to have connections thataway. Need to sleep it off, really. Seeing things. Numb in the limbs, like slumber on wintry boughs.
— Phryne, you hear Chrysal’s assertive voice from somewhere to your left. — Could you please go down to the street and see if there are any suspicious characters about. Give me a moment with our honored visitor.
You should never have left me. The city hates you, and you could never be strong enough…
You should actually just tune the dead man out, Chrysal’s clearly got something to say. Not like Yasul could tell you anything useful. You focus both of your eyes in her direction and blink serenely.
— Are you lucid, Derak? she asks you, crouching over you. She takes hold of your head and looks deeply into your eyes.
— For the most part, most certainly, you assure her. — I was poisoned by Whitehairs… don’t mind me, my body just needs some time to decide if I’m going to faint or start raving at dead people. I meant to ask you, what do you think of leaving the City. Get a boat and go away…
She snags your hand out from under you, causing you to fall completely prone on the floor. Probably going to bias the odds against you staying awake, if you’re going to stay that way.
— Listen, now, Derak, she says firmly, leaning over you. Remarkable nose on her, you notice again. — This thing you are doing has to stop; you scared Phryne just now, and I am not impressed by this sort of… bravo display. You coming here makes us complicit in whatever it is that you are doing with the Whitehairs. Do you think that we can protect you if they saw you come here?
She stands up, pours you a cup of water. Your hands are heavy, but firm enough to not spill any. Your legs, meanwhile, twitch with unsuppressed energy, desiring to bounce with the Bending juice.
- Fear and Self-Loathing in the Scarlet City 13.02.2019
Here we are again, Derak, you fool. Fumbling this way will only get those women killed. What do you do with our conscience then. You think this is dark and gloomy now. It is nothing compared to what the underbelly of Scarlet has to give to you if you keep on going with this route.
Papak seems as paasionate as ever. He is not going to leave if it is up to him.
I take another large gulp of the water and try to focus. The rivalling poisons are coursing in my veins.
— Don’t worry, dear Miss, I took really good precautions. They couldn’t have followed me here.
Yeah sure, cross-eyed and drunk like that. Pray the Whitehairs are not downstairs ravaging the girl.
— Oh shut up! Not you, dear Miss. I was talking to Papak, my former mentor. He is really annoying…
She is so lovely standing over you like that. Irritated out of her wits, but sweet as an olive. My finger touches her ankle lightly.
Papak doesn’t like being ignored so he slaps me hard across the face. Funny thing how an imaginary strike can hurt.
Focus! Don’t you understand. You play with the lives of these women like it was nothing. It has got to stop as she said. Build a backbone, will you. Why are you evading the issue. Why don’t you just go to Daag and resolve this. This is the only way you can go forward.
— I have nothing to say to Daag.
Liar! You know as well as I why you have been avoiding it. You are a coward. You always were a coward. Oh yeah, you are mighty endsman yes, a half-mechanic puppet. You need all your gimmicks and devices to bend the odds, because you can’t face true adversity. Fear has driven your life from the get go: abandoning your tribe because you were ridiculed as a youth, running away from Yasul even though you could have built your future on the legacy of his ingeniousness. Abandoning me before taking in any responsibility. And now you are like a fire potion, ready to explode and take those around you with you.
He might be dead but it doesn’t mean he is wrong. Or are the drugs making me docile and receptive all of a sudden. My past runs in front of my eyes like a madman’s delirium. My early childhood, constantly being mocked and scorned for my small and frail stature. The time of my slavery under Yasul and his endless, ingenious torture. Papak and his drive to enlighten me and finally the underbelly of Scarlet. Through all of this I ran without committing myself to anything, without a clear path. And even now, when I think I am a changed man it turns out I haven’t. My morality is just a barrier barring me from some actions but I am just as causeless and aimless as I have always been. As a young nomad, I drowned it in self-pity. As a slave in hate. As Papak’s student into scheming and finally as an endsman into intoxicating debauchery. But my conscience prevents me from drowning things, they are always there, rubbing the foul essence that is me endlessly into my face.
I cry openly. This is a thing unheard of for a hard man. Unforgivable show of weakness. But I don’t care.
— Dear miss, do not worry. I wish you happy life. Perhaps, if we had met in different circumstances…
I don’t want to see her pity or response. I jump out of the window, recklessly. But even in my stupor I manage to grab the windowsill and turn a deadly fall into a descent of some kind.
Take more of that stuff and I will show you what you must do next. We will get through this.
Papak surely sounds reassuring.
The thousands of lights of Lantern City are again reflecting from the still waters as I approach the lavish mansion that is all too familiar to me. It is Daag’s place, and in my hands I have a chest that contains a bargaining chip for my future: the dark crystal. Or to be exact, a replica that looks good enough. Luckily I still have some contacts in the city that I could use.
I only wonder what happens when I run out of Bending Spirit. Or if the cursed northern poison stops working and my heart bursts out of my chest from an ample overdose of the former. It seems my mind has been cleared from the stupor that was caused by the mixed drugs, but the hallucinations are as real as always.
Papak walks there with me, smug as ever. No wonder, as he was the mastermind behind this scheme after all.
Plenty of ways for me to die here, it seems.
A lover die 6 (I leave alone, gracefully)
A goal die 2
Hero dice: 4, 4, 2, 6, 2
Monster dice: 4, 4, 3
- Sunken House 22.02.2019
You swing your arms a bit, make sure everything is in place, and move forth to step through the open gate into the yard of the Sunken house. It’s really just one of the high-built island hostels the families favour in the Estuary district, except Sunken is, well, sunken – the house is built on the slowly eroding silt banks, and while that is hardly unique in the Estuary, the Sunken house has been descending faster than most, having already lost its entire ground floor below water. The lesser buildings on either side on the embankment have actually fallen into ruin a while back, leaving the Sunken house to manorial isolation. You can actually take a road of sorts from the Lantern City, or at least a walkway, up to the house, going right thorough the remains of one of its neighbours.
The house is rather typical of Daag in its worn down glory: too decrepit for true men of virtue, but suggestive of the kind of hostel a merchant prince would maintain. And despite the maintenance problems, usefully norm-breaking: Daag has space, neighbours gone from the marshy sandbank, enough to put up fencing and a bit of manorial flair. Room enough to exercise a horse, if he brought one in for some reason. Privacy, too. That’s something no grand hostel in the Estuary has, nor could they, not for money nor love. You want a manor, you move to the mainland.
Daag’s a clever fellow, that is for sure.
Take care with him, Derak. The man ordered your death. We need to buy him off.
You can afford to ignore Papak now that you’re of the same mind about your course. An elevated boardwalk helps you across the bog. Daag maintains a bit of elevation around the house, probably by having sand brought in, but as that does nothing for the Sunken house itself, entrance is now through what used to be second-floor windows.
Although most of the house is dark, there is light in some windows on the third floor. Lamps are also lit on the outside. Might be for security. You’re not trying to sneak here, so better to be forthright on the approach and let whomever might be on guard see you.
A servant is quick to answer the door practically as soon as you step on the porch. Keeping an eye out, no doubt.
— The Sunken house greets visitors despite the late hour, an elderly doorman tells you politely. — Who might be calling, and on what business?
— I am Derak the Easterner, you say, staring at him forthright. — I seek to meet with the master of the house. We have business together.
The man opens the door, quietly inviting you in. The vestibule is dark with but the indirect light from further inside suggesting that the house is still awake. You take a seat in the dimness as the doorman leaves to announce you.
Behind the door, a large and quiet man sits perched on a stool. You can see him now that you are inside, but it is too dark to draw much conclusion. He has a bared sword laid over his knees, you think. The shoulders are so large that he has to be wearing spaulders or some such. You sit there in silence for a while, wondering whether the man is even real. Perhaps he is like Papak, only in your mind.
No, he is quite real. Daag has guards, Derak. He has a household. You should take more of the spirit now. Keep your focus.
The doorman is back in due time, attracting your attention: — Honorable Daag will see you in the dining room, master Derak.
The route is straightforward up the stairs and inwards, into the grand dining room of the house. The grand windows give landward, glinting lights of the City over the water. The room itself is cast in darkness, dinnertime over, the great chandeliers unseen in the high shadows. A few candles at the head of the table, and the lantern of the doorman.
Daag himself draws your attention, standing there in candlelight. A man once sturdy, but drawn smaller by age. Paunchy, but then most successful men are. Heavy, expensive robes. Used to sitting his days in the various taverns of the Crook. Hard buttocks, less so in the limbs. Head, however, the head of a man who would naturally seize command and make the plans. The Sit-Fence.
You look around, of course you do, in case things go awry. There are many doors here, but only one has bright light outlining its frame. Probably the parlour. The windows have bars in them, impossible to get out that way. Two silent men trailed you into the room as you came, now standing near the doorway as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Daag shows no hesitation about you drawing closer, nor do you expect him to: he could not do what he does if he held any fear for hard men. The policy is the same as always: he does not try to match your threat. Slay him, and his men will kill you. Simple as that.
Does Daag have a family somewhere in here? You don’t know, this is the first time you’re even in his house. He has never invited you here.
Don’t tarry, Derak. You need to sell the story. Remember, you want him to fence the stone. Show, no touch. Arrange a meet with the buyer.
— Welcome to the Sunken house, Derak, Daag rasps familiarly. He drums his fingers on the hardwoord dinner table. — Before you speak your piece, I must protest this meeting; you know perfectly well that I do not conduct business in my home. You have been in the City for what, three days already? And each day we could have had a sit-down in the Gram Corner, as you well know.
You realize that Daag must have noticed you staring stupidly at Papak. He looks uncertain at your silence, rarely so. Maybe he realized that you’re drugged out of your wits and might as well attack him at any moment against all rational sense.
Well of course you’re not going to do that, Derak. I raised you better. Let him rather make the first move, if he truly dares. His house, his rules. Maybe he really wants you dead, and if so, this’ll be the way to find out. I bet he doesn’t have the courage; he knows what you can do.
— Well… Daag reasserts himself, still waiting for you to say something. — Do sit down at least; you know my feet aren’t what they used to be. I will have to warn you, I am entertaining some guests, so we need to get to the point here soon. I can’t spend the whole night waiting for your tick-tocky little head to spin around to speaking your mind. I want to hear you say it first, before I say my part.
Daag sits, you sit… Papak sits as well, conspicuously scraping the heavy chair as he does. You can only see a dark silhouette of him in the candlelight. No features at all.
Go on, dive straight into the bit. No need to talk about the swamp thing at all. He’ll take it up he wants to. Pretending like he doesn’t want to hear you tell of it.
An ugly little thought worms its way into your head. Sweats break out as you remember what it felt like having a bossy… thing in your head. Hearing voices that are not really there.
Want a dialogue here?
- Patronizing trialogue 25.02.2019
I recorded the dialogue:
Daag sits, you sit… Papak sits as well, conspicuously scraping the heavy chair as he does. You can only see a dark silhouette of him in the candlelight. No features at all.
Go on, dive straight into the bit. No need to talk about the swamp thing at all. He’ll take it up he wants to. Pretending like he doesn’t want to hear you tell of it.
An ugly little thought worms its way into your head. Sweats break out as you remember what it felt like having a bossy… thing in your head. Hearing voices that are not really there.
I find considerable difficulty in starting the discussion. Drugged stupor, perhaps, or something else. Can it be fear of what I might find out from my past. I lick my lips feverishly and cast a quick glance towards Papak. From what I can learn of his expression I know that I need to act soon or he starts making trouble.
— Thank you for receiving me, Master. I excuse this intrusion but I haven’t really been myself lately and I have faced multiple problems. Problems that have originated from different sources.
A notable break here. Perhaps too notable even. A man of his intellect must have understood it easier that I meant him without saying it. I continue still.
— But I am here to exhibit an item I brought back from my arduous journey.
I take the simple pouch with a satin interior and peel the crystal from under it. It is a dark lump in the candlelight, not quite as big as the original but almost at the same color. The counterfeiter did a great job with it.
— A cult object, most rare indeed. Do we strike with the normal deal, ten percent for you and you can organize a meeting with the buyer?
A side glance towards Papak reveals him signaling me to continue, to ask for more. But I dare not, not yet at least.
Daag watches you for a moment, but then seems to shrug his shoulders and lean forward to observe the stone better in the candle-light. He reaches for the stone, expecting to examine it to get a sense for its nature. You can see no immediate recognition in him, but his eyes do stray between you and the jewel, as if expecting a trap.
I instinctively pull it a bit backwards but interject immediately.
— It shouldn’t be touched with bare hands. As you see I have it wrapped in this satin. Trust me, it is for a reason. It is a cult object with …. attributes.
I shudder. Even though this is not the jewel that is not to be touched, I am pretty sure I can fake the feeling well enough. I have enough experience of what it means.
— Oh, a magical artefact… Daag muses. — Does it have a name, then? What is its provenance?
He seems willing to entertain your pitch for now.
— You know I am not a man of magics or ancient lore. I do not know of its origins, but I know it is a relic of a time most inhuman. A pure artefact of evil and doom. You must know already that I brought it with me back from those cursed jungles. You must know because you sent Fox there after me.
Papak probably feels I am rushing things. I know I am rushing things. Blood in my veins is rushing anyway. Perhaps he could blurt something that could set some light into the dark spots of my past.
— Oh, well, Daag intones to reserve his place in the conversation. You can actually see him relax a bit when you acknowledge what you know. It takes him no longer than that to seize the topic: — You wouldn’t happen to have brought back anything else from Kiho aside from the gem? One jewel, rather than several? I take it that you met the expedition I sent to aid in your venture… Left them behind, though, which surprises me. Did you know that your old friend, Papak Vicente, led the expedition? I would have expected you to return with the rest, truly.
Apparently your look has the right mix of incredulity and impatience, as Daag deigns to continue:
— Fox, yes. You know how she likes to take on bounties. See the world, match her wits with exotics. I might have told her to make sure you help Papak’s crew find the jewels. I would have thought that you would be happy to see a friendly face out there. No need to look so smitten, surely? You two have so much in common, and you have to admit that if I wanted you to actually listen to Papak, they needed somebody who could make you listen.
Either Daag’s fucking with you, or he really has no clue whatsoever what actually happened in the Jeweled Swamp. At least he’s smart enough to guess that your encounter with Fox wasn’t exactly amiable.
It seems almost impossible not to vomit everything I have to him. Even though I know what he is. Druggedness plays a part, surely, but it is not everything. One thing I know for sure is the fact that my body language doesn’t betray me. I need not to tell lies even though I am not telling everything.
— I was lucky to get back alive. Part of me at least did. With this jewel and nothing more. At least nothing that can be bargained for money. Do you know anything of the priests of that particular sect that I was following when I left? You must have made the research yourself as well, being able to send those escorts after me anyway.
— Hmm, sounds like those jeweled ferns were a miss after all… Daag muses aloud. You can see how he doesn’t really care. He’s rich enough that he doesn’t need to work himself up about a lost expedition. It probably was just another power play for him. And he expects you to forgive and forget, just like that.
—That stone, though, I’m sure we can move it. An exotic item, going to take a few – his musing is cut short by the creak of the door, and a slice of light cutting into the room behind Daag’s chair.
The parlor beyond is awash in light, making you blink momentarily. Daag half-turns at the interruption as well.
— Now now, Sit-Fence; what’s keeping you sitting here in the dark? Either send the fellow on his way or introduce us! We still have much to discuss, you and I.
The interruption comes from a large man. You can mostly see a silhouette against the light, but the way the imposing figure wields a crystal goblet, and the way light reflects off his dark velvet doublet, you can see that this is a man used to commanding respect.
Monster roll: ‘1’
Hero dice: 4, 4, 2, 6, 2
Monster dice: 4, 4, 3, 1
The Match continues.
Backing towards the corner is instinctive. Nothing I can do to stop it really. Happens as automatically as breathing or heart beat. Luckily I manage to keep my hand-blades sheathed still.
Nonetheless it doesn’t look good. Me holding the jewel up in one hand, covered half-way with satin cloth. Wild look in my eyes. Wild look in Papak’s eyes as well.
Better let Daag hande this. It is his manor, anyway.
The chair gives out indecorous screeching as you jump up. Daag looks at you and then follows suit, standing up himself.
— Very well, honorable Vansittart; why not introduce you, indeed? Daag says, stepping out of the way as the man takes a few more steps into the room. Daag does not give out panic signals, but then the man has ice in his veins; probably commits to death every morning like a philosopher of old.
As you would expect of him, Daag doesn’t stumble in his words:
— On my left hand here we have the honorable master of the household Gabaldon, Vansittart the first. His gracious guesting at the Sunken house has been so rudely interrupted by a man of his own merit, one Derak the Puppet, a titled endsman of the City and a newly-minted venture captain recently returned from the distant Bagsea. Derak’s recent venture brought about certain business concerns that he felt urgent enough to bring them to me at my home, at night.
The newcomes comes up to the table, and the candle-light. He slides his fingers upon the smooth, expensive tabletop instinctually, as most do when coming upon such finely-crafted furniture. His hands are large and hairy, the skin Longax-pale. As he grins, his teeth are unnaturally white and straight for a middle-aged man comfortable in his strength.
— Oh, this is Derak the Easterner? Tonight proves fortunate indeed. I am in your debt, Daag Sit-Fence, for I, too, have some business with the man, even as we have been missing each other recently. He has proven surprisingly hard to pin down, which I suppose must be expected of the pre-eminent endsman of the City.
—Well… Daag begins, and it is most unnatural to hear him cut into the conversation with care, respectful of the other speaker. — In that case, I suppose I should invite both of you gentlemen into the parlor?
Longax family indeed. I feel like a rat put in a maze that is too difficult for him to navigate out of. Still I might try. I bow with almost perfect form (I am still holding the jewel in my right hand, although I instinctively bend it down and behind my right hip as I do so, to take it out of the immediate spotlight).
— Honored Sir. It is with most regret that I have had to postpone your gracious invitation. As I told in my letter I am still unable to carry out my business as usual. I can’t hold it off from a Honored Gentleman like you: an utterly failed expedition, partially due to outside forces that were pitted against me. A glance towards Daag. Perhaps I can make the two cats eat each other and thus leave the mouse unscathed.
