by Nancy Sauer
Odette Dubois d’Arrent surveyed the room with a quick sweep of her eyes. The parlor looked much the same as it did on her previous week’s visit: well-made but not ostentatious furniture, an embroidery frame with a newly-begun project in the corner, and books piled on nearly every table in the room. The exception was the table located near the window that looked out over the house’s inner courtyard, neatly laid with table service for two.
“I am so happy you could join me this afternoon,” her hostess said. “Our discussions are always so entertaining.”
Odette smiled at her. “Your emotions exactly mirror mine,” she said. “I was gratified to receive your invitation.” It was a complicated truth. Urraca de la Murrieta was a young woman of many interests and a charming way of speaking about them; Odette enjoyed the time she spent with her. Urraca was also the daughter of one of Five Sails’ wealthiest merchants, Guillen de la Murrieta, a man who Odette very much wanted to ingratiate herself with. He controlled a number of shipping contacts that would be very useful to her patron back in Montaigne.
“I have been reading the book you lent me!” Urraca said, moving towards the table. “Will Marie ever escape the castle? No, don’t tell me, I want to read it myself. And you say that there are more?”
“Several more,” Odette said. She seated herself at the table. “I think I will be getting another one when my mail from home next arrives here.” She casually waved at the goblets and plates set out before them. “I take it that your father will not be able to join us?”
Urraca wilted a little. “He will not. He says he has no desire to meet you.”
Odette didn’t know how to react to this. She accepted rebuffs as part and parcel of a courtier’s life, but rarely had she received such a blunt refusal. “I am sorry to learn that I have offended him so,” she finally said.
“Oh, it isn’t you personally,” Urraca said. “It’s because of the bandits.”
“Well, really a street gang. They are led by a man from Montaigne, it is said, and they are causing trouble at some of Father’s warehouses. He’s taken it into his head that all the Montaigne in the city are in league against him, and he won’t hear a word otherwise.”
“I am so sorry to hear about your father’s problems,” Odette said. “But let us speak of happier things. Tell me about your embroidery.”
When Odette finally left the house of de la Murrieta she found one of her musketeers, Jean Urbain, waiting for her at the gate. The other three musketeers had predictably wandered, across the street, joining the locals in drinking and gambling with dice.
“So how did your meeting with the rich merchant go?” Jean asked. “And did you hear any word about our elusive lady?
“Not a single word, though I am even more convinced that Urraca’s social connections will be of great help in the search. And I didn’t meet her father at all.” She quickly summarized the problem of the street gang.
“Most unfortunate,” Jean said.
“Indeed. I will need to find out more about this man, if he has any patrons or family that I could use to influence him.” Odette flinched a little. She would have to go to her patron’s other agents in Five Sails and ask for another round of favors. So far none of her plans had come to fruition, and she was running thin on goodwill.
Jean touched her arm slightly and smiled. “Powder your face,” he said. “I have seen you in darker times than this.”
Odette returned the smile. “I usually try to forget such things,” Odette said.. “But sometimes it is good to be reminded of them. Let us collect the others and go visit the merchants of knowledge.”
Odette had taken a suite for herself and her musketeers at the Hotel Precieux. It was located on the edge of one of the seedier districts of Five Sails, which made it both fairly cheap to rent and convenient for dealing with the city’s more unsavory inhabitants. It was thus perfect for her needs. Her office was furnished, like the rest of the suite, with furniture that had once been of high quality but had begun the gradual slide into shabbiness. The large, ornately carved desk contrasted with the rest of the furnishings. A map of the city and random piles of documents obscured much of the desk’s rosewood surface. While her musketeers amused themselves, Odette read through her many reports.
“He isn’t even from Montaigne!” Odette suddenly burst out. All around the room the others stopped what they were doing and stared at her. Henri Michelet had been practicing a new song on his lute, Jean was reading a philosophy tract, Leontine Giroux and Bastien Girard were playing cards. Leontine was in the process of raising a cup of wine to her mouth.
“His loss,” Henri said.
“He’s not?” Jean said.
“Wasn’t the merchant supposed to be Castilian?” Bastien said.
“Who are we talking about?” Leontine said, and finished drinking her wine.
