The Peppersmoke Players across the Seven Skies
by Evan Torner, Berlin 2009-2010
Based on Chad Underkoffler’s RPG Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies
Chapter 1 – An Actorless Play (scroll down to Fantasy)
Chapter 3 – Rehearse or Die
As one did at most rehearsals, Nell Sturfield stood around and waited. Magnus Firedancer had to change from his intricate Master of the Watch uniform to his Chaumette the Compassionate One dress, and his painstaking exactitude with this costume arrangement was holding up the entire rehearsal. Nell looked across the Peppersmoke’s bow and saw that the sun hung low in the Dome, dipping below the floating island’s horizon in about an hour. An hour of available light left, and Magnus was still screwing around with full knowledge that the physical rehearsal of the sword duel was scheduled for today. Fatima was sweating over her lines more than usual today, Remy and Duchamps had hustled from what was presumably a supply run into Agua Azul (though Vaoz knows what was in that case!), Chatterbox had sequestered himself on the mast for some pre-rehearsal libations and Captain Naftaly – having already marked the “stage” on deck hours ago – was now in her quarters composing a letter. But everyone was in costume, at least, except for Magnus.
Nell had memorized her lines days ago, befitting her status as a young graduate of the little-regarded Viridese Academy for Music, Performance and Rhetoric. Actually, she’d wanted to become a mathematician in earlier years, until she discovered the purpose for the arithmetic arts on Viridia always turned out to be warfare. Such narrow-minded abuse of her passion saddened her enough to turn her towards the career of pretending she was someone she wasn’t. This was not to say she was a bad actor. She found human affect to be putty in her hands, as she herself possessed very little. Wrath, meekness, mischief, loquacity – the expression thereof required but a practiced formula of facial, gestural, postural and vocal modulation. Since humans were inexplicably trusting creatures, intense study of these formulas produced the ability to glean undeniably positive results in the sphere of human relations. In fact, people across the Seven Skies would pay some of their wages earned from the excess of their crafts’ value to see these falsehood formulas, granted that they took a pleasing and semi-predictable course.
Of course, the tradition of theater as a means to easily separate a person from their money had only been cemented as such under the zenith of Kroy, now known as Lost Kroy. Before it became “Lost,” however, Kroy was an empire of extraordinarily instrumental purpose: to produce incalculable wealth for a select few oligarchs off nearly every societal transaction imaginable. At the time, this practice seemed in such stark contrast to the other empires that, though they were by no means benevolent, had clearly been more inefficient in their priorities. The Barathi Empire was as much eager for the sheer glory of meaningless conquest as it was for the spoils thereof, the Alliance of Viridia had some philosophical preoccupation with perfecting the art of war, and Crailwuz remained content with skimming off Kroy and Barathi profits through piracy. Kroy uniquely wanted to touch all aspects of life and transform them into gold. What the intensely competitive Kroyese oligarchs had done particularly well was transmit their own ideas of profit at any spiritual or material cost to those very people off of whom they profited, such that folk spontaneously monetized their own traditions for the sake of a comparably paltry share of the profits. Thus the theater, for example, only emerged as a ticket-selling art form when so-called “table games” had been suppressed as an asocial, uncouth form of story transmission. Table games only cost the patrons the amount they’d spent on drinks, pitting the theaters against the drinking halls during the early days of the former’s existence. Men and women would sit around the table in equal company and pretend to be someone else in a collective fantasy of their own creation. Then they may have followed this with group sexual contact; there were many regional variations. If two “players” (which is why actors were sometimes called thus – an inheritance from the previous art form) got into a dispute over an outcome in the story world, an uninvolved player would usually articulate the stakes over which they fought and pull a pebble from a cloth bag. Black or white pebbles would then tip the story in favor one or another player’s stakes, and the result would have to be improvised. “Improvise” was certainly the operative word: few table games had any lines written in advance, and even fewer could intimate the direction the story was headed.
Such practices consumed pre-Kroyese lives in entertainment that produced little profit for the Kroyese oligarchs. So the most talented storytellers from table game groups that had amassed small audiences were seduced by positions among the oligarchs as well as by the promise of being specifically employed in a field that they loved. The result was a substantial increase in production values by way of koldun and alchemical effects (and even today no self-respecting theater troupe can afford to do without a koldun) and the delegation of the audience to its role of but a single character: the dark mass of people, socially atomized as individuals from their neighbors, watching outside a metaphorical invisible wall. Assorted forms of theater took shape thereafter, ranging from opera to ad-lib comedy, from actors taking on the roles of abstract symbols and shapes to them simply playing themselves. What was important was not so much the content of the plays, but whether the audience would pay money for the privilege to merely observe it, rather than participate. Those looming changes took place over years, generations even. Yet in many respects, Nell had simply no conception of how it must have been like to play these table games with no notion of the dividing line between player and viewer.
