'The Noisy Tide of Time'

Act I. Scene iv, Part 1: The Fool's Errand
Wherein Marvels Are Reported, a Most Interesting History Is Revealed, a Pact Is Formed, and a Storm Is Seen in the Offing

The Fool’s Errand, Captain Doneger, in service to Don Ygnacio of Caerlon, Dockside, put up a fine feather of a bow wave as the packet ship was lost beyond the horizon. As shorebirds and terns wheeled overhead, Remy thought about what they had heard.

There had been little news, and all of it bad. It appeared the war of Montagnard agression was going poorly for everyone except le Roi-Enfant and his grim General, Chevreuil. It seemed that without the intervention of the Vendel, or aid from the Emperor of the Crescent Isle, all the nations of Theah would fall before summer’s end. Remy was not as frightened by the prospect of the Child-King extending his reach as some amongst his numerous correspondence; the king was a child, indeed, and not yet fully formed. He was not yet a tyrant, nor—it was true—was he an angel. He was merely a boy. Chevreuil, though. The thought of Chevreuil in power made Remy shudder. Not for the first time, he went over in his mind the chain of thought that had led him to side with his countrymen; again, he arrived at the same conclusion. Chevreuil was bad—but the Church was evil; his own eyes had seen incontrovertible proof of this. And Chevreuil…well, he was many things, many of them bad, but his face was set against the Church, and Remy could abide…at least until Sercq. Then, he would have to make a decision.

The Prince, too, had a bellyful of news. Eisen was mobilizing. Troops were moving, but no enemy had been declared. The pact imposed on Eisen in the last war still held, apparently, and the Westmarch was clear, with no threat at the door. Still, his seneschal had done his duty by the Furst, and men were leaving his estate to ride to war. But against whom? And here he was, honor bound to a lot of strangers in search of a bogeyman from an Avalon’s dream. Soon, by all accounts, his land would be bleeding, and he was far from home. My honor lies in two directions, and there is nothing to choose between them. And then, there had been his kinsman, Volker Durr, and the fight at Opium Sal’s. Had that been nothing more than a ham-handed attempt to see him home to do his duty? As he mulled this, a familiar melody tugged at his mind. He looked up, a smile breaking out despite his bleak mood, as he saw Bart and a sour-faced sailor with one eye tearing the guts out of the Three-Cornered Hat. Even Greis was tapping one foot. The Prince began to clap, his troubles disappearing as Bart and the sailor exchanged a closely-reasoned variation, their notes twining with the hum of the rigging. The crew had ceased their work, and some were singing verses the Prince had never heard. The Prince was no musician, but he could tell that what they were doing was intricate beyond all measure. Still, they had not dropped the old melody, and the rhythm was plain enough. Clapping, he moved over to where Essie was dancing, and joined the song, his face ruddy and his voice as clear as his conscience.

While the Prince and Remy had discussed the frivolities of politics with the packet-boat’s master—a scruffy boy with blonde down on his chin master of a packet in the Seadogs?—Tur’Lokk had discussed matters of real import with the ship’s other crewmember, an ancient, sun-dried Cathay named Winks. It appeared that they were not alone in run-ins with clockwork men, or even beetles.
Winks told him that the entire port of Sinjin had been carried away by a river of silver insects, impervious to drowning. He had been on a ship, Fulsome Wench, that had been almost the last out of port—they had left their best bower in three-fathom water with fine, silty shale, whatever that meant. Likewise, an Ussuran sailor had told Winks that whole villages were being taken by green lightning—where they had been, there were pits in their places, or strange monuments. Where the town of Paoli, on Cistercia, had stood, there was nothing but a spire of twisted crystal, and those who came within a league of it bled from the nose and had bad dreams. Perhaps Tur’Lokk had not been circumspect enough in his astonishment at these tales, because Winks had leaned closer to whisper that he had had a letter from his sister. Before Tur’Lokk could laugh at the absurdity of the conspiratorial tone with such a bland statement, the sailor continued; Winks couldn’t read, himself, but he paid a cathay barber to spell it out for him: his sister said that old stories were stalking the hills above Old Camden and the Far Marshes—the twice-born were back. When Tur’Lokk asked, suspiciously, why in hell he should care if something was born twice or thrice—the cathay screwed up his face, said, “It’s dragons, mate. Don’t you know nothin’? ‘Born once in flesh and once in fire’ and all that.” At this Tur’Lokk did laugh out loud. But, to his surprise, Winks didn’t laugh. Instead, he spat and turned away, his hands suddenly busy coiling a sheet that had been immaculately coiled a moment before. Tur’Lokk blinked, amazed to find himself searching the profound blue of the late-afternoon sky for the shadow that he knew could not be there. The Drachen? Come again? Next Jakk will show up with Death in a bag. Goose pimples ran up his arms. Tur’Lokk laughed at himself, this time, and sat down in the shade of the capstan. He was still chuckling, but his knife and whetstone were out, keeping time to the music.

Vera found herself alone, leaning over the port rail as the sun wheeled behind her into the west. She was watching the frigate birds hanging in the bow wave, looking in the translucent curl for fish that could be plucked on the wing. The shorebirds had been left in the wake, but the frigates flew on, inexhaustible. She turned when she noticed a presence leaning on the rail next to her. The Prince had joined her. “Forgive me, my lady, for intruding,” he said. “I could not let things stand as they are. If I offended you, by my hand, I did not intend it. I beg your pardon.”

Vera took a moment before replying. “Intention matters little in these things.” She raised her hand as the Prince began to move away. “Please, I do not express myself well. I accept your apology, but only because I know you will not believe me when I say it is not needed.” The Prince looked as though he might speak, but Vera forestalled him. “You call me ‘lady,’ but the title is empty—our lands, our properties, everything was taken from us. All we have is our name.” Vera paused, as if gathering strength. “I owe you an explanation, your Grace, and I am sorry if it seems grudging, but hate clouds my speech. The Fiorentino family was never wealthy, but we were proud—we are proud. And loyal. Our home was outside of Numa, on the mainland. Today, the center of the mainland is controlled in equal parts by the Caligari and the Vaticine church, as you know, but it was not always so. The Nestini, even the Bernoulli, have also laid claim to the area throughout the centuries. Three hundred years of open strife, uneasy peace forged with political marriages, only to be broken by clandestine killings and vendettas made loyalty difficult, and throughout that period, the Fiorentino were faithful to the Caligari. Thirty years ago, father owed fealty to a drooling idiot of a minor branch of the Caligari, whose name escapes me, Cosimo, I think it was. A Cassini. He is dead, now. This drooling idiot had one talent—he could recite the history of wrongs done to his forebears while standing on his head.

