'The Noisy Tide of Time'

Act I. Scene ii. Caerlon and Beyond. Part IV

When Is an Alleyway Like an Abbatoir?

Part IV.

The party walked past Shadwell, Wapping, and Gin Alley, the parts of the city that a gentleman should avoid unless looking for some female companionship not regulated by the Jennies. Everyone headed for the docks, following the decent map provided by the footman. The stench of the river grew worse for every gloomy, narrow block they advanced into the rat’s maze. It was the middle of the afternoon, but soot hung thick in the air, and the buildings hovered over the street, almost pinching off the silvery sky far above. The buildings looked as if they were built back in the times before the prophet, when Caerlon lay fat and dark and diseased within its high walls. This particular street was empty of people, but Inigo could feel the eyes watching from the poorly-shuttered windows and filthy alley mouths on either side. The air was thick and silent, except for the bickering of Werner and the Prince.

ginLane_pix

“—not a proper spear at all!” cried the impassioned Prince.

“More than proper,” said Werner, swinging the rusty blade on a short arc by the mold-corrupted shaft. “Magic! Can’t you feel it? When I picked it up, it was like Destiny was singing to me, and only to me.”

“You can’t be serious. You sound absurd.”

“What do you mean? This spear is every bit as magical as yours.”

“I found mine on the lowest level of a Syrneth ruin!”

“Really? The way Greis described it, it sounded like you fell in an open pit while drunk and there it was.” Greis looked at Werner and made a gesture signifying, perhaps, ‘Keep me out of it.’

“It was the opening to a Syrneth temple! I am almost sure of it. If we had had some rope, I would have returned to verify the find.”

“But, alas, there was no rope to be had! And all we have is your word,” taunted Werner.

“And the spear!” insisted the Prince. “I am demonstrably faster with it in my hands! I feel invincible!”

“I feel the same way with mine,” said Werner, who picked a damp splinter the length of his forearm out of the rotting, cross-grained pole. “Only better.”

“You! You!” blurted the Prince. “You purchased that from a ragman! A ragman! With my purse! I am beginning to think that you are practising upon me.”

“Beginning to think, your Majesty?” said Werner, playfully. “At your age?”

“Sir, were you my social equal, or a member of an appropriate school, I would give you my gage right now.” The Prince was furious.

“Were you my social equal, your Highness, or your spear the equal of mine, I would show you what real magic is.”

At this, the Prince increased his pace, and Werner fell behind. Inigo smiled to himself.

With the Prince leading, the group crossed a wider thoroughfare, but it was no cleaner or more daylit than the rotting slums on either side. They crossed the river Dee on a bridge that seemed to have been swallowed by two drunken buildings leaning out to embrace each other across the swirling water. Then, they were back in the narrow, overhanging labyrinth again. The tenements crowded high and close except for the few that were total ruins, merely collapsed heaps of masonry and wood. Even there, in those charred absences, Inigo sensed people in the shadows, moving and stirring. Watching. A narrow, rotted footbridge crossed a reeking tributary to the river.

The more terrible the streets and neighborhoods became, the more crowded. Groups of men were now visible on street corners, in doorways, in empty lots. Inigo loosened his blade in his scabbard and made sure his swordsman guild pin was visible. They strode on, keeping to the center of the broken streets to see and avoid the holes and standing pools of filthy water. Werner seemed to sense the danger. The Vodacce had been on alert for some time. Only Essie seemed oblivious to the nature of their surroundings. The Prince consulted the map frequently. It was obvious why the footman had not recommended a coach or horses. Some of their route was too narrow for even a horse with even a modest barrel to scrape through.

Inigo tried to seem indifferent to the mutterings and angry sounds from the men they passed. Somewhat softer voices filtered down from the upper windows: “No no the door’s not shut, gennilmen, nor ladies. No neither are the room doors neither.” Vera considered stopping to talk to them about the benefits of joining the guild, but thought better of it.

George Street. Rosemary Lane. Cable street. Finally after what seemed a very long 3/4 of an hour, at New Court, they left the stinking street, passed through a sunken courtyard, the ground squelching underfoot, and emerged in a different world. Knock Ferguson. It was not clean by the standards of the grand boulevards leading to the palace, but compared to the streets they had passed, it was as clean as an operating theater, with people moving to and fro about their everyday business. Everyone relaxed visibly.