I have to find a way to put the jewel out of sight gracefully before entering the parlor. Perhaps when one of them speaks next time…
I don’t see Papak in the chair. It feels weird. Where did he go?
The parlor is well-fitted, comfortable and cozy, a place where men of taste may discourse in peace while sampling the finest of amusements at their pleasure. Rather the opposite of the milieus where you’re used to seeing Daag: to you (and you suspect, to most of his business associates) he is a street tavern man. Flanked by a bodyguard or two at all times, yes, and with a secretary on his tail, but nevertheless similar to any old man nursing his pazzine or beer in one of the Crook watering holes. Dressed sparsely and honestly, without these robes and ruffles. This is all a rather different place, and evidently one where honorable men might see fit to rest their backsides on stuffed-soft chairs and divans.
You stumble as you enter, realizing as you do the leaden weight that is starting to envelop your limbs. Whatever the alchemy of your drug load tonight, it seems to be wearing off, leaving you in the lurch at a bad time. Perhaps merely embarrassing, perhaps something more. The best you can do for the moment is to move up to a deeply-backed armchair and lurch down, crossing your hands over the crystal on your lap.
— Regarding the earlier matter we were speaking of, Daag, the man Vansittart starts talking like the master of the house. — While it is not entirely unrelated to my ideas regarding master Derak here, I would nevertheless prefer to hold these matters separate for now. These things take time, and the role master Derak would be to play here requires certain finesse.
Daag merely nods meekly, sitting down on a chaise that to your amazement is actually smaller than the massive chair Vansittart has chosen for his own. And then Vansittart turns his infectious grin on you. Your eyes feel pretty bleary by now, but it is easy to see him revealed for what he is: a hungry, up-and-coming prince of the tradeways, eager to play the game of the senatorial seats. Who knows, maybe he wants your discreet hand on the dice cup in the coming elections; it would not be the first time you have participated in those games.
— Master Derak? Are you there? This is no time to fall asleep, Vansittart says and gives you a bump on the shoulder. — We should keep this meeting of the minds short, for master Derak seems to be losing his attention.
He leans towards you in conspirational whisper, even if there is no way Daag wouldn’t hear what he has to say:
— Presenting the crystal to me would be to your health, master Derak. You know you took it out of turn. Just some friendly advice. A show of good will, if you will.
I try to keep my eyes fixed on the man. To keep my wits about me through the haze. Perhaps this is why Papak is gone, the Bending Spirit must be wearing off.
— Honored Sir. I am sorry about my state just now. I ran into some kind of a trouble just recently, and disposing them caused a bit of consequences. If we are to commerce, then it is good for you to know, that I am capable of many things when forced.
Got to play boldly. As boldly as I can. I order a drink and mix some Bending Spirit into it. Good way to put the jewel out of sight in the meantime. I try not to look too hasty, even though I battle against falling asleep. Try to be careful with the dosing of the Spirit as well …. I am next to useless being overly jumpy.
— Honored Sir. You were interested in the jewel. Do you know how I came to be in the possession of it? How much would you be willing to pay for it? You know that a lowly tool such as I, as much as I am an expert, operate through currency alone.
Seeing you function, Vansittart lets go of your arm and leans back. He grins at your words, understanding the greedy premise.
— You misunderstand me, master Derak, he says, picking up his own crystal goblet. — What you possess there is but a triffle to the concerns of the virtuous men who rule this City. I will not haggle for it, as I expect you to relinquish it willingly – or perhaps in a bout of stupor, considering your condition. Either way, you should be setting your sights higher than that, for there are new ventures about, ones that have the potential to brush off any defeats a man might have experienced in foreign lands.
Better to keep your mouth shut right now, while waiting for the spirit’s updraft. Mumbing something unintelligible would just make you seem all the more vulnerable.
Vansittart turns to Daag then.
— Master Daag, it is obvious that I should have come to you first thing when my attention was drawn by this remarkable man. You have a working history with him, after all. No doubt you understand well the best ways to talk to him.
— Well, I do like to think that Derak and I have a long and friendly working relationship, yes, Daag agrees readily, seemingly willing to talk himself up when given the opportunity. — I have to say, though, that I would prefer for you to let me work things out with the Puppet. He is a shy and reticent man who works best with considerate care. An idiot savant, if you know what I mean. There are other endsmen, some would say better ones, if you need an agreeable person full of initiative.
— You mean the Thousand Blades woman? None else surely matches his accomplishments.
— Well yes, although it is true that she is out of the City at the moment.
— No matter to me either way; the very idea of a female assassin is ludicrous, and regardless unsuited to the task at hand. My mind is made up, and the Puppet shall have the honor of wielding his blades to my design.
You’re seeing vague shapes of color amassing beyond the chairs of the two men. They discuss you as if you weren’t even there, and the drugs – or is it the wine – are making you feel ill.
— Yes, Vansittart considers rubbing his fine-shaved chin. — I think that you both should attend my coming masque, at the end of the week. I won’t hesitate to admit that it is mainly an opportunity for like-minded men to meet in the security of my house. Meet and plan.
He looks at you with something approximating disgust.
— Master Derak may not be of a presentable rank per se, but if you, master Daag, were to choose him as your personal escort, decorum might well be kept. It might be the most pleasant circumstance to go over the plan in some detail.
I’m cool with stopping here. Your Go next.
- Rude Awakening 28.02.2019
The awakening comes horribly, like for a man held too long underwater and gasping for breath. My body feels completely exhausted, yet my feverish mind pulls me up, as alert as ever. It is not morning, but afternoon, considering the direction of the shadows in my room.
The events of last night, they had to be a horrible dream. I am in my own bed at the Ruby Dancer, so it must have been. Yet I am sleeping in my clothes of yesterday and have no recollection on how I got in here. Trap-lines and defences are also absent. That daydream got shattered quickly.
The bag that held the jewel is nowhere to be seen. An anxious search through my belongings also reveals to me that the real jewel has vanished as well. It must have been that Vansittart -fellow.
I rush to call the floor servant, and he squirms under my heated questions. As he wasn’t in the shift last night, he has to call in for others until I finally get my answers. Afterwards I drive them all away from my room in a fury.
It seems I have arrived in late hours of the night, with a merry band who half-carried me with them. They had told the workers of the inn that they are my friends and insisted on delivering me safely back to my room. From thereon, the story becomes vague but it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. They must have been Vansittart’s men, or Daag’s, and deftly after escorting me to my room they took care of searching through my belongings for anything interesting.
I bury my head in my hands. I am a again a pawn in a game played by predators and forces beyond my grasp. Of what Daag and Vansittart represent I know, but I wonder whether they understand what they are meddling with. I put my hopes on the fact that the jewel is empty from its previous inhabitant, yet I have a nagging feeling whether the Magus will ever leave the gem truly. From everything I know about the him it might be that his presence overlaps time and causality.
When everything else fails, go back to basics. Breathing first and build up from there.
It seems Papak is still here. No wonder, I remember taking Bending Spirit last night, before darkness fell. So, he will be around for a while still. My body feels like I haven’t slept in a week, yet sleeping will not help, until I can get rid of the Spirit from my bloodstream. But there are other ways I can rejuvenate myself, just ask Papak said.
I undress all of my mechanical aids. This I do only rarely, but deep meditation like this is something where one needs to be all alone with his own body and mind. Slowly the pile of accessories next to my bed grows and grows. It is like a beginning of a ritual for me, and rarity brings with it meaning and focus.
Papak just sits there and observes, without commenting. It is lot of him that is involved in what I am about to do.
I need to get into sweat for what I am after. So, I start with my usual routine of bending and weaving, twisting and stretching. Unassisted by my mechanical aids it feels raw and bare, brutal even. After this I continue into shadow-swordplay, disposing imaginary enemy after another with equally imaginary blades but with real footwork, timing and body movements. I strive to move without a sound, focused utterly on what I do from moment to moment, yet keeping all of my senses open. I can hear the floor servant moving about, coughing of some other resident behind a wall. I smell the lunch that is soon to be served downstairs. All of this I note, and let pass on through me, like a waterdrops fall from leaves. It is sensing without reasoning and with this comes true separation and freedom.
Afterwards I kneel on the floor, body sweating, chest heaving. I feel my presence like I haven’t felt for a long time and let my mind wander freely.
Body and mind are one, if you use one, the other will be used. If you relax one, the other will follow suit.
Papak is still here, even though I don’t see him. No matter.
Conscience doesn’t make me a good man. It just tries to prevent me from doing more harm. Without a proper cause I am nothing more than what I was.
I feel the repulsiveness of it all again strongly in my veins. My presence in this world has surely been a negative influence. Whatever I do now does not change my past, and continuing in my path can only bring more sorrow or death in my wake. Would it be better to end my life now, before all of this happened. I take a stern look inside. Could I do it?
The thought of leaving it all from yesterday comes back strong. I have knowledge of ancient perils beyond the grasp of humanity. If power-players like Vansittart or Daag could just comprehend the pitiful pebbles they are compared to the threat of the Magi or what they represent.
Direction of this thought embraces me. It manifests almost physically. My long travel has prepared me for this without my knowledge or understanding, I am not to live in fancy taverns with dancing exhibitions and expensive wines. I am to follow the trail of these ancient mummeries to their source and to fight them as long as I live. Here I am just wasting my efforts that could be better spent elsewhere.
Later I check out from the Ruby Dancer, and manage to haggle back most of what I deposited for my prolonged stay in the inn. The keeper is surprised and hurt, asking continuously what other tavern has won me over or of what have they done wrong. I am not sure whether I convinced him that nothing of this sort is going on, but rather that I am to take a trip that could last a while.
I will go and meet Master Plotkin and tell him everything there is to tell about these ancient forces. No more half-truths and covered facts. I will then ask his permission to travel to Vicenza as a novice of their order in pursuit of more knowledge of these dark forces that were from their great library. If he believes me or not, I do not really care, as long as I can start the quest.
But before I go, I will get back the jewel. Preferably sooner than later. If Master Plotkin knows something about this, then all the better. If not, then, perhaps I must visit Daag or Vansittart with grave intentions.
I roll 3
Hero dice: 4, 4, 2, 6, 2, 3
Monster dice: 4, 4, 3, 1
- Some More Puzzle Pieces 03.03.2019
You leave the inn with instructions to hold onto your newly purchased luggage for the moment, being as how you have nowhere else to send it to right now. Such mundane details hold little interest to a man on a mission, though.
Been on a mission for a few days now, haven’t we? You get up every morning full of vim, only to wake up the next morning wondering what the hell happened.
What does “Papak” even want with you? He’s been riding you hard, but nothing you do seems to make him happy. Right now it feels like sitting at the feet of the sages and priests some more would have been a worthwhile idea, Derak. Exotic drugs are one thing, but understanding the visions they pull forth is still another. “Know yourself”, they say, but…
Perhaps I just want you to grieve? I always wondered if our relationship meant anything to you. Derak expresses so little for all that I tried to give you everything. It was a shitty end you reserved for your mentor.
Well… Not the time to get into that right now. You hurry off and turn to trudge up-hill, towards the compound of the Unbroken Circle.
You would, of course, be followed when you leave. There’s no time to feel foolish about keeping watch, either, as the tail doesn’t seem to be doing anything to hide himself. This time it’s a face you recognize – one Godry “Limber”, a well-known lackey of Daag’s. Supposedly a bravo, but less known for his scars than his fleetness in fleeing the scene of any trouble.
— Hey, I don’t want any trouble! Godry shouts, raising his hands as
— What is it that you want, then? you ask with an expressionless face. Godry shies away a step despite the ten paces between you. A bit late in the game to realize it, but people seem to take your taciturn habit for an implied threat. Wonder what Papak thought about that. You just never were much of a smiler, not after living with Yasul as long as you did.
— Daag sent us to keep an eye on you, Godry explains quickly, still turned half-way ready to run at the first sign of danger. — He just wants to know where to find you, apparently two have some business together.
— And you are to run go-between?
— Well yeah, he says, but without quite daring to look you in the eye. After a moment: — Daag did say that you’ve been angry, and to not cross you if I value my skin. But I can run word to him if you need it.
You take a testy step forward and yeah, Godry’s off like a bird. Sprints 30 paces before looking back and stopping. Completely shameless. You stop for a moment to consider your options, but this probably isn’t the hill to take a stand on; you’d need to take it up with Daag directly to make him stop. You throw up your arms at Godry in a sign of exasperated resignation and turn to continue on your way.
Daag being a bit circuitous in his communication is nothing new, he enjoys keeping his people sensitive to his needs. He probably expects you to sort yourself out and show up of your own accord to accompany him for that masque. Or maybe you did some arrangements with him last night, only to forget about it in your blackout. That whole mess is up in the air, really, what with this Gabaldon fellow being so mysterious; the only thing you can really be solid on is that Daag dances to his tune right now, which in itself is remarkable enough.
— Hey Godry, what day is it? you stop and shout at your tail, sticking to a comfortable 20 paces now.
— Uh, the 13th?
So yeah, two days to the nundines – plenty of time to figure out what you’re going to do about those plotters.
They do not realize what they are dealing with here. The Puppet’s has always been an adaptable existence, and Daag has always held the strings. They are right to assume your professional conformity, for that is the Puppet. You are the only one who knows what has become of him in the jungles of Kiho.
The Unbroken Circle compound seems the same as yesterday, but this time it is like deacon Plotkin had been keeping in eye out for you; he’s waiting for you at the door already as you enter the yard.
— Hey, master Derak! he shouts and waves in a casual-seeming way. — Just the man I was thinking of. Good to see you continue visiting our humble school.
The man seems to be on the edge in a rather obvious way. His smile but the model of a smile. Makes your blades twitchy.
The inside of the house seems as quiet as yesterday. This time Plotkin ushers you further in, taking you through a service hallway into a spacious private room in the back of the house. Reasonably accoutred with furniture, more like the chambers of a free scholar than an ascetic cenobite.
— Take a seat if you please, master Derak, Plotkin offers a comfortable chair accompanied by a wire-thin smile. — We shall not be interrupted here.
— Your commune lives in a surprisingly comfortable way, you remark politely while taking your seat.
— I can show you the cells the Masters prefer if you’d like, Plotkin says, busying himself with wine and, yes, iced pazzine. — Our patrons expect to be treated with a certain decorum, however, and I have to admit that it is something I have grown accustomed to myself.
He gives you an examining look. — It could be fairly called hypocritical, how we wine and dine the gentlemen, and grant them the illusion of brotherhood with the poor. All in white robes, except silk for those whose skin ill bears wool. The poor get to eat their fill, even if for foolish reasons.
You merely nod at his probing, letting Plotkin say his piece.
— I have been thinking about your travelogue, master Derak, Plotkin changes topics as he sits down. — The travelogue, and other matters, if truth be told. I believe that I can help you with the letters, get the materials together swiftly and find you a patron willing to reward the work in an ample way. I am sure your tale is worthwhile enough for me to put down a substantial down payment on it from my own purse, a hundred ducats say.
Yes, so now Plotkin simply needs to cough out the truth on what he wants out of this himself. Not that we really have the time to write a book for him.
— Thing is, the deacon continues as you wait silently. — The thing is, I need you to help me out first. You offered a friendly ear to my troubles yesterday, and hinted as to your availability for practical work. I have come to be convinced that the Unbroken Circle needs help to remain, well, unbroken. The students following Niccolo – the Sharp Circle, as it were – have somehow gotten into touch with the Whitehairs, one of the ill-reputed bravo gangs in the Crook; I believe them to be plotting something together, or perhaps the angry fools are taking advice from those criminals. I believe that there exists a mastermind who benefits of a plot, and that plot to have unfortunately entangled our young men in some ill design. It occurs to me that where the gentle words of their elders may not suffice, an endsman of your stature might be able to put a stop to the foolishness with little trouble.
You sip your wine and slowly set aside the glass.
— I told you yesterday, though, did I not, you finally begin. — I try to be a different sort of person now; not an endsman, not a mercenary. It is unfortunate for my whims to so set astray your ever-clever planning, master Plotkin, but this morning saw my conviction only grow stronger: I have now decided to leave the City altogether. It is true that I have to write, for there are dangerous matters – important matters of which it may be the case that only I know the full of it now. All the more reason for why I have little attention to spare to the follies of the young and politically minded.
Plotkin listens to you seriously before leaning in to plead his case further.
— Please, master Derak! he exclaims, and you can see that the man cares for his cause here. — You may have mistook me, for I set my words in the accustomed way of the City, which often leaves a cynical impression. I did not intend to suggest to pay you for a job, or if I did, at least not for the sake of some petty spat between philosophers, and not to kill anybody. I believe this to be an important matter for the people of the City as a whole. Unusual numbers of young bravos have shared in our communion over the recent weeks. Many Longaxi, unusually so. Rough people, but welcomed by the sharpist brothers nevertheless. I fear they are planning something of great illegality.
It is pretty clear that he is still not saying everything he suspects.
— Speak your mind, master Plotkin, you urge him on stoically.
— Sheath… Plotkin whispers over dry lips. — I believe they are conspiring treason. Futile, bloody treason, for little but a momentary internal distraction while king Aistulf presses his suit to the free cities. A bloody distraction that leaves the Unbroken Circle and its hotheaded social revolutionaries holding the bag as the agents and provocateurs disappear into the night.
- Connecting the Dots 07.03.2019
So, it is here where the threads of different events of past days seem to be woven together. Longax whitehairs and that Gabaldon-fellow who was in need of my services. I have an ominous feeling he is behind all of this. A young, rising star could very well profit from great turmoil that would drop the heads of some of his rivals from the game. And now he probably has the crystal also, even though he must not know what it is.
Plotkin winces in anticipation. Perhaps my body language gave away some of my thinking.
— I …. probably know who you are talking about. I have recently stumbled into a particular Longax gentleman who has been very persistent on getting in touch with me. Even enough to rally a group of bravos on my tail. I have a feeling I am being pulled into this ordeal of yours from both ends.
Plotkin considers his words for a while.
