Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Damned and the Redeemed - Second Draft

The Damned and the Redeemed
That damnable fool.  That strutting, idiotic peacock and his gallant naivety.  For every time he has saved my life, I have saved him from himself.  For every ridiculous scheme that sunk, I have been there to toss the drowning moron a line. This time, he has implicated me.  Not only has he implicated me, but he has left me solely accountable for whatever comes of this debacle.  I should be livid but under the circumstances that would hardly be honorable. 
I should have stopped this before it began.  When he first told me of his intentions toward Lady Auxten, so far above of his station, I should have convinced him to seek another union.  I did attempt to persuade him.   I reminded him of his reputation as a rake and a gadfly, two aspects of his personality which overshadowed his stalwart bravery and naval acumen.  Lady Bronwyn Auxten was the adopted niece of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Auxten, Charles Windmere.  Harlon Sonne was the orphan son of a house destroyed in the revolution.  The same revolution that killed his parents also allowed for social advancement, even for someone with nothing to their name but shame.  A naval commission may have allowed him to attend the same balls as the young Lady Bronwynn, but there was no chance that such a union would ever be approved.  He simply lacked the resources necessary for Lord Auxten to approve such a dalliance, much less any union.  I told him exactly what our chances were after the Worricker Ball, in our shared apartments.    
“I won’t hear anything so dire,” cried Sonne as he gesticulated with a snifter of brandy.  “You speak of marriage as if it were a matter of politics and court!  It is love, you damned accountant!  You keep reminding me that this is now a world in which any man may rise in station, but here you speak to me of limits!”
“If you were in line for a Captaincy, I do not doubt that you could persuade Lord Auxten to consider your worth, but you’ve destroyed any chance of that, haven’t you?” I asked, not expecting an answer.  Sonne had been caught with the daughter of the Vice Admiral in his very quarters aboard the Seneschal.  He’d been demoted and drummed out of the command training program as a result.  Only his reputation as a swordsman and pistoleer had kept the Admiral from dueling him, and those same skills made him invaluable on an assault frigate such as my ship, the Vendetta.  Were it not for my letter accepting responsibility for his future actions he would have been run out of the navy. 
“I have a plan,” he said with sudden sobriety.  “I have heard of a fellow named Mr. Wilde in Stonebottom, they call him the ‘repairer of reputations,’ it’s said that he can fix all sorts of problems.  Even the kind of problems beyond helping.”
“What in the twelve hells does that even mean?” I asked. 
“I have absolutely no idea,” he cackled, “but what the hell, it should be good for a lark.”
He’d retired to bed then, laughing about the whole thing, but the very next morning he woke me with full expectation I would accompany him in his excursion to Stonebottom.  I objected on two grounds.  The first being that it should be impossible to be in such good cheer after having consumed so much brandy, and the second being that there was very little chance some nobody from the city’s poorest ward would have any sway with the powers of the city or their opinions. 
  From the barracks tower it was but a short ferry ride to Stonebottom, the squalid community that served the docks and shipwrights.  It was a hive of taverns and tenements, whose streets were only cleared by dint of being built upon a hill and rain a common occurrence.  Mr. Wilde’s office was in a particularly charmless split level attached to some sort of warehouse, outside which lurked men of ill disposition.  Inside the building, a young boy had lounged upon the stairs, playing with a wooden figure crudely carved and painted to look like a navy officer.  He’d smiled at us with his two front teeth missing and said, “You’ll be wanting Mr. Wilde, upstairs.  Go on in, the door’s unlocked.”   
Opening that door had been like visiting an abattoir of good taste. The noisome odor of mildew assaulted the senses.  Stacks of books and rough crates stuffed with maps and scrolls left little room to navigate, but a circuitous path led through to an inner office, a split door whose upper section was open, and from which a haze of smoke wafted. 
Mr. Wilde was like no man I had ever seen.    He wore some fungus colored frock coat and a lemon yellow cravat seemingly tied by a toddler.  His proportions left the eyes watering.  Too long arms extended from a barrel chest, his hand undefinably wrong, and a head far too small, wrinkled and spotted like a turnip left too long in a cellar.    I should have taken Sonne by the shoulder and run out of that place then, but I was captivated.  As much as I loathed the atmosphere in that place, between the mildew, the foulness in his pipe, and the man himself, I was entranced by the prospect of the strange. 