There were several watchmakers of similar quality on this block, and Vera chose one that seemed subtly more prosperous than the others. Vera left the men, and Essie, to their boasting, and entered the shop. Remy followed her.

The shopkeep was a merry, cherubic fellow—a Venden in the old tradition, whose name was Hoeven van den Hoffle Poffle. To his credit, even the shopkeep laughed when he said it. His pate was bald, but two thick white tufts of hair stuck out, one above each ear, like his head was a caricature of baldness.

“What can I do for you?” he asked. Vera told him that she sought information about the watchmaker Vaucason.

“O, ho!” chuckled the man. “I never would have guessed a lady like yourself would be interested in the stories told in craftsmen’s cups.”

“Stories? I was told I could buy Vaucason pieces. Surely a story cannot produce a watch.”

“No, no, indeed. But a Vaucason piece, that is what we watchmakers say when a piece is very fine, and we can’t remember who did it or the mark’s not known to us.”

“I was under the impression that he really lived.”

“Oh, there’s no question about that. But sometimes, in the trade, you see, we exaggerate the skills of those that have passed on. Heh. I can’t wait to hear what they say about me.”

“Perhaps,” said Remy, “you can tell us the legend, since the lady has come all this way.”

With that, Hoffle Poffle told them the legend of the Montagnard Vaucason. It was said he came to Avalon at the beginning of the White Plague, as the fog of the Vodacce-Venden Merchant War was just descending.

He came, after traveling the length and breadth of Théah, at last to rebuild his lost fortune free of the charges of unclean sorcery that had followed him in Eisen, in Ussura, and in Innismore.

He was met Dockside by the notorious drunkard and killer Cheap Jack. Cheap Jack cut him from crotch to chin and dumped him in the river Dee, selling everything he had in his travelling case. Legend had it that Cheap Jack received twice as much gold for each finished piece, until the Royal Treasury would have been unable to hold it all. In any case, Cheap Jack was real, and he was the one who had sold Hoffle-Poffle the turtle, and it was from those wares that Avalon had come to know the maker’s name.

“The turtle?” interrupted Vera.

“Yes, I have a Vaucason-quality piece fashioned like a turtle.”

“May we see it?” asked Remy.

“Oh, no, sir. Ha, ha! No, I regret it. It is best not to handle it too much.” Remy shot Vera a conspiratorial look. She picked up her cue, leaning over the display case toward the proprietor with a look of wide-eyed enchantment.

“It would,” said the Vodacce smokily, “give me great pleasure.”

“Well,” said Hoffle Poffle, busying his hands in the folds of his guildsman’s smock, “well. I don’t see how it could hurt it too much. After all, what worth is the thing if no one ever sees it?” Vera parted her lips expectantly, and Hoffle Poffle was transfixed.

“Excellent,” said Remy. “Couldn’t agree more.” Hoffle Poffle lingered awhile, staring rather obviously at Vera’s decolletage before tearing his gaze away and bustling into the back.

He returned several minutes later with a velvet cushion, on which sat a small turtle in silver with a carapace of blue enamel. Hoffle Poffle refused to look at Vera, placing the red velvet cushion on the counter before the Montagnard, which made Vera smile and sidle closer to Remy. The shell was in blue enamel, and, without a word, the shopkeep reached out with two fingers and turned a silver ring around the shell until it made a small chime. At that, the exquisitely detailed turtle seemed to come alive with a jerk, and Remy and Vera both stepped back in alarm, the memory of the beetles and the homunculi too fresh to eschew caution. But the little thing merely bent its head until it was nuzzling the nap of the velvet, for all the world as if it were eating it. It then raised its head, chewing, and Remy and Vera both took a step closer, marveling at the detail of its neck folds. It was far beyond the creatures they had seen at Epsom Downs for realism, but then it was obviously meant to be unique.

turtle

Hoffle Poffle was also looking at the turtle intently—clearly the thing had not lost its fascination for him. The turtle then stretched its neck to swallow before rolling over to expose its plastron; while on its back, its tiny legs flailed twice, as if it sought to right itself, and the plastron popped open with a click to reveal the creamy surface of a cleverly-hidden watch face.

