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.



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.

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

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.”

The Bedeviled Medium

September 29, 2009


Saturday brought a stormy conclusion to the Kamera als Waffe conference, which might have been expected given the topic of Nazi propaganda cinema within a larger historical context.  But first the uncontroversial papers:  Kay Hoffmann (University of Stuttgart) presented Roel Vande Winkel’s paper on the Nazi newsreels made to export, and how foreign audiences wouldn’t just accept the German newsreel dubbed into their language (ironically like the Germans’ present means of consuming the world’s TV/film culture), but required new perspectives on propaganda events.  Rainer Rutz presented on the fascinating magazine “Signal” that the Nazis produced for European sales, combining images of well-groomed soldiers taking some hot-bodied time off and blonde beauties bathing on captured French beaches.  Martina Werth-Mühl from the Bundesarchiv told us not to use YouTube to watch these newsreels, but received resounding applause when she suggested a reduction of price per newsreel at the Bundesarchiv might be to everyone’s benefit.  Judith Keilbach argued that the use of propaganda footage in television documentaries generally reproduce the same effects of their original intended purpose:  to demonstrate Nazi dynamism and power in elaborately staged war spectacles.

Then the moment of controversy struck when Michael Kloft, the main historical film producer for the ZDF (Das Goebbels Experiment and 29 others), took the podium and said, effectively, that he uses Nazi newsreel footage because it was the footage taken at the time, and it educates the children visually about a time period that is fast losing all of its eyewitnesses.  His talk produced visible tension in a room where the medium of television had clearly already been consigned to the 11th circle of Hell.  Thus once Kloft was done with his speech, several very eloquent arguments about the “Gleichwertigkeit” toward Nazi footage since the introduction of television in the 50s were posed against Kloft’s flippant remarks.  You could tell that among these history professors, a kind of ferocious anger concerning all of the facts they had to make their students unlearn every year thanks to television was promptly unleashed.  We ended up staying past the end of the conference to conclude the very intensive discussion with the question of whether television can be allowed to become an “open” medium like film, where the eyes and ears are permitted to wander in a space and evaluate the “rough edges” of history on their own terms.

On Sunday morning, I had breakfast at the famous Café Bilderbuch – my third visit since I’ve arrived – on Akazienstrasse.  The café has a reputation thanks to its Viennese style décor, classy music selection, newsletter-styled menus and, of course, excellent coffee and meals named after storybook characters.  There I sat and wrote most of what is to be the next chapter in the Peppersmoke Players series.  It gives me something to do with my hands, after all.

After the usual laundry and dishes labor befitting Sunday, I found some time to attend Kino Arsenal yet again for a series of underground 8mm films made in eastern bloc countries.  Claus Löser – journalist, film historian and curator of the exhibit – was present to introduce the films, as was one of the filmmakers Ramona Köppel-Welsh.  The crowd itself was interesting:  a mostly silent bunch of maybe half-a-dozen Poles, two Russians, two Germans and myself.  I think the language barrier was significant enough that only the Germans and I had a conversation after the film.  The nice thing about the Kino Arsenal, of course, is that they give you free wine and pretzels afterwards, so Claus, Ramona, the Germans and I stood around for a time and chit-chatted about the GDR and the United States.  Ramona, it turns out, was invited to Los Angeles in 1993… during the L.A. riots.  That gave her a lasting impression of the States I maybe wouldn’t envy but, hey!, it was probably a more accurate picture of our divisions than most visitors get.

I’ll finish the “Reality” section of this blog with a brief summary of Monday, when I visited a personal Mecca:  the Filmmuseum Potsdam.  Located in a beautiful building with horse statues leaping from the walls near the train station, the Filmmuseum Potsdam is a repository for, well, all things DEFA (with a spot of UFA and Pro-Babelsberg here and there).  Seriously, though:  every major film and a good chunk of the minor ones had some sort of artifact or remnant on display in the museum, from the concentration camp outfit used in Jacob the Liar to the bow Gojko Mitic fought the white Americans with in Falcon’s Trail.  Even the counterfeiting kit from the Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters was there in all its faux-1940s glory.  At the end of the tour, I went to sign the guest book and noticed a lot of people complaining about the overflowing presence of DEFA materials over UFA and other materials.  “Bah!” I said, and wrote a proper defense of the East German studios right there in the guest book.

