This third chapter in the With Good Intentions story arc is a result of the PAX Unplugged 2022 story decision made by the Top of Faction players as well as Salon champion Hayes Hunter (Vodacce).
The Top of Faction players from the PAXU salon were asked to decide if Gustavo, the city deck character, would be a Hero, Scoundrel, or a Villain.
Hayes’s decision was: Which Faction in Five Sails becomes aware of the Crystal Eye’s abilities and location, and what will they do about it?
To learn whet they chose, read on!
Can’t Rock the Boat
by Carmel Rechnitzer
“This has got to be a trap.” Vittoria Anselmo warned her young ward. Vittoria had spent a long and lucrative career in murdering unsuspecting fools in alleyways. The lucrative part was a given – the Don always lavished gold on his favorites. It was the “long” part that made her such a stand-out in the Red Hand Gang. Not many people could do what Vittoria did for years on end.
It was a cloudy, moonless night. The raw smell of an upcoming thunderstorm clogged her nostrils, and the constant creak of rigging and timber clogged her ears. Every step forward carried them further onto the zig-zagging docks, hid them behind more and more layers of sail. The Don had sent Vittoria out here with an army of underlings, all of whom waited at Sibella’s stagecoach. All of whom had disappeared behind darkness and obscured line of sight twenty minutes ago.
If anything, it was surprising she wasn’t dead yet. Vittoria had run a knife across the throats of more than a handful of sailors and plenty of pirates besides. Legal goods entering the city were taxed by Patricia Moustakas. The Red Hand Gang – meaning Vittoria – taxed every stolen or fenced piece of contraband. Each of these vessels, whether fishing boat or merchant’s galley, was full of people who begrudged her.
And! Don’t you dare forget the “And!” She was about to take the single most precious debutante in the City of Five Sails into the confined depths of some pitch black hold. Even if Vittoria survived this… one raven hair on Sibella Scarpa’s head coming out of sorts would mean a new pair of lead shoes and a prompt appointment with the Devil Jonah.
“We don’t even know who we’re meeting,” Vittoria hissed. “This has got to be a trap.”
“Oh, it certainly is a trap,” Sibella assured her. “That’s my favorite part, Gritty Vitty. I love setting up traps.” The young woman insisted. She motioned to a nearby ship, and claimed that white “x”s had been drawn across the eyes of the maidenhead. Vittoria chalked that up to magic, which she was suddenly all too sad she didn’t possess. Without waiting for her guardian to catch up, Sibella skittered up the gangplank like a spider approaching bundled flies.
A scarred, muscular hand reached from behind the shadows of the rigging, and Sibella simply took it and curtsied. Completely fearlessly, she leveraged her weight against that arm to make the final step aboard. Vittoria couldn’t muster such easy confidence when it came to… to something as innocuous as eating pastries! Sibella had to be addled or mad.
When the sounds of bloody murder didn’t immediately ring out from the darkness, Vittoria followed. At the peak of the gangplank, the same hand was extended to her as well. She made a point of not taking it. The man welcoming them aboard was Eko Sorridi, most infamous of the Magreb pirates. She’d met him a few times before. He had a nasty way with words, an unforgettable baritone, and a body-count to rival Don Costanzo’s.
“Eko?” Vittoria asked in genuine surprise. “This invite seemed too… political. Not your usual racket. Is Magreb looking to claim one of the sails in town?”
Eko’s laugh was so deep and rumbling that Vittoria could feel it in her own chest.
“No, Alsayida Anselmo,” he admitted. “Your way with blades is as fearsome as a witches’ spell. I was hired to protect against your ire. My employer knew I am the only man in town who could survive a tango.”
“Thanks for the cheap flattery,” she said. Her tone dripped with skepticism.
“Oh, flattery is pocket change,” he smiled. “But I could also give you double Sayyid Costanzo’s price. I am always on the lookout for talented dancers.”
Before their banter could escalate, Vittoria had to chase her ward across the unlit deck. There was no crew on board, but admittedly, the boat was also docked. It didn’t take many men to keep an anchored ship ashore. But were there men below decks? Or was Eko the only hired sword here?
“Come on,” Sibella beckoned impatiently. She had no time for Vittoria’s situation-scoping. Well, if the two of them were knifed in the belly of this boat, at least Vittoria could be sure she’d be avenged. Not because the Don cared for her that highly, obviously. It would be a side effect of the Don feeding each of Sibella’s murderers to his pet shark, one cleavered chunklet at a time.
They descended into the belly of the hold. Once again, Sibella had no need to fumble around in the dark. Whether by witchcraft, or simply because she was an unsettling little creep, she guided the two of them through the hallways with easy precision.