“He decided that, for honor’s sake, he needed to reclaim a town taken from the Caligari by the Nestini during the realm of the Mad Queen, six hundred years ago. There was question of olive groves, and the White Plague had decimated the workers, and all men expected the price of olives to rise. His claims to the town were ignored, first by the Nestini, and then by the Church, to whom he appealed for mediation, but this Cassini wanted the revenue from the groves, and, of course, the restoration of his honor, so nothing would do but that he take the town by force. Buffoon that he was, he advertised his campaign; he even paid a poet to write some cantos over the glory that was to be his. The end result is that the castle of the town was fortified and garrisoned. My father led the assault, and gained the castle—Montalte-delle-Marche—and the town by guile. This angered the Nestini, who simply retook it by bringing three thousand men through the marches to invest the slopes. Enraged, Cassini instructed my father to fire the olive groves, denying the profits of the groves to the Nestini, and their taxes to the Church. My father protested, speaking for the smallfolk who worked in the groves. But Cassini threatened to have my father’s head for insolence. My father set fire to the groves, and he and his retainers slipped through tunnels of fire in the night and away before the Nestini launched their first assault. That began another period of open war between Caligari and Nestini that lasted almost two years.” Again the Prince seemed about to speak.

“I know the tale is tangled and long, but it nears its end. We never knew who hired the Fate Witch. Old she must have been, and strong. Maybe the Nestini paid her to punish us for our loyalty. Maybe the Church to isolate the Cassini and reduce his strength, hoping to prevent further bloodshed. You look shocked, but the Vaticine has practical priests, as well as godly ones. Maybe the Caligari themselves brought the curse upon us, for ends I cannot guess. I do not know. In the end, Cassini ended with possession of Montalte-delle-Marche as a settlement pact with the Nestini, but, of course, the groves were burned. He blamed my father, so maybe the curse was his. It takes seven years, you see, before an olive tree begins to bear good fruit, and thirty before it is productive. By then, a new generation would be old enough to work the fields, and the price of olive oil would have returned to normal. He tried to exile my father and strip him of his title and lands. His liege lord, Giacomo Caligari, interceded, for the story of the groves, and the capture of the castle, was well known. Cassini resented that as well. He died, choking on a fish bone, not eight months later. But the curse has not died. After that, our fields were infertile, our stock animals diseased. We borrowed money to buy new stock and new seed, but the results were the same. When it was not disease, it was drought. Year in and year out, the debts mounted.

“My father was suspicious of a curse, and he consulted witches who confirmed it, but would not help. They would not work against each other, you see. I was born in the midst of this slow spiral. By the time I manifested the ability to read Arcana—what other women of noble birth have called their ‘gift,’—my father was unable to accept that his daughter could be like one of the women who had ruined him. He sent me away, to Caerleon. Away from the tradition of the Vodacce. Away from him. Away from my mother.” Vera fell silent.

“I begin to see why my mention of your capabilities might be unwelcome,” ventured the Prince, when the silence had gone on too long for him.

“Yes. Rather, no. It was foolish of me to deny what was so plain. I am mostly untrained, and sorcery is, a wise man once said, a sword without a hilt. But it does not do anyone any good to pretend that I am ignorant of it, of what I can do. When you asked me to use it to your benefit, I could not help but think that someone had once approached another like me, and what they asked was a curse upon the Fiorentino name. And the burden of that was something I was not ready to take up.”

“You say, you were not ready. Have your feelings changed, now that you have seen what we are up against? Mechanical men, clockwork beetles, and claims about an Adversary who can enter men’s dreams? Terrors and wonders are on every side. None of us is ever as ready as we could be, when duty calls, and you are bound to us all by the magic you fear to wield.”

“What you say has merit—though I still doubt the reality of this Adversary— and it lends force to my conviction that what I am about to propose is right. Though, I fear hate makes me think that what is right is also what is expedient.”

“Speak your mind,” said the Prince, when Vera seemed unsure of whether to continue.

“What I propose is this: I will use my magic as I can, where and when I choose, to benefit us all—not just you and yours. In exchange, I ask you to use your family’s influence with the Vaticine, and in Eisen, to aid me in restoring my family to our lands in Numa, and our honor. I will not say, though the shame of it burns in me, to avenge us—for vendetta has no end, and I do not know the name of my enemy.” She grew quiet: “That is my proposal: my sorcerous aid, for your political.”

The Prince did not hesitate, “I feel I cannot turn such an offer down. I accept. What power I have, I will lend you and yours, if you will endeavor to help us bring this matter to a successful end.”

They shook hands, and it was that moment that Essie cried out in the rigging: “Ooh! Sky lights!”

“Where away?” shouted Captain Doneger, his voice booming across the water.

“Northeast! So pretty!” shouted back Essie.

Vera and the Prince raised their eyes and saw a large swath of the sky afire with a swirling mass of green and purple light. At that moment, the wind died, and they heard the music go out of the rigging.

The Captain strode to the rail, a spy glass from Cathay in hand.

“I’ve never seen its like,” said the Prince. “Is it a storm?”

The Captain shook his head, and reached out to touch the wooden rail with one finger. The reverential gesture looked strange with his weathered hand, burnt and creased by salt and sun. “Could be. Aye. Best get below, you great pack o’ lubbers. Best get below. It won’t be on us for hours, yet, with this wind, and the glass is rising, not falling. Time and more to get some sleep.”

And so the Prince and Vera went below, while the captain bellowed orders for his crew to prepare The Fool’s Errand for a storm, and the rest of them followed after.

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Act I Scene iii: The Don of the Docks Part 3

Jabbar Al’tariq. Their destiny now had a name. And an itinerary, apparently. Pip explained the tight timeline, dangerous route, and rare offering of shipping to the island. Though as luck (or more likely, fate) would have it, a vessel was leaving late that night – if only they could manage passage. Reinhardt and Bart assumed they could, but those with sailing experience were more doubtful.

But all that was moot until they met with the mysterious Don. With more time to kill, Remy led them on another useful investigation, this time to the glassworks responsible for the intricate crystal on the automatons.

First a short stop was made at the inn to pick up Werner. It came as a surprise to all to see him deep in his cups. More unexpected still, he had composed a multi-verse song, a less-than-flattering ballad about a naive young Prince and his magic armament. Reinhardt was at first amused, then offended, then simply baffled as the verses went on. What had he done to deserve such vitriol? And how did Werner have time to compose all those rhymes?

While the Posen heir stewed on this, his loyal companion Essie was given a much more sincere gift. Somehow, some way, the bandit king had found time to prove his skill and presented the spoils of his work – a gorgeous dress! Several, actually. Essie squealed in delight. Vera’s thanks were more muted, but the value of the gift was no less noted.

Sweeping back into control, Reinhardt summoned a carriage to take them all to the glazier’s shop. En route he tried, with no success, to warn Essie of the potential dangers of such revealing clothes presented to certain men. Still, he at least had to admit she looked good, and Tur’lokk had mighty fine taste. Kingly, even!

The light discussion came to a screeching halt as they entered the shop. To say it had been broken into would be a grave understatement to the carnage therein. Molten glass had spilled out of overturned furnaces, hardening over ash on the scorched floor. A million shining shards littered the scene, adding an eerie glitter to the ruin. Wood, paper, stone, and steel had all been rent in the mysterious attack. Nothing in the shop was spared, least of all the proprietor.