Chatterbox’s acting style drew on this hidden heritage somewhat. As a native of Ilwuz, he’d been able to partake in strange traditions nestled between the cracks and mold of the isle’s ramshackle harbors and pirate taverns. His was the art of words without scripts, dance without choreography, madness without method. This meant, of course, that he was all the rage in Ilwuz and had to be lured away with offers of stipends and starlets aplenty. Fortunately, one could give him a tense situation and he’d turn it on its ear in an instant. His ability to visualize himself as both player and audience of his own spontaneity was legendary.
Nell’s thoughts may have strayed to Chatterbox, she surmised, because the actor had landed in a heap of lines after apparently plummeting from one of the smaller yardarms. Since Chatterbox was a seasoned skysailor, this was obviously a matter of little concern: the lines and the liquor had cushioned his fall and relaxed his body respectively. The Captain was even in her quarters, so he wouldn’t even suffer a disciplinary action. She prodded his splayed form with her sheathed stage sword out of bemusement and, when he grumbled and burped, confirmed he was merely drunk and not damaged. Then she drew the blade to work through her choreography.
These moves had all originated from Magnus, as he was the most talented swordsman among them. It was what attracted her to him so many adolescent years ago, in fact. His elegant ostentaciousness, his vigorously practiced silliness, his ego’s eternal stamina – those paradoxes made him at once flamboyant, charming and deadly. Her very stage sword – a dulled, thin cutlass with an artfully curved hilt – used to belong to him before he “upgraded” to a gilded Colronan rapier with an oversized handguard. And then he’d “upgraded” to no longer needing her, though this had proved a point of contention.
But to the choreography: she pulled the cutlass a third of the way out of its scabbard, abruptly halted, and shoved it back in. Grinding her teeth, she front-kicked away from her, pulled the sword out completely and chopped at the air. Her arm jerked back intentionally as she pretended to hit something. She swung the blade once, twice, thrice, bringing it back for each imaginary parry. Then came the fun part. She thrust directly forward, shifted her weight dramatically and then twirled around completely with a full-body roundhouse kick. Nell already felt the sweat build under her god costume, though this was only the beginning.
“Nell,” came Magnus’ voice from the crew’s quarters. “Let’s do this!” She breathed a sigh of relief; they might just keep a few minutes of daylight before needing Remy’s special lanterns for their rehearsal. Magnus emerged as Chaumette the Compassionate One, a stunning blonde beauty with impossibly straight locks, a frilly red dress with gold accents and eyelashes that’d lure the soberest skysailor to his doom. Across “her” buttocks hung the reputed Colronan rapier, its hilt and guard freshly polished from efforts likely lasting ten minutes of precious rehearsal time. She was intended to stand in stark contrast to Nell’s Guillaume the Mindcrafter, after all.
Nell’s two roles in the play effectively consisted of the main protagonist – the defiant Guillaume who spurns the task given them by the goddesses in favor of an unpredictable existential quest for his own identity – and the most minor luck goddess, Laternia the Fortuitous. She was given the latter role out of sheer pragmatic concerns: Guillaume was in almost every scene and Laternia has very few lines. Her Guillaume costume mirrored the red and gold color scheme established by Chaumette’s dress. It was a kind of flowing frock coat with tails that extended nearly to her ankles, breeches, stockings and boots. All the male gods also wore a stiff neck collarpiece to keep their posture erect and their thoughts aloof. Duchamps had fitted it a little tight on Nell so Guillaume would always look slightly uncomfortable. Now that Magnus had emerged, she had to fasten it on for rehearsal.
Duchamps must have heard Magnus’ voice, because he approached them both in his ridiculous Juniper the Plentiful goddess costume, complete with hastily applied eye shadow and a dress that could barely contain the two giant fake breasts jutting from his chest. “So, ladies and gents and vice versa,” he said with reference to the copious gender reversals gathered together on deck. “The scene is thus: Guillaume, having grown bitter and disgusted at his and the other gods’ efforts to create equality among humans, has returned prematurely to the gates of Heaven to re-enter their retreat. Alas! His partner Chaumette is coincidentally the gate guardian today, and she remains a firm believer in the whole banishment scenario. The strong-willed Guillaume loses his patience and tries to fight his way in. Chaumette defeats him in single combat, but only after revealing her motive for sending the gods away to be strictly personal, as opposed to moral. Guillaume returns to the world to hatch a plot that would spite her once and for all. This time I want to reach the group scene of the goddesses at the end, which means your fight choreography is hopefully tip-top. Anything pressing on your minds before I take my dolled-up self out of the play area?” Both Magnus and Nell shook their heads, merely a sign that the content of their “minds” wasn’t up for a thorough public discussion. Their bodies already coursed with the anticipatory chemicals needed for the physical exertion ahead. Another bombastic speech from Duchamps about whatever they had said wasn’t needed. And Magnus looked, even under his poise and make-up, a tad antsier than usual.
