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 2 – Favorite Haunts

Chapter 3 – Rehearse or Die

Chapter 4 – A Letter

Ensconced in her captain’s quarters, Misra Naftaly appeared safely insulated from the tooth-and-claw struggle that today’s rehearsal had become.  She had enough other matters to attend that, since Magnus had been running late and she had few lines in the scene anyway, she hadn’t even bothered to change into the stiff goddess dress draped over her bunk.  One matter in particular had burrowed its way up from the subterranean regions of her consciousness, namely the letter she’d received from her sister Deepah upon their arrival at Crail.  It was by no means a long affair:  she had sent word of her recent marriage to a cook from a cargo-ship whose name she’d failed to mention, affirmed the forwarding o f her correspondence to the Agua Azul Dispatch until further notice (a sign she was either traversing the skies with her husband or kidnapped) and asserted her continued independence from their patronizing father in Colrona.  Her past, present and future was summarized in 5 sentences.  Misra expected no more from her flighty sibling, but that expectation did little to satiate her desire for narrative.  Since her sister abstained from engaging her with the full details of her life, Misra now filled in the gaps with her own response letter; a form of therapy.

Misra softly blew her inked anxieties dry and surveyed her work:

“Dearest Deepah,

First of all, it is wonderful to read your correspondence.  I would only ask to read more of it and in greater detail, but our many years apart have left you with a respectful terseness that at least conveys a rough sketch of your present affairs.  Our existence is premised on a search for a more complete story, but snippets thereof will always do, I suppose.

Though I might have written you a joyful appraisal of your recent nuptials in earlier times, I am at the moment somewhat dumbfounded by the news of a recent marriage when, indeed, nothing about your – I assume – prior marriage precedes it.  Furthermore, I can only express what one would describe as shock toward my lack of being invited to not one – but two – of your weddings, as if they occurred in a null-space, as if we as your family counted for nothing, as if they’d automatically bury you next to your betrothed were you both to fall off a cliff after your hidden ceremony.  No, my dearest, you do not exist as a solitary being outside the vigilant hearts and minds of your family, though the Seven Skies be vast and the places to hide many.  Even your 5 lines prove that some sense of filial piety stirs in your breast.  The least you might do in the future is consider our presence welcome at further momentous occasions in your life.

I regret the collapse of your previous marriage for an additional reason, as well:  that through your romantic union I might have met one of the Seven Who Dared.  I realize, of course, that many a symbolic set in the Dome are seven in number, and that this numerology may grow tiresome for some, but these seven individuals have a reputation unparalleled amongst those of us with a skeptical eye toward the present regimes who govern the isles.  You may even consider it vain of me to see in you only my own professional preoccupations, though you only reward me for any attempts at contact with a sentence or two.  Nevertheless, I cannot be certain you have heard the story of your ex-husband the way I have, and thus I must give you an exegesis with which you may be familiar.

In a previous terse communiqué, you informed me your husband was a man named Drake; a man named Drake who could not see; an older, blind but physically fit man named Drake.  Well, it took me less than a moment’s pause to realize he had to be Drake the Allseeing, a swordsman par excellence and one of the legendary seven mercenaries who held the Barathi sky fortress Taranthos for nigh a week before escaping and eventually dispersing to all parts of the Dome.  How much did your husband tell you of his past?  As an Avokato, a legal negotiator of century-old contracts between the feuding noble houses of Barathi, Drake practiced law during the day and channeled his plentiful professional frustrations into a fencing club at night, where his precise awareness of space and movement made him formidable.  Regarding how he became blind, there are three floating theories, none of which are probably 100% true.  One is that he got on the wrong side of one of the Empress’ lackeys and was slipped a nearly lethal does of poison by a dubiously competent Imperial Spider.  Some others maintain that the same offense actually led him to be tortured in the dungeons for three long years, after which point his eyes were removed and he was thrown back on the streets as a cripple.  The third and most probable theory is that he was afflicted with a bodily condition that slowly stole the light-reception from his eyes, a gradual and ever-so-frightening loss of input from his primary sense, and when it was no longer there, he deemed it appropriate to broadcast the darkness he saw to the world by wearing a bandage over his eyes.  Few legal experts could remain in the Avokato profession without the ability to read copious documents, and though his oratory was convincing, Drake saw his clients dwindle, his friends turn him away.

The real issue, as it turned out, was that his eyes simply could no longer work with the Dome’s given light; neither text nor color nor shape could be received by those two worthless knots of tissue camped in his sockets.  But that by no means meant he could not see.  On the contrary, his uncanny sense for motion, direction and time blossomed within his skull and seized the remaining parts of his body with a force one might only see in Vaoz’s most trusted servants.  And this blossom proved deadly indeed.