Blog entries to come:

• A poem on my surreal and awful experience at the Ausländerbehörde

• Several short reviews of academic books I’m reading for my dissertation

• Peppersmoke Players Chapter 3 – Rehearse or Die


Naked Lunch (dir. David Cronenberg, USA 1991)

Boy, what a trip!  Similar to Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1993) as a kind of tribute to a whole surrealist author’s body of work, Naked Lunch is a film about the destabilization of the armored male subject through the psychic/psychotic transformative experience of writing.  This time around I noticed several things:  the rampant homoeroticism (complete with talking anuses), the Orientalism (kind of done Madman style:  a stereotyped “chinaman” and Moroccan “exoticism” are both foregrounded at different points), the utter fakeness of the sets, Peter Weller’s droll mumbling as Bill Lee (see Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg’s Spider for the same), and the dissonant soundtrack created by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman.  Now I kind of see the Naked Lunch story as kind of a cross between Camus’ L’etranger and Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle:  the former due to the narrator’s utter lack of Self becoming grounds for a murderous act, and the latter because there’s a sort of extraordinary sexual journey that Bill Lee goes through without actually having sex with anybody (e.g., Fridolin and his night wanderings).

Vivre sa vie (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France 1962)

Twelve scenes that show Godard’s contempt for conventional Hollywood narrative that’ll leave you breathless.  The movie was rather dull this time around, but maybe it’s because I’ve worked extensively with One Plus One, Tout va bien and Alphaville, which I find to be much better executed films (and don’t all revolve around Anne Karina’s visage).

The Third Man (dir. Carol Reed, UK 1949)

Speaking of well-executed films, Carol Reed’s nihilistic classic put its hooks back into me after I watched The True Glory for the first time on Friday.  An incessant zither soundtrack backs this film noir story set in the dark streets of Vienna, where sharp lines such as “death is at the bottom of all things” are delivered so non-chalantly that they make this sort of filmmaking look easy.  My theory is that Reed, along with Billy Wilder, did his time during the war with the allied propaganda, thereby earning the right to be totally sarcastic about the peace afterward.  Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and, more to the point, Sunset  Boulevard (1950) both peel back the post-war consumer society to reveal a disturbed undertone of fractured identities and incoherent culture.

Ein-Blick (dir. Gerd Conradt, FRG 1986)

Conradt set up a camera to take 1 frame per second for 12 hours, and then recorded East Berlin from West Berlin.  Every time anyone looks at the camera, he freezes frame for just a moment.  The film gives you a good overall impression as to what a day in the life of a security camera might be like, except with more exciting motion and lighting.

Z mojego okna (dir. Józef Robakovski, Poland 1978-2000)

Another stationary camera set-up, this film is translated to roughly “Outside My Window.”  Indeed, Robakovski basically took footage from outside his window for 22 years, recording people running errands, assorted state parades and ultimately a five-star hotel being built that cut off his magnificent window view.  What struck me about this film was that, unlike Conradt’s, it wasn’t anonymous surveillance.  The filmmaker expresses in a voice-over the story of every person whom he spies on, revealing an urban environment that’s actually more like a community than most U.S. cities.

Trabantomania (dir. János Vetö, Hungary 1982)

A music video for a Hungarian band Trabant, Trabantomania is not so much about the East German car – the Trabant – as it is about showing us silly footage of dolphins and seals, and of the band sitting around in a messy apartment.  You still get a definite impression of the interdisciplinarity and intertextuality that underlie such experimental films.

Zestokaja bolezu musicia (dir. Igor and Gleb Aleyinkov, USSR 1987)

This abrasive picture is about this guy who gets on a subway car, two security officials proceed to sodomize him, then leave.  I liked the high-contrast film filters used.  It looked a little bit like Aronovsky’s π (1998).

Lesorub (dir. Yevgeny Yufit, USSR 1985)

This amusing film is about bodies against snow, mostly wrestling with each other, but sometimes doing perverse things with a dummy.  This one’s probably my favorite of the short films.

Sanctus, Sanctus (dir. Thomas Werner, GDR 1988)

In 1988, Thomas Werner and a lot of the East German 8mm scene walked in a May 1st parade, passing Erich Honecker, Egon Krenz and all the party cronies at the time.  The soundtrack is a beautiful church hymn that at once mocks and commemorates the GDR within a single musical line.

Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (dir. Ramona Koeppel-Welsh, GDR 1989)

An anxious picture if I’ve ever seen one, Konrad, sprach die Frau Mama (ich gehe weg und du bleibst da! – Struwwelpeter) has been released on our Counter-Images DVD at the DEFA Film Library, but it was much better on the big screen.  Disturbing images of little children weren’t what almost got Koeppel-Welsh thrown in jail over this picture, but rather a little footage of the Berlin Wall shot from a hospital window.  The realm of the politically/culturally forbidden past 1961 usually centered around the thematization of the Wall, and this film proved to be no exception.


(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!”