“The criminal troubling de la Murrieta,” Odette said, laying the report down on the desk and spreading her hands flat on it. She knew she shouldn’t let her frustration get the better of her, but it remained an ongoing struggle. “He isn’t from Montaigne, he is a member of the Red Hand gang from the Vodacce district. He’s been nicknamed The Montaigne because of his hat!”
“Unfortunate for us,” Henri said, “but a sign of good taste for him.”
Odette ignored the observation. “He seems to be trying to raise his stature in the Red Hand by making raids in the Castilian district. If he can succeed in gaining a foothold there, the gang will become even more influential in the city and he will become more powerful within the gang.”
“What is his real name?” Leontine said.
“Here’s a list,” Odette said, “you can take your pick. He uses a different one in the gambling houses of each district, and he owes money to all of them.”
“If he owes many people money, then he could be bribed,” Jean said.
“That will work until he gambles it all away again,” Bastien said. “Then he will be back at work troubling honest merchants. Or somewhat honest merchants, as we are in Five Sails.”
“And I could not get enough money to pay off all—“ Odette paused, a distant look on her face. Her musketeers were silent: they knew what that look meant.
“It’s somewhat risky,” Odette finally said, “but manageable, and failure will harm us little.” She reached for her writing kit. “Bastien, I need you to find me a professional rumormonger and an actor who can present himself as a Castilian gentleman. Henri, I need you and Jean to go to our patron’s moneyholder to obtain some funds.”
“How much?” Henri said.
“As much as you can. Be persuasive. Leontine, I need you to take a note to Urraca. We need to know if there is a pattern to The Montaigne’s attacks on her father’s warehouses.”
“We are musketeers, not errand runners,” Jean said.
“Never fear, my friend,” Odette said. She wrote a note in a swift, decisive hand. “You will be showing your worth very soon now.”
The moon had risen just high enough to be seen over the roofline of the buildings around them. Jean could hear the murmur of the nearby sea and the soft tapping of shoe upon cobblestone as one of his fellow musketeers moved, shifting their weight from one foot to another. Two nights ago, rumor had it that The Montaigne had lost heavily at gambling. Tonight, Odette gambled on him keeping to his usual routine after a loss.
A crowd of about a dozen people came up the street, led by a man in a Montaigne hat.
“They are very reliable criminals,” Bastien said.
“The biggest one is mine,” Leontine said.
“That is a fine hat,” Henri said.
“It’s time,” Jean said, and he strode out of the shadows of the de la Murrieta warehouse. The others followed him. When he reached the center of the street he stopped and held up his hand. “No further, good folk,” Jean said in a loud, friendly voice. “You should turn around and go home.”
The gang’s leader stopped, giving a signal to his followers. “And why should we do that?”
“I have heard that there are criminals moving through this area, and I would hate for you to fall afoul of them.”
“Very amusing.” The man known as The Montaigne drew his rapier, a blade with an ornate basketweave hilt-guard but no other ornamentation. “I have business at that warehouse, but it doesn’t require me to kill you. Leave now and I’ll cause you no trouble.”
“If you have business at this warehouse then your business is with us.” Jean’s tone remained friendly, even as he drew his own rapier.
“The four of you against all of us? They say a dog’s bark is louder than his bite.”
“Well, that is true,” Jean admitted. He tilted his head slightly in Henri’s direction. “But our bark is very, very loud.” Henri smoothly raised his musket out of the shadows of his cloak and brought it into firing position.
The crowd was still and silent for a moment, and then a number of them started to edge back down the street. “Stand your ground!” their leader shouted. “They can try to shoot me if they like; I’m not afraid of them.” Henri adjusted his aim and pulled the trigger. A booming roar tore through the night, followed by a man on the edge of the crowd screaming as he collapsed.
“Ready your steel!” Leontine cried as she sprinted towards the tallest of their opponents. Jean and Bastien followed close behind. Henri took the time to carefully resling his musket and then he, too, charged into the fray.
The fight soon organized itself into several knots of activity. Several of the gang members were trying to help the man who had been shot. Leontine busied herself with a man half a foot taller than her and twice as wide. She locked his sword up with her blade catcher and then used her rapier to make several quick slashes to his arm and chest. Her opponent shouted something that was probably Vodacce, and likelier obscene, as he tried to free his blade. Leontine let it go before he could pull the blade catcher out of her hand, and then sprang in to continue her attack.
Jean duelled with The Montaigne, turning aside his opponent’s blows and making quick replies that threatened but never actually landed.