An early story from his exploits contends that he had risked a drink at the odd Barathi tavern (the Leaping Crow? the Jackknife Fin?  they all sound the same anyway) when a plaster-faced young duelist erroneously decided that Drake had drunken from his mug on account of the man’s obvious blindness.  Still an Avokato at the time, your former husband first attempted to extinguish the situation by explaining to the duelist how certain distinguishing tactile characteristics in the mug’s handles differentiated them from one another.  When the duelist appeared unconvinced by Drake’s all-too-subtle argument and drew his parrying dagger to demonstrate some violent male sense of combat readiness, Drake physically re-sheathed the blade in his own mug, splashing its remaining contents on the duelist.  By that point, the simple altercation became a war, as the duelists’ many friends within the establishment lunged forward (again, some strange male point of departure) to pin down the offending blind man.  Sensing the encroaching swarm of assailants, Drake drew the duelist’s own saber right from his very belt and sliced off the very tip of the nose of the fastest man in the mob.  Then he drew a bloody semi-circle around him with the tip of his blade.  Symbolic gestures amidst combat lose their signification, however.  The original duelist saw in this an opportunity to stab Drake from behind, but that was a silly maneuver in hindsight – a blind man has no “behind.”  Without even turning around, Drake flicked the blade over his head and dealt the brash young man’s wrist and unpleasant cut, then back-kicked him onto his spine.  Other blades were drawn and the blind man suddenly found himself in rather familiar territory.  He perceived the all-at-once rush of bodies and steel to his own advantage and forcefully swept the blades aside into their neighbors.  He then used this distraction as an opportunity to leap behind the bar, which afforded his legs considerable protection.  While this had more or less slowed the drunken brutes’ charge, however, he found the man whose nose he trimmed bloody-faced and angry behind the bar.  Drake slid his blade behind the drinking glasses that graced the bar’s backside and touched off the whole row onto the mutilated avenger as he rose from his position.  Then the rest of the horde with any fight left in them poured over the bar, cornering him on all sides.
So began the (in?)famous Symphony of Small Cuts, a now-elementary move in general fencing theory against overwhelming odds.  In seeking no fatalities, Drake whirled and thrust his blade at human parts sensitive-but-not-vital:  earlobes, fingers, tops of shoulders, bottoms of chins, cheeks, knees and the family jewels.  Pain became his instrument in disabling the bunch, and a most persuasive song it sang!  All comers who thought they had the drop on a blind man were subjected to intense agony and mild disfigurement.  Those who sought retribution for their wounds found their attacks parried and ever more painful wounds delivered.  Nobody died, meaning Drake had proverbially cut his way into living history.

As you would expect, any of his decreasing workload as an Avokato was now smothered by requests from asserted interested parties for his conflict-resolution services.  he did several months tour as a mercenary swordsman before he was called upon for what is considered his greatest achievement:  the storming and holding of the Taranthos, a tale of which I am positive you are aware.  There, it was said he played the Symphony of Small Cuts to an even less sympathetic audience – two platoons of the Emperor’s finest swordsmen – with a humble fencing foil, the finest swordplay performance ever recorded.  Even the Spiders stationed there couldn’t catch him off-guard with their devilish tricks – unbelievable!

Twenty years later, the legends still abound, but his post-Seven Who Dared deeds have been poorly chronicled.  For this I blame the frequency with which he changed patrons, skipped locations and humbly let the rumor-mongers across the Seven Skies assume the mantle of his chronicle.  It would appear that your brief and unusual marriage to one of my childhood heroes constitutes one of these missing chapters and Deepah, I bid thee write it!  Even one snippet at a time.

Anyway, it would be unfair of me to preach at you as if we were in Vaoz’s temple and not at least give you my five lines.  So here they are:  I am still the Captain of the Peppersmoke and therefore the de segno leader of its traveling theater troupe.  My debts have slowly and surely been shed through this troupe’s modest cultural success, giving me the opportunity to put aside a sum for later years – when we go out of fashion, you understand.  Our troupe recently acquired an energetic comedian from Ilwuz, which means there’s still some pirate to beat out of him.  Our latest piece Seven Goddesses for Seven Gods will debut shortly in Crail at Duchamps’ opera house.  I visited mother and father last time I was in the Zultinate- they were physically healthy, though father’s political entanglements continue to pursue his attentions.  More of my life you shall have, when more of your life you share.

I close this letter, however, neither with yet another plea to write nor a pining fan letter admiring your ex-husband’s prowess, but with a simple wish for your health, wealth and happiness.  May Vaoz’ mercy serve you and serve as a model for you as you continue to pilot life’s fateful skies.  Someday you shall shuffle off your temperamentality, and I shall warmly greet the new mentality that emerges.  My thoughts are with you, dearest sister.

Yours,

Misra”

Captain Misra Naftaly addressed the letter and had begun to roll it up into a tight scroll for the postal officers, when an imperious knocking echoed forth from her door.  She stood up instinctively, wincing as she bumped her head against the low ceiling rafters.  This was no crew member.

“This is Captain Naftaly,” she stated in a firm, formal greeting.  “Name and business?”  She popped the latch and cautiously opened the door a crack, her senses on high alert from her smuggling days.  Outside stood a somewhat diminutive but stiffly imposing man in the garb of a Crailese Deraad, one of a small number of administrators who oversaw the workings of Grandcomo and who took orders only from the Commandant himself.  In brief, an unbelievably important and influential figure within Crailese politics was requesting entry to her cabin.  Behind him stood a full squad of Falcons, who had rounded up the rest of the crew in their ridiculous “god” outfits.  Apparently, Magnus needed to be subdued and tied up.  Everyone – no, the whole situation – looked more than a bit strained.