— What are your thoughts then on this subject? Are you planning to abandon us in this hour of need? It was you that contacted me and in memory of Papak-
I lift my hand to stop his squirming monologue.
— You can stop trying to reassure me now, master Plotkin. I decided this morning I will talk freely of what is on my mind, no matter how shocking it might be to the vermin of this accursed city. To the people who are in each others throats for petty rivalry and don’t understand that there are forces out there that can enslave us all. I have seen men, hell even the whole of humanity being changed and twisted. Mutilated beyond recognition to serve some inhuman masters that have lived aeons ago, and still exist in one form or another, harboring comeback.
— You must understand, Derak, how that sounds.
— I understand, I blurt in half-angrily. — Hell, I wish you were right. I wish I was just a gibbering madman with a doomsday hallucination. Plenty of them in the streets already. I wish you will never see what I have seen. But unfortunately it isn’t so. Those forces were the ones who caused Papak’s death and more.
At that moment I realize Papak is gone. Either he doesn’t like his death being mentioned or the effects of the drug have finally worn off.
If Plotkin is impatient with me, he is hiding it well. Allows me to continue even without interrupting.
— But you know, master Plotkin. It is your lucky day today. I am here to help you in any way I can. Well, not in any way I can, I won’t murder innocent men in cold blood even if they are mislead, young hotheads. But I will help you to stop the threat, if I can.
— You will? That is mightly generous of you, master Derak. If there is any sarcasm there, I can’t detect it. It is possible that Plotkin is too complex a man for me to read with a short an acquaintance.
— Generosity has nothing to do with it, unfortunately. I believe that the man who is pitted against you, one of them anyway, this Vansittart Gabaldon, has stolen a dark crystal from my possessions. Oh yeah, let me tell you of that crystal. They contain ancient spirits of Mayugita, evil spirits from before our time who are ready to enslave us all. And the best thing is, I don’t know whether that crystal has one or not. A crystal like this was the cause for my journey in the ends of this earth where I witnessed the ancient struggle of inhuman powers of which one was this Mayugita. A struggle in which I was bent in taking part as a vessel of flesh and blood. But I survived and came back only to meet such a crystal again right after my arrival. So, master Plotkin, I am ready to oppose this man, and to get to know more of him and his plots in order to get the crystal back from him. What do you want me to do, master Plotkin?
He is a master of his craft. Even after all this I blurted out, he doesn’t seem to be fazed. Perhaps pauses a bit longer than normal to show that he is absorbing what I just said. He may be judging whether I am more dangerous for him than I am good.
— Well, the first thing would be to know what it is they are planning to accomplish. Niccolo and few others are going into a secret meeting later this evening, with the Longax representative, that much has been found out.
— And you need someone to spy on Niccolo to understand what they are planning, right? That is a difficult matter indeed. And dangerous. Luckily I was someone who had to get in places without anyone noticing. That part of what I am a master of I can use to the advantage of yours, and mine. Time is very, very short though if they are meeting later today. Do you have any information on where it will be taking place.
— Well, yes. The meeting is supposed to take place at the Three Lanterns -tavern.
Fate has a cruel sense of humor. It was this exact tavern where I was hoping to meet Chrysal. But that letter I sent seemed something that was written a lifetime ago.
While I have a hard time seeing a religious zealot fitting in in a fine establishment like that, Three Lanterns is an obvious meeting place for these types of meetings in general. The lantern-type compartments of individual tables make it very difficult, if not impossible to eavesdrop discussions that take place in them.
But then again, I am very familiar with this particular establishment and its owner. She owes me one, as the saying goes and this is as good time as any to cash it, as I am going to leave this city anyway. Next best thing to the original plan to use that uncollected favor to charm Chrysal with my influence in there. My head works as it has always worked, immediately generating plans of infiltration. Perhaps I could act as as performer, going between boothes, masked. I have physical feats that can lend themselves to the stage if needs be.
— I think we can figure something out, but there is not a moment to lose.
- The Spycraft Thing, then 15.03.2019
Arranging to spy on the conspirators at the Three Lanterns should be a simple matter. The proprietor, Miss Lamy, is the sort of merchant you liked to leave in silent debt through your career, as opportunity presented itself: prideful, but ultimately unable to make it up to you, at least four or five years back when she was just starting out. A strong person, and thus someone whose dependence silently bolstered your own self-esteem as you spread the largesse of your talents, willing to measure your strength against any challenge. Thinking back, such a debt of honor could turn into resentment, as wine left too long turns to vinegar.
Well, perhaps not resentment; if anything, Lamy seems eager to help you out. You haven’t seen her at all for a year at least, but she seems to be doing fine, presenting a distinguished lace bodice already at noon. The tavern is certainly furnished ever nicer as the time goes by.
— Yeah, we can make that work, she responds to your query. — Absolutely no violence on the premises, though. And we’ll deny all connection if you get caught at it. I’ll need to tell the porters to not mind you; they’re sharp-eyed boys.
She thinks upon it a bit, looking around the empty restaurant. — It’s a pretty big favour, but I know you’re an even-keeled fellow, Derak; more so than most bravos. Also, I like that you ask about it instead of just crawling up in my rafters. Somehow I could have seen you doing that, just so you could avoid having to ask.
You did dismiss the ceiling approach earlier, as the house has two floors and you wouldn’t know which room to reserve upstairs to prep a spyhole. Albin might not have the sharpest eyes, but somebody would presumably spot you if you just hung yourself on a booth ceiling like a gourd-shaped chandelier. If you could even predict which booth they’d pick.
— I was thinking that I could come scaramoucching tonight, do a bit of busking. An excuse to get in and out of the booths, and to tarry about.
Lamy turns from her table arrangements to look at you. — Busking, you? You would want to mask up as a clown, that face is highly recognizable. I guess I could see you doing prat-falls.
— I have fair talents, you know. I know for a fact that many people would pay to see some of the tricks of my trade.
— And the better the feats, the more curious and recognizable you are. I would think that counter-productive. Rather, you’ll want something to distract attention from your snooping. Can you play the gurdy?
The gurdy is a droning string instrument, favoured by the lazier sort of busker. The player would sit in a corner and finger out some slow melody for atmosphere’s sake, accompanied by the constant low drone. Even odds to get paid for the music or for ceasing the constant crank. It is a mechanically interesting instrument, admittedly, if far from favoured by the virtuous men.
— I might, you answer curiously. — I take it that you have some idea of what I should do? I am at your tender mercies, mistress.
It is, in fact, pretty nice to talk your plan out with somebody. For whatever reason, today you take it as a given that Lamy won’t sell you out. Might as well have her aware of your conceit in case something goes wrong, this being her place and all.
— I do have an idea, yes. Here, have a look at the second booth.
The Lantern booths are fancy affairs, dominating the public room. Each has sloping walls of thick green glass panes reaching the ceiling, obscuring the insides and giving the booths the resemblance of a lantern. You know that clever lamps up top inside the glass shed light such that both the inside and outside glow green. The color’s not be the most flattering for human complexion, but your eyes get used to it quickly when sitting inside, and it is a novelty. The booths are intimate while being in public, allowing you to peek out discreetly as you would, while outsiders see nothing but vague shadows cast on glass.
— The booth comes up to the wall here, see? It’s the only booth with only two glass sides, with wooden paneling and a sturdier corner sofa. Good for a bit more of a private feel.
— A private feel perhaps, but it is also the only booth where someone could be right on the other side of the wall without being seen from inside the booth.
— That it is, but there is more. See here, how the paneling detaches in the corner? A person sitting there has a fair chance to hear what is being said on the other side, as long as it is a quiet night in the public room.
— There is a weakness here, but it is acceptable, you muse, looking around at the room. — A musician can hardly play and listen at the same time. But then, nobody would blink at a gurdist not being at play.
— So what do you think? It is an out of the way corner, the sort where I would banish a mediocre noise-maker.
— It is good, Miss Lamy, but for one thing: it is of little use if the meeting I am to observe should happen anywhere but in this booth.
— It’s Albin Whitehair you’re after, right? He is not a difficult man to recognize, and he has a reservation for tonight, made two days ago. He will want a booth, and why not this one?
Albin himself? Not a surprise, perhaps. Maybe he is the “Longax representative” Plotkin mentioned. Or maybe he’s merely brokering the meet.
Lamy is indeed being very helpful. It never did occur to you to ask her on anything before, though. Maybe it’s because Daag would arrange so much for you, or maybe you really did like the idea of the debt more than anything she could give you. Thinking back, you did have a habit of leaving strays like Lamy around over the years. It is a regretful thought, how little the Puppet knew to make of friendship.
You will need to dress up for tonight, and scare up an instrument. A gurdy is a good pick all around, and it’s something you’ve dabbled with; the mechanical principles are similar to the specialized noise-makers you’ve constructed in the past. Uniquely among all instruments of music, the gurdy may be driven not by breath or dextrous plucking, but by simple mechanical rotation. It would be perfectly doable to make one play itself entirely without human participation.
The costume, though… unadorned frock, as soiled as Three Lanters will stand for. Cowl and pitch, obscure your features just in case the whitehairs decide to take a closer look at you tonight. Nothing will help if you attract their specific attention, Albin knows your face just as much as you know his, but if you do this right you might as well be part of the furniture for all they’ll care of a drunkard fiddler dozing off in the corner.
You turn towards the door, thinking about tuning the gurdy, really. Lamy draws your attention before you quite make it out:
— Hey Derak, it’s good to see you about. People asked after you some last year, but I had to tell them that you’re nothing like a regular. Just so you know, I don’t mind you coming in. The tavern wouldn’t be near as nice if not for your support.
Or be hers, anyway. Whatever.
- Scum and Villainy 18.03.2019
I catch her hand gently between of my own two. I can feel her tense up in front of this odd and human gesture as I gaze directly into her eyes.
— Miss Lamy, I can’t thank you enough for this service. After tonight we are even in all meanings of the word.
Her discomfort is a tangible, living thing. This is not how people behave in the Scarlet, save them being young lovers or close members of the same family. We are neither and she just doesn’t have a code how to act in this situation.
The city is a rotten thing. I was just a clueless, enslaved genius of a boy who happened to wander here. The man who I was is what the city twisted of me.
I let her go of her misery and give a heartwarming smile. She thanks me plainly and seeks quickly something else to do, leaving me with my plannings of the evening to come.
The outfit and the instrument are the first ones to go for. I have to be quick, as I need to be ready to secure my spot near the booth long before the guests will arrive to the tavern. Usually this is the olive and bread of my work, but traditionally I planned it all beforehand. I also need to take care of possible shadows that are tailing me, by going around in circles, over the houses, sometimes even under, through some hidden passageways in the cellars of the almost sunken buildings. There are some such hidden passageways that are not yet submerged.
When finally doing my costume I have to apply it far from the tavern, hidden from prying eyes. I choose one such cellar for this job and when ready I act my part as a downbeat musician going for his evening drizzle.
Miss Lamy has done her part as the staff handle me with quiet effectiveness. A stool is brought for me in the corner beforehand specified and they even give me a glass of cheap wine to complete the picture. I try to orientate myself, fiddle with my gurdy for a while as well. Easier to play my part as a man who handles such an instrument in daily basis, if I familiarize with it better. Luckily I have always been keen of different objects. From earliest childhood I can remember playing with sticks of different lengths and builds. An attribute that have served me well when I graduated to objects with points and edges.
I got so carried away with my own thoughts that I am surprised when the first guests of the evening start to flow in. I push my memories and thoughts aside and focus on here and now.
As the Lantern is one of my typical hangouts, I am very familiar with the type of people coming here. In hierarchy of places to go in the city, the Lantern is among the top ones, without being exclusive enough for the virtuous men. Just like Ruby Dancer is as well, actually.
The place starts to fill out, when a young, brash gentleman takes contact with me. He asks for a certain song, half-jokingly. I am unwilling to accommodate his request, which irritates him immensely. He is a sort of men who relish and blossom on situations where they can force their power on someone under their social standing. It might be that I have done that on some occasions as well, when I started out in the endsman game but even then I instinctively drove off from that scene. And current me, he makes sick. My knuckles grow white holding the gurdy but nothing else in my body language betrays me.
He letting the matter go is a futile hope as my downbeat behavior just fuels his self-conscious wrath upon me. People around are starting to notice and I go through my options quickly. There is no way to take him out without getting noticed, and if a lowly musician does an act like that upon a gentleman the results could be …. precarious.
Then, multiple things happen at roughly the same time. The doors of the tavern are thrown open and in comes Albin Whitehair with his two companions. He is a man who can’t, or more precisely won’t, blend in with the background wherever he goes, be it that he is coming to a secret meeting or not. His lanky, tall frame covered in brash, brightly bleached evening-suit with flashly colored ruff and sleeves. The expression is morbidly offensive and over-the-top, perhaps humorous even, for people who do not know him. White hair and red eyes complete the picture. Still in all of its macabrity I have to envy his presence when he arrives. Even with all the bells and whistles there is not a moment where he seems to be out of his comfort zone. People turn and stare, and that is when I figure out what I must do.
The bully next to me is turned towards the door as well leaving me right behind him, but I sit behind a corner of the booth in shadow. A soft kick to the back of his knees delivers him down to my lap. I am ready to receive him, my right hand coiling around his neck and left supporting his head from behind and tightening the grip. Only few seconds later he is lying in the ground, next to me, unconscious. A small fingerful of the Flower is enough to make his stupor deeper, something that will take few hours to sleep off.
The Lantern is an established place. No drunkards allowed, without an exception of a lone gurdist anyway. The gentleman is carried out of the dining hall, discretely. He’ll raise hell when he comes to, but I will be long gone by then. For a moment I feel sorry for Miss Lamy, but I reckon she can deal with this. If she couldn’t, the Lantern would have been closed long ago.
From there on things start to flow in the right direction. Albin and his friends are guided to the right booth and soon Niccolo enters with a few companions of his own. Niccolo’s entrance strikes a strong contrast with Albin. He looks more normal, but his body language screams of discomfort with every step and his burning, fanatic eyes do not feel at ease anywhere.
I focus to listen to the conversation taking place at the booth. I can’t hear everything, as some ambient of the restaurant bothers me now and then but still I can make out most of what goes on in the booth. The party starts with light wine and silence that borders on awkward. Finally Albin starts, with a hint of frustration in his voice.
— How are the arrangements going on? Speak! My master has a lot riding on this and he will not tolerate failure.
— Everything is proceeding as planned. The tasters are ready. They know what is being asked of them. They are our holy warriors and martyrs. The place of the dinner is set and the chosen Virtuous Men have signed their attendance.
— Yes yes, we will deliver the poison. It is slow enough for the job, but quick enough to get the job done in the premises. And we are arranging few … backups as well. Just to make sure they do not escape.
I get an impression of Albin as a lion negotiating with a pack of rats. How on earth has Niccolo been involved with this plan. What does he get out of this, Pseudoduke will surely crush the whole Unbroken Circle in aftermath of such villainy. Niccolo doesn’t strike me as a guy who can be bribed or seduced.
Shivers run through my spine. For deeds such as this the retributions will be horrible. Plotkin can be happy if he has his head on his shoulders after all of this is over.
- Everything at once, why not 26.03.2019
The conspirators continue discussing their plans. You tilt back, your head against the corner, slumping on the chair in seeming obliviousness, only barely avoiding sliding down under the table. It is almost like being inside the booth, you can hear most of what they say.
— That’s all well and good, says an unfamiliar voice you categorize as one of the sharpists. — The virtuous men must be truly touched for the people to come to their own!
A slight pause, then Albin’s soft voice: — Maybe so, yeah. I won’t claim to believe in your stuff, but some of the guys do. Wholeheartedly they do, and I don’t see why I should stand in the way. It is not a bad dream for the dog to get its own for a change.
— We do not need to yell death to princes every other sentence, Jotor, says Niccolo, annoyment dripping from his voice. — There are more things we have to talk over with master Albin. When events start rolling the City will be in turmoil, and it is important that we have our allies in place and ready to act. The population needs to be harnessed, awakened to the possibilities of the unified commune. The sails won’t stay damp forever, so the more we establish in advance, the better.
— No, Albin says, almost interrupting Niccolo. — With respect, that is not the way to go. My master insists on secrecy, keeping this among sworn fellows. More men in on the particulars means more danger of forewarning. It is best if no rumours get started before the Kalends. Afterwards, you will have plenty of time to moot with the citizens, it’s not like Pseudoduke Leodor will be in position to rein in the people.
The Kalends of Midsummer is only two weeks away. You are learning important details here.
— You say that because you wish for chaos to reign in the City, Niccolo says calmly. — I might as well say it outright: the master you present is none other than king Aistulf. Sheath is desirous of chaos in Scarlet. We are not stupid.
— Niccolo! one of his friends shouts in alarm.
— Calm yourselves young men, Albin says with some bone in his tone. — And you are wrong, master Niccolo; not I, nor my master, are any more in Sheath’s employ than you. The bagmen we should meet tonight are indeed Sheath, even a blind man like myself can see as much, but what does that mean to us? Can we not use their money to our purposes?
A moment of silence, and you wait, entirely focused on what is happening. It is Albin who continues so quietly that you can only barely hear him: — The Sheathmen trust in me, young Niccolo, for the same reason they trust you: our Longax blood. They think us trustworthy, and not truly loyal to Scarlet. Truth, though? You and I, we are exactly as loyal to the City, and loyal to its edifices of rot. We are using Sheath to get what we want. I am no saint myself, but I respect that in you, the honesty of your uncompromising vision.
Albin seems to be something of a captain in their venture, you muse. If Albin works for Vansittart or Daag in turn, he could even be honest in his claims of loyalty, qualified as they are. But then, why would either of those men assault the senatorial sanctity of the Virtuous? Sheath’s interests are clear, ever as the two city-states struggle for the domination of the Marical Valley, but what is the gain for honorable citizens such as they?
You listen, and you wonder, keeping a slitted eye on the half-full tavern. Couples in the main, and parties; it’s not really a place for lonely men. Miss Lamy seems to keep away the nights-desirees, and with them the endless procession of the drunk and the discards who man the stools of most taverns in the City. Her clientele are the sorts willing to pay the premium for decorum in the public room.
