(Note – Due to their large and unwieldy size, I have decided to separate my story based on the Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies from my regular posts on my Fulbright in Berlin. There will be a later update concerning that today. For the first chapter in the story, click here.)
The Peppersmoke Players across the Seven Skies
by Evan Torner, Berlin 2009-2010
Chapter 2 – Favorite Haunts
Duchamps had almost never felt this good. Stretching his thick arms the length of the unmarked archway leading up to the suite where usurer Cyan Guthrie conducted his business, he retrieved the worn leather coat filled with ducats from the doorstep and stepped out into the streets of Agua Azul.
Across the cobblestones on Mortimer’s Bend in the district Grandcomo – well-worn from everything from Colronan stallions to Ilwuzi raiding parties – Rembrandt Silver stood eating a packet of roasted nuts he’d purchased from a nearby stand. His molars crunching the nuts echoed down the street despite the city’s regular thrum. Remy always wore a somewhat peculiar outfit affected only by those who conducted alchemy on a daily basis – a long, heavy white coat browned and yellowed long ago by chemical grease, dark moisture-resistant gloves, a pair of protective goggles perched on his head and thick boots better suited to walking the knee-high swamps of Sha-Ka-Rukh than an urban environment. On the other hand, the necessity of lighter clothing and prominently displayed weaponry proved non-existent to a skilled koldun like Remy: with a twitch of an ear, he could ignite a building or make his opponent’s weapon fly leagues away. He watched between nuts as Duchamps, best visually summarized as a “fat purple prince without a crown,” snapped his long cape and strode across the road.
“Money!” Duchamps exclaimed as he struck the full case with his fist. “Could even Vaoz get enough of it? You know, I had a thought like those you often have: Hypothetically, would Vaoz ever need money, given that he could create anything he wanted, or might he impose limits on himself to keep it scarce, so he’d have the pleasure of having it when he did.”
“From a crass theological standpoint,” Remy stated without affect. “Vaoz as a deity embodying honor and nobility is unconcerned with pleasure, ergo money, save as a means to woo men thusly concerned.” Duchamps clapped him roughly on the shoulder and then grabbed a nut.
“Remy, boy,” he chortled. “Always good for a quip on the side! Anyhow, we’ve got enough for a classy reception preceding the premiere of Seven Gods for Seven Goddesses in a week’s time… I think it’s a Windsday. I’ve got funds for boundless tankards of Monmouth wine, crates of Fracetti baguettes, nets of brush apples, mountains of oiled rainfish, cases of figaroons…”
“And for good reason! Monetary negotiations incite a healthy appetite in me. Shall we aim for some supper?” Remy looked nonplussed.
“You’re expected back on the Peppersmoke within the hour,” he said, to which Duchamps replied with a hungry cub’s stare. Remy added: “And I’m disinclined to make the sign of the quilin on your behalf to whisk you back.” Duchamps produced a pipe from a fold in his leotard and slipped in between his teeth.
“I shposhe yo’ right,” he muttered through the smoking implement. “Kot a right?” Remy sighed and stuffed the remaining nuts into a coat pocket clearly filled with greasy tools. He balled his left hand into a fist and pivoted it upward. With his right hand, he pointed his finger in the air and carefully traced a rough shape of the mythical dragon – an approximate squiggle with a sharp “face” at one end. The air above the fist shimmered with heat and then promptly caught fire in a controlled explosion. Licks of flame curled in the air, testing how far they could leave their source. Once this explosion and intense heat passed, a warm hearth flame settled over his fist, which he gently touched on the end of Duchamps’ pipe. The aroma emerging as he inhaled was sticky but pleasant. Remy opened his fist and the flame began to lose its shape and heat.
Blowing a cloud of smoke as Remy dissipated his fireball, Duchamps said: “Permit me a question: Why would you use your sign of the dragon for lighting my pipe when you just as well could have used the sign of quilin to transport us back – a far less trivial task?”