They took their positions in the play area. Chaumette stood with her back to the soon-to-be-finished Gateway to Heaven and Guillaume stood atop the assemblage of bundled rags and accessories that would become the cloud bridge. Stiff-necked and visibly incensed, Guillaume strode across the bridge and knocked loudly at the gate.
“’Tis I, Guillaume!” Nell declared loudly in her studied interpretation of arrogant men’s voices. Chaumette turned around slowly and then mounted the side of the gate, looking over its curving archway. Then with a dramatic twirl of her dress, she vaulted over the gate onto the cloud bridge into the narrow gap between Guillaume and the gate.
“Hark!” she shouted into Guillaume’s face. “The Heavens hath barred their gates to thee. / Correspondingly reduced their citizenry. / As doth mortals among mortals with strangers and kin / And so try as ye might, thee cannot come in.” Chatterbox had straightened himself out from his fall and now the other actors save the captain gathered to watch the rehearsal. Guillaume pointed his finger within a hairsbreadth of Chaumette’s eye.
“An immortal pox on thee and thy invulnerable breast!” he exclaimed. “What have thee gained from such a test? / Bedchambers empty…”
“…I fill them with birds!” Chaumette interrupted him, clearly relishing this. “And flowers now lay on your bedside…”
“Oh how absurd!” Guillaume responded contemptuously in rhymed verse. Then he began to pace on the cloud bridge restlessly and began to pontificate aloud. “I crafted for them but a Will / It went through committee – but still! / With its revisions, the human psyche / Approached only ours of its like. / To them we imposed but three clauses / So they would not replace us with empty causes. / The First was their imprisonment in this Dome. / The Second – ‘gainst the elements they must roam. / And the Third, the most stringent by far / That they might constantly question who they are.” He paused for all-around dramatic effect.
“We have but no responsibility,” he continued. “For their blatant abandonment of equality. / The Will and clauses produced a counter-effect. / That our best intentions doth not respect. / We tried to fix it, make repairs / But they claimed we meddled in their affairs. / Out we went, Vaoz the Traitor too, / Replaced with an amorphous brew / Of aphorisms, greed and solipsistic shows / Wrought so they could rob each other’s clothes / Then hide the crime under their fragmented selves / So that generations perform soulful delves / Into why things are so unjust / And how they must withstand what they must.” Chaumette didn’t buy it.
“Your confession’s touching, not compelling,” she said. “There is much that you’re not telling. / You men will always up the ante. / Throw caution to the wind – well that’s just dandy! / Consider on our side the stakes so raised / That only your intellect dispels your competitive haze.” She shifted her weight evenly between both her lefts. A curtain of rage hung over Guillaume’s face.
“This woman denies him his rightful repose?” he said, wagging a righteous finger in her face. “Then past her guard the rascal goes.” And so began the choreography.
Nell grabbed the handle of her sword to pull it out, but Magnus skillfully pushed her wrist with his outstretched hand to return the blade to its sheath. Now they stood uncomfortably close to one another, so Nell kicked forward with her booted foot, remembering to grit her teeth at the last minute. Her boot launched Magnus into the gate, giving her the opportunity to draw her blade with an impressive metallic chorus. She chopped at his head with a surgeon’s accuracy, her face a tight mixture of overconfidence and wrath. Quicker than most would deem feasible, Magnus unsheathed his sword in a magnificent arc which batted her stroke aside. He then brought about the scabbard from his belt with the other hand; an added parrying surface against her stage sword. Something about his newly adopted stance didn’t sit right with Nell, but she was certain it was the more dramatic choice from an audience standpoint.
She proceeded with the motions: a slash at his forearm – parried, a wilder swing at his kneecap – thwarted, and an overhead tap aimed at his head – twirled aside. Her practiced ensemble of blows had been met with correspondingly practiced defenses. That much was clear. What was suitably unclear was the reason for why the rest of the choreography went overboard in the next exchange.
“Thy style amuses me, nothing more.” Chaumette taunted. Guillaume breathed deep and heavy already, but his voice displayed a veritable fresco of overblown confidence.
“Then I’ll swap to another, one I adore!” he said and then proceeded to thrust at his opponent’s belly. And that was when the fight took a turn toward the unknown.