And strange it had been.  In a watery voice, he’d asked few questions, the whole time seated behind that double-hung door and smoking something that reeked of piss and jasmine.  He’d laid cards out on the counter at one point, most of them common playing cards, but mixed in were symbols and signs like no deck I had seen, neither of the minor or major arcana’s with which I was familiar.  Finally, after Sonne had claimed to offer him any sum he could manage, he’d agreed.  “You speak of a price.  I speak of costs.  Your reputation can be restored, but your coin is meaningless to me.  What I require is something lost by one and found by another, a ledger bound in seal hide, locked and bound with a star clasp.”
I knew the book of which he spoke.  It’d been captured by our very ship the foregoing week, taken from a sleek cutter with no flags or name, with a masthead of squid bottomed siren, and a crew of cutthroats who had fought to the last, even after quarter had been offered.  The ledger lay in the ship’s tower hold, not yet inventoried, and its provenance unknown.   How could he know such a thing? 
“Listen,” Sonne began, “I have no idea what you are going on about.  I have coin and I have the willingness to be in your debt, to perform some favor or task you set before me.  This book you speak of, I have no idea.”
“Then fate has intervened on your behalf,” Mr. Wilde smiled then, nodding to me.  My fascination was now replaced with an urge to bathe.  With his full attention on me there was no escaping those jaundiced eyes or the sickly rot of his rictus smile.  He unnerved me, I am not ashamed to admit.  “Your friend here knows, and when you have decided you know where to find me.”  He slid backwards as if his chair were on a track and the upper door closed with finality.  The interview was at an end. 
“What is he referring to, old friend?”  Sonne asked while picking his way through the stacks of moldering texts. 
I convinced him that it would be better to discuss such matters out of Mr. Wilde’s earshot.  He suggested a local tavern he was familiar with, the Wicker Witch, a name that did not inspire much faith on my part.  Still, I had gone and found it to be less odious than I imagined.  Common it certainly was, its patrons at this early hour a mixture of dockworkers and doxies.  While neither of us wore our uniforms our garb marked us as a step above in station, which garnered the attention of two of the comelier fille de joie.  I’d have rather sent them off, but Sonne suggested that we try to fit in, and two aristocrats slumming was common enough.    So we’d made an offer to pay them to laugh and drink with us, but nothing more.  The payment tendered was sufficient for any of their services.
“This, by the way, is not how one shirks the reputation of an indolent drunkard hedonist,” I said gesturing to the two women now bouncily entertaining us.
“If I am to use a repairer of reputations, I may as well get my money’s worth” he laughed as he made a show of accidently pouring some of his mead down the girl’s blouse.    
“If I am correct,” I began over the sound of the cocotte’s singing some bawdy song involving a chicken, “he is referring to a ledger taken from that smuggling sloop we captured last week.  The captain authorized you to lead the boarding when they refused quarter,”
“And those tattooed heathens actually put up a decent fight,” he interjected.  “I remember the ship.  The holds barely had anything worth the fight, I recall.”
“Just so.  I’ve not fully inventoried it, but she was carrying mostly exotic pottery and some statuary, as well as a few crates of opium.  Honestly, there was no reason for the fight.  The taxes would have been minimal, far less than what we found in the captain’s chest.”
“Maybe they’d just taken too much of their own opium and were looking for a fight.  They certainly fought as if mad.”
“Well, obviously, your friend Mr. Wilde was in league with these madmen, and whatever is in that book is almost certainly why they were willing to die to get it here unremarked and unseen,” I explained. 
“Does he look like a pirate to you?  No, he’s just some nutter who works as a fence or some such.  It’s only a book after all, no harm would come of it disappearing from the hold.”
“Says the man who isn’t responsible.”
“Exactly!” He laughed good-naturedly and bought another round of drinks. 
We’d gone around the issue for hours, I made the case that the book must be dangerous of valuable.  He’d argued that the book was probably just a pretense to get us to do something that would put us under his thumb.  When I asked how that was better he’s said that if he tried to blackmail us he’d wind up in Crab Bay as chum.  Eventually he had convinced me to go to the tower and examine the book.  The bargain being that if it were something dangerous or valuable we’d report it to our captain without delay.
It was a strange book to be sure.  The hide cover was poorly tanned and held some scent of rot about it.  Four shanks of brass formed a brace holding the pages tight, the key hold set into a kind of curved star upon the center of the book.  The workmanship of that lock was superior and neither Sonne nor I was able to breach the lock.  Still, the cover gave just enough to bend the pages at the upper and lower edges and it seemed to be blank pages of heavy weight rag paper.  It was valuable in its workmanship but nothing illicit. 