Focused on listening as you are, it takes a while for your eyes to really focus on the scene at the bar: Miss Lamy in close conversation with someone, a woman who hasn’t shed her cloak at the door, but has drawn her hood… Chrysal.
You actually flinch at the moment of recognition. You’ve been on pretty solid ground today, thinking operational thoughts, but Chrysal’s the exact sort of thing you didn’t want to think of today… the sort of thing you should leave behind, as you leave behind the City and its intrigues. You are hardly equipped to deal with a woman like her, Derak, the way you have only barely started to understand yourself.
She’s probably here for you, why else… it must be the letter you wrote. She would have looked for you at the Ruby Dancer, and failing that, gone for the tavern you mentioned in your letter. Three Lanterns, a place where you could be found purely by accident tonight.
You stare at them, doesn’t seem like Miss Lamy is going to give you away; she doesn’t even glance in your direction. The conspirators forgotten, you get out of the corner and approach the bar.
— Dear Miss… you address Chrysal as you approach, and she turns to you, but her stare is cold and even off-putting; she steps away, in fact. It takes you a moment to realize your disguise, but it is also but a moment’s work to draw off your kerchief and rub away the grime starch you use to disguise the tint of your skin.
— Oh, it is you, master Derak! she finally exclaims in surprise. — A bold disguise, I doubt many would recognize you like that.
Miss Lamy moves away, leaving you to move closer to Chrysal, close enough to keep your voice down.
— Miss Chrysal, you shouldn’t be here, you tell her seriously in a low tone. — Dangerous events are afoot.
She looks at you for a moment, then turns to look over the tavern. You steal a glance at Albin’s booth, but of course nothing shows outside.
— I will leave you to your business shortly, master Derak, she says, moving to take hold of your arm. — You must admit that your sudden departure yesterday was some cause to concern even for an extraordinary jaunter such as yourself. I feel like I am owed some sort of explanation when a man decides to jump out of my window. Particularly so if they have truly been poisoned.
She examines your face, but there’s little you can say. She’s not smiling at you, exactly. Rather, if anything her tone is rather formal. You wish you were better at reading emotion.
— I will admit to some sense of obligation towards your honor likewise, she continues. — If some expectations of friendship had been formed earlier, I am surely equally to blame. I do not wish for you to dwell overmuch on any missed opportunities here. Truth is, an honorable client is likely to propose a more permanent arrangement soon, anyway, ending my current peregrination. We would have little…
She leaves her sentence unfinished, staring behind you. Turning slightly, you can see that the booth stands open, with Albin exiting at the head of his group. As you would expect, he spends a while squinting at the room before moving a step, making up for his weak, red eyes. Highly unlikely for him of all people to spot you.
The rest of the conspirators pile out and Albin sets towards the bar himself. Looking at the door, might be expecting more people. You make to retreat without attracting undue attention when the worst happens.
— Miss Chrysal! Albin’s voice cuts like the chirp of a bird from five paces away, with a tonal lilt. — What’s you up to here, now? Don’t you have an arrangement with our mutual friend, doll? Should I be worried, now?
— Master Albin, Chrysal acknowledges him with a hint of distaste. They clearly know each other. — You have no need for concern, the honorable V. has yet to finalize our agreement. Besides, I am not working tonight; don’t misjudge a woman so easily.
Albin doesn’t seem very serious about poking at Chrysal, if you’re any judge of bravo character; he’s just making small talk while watching the door. The situation feels rather unreal, two of your recent acquaintances knowing each other like this. It is difficult to not stare, even as you pay attention to how Albin’s boys make themselves comfortable around the room.
Perhaps you did indeed stare a bit too much, or Albin’s not as casual as you think. He steps right next to Chrysal.
— Well, who’s this then, if not your paramour? he asks, stepping around Chrysal. His rude grab takes you by surprise even as you’re turning away, leaving the two of you looking directly at each other as he spins you around. Staring, rather. In your case it’s understandable horror at the inevitable way the situation is developing, but perhaps Albin’s just so blind he doesn’t recognize you even now?
No such luck – it’s not that his face changes, in fact you can’t even spot his eyes moving, but suddenly you just know that there’s a knife coming in undercut, off his belt and towards you. Completely expressionless, barely moving his body, Albin thrusts for murder, but you chop down hard and quick, breaking off his grab, and intercept the blade. More, chop his wrist with the blade cradle in your sleeve, push it against the flank of the bar. Make him drop the knife. Nobody’s even noticed yet.
Then, for you next trick, decide what to do about the sword Albin goes for without a second’s hesitation. Preferably while deciding what to tell Chrysal about this and, well, all of this.
- The Ballo 31.03.2019
I go for his wrist, grabbing but more importantly, pushing it downwards and towards the center of his mass, preventing him from drawing the sword. He takes a step backwards and another and I match him just like in a dance.
And dance it is, Ballo, a meeting of two bravos. The city knows this and acknowledges the tradition of two hard men meeting and finding out which of them walks away from the ordeal. The winner is expected to pay for the expenses the dance may cause for the surrounding establishments but any citizen, recognizing the event for what it is, will not interfere.
The only problem is, Albin is not a Bravo, at least not a true one anyway. He has already poisoned me once, a distasteful solution for a fellow hard man, an inexcusable for an endsman. And just now, he tried to murder me and unless he is on a paid mission to kill me, the break of custom is equally noticeable to his previous lapse from grace.
But he is good, as I noted by his use of the knife thus me stopping him by only grabbing his wrist borders on the impossible. He drops his center of mass and draws his sword in one, swift move, forcing me to drop on all fours to prevent a flashing, would-be-decapitating blow. At the same time I deliver a kick to the back of his head. It is not possible to generate enough power to knock him out from this position, but he still stumbles forward, allowing me to roll quickly forward and safety.
Noting my, and especially Chrysal’s precarious position, I try a quick bluff. I interject with a silent hiss:
— Paramour, hah! This is the first time I see the wench.
He winches. It just doesn’t add up. Me in disguise near their meeting place and her just happening to be there. Only a child or a mindless drunk would belive it is all coincedence. And even though Chrysal is here not in conjunction with these events, a mind connecting the other dots will surely want to connect her as well.
My hasty thoughts are interrupted by the two henchmen of Albin’s. They decide not to honor the Ballo, but instead come in heads down and arms extended. Without weapons, though, and I am reluctant to draw mine against them. They roughly grab my arms and pin me between them, while Albin prepares to run me through with his sword. And with a shameless grin on his face while doing so.
I push strongly against one of my assailants and as he instinctively pushes back I take a small step backwards and let him fall towards where I was standing. Unfortunately for him, Albin’s sword also whirls through the air to the place I just recently occupied, and before he manages to pull back, he has ran through his clansman. Blood spurts onto the expensive carpet and the man crumbles down into a whining, mortally wounded heap.
The second clansmen yells like infuriated bull and comes in with a overhead blow of a barstool he has managed to grab from somewhere. I take a step backwards and then return forwards before he recovers from his missed blow. A strong backhand to his temple sends him sprawling against the flank of the bar and then down onto the floor.
— Is this how you fight your battles? I throw at the face of Albin. — Man who makes his dogs do the fighting for him.
He doesn’t say a word, but instead comes in with a thrust and a cut of his sword, forcing me to take few more backward steps. My handblades are out and I parry his next onslaught as there is no more room to back off. He evades my tentative thrust and we step back to the middle of the hall, where there is more room to maneuver. From the ambience around us I can tell the customers are scurrying left and right, leaving the establishment. Some probably are staying in the booths for their protection. I am fairly confident that not one of them would call the city guard though. This is how things are sometimes settled in the City. As long as there are no casualties beyond the combatants.
Albin presses his attack fiercely and he is a fine swordsman. I can’t use my boot-springs indoors, but my gyroscopes work nonetheless as does the metronome which is beating its cold and soulless rhythm. We both pour sweat, but continue our work without further taunts.
Why is Albin trying to kill me anyway? He clearly strikes for murder with his every blow, yet earlier his plan was to drug me and deliver me to his boss. What has changed for him to change his gears, I think Vansittart would not be happy with him if he managed to kill me here. Perhaps he is merely a man who can’t control his own passions. Or perhaps he thinks I am too large a risk for his operation.
I am starting to get on his rhythm. Two thrusts, then a diagonal swipe, then a regroup and few feints. He is like a secret message, of which more and more letters are revealed. I start to get ahead. My mainblade pierces through his shin. A flesh wound only but he nonetheless withdraws a bit, and starts to limp.
Albin is a hard man, brought forth by a hard breed of men. Even in the face of doom he doesn’t flinch but keeps pressing forward. Such a conflicting personality. After all the tricks he has pulled on me, how is it that he now plans to fight to the end.
When the moment is about to come, I feel hesitant to kill him. Hesitant to the extreme. Could I just punch him out cold as I did with one of his mates? It is dangerous but perhaps it could be done after few more maneuvers. I parry his thrust by crossing my mainblades and kick him in his knee. He stumbles backwards and I press forward, swiping his sword to the side, readying to punch him out.
I see Chrysal. She is watching the fight from the shadow of one of the booths. What happens to her, if Albin gets back to Vansittart. I am as good as dead, but so is she, and she hasn’t got the means to defend herself. It would be like taking a lam to the slaughter.
I thrust my mainblade through Albin’s throat. He crumbles next to his two friends. Before anyone can act, I grab Chrysal by the shoulder and push her out of the tavern and into the cool evening air. It is only then that I notice the blood. Albin managed to cut my left upper arm with his blade just before the end. It is not a lethal blow, but needs tending for sure.
We are met with the thousand lights of the city. Lights, of which two have just been shut down.
Would you like a dialogue here?
- Art of Romantic Jaunting 11.04.2019
I recorded the dialogue:
I thrust my mainblade through Albin’s throat. He crumbles next to his two friends. Before anyone can act, I grab Chrysal by the shoulder and push her out of the tavern and into the cool evening air. It is only then that I notice the blood. Albin managed to cut my left upper arm with his blade just before the end. It is not a lethal blow, but needs tending for sure.
We are met with the thousand lights of the city. Lights, of which two have just been shut down.
You start to move for the end of the street, pulling Chrysal; you need to get out of view before anybody decides to follow you. But the wound… you end up letting go of her arm to put pressure on yours, instead. Chrysal stops; you can see how naturally she immediately reasserts herself when you let go. It is only for a moment, though, and when you jerk your head onwards, she follows, casting cautious glances at the inn.
— What happened there, Derak? she finally asks you, shaken enough to forget her formality. — Was that a chance encounter with Albin? Why did you fight? Is this something to do with me?
— No, the fight was not about you, but …. nevermind, there is no time for this now. We are in great peril here, especially you.
The panic is like a tight noose around my neck, squeezing. We need to jaunt to some place safe, but I don’t know how it can be done with my arm in this condition. Nonetheless we have to try.
— We have no time to lose here. We need to jaunt the rooftops to avoid being observed and followed, and we need to do it now, before we both are recognized and somebody puts things together. Quick, to that alleyway. Can you press the wound so that I can operate the climbing equipment. My ropes can carry us both.
Chrysal seems to catch the gist of your worry, seeing as how she quickens her pace and gets to the alley before you. Glancing back, you can see shades bobbing over the lanterns of the inn. There are a near infinity of reasons for a citizen to choose to follow you after something like that, but you have little desire to find out whether you’ve drawn well-wishers or vendetta-pushers here.
In the alley you get closer to Chrysal, press her hand over your wound and push her gently near to the wall. She follows your wordless direction, but nevertheless keeps glancing at the street. The roof eaves look like this should work, the rafter is rather prominent. With a second thought you turn yourself around, putting your back towards the wall and Chrysal against your chest. This will be a quick way to disappear, but a painful one, more than likely.
There is no great charm to it, nothing that I haven’t done thousands of times. It feels different nonetheless, as I shoot the anchoring rope upwards, near the end of the rafter at the edge of the roof. The mechanism is strong and the attaching device is a piece of unique machinery. When it hits the object it penetrates deep, but when pulled backwards, a set of sharp metal spikes come out from the shaft, effectively immobilizing the object. It will hold as long as the rafter does. As does the thread, as it could support our combined weight two-fold. I still give it a thorough yank to test it out.
I tighten my grip of Chrysal and she instinctively does the same when the string mechanism starts to lift us up towards the ceiling. Few times my back scratches the wall behind us. I don’t need to look to know that the bleeding in my arm will be profuse as long as we are exerting ourselves, and the difficult part is ahead still.
— When we get up, you need to grab the edge of the roof with your arm and swing your right leg on top as well. I will hold you, you can then easily tumble on top of the roof as it slopes gently.
Chrysal mumbles something in reply. You are actually getting calmer now, having traded the uncertainty of the dark street for the merciless logic of the climbing art, but looking at her, it’s obvious that the experience of rising to a height of ten paces effortlessly in moments has left her breathless.
— Hey, don’t worry too much, you say calmly. — I have my arm under yours, you can’t fall just like that. Here, wrap your other arm around my neck. You’re no heavier than I am, much less than some men I’ve had to deal with…
Getting over the eave is admittedly not the easiest in the end, Chrysal’s clearly not much of a climber. You should’ve given her a climbing hook before starting, except then she might have gored you with it during the ascent, the way she holds onto you. Finally, rather than spending the night dangling with your weight on an injured arm, you cheat horribly: with Chrysal wrapping herself on you, you manage to free your good arm enough to outright punch through the flimsy roof near the rafter with your armblade. With that you manage to attach a climbing hook that provides Chrysal with a firm handhold as an alternative to hanging onto your neck.
It’s a messy way to proceed, but Chrysal’s clearly in no shape to swing on the eave, so you take advantage of the flimsiness and punch a half dozen roof tiles loose, enough to actually push Chrysal herself through the roof. Getting yourself up after her happens without further thought, but the experience was clearly something special for Chrysal.
— That was… that was horrible, she gasps, embracing the roof tiles with all four limbs.
Indeed, it is sometimes hard for me to realize how people think about climbing. Or how I did as well, long ago.
— I am sorry Miss, but I assure you that was necessary, and it is not enough even. We have to traverse the rooftops for a while, so that we can be absolutely sure we are not followed. Can you cope just a little while longer. I assure you I will take care of you when we are up here.
I seem to revert back to calling her Miss for some reason. Perhaps to get some distance to her mentally as I still remember her figure firmly against mine.
— Can’t we just stay here? Who’s going to follow us after a stunt like that? I have no idea how you hoisted us up so quickly.
You can only see her shape in the dim night. Her head turns towards you as you get to a crouch, but she seems determined to keep her body firmly against the roof rather than standing up in the dark.
— Get down here and see to your arm, master Derak. It must be a serious concern even for one capable of lifting twice their own weight.
— I hope nobody is following us but there are people on the rooftops as well. Perhaps not on top of this building just at the moment, but still if we are seen here, someone can add the pieces of the puzzle together. Trust me, my paranoia is what has kept me alive and these roofs are like a second home to me. We can look at the arm after we get there. I know a place, few buildings away. It is a house with a partially crumbled roof and deserted upper levels. There is shelter there for people who do not wish to be seen.
I see her reluctance and kneel next to her on the roof.
— Look Miss. I wouldn’t press this if it wasn’t urgent. I don’t wish to cause you anxiety. Your life might be at stake here, your future most definitely is.
I extend my healthy arm to her.
You cajole Chrysal to get up and start moving. To her merit, once she gets up, she also follows your instructions precisely. It is dark enough that you wouldn’t want her to wander too far away on her own, anyway.
The roof here connects to a higher part of the same building complex, but the elevation is small enough for you to help Chrysal over it. The roof grading leaves a niche of sorts here, and you find a plank – something left by other roof-walkers, probably meaning that there is regular traffic here. The plank proves essential in getting Chrysal over to the next block, she’s not up to jumping the alley. Fortunately there are guide ropes here, otherwise you’d get nowhere with it.
Some people find it easier to jaunt the roofs during the night, as the heights are obscured. Others probably imagine the unseen danger and get worked over it. You don’t really think about it either way, at least not before having to guide Chrysal every step of the way.
— P-please master Derak, her voice breaks in an ominous way as you lead her to cross to the next roof. — This worthless woman should be left behind. Dancing on the roof-tops is a most elegant art, but it does not agree with me. Falling is but one step away, and I fear I do not understand your advice properly.
Facts of the matter being what they are, though, you answer her with a prod to the back; she won’t fall holding the ropes, not if she walks straight forward on the plank.
Thinking of it, you decide to put your arms around her. That way there is even less danger to it. The plank is of little concern to you, being two hands wide; clear running width, that.
It is not nearly as easy as you made it up to be in your head, but you finally manage to get both of you to your destination. The loft is as abandoned as ever, making for a perfect resting place. Even if somebody happens to move through here tonight, they will notice nothing as long as you stay in the back end.
I escort Chrysal to a good resting place in midst of crumbled roof-tiles. It is quite dark, but the stars are bringing a hint of cold light. The moon is behind a shred of clouds, perhaps it will arrive to illuminate our discussion. She must be relieved to finally be able to sit down. I know I am.
— Again, I must apologize for this. Perhaps if I tell you what has happened during these few days, you might better understand that I was deadly serious about bringing you away from prying eyes.
The aching in my arm forces me to instinctively grasp it when I start telling my story.
You start to explain about how you met with Albin’s Whitehairs yesterday, and the whole measly story you have scratched together from your encounters with Plotkin, Daag and others. You place your words with care, disrobing your wounded arm all the while. Chrysal stays silent in the dark, crouching down inside her shawl.
You fall silent after a bit, simply because of all lack of concern on her part. Is she even listening to you?
— Why do you insist on telling me about your troubles, master Derak? she finally asks you in the dark. — What do you want of me, that you insist on dragging me here, to a place where nobody would hear a scream? I do not understand, and because of that your words leave little impression on me. To what purpose do you wish to tell me still more of your life story now?