After the last twisting turn, Vittoria finally caught a hint of light. It spilled out from underneath the galley’s door, as did the sounds of someone preparing a table. Okay. All right. That much Vittoria could manage. She carried the antidotes to eleven separate deadly poisons as a matter of habit. She’d built up immunity to three more.
Sibella swung the door open with a grandiose flick. Inside, a bearded man went about the business of setting tea. He clearly wasn’t a crew member or hired butler; he was dressed in the finest clothes money could buy. He’d thrown a common apron on, to keep the gilded ensemble safe from powdered sugar and caramel twill. A thick, golden chain hung around his neck and over the edge of the apron. At its center was a ruby as big as Vittoria’s withered heart.
“Gustavo?” She asked, incredulously. That’s who they were meeting?
“Please, Gustavo was my father. Call me Luis de Martinez de Ladera. Or mayor, about a month from now,” he said with a self-satisfied smirk. He waved a languid hand over a harvest of sweets. He’d set out lemon cakes, mint crumbles, candied walnut cookies and even a three-tiered cake.
The display was enough to shock Sibella into a smile.
“I am a power-broker of some talent,” the pompous man explained. “But Gustavo was a simple baker of unmatched skill. Orange juice?”
Sibella reached out, grabbed the glass snifter and thanked him before thinking better of it. Vittoria had to stop herself from snorting with laughter. The Scarpa spider had grown up amidst unimaginable violence and mysterious sorcery. Of course Gustavo couldn’t intimidate or wow her. The snooty little schemer had found the only thing that would set Sibella off her stride. Her sweet tooth.
Before Sibella could say no, Gustavo passed her a macadamia scone covered in guava curd. Vittoria’s mouth watered with envy, but she refused an identical offering. Charmed as she was, they were here on business. Speaking of which, she thought, and motioned for Gustavo junior to switch their sides around the table. Vittoria was not about to sit with her back to the door. He summoned up the bravery to insist on tucking Sibella’s new chair in, and Vittoria made a point of doing it herself. Without any further fuss, he swapped seats.
As Sibella ate, Gustavo created a mock-map of the city out of various sweets. He went as far as placing an Eisen pfeffernusse between ladyfinger columns to illustrate Kaspar’s occupation of the forum. Three treats deep and attempting to establish her dignity, Sibella wiped the crumbs from her fingertips and cleared her throat.
“I already have a plan in motion, Señor Ladera,” she insisted. “I’ve come tonight for assistance with a few scant details.”
“Of course. At your service,” Gustavo motioned. Vittoria blinked. This was not how negotiations normally played out. He should have countered with an ask. This was the cue for the game to start.
Instead of the normal interjections, he simply let Sibella speak. The only occasions he interrupted, in fact, were to offer his further support. When Sibella explained she needed a detailed list of Odette Dubois d’Arrent’s appointments for the month, he dutifully listed them off. When Sibella asked about untraceable manpower, he offered her the rest of Eko’s contracted stay in the city.
Finally, he made a notable mistake. When Sibella mentioned she had uncovered Kaspar’s stolen artifact – a Syrneth skull with a knobby gemstone eye… he mentioned that Soline el Gato was a bosom-buddy! Of course she could fetch it to them, “if it so pleased you, Miss.”
“Of course it wouldn’t please me!” Sibella snapped. “The last thing I’d want is the city’s most curious cat burglar aware of the Crystal Eye!”
Finally needing to intervene, Vittoria added, “that fool also parades around under the title ‘Prince of Thieves!’ And refuses to bend a knee to Don Costanzo. We won’t do business with jumped-up street urchins eagerly nipping at our heels.”
Gustavo raised his hands in surrender. “Quite understandable. And to be clear, el Gato and I are friends, but I keep our business separate.” He nodded his head towards Sibella and added, “I only buy my stolen goods from reputable sources. But back to this skull of yours? Who’s got it? How might I procure it for you?”
“You won’t,” Sibella decided. “You have a few too many friends for my taste. No offense.”
“None taken,” he replied.
“Vitty has a wide enough network. Consider that assignment hers,” Sibella dictated. Vittoria had to fight the urge to hiss in exasperation. She was already losing too much sleep – and damn if she would ever let Sibella call her ‘Vitty’ in front of company ever again.
When Gustavo nodded in the affirmative, Sibella continued: “I’ve pulled the threads of Iron and Tusk together. Kaspar and Yevgeni met on bad terms, and my magic weaves their fates to further tragedy. But this is distant work and such a spell can take too long to come to fruition. Señor Ladera… I need you to spur them on. Push their paths together, so my magic can take root quickly.”
Gustavo leaned back, contemplating his orange juice as if it were a fine glass of wine. This was it. This was the point where Gustavo would genuinely overstep, Vittoria would then draw her knives, and the real game of threats and tallies started. Vittoria relished for the deadly game to begin in earnest.