The man lay dead in the back room. Silvery cords ran from his body to the corners of the ceiling – his intestines. Some deranged force had disemboweled him and tacked the unfurled gut to the wall in a macabre display. Greis had known war his whole life, Werner survived utter destruction, and Tur’lokk was, as the skalds might say, a goddamn Viking, but even they hadn’t seen horrors of this nature. The rest of the party struggled to hold down their ale. Under the leadership of the veterans, the party regained their wits and proceeded to investigate.

Remy and Vera searched the papers, finding a log. One entry in particular was notable:

“Ship – 1,000 – Jabbar Al’tariq.”

“Dated but two and a half weeks ago,” Remy noted.

“Isn’t that when the Adversary appeared to Rumford?” Reinhardt recalled.

“Rumford AND others. He said he appeared to many.” Tur’lokk added.

“Apparently, they all had inspirations of engineering. But, to what end?”

“We should search the body,” Inigo interjected. “Find out how he died.”

HOW he died?” Werner asked sarcastically.

Inigo ignored the comment and went to Greis to inspect the wound. Indeed, it appeared ragged, made by no Thean sword. A clockwork claw, perhaps? There were no more clues to say what, exactly, had perpetrated this heinous crime, despite Greis’ continued gruesome digging about the corpse. At least the old man seemed happy to have something to do.

“Nothing.” He finally admitted.

“Not there, no,” Vera muttered, half to herself, and slowly fell into a trance.

In her mind Vera rifled through the ancient Tarot, and as she used that focus, the world revealed itself. The streets, buildings, even plants and sky were slowly enveloped in a dull mist, leaving a vast landscape of smoke and shadow. Amidst it were bright shapes, emanating light – people. In her second sight each was reduced to their essence, a shimmering avatar of heroic Virtue or Hubris. Each was a loom from which sprang forth dozens of strands, the threads of fate. Blue, Red, Gold, and even Black, they spun out it all directions, criss-crossed, connected, forming a pattern that would take centuries to unfurl. If she could only focus properly, she could home in on ones of use. Prominent strands began to come to the forefront. Bonds of authority and friendship between the Prince and his entourage, strong threads of conflict from Tur’lokk and Verner, hints of love, loss, hope, and desolation. But from the corpse… nothing. It was beyond her ken at the moment. She snapped back into reality.

“Ah, what was that?” Bart asked.

“I was reading the strands of Fate,” Vera replied evenly.

The troubadour said nothing, but the look on his face reminded all present that there was nothing a bard couldn’t learn. Closing his eyes, Bartholomew Bartles summoned all the eclectic knowledge he had to pierce the curtain of reality and see the strings behind the show. And… and… he DID. Yes! A thread! A thread, taut, across the lines of reality, a thread… snapping! A thread broken and whipping and lashing towards-

AHHH!” Bart flew to the ground in a heap, and instantly a trail of crimson soaked his shirt. Everyone was brought back to attention for this as Greis and Reinhardt bandaged their ambitious friend.

“What HAPPENED?” the Prince demanded.

“Let that be a hard-earned lesson” declared Vera. “One should never read the strands without training. And even then, there is danger.”

The Prince persisted. “But if these are the forces working for us-”

“Or against us,” Bart murmured.

“-then surely we should have a basic understanding?”

Reluctantly, Vera gave a remedial education on Fate magic. Fate was no mere concept, but a tangible (to those in the know) entity. All mortals are literally bound by their fate. With talent, one can read these ‘strands.’ With more talent, and will, one could even manipulate them.

“I’d be extremely wary of this foul sorcery,” Werner admonished, but as usual, did not elaborate.

On that grim note they filed back into the carriage while the leaders finished at the scene. Prince Posen alerted the authorities while Tur’lokk liberated any valuables in the area. They were off to the docks, and their Don.

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Act I Scene iii: The Don of the Docks Part 2

“I could use a woman like you back in Eisen!” Reinhardt exclaimed moments after the back of his hand hit wood. He had been bested by the Vesten ogress fair and square, and her pretty smile was earned.

“No thanks. I prefer to be free.”

“Free. I understand. That’s why we left, isn’t it, Greis?”

The Prince fell into a funk, forced into a glimpse of the truth of his situation. No showy dramatics here, just a moment of introspection as he realized the weight of responsibility he was avoiding. Was it really for the best he left? Was what he was doing truly heroic?

The old man gave a sympathetic nod, but said nothing. He felt for his liege, but it was unbecoming of an Eisen Lord to mope so, so he compromised by ignoring the young knight and ogling the zaftig bartender.

The others fared better. Bart’s music was so furiously talented it seemed his mandolin would burst into flames, like the dark-skinned lutist of legend. Remy’s thoughts and notes were coalescing into something resembling understanding of the vast problem before them. Essie was entertained, and Vera blissfully unbothered by fools. Only Inigo was also stung by introspection rather than merriment, but he handled it with the cool head of one who has been stung before. One who was planning to next time do the stinging.

Tur’lokk burst through the door with all the gravity and subtlety of a warhammer. Werner was like a shadow behind him, insofar as a shadow can weigh more than a small horse. They announced their success.

“We’ll meet the Don at midnight!”

“So, he is an actual Don?” The Prince asked. Tur’lokk nodded. Inigo remained inscrutable.

“Midnight. At Opium Sal’s.” Werner didn’t elaborate. No one bothered to ask him to.

With hours til midnight the fate-fixed heroes debated how to most efficiently fill the time.

Bart summoned all his bardic eloquence to craft his argument.

PARTY!”

He and the Prince were just about to connect with a high-five when Remy popped up behind the extended hands.

“Perhaps we should follow one of the many threads of this skein we find ourselves tangled in, no?”

“An apt description,” Vera agreed. “Might I recommend we call at the University? A meeting with Professor Cribbage could shed light on key clues.”

“Oui! I shall look into my available contacts to see if I can arrange a meeting.”

“No need. I am studying there.”

Reinhardt’s study of culture caused him to question this.

“Vera, how did you get accepted at the university? Don’t Vodacce forbid their sorceresses to study?”

His response was a blank stare.

“Ah, is this a conversation we should instead have later or never?”

“Yes, this is a conversation we should instead have later or never.”

Bart chimed in with a musical musing. “Awwwkwaaaard!”

“No it wasn’t!” The Prince insisted. “I handled that smoothly!”

Unwilling to argue with the exuberant Eisen’s rewriting of reality, Bart whistled a traveling tune as they wound their way through Avalon to the edifice of education. Only Werner remained, getting drunk off the Prince’s charity.

Vera and Remy navigated the halls successfully, and found the right administrators to question. Soon they were in Cribbage’s office. It was well-appointed, but provided no useful clues. While the more distracted members of the party became bored, the more perceptive discovered a secret – a secret wall, to be precise. A dark, descending stair awaited them.

The room at the bottom was vast, and the decor staggering. Dozens of glass cases of all sizes dotted the basement laboratory. Some were the size of teacake platters, others could store an entire set of armor for knight and steed. In each – an animal. But this fauna had joints of steel, organs of crystal, and minds of turning gears. It was a clockwork menagerie!