Magnus parried the thrust, but blocked her attack to put her in a position from which it was physically difficult to perform her next maneuver. Nell enacted a startling recovery and swept the sword at her assailant’s feet, hoping to knock him off-balance. Magnus pulled his hardened sheath in the way of the blow and unfairly cut toward her exposed arm. Her wrist overextended to block his attack. This was beginning to resemble a real fight, in which one party tried vigorously to exercise situational dominance over the other. She abandoned the thrusts for an experimental strike at his chest to ascertain how “real” this fight was. Not only was the strike repulsed with one of Magnus’ iconic arching counter-strokes – confirming her hypothesis that she now faced an ambiguously deadly opponent as opposed to a character-motivated set of pre-determined maneuvers – but he had put her on the defensive by responding with a series of twirling rapid slashes at important body parts. Magnus hadn’t cracked even the remotest of smiles under all that female make-up, which mean both that he was defending a cause of some emotional importance and that he felt completely justified in disrupting his own choreography to do so.
It came to Nell all at once. While they had been at the academy together, Nell and Magnus had attempted the formidable task of maintaining a potentially long-term sexual and emotional relationship in spite of the fickle passions of youth. To do this, they had both awkwardly initiated each other into the realm of sexuality, and then awkwardly vacillated between being and not being committed to each other afterwards. Yet all the unpleasantness and inconsistency of their early romance produced the unexpectedly positive side-effect of giving them an understated, smoldering stage chemistry. Though they’d experimented with other potential life-partners on assorted occasions, their own deep collective history of trauma of triumph continued to help and haunt them in the present. And this present battle had its roots in that highly-charged soil.
The catalyst must have been this morning’s breakfast. Magnus had been crunching loudly on a pickle freshly procured from a briny jar. Nell had entered the tiny eating alcove and, seeing the ultimate pickle in his mouth, decided to boldly punish him for curtailing her breakfast options. Without a word, she had leaned forward and bit off the end of the pickle, coming ever close to a spiteful mockery of a kiss. Magnus angrily chewed the remainder of his breakfast before he chewed her out.
“What was that?” he had exclaimed. “Ten years and you still don’t respect my boundaries!”
“How’s your pickle?” Nell asked rhetorically in clear reference besides the food he had just eaten. “My piece seems smaller than ever. Is it shrinking?” She’d then walked out for dramatic effect.
Now she was suddenly in the middle of an unscripted battle with a humiliated ex-lover who had begun raining down blows on her barely sufficient defenses. Unfortunately, Remy, Duchamps, Fatima and Chatterbox did not know the choreography well enough to have figured out yet that Magnus’ trademark wrist spin feint was actually being used to deflect Nell’s attention from a hefty slash at her neck. She thanked Vaoz for her stiff collarpiece as she felt the blow glance off the cheap costume piece. The battle had moved with some alacrity outside of the stage area, raising Duchamps’ eyebrow. Ordinarily, Chaumette would have said “That’s enough of thy quotidian tricks!” by now, to which Guillaume would’ve ignited his sword with blue flame from Remy’s magic and stated: “Then an unexpected addition to the mix!”
Instead, Nell cried: “Magnus, have you gone mad? Somebody disable this lunatic!” Then she quit the battle in favor of a brisk sprint toward the ship’s bow; Magnus hiked up his dress and pursued her. Duchamps grabbed his truncheon from Vaoz Knows Where in his dress, moving to intercept the wild swordsman. Fatima dove for whatever weapon her pile of ordinary clothes would yield her. Remy began tracing symbols in the air. Chatterbox dropped behind the main mast.
The events of the next five seconds quickly resolved the situation. Fatima drew her musket and drew a bead on his position. Magnus almost effortlessly disarmed Duchamps by sweeping his saber over his head as he ran. Fortunately the baton landed in the hands of Remy, who was suddenly a blur of wild motion. The koldun’s immediate interdiction of Magnus’ path forced the swordsman to stop, blowing his dress at a funny angle to boot. Remy spun the baton to generate a small wind. Then Magnus was bowled over from behind with a hastily assembled pile of heavy lines. Chatterbox blinked as Remy zipped the cords around the man almost instantaneously, restraining him for the remaining duration of the afternoon. At this point, Magnus channeled his physical aggression into a tirade of profanity and abuse leveled at Nell, who was gasping for breath at the other end of the Peppersmoke. The other players stood awestruck at the wreck that was today’s rehearsal.
“What’s he saying?” Fatima asked Duchamps about Magnus’ hostile utterances as he struggled against his bonds.
“I don’t know,” Duchamps replied. “Something about a pickle.”