— Don’t you get it? Albin was plotting there for Vansittart Gabaldon and saw me, tried to kill me. Vansittart’s plan to murder some of the Virtuous Men might be changed because of the death of Albin, but what is certain is that Vansittart soon knows some powerful individual was behind this. He is just too powerful man not to get that information from somewhere. Now then, if you are to be …. tightening your relationship with that man, how are you able to do this if Vansittart thinks you have some relations with the murderer of Albin. All it takes for one of the Sharpsists, or the one Longax that was left unconscious, to recognize you and spill the story for him. What would you do then?
I try to keep my voice level when referring to Vansittart. It is difficult though. He makes me shudder inside.
I’ll take this home and work it over a bit.
- Discussing Love 16.04.2019
You look over at Chrysal, but it’s too dark here to see much without Cat Eyes. The City is dotted with lights, but those are down below, and the Moon’s langurous beams are kept out by the half-intact walls. She could move a pace to get out of the shade, but that would be moving towards you as well.
Chrysal finally speaks up: — You are enemies with Vansittart Gabaldon, then? The master of Gabaldon house, that trades in metals and bids in the seasonal markets?
— I assume so, you say. — I only met him yesterday, for all that he seems to have kept me under observation for far longer.
You feel a bit light-headed now, sitting there – feeling the blood-loss. Your shirt is black with blood, and so is the doublet, but the wound must be rather shallow, for it seems to have stopped trickling. No helping it, you have to get the undercloth out of the way, and that means detaching the blade cradle and reel frame first. Going to take some time.
— And that ballo at the inn wasn’t over me? Chrysal continues asking. — It was to do with the intrigues of honorable Vansittart, and only by accident was I there? Your quarrel with him is of an entirely different nature?
The line of questioning is strange, but you assure her that this was indeed the case: you never knew that she had anything to do with Vansittart, and Albin’s trail leading you to the Three Lamps was a terrible coincidence.
— This may seem queer to you, Derak, she sighs. — No dishonor intended, but you do not strike me as a man who is very aware of how fine amour is supposedly managed. The sort of encounter you two had would be considered romantic by some. Sometimes men outright invent excuses to assault each other over the affections of a woman.
She falls silent for a bit as you finally wriggle out of your doublet. The wound is indeed shallow, the blade having skittered over the cable sheath running down your arm to the bracer attachment. You’ll need to bandage the arm to avoid worsening the wound further than you already have. Ripping your shirt with a blade is easy enough.
Maybe you should be the one to say something. Chrysal maybe expects you to say something here.
— I think… you finally hazard to put your thoughts to words. — Vansittart wants something from me, and I am not quite certain whether it is professional services or something to do with that evil gem, the dark crystal. The crystal has slipped from my grasp, so perhaps it would all be over if not for my own decision to get involved…
You don’t have much to say here, really. There is a certain interconnected nature to the events of your return; too many coincidences that connect the seemingly unrelated people you’ve met since your arrival. It may be Fate, but it has the feel of the schemer’s web: its strands unseen, yet proven to exist by every shake of the whole. If not coincidence, then why would both Chrysal and Plotkin, two people you have chosen to trust since your return, both be in Vansittart’s sights in their own way? How?
— Miss Chrysal, do you happen to know an older gentleman by the name of Plotkin? you ask, just to be sure. A quiet shake of the head puts that fear to rest, at least.
Chrysal finally moves to help you bandage the wound, perhaps simply because of how awkward it would be one-handed. You cannot help but notice, however, how her hands shake.
— Are you all right, Miss Chrysal? you ask quietly as she finishes the bandage.
— I am not, she replies tersely. — I understand your fears of discovery, but that climb was terrible. You let me dangle over the street and forced me to walk over a plank. For reasons that are vague at best.
With Chrysal sitting on her haunches there by your side, you try to take hold of her hand. She denies you, and in fact flinches away. There is an emotional tinge to her voice, almost a sob.
— I need… I have a great dislike for being forced to do things. It is not that I fear the heights; it is the being forced that I fear.
— For what it’s worth, I am still sorry, you say, feeling the guilt and frustration at her not seeing the necessity. — I did not think it would be a big thing. Traveling the rooftops is second nature to me. It comes with the profession.
You feel cold and weak, and remember how you don’t really have any better place to rest than right where you are, being effectively homeless. The soft moon-light reveals that Chrysal huddles under her shawl, passive for now.
— I think that you should help me down from here, master Derak, Chrysal says after a moment. — I need to go home, and it would be best if I wrote honorable Vansittart without delay. Trying to keep our acquaintance from him would be disloyal of me. If he ever found out, I fear his response could only be to drown the shame.
Drown her, she means. A killing to save face after a lesser person has flouted his better. It would not be much of a surprise if that is what’s in store for you yourself. As a man you would not be drowned.
— I am not a person of much worth, Chrysal continues. — Not the type that can be allowed to flout an honorable man openly, for any reason. To protect the honor of my patron is to be forthright with him.
— I fear he will have you killed, you answer bluntly. — Albin was acting on his orders, and he did not hesitate to attack me at the moment of recognition. Vansittart will want to protect his secrets.
— My innocence protects me, Chrysal insists. — I do not know anything real about these plots you suspect, and it comes as surprise to nobody if an honorable man like Vansittart should indeed have designs on the heads of his enemies. This is normal in his world: a man discovered dead, a new scion steps up, partners shift in trade. You know this well, I am sure.
— This is not an honorable arrangement like that. What Vansittart is plotting will bring chaos to the streets. The Pseudoduke will become involved. I think this has to do with more than trade. Other cities are entangled in this.
— Why would he wish to hire you then, if not for a customary arrangement, endsman?
Arguing with her is tiresome, but the dread is worse: Vansittart feels like the kind of man for whom a person like Chrysal is ultimately an after-thought. She does well to fear his displeasure. Smarter than you in that, considering the way you blew him off.
This is not the most comfortable of places, but you don’t really feel like going just yet. Unless you miss your guess, you can take the stairs with Chrysal to take her away, anyway, rather than helping her climb down. For now, though, you move to lean on the wall. Some rest before anything else.
— Could you tell me more about Vansittart, Miss Chrysal? you ask. — I need to settle things with him, but I know so little. His is not a famous household.
— Certainly not, master Derak! she exclaims, averting her gaze. — I cannot gossip over a client like that.
— Please, miss, you say. — I would not ask if it weren’t a weighty matter between us. I do not ask for a petty scheme’s sake, but for the safety of the City itself. I do not mean to benefit myself, either; I am solely motivated by good reasons. It is not for the game that I ask.
Feeling that this ill suffices for explanation, you continue: — I have told you of how I came to know true Evil in my venture to the Jeweled Swamp. The knowledge gnaws me, it forces one to measure everything anew. I have decided to leave Scarlet; perhaps I shall move to Vincenza, become a scholar… I want to do something of true merit, something beyond the gilden honors of Scarlet. But I cannot leave without seeing this thing through with Vansittart… I cannot turn my back to it, I know too much.
The Nature of the Beast
For once Chrysal does not admonish you for pushing your story on her. You cannot see what she thinks, though. Does she scorn you for giving up on the game altogether like this? Giving up is of little merit in the Scarlet City, and what you say comes perilously close to being the petulant whine of a loser.
— I suppose I might as well tell you of him, she finally relents. — I cannot get away from here without your help, after all, so in that way I am at your mercy here.
You realize on some level that whatever fondness Chrysal might have had for you before, you are not the only one rethinking the matter. She is brave, though, acting with much less obsequity than on your first meeting despite the much more serious situation. Perhaps she has your measure and believes that you would not hurt her on a whim.
— He is a survivor, Chrysal begins. — Honorable Vansittart was a street kid, it is important to him. His parents were Longaxi, and old-fashioned: he would only be fed when he brought home money. Not the harshest thing you could do to a child, I think you will agree, but in the circles he frequents now this story elicits admiring gasps.
Chrysal speaks in a monotonous way, as if giving a report.
— His wealth is his own, to the last penny. Honorable Vansittart started out doing things he will not share with his betters. His success relates to overland trade beyond the Ridges; where other middlemen would ruin themselves scrabbling for contracts with senatorial houses or betting on shipping stock, honorable Vansittart would equip caravans that would more often than not make it through. He has been bypassing the monopoly of the virtuous men in the naval trade, growing rich faster than anybody else in the City. He owns several estates in Delmassa. This makes him a great man, one who will soon purchase his place in the senate.
— Honorable Vansittart is a prideful man, he demands respect from his lessers. He believes in Scarlet down to his bones, and has no mercy for freethinkers or communists. He is a private man outside his business concerns, but he does engage in public life to the extent of participating in the religious obligations. He was heavily involved in the Wicker Sect before its disbandment last year.
You flinch at that; it is the name under which the inhuman Shalmali cult brokered its wares. You know it well, having infiltrated their bizarre temple and slain their head priest before falling under the sway of the dark crystal.
— I do not really know much of import about the honorable Vansittart, Chrysal says, standing up. — I made his acquaintance last winter, but he has truly become interested in our common pursuit only since the spring. I am not so crass as to discuss his bedroom manner with another man, no matter what you might expect.
So that’s how it is… She doesn’t really seem to know much about him either.
— I met Vansittart, and he left me an impression of a heartless man, you remark idly. — The sort to have his way no matter what. How come you are with somebody like that, Miss Chrysal?
— How many suitors do you think that I have, master Derak? she answers coldly. — Speaking plainly: an independent nights-desiree lives in uncertainty. Becoming the mistress of a man such as him, that would be security: a contract, and after public introduction he would be honor-bound to a stipend whether he’d grow bored or not. There is much I would brook for that.
- Glum Wanderings of Soul 19.04.2019
There is a long silence. She must be contemplating things as much as I am. Basically she is Vansittart’s property from now on. There is no telling what she will say to him in her dire need to be accepted by him.
For this, she is not to be trusted. I can’t give her any more information on what I am about to do, of my fears and doubts and inner workings. Towards her I must be like a hard shell, just as it is in the ways of the City. For some reason it makes me ache inside.
— dear Miss. I will escort you out of this rooftop. No, don’t worry, you do not need to climb, we can go down through a partially broken staircase. It is very easy. Let me just attach my mechanisms and arrange my attire a bit. Then we can go.
I imagine her face melt in a sign of great relief. Probably not too far from the truth, as I hear a sigh of relaxation escape her, even if it is too dark for me to see it.
There is not much more to say, at this moment at least. Lovers divided by an ocean would be closer to each other than we are. There is no way for her to understand how I feel or see the world. How I see this city of vipers now. She is a part of this world, of which I was ripped apart and can’t seem to return back to.
I escort her through the partially moonlit top floor, where pieces of roof still form pockets of complete darkness into the halflight. There are crags and openings in the floor as well and I need to hold her on some occasions to prevent her from falling to some crevice. For some reason it makes me really uncomfortable.
While walking I think furiously about my next move. Albin’s death will send a shockwave through Vansittart’s operation and there is no telling how he will react. The fight at the Three Lanterns was fought openly and there are many witnesses who could describe the fight, therefore it is only a matter of time until Vansittart knows that it was I who slew Albin. He might not know why I was there, but from then on he would probably turn every rock to find out who employed me to spy on their schemes. That will probably subdue his desires to hire me for his machinations.
Finally we arrive at the bottom floor. I delay my words as long as possible, but there, where the crumbled building ends and partially moonlit alley begins I have to say my piece. I grab her by the arm, even though she resists and look her directly in her eyes.
— dear Miss. Before you go I have to say this much. Whatever you decide to say to Vansittart, for your sake I hope you do not mention knowing me in any way. If you do he will beat out every single thread of information of you and probably doesn’t stop there. Understand that our horrible climb was necessary to conceal just that. I might not understand the ways of love or partnership but I know the likes of Vansittart and the things men like him are capable of doing. Do not make my efforts meaningless by getting yourself killed for no reason whatsoever.
I do not stay to listen her responses, but speed back towards the roof. After no time I am scurrying on top of the rooftops with breakneck speed. I activate my metronome, even though there is no fight, and set it at a brutal pace. I pour sweat from every pore of my body. Few times I am about to fall into my doom but just manage to catch myself and continue my reckless journey across the rooftops.
My clothes are a tattered mess, my spirits are down on an all-time low, but there is a plan hatching in my head of what to do next nonetheless.
Arriving at the Unbroken Circle I am greeted with the shouts of warnings by the temple guards. No wonder, a bloody man in tatters, dropping down from rooftop would probably wake up any guard. Luckily they don’t try to kill me outright, but it takes a lot of convincing on my part to have them not call the city guard and then some more to get me to meet Plotkin at such an hour. They finally decide that one of the guards would accompany me with a naked sword against my back so that if I tried any funny business, he could skewer me on the spot. A blink of humor penetrates my haze of tired melancholy. The things people think they could do often baffle me. It is perhaps due to them always assuming that people around them are roughly equivalent of themselves. It is a strike of luck for this fellow that I was here with straight intentions.
Plotkin was all asleep but wakes up quickly enough as he sees me and the condition that I am in.
— We old men need our sleep, for then we can use the wisdom we have collected through all those years of sleepless nights. But you must have a tale to tell, do you need a medical attention?
I wave my hand for him not to bother at this hour. My own remedies would probably outperform their quackery anyway.
— Just few hours earlier, a group of Sharpsists came back. They were clearly shocked but of course they didn’t tell anyone why.
I proceed to tell him the tale of the evening, my knowledge of Albin and his connections with Vansittart. I leave out the part of Chrysal and our rooftop experience, no need to bother him with my private affairs.
— After the death of Albin, there is no telling what Vansittart would do, but I have a plan. If you could tell me, who were the Virtuous Men, who are about to attend at your festivities near the time of Kalends. I could ask an audience with some of them and reveal this information of them being threatened to be killed by Vansittart. Perhaps he could give me resources to infiltrate Vansittart’s household. I need to get the dark crystal and I will even if I have to carve it out of his deathgrip.
- Night at the Monastery 23.04.2019
Plotkin has been taking glances at the door as you tell your tale, when he’s not staring at your appearance. When you finish, he leans forward on his bed and places his hand on your knee.
— Thank you master Derak, Plotkin says with assurance. — I can see how the violence of the night makes for a grim habit on you. I hope that the future will endow on you the peace you seek. I am surely in your debt after the turn those events took; please, do not hesitate to ask if there is anything I can do to make it up to you.
— Master Plotkin, you can start by telling me about those senators, you respond tiredly. — Who are they, that they would honor this establishment with their presence?
Hesitating a bit, you add: — Not that I don’t want more, it’s just that the rest of it can wait. My conviction to leave this wretched City only grows by day, and when the time comes I may well call for your aid, for leaving this place… it is not easy.
Plotkin looks at you in silence at that. You’re dead tired, and him being awoken in the middle of the night ensures that you’re neither of you at your sharpest. But at least you might be a little bit honest here.
— Of course, Master Derak, you need have no worries, he says, leaning back. — It is true that a few Virtuous Men are indeed scheduled to grace one of our Community Dinners on the day after Midsummer Post. The matter is somewhat sensitive and I ask you to not spread it around, although in these circumstances… I suppose much of what we hoped to accomplish will be ruined, one way or another.
He hesitates, but then starts again: — I certainly know who the virtuous gentlemen in question are; much of the discussion involved in arranging the matter has naturally befallen my shoulders as the deacon. I imagine that you understand, master Derak, how much it would improve our credence in this City, for some of the Virtuous to grant our cause even fleeting attention like that. On the week of the festival, too, with the Grieving Waters Procession the very next day. We have been greatly honored by being given the opportunity to show our ideals in action to some of the Most Virtuous men.
Glancing at your skeptical look, Plotkin shrugs. — I am not a native here, did you know, master Derak? I don’t worship the earth the feet of a senator deign to stomp, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot speak with the proper form. I feel like you could stand to take care yourself, to be a little less frank in wearing your heart on your sleeve. It is admirable, but it may also make things more difficult for you than they need to be.
— You are stalling on this, aren’t you, master Plotkin? you ask with the utmost weariness. — I understand that it must be difficult to give me particulars, but really; we both want to get what little rest we still can, and you must admit that it would be outright reckless to not warn your virtuous guests of the danger to them.
— We can handle this in-house, you know! Plotkin defends himself. — I will talk about the matter with Master Nasar on the morn; he is a forthright follower of the Hidden Master, whom the entire school trusts implicitly. He will be well able to convince the Sharp Circle to confess to their misdeeds.
It does occur to you that Plotkin might be being optimistic, considering the confident way Niccolo was acting in his meeting with Albin. He’s no misled kitten, that one; Niccolo knows very well what he’s doing and what’s at stake here.
— Nevertheless, master Plotkin: I must insist.
— Oh, very well… Plotkin mumbles, giving up. — Four senators are involved; it was supposed to be three at first, but a fourth was added to make for a more proper symposium. There initial ones were virtuous Norres of Chapin and Camelo Camelon, thoughtful men both, and their friend, the Tassava Gilo. They invited Konstam of Harrapino family as the fourth.
— Thank you, master Plotkin, you say quickly to reassure him; uttering the names was evidently difficult for him. — I will do my best to not cause the Circle any undue hardship, but this is a matter that I must follow to the end, whatever it takes.
You know all the senatorial families by name, as one in your occupation should. The name of Norres conjures up a vague image of a respectable elderly man who might buy the scarlet for two of his sons if he already hasn’t, but of the rest only Tassava Gilo is a name that immediately connects: Tassava is young for a senator, but the family is ancient. Unlike most of his ilk, Tassava has taken gambles with the family fortune, investing in Southside manufacturies in vaguely intricate ways that seem to leave most convinced that he’s destroying the family for political idealism. Something about ambitious expansion of the City Arsenal, the predominant ship-building center in Scarlet.
Putting that aside for now, you turn to Plotkin: — Might I bother you to stay here for the rest of the night? As you may realize, I could use some sleep. No need to worry over my injury; it is something I am inured to, and well in hand.
— Well, certainly, master Derak, Plotkin answers. He seems to be more at ease after confiding those identities to you. — I will have a page arrange a guest room for you.
— I am in fact fine right here, you say, rising to stand and moving the chair closer to the door. — I’ll set the chair just so… there, that’ll hold me comfortably enough. It’s the sort of field stand I am accustomed to.
Plotkin gives a long look at your display, but does not seem to mind you nesting at his doorstep. It’s not really very comfortable compared to a bed, but it is true that you’ve spent your share of nodding nights under similar circumstances.