Remy uttered many a Montaigne-tinted sound of excitement as he and the others perused the odd collection. Meanwhile, Tur’lokk keenly noted a dark alcove yet to be explored. He and the Prince stepped through it, weapons drawn. Beyond was a young lad, a street urchin enjoying a sandwich nigh as big as he was.

A few excited queries from the would-be king followed by sarcastic commentary from the bandit king produced nothing. To speak with a child, of course, one had to think like a child. This line of reasoning never made it through Essie’s skull as she sprang forward to engage the lad on his level. The excitable lass soon had earned the boy’s trust, as well as his name – Peter Humberstone, better known as Pip.

Pip was just as interested in the professor’s location as the adventurers were. Apparently, Pip was clever enough to have found work as an assistant for the professor, who repaid him in food, shelter, education, and occasional coin. Pip in turn proved extremely knowledgeable about the secrets they sought. A rapid-fire questioning provided much.

Essie: “So the professor likes animals?”

Pip: “Well, the clockwork variety, anyhoo.”

Essie: “Elephants?”

Pip: “What?”

Remy: “Cribbage builds these animals himself?”

Pip: “The interiors, yup.”

Remy: “Who builds the exteriors, then?”

Pip: “Vaucason.”

All: “WHAT!?”

Pip: “Yup, gov, he and the professor meet. Leastways they did before the professor disappeared.”

Reinhardt: “Do they have the capability to make many? Hundreds?”

Pip: “Yer daft, gov. No. But I know where they could.” After no less than three more bites of the massive sandwich, Pip led them to a map of an island in the Crescent Empire, Jabbar Al-Tariq. Here, an island with the needed resources. Here, the flow of secrets of the mechanical minions. Here, the source of the Adversary’s army.

They all looked to Pip for more information. Pip merely stared and ate his sandwich.

Bart: “Now that was awkward.”

Reinhardt: “I agree.”

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The spreading wings of the Silver Swan
Reflections of a distracted Montagnard

The coming darkness of twilight seemed to further obscure the ever-spreading web of questions and connections in Remy’s mind. As the party made their way to the Silver Swan the discoveries of the recent past replayed themselves. Count Rumford, The “Adversary”, the automatons, the destructive golden beetles, the lenses (from Jabbar Al-Tariq no less!), Cribbage and the tiny Difference Engine, Vaucason dead then not dead, the Dandies and Inigo and the Don. There are surely missing pieces which, when discovered, will complete the intricate machinations and make the whole run smoothly as a well-designed clockwork.

It should have been a simple matter to gain the information from the notes at the Count’s residence, but that evening ended up creating more complications than even any Vodacce fate witch could have forseen. At least we fate-bound companions worked together to insure the survival of resistance to the nefarious plans of the Adversary. If only the details were not so shrouded in darkness as that figure who seems to be following us. If only there were some way to make the pieces fit together in a manner which yields a working understanding. Perhaps Werner and Turlokk will turn up some useful information from this Don of the Docksides. I do hope we can avoid traveling to Jabbar Al-Tariq as that island is certainly a dangerous place to go, not to mention the piracy rampant in that region. Bart Bartelby does have quite a musical talent I shall have to see about having him play one of my pieces, especially if my friend Xavier can be persuaded to attend the performance. However can that seemingly simple decahedron possibly be an integral part of Cribbage’s tiny machine? So many thoughts distracting me.
The lights have gotten brighter… I see we have arrived at the Silver Swan.

The Prince was good enough to furnish all the companions with refreshments following their journey through some almost questionable parts of town. All sat down to compare notes and await the return of the intrepid explorers and their report upon the Don’s domain. Bart got down to the business of entertaining the patrons and companions and the mood of the place improved greatly and seemed to draw in a few more souls from the growing night as the evening wore on. The Prince busied himself with the mammoth patroness. It appeared that a contest of wits or strength was about to take place. Remy busied himself with his writings, if only he could complete this last notation for clarity. There was a distraction and Remy noticed something which caught his eye.

“So sorry, Prince Reinhardt. I believe zat, perhaps, ze lady’s arm it eh.. how you say.. slipped in some puddle of ale upon ze bar?”

And so the contest ensued, Reinhardt eager to win fairly and not wanting any questions as to his honor in a competition. Essie resumed her juggling and Bart his music. Inigo continued his Castillian brooding, Greis his vigilance for the Prince’s well being. Vera appeared to be contemplating the strands of fate which brought together such an unlikely band and Remy continued his writing, apparently unnoticed once again.

“Pardon moi Bart. I ’ave been working on zis composition. Perhaps you could perform it next when you resume your entertainments? Zere are certain technically challenging phrases, but I am sure your talents are more zan up to ze task.”

After the bartender won the next two tests of strength Bart was saddened by his loss and the promise of another musical interlude seemed to brighten his spirits. The audience appreciated the performance, some paid it more heed than others, and Remy congratulated Bart once again on his musical prowess and precision in his delivery. The conviviality was not diminished when Werner and Turlokk reappeared. In fact there was a palapable sense of relief to have new information delivered and received.

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A letter concerning Inigo de la Vega and the Don of the Dockside

The following is an excerpt of a letter Inigo de la Vega wrote to his partron, prior to de la Vega’s departure for the Crescent Empire.

You can imagine, of course, the shock of learning that I was [words scratched out] a wanted man. It was imperative that I learn who it was who put a bounty on me as if I were a common criminal, and why. I solicited the help of the two most physically imposing members of the party in a “good swordsman, bad swordsman” gambit. The well-dressed ruffian was not receptive to my questioning — indeed, he presumed I knew why I was in this situation. But the bandit king and Eisen prince learned that these “Dandies” were working on the orders of a so-called Don of the Dockside.

I had now set my steel upon the Don. It was a deviation of the goals of the enterprise, but honor and [words scratched out] my pride could not be denied. My fellows agreed to aid me in pursuit of this goal. Our captive would not tell me if the Don was in actuality a Castillian, so I could not surmise with confidence if he may have had some direct experience with me or my family in the past.

I was prepared to stride to the docks and run through dozens of these pistol-wielding popinjays to find out what the Don knew of me, but the Dandy we had subdued indicated that this Don would be a challenging foe in his home territory. Confident as I was in my skills in stealth, I was uncertain I could sustain an undetected sojourn in an entire section of an unfamiliar city — one where discovery would prove to be quickly fatal.

The prince proposed that we locate a tavern on the edge of the docks where we could meet and devise our next steps. Tur’lokk and the sardonic Eisen, Werner, undertook a mission to the docks. The bandit dismissed us as “amateurs,” a charge that needled me, given some of the more daring feats of [words scratched out] adventuring from my younger days. I thought it wise not to join them, since someone our adversaries could recognize on sight would not be an asset. Whatever the Don or his men had to say about me, an audience of only two suited me well, in the event that I had to control the dissemination of that information.