“They’re both men of fiery tempers. Seems simple enough. I’ll do it,” Gustavo said. Just agreed, fast as that.
At this point, even Sibella seemed discomforted. She waited for him to add something – anything – to his side of the proverbial scales. It seemed… not rude. Not right? Improper to call the deal done when he’d done nothing more than nod his head. The silence stretched between them all. Unbothered, Gustavo took another polite forkful of cake.
“Feel free, of course, to pack some goodies for your father,” he motioned. “He’s Voddacen through and through, but Montaigne Trouvillais are his favorites. Just leave enough for Eko and his crew. They’ll toss me overboard if all they get from this feast is the smell of honey and sugar lingering in their floorboards.”
That attempt at humor did nothing to cut the tension and awkwardness of the misbegotten night. Vittoria watched, worried, as Sibella’s back stiffened. The young woman’s knuckles were turning white from gripping the hem of her skirt so tightly. She understood why. This was supposed to be Sibella’s debut. Her first solo enterprise into negotiating on behalf of the Scarpa family. Had Don Costanzo scared the man into taking the matter so easy?
The frustration began to read on Sibella’s face, and Gustavo rushed to make a handful of far-too-kind-apologies.
“Was this some sort of… some sort of playdate?” She asked, pointedly.
“Absolutely not,” he promised.
Vittoria would have slid a comforting hand to Sibella’s shoulder, but she understood the young woman needed no further condescension. Besides, her talents lay in violently stabbing, not empathetically patting, people’s backs.
Gustavo gave a long, apologetic sigh and sat back down. It was the weary sigh of someone who had to explain himself far too many times.
“I have a unique talent among all the villains of this town,” he began. “Well, not a talent. A good. A unique bill of sale. Eko can butcher you up as much violence as you please. Vittoria commands absolute obedience. The Don collects every secret in town and displays them like antiques. These… These are crowded markets. To sell such wares, I would have to compete with the worst that the City of Five Sails has to offer. Undercut their prices. A very dangerous thing to do.”
Sibella raised a wounded eyebrow, encouraging him to get to the point.
“I offer what no other heartless bastard in this city would ever dare to offer,” he concluded. “I give you people the one thing none of you can find literally anywhere else. An actual, genuine friend.”
A longer, even more disquieting silence passed between all three of them. Vittoria was forced to wonder if the man was right. She’d never wanted for friends herself, it wasn’t in her distrusting nature. But what about Sibella? She’d been raised on Don Costanzo’s knee, a perch far above the reach of other children. Vittoria couldn’t recall ever hearing Sibella laugh. Chortle, sure. Snicker at the sniveling beggars at her father’s feet, of course. But share a laugh with a friend?
Vittoria was pulled out of her memories by the sound of Sibella’s chair scraping backwards.
“Señor Luis de Martinez de Ladera…” Sibella began, “I admit it’s a very singular enterprise you engage in. I’m afraid I wasn’t ready for such a unique fight. I’m not adept at kindness. You’ve given me much to think about.”
“You’ve given me much to act on,” Gustavo said. “But this wasn’t meant to be a… a battle of goodwill. I don’t know if those exist, Señora,” he added with an air of concern.
Having made her concession, and having no pride left to lose, Sibella took his proffered basket and stashed away a fortune’s worth of delicacies. Finally giving in herself, Vittoria grabbed a shortbread biscuit. It was buttery and delicious.
“I can’t believe they’re really not poisoned,” Vittoria admitted on her way out the door. Gustavo nearly choked on his orange juice at her words, and made no motion to follow.
They escaped the depths of the ship a few minutes later. They must have worn their stunned amusement on their faces, because Eko immediately commented, “you too? I’ve never known such a strange defeat. I’m afraid Señor de Ladera may be the only man in town capable of actually killing a man with kindness.”
Vittoria couldn’t find a closing barb to give him in return, which was a low point in her career. But what was there to say? “Enjoy the cookies, Eko,” was the best she could muster. He laughed again, and Vittoria was genuinely relieved to hear a timbre of menace in that tumbling sound. There we go, she thought. That’s what we’re all supposed to sound like.
The two of them walked away, each occupied with their own thoughts. When they stepped off the docks and back onto solid brick, Sibella finally spoke again: “So we continue on as scheduled, Gritty Vitty. We pull the strings until either the Boar or Kaspar gores the other. We take the forum, and tear Odette out of this City by root and stem. And then you snag the Eye once Kaspar is too busy or wounded to notice.”
We also, absolutely, send Gustavo’s corpse on a long march off the shortest dock we can find, Vittoria swore to herself. She’d insist that Don Costanzo approve a hit on that toothless snake. Even if she had to “tango” with Eko herself. Theus damn her if she ever trusted someone so stark raving nice.