As the night wears on your suspicion proves well-founded: it is dark and quiet as you open your eyes, but the instincts are still there; something tried the door just now, and was only stopped by your back against it. Also, your back feels completely frozen in place by the slouching, but never mind that.
You stand up quickly and rather unthinking in the dark, pressing your weight on the door for now to prevent any further attempts at pushing it open. Plotkin is probably innocently asleep. It can’t have been more than a couple of hours. Niccolo, perhaps, or his pawn? Could also be something innocent, but surely they knock for the deacon here? Niccolo would know of your arrival, should he think to ask of it.
Finding the latch, you slip it in place. It will hardly stand a determined attempt, but it won’t need to: you’re already jumping at Plotkin to wake him up.
— Plotkin! you hiss at the old man, shaking him. — Murder at the door, we must flee!
You don’t wait for him, but rather step towards where you hope for the window, and maybe you can barely see the glow of a niche thereabouts. Just as your hands find the window-latch the door is tried with a rattle, hard! The latch holds, but if that sounded as loud to them as it did to you, the assailants will abandon their stealth soon.
As the window opens you can clearly see the airy quality to the darkness outside. Judging by the near imperceptible lightening of the night’s veil, morning must not be far off. You turn to help Plotkin, who to your surprise is already standing, moving.
— I need my knapsack! he hisses to you, but then there is a loud thumb as the door is tackled from the outside. The flimsy latch breaks with a sharp crack, letting lanterns shed outside light into the room.
— No time! you shout and grasp the man, nightshirt and all. He is light in your hands, no heavier than Chrysal was earlier, if less pleasant to hoist.
You lift Plotkin to the window-sill. — Drop down! you shout, and it is not quite clear if he does, or if you push him. You keep hold of his wrists as he goes, slowing the descent momentarily before letting the old man go. Plotkin shouts as he drops, but you have your own problem, hanging out of the window as you do, feeling a hand grab at your belt from behind.
Twisting, you try to take in the situation, but the lanterns dazzle your night vision, and there is a second pair of hands on you now. No blades as yet. You swing your arms wildly, but they are many and you are one.
Pushed against the window you fumble your kick, try again as men try to drag you down. Finally the sole of the shoe clicks, slides back at the force as you stomp the ground, and the bootspring releases with a loud twang. The force wrenches you hard, what with the balance of your weight being against the window-sill; the foot is thrown up at a bone-breaking speed, but the hard tip of your foot protects the toes from breaking; your foot slashes at the stomach of your assailant, making him scream as the jarring speed lifts him from the floor a fair handspan.
And then you’re falling out of the window right on your head, of course, being as how most of the momentum from that cruel blue steel torsion travels up to your knee and bends it, throwing the thigh up, a movement you certainly do not resist, not when you can instead ride it and throw your other leg after it. You fall neatly out of the window, leaving your assailants grasping at shadows. This actually feels like you did something similar last year, except then it was from a second-floor window.
Plotkins room, though, faces the street on the first floor, a fact you noted already yesterday. Plotkin himself seems to have survived the gentle drop, and so do you, turning the fall into a backwards tumble on the cobblestone.
— Get after them! shouts the leader of the assault inventively. Could be Niccolo, you suppose. Inside job, either way.
You get up from the ground. Plotkin hovers there, uncertain of the next move, so you grab his white linen shirt by the sleeve and start off down the street. The dawn is not an hour away, but there’s little out here to prevent the sharpists from doing whatever they want should they catch you. At least Plotkin seems to trod unshoed without complaint.
— We need to get off the street, Plotkin gasps as he follows you. — Turn towards the river… in fact let me lead, I know of a safehouse. We need to go to ground. Have to make a plan… Niccolo is being stupid. Stupid and desperate.
- The Safe House 25.04.2019
Last shreds of the night follow us as we throw ourselves to the mazes of the city desperately searching for an escape and freedom. Plotkin seems to know his way around, but I am worried because the streets are all but empty now. It is too easy to follow us if we do not act quickly.
— You seem to be leading us towards the Crook district. Can you tell me where we are going?
— We are not going to the Crook, stop asking questions and move, for Coinbiter’s sake.
Plotkin surely is not himself. It is no wonder, really, after all that just took place. His future is hanging by a thread here. Even more, perhaps, as I don’t even understand how could the Circle come through this all unscathed.
— I just thought I would climb to the roofs to check up on our followers, that’s all.
— No need to do that, it is just few hundred paces away, if we hurry we can get there before they catch us.
There is no need for me to question his motives here, so I pick up my speed, and almost push Plotkin before me in the streets. Few beggars and street urchins approach us in the half-light but are immediately discouraged by my ragged and bloody attire. It is not that I am calm here either. All it takes is one city guard patrol with a zealous leader and we will have to spend our night in barred cell.
While we travel I listen to the ambience for the sounds of pursuit, but can’t catch any. It is perhaps possible they were not able to muster their crowd quickly enough for the chase. More likely they are just unaccustomed to shadowing people in the streets. Fiery speeches seem to be more to their alley.
I am quite surprised when Plotkin leads us towards a fancy, manor-type building in the southern parts of Hillside. The golden letters above the iron gate are almost black in the last moments of the night, but they are still readable in lantern-light.
The house of pleasure is quiet, and almost cozy-looking in its empty posh bravado. Surely the residents are sleeping and recovering from the ordeals of the evening and the night, only to regroup and do the same again in the countless chain of new evenings. The place is familiar to me, even though I haven’t given it a stray thought after my return from the Jeweled Swamps. But why are we coming here, now? Is this the safe house Plotkin is striving for? If it is, there are more sides to the old man that I have managed to comprehend.
My face must have given away some of my thoughts.
— It is not like that, I am an old man with more refined interests than this. You’ll see.
He beats the iron gate with his fist, making it ring like an off-tune gong. Soon a guard arrives with a lantern at hand and a baton in the other.
— Go away, the House does not take visitors at this hour.
After he sees us in the lantern-light his gaze sharpens and his knuckles grow white grasping his weapon. This fellow seems to enjoy beating people, my instincts tell me, and we surely come dressed appropriately for the deal he has in mind.
— We are not guests. Tell Meliore, that it is Plotkin and he wishes to see her immediately.
— I will not wake up the Madam at this hour.
Plotkin instinctively looks over his shoulder. Still no sounds of followers, but our luck might turn in any minute.
— Look, mister. It will be much worse for you if you do not.
The threat lingers a moment in the air. With a sigh, the man lets us enter, and proceeds to accompany us the grand entrance hall of the establishment. He calls for another guard, a stout but sleepy looking fellow with a matching attire and weaponry.
— Guard them until Madam clears they have a right to be here. You better hope that she agrees or it will be hell to pay.
The last words are directed at us. Perhaps he still lingers for a hope to have his beating after all.
We wait for a while in uncomfortable silence. The house is dead silent. Lush tapestries and silks soften the contours of the entrance hall. Lantern light tints towards golden yellow, making the surroundings look surreal.
Dozen thoughts collide with each other in my head. Can we really be safe in here? What shall we do next, now that the sharpsists seem to have taken over the Circle completely? It seems that more than ever we need to seek an audience with power, we need resources to fight back.
Of the Virtuous mentioned by Plotkin, Tassava Gilo might be the one we need to try to connect with. His interests in shipbuilding must be in odds with Vansittart’s rising trade power. In addition, an attempt of murder might be enough to talk him into acting against the Longax. At least discretely if not anything else.
My thoughts are stopped by the passively aggressive guard returning and without a word he gestures us to follow him. We are led to third floor and into a conference room of sorts. The heavy silks on the walls depict abstract features that on closer inspection resemble people in various and creative acts of lovemaking. There are few carafes of wine on the table of which one is just being used. A middle-aged woman dressed in luxurious garments, of which I don’t know whether they are meant for night or day use is pouring a glass for herself.
I’ve seen her before, she is the Madam of this house. She casts a glance towards us, and when she looks at Plotkin, I think I see a bit of surprise before she gets her act together. A hint of gentleness even.
- If not love, then perhaps money? 30.04.2019
Plotkin seems comfortable with the situation, so you sit down and let him do the talking. The two of them ignore you outright, with Plotkin brushing your presence off as easily as he does his own nightshirt. Theirs seems to be a relationship of easy banter.
This place, though; you remember having visited the Cytheral House on occasion. It is a impeccable house of entertainment, one where Derak the Puppet never found dispute or discovered ill-will. The Scarlet City’s background thrum of violence exchange did not seem to reach Derak here; no real or imagined insults, no need to determine precedence or jockey for face. It is a melancholic memory in the main, as you visited alone and in your darkest moods. A habit that may originally have had little basis but the expectations of your peers had become a strange kind of anchor for a man who lived at remote from everybody else.
And, you haven’t forgotten – Chrysal said she worked in this place until recently. You look at the young girl who comes in to wait upon the Madam; perhaps she served Chrysal as well a year ago. You can imagine Chrysal into this environment easily enough, and yourself with her.
… How come Plotkin’s hideout just so happens to be here, of all places in the City? It does feel natural, but then you remember the teetering tower of coincidence piled upon coincidence that your days here in the City have been… it may be Fate, but why do you feel the schemer’s webs all around you? You can’t help but have your eyes wander to stare at Plotkin, seemingly intent on Madam Meliore.
— Excuse me master Plotkin? you insert yourself into a lull in the conversation. — Do you recall ever meeting a woman using the name Chrysal?
— Not at first blush, master Derak. I would consult my notes, but my notebook was lamentably left behind in the haste of our departure.
Our hostess obviously recognizes the name: — Master Derak, Plotkin, one of the women in our employ used that name. She has, however, since departed due to inconsolable differences in the workplace ethic. What of her?
— Nothing in particular, just a stray thought, you answer for now.
In fact, there is nothing in particular here for you.
— I should go, you state, standing up and addressing yourself to Plotkin. — I see that you are in friendly hands, master Plotkin, and there is much to be done. As tomorrow is the nundine, it is best that I go today to deal with T.G. in the way we discussed earlier.
— But you have hardly had any sleep, Derak! Plotkin exclaims, turning to look at you for the first time since arriving here. — You are hardly fit for polite company in that shirt, either.
— Bring a new shirt for master Derak, Nanda, if you would be so kind, the Madam immediately orders. You nod to her in acceptance; it is no less than the service the house is known for. You might have missed the Madam actually acknowledging you, but it seems like that she would recognize you for who you are; you were a man of measure once, the kind that wise men knew to take into account.
You can feel Plotkin’s worried eyes on you as you change into the impeccably white shirt. The sleeves are sewn too narrow for your armblades, requiring you to open up the stitching and free a few pleats, of which the high-quality cloth has more than enough.
— I am not planning anything rash, master Plotkin, you remark in a low voice while making adjustments. — In fact, a senator’s vestibule is just about the safest imaginable place to while away the morning. I am planning nothing more drastic than a polite audience.
— I am sorry, but I cannot write you an introduction, Plotkin says firmly. — Any word placed wrong would imperil the Unbroken Circle, and I dread to think of the tripwires involved here. All princes swim in deep waters, and even a man I deem fair, as I would deem T.G., may have his own interests that even your most innocent efforts may cross.
— I will have my own introduction, never fear, you reassure Plotkin grimly. You make your own calls, whether he likes that or not. Besides, you know how to handle the Virtuous Men. Treating with one is by far safest in his lair.
You are soon out of the house again, tired as you may be. As angry Sharp Circle followers do not accost you, it may be that you lost them earlier, or they’re currently making designs for how to assault the Cytheral House. Good fortune on that effort, though it may be in vain; walls of stone and bars of iron would keep out more dangerous men than these.
You’ll need to cross to the Southside to reach the so-called new Gilo estate there, so towards the river you go. The sun has just risen, so the stickler would say that you are late for a morning audience, but you’ve never seen a steward refuse to add late-comers to the list. The senator’s morning is presumably monopolized by his actual clients who probably wouldn’t like you trying to steal a spot in the line, so most likely you have several hours of waiting ahead of you anyway, even assuming the senator deigns to meet you. With luck virtuous Tassava has a comfortable vestibule; you might even get to steal a nap while waiting, as has happened before.
Thousands of working men cross the river around this time, mostly to enter craft shops in the Southside, which makes it easy to slip among the crowd unnoticed, but you also end up waiting for a while to get onto one of the big ferries. Long enough for Godry Limber to find you again. Not much to do about that but glare at the awkwardly approaching bravo.
— Hey, uh, master Derak? Godry addresses you bravely as he siddles through the crowd. — Can I join you on the boats?
— Why ever would you, Godry?
— It would make following you easier, if you don’t mind me saying.
— How’s that’s been working for you, then? you can’t help but ask curiously. There is a wicked humour in the idea that Godry’s occupation this week is apparently trying to keep up with you, which you know perfectly well to have been rather challenging at times.
— That’s a, it’s not going too well, master Derak. I lost you yesterday at the church house. If you didn’t just traipse through the wells crossing, well – the boys kicked me awake, and here I am again.
— You wouldn’t happen to know what Daag wants with me, specifically, Godry?
— Of course not, master Derak.
You stare at the man, an old instinct welling up; is he being just a tad too cheery at the prospect of frustrating you? Is he disrespecting you? A slight movement from you right now would send Godry scampering, but why bother…
The boat finally arrives and you all pile on for the crossing, an anonymous mass of men going to work. Some free, some poor, all mixed in for the convenience and low prices of the great ferry.
— Would you, uh, mind master Derak? Godry dares to address you again. — Could it be possible for you to come visit Daag at the Gram Corner later today? He has asked for you, I think.
You don’t bother to answer that. You probably should get rid of Godry before continuing to the Gilo estate, but the idea of running him out, all that climbing and dodging, fills you with deep weariness.
— Godry, you say to him. — I have to admit that I am very tired this morning. So tired, in fact, that I feel disinclined to escape you by the usual means. Do you see the problem?
— So you’ll come? Godry asks hopefully. He’s truly a dense one.
— Not exactly, Godry, my good fellow, you say, turning to face him full on despite protests from your co-passengers. — Rather, my problem is that as it stands, the easiest way for me to get out of you spying on my every move is to gut you like a fish. However, doing that would probably stain my new shirt. See? Fine, whitened wool.
Godry goes both pale and silent, which suits you just fine. You barely notice him being there the rest of the way. It’s even better when he disappears rather quickly and quietly as soon as the boat gets to shore. Sure, he might stick around, but you’re pretty sure that he won’t risk showing his face, and that means keeping his distance.
You take the road south, which shortly means leaving the manufactury district behind altogether in favour of the ambiguously rural brushlands surrounding the bigger estates. Long road with few hiding places, and no sign of Godry, so perhaps he really did make himself scarce. Not much you can do about it, ultimately, particularly if he had a a spotter all along.
The Gilo estate is roughly as you remember it, not a mile from the river but far enough from the immediate City to make all the free space outright luxurious. The estate essentially resembles a small town in itself, what with its walls and the fact that the family conducts much of its business directly from here. They might not have a saw in there for lack of water, but numberless loads of planks surely make their way in and out of their gates.
Entering the visitor gates, everything seems to be in order; the gatekeeper lets you in as a matter of course, merely desiring your name to be added to the lists. You give the reason for your visit as an ambiguous “personal matter”, leaving it up to the prince’s curiousity to do the rest. You can always attract the steward’s attention later if need be, but for now resting your feet a bit in the pleasantly cool vestibule sounds like a fine idea.
There is a sedan chair parked in the yard as well; the carriers are taking water. Could be that the senator has a client of such importance as to be carried to his patron, or perhaps it is an important guest, another virtuous man; it would be have to be an important matter, for custom has such meetings between men of worth in the afternoon, after they have dealed with their clients.
Or, maybe it’s Daag Sit-Fence sitting in the vestibule, sipping chilled pazzine while waiting for you to arrive. Wrapped in a long cloak like any old man, priest or beggar, warded against the sudden chill of the dark vestibule after the morning sun. It’s not like you could really hope to avoid him if he wanted to meet you. Your choices in the matter don’t amount to as much as you might wish.
Daag gestures at you to approach as you notice him sitting there. The vestibule is of a size worthy of the house, with maybe twenty clients waiting patiently for their turn with the great man, many chatting in low voices. Familiarity of men who have waited here numberless times before, together more often than not. Cool marble in the shade, with scarlet pillows for the seats, and servants doing courtesy to the valued friends of the senator. Daag rather seems like he belongs here, for all that he is not ensconced in one of the cliques.
— Derak, a pleasure to see you here! Daag exclaims as soon as you step forward. Not much choice about approaching, not unless you want to attract attention.
— Sit, sit, he gestures eagerly at the couch next to his. — It is truly fortunate for us to meet here of all places. I should perhaps have guessed that you as well might have business with the virtuous Tassava, but this truly is an opportunity from the Gods themselves. I was just thinking of how we really should talk some more, you and I. Get ourselves some much needed clarity.
You really don’t have much to say to Daag, so hiding behind the accustomed passivity of the Puppet seems good here. It’s not like Daag ever expected you to fill the airspace much, he’s always seemed entirely happy with his own voice.
— So, I was thinking after the other night, Daag continues his exposition, leaning towards you. — I was thinking about how long we have known each other already. It’s a quick business you are in, Derak, you have to admit that, and we’ve been together for years. It has been years, hasn’t it? Three, five? Many years, I am sure. I have to admit to a certain paternalistic interest in your well-being, son. Not many have played together as well, as hard and as long as we have.
— You don’t always make it easy for me, he says, wagging his finger at you. — What with your taciturn habit and strange ways… remember how I had to bail you out of murdering that poor kid, back then? I never knew if you figured out why killing him wasn’t the right thing to do, but that’s why we work together so well – I know the things right, right?
You shift uncomfortably, for it is somewhat true – you and Daag do share a history of sorts. Same sort any business-partners do in the City, if you are any judge.
— Anyway, Daag continues his monologue. — Anyway, what I was thinking is that it could be possible that you are again being somewhat confused about the right and proper things to do. I have been hearing things, and I must ask Derak, do you know what you’re doing here? I thought that we should be on the same side in this ongoing business, you and I; I in fact couldn’t think of it otherwise, soon as I heard of you having come back to town.