The prince and his party made themselves at home in the tavern, the bard indulging his musical capacity and the prince engaging in tests of strength with the proprietress. After devising an escape route from the building and two alternates, I took a seat where I could observe the patrons and reflect on my present situation and the past activities that let me there. As I considered past and present I wondered if, had my family not suffered catastrophe, my ethos would have become closer to that of the adventuring, well-financed prince than what it is now.

I was partway through determining a precautionary battle plan should this sinister Adversary force me to fight against my newfound comrades when Tur’lokk and Werner returned. They informed me that the Don sought me for my talents. My current talents or my historical talents I did not know. The pair had arranged a meeting with the Don, who told them I was welcome to bring my associates. The prince would even be allowed to duel the saucy Dandy that had provoked his ire. The prince offered me his services should my meeting lead to combat, an offer that I acknowledged.
[…]
The entire party went to the Don’s location. They would refrain from combat until I give them the signal, the word “elephant” — a recent preoccupation of the prince’s courtier Essie, whose dexterity had proven so helpful in recent battles. (Knife throwing is a skill that may be useful for me to acquire.)… The Don apologized for the behavior of his men, and then revealed that he sought the services of a Castillian highwayman known as La Sombra. I denied his assertion that I was the same person as this highwayman. Nevertheless, the Don had a ship that would aid us in this quest, so I offered him the services of Inigo de la Vega and his companions.

The Don accepted my offer, but the successful meeting was disrupted by the appearance of a cousin of the prince, chastising him for his frivolity. I thought briefly of my own family and the disapproval they had expressed of some of my more audacious exploits. (That audacity was, of course, only a “shadow” of what was to come following our unforeseen ruination.)

My reminiscence was cut short by an attack from a pack of Eisen hounds the nobleman set on us. To assist with the battle the fate witch, madam Fiorentino, cast some manner of spell upon me. I do not have the hostility to sorcery that some of our countrymen have, yet was nevertheless discomfited by the direct experience of it — although the method of its application was not unpleasant. I was unable to thoroughly test the efficacy of the witch’s blessing, however, since a hound was the only foe I dispatched, using a modified toreador technique, before our party retreated from a rush of reinforcements.

The Don, who had joined us in the battle, accompanied us in our retreat and directed us to the docks where his ship awaited. Before we parted I said some words to him in our native tongue to acquaint him of the consequences of persisting in this vexing highwayman suggestion. I assured my companions that this identification of me as La Sombra was the slanderous imagining of an opium addict. The only one to be troublesome was the bandit king, who seemed amused by the idea of my having a criminal past. He will be one to watch.

View
Essie and the Elephant
As told to Bartholomew Bartles, the Bard of Badenhoeven

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Essie, and her bestest friend in the whole world was an elephant named Peanuts. Peanuts and Essie did everything together. Peanuts would let Essie ride on his back whenever she wanted to. She would scramble up one of his legs like climbing up a great big tree or he would put his trunk on the ground and she would run up it really fast or she would tug on his big floppy ear and he would kneel down so she could hop right up onto his back! Essie never got bored when she was riding Peanuts. There were always interesting and lovely things to see and colorful new places to go. And if there was nothing to look at, Essie would do cartwheels and backflips and handsprings all over Peanuts’ back! And sometimes Peanuts would let out a big trumpet sound and all the other animals would get scared and run away. (Except mice. Peanuts doesn’t like mice.)

One day Essie and Peanuts decided that they should go to the Crescent Islands because her friends needed to go there. And that day Essie discovered that Peanuts was really a Magic Elephant! He could walk right on the top of the water just like a great big boat! So Essie and Peanuts went to the Crescent Island and found the rock of the fathers or something and then found the professor guy and then her friends were happy. And then they discovered that the Crescent Island had lots of elephants all over the place and Essie and Peanuts lived happily ever after because there were no mice on the island either.

The end!


Bart: That’s a very entertaining story Essie. Good job.

Essie: Thank you!

B: Essie, you look a little green about the gills.

E: ?

B: Essie, are you feeling all right? You look a little sick.

E: Oh! When I thought of the story I was twirling.

B: Twirling?

E: Yes! In the dress the big man bought me! It’s so pretty!

B: Well that sounds like fun…

E: It was! Well…until…

B: Until what?

E: Well, I, uh…I twirled lots and lots and lots! …And then I got a little sick in the corner.

B: Oh Essie. Did you at least clean it up?

E: No, I didn’t have to!

B: Why not?

E: Because two pointy kitties came out of a hole in the wall and ate it all up!

B: <facepalm>

View
Act I Scene iii: The Don of the Docks

The rank scent of blood filled Knock Ferguson lane, overpowering the usual aromatic mix of coal, body odor, and garbage that filled the alleys. The crows were already descending on the freshly dead, while the heroes surveyed their grim work. Perhaps it could have ended in surrender or flight, but the Dandies’ insistence on firearms had quickly escalated this battle to the death. Now their foppish attire was stained in blood, and their once sparkling eyes just raven’s meat. Their corpses sprawled every which way, in a decidedly un-dandy display.

The silence was broken by heavy footsteps as Tur’lokk the self-styled Bandit King arrived on the scene, folding his large arms across his chest and surveying the aftermath with a grunt. Bartholomew Bartles accompanied him, still looking a tad dazed, the reek of death doing naught to improve his headache.

Inigo finally snapped the group back into action. Motioning for Werner to keep their lone, live prisoner in his unbreakable grasp, he called a quick conference with the Eisen Lord and the Bandit Lord. One had the birth and training of kings without the worldly experience, the other the opposite; the Castillian figured that between the two of them, there was at least one leader’s worth of virtue.

“Are you two gentlemen familiar with the technique of ‘Good Swordsman, Bad Swordsman?’”

“Yes! Oh, excellent. I shall play the good one of course, as my heroic virtue is well known,” the Prince admitted, unburdened by modesty.

“Can we skip this and get to the point?” Tur’lokk growled.

“I assure you this will get us to our point, though in this instance I need you both to play ‘Bad Swordsman.’ Follow my lead.”

The Vesten shrugged and moved his considerable and toned bulk behind the lithe Castillian, while Sir Reinhardt presented a shining counterexample of muscle. To the Dandy’s credit, he didn’t flinch.

“Sir,” Inigo started, offering an unearned title to the prisoner, “We have held you unharmed for a reason. I was hoping you could provide me with the reasons behind this rude breach of my peace.”

“Sorry, gov’nuh, but you won’t get a peep out of me. Do your worst.”

Reinhardt twitched, Tur’lokk rolled his eyes, but Inigo waved them off and continued.

“I’m willing to let this whole instance slide and send you on your way if you simply answer my question, a question I feel is more than fair of me to ask.”

“I ain’t answering yer ponce queries and I ain’t afraid of the fattened cows behind you.”

“Unfortunate,” Inigo said as he left.

“I believe my dracheneisen has a ding in it,” Rienhardt lied. The silver steel was of course impervious to all but the secret methods of destruction by the mysterious Nibelung who created it. “I think I shall have to pound it out.”