“Gladly,” the Deraad responded after a momentous pause.  “My name is Deraad DeMarco, Director of Internal Affairs within Grandcomo.  I’ve come to request the release of your crewmember Aesop Southwind Duchamps into my custody for questioning as a witness and/or detainable suspect in the murder of the Falcon Milton Corvaglio earlier this afternoon.”  He spoke carefully, such that one could even hear the slash between “and” and “or.”  Captain Naftaly carefully surveyed the scenario again.  Duchamps looked out of breath and somewhat perturbed, but otherwise not particularly incriminated.  Deraad DeMarco’s eyes bore none of the hard-edge betraying a serious breach of Crailese security, meaning that Duchamps was to him somehow a known quantity.  The rest of the crew had dropped their stage weapons and didn’t look eager to pick them up again.  She shrugged her shoulders.

“Shall we sign the release in my cabin?”  she said, casting one final glance toward the perplexed Duchamps.  DeMarco nodded, unclasped the part of his full cape draped across his chest and produced a neatly rolled-up scroll.  The two leaders then vanished into the Captain’s quarters.

With the door shut, DeMarco seemed to have relaxed his demeanor.  He gently laid the scroll on her desk and pulled off his gloves.  “So,” he said as he settled himself on the guest’s stool, his ostentatious cape folding at his haunches.  “The document should be relatively straightforward.  By the looks of you and your cabin, I’m certain literacy is no obstacle.  Your refined taste befits the profile of your theater company, in fact.”

Scanning the document, Captain Naftaly silently cursed the officious-if-straightforward tone of Crailese bureaucracy:  Duchamps had been witnessed speaking to the deceased officer shortly before his death, making the necessity for a deposition quite clear.  Nowhere on the form did it mention the unwarranted imprisonment or other cruelties which the Crailese government was known to mete out from time to time.  Duchamps was a Falcon, for Vaoz’ sake!  Yet suspicion still hung heavy over her consciousness.

“When, may I ask, was the last time your company visited Barathi?”  the Deraad’s question appeared out of nowhere, and noticeably collided with the theme of the Barathi hero detailed in her letter.  She signed the document so as to hasten the pace of this informal inquisition.

“I suppose,” she mused aloud.  “It was over four months ago.  The troupe was in artists’ residence at the Emperor’s Lodge and put on seventeen consecutive nights of Retribution’s Fatal Kiss.”  DeMarco’s well-trimmed ears perked at the mention of the play.

“So you’re the group who has revitalized that classic!”  he exclaimed, his eyes pivoting to the ceiling.  “Adolphus is such a gripping character, wouldn’t you say?  ‘Our futures the past would strangle / Were it not for this fallen angel.’”  The words rolled off his tongue, equal parts song and wine.  His obvious appreciation for the theatre caught Naftaly off-guard.  He knew the play well and delighted in its subtext.

“If you’d like,” she ventured.  “I can surely give you two good balcony seats for the opening night of our forthcoming production.”  She hoped she didn’t look pleading or desperate.  DeMarco leveled his eyes, pursed his lips and shook his head.

“All booked up for that evening, I’m afraid,” he said.  “Still: it’s always a pleasure to see the Duchamps Opera House lit up for business now and again.  I’m certain many of my colleagues will be in attendance at the advertised reception for the piece; some of them may even behave themselves.”  He chuckled and gave her a conspiratorial wink, which became a curious signifier in the current context.  Naftaly neatly rolled up the deposition release – sealing Duchamps’ fate for the time being – and handed it back to the Deraad under the pretense that their shared ‘refinement’ would hasten Duchamps’ processing within the bowels of the Crailese interrogation chambers.

“In any case,” Captain Naftaly stated.  “I will send for Duchamps shortly, as there is much to be done before the premiere that requires his attentions.”

“Naturally,” DeMarco replied, watching the vast invisible paperwork necessitated by such a summons pass before his eyes.  “You’ll have him back in good order.  Our questions will be… to the point.”  He rose to his feet and donned his expensive gloves.

“Then I bid thee fareweell, Sir Deraad.” the Captain replied.  The Deraad’s restless vision, however, strayed to her rolled-up letter on her desk.

“That looks like correspondence prepared for postage, yes?” he said.  “Permit me to deliver it for you.  To the post, I mean.”  She shot him a defensive look.

“I was under the impression you were Director of Internal Affairs, a far shot from being Postmaster, Sir Deraad.”

“Then you have a few things to learn about Crail yourself, Lady Captain.” he replied with a trace of sarcasm.  “If it’s not ready, I can certainly…”

“Take it.”  Captain Naftaly exclaimed, handing over her gushing prose about a childhood crush to the strange little noble who would wind up reading it anyway.

With two scrolls tucked under his magnificent cape, Deraad DeMarco silently marched Duchamps, dressed in his peculiar big-breasted costume, off the Peppersmoke, the capes of his Falcon escorts swaying behind them.

Fantasy

(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…”

“You’re salivating.”

“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!”