Hoffle Poffle, breathless, watched as the thing grew still, and almost whispered, “You can see the dial marks hours, minutes, days, weeks, and phases of the moon. It has another hand that marks the solstices. It is…not unreasonable to think a man able to make such a thing…a sorcerer.” When he unbent from his study of the turtle at last, closing the plastron with another small chime and setting it on its feet, he found himself staring at Vera’s chest. She had shifted subtly to command his sightline.

“I would buy this from you,” she breathed, looking into his eyes. Hoffle Poffle could not look away.

“We would pay any price you named,” said Remy cheefully. “The coffers of Haus Pösen are open to you.”

“Well,” said Hoffle Poffle. “Well. Well. My wife—she is very attached to this piece.”

“Should I be bargaining with your wife then, Hoeven?” asked Vera, intently.

“She…she’s away. For the afternoon. Gone marketing.”

“I see. Monsieur de Chanceux?”

“Oui?” said Remy, absently looking at the other watches in the various cases.

“I believe that our dear Hoeven would feel more comfortable if we were to come to an agreement privately. It is a sentimental piece, is it not?” She arched an eyebrow slightly at the man, and a blush crept over his bald pate.

“Y-yess—“ he stammered. “I think. Come. To an agreement. Private. Yes.”

“C’était un grand plaisir, monsieur. Adieu.” Remy left, whistling tunelessly.

Outside, it appeared that things had developed considerably. The Prince and de la Vega had apparently come to terms on a friendly duel, to be fought in three parts: swords on foot, spears on horseback, and barehanded, swinging from chandeliers.

“For while I consider you the better swordsman, I feel I overmatch you mounted. The rubber match must put us equally at a disadvantage.”

“Do you not feel, your Highness, that it would be exceedingly difficult to settle the question of superiority in arms while swinging from chandeliers?” asked de la Vega.

“What do you propose, then?” asked the Prince obligingly, when the group became aware that they were being hailed from the roof top across from Hoffle Poffle’s Flim Flams Gew Gaws and Tick-Tocks. The voice was loud, but high and thin.

Essie was the first to spot the boy. His hands were cupped about his face, and he looked like nothing so much as a bosun addressing the foretop, as he yelled: “I say, hullo! Are ye blind or blind stupid? Keep a weather eye out, there!” When he was confident they had all seen him, he gave a jerk of his thumb down Knock Ferguson lane and then made a loop with his pointer finger in all directions before turning and disappearing from view. It was at that moment that Vera stepped out of the shop and saw, at approximately the same that they had been effectively surrounded by a gang of identically well-dressed men with umbrellas. They were lounging up and down the street, and in both alleys opening off of it. When they realized they had been spotted, one approached and doffed his cap.

dandies

“Good afternoon,” he said, addressing the Prince. The Prince’s eyes narrowed at being addressed in the street by a complete unknown.

“I say,” said the Prince, “this is pretty brash. Do I know you, sirrah?”

“No, I’d more’n wager not. But I know you, yer Highness. ‘More fools know Jack Fool than Jack Fool knows,’ as they say.” He grinned, showing a wide expanse of perfectly white teeth. Werner saw his sunken knuckles, and Greis his hard eyes, but no one was fooled by his fancy suit. This man was a street tough, and cheeky with it. He swung his umbrella up onto his shoulder and leaned in close.

“Stand back, sir. You have three seconds to withdraw before I break your teeth,” said Reinhardt Pösen, who had just decided that it was worth stooping to this fool’s level to push his fist into his face.

“Well, as to that, the boys don’t take kindly to threats. Do we, boys?” There was a chorus of rude, negative responses. “And we don’t take orders at all.” His smile widened, but it never touched his eyes. “We ain’t leaving till we get what we came for.”

The Prince’s arm was halfway to the man’s face before Greis caught it. “What is it that you came for, if I might ask?” said Greis in a perfectly flat tone.

“De la Vega. Give ‘im to us, and you go on your merry way without getting blood on them pretty clothes.”

“Oh!” said Essie, “but you wouldn’t want to get your nice clothes dirty, either!”

Werner turned to de la Vega: “Inigo, do you want to go with these nice men?”

“No. But I very much want to know what they want with me.”

“I ain’t interested in a litany o’desires. You’re coming with me, or you’re watching your friends kick on the end of my knife.” He adjusted his cravat and brushed the dust off his trousers. He spat on the Prince’s shoe.