“Look, t’ain’t my business when a brute wants to pound his ding, but you sure you want to do that in an alley? “Besides, won’t get you nowhere, gov, I’m more afraid of the Don than anything you can do to me.”

Crack. The thug’s lip split under the Prince’s backhand, but to his continued credit, he never changed his tone. He spat blood on Prince Reinhardt’s shirt, who loudly complained about the difficult replacement of custom-dyed crushed velvet.

“This is getting nowhere. Look, pal, you can trust me,” Tur’lokk said, forgetting or willfully ignoring his ‘Bad Swordsman’ designation. “I’m a thief, too, we’re practically partners. I just want to know who your boss is, trade business contacts. We’re all union.”

“Well, as I said, the Don’ll ’ave me skin if I sing, but I might be able to sew it back for a few quid.” Tur’lokk calmly complied, and a few guilders did seem to loosen his bloody tongue – to insult the Prince more. A few more harsh blows and sharp words later, Tur’lokk intervened with an increased price that seemed to fit the Dandy’s need.

“The Don – Don o’ the Docksides – wants his hands on this ‘ere Inigo fellow. That’s what we were told, nothing more. Bring ‘im in. You ask around the docks, you’ll find ‘im. Rather, he’ll find you. Cross ‘im and you’re in for it. The Don never forgets.”

“Like an elephant?” Essie asked, enthusiastically and unhelpfully.

“You might even find ol’ Wilburforce there, princeypants, though watch out if he gets the better o’ you again. Opium Sal’s, above the Don’s parlor. Now can I go or are you going to ponce about and waste more of our time in this stinking alley?”

Reinhardt committed the soon-to-be-toothless man’s name to memory while Tur’lokk, Inigo, and Werner memorized the more useful information. At Inigo’s nod, Werner’s steel grip finally relaxed, and the thief glanced about for confirmation of his freedom.

“You’ve provided what I asked, and in turn I’ll spare you as promised. but when you go, consider carefully how far is far enough. If we meet again, the conversation will be purely in the language of steel.” (1)

The ex-Dandy fled, but before Inigo could voice further plans Reinhardt spun on Tur’lokk.

“How could you be so friendly with that low-life?! Never mind the base speech, insults to honor, and complete disrespect of high quality fabric, he tried to kill us!”

“I got the information, didn’t I?”

Reinhardt was silent, conceding the point.

“I should like to see this ‘Don.’ I wonder if the title is true. A Castillian aristocrat behind this adds an unexpected wrinkle.”

“Inigo has been naught but heroic and selfless in his quest with us, I say we help him,” the Prince announced. General agreement came from the crowd, though Tur’lokk and Werner seemed to have different reasons for their interest.

“If this piece of irrelevancy will otherwise distract you til we can finish our real task, then I suppose we must accompany you,” Vera offered in exasperation. (2)

“Yay!” Essie agreed.

“I am out for a few hours and look what I miss!” Bart cried. Just his luck to be absent for story-worthy actions!

“Bart, man, are you all right? We didn’t see who knocked you out, but we did our best to keep you safe.” The Prince’s concern for his friend was clear.

“Though you may want a new cloak,” Remy interjected.

“I may want a new life.” Bart grumbled. A concussion tended to worsen one’s attitude.

A short and surprisingly agreeable conference decided the next course of action. Greis and Reinhardt would alert the constables of this scuffle and ensure everything was handled honorably, Tur’lokk and Werner would investigate the docks in case of ambush from this ‘Don,’ and the rest would meet at the Silver Swan for ale, rest, and perhaps a small bit of investigation.


Tur’lokk and Werner acted in near silence. With no distraction or counterpoints, no arguments or groups to manage, they were swift and stealthy. Any rogue would have been jealous of their efficient skulduggery. Of course the Bandit King was efficient. Though the latter part of the moniker was suspect, the former has had its success proven repeatedly. One does not become a good thief without knowing how to move unnoticed. For Werner’s part, well, none could say how he learned to move through the streets so unobtrusively. Perhaps even he didn’t know.

The fact remains that they made it to the docks and the Don’s alleged hideout without incident, and found it without extra guards, without traps or apparent danger. What they did find surprised them – the Don.

As for what happened, well, perhaps one would need to ask them. Or the 250 guilders waiting for them later… (3)



1. I don’t remember the actual words, fill them in if you can Inigo

2. The actual line was much better, but again I forget specifics

3. Up to you guys if you want to fill in details, alter, or leave it as is.

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A Night in Carleon: As Told through the Expense Report of Reinhardt Posen

Expenditures Report of The Young Master His Lordship Sir Reinhardt Posen

to

Senseschal and Accountant of Finances Abroad Herr Jorn Wurst-Heftigwurst

from

7 Septimus P.M. to 8 Septimus A.M.

for the Necessities and Upkeep of the Prince (and co.) upon their arrival in Carleon

*R: annotated comment by the Young Master His Lordship Sir Reinhardt Posen
*J: annotated comment by Senseschal and Accountant of Finances Abroad Herr Jorn Wurst-Heftigwurst
*F: annotated comment by Her Majesty Eisenfurst Fauner Posen I

1g Reinhardt & Co Seven individual rooms, Oaten Sheaf
-1g Reinhardt & Co Return Seven individual rooms, Oaten Sheaf
20p Reinhardt & Co Transfer Fee
1g 50p Reinhardt & Co Shared Suite, Oaten Sheaf
-1g 50p Reinhardt & Co Return Shared Suite, Oaten Sheaf
20p Reinhardt & Co Transfer Fee
3g Reinhardt & Co Deluxe Shared Suite w/ Adjoining rooms, Oaten Sheaf

*R: Separate rooms for the ladies, of course

10p Reinhardt Add. Silk sheets, Oaten Sheaf
5p Reinhardt Service: sheet change, Oaten Sheaf

*R: Well I wasn’t going to touch the old ones

10p Essie Add. Silk sheets, Oaten Sheaf

*R: Once Essie saw I had them, she wanted them, and you don’t turn down a lady’s comfort
*J: I am certain all decisions were purely done out of the young master’s goodwill

10p Vera Add. Silk sheets, Oaten Sheaf

*R: Well I could hardly treat one lady and not the other

10p Werner Add. Silk sheets, Oaten Sheaf

*R: Honestly I think he was just doing it because everyone else was, but I didn’t catch it til the next day

1p Reinhardt Ale, common, 1 glass
-1p Reinhardt Return Ale, common, 1 glass
2p Reinhardt Ale, fine, 1 glass
-2p Reinhardt Return Ale, fine, 1 glass
5p Reinhardt Ale, superior, brandy barrel-aged, 1 glass
60p Reinhardt Ale, superior, brandy barrel-aged, 12 glasses
1g Reinhardt Ale, superior, brandy barrel-aged, 1 keg