“Permit me an answer:” Remy replied as he started walking down the ‘bend’ in Mortimer’s Bend. “There is a school of thinking that concerns ‘precedents.’ Precedents established in the present are presumed replicable in the future. Were I to sate your gluttony now by promising to transport you later, then even later still I would find myself asked to do the same. I would become a mere mechanism in your overfeeding apparatus, a humble enabling element. And I, sir, am neither apparatus nor element.” They had reached the intersection of Mortimer’s Bend and a much larger artery, the Deraad’s Circuit, which would lead them to the Main Gate and the harbor beyond.
The noise level amidst the municipal traffic was too loud for a conversation, so Duchamps had the last word after taking a long draw from his pipe: “You can fight me or you can befriend me. If I’m directing you in an hour, you’re going to need a friend.” Remy cursed the mutually damaging nature of human social transactions and would opt to spend more time back in his lab when he got back, were he not cast in both the roles of Tamasta the Fire Forger and his wife Glorophina the Fire Tender. And he certainly hated wearing that wig.
As they moved into the throng on the Circuit, Duchamps’ girth provided a welcome means of parting the crowd. Trading in Agua Azul ended at sunset in the established shops, but the nuts-sellers, toy skyship dealers and houseware-hawkers set up on the streets who didn’t want to try their luck moving their goods in the dark were already packing up and scurrying away. Small carts spun their wheels and got caught in the gutters and cobblestones. Children out of school but not yet preoccupied with their evening chores wove in and out of the legs of passers-by. Old women with their baskets stacked with baguettes and roti for their grandchildren grumbled at the uncoordinated helter-skelter of the ruffians unrelated to them. A Colronan Royalist ostentatiously reprimanded a young Crailese man who got “something” on the Royalist’s ridiculous boots – an easy task in city streets filled with somethings – and now demanded the perpetrator wipe them clean himself. Duchamps pushed past the Royalist as a pedestrian with a goal elsewhere, but in such a forceful way as to silently communicate to the high-strung young man: “I have the ability to pick you up and put you – funny boots and all – somewhere else.” A local street baker packing up his not-so-fresh rolls waved down Duchamps and handed he and Remy a pair, as they’d be stale in the morning.
At that moment, two Falcons in full black officer capes spotted Duchamps’ distinctive outfit and effortlessly swept through the crowd to him. The actor recognized them immediately as Officer Klimt and Officer Corvaglio and wished he hadn’t just taken a big bite of that roll. He shoved the case with his money under his arm.
“Lt. Duchamps!” Officer Corvaglio exclaimed as he saluted and then shook the man’s recently free hand. “When did you get back to Grandcomo? What an honor and a thorough surprise!” Carvaglio’s hair always looked as if a stonemason had just chiseled it into position that morning and smelled like three conflicting species of bird.
“Hey officer… Corvaglio, was it?” Duchamps guffawed back to him in the same posed congenial fashion that was his wont, ignoring the breadcrumbs spraying to the sides of his mouth. “Excuse me! It’s been two, maybe three years now. How’s the beat running?”
“Well, we obviously miss your favorite haunts you took us to after the beat was over,” Officer Klimt chimed in. “Most of those places shuttered up within a year of you leaving. Had to evict a few of them myself. You were their best customer.” Klimt sported two batons instead of the Falcon-standard baton and rapier on either side to make some sort of curious statement of social superiority. Duchamps was fairly certain he could take them both from his hands with his one.
“A pity,” Duchamps said through gritted teeth. “But I moved on, and I reckon so did they. I might be looking for one or two of their suppliers – they’re still in business.”
“Buying in ‘bulk’, Duchamps?” Corvaglio asked in cruel jest. “Rumor has it you’re temporarily reopening your family’s opera house for a special performance of some new play and throwing a big reception besides.” Duchamps fidgeted with his feet; these two were a little too well-informed. He put on his best marketer’s face.
“’Tis true,” he announced. “We are opening our premiere of 7 Gods for 7 Goddesses with a complementary gala for Agua Azul’s high society.”
“So that they’ll come!” Klimt said, in no way concealing his disdain for Duchamps’ new trade. “Is that what’s in the case then? The future wining and dining bribe for the city’s well-to-do?” Duchamps’ sweaty armpit muscle instinctively tightened on the bag, causing the faintest jingle and emotionally betraying that what Klimt said had been right on the money, so to speak. Duchamps’ repartee had been blown adrift in a strong crosswind.