Inigo’s blade was out before anyone could move. One instant it was sheathed, and the next, its length was quivering slowly in the air between himself and his principal accoster. His speed took the dandies by surprise.

“Gentlemen,” he said, loudly enough to take in all of their “You have valuable information, which is why one of you will survive this encounter.”

“This one,” said the Prince, eyeing the talkative one, “On my honor, this one dies last.”

If you have been fortunate enough to survive the sight of an oil lamp bursting in a hayloft, you will understand perfectly the suddenness of the violence that followed, and the impossibility of establishing a clear order of events. It is simple. First, there is calm. Then, there is a torrent of flame.

Inigo’s blade lunged at the speaker, but it was deflected by the Prince’s armored forearm, who shouted, “You would not forswear me!” At the same time, Greis pivoted hard and planted his greaved forearm in the middle of the tough’s face behind him. The tough’s nose fountained red and he staggered back into the alley behind him, and Zittriger shouted something in Eisen that sounded suspiciously like, “I blew up your face!”

Inigo smiled at the Prince reassuringly and sliced an elaborate V into the first miscreant’s coat. As he was withdrawing his blade, the tough brought up his umbrella in a belated parry. There was the unmistakeable clang of gunsteel, though it is impossible to say who could have heard it.

Essie, frustrated by her inability to see the Prince, had danced wide of a punch aimed at her by a man in a suit, vaulted a rain barrel, and shimmied up the rainspout above it before he recovered, reaching the rooftop in the blink of an eye.

The first tough continued his parrying motion and brought the tip up in an arc toward the Prince, who instinctively leaned to the side as a jet of fire leapt from it. The Prince felt the wind of a musket ball pass his face. “They have muskets!” He shouted, even as another shot rang out and a ball grazed his shoulder, leaving a line of fire in his flesh.

The ruffian with the broken nose raised his umbrella at the old man, but it missed fire, and Zittriger advanced on him.

Remy’s sword lopped off another of the bandit’s hands just above the well-tailored cuff, and his return slash took him in the throat, ending his life in a churning ruin of red.

Werner said, “Nice hat,” and brought the haft of his new spear down in the cleft between the neck and shoulder. The rotten length of wood exploded, sending splinters into the lout’s neck and face, and jostling him so that his aim was disturbed enough to save Werner’s life. The report of the umbrella gun was simultaneous with the crack of the shaft, and Werner did not, at first, know that he had been shot in the side, and burned severely by the flare of the muzzle.

Meanwhile, the Prince grabbed the first ruffian by the lapels and pulled his face close, managing to say, “You—you—you—“ before the blackguard brought his bespoke leather demi-boot down on the Prince’s instep, hard. The Prince let go.

Greis, advancing on the broken-nosed goon in the alley, showed that he still had a few things to teach his young charge, as he snarled in perfect Avalon, “You have the look of a goat I once knew. What’s it like to grow up watching your mother spread her legs for the whole barnyard?” He laughed as the man screamed through the blood flowing from his nose and leapt for him.

As Reinhardt reeled back from his attacker, he felt a blow like the kick of a horse to his left shoulder blade. He turned and broke the jaw of the man who had shot him, point blank, in the back. The smoke was still rising from the barrel of the pistol as the man’s hat hit the ground behind him and he reeled forward.

Vera sidestepped the rising barrel of another umbrella gun and brought her dagger down, ripping the arm that gripped it from forearm to wrist.

Remy stooped and grabbed the umbrella dropped by the man he killed and hurled it up to Essie as she reached the roof top. Then he turned and, fighting back to back with Inigo, created an impenetrable arc of flashing steel around themselves, forcing their assailants back.

Staggering under the realization that he had been shot, more than the physical effects, which had not yet made themselves known to his conscious mind, Werner swung the broken end of his spear haft at the man who shot him, but failed to connect.

Essie, seeing his plight, aimed the umbrella gun down at the top of Werner’s attacker’s head and drove his bowler into top of his skull. He fell dead and Werner knelt on top of him, looking up at Essie in relief.

Vera, hoping to dispatch her opponent quickly, lunged for his throat with her blade, but missed as he brought the curved handle up and around to deflect it to the side. Whirling with the momentum, she kicked the back of his knee and withdrew a pace.