*R: For everyone, not just me, of course
*J: Of course

2p Remy Add. Clock, wake up-call, Oaten Sheaf
1g 10p Remy Damages, clock, dismantled, Oaten Sheaf
20p Reinahrdt, etc. Damages, Silk sheets, ale stain removal, Oaten Sheaf
30p Reinhardt, etc. Add. Silk sheets, Oaten Sheaf
5p Inigo Boot black, Oaten Sheaf
10p Inigo Steel polish, Oaten Sheaf
10p Inigo Sign for unmarked package from ‘business associate,’ no courier service given for receipt

*J: I’m assuming the young master vouches for this honorable transaction

1g Reinhardt & Co Pre-order, breakfast for 21 guests, Oaten Sheaf

*R: I really don’t remember ordering that
*J: Perhaps it was done by your gracious hosts as a precaution against morning regrets, master

10p Werner Spear, magic, Burke’s Blades
-10p Reinhardt Return Spear, NOT magic, Burke’s Blades
10p Werner Spear, magic, Burke’s Blades
-10p Reinhardt Return Spear, NOT magic, Burke’s Blades
40p Werner Spear, magic, x4, Burke’s Blades
-40p Reinhardt Return Spear, NOT magic, x4, Burke’s Blades

*R: Look, I found mine in a Syrneth ruin with what were obviously Drachen markings and it has a demonstrable ability to improve my martial prowess so it IS magic, and these knock-offs are peasant tomfoolery designed just to irritate me!
*J: I have no idea what the young master is talking about

50p Remy Services, Jenny’s Guild
50p Inigo Services, Jenny’s Guild
50p Werner Services, Jenny’s Guild
50p Vera Services, Jenny’s Guild

*R: Hello!

50p Reinhardt Services, undisclosed

*R: Wink wink, nudge nudge
*J: Say no more

10g Bartholomew Services, Jenny’s Guild

*R: Master Bart was yet unconscious at this time, but apparently had accumulated a significant tab

-50p Werner Return Services, Jenny’s Guild
50p Werner Impossible to return Services, Jenny’s Guild
-50p Werner Return Services, Jenny’s Guild
50p Werner Impossible to return Services, Jenny’s Guild
2g Reinhardt Injury pay, Bouncers, Jenny’s Guild

*R: I TOLD Werner I wouldn’t be paying for him but he put his services on my tab anyway, and the shrews refused to honor my demand for fair accounting, at which point brutes were dispatched, forcing me to give them a lively thrashing
*J: However did we fare here at court without you, young master?

50p Reinhardt & Co Carraige Ride, Royal Menagerie
op Reinhardt Admittance, noble, after-hours, Royal Menagerie
25p Company Admittance, commoner, after-hours, Royal Menagerie
11g Reinhardt & Co one score baby, albino, Cathayan howler monkeys
-11g Reinhardt & Co Return, one score baby, albino, Cathayan howler monkeys

*R: I was informed this purchase was not possible

11g Reinhardt & Co Payment for theft/loss one score baby, albino, Cathayan howler monkeys

*R: I have no idea what happened to them!

2p Essie Leash and collar, baby, albino, Cathayan howler monkey

*J: No idea what happened to the other 19, I presume

2g Reinhardt & Co Ferry Ride, Luxury Lines
50p Reinhardt & Co Banquet, Luxury Lines
10p Reinhardt & Co Tips, mummers, Luxury Lines
25p Reinhardt & Co Tips, midget jugglers, Luxury Lines
25p Reinhardt & Co Tips, jugglers of midgets, Luxury Lines
16g 33p Reinhardt & Co Various, Luxury Lines

*J: I long for the time wherein we discuss this fantastic item in detail, young master

Total Expenditures:

47 G 33 P

*F: No.

View
Act I. Scene ii. Caerlon and Beyond. Part V - Tur'lokk's Journal
Come see the adventures and foibles of Tur'lokk as he attempts to save the world on his lonesome

From the Journal of Tur’lokk, The Bandit King.

“I’ll never reveal His plan to you, savage!” stammered Clem through a bloody throat.

“Quite right, you’re a man of your word,” I told him as I sprang to the window, “but I still have plans for you, my honest man.” His eyes widened as he noticed the momentum wasn’t slowing down. My rakish grin was likely the last human visage he ever saw. Lucky devil. I wonder what it says about a man when he knows how to fall just so onto another’s sternum such that one soul is snuffed from a body, while the other’s shoulder absorbs no more than the slightest jolt?

And so my charge began. Such a noble and glorious task such as world-saving could hardly be put in more capable hands. I have in the last hour been saddled to a motley crew of tinkers, jugglers, arrogant pigs, swordsmen, witches, and the gods know who else. My soul is bound to theirs in a struggle to save the world from magical machinations and the end of this, my earthly dominion. Lesser men would see a geas as a curse, a saddle of poor fortune, a sentence of a future ruled by the fates and not the ambitions and aptitudes of said geas’ bearer. And that is why they are lesser men, and I am the Bandit King!

As I ran off into the night my plan was already taking form where others would have only seen void. Those beetles were made of gears and, lest we forget, gold. Gold has been precious since man first invented that noblest of creations, the coin. The day the first coin was minted was a glorious day for the merchant and the Owners of Things. The night was a glorious night to my people, the people of shadow and burglary . Where there was gold, there would be gold shipments. And where there were gold shipments, I would find my people.

~ ~ ~

A few boasts, false promises, and drunken whorings later, I found myself at the hilly crossroads of Milasan. In recent months there were reports of highly protected shipments traveling northwesterly, fading into the regular merchant caravans traveling southeasterly at this very spot. Once the caravans made it to their next stops, the guards and shipments were dispersed and their valuable carriage cargo was lost in the morass of textiles, spices, and impostor relics. They blended in, and that camouflage was their greatest asset, hiding their true purpose.

A wise King does not forgo a good plan, even if it does come from his enemy. I would acquire this golden freight as it reached the crossroads, and fall into a false merchant wagon driven by my men. In this way I could stop these Enders of the World in my own fashion, using my own natural talents. And if I’m to line my pockets with enough gold to make the angels blush, so be it! I take it as my tithe from the Fates for putting me on this path.

I was able to accrue a score of good and honest local thieves to jump the one-wagon shipment just as it arrived at the wagon ruts leading into the southeastern merchant parade. They were due to meet just before midday when the sun wouldn’t be in my marksmen’s eyes. My black powder charges were set in the wheel ruts, my men had their guns and bows cocked to dispatch the guards forward and aft, and I had pockets, sacks, and straps by which to load as much gold as humanly possible onto my person and my borrowed horses. They were thirty meters from my mark as I lost my hold on the situation, and all hell, as it were, broke loose.

A giant bolder, the size a small cottage, crashed down the side of the hill opposite my station and turned the horses hauling the wagon into mere memories of their former mortal equestrian pride. The wagon tipped and crashed against the road as the shipment broke into a thousand shards of twisted metal and shattered wood. Black-powder charges exploded from hiding spots not housing my men, killing half the shipment guards outright. And in my confusion and outrage I heard what is the most aggravating sound ever to pass over my ears. As the death rattle of a babe to its mother’s ears, this voice is to my soul. It is worse than the call of a husband to his wife as you lie next to her in their bed. It is the music of perdition, and the song is a ballad of sorrows.