I’d agreed to think it over but said we should wait until the morning, as I wanted to get some more information on this Mr. Wilde.  To that end we’d caroused the finest establishments that Stonebottom had to offer.  We’d spent coin on drinks, coin on girls, and coin just for conversations with men of ill repute.  His name was known to a few, but he was friends with none.  He was called a purveyor of lost things.  One called him a slackjawed serpent and a cheat, but he’d been too drunk to remember what the cheat had been.  One woman said he was a man you could trust, considering her profession as a seller of flesh I was unwilling to take her word for it.   I was drunk, I realized, and so did Sonne.  He’d changed tactics at some point and was no longer looking for some edge over Wilde.   He was now sure that Wilde could perform some miracle for him. 
“Ambrose,” he drawled as he propped my legs up on the couch in our apartment, “look at it this way.  If this works, and I he does repair my reputation, and I do woo and wed Bronwynn, you will be my best man.  You’ll be in with the highest social circles in this heaven forsaken city.  You’re already destined for great things.  I could introduce you to her cousin Mavis, she’s just the sort for you.”
I don’t know how I responded.  I don’t believe I relented.  I can only say with certainty that the day of drinking had finally caught up to me.  In my dreams that star shape had burned in my mind.  Silver like mercury, some lambent flame where the keyhole should be.  I’d dreamed of forcing it open, my hands burning on the cold brass.  Inside had been words that blurred and moved and hurt the eyes.  I’d dreamed of turning pages faster and faster looking for something clear, something I understood.  I felt a hand upon my shoulder and turned only to find…
…myself awakened by the cries of pie sellers below.  I scrambled to my feet and found my keys gone.  I imagined how it had gone.  The bastard was one of those drunkards who could pass for sober, and for whom drink made sleep nigh impossible, filling him with an unholy energy.  Passed out and dead to the world I had been easy prey.  He’d taken my keys, wobbled down to the Confiscation Holds, and played just sober enough to convince the posted guard I had sent him for some papers or such.  To the guard my ledger would look no different than that seal hide tome, and he’d be off.  As an officer, he’d requisition a ferry from the seawall, just as I had done now.  And while I had shouted and waved my service weapon to get a carriage to stop for me, somehow, I knew that one would be waiting for him, they’d call him by name, and they would not need to know their destination.  Mr. Wilde would be waiting for him, not in his office but that warehouse beneath his offices.  He’d have the key, and it would be as eldritch as that confounded ledger.  The sick hollow in my stomach as the carriage raced up Carroway Avenue told me that it was no ledger, at least not one in which funds and supplies were accounted.  I feared what that book really accounted and knew that the cost Mr. Wilde had spoken of was far more than just some book, if my fears were correct and my nightmares prophetic, the cost would be far dearer.  
The carriage had lurched to a sudden screeching halt, its fore axle snapping and smashing the chassis into the cobblestone road.  I’d climbed out through the seized door, and found the coachmen seeing to his steeds, one of which was mewling in a way no horse ever should.  I approached and drew my pistol, proffering it to the man with as much sympathy as I had to offer.  He’d done the deed and thanked me.  Into his hand I had shoved a five guilder coin, enough to replace the horse and then I ran. 
From Carroway I turned on Weald, and ran, my pistol drawn, and my scabbarded saber in hand.  The night porters on this road did not mark my passing.  The splash of chamber pots around me did not deter me.  Yet, when I turned on Marrow, the lane upon which Mr. Wilde’s office crouched, and I could see that lights burned within that low roofed building, a pair of men stepped out of the mists to accost me.  Their intentions were clear enough, with one carrying a ball and chain, and the other a wicked rusted shark knife.  Quartermaster I may be, but soldier I was first.  Without hesitation I raised my pistol and fired, a blossom of red and white viscera blooming where the knifeman’s throat had been.  He gurgled his outrage even as his friend swung the chain.  My offhand raised in defense, the scabbard of my blade catching the worst of the sting but the tip smashed my pistol from my grip.  I thrust downward with all my strength, pulling the larger man off balance and drawing my sword with my main.  My upswing sliced through his belly in a moon shaped gash, and he went down, fleshy filth slithering into the street.  I did not stop to ensure they would not rise, instead quickly grabbing the gun and hoping the firing mechanism was sound.
I ran headlong into the warehouse, ready to fight, but found no living thing to challenge me.  Fires burned in crude crocks.  Squiggling lines and static curves were scrawled with precision on the floor, etched in black on the wooden floor.  The place stank wet smoke, emanating from a man sized effigy of reeds and bound herbs, bound in bailing wire.  A lectern stood before it, at the conjunction of these strange lines and curves.  Gun and blade in hand, I approached, and found the surface of the pulpit seared with weird branch like sigil.  Wilde was in the wind and the tome with him.  My friend, Harlon Sonne, damn his eyes, was gone as well.  The rage that had fueled me seeped from my limbs and I felt all the weight of carousing and now fighting leaden my limbs.  Yet, I could not leave well enough alone.  With the tip of my blade I pushed aside the reeds and found beneath a boy, blackened by smoke and wedged between his missing teeth, that wooden doll painted in navy blue. 