“Coward! Are you going to do anything else but dance with me?”
“I’m waiting for you to do something interesting,” Jean replied. His words had their intended effect, goading The Montaigne into a series of attacks that Jean easily parried. “Surely you can do better than that.”
Henri had intercepted a woman with a heavy saber moving in to come to her leader’s aid. They circled around each other warily, blades flashing in the moonlight, and the musketeer quickly realized that at some point in the past she had been given formal lessons in swordplay. That made her potentially dangerous, as someone half-trained with a sword could be wildly unpredictable. He grinned and brought his blade up for an attack. Tonight would be more entertaining than he thought it would be.
Bastien was engaged with two opponents who threatened him from opposite sides. The one on the left slashed boldly, but ineptly, at the musketeer, who parried the swing and then continued in to deliver a deep cut to the man’s arm. The one on the right tried to move in for a blow, but Bastien snarled her blade with a flourish of his cloak, quickly pivoting around her to kick her in the back of the knee. She crashed forward, entangling her comrade and pulling him down as well. Without a pause Bastien drew a pistol out and shot at a man who was sneaking up behind Henri. He missed, but the noise had an immediate effect.
“He has a pistol,” yelled one of those lurking in the back of the crowd.
“I have more than one,” Bastien said, and flung back his cape to reveal the other resting in its holster. There was a burst of shouting from different people, and then the men tending the fallen bandit picked him up and started running away. Then the remainder of the gang turned and fled, with their leader following and cursing at them.
Stillness and silence reigned for a few moments, and then Odette emerged from the shadows. “Well done, musketeers.” She spoke loudly, to make sure she could be overheard. “Let us go to the Gilded Darkness to celebrate our victory.”
The Gilded Darkness was one of the more popular coffeehouses in Five Sails. Odette had chosen it after careful calculation: elegant enough to discourage open violence, but with a slight underlying disrepute that should make The Montaigne comfortable enough to show up in person. She sipped her coffee and waited. Leontine was at the next table, drinking a much larger cup of coffee and making her way through a plate of pastries. Bastien, Jean, and Henri had taken seats in different parts of the coffeehouse where they could keep an eye on Odette and in turn be not easily spotted by anyone entering the premises.
“He’s here,” Odette said in a voice just loud enough for Leontine to hear.
The musketeer glanced up for a moment and then returned to studying the pastries in front of her. “Powder and flint, he’s wearing some kind of armor under that tunic,” Leontine said quietly. “I owe Bastien a guilder.”
The Montaigne strode directly to Odette’s table and glared down at her. “You have made yourself an enemy tonight.”
Odette raised an eyebrow, looking slightly puzzled. “Shouldn’t you be busy arranging a way to get out of Five Sails? The city must be very dangerous for you now.”
He stopped in mid-word and looked at her intently. “What do you mean by that?”
The courtier shrugged slightly. “Tonight a Castilian was at Madame Grimaldi’s Fortuna Felix, paying off your debts to the house and setting you up with some extra funds. And tomorrow morning it will be all over the dock areas that you had been bribed to set up the Red Hand for an embarrassing defeat.”
“None of my brothers and sisters in the Red Hand will believe that,” he said.
“Oh?” Odette picked up her coffee cup. “Many were hurt in tonight’s fight, but you aren’t even scratched.” She drank her coffee, watching him over the rim of her cup. His face flushed red from anger and for a moment she feared that he would attack her. She wasn’t afraid for her safety, not with several of her musketeers within arm’s reach, but a fight in here would have consequences she didn’t want to deal with.
Slowly his color edged back to normal. “You think you are safe,” he finally said. “Because you have your hired swords here with you.” He glanced over at Leontine, who didn’t bother to look up from her food.
“I think I am safe,” Odette said mildly, “because you have much more dangerous enemies in this city tonight.”
“I’m not sure that is true,” he said. He swept off his hat and gave her a deep bow. “Until we meet again, poisonous lady.” Before Odette could think of a reply he turned on his heel and started walking towards the door.
“He’s smarter than most,” Leontine said. “He will be trouble for us.”
“Only if he lives,” Odette said, dismissing him from her mind. Tomorrow she would send a delicately worded note to Urraca, letting her know that the problem had been taken care of. Then she could arrange a meeting with Guillen de la Murrieta and advance her own plans. She smiled to herself as she savored the last of her coffee.