“You are in the domain of Manuel, the Lord of Thieves! The treasures you carry are now the property of me and my band of warriors! Surrender now, and you will not suffer the same inglorious end as your comrades-in-arms!”

Castillen cocksucker.

Sure, he has the swordsmanship of a fighter, and a dexterity that I’m man enough to admit I envy. But what does that make him? A thug? A thief? It doesn’t make him a leader of men! He was scraping by on cast-offs when I was studying philosophy and tactics. He can gut a man, but I can steer his passions! Fool. And it seems that by some miracle he stumbled into the same plan that I had. Lucky fool!

“Seize their weapons, men!” I bellowed “ And hold your ground! Cover the standing guards and carriers, you dogs!”

Manuel, my old rival, spun around in bewilderment at being robbed at his own robbery. But when he saw my magnificent visage cast against the dull scrubs of the hills he grinned a hateful grin, knowing his betters when he saw them. Or, at least, he recognized me. And he recognized my ability to acquire twice the men that he could. And twice the muskets pointed at his head.
“Tur’lokk! My old… friend. You’re in the wrong country! You’re supposed to be exiled in the Ussura wastes! Or, that is what the local magistrate and I decided for you, when I last saw you. In stocks” he said with a sneer.

“Aye, you did. And I thank you for it! I made many a friend in those wastes! And before they furnished me with a hide-bound boat to paddle back to the lands of man, they entrusted me with much forbidden knowledge of man and beast. You can never curse me, Manuel, only bless me in disguise!”

“Are these your men, Oaf of the Islands? They are stringy and-“

I never heard the Castillen’s summation of my troops, as he was cut off by a blaze of light and thunder bursting from behind the tipped wagon. We spun our heads to see our men fall like the wheat at the threshing. They dropped without complaint or contemplation as they fell to a weapon I’ve never seen wielded outside of the magics of the north or the fury of the gods at the High Sea. It was accompanied by a smell that I last smelled at the funeral for that crazed old madman who gave me this world-saving curse. A smell that alchemists I’ve encountered have called ozone. I smell I will forever associate with machinations. All the guards were on their knees in the dirt except for one. One mad and extraordinary warrior. A devil in a very, very nice suit.

He sat pale as ice on his giant, ugly steed. His features were gaunt, like a man dead and dried for a week before burial. His eyes were sunken and red like a demon’s. He held in his hand the queerest blunderbuss I’ve ever beheld, still smoking from a recent discharge. It was made of mirrors etched with gold and jewels. He had a long dueling sword on his side, a narrow black cylinder strapped to his back, and was all the way ‘round ensconced in one hell of a fine leather suit!

“This gold is not yours, foolish children,” he condescended to us in hollow and evil tones. “It is meant for your betters. Run along, and I’ll let you continue your audacities another day.”

“Fool?” cried Manuel in a fit of unearned ego, “Who call you a fool, you devil? You shall face my sword!” With that cry, and sword held aloft, he lept from his hilly perch onto the threatening skeletal warrior.

While I respect bravery as much as any monarch, I find pragmatism to be a better route in all situations. Seeing that fool Manuel engage the barely-human thing-of-violence, I took it upon myself to serve His majesty’s estate as well I could. I ran to the shipment, loaded my strongest pouch with as much gold as I could fit, and ran as though death itself were on my heels.

I made it past my trapped ruts, and was in spotting distance to the merchant caravan coming the other direction, precise as… well… clockwork. I was readying my leap onto my planted merchant wagon, when I was toppled by a massive blow to the small of my back. I tumbled round, under, and inside out with a smoking lump that had just crashed into my back. I sprang back to my feet as a weary , smoking, and bloody Manuel rolled onto his heels in a fighter’s stance. I could smell the ozone all over him that came from that thing’s mirrored blaster. He held his sword in one hand, and somehow, the canister from the thing’s back in his other.

“You bastard, that gold is mine!” Manuel spat as he lashed the tube to the inside of his thigh.

“Nay, Manuel, all treasures belong to me and my people! You just don’t realize it yet! Join me as my vassal, and you’ll get your share,” I informed him as I slid the pouch of gold into my inner shirt pocket.

“Guards!” intoned that devil’s voice, “Take up your weapons and kill those two vagabonds!” At this, the previously capitulating guards regained their feet and took up their weapons in our pursuit.

“Tur’lokk… this seems a bad day for our people. Truce?”

“Truce, with the Lord of Lies? Not if the gates of hell were opening and-“ A guard’s musket rang out, causing the dirt to erupt at my feet. “A truce. For one hour.”

And we both leapt into the first wagon we saw. A dress-maker’s wagon as it turned out. We buried ourselves into the silks and linens of the wagon, finding only enough room to hide if we pressed against one another chest to chest. I found his parrying dagger against my throat, and he found my pistol lodged against his kidney. There are few places I could think of more shameful or exasperating than laying in a pile of dresses with a megalomaniacal swordsman’s blade to your throat as a score a guards stop a wagon train searching for you. I’ve been in worse spots, but not ones that I ever brag over.

~ ~ ~

For four hours we thus lay. Whispering curses into one another’s ears. Jabbing one another’s sides with our weapons. Feeling oh so very un-kingly each and every time the wagon wheel met a bump and his body jolted down upon mine. Very un-kingly.

This was interrupted unexpectedly as the sound of the wheels made a marked shift below us. We were now rolling over a steady and relatively flat series of wooden planks, and a rush of water could be heard below.

Sensing the bridge under us and the river below that, Manuel sprang from his hiding place, throwing dresses this way and that. He met my eyes and said “We will never speak of this again, barbarian. But I have no doubt that you will have found it memorable!” With that he flung himself over the edge of the wagon and dove into the rapids below.

I readjusted my body and waited for the blood to start circulating again, checking my body for wounds and felonies. I reached into my breast pocket and removed my pouch. Indignities aside, this will serve as an excellent bankroll for my new kingdom!

You must imagine my rage as I upturned the pouch into my hand and out spilled volcanic glass shards. The kind only found in Castile. That slimy, sneaky son of a bitch! I stole that gold from him honestly!

I considered this treachery as I uncapped the cylinder he had lifted from the skeletal warrior. Manuel never could tie a good knot, you see, and I had plenty of time to consider his thighs given the extraordinarily unfortunate positioning of my right hand during our confinement.

I upturned this tube and out spilled into my hand the most beautifully carved jewel ever seen by man! It’s intricacies and perfections were unlike any stone I’ve ever seen! More and more came out and each was the same, imperfect only in their perfection. They spilled out magnificently and greedily when I slowly realized that they were indeed too perfect. As a man who has stolen many a diamond and sapphire, I can tell you that these were no jewels. They were glass. Lenses perhaps, or something else. Something mechanical.

Well shit. This won’t bankroll anything! I’d need an artificer of no small talent to even tell me what these are intended for! Wait, wasn’t there a gear man in that last town with the mad count? A fellow geas brother. He can tell me how I can get rich off of these! And I might as well grab some dresses for the ladies as well…

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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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