— What side is that then, Daag? you finally ask him, sullen and emotionless. Daag quickly collects himself, you never seemed to be rude enough to drive him to distraction the way you did so many others.
— Why, our own side of course! Daag crows in laughter. — You’re not still sore about the jungle business, surely? I’m not, and I’ll warrant that you lost less of your money on that venture than I. Particularly so if you’re holding out on me on those jeweled ferns.
— But no, he continues. — That is not important. The important thing is that we, us, we have the opportunity here to catch ourselves a shooting star. A virtuous man on the rise, you know? Vansittart fancies you for your talent, did you understand that? Come specifically for you, he does, down into the Crook to raise you on his palm. I have told him as it is, that you work with me. It is a high stakes play, and you should know what I taught you on that, to always have a friend and an exit by the side if you enter that kind of table.
— Daag… you say. This might not be wise, but for all that you are now, a good liar is not part of the package. You speak the way you did when you first met Daag, simply. — I don’t do it anymore.
Silence falls as Daag merely stares at you. He leans back, it feels like he’s judging you for being so dim. Gathering your courage you reach for a goblet and draw water for yourself, not letting your hands shake, not looking at Daag directly.
— So, he finally drawls. — You decided to stop playing the game, then? That’s what you’re saying? Go and do something else?
Perhaps the old man does know you in his way. His thin fingers reach out for your arm, but you shy away – it is your injury.
— You should not do that, Derak. Wait until the ferry gets to the shore. You don’t say no to a virtuous man, and Vansittart is on the very brink of greatness, basically one of them already. I cannot protect you from the consequences if you naysay him, a man who is so smitten by your unique talents. It would be a loss of face for him.
Daag stares at you as he rises from the couch. You answer his stare, hopefully with the impassive face of the Puppet. The mysterious barbarian.
— Servant! Daag suddenly snaps. — Please inform the steward of my regrets; an urgent business has called me away. Please convey my respects to the virtuous Tassava, first thing when he wakes up if you please.
And to you, ever-paternal: — You should come with me tomorrow, Derak. I have your costume waiting, there is no need for Vansittart to know or care of your little digressions. Do service to his design. It is a bold plan, and utterly above the heads of the likes of you. You can trust me to have finessed it; you will be paid either way the coin falls.
— Or failing that, leave the City. Your life is worth less than those of your victims if you tarry.
- A Meeting and a Decision 05.05.2019
– Do come with me, Derak. Let’s get back to the right side of the river. We can have a nice dinner somewhere, wash it all down with the best wine the city has to offer. Just like in old times.
There is really nothing I wish to say to him at the moment. And just as soon as that, the moment passes.
– Very well. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
Daag leaves with formal gestures of departure, such just like anyone would extend towards a friend or a relative.
How foolish a notion is that. What are friends here more than a leverage to a higher position? What is family but a resource to burn and wager when one tries to plot his way upwards, even if it just means a tad taller letters in your crypt when you finally die.
The calm and leisureous atmosphere in the vestibule is in grand contrast with my thoughts as I sluggishly observe the people chatting away in around me. All of them wear the same mask that Daag had. They extend every bit of courtesy that is expected of them, yet their gestures are hollow and soulless. The meeting of the Dhole Men, no matter how crude in comparison to the ways of the city, still holds endlessly more because there is sincerity and intention behind them. Whether the city has something like this to offer, the old me wasn’t interested in it and the new one feels tired to the bone. Digging through all that filth to find true companionship and it is all for nothing.
I sit there, drifting to and fro from between the vestibule and the hazy realm that resides between sleep and awakedness. The line of people that came before me shortens slowly as the morning sidesteps from the way of the afternoon. Finally a page enters the chamber and calls out for my name.
I step from the calm vestibule into a corridor and the page leads me through. The building is made of stone, as usual, but has intricate holes in the walls that lets the daylight seap through here and there, creating a maze of lights and shadows. There are also carvings on the walls: a fine craftmanship, as they continue and enhance the play of light and shadow everywhere around me. I’ve been in many manors, but this is an interesting mix of new and old. Definitely bold in style, yet sophisticated. This building also seems to be quite new, compared to the parlors of other Virtuous Men that I have been in during the years.
The page leads me to an entrance to the prince’s official parlour. Few sharp-eyed guards are there and they order me to relieve my weapons. Detangling my hand-blades is a task I would rather not do here, yet the guards seem to be eagerly performing their duties. I am about to be escorted back with few of these burly dudes as a clear voice from the parlor proper interferes.
— Let him come. You can strike him down if he tries anything.
The man is dressed in blue silk, and just stands there, next to the door, inspecting the scene. He is a vigorously-looking, thin man approaching his forties. The hall is exquisite, but I get a vague impression that the man doesn’t really fit in here. His eyes are lively and he stares, as I extend a deep bow. I wait for his formal inquiry, which he delivers immediately.
— Be greeted, citizen Derak. May your troubles be relinquished.
— Most Honored Gilo Tassava. This humble servant has arrived to your presence with an information that might be vital to your well-being.
He frowns, making me haste in my words.
— I am in a line of work that gives an opportunity to pass through lots of information. For a while I have been aware of a certain sinister plot that is targeted to few Virtuous Men. But their goal is not only to destroy some of the city’s first ones, but rather to shake the foundations of serene Scarlet itself. To open up possibilities for foreign powers.
His face does not reveal any inner emotions, but I would be surprised if it did. A man in his position has already passed countless obstacles of which many must have been revolved around keeping your inner motivations hidden.
— That sounds interesting. Do tell me more.
— Well. You were among the one of these Honorable Ones, that were targeted. And behind all of this is one Vansittart Gabaldon, a rising man of Longax-clan.
— I see. Where is this going to take place?
– At a festival in Kalends of Midsummer. A celebration held by the Unbroken Circle.
— I am glad you delivered this information. What are your plans then, Derak the Easterner? Why did you do this favor for me?
I am about to interject, until I realize that he doesn’t want me to answer, but instead just keeps on going.
– I let you in on a little secret, Derak. Most of us, Virtuous Men, as you call us, are just bunch of old, filthy-rich clowns. We live our lives doing our best to keep everything just as it is today. Then there are few of us with … let’s say a vision. A vision of a grander future. Where tomorrow is a greater day than today. But I see from your face that you do not undestand what I mean, so we’ll drop that. I know you, Derak, by reputation. It is a custom of mine to know people who are among the top of your profession. If nothing else, it is a good thing to know who will be the one that delivers the final message. The final move of the lost game. And you, my friend, you are among the most interesting ones.
– I came to you, because I thought you could be interested to make a move against…
– Yes yes, against Vansittart the Cocky One. I am more interested about you, Derak. Or to be more precise, the mechanisms you use to be on the top of your game. From the stories I might guess you possess knowledge of metallurgy and springwork that is beyond of anything we can comprehend. This knowledge is something I would be willing to pay a lot of money of. If we could form some kind of an arrangement, starting with the gear you must have currently on you…
A shocking suggestion. To this day, I have never parted with any of my gear, or secrets voluntarily.
– Honored one, I have to decline for now, as my life depends on the gear I have on me and I do not wish to share my secrets or part with my gear for the time being.
I break the etiquette by heading for the exit. He doesn’t seem to mind and the page leads me back out the same way I came in.
The carved walls are ever closer. Their presence and power overwhelm me and what was curiosity when I arrived is now loathing and … fear.
Derak the Puppet. I am not the puppet, but they are, all of them. Puppets in the same, sick play. I will have none of that anymore.
I will attend Vansittart’s Masque. I will extend every bit of courtesy as required. And when the time comes, I will stab him through the heart, and I will wrench the black crystal from his dead hand. And if I am to die there and then, it is much better fate than to linger away as a pawn in the plays of these men. I was wrong to think Plotkin could help me. He is nothing but a pawn himself, maybe an oddly colored piece but if the same board nonetheless.
Rolled a ‘4’
Hero dice: 4, 4, 2, 6, 2, 4
Monster dice: 4, 4, 3, 1
- Yeah, I am rather shameless 10.05.2019
Doing an open attack is quite the step for you, Derak. An endsman prides himself on his untouchability; a mad amok is what the desperate or gullible would do. But then, you’re not an endsman anymore. And it is true that even means that would slow or avert an endsman will do little against an assassin willing to die for their mission.
The idea of descending into assassination in this sense bothers you only in the abstract, though. After all, you are not seduced into a suicidal charge by the soft-spoken words of someone like brother Niccolo, nor drugged out of your mind; it is your own choice, and yours alone.
Thinking these glum thoughts you return to the north shore, and the Cytheral House. The streets seem calm in the exhausting afternoon heat; you cannot quite convince yourself about being followed, nor can you quite muster to care. All your thoughts are on tomorrow, and what may become your last design of death.
The water feature in the Cytheral main hall keeps it cool through such days. The women of the house are up and about. The doorman gives you no trouble, having no doubt been instructed to give you special treatment. All their stares follow you upstairs.
Plotkin seems to have settled down in the Madam’s office, writing. You give him cursory regards for now, and he seems to be hopeful about arranging matters with the Unbroken Circle. No need to get involved with him any more for now.
You expect to find a bedroom by opening a random door in the north wing corridor, and so you do – you might even have visited the room before. A cloyingly feminine room, and you tense at the thought of having to shoo out a bird from its nest, but the place seems deserted for now. The smell of incense still lingers in the air, and diaphanous curtains cover the walls, giving the room a dreamy quality. There is a bed there, which matters the most.
You awaken around the sunset, near as you can tell through the narrow ventilation gap on the outside wall. Nobody disturbed your sleep, and there is a dinner plate on the bedside table. Your equipment, lying next to the bed in a pile, has not been touched as far as you can discern. You notice a girl sitting in the service position next to the door, but say nothing as you get out.
You need the darkness of night to prepare for the masquerade tomorrow. Might as well spend some time making sure nobody has an interested eye on you. Not Daag, not anybody. You take your time getting to the Crook, spending a leisurely time sitting in occluded places. The arm feels numb; should change the bandaging tonight.
The river-shore in the Crook is riddled with small fishing docs, and has been for ages; there is little of the shore not lined with wooden docks or walkways. The housing tends to encroach on the docs as fishermen build their homes close to the work. The high stone-masonry of the great cargo harbor facing the Estuary make the only exception, cutting a great wedge into the otherwise small-time homes of the humble working men.
Here, west of the harbor proper, an otherwise unnamed bit of boardwalk runs over the muddy shore. There are new houses now, which always disorients you coming this way; you survived here for years. Or not here, but rather in the grand entrepot Yasul extorted for his use. Burned now, and long rebuilt into humble homes.
The gibbous moon does its best over a cloudless sky, and for you that is more than enough. Leaving your boots yet grabbing a coil of light rope, you descend down the dockworks and into the frigid estuary. The task takes its time, it is not easy to find a long submerged tow line in the darkness. It is still attached to one of the posts of the old broadwalk, and you catch hold of the line in your own good time.
After connecting your rope to the tow line and getting back up from the water, the rest of it is a matter of pulling. It is a grueling task as your sinews struggle against the bottom silt or whatever unnamed resistance may keep hold of your prize. Even just dragging the water-logged tow itself is heavy work, and then it stops giving in altogether. It is well possible that the trunk, so carefully placed, has been moved by the waters; should it have sunk into the mud, there is no way for you to ever retain it. Not alone.
But the tow does give out in face of your strength, at least a little bit. Handspan by handspan you dredge it loose from the bottom. You start dragging it at an angle to ascertain that the trunk is loose, and then promptly tie it off to give yourself a rest. The wound in your arm throbs in dull pain.
The trunk is heavy, requiring all of your concentration. You pull a fathom at a time, the sailor’s deadlift, and deftly loop the tow on a post after every pull to rest your arms. When it breaks the water surface it becomes only heavier, but by then you can descend and attach your second rope to the other end. Given two points to raise one at a time, you slowly gain height and finally drag your inheritance to the quiet boardwalk.
You sit on the heavy trunk a while to catch your breath. Your night senses are calm, surely nobody is observing you right now, nobody except your own unsurpassed awareness of your own breathing, the cold and the strain on your arms. You can see the Estuary islands off over the water; even on the nundines eve the islands are alight, shining brightly like a pile of gems on the dark velvet of the sea.
Dragging the trunk back to the Cytheral would be deftly accomplished with the aid of a minor lifting tool, a lever balanced on a wheel… it is something that Yasul often used to move great weights. In fact, you remember now: there should be one in the trunk itself. The young Derak was a practical boy, thinking ahead ever so carefully. Even then you were fully assuming that if you were ever to retrieve the trunk, it would be alone and unaided.
It takes some work to get the pressure seal to give out, but that’s something you would have to do sooner or later anyway. Inside the trunk, there is indeed a disassembled hand truck just like you remember, carefully oiled and wrapped. Even in the dark it does not take you long to put it together. The wheels turn silently, and continue to do so even after you drag the trunk itself on the flimsy device; the bearings are steel, very probably the make of mad Yasul himself.
The return journey to the Hillside is mainly tedious. The street is far from even under the small wheels, so keeping the trunk upright takes much of your attention. Taking the cobble-paved Docs Road is worth it even with the slim chance of getting caught by your enemies.
Back at the Cytheral House you have some trouble commandeering a room; its not that the house would be very busy on the nundines eve, but the first room you stumble into actually houses sleeping occupants. The bleary-eyed confusion of the pair of nights-desirees turns into visible alarm as they recognize you, struggling to fit the large trunk through the doorway. Giving up on that, obviously, but you do need a downstairs room – no way you’re hauling the trunk upstairs.
— Derak, hey! Plotkin tries to interrupt you flipping open doors in the back part of the house. He’s actually wearing his night-shirt now.
— Ah, Plotkin, you mutter while peering towards the end of the hall. — You wouldn’t happen to know if there are any empty rooms beyond the kitchen there? I need a place to stow this trunk, you see…
Plotkin does accede to helping you navigate the house, and even gets one of the guards to help move the trunk. Not that you don’t keep a sharp eye on it; the idea of you dying tomorrow and the trunk just getting out there feels like something you’ll have to think about sometime when you’re doing less running ahead of your impending doom.
Speaking of, Plotkin seems to think that there is something wrong: — Is something bothering you, Derak? What is going on, that you act so like a common bravo? Madam Meliore has graciously invited us to stay here for the time, but you shouldn’t press her patience so.
— I am disturbed by deadly thoughts, you growl. — You should not worry, however, for I will put everything right in the house of Gabaldon.
— I won’t say that you should not, Plotkin says. — But for what it is worth, I should tell you that I have had encouraging correspondence with master Nasar of the Unbroken Circle today; he assures me that the uncommon disturbance and high-handedness of the sharpist brothers has been remarked, and disciplinary action will soon be taken. It may well be that the masters will censure Niccolo and put our house in order; I could not imagine otherwise after the account I made in writing.
Plotkin seems admirably unperturbed by your acting up. You do realize on some level that this… excitement you feel about the impending tomorrow is making you fey tonight. It does mean that you care little about his cult business, of course.
— I think having something to eat would do you good, Derak, Plotkin continues after you say nothing. — Food, and change that bandage of yours. Sleep. Everything will be clearer in the morning.
You allow Plotkin to shepherd you through the practicalities for now, well-intended as he seems. Your mind, however, is far away already. Making plans. Designs, rather. You have a masque to attend.
When you wake up in the Cytheral House for the second time, it is already morning. The slumber had you forget your troubles, and for a long moment after awakening you simply enjoy the feel and smell of the soft bedding before remembering the day’s task.
Your equipment seems untouched, and there is food set to await your awakening. This time, however, you gesture at the girl perched at the door.
— Come closer, you, you say with a calm tone.
— Ah, yes… yes master endsman! she jolts awake. — My name is Nanda, Madam asked me to cater to your needs. If you want for entertainment or companionship I am to introduce you to some of the elder sisters.
Yes, that would obviously be what you would want today.
— Thank you, little Nanda, you respond and gesture for her to stand. — I need for nothing, but I wanted to apologize for my curtness in the evening. I was wonderfully concentrated then. Please give the Madam my regards, and assure her that I am in her debt.
Thinking on your plans, you add: — I will spend the day in preparation, and then be off your hair for good. I will have need for certain things, all available on the great market today; can I trust you to run me some errands, Nanda?
— Of course! she is quick to affirm. Her nodding does seem a bit too much like “please don’t kill me”, but perhaps that’s the best you can expect in this town, or expect until you learn to talk to people normally, or whatever.
— Very well, you say, doing your best to sound amiable. — I brought a trunk into the house yesterday and left it downstairs; for all that it pains me, I seem to be forced to extend trust in all kinds of little ways. For this work, however, it is best if it is private. I will move to it immediately after breakfast.
— We, uh… she actually takes little nervous steps like a bird on a thin branch. — We moved your chest. I hope that is not a problem? Madam had it put in Alethea’s room.
That does seem like all kinds of problem, as far as your instincts are concerned, but you have somewhat more pressing concerns today than that.
— Well, I am sure that she would know best, wouldn’t she? you ask rhetorically and pick up the cheese plate. No need to scare the little waif any further.
You spend the rest of the day in intense preparation. There needs to be a costume appropriate to the event, and something for the… entertainment. You are a man of Scarlet, know what a proper showing looks like, and by Coinbiter’s clubfoot it is something you will deliver tonight!
I would ask for your input here, really I would, except for the time running so short. You will just have to fill in the gaps later on, surprise us with your cunning and craft.
You’ve actually managed to inventory your tools and materials, laying it all out, before you realize that the room the Madam chose for you has seen the touch of another one of your trade… Fox, you heard that she used to hide here. The first impression is of any bedroom in the decadent hostel, but the long work tables and the actual alembic you discover in one of the closets puts the lie to that; you can just imagine her sitting here with her maps, putting together some devilish concoction of her magery. Maybe you would not want to actually sleep in her bed, but fortunately that is not going to be a problem.
At first the women of the house perform this… fluttering at your door, but the room actually has a rather heavy-duty bar inside, so for the most part you get to perform your craft in peace. What needs you have, the girl Nanda runs quickly to fulfill.