“We hope we get an invitation,” Corvaglio said in a mock stuffy voice and posed with his cape as so many Deraads and Judges did in those paintings made purely for posterity. “Lest the Falcons change to alternative patrol routes that evening, a Windsday a week from now, if I’m not mistaken.” The situation had gone from forced cordial to threatening in a matter of syllables ushered from his lips. The practice of taking bribes to provide protection previously presumed provided was common in the corrupt corners of Crail, but Duchamps had no idea that his former stomping grounds had become one of them in his absence. Suddenly, the money he held, the reception, the performance, his family’s beautiful opera house – none of them felt safe from anything anymore. The Crailese predators had signaled to their prey that they were hiding in the brush. A practiced actor, Duchamps channeled all this anxiety into another roaring laugh.
“Ha, ha! No worries, friends!” Duchamps said the opposite of what he felt. “I was just on my way back to write your invitations. As you know, the theater just underwent some renovations in my absence, so it should be a splended re-introduction into the culture scene of Crail.” He ended with an indisputable point, one that would hopefully prompt the end of the conversation. It didn’t.
“Quite expensive – that renovation, I heard.” Corvaglio continued tactlessly. The street traffic now slowed to stare at the awkward conversation between these strangely dressed gentlemen, of whom two had the ear of the Commandant himself. “It must have been hard to find friendly help in Grandcomo.” He was twisting the knife and Duchamps had to wrench it free. Fortunately, Remy was both present and oblivious.
“We’re running out of time,” he said to Duchamps as if only they existed. “And as you say: an early start yields an earlier finish. I would very much like to finish early.” The officers turned to Rembrandt Silver in his greasy wreck of a coat.
“You part of his troupe?” Klimt asked, blinking. Remy ignored him. The Falcon then shook his head and said: “Well, we’d best get back to our beat – you know the score. The pickpockets must be getting away with murder.”
“Or pick-pocketing even,” Duchamps added, hoping to save a little face. The officers waved goodbye in his face and then pulled into the crowd, their black capes flowing behind them. The baker, who heard the whole exchange, shook his head vigorously.
“Those rotten purse-feeders aren’t fit to fill their bellies every night, let alone patrol our streets.” he said. Duchamps digested the rest of his roll and nibbled the crumbs off his fingers.
“I can handle them as long as Judge Craakervane has the district court seat,” Duchamps said. “He owes me money from a brothel dive years before he donned the Judge’s robe, and I never called in any favor on it. He could rearrange their patrol schedules by court order and I could get someone I trust running security that night. Stoll, one more worry.”
“At least money’s no object,” the baker said, nodding at the bag. Duchamps, who’d been in a great mood earlier, let out a big man’s sigh.
“I was just at Guthrie’s,” he said, which the baker seemed to get immediately. A look of concern grew in his eyes. “So I’ve basically bet my opera house (with interest) that Agua Azul’s upper crust will all come, pay a high ticket price and wine and dine with the cast before the show, receiving a great impression of the theater and the troupe in the process. I want our supply of potential gigs here to be plentiful because, frankly, I’ve been around the Seven Skies long enough to know this town’s our ducat-flow.”
“But why not settle here again, if that’s what you want? We’d love to have you back.” Duchamps looked down the road where the two Falcons had gone, as if to answer the question with his mere sightline.
When the baker continued his probing look, he said hastily: “I’ve considered it, but there’s something irreplaceable about, I don’t know, playing fantasies and allegories with young people, as well as touring across the open Blue.” This odd romanticism was enough to prompt a shrug from the baker, and Remy led the way down the Circuit toward the long rehearsal ahead.
Had the two of them looked back again, however, they would have noticed a man in an elegantly collared Crailese cape who had not moved in the crowd since the Falcons had started the conversation with Duchamps. Indeed, they might have noticed several moments after even that man’s departure that a crowd had suddenly coalesced near the intersection of Mortimer’s Bend. The panicked voice of Officer Klimt cried out from its center.
“Officer down! Officer Corvaglio’s collapsed – I think he’s dead!”
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