I retched then.    
I am not sure how long I stood there looking on that corpse.  He was hardly the first I had seen, nor the youngest, nor the goriest, but there was a gruesomeness to the act, an emotionlessness which hung about the chamber that left me adrift in a void.  As a navy man I had opened holds where slaves had been left to eat their dead.  I’d been in boarding actions where boys had been strapped with crude explosives and shoved into our men.  I’ve seen horror and human debasement used as weapons.  Yet something about this boy’s corpse chilled me.  I realized then that he had no eyes, they’d been taken before being smoked. 
When I stumbled from that place, my assailants corpses were gone, taken by whom I do not know.  Nothing seemed right.  Were they brigands as I had assumed?  Or were they in cahoots with Mr. Wilde?  Where was my friend and why did the boy have to die like that?  The questions hounded me, leaving me adrift.  By the time I made it to the docks it was past midday.  I realized that I was covered in a spray of blood, and that passersby had shunned my approach.  It was not until a dock warden tried to arrest me that I came to my senses.  I told him of the boy and the warehouse and Mr. Wilde.  My rank and my bearing may have been enough to convince him I was no lunatic, but he did not seem shocked by my tale either.
As I climbed the steps of the barracks, Mate Runnel, caught me, asking “Have you not heard?  Come, it’s Lt. Sonne!“   Of course, I had heard nothing but the look of anger in Runnel’s face told me enough.  I followed runnel across the sea wall to the Vendetta, and down into the hold where our ship’s doctor, Kalstein, was wrists deep in my friend.
“What happened?” I shouted, filled now with rage for whoever would strike my dearest compatriot. 
Sonne lifted his head and answered me himself, his voice the languid tone he affects when under the power of poppymilk.  “I went straight away to Lord Auxten, seeking him at the Grand Exchequers, and he agreed to speak to me privately in the garden.  We were set upon.  Blaggards who thought to ransom the Lord, I imagine.  Or perhaps they were royalists.  I know not.”
                He was interrupted by a terrible gurgling from within his open belly.  Dr. Kalstein dragged out a mass of bloody filth and tossed it into a bucket while his aide flushed the area with saline. 
“That is enough, lieutenant.  I kept you awake to tell me when the pain spikes above the effect of the laudanum, not to extoll your exploits,” said the doctor.
“I feel no pain, doctor.  I have to make my report.  I have to tell my friend,” Harlon’s voice quaked, and I went to his side, and saw what was left of my friend. 
My gun hand rose and I leveled the barrel directly at the doctor’s chest. 
                “That is quite enough of that, Kalstein,” I managed to say without screaming.  I knew what I was doing would see me court martialed, but that ghoul was no longer trying to save his life.  There was no living with those wounds.  The stench of his bowels flooding into his bloodstream told me everything I needed to know.  My education at the citadel was not without some merit.
Runnel had no idea what to do.  He shouted some kind of admonition but the doctor dropped his butcher’s tools on the table and walked away without another word.
“There were four of them, in grey rags with daggers and these scarves with sharp discs sewn in them.  They disarmed me easily, they were so fast.  Auxten is no fighter, but I dove into the fray, weapon or no.  I held them off, breaking one’s nose, and another’s neck before the Exchequer’s guards showed.  By then, it was too late.  Auxten was unharmed, but…” his eyes made a downward kind of motion, “you see what happened to me.” 
                “Lord Auxten called me the bravest man he’d ever seen.  He swore he would recommend me for promotion.  He told me that I would be held up as an example of all that is great in the service of one’s fellows. “
“You’re a good friend, Ambrose.”
Those were his last words.  He started to froth at the mouth, convulsing as the poisons in his blood sent him into shock.
“Kalstein, you bloodless hack, give him something for the pain or I swear your brains will paint the walls of this boat,” I said sharply as I cocked the hammer of my pistol.
                He did as I asked and then left, to report my insubordination to the captain.  I watched my damn fool friend die, from wounds that would certainly see him posthumously rewarded for gallantry and noble sacrifice.  He’d fought off four assassins, saved the life of one of the most powerful men in the city, and done so with no regard to his safety.  No one would mention his indiscretions again.  Like all the great fools in this world, he’d died with honor and left me, the real fool to settle his accounts. 

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