Come the evening, you are ready for your night out. The costume is admittedly somewhat unconventional, but with the time being as short as it is, you had to go with the first idea instead of waiting for a better one: you are going as a “forest witch”, which is certainly a classical figure of the masque, but also one traditionally played by women. A minor embarrassment if that, considering your position.
The basic forest witch is somewhat akin to a walking, or comically waddling cone, visually speaking: the dress falls as narrow as can be off the shoulders, but billows in a pear-like symmetric form towards the hem, the wider the better. The pointy yet floppy hat adds to the impression of being more of a spire than a woman. High shoes add to the effect, and there are supposed to be small bells attached inside the large bell-like skirt in such a clever manner that any accidental touching of the witch will cause them to tinkle despite her gliding or waddling around soundlessly herself.
You get the girl Nanda to help dress you up at the end, for she is unlikely to understand much of the particulars of what you are attaching to yourself, and likely to follow your instructions as precisely as she can. You need to help her raise the steel parts, of course, considering their weight. She understands well enough to not injure herself on the sharp edges.
Looking at the mirror in the end, the effect is grim enough to draw a small, tense smile on your own lips. Nanda says nothing, likely recognizing something of the transformation you’ve attempted. You do not really care about the other women of the house peeking in as you lather white face-paint on all visible skin; they will see you anyway as you depart, as will any clients of the house on this busy night. Perhaps they will talk of it, the City.
Your forest witch is dressed in all black, of course, and stands at an ambitiously towering height thanks to her heightened shoes. Her white face, unmasked, peeks from between the hat’s floppy brim and the high collar of the gown like the moon; you even had Nanda scare up a lunar-themed fan to support the conceit. The lower arms have attached prosthetics covered in the gown satin, making the witch’s arms seem unnaturally long while allowing you to let go of the handles and leave the prosthetics hanging free if you need to use your real hands. And of course, the sound: any scrunching of the black, billowy satin of your skirt causes the unmistakable scrape of steel – of blades – just the way it should.
Fine sartorial work, if you may be allowed to judge your own genius. This, and your planned entertainment, will surely make you the belle of the ball. At least it silences the Cytheral House completely as you finesse yourself through the doors. The gown just about fits through a doorway.
The boatmen of the river know of the Gabaldon house, of course, so finding your way to the masquerade proves simple. Sitting down on the boat perhaps less so, but not only are you rather indifferent to the boatman’s opinion, but also it’s probably rather commonplace for women to have trouble with these fancy costumes, too. Your being on the move alone is more unusual, anyway. You end up crouching at the back of the boat like a large crow rather than trying to fit inside the passenger cabin.
The Gabaldon house is in the inner parts of the Estuary isles, on the fringes of the Lantern City, where the space is at premium and even merchant princes have to accept rather close neighbourhoods. The house is lit up for the masque with so many lights it might as well be daytime. The entire canal rings with the river-singers hired to attract attention and signal in-coming guests of all being in readiness. Vansittart certainly plays house with the best of them. It is a masquerade party, not dissimilar to any that a merchant prince might throw in the weeks before the Summer Post.
You arrival is timed well, for other guests are off-loading from their boats as well. The boatsman helps you keep your balance while stepping to the pier stairs, and he seems happy with your performance, offering his well-wishes to the lady in the night’s reveils. Good enough.
Looking around you, the guests seem to be drifting slowly towards the main doors of the house, greeting acquaintances casually. Not too quickly, as nobody wants to be seen actually waiting in line at the door. On the other hand, a man of measure should not hold back, either, or others might have to wait as well, or worse still appear to cut in front of the important man.
You are somewhat conspicuous for being unaccompanied, admittedly. Bad enough for a man, even stranger for a woman. Then again, anything is forgiven to the bold: you might as well stand straight and tall, and let them wonder. You’re not exactly sneaking in tonight.
Your dress, exotic as it is, is not really out of place at all in a soiree of this sort. The City has developed a taste for the extraordinary over its years of wealth, and that shows best of all in the plumage of the masquerade: some of the men may be subdued in comparison with their simple masks and capes, but among the women yours is by no means the most fantastical contraption of a costume. There are probably one or two other forest witches here tonight, though probably none of the sheer size of your ensemble. As you move closer to the doors, guests even try brushing on you “accidentally”, to test your bells. Needless to say, the soft screech of metal makes its own impression.
One more thing you observe on the approach: the house has a Karstite guard tonight, unmistakably dressed in their grey and black. Probably not on permanent retainer, but surely a good idea for any gathering of important men. A Karstite bogatyr, perhaps, leading a number of grim and ruthless men. The Karst is home to a cruel kind of man, fit for mercenary work; they are known for their discipline in Scarlet, and are likely to pride themselves on a sharp and merciless execution of order. Could be a favorable sign to you, who also chose to dress for the moon tonight.
You approach the door boldly, and the other guests seem generally happy about letting you go first. Could simply be the costume and nothing more; the forest witch is a costume choice of a mature woman, and somewhat counter-respectable in that it is not something you wear if fear what others think. It takes poise, and naturally everybody here in the yard assumes that I am somebody important for the sheer gall the costume implies.
The steward of the house is at the door, taking names and instructing heralds. You see little reason to prevaricate; if Vansittart wants to do it here, you are ready. The mercenary guard may well have cross-bows, but just those will not be up to the proof tonight. Rising up the stairs and entering the great doorway, you positively loom over the herald.
— Derak, the endsman titled the “Puppet”, you speak your name to the steward.
— Very good, Miss Derak, the steward replies, barely raising an eyebrow at your circumstances. — An unannounced arrival, yes?
Confirming you on his list, the man waves you through and to the right, to the grand ballroom. Seems that the house will today be rather full of Vansittart’s friends and acquaintances. Probably many professionals like you among them. Well, not exactly like you.
The party is still filling up, but to you it seems largely of the sort you expect and have come to know. Perhaps being invited to one is somewhat rare for you, but it is not once, but actually twice that you have been specifically hired to conduct a kill during similar parties. You actually understand the impulse well: there is something about the bright dresses, ample food, the blood-red wine and the false smiles that invites death as part of the tapestry of the banquet. Sometimes you think that these people actually almost expect somebody to die during the revelry. You certainly do.
You enter the ballroom without incident, blending into the lurid scenery, but your attention is quickly attracted when you notice her: Chrysal is here, and you do feel glad for her being alive and whole, despite everything. Her presentation is courtly rather than servile, unless you miss some slight nuance from afar; as before, she seems to wear a painting even more elaborate and much more colorful than before, coupled with a skirt, shawl and a feathered hat. Like you, she wears no mask, having had her face painted instead with… an arrangement of excess eyes? Perhaps it is more alluring up front.
Chrysal seems to be entertaining a herd of guests, three pairs or so. You would have to approach to learn more, but from across the room she seems restrained, not unlike the way she was with you. She is letting the men do the talking, but clearly adding some wan remark to make them happy. They’re talking about her body art, most likely, as she lets her shawl drop for a moment, uncovering her chest and back to loud claps of appreciation.
Although it was not your intent, you do forget yourself for a moment, watching her and wondering what might have been. She seems like a woman who is sensitive to the nature of the City is… a former slave, like you. It is a shame she is so weak.
— There is something to her, is there not? She is frailer than she looks, believe me – I know weakness. Won’t last long once the tough get going, if I am any judge.
You turn slowly around, appalled at your carelessness. It is Vansittart Gabaldon, the master of the house himself who sidled up to you in your moment of distraction. You recognize the imposing frame of the man despite the nominal domino mask covering his upper face. Vansittart is dressed to kill, metaphorically speaking: his bold white dress shirt is actually pinned back from the hem, exposing his stomach and much of the unshaven chest. The powerfully barbaric, raw presentation is balanced by the expensive pink rosette holding the shirt collar together. Even then, the trailing ribbons of the rosette draw the eye inexorably southwards. His belt glitters in gold and black, drawing the eye to a magnificent dress sword.
— I would offer my superficial apology, master Derak, for not welcoming you into my home sooner, Vansittart continues as you gauge him silently. — I was delayed due to not expecting you to appear in such… lurid apparel. I suppose that endsmen truly live by their own rules, and I am sure that you make the most delightful lady if one were to get to know you better.
Vansittart looks you straight in the eyes as he speaks, rather unblinking. He is just as tall as you, and his boots (damn, made you look!) don’t seem to have much of a heel compared to the stilts you wear.
Also, you absolutely need to get some control over this conversation right now. Or make your move, either or.
— I did feel pretty witchy tonight, you manage. — Pretty and witchy. As for Miss Chrysal, I agree about her weakness; I was just thinking of how very little I care of her.
You move your waist slightly forward, brushing Vansittart with your gown for emphasis. The way he grimaces at the sound is quite satisfying.
— You should not worry your pretty little head with Chrysal, Vansittart says. — You must be worried of the punishment involved in snooping around the woman of a better man, but have no fear; it is obvious to me that you are no threat to my amorous designs. The extent of the divide between our estates, as the saying goes, is insurmountable.
A bravo would never get that far in a put-down, not if their foe had any honor. What stays your hand, paradoxically, is indeed your own uncertainty of your honor. Is this the moment? For a bravo fearful of their pride it would be, indeed the only moment. But are not your pretensions towards something more than that?
— I hope she will serve you well, master Vansittart, you speak with utter calm.
Vansittart snorts at you taking his words. He actually offers his hand to you.
— Well, I am glad that you have chosen to join us tonight, Miss. It is the right choice. If you will follow me, we can talk further on matters. On Fate, and the designs it has on us both. You might be surprised.
He puts his hand on your arm and draws himself close, uncaring of the loud screech of steel against steel. It attracts glances, but no more than that, as Vansittart moves to lead you across the ballroom.
— I have heard from Daag, Vansittart remarks as he leads the way. — I understand from him that you have struggled mightily to put a stop to the little schemistry revolving around the Summer Festival?
— Your being so calm about it does confuse me, you can’t help but admit. It used to be that your silence protected you, but nowadays it is difficult to keep your calm… and Vansittart is personable in his own way, it is difficult to not answer his prodding in some way.
— You do know, master endsman, how fey we are, us people of Scarlet. Schemes come and go. The important thing, what truly separates the honorable from the chaff, is that we don’t give a damn. Bet your money, not your life. Certainly some might say that you have snubbed me, but if we choose to ignore it, who would know better? Soon enough you might be helping me yourself. Different means, but the destination remains the same.
You’ve passed Chrysal’s little soiree unacknowledged, headed towards the back doors of the room as you are. Another small group of early guests seems to be gathered here, and Vansittart doesn’t seem to be avoiding them.
— Ah, Theognis Andor and his little coterie. Let’s go say hello.
Vansittart strides boldly, forcing you to resentfully hold onto his arm to keep up.
— Master Theognis, Vansittart greets his peer amiably. — I hope you have enjoyed the repast. I have an affair to settle upstairs with my companion here, but we thought to stop by for introduction’s sake.
— We have been enjoying ourselves, master Vansittart, the elderly gentleman acknowledges, nodding amiably. It is more difficult to tell with the elder man, but his younger companions are probably Longaxi.
At least the etiquette does not actually require you to say anything unless directly addressed.
— Let me make the introductions, Vansittart says, not letting go of your arm as such. — Dear, the honorable Theognis here is a master trader hailing from the city of Sheath; an interesting man whom we might get to know better some time in the future. The gentlemen are his sons and advisors, I think? Either way, my charming companion here is, you should know, none other than the infamous endsman Derak the Puppet.
That certainly gets a reaction, almost unfortunately so – as one of the younger men scampers away you can just feel the sights of a Karstite guardsman following his movements.
— Please calm down, gentlemen, Vansittart says, enjoying himself and your seeming agreeability in an entirely guileless way. — I will freely admit that the Puppet is an extraordinary endsman, but tonight he is a guest of the house, not on a mission. I will not hold it against you if you are a bit shy, but at least shake his hand, will you. You don’t get to do that with such a peculiar man every day. Did you know, he even slew my brother Albin this past week? An honorable duel, of course, but still – remarkable, isn’t he? Ha ha ha!
That last part certainly sounded just a touch manic, particularly the laugh. You can see that you’re not the only one here uncertain about Vansittart’s… thing. However, he is the master of the house, so what if he’s a bit peculiar? Confidence takes you far in Scarlet, anyway, and money means even more. It’s not like there aren’t practically gibbering senators, too.
Rolled a ‘2’
Hero dice: 4, 4, 2, 6, 2, 4
Monster dice: 4, 4, 3, 1, 2
The Match ends – Monster’s score is 5.
Monster total: 14
Hero total: 22
Hero wins the Match.
The Climax begins.
The Hero has 6 Good Dice, equaling 3 Picks.
Choices that must be made:
- Achieve your Goal, to discover your purpose – achieved by winning the Match.
- Avoid being injured or deprived by Vansittart Gabaldon | Otherwise, Vansittart Gabaldon hurts you severely.
- Kill, permanently imprison or disenfranchise Vansittart Gabaldon | Otherwise Vansittart Gabaldon makes senator sooner or later.
- Save Chrysal from her choices | Otherwise she is left to the mercies of her situation.
- Judge Daag | Otherwise he gets his from this mess.
- Sway Tassava Gilo | Otherwise nothing changes for Scarlet as a whole.
- Save the Unbroken Circle | Otherwise the Circle will be torn apart.
- Destroy the Dark Crystal | Otherwise the crystal continues its rounds.
- Repay your friends in Scarlet | Otherwise you cannot afford any goodbyes.
- Root out Sheath | Otherwise agents will continue destabilizing Scarlet.
Whatever you do not pick, the contrary must happen.
- A Demonstration of Power 14.05.2019
The scene is so dreamlike in many ways. The sounds of the celebration all around us, Vansittart exchanging meaningless pleasantries with the Sheath merchants, his hand gripping around my arm tightly. His ferociousness is like a suffocating perfume around us. Power mixed in with a touch of madness lingering just beneath the civil surface.
But I withhold my stab. If he is taking me upstairs for a private council, it will be all that much easier, perhaps too easy. Kill him, then take the crystal and escape through some of the countless windows, out into the rooftops and away from the people of this city, forever.
— We have a lot to talk about, you and I, Vansittart chats away as we start our slow ascend to the second floor. I lay sideway glances towards the windows. Not yet, from here I can’t really get rid of my costume after the deed quickly enough. It would be a shame to be shot through by the karstite crossbows without the armor and on my way out. And then there is the crystal that is still missing.
He guides me to a small, but exquisite room. We have a bit difficulty navigating in through the door, with my wide costume, but he lets me to enter in first and proceeds to follow me and closes the door behind him.
The room is scarcely furnished, but the items that are there speak of refinement and power. A massive table with four sturdy chairs speak of a negotiation room, but luxurious, wide bed speaks of something else. Perhaps he likes to sleep and work in the same room. It would not be the weirdest thing these men of power are into. The walls are covered with heavy silks that suck the sound of our footsteps in eerie, muffled silence. The small lantern with reddish surface enriches the feeling of lurid exoticness.
Should I really kill him now? True enough, he is a rising power player of the City, but so are many others I know. If a situation presented itself should I not just knock him out first at least? If the dark crystal is not in this room, I may be in a need of his knowledge of its whereabouts. He might have sold it already, in which case it is important to know where the jewel has gone.
He strolls leisureously towards one of the large chairs. Like a large cat that is cozy at home, no doubt. It is almost too easy. A carefully aimed blow to the back of his head makes him crumble next to the chair he was reaching for. I am glad for the sound-suffocating silks and fabrics in the room, as there his collapse was almost without sound.
But the crystal. I leave his unconscious body where it lies and focus my attention on the room. The large table hasn’t got any chests underneath and as it contains only a wine charafe and few glasses I focus my attention elsewhere. I cross the room with few steps and start investigating the nightstands beside the massive table.
It takes a few crucial seconds for me to realize what has happened. I am kneeling next to the large bed and everything is a red haze. I turn around sluggishly. Vansittart is there with a broken chair and a maddened gaze. There are pieces of wood next to me, perhaps the chair was not of a such good quality, if it was it would have crushed my head like an eggshell.
There is no time for metronomes. I struggle to get up, but the high heels interfere with my not at the moment so perfect balance. He comes in with a disemboweling thrust of his dress sword. A beautiful move as the blade is like a living extension of his muscled hand. It comes through my costume and crashes against the armor beneath. But even with all his power, the scorrevole withstands. It is an armor of different moving parts, a mechanic masterpiece that captures the energy of the incoming attacks in complex, interweaving parts that move freely around the torso. I have made three of these in my life, and even though it can only protect the body, its stopping power is miraculous.
The blow is hard though, and from the screeching sounds of the scorrevole it is obvious that I can’t take another like that without consequences.
— You dog. I will show you your place.
He comes in more cautious this time and I have managed to get my uncooperative legs under me. My blades are out as I block his initial attacks. He is really Albin’s brother. They move alike, but where Albin was a brash bravo, Vansittart is a ferocious beast.
The result of this confrontation is obvious to me long before the actions really unfold. Either he didn’t feel my blow at all or has an uncanny stamina. I am not in the shape to face someone like him.
I stab towards his stomach with my left blade. He evades and strikes a mighty blow at the base of it. The hardened blade breaks, sending a horrible shock along my arm. He continues with a tremendous backhand of his large palm that sends me crawling on the floow half-senseless.
— Now I’ll show you how tools are kept in the household of Gabaldon.
He rips through my clothes and armor like a taloned raptor. By him I am carried to a world of darkness and agony, of brutality and subjugation. He puts me where he thinks I am and I haven’t got the means to do anything about it. He enforces himself upon me, just like the master he thinks he is.
At some point I lose consciousness. A release of sorts for the tormented soul and body.
- Kill, permanently imprision or disenfranchise Vansittart Gabaldon.
- Save Chrysal from her choices.
- Sway Tassava Gilo and give a new direction for the City.
- I am injured or deprived by Vansittart Gabaldon.
- Daag is left unattended.
- The Circle will be torn apart.
- I can’t afford goodbyes.
- Sheath agents will continue to destabilize Scarlet.