Werner, seeing that one of the gang hanging back and aiming carefully into the throng from the corner of the alley opposite Greis, launches himself from his kneeling position and tackles the unsuspecting man into a pile of broken masonry behind a crate, where he quickly hooked his heels into his hips and began choking him from behind, rolling in the brick dust and a spreading pool of his own blood.

The Prince, surrounded now, bellowed as another ball pierced the meat of his calf. The sound caused the old man to miss his timing on a kick to the throat of his swollen-nosed opponent that would have sent him choking to the grave. As it was, it merely clipped his carotid and sent him spinning into the wall.

The Prince, who had somehow gained enough room to bring his spear to bear, sent it darting two times through the defenses of the attacker who had shot him in the calf, and, quick as that, two bright red lines bloomed on the breast of his bespoke linen shirt.

Inigo, sensing the need to help the Prince, suddenly switched from his defensive timing and caught his foes off-guard, causing one to swing wild and catching the other with the slashing tip of his blade and severing the tip of his thumb between the nailbed and the joint.

Vera darted once more at her attacker, who seemed to be slowing from the slash along his forearm, but her blade found only vest cloth.

Inigo, reversing his swing, skewered the man who had swung wild, killing him instantly.

Remy took advantage of the now thumbless man’s flinch to score a slash along his ribs, causing him to drop his pistol. At that moment a knife seemed to bloom from the man’s left shoulder, and Remy followed the angle of its hilt up and away to see Essie on the rooftop readying herself for another throw.

As she cocked her wrist back, the Prince brought the haft of his spear around in a half-arc so fast that the butt of it blurred, taking his man in the eye. The ruined organ ran down his face and dribbled on his cravat.

Behind him, Inigo grimaced as a misstep on a cobblestone’s upthrust corner forced him to guide the point of his opponent’s knife into his shoulder. The wound was light, none of these men were fighting to kill him, but the mistake chafed at him. He was growing tired. He feared what would happen to the others if the fight continued much longer.

At the moment the knife found Inigo’s shoulder, Greis’s strong right hand found his opponent’s throat and pulled it out with the sickening pop of cartilage tearing. He wheeled exultant, and, seeing his Prince at bay, charged into the thick of the fight.

Vera’s opponent, seeing that the dandies were now outnumbered, turned and charged at Inigo, trying to scoop him up and run for freedom. Before he reached his target, however, Vera dropped to one knee in the street, scooped up a fallen pistol and fired it at the charging man’s back. He stumbled, and Remy performed a backhand, forehand combination that severed his quadriceps and just missed his jugular before he could hit the ground. As he bounced, two knives bloomed in his back, hurled by Essie from her rooftop perch.

Spinning, Remy turned back to Inigo’s opponent in time to see him yank his blade free of Inigo’s shoulder. He lunged in at the man’s exposed back, but he turned, and Remy’s blade merely scored him over the kidney. Just then, Greis bowled him over, sat on his back, yanked up on his hair with one hand and drove a knife into the soft tissue under his jaw with the other hand.

At that moment, all eyes turned to the Prince, who was facing off against the uninjured spokesman for the shattered group. The man opened his mouth as if to speak, raised his hands from his sides and spread them in a gesture of peace, and turned on his heel and fled in a flash. He was around the corner before the wounded Prince could do more than swear.

“Where’s Werner?” asked the Prince, who was surveying his companions.

“There!” shouted Essie, pointing to the alley below her. Remy and Inigo rushed around the corner to find a barely conscious Werner still squeezing at the neck of one of the dandies. Inigo brought his basket down with a meaty whack on the man’s head, and Werner slumped in relief and exhaustion.

“I’ve been shot,” said Werner. Remy helped him apply a makeshift bandage to his wound, and Inigo half-carried him around the corner to where the others were watching Greis apply needle and thread to the Prince there in the street. Essie half-slid, half-fell down the pipe she had scrambled up and calmly began searching the corpses for her knives. All the windows of the shops were shuttered. The street was deserted. Everything was still. Six dead men and one unconscious one lay in the puddling blood and dirt of Knock Ferguson Lane.

The whole thing had taken perhaps two minutes. A crow settled on the sign announcing Hoffle Poffle’s shop. The victors looked at one another blankly as a cloud passed over the face of the sun.

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