by Carmel Rechnitzer
Odette Dubois D’Arrent was fluent in five languages, and proficient in a further three or four. She’d visited grand palaces, back alley streets, and archeological digs of Syrneth ruins. She’d been at the City of Five Sails for a scant few months, but she already understood its layout, customs, and even a few of its secrets. Being a woman with such a breadth and depth of experience, it would take a miracle or a cataclysm to catch her off guard. The stampeding elephant certainly caught her unawares.
“Excuse me, good sir? There seems to be an elephant?” Her Eisen wasn’t rusty, she was simply struggling to find the words. She managed to continue fanning herself out of habit, but nothing else came naturally.
“I’m sure you meant Madam. My name is Rosine Friese,” said the other woman. She had an academic way about her. All her clothes were neatly pressed, her glasses were practical and not decorative, and her posture was ramrod straight. They were birds of an adjacent feather. Odette was perfectly, beautifully dressed to follow the rules of polite society. Rosine was perfectly, plainly dressed to follow the rules of sensibility.
“I beg your forgiveness, Frau Fiese. Terribly rude of me,” she apologized. There we go. That was a better show of speaking the Eisen tongue.
“Don’t mention it. Bad grammar is certainly less of a hazard than an elephant.”
The two of them stood side by side, their back to the curio stall they’d both been examining. The man behind them claimed to have real Syrneth artifacts for sale, which was a flat lie. But he’d presented them carved jade figurines from Khitai, and whalebone scrimshaw all the way from Vendel. Neat trinkets to collect and gift to a discerning sort of fellow. The salesman had fled, desperately seeking safety in the crisscross pathways of the dockside stalls. They should probably flee, too.
The elephant, of course, paid them no specific attention. It simply rampaged across the promenade, upturning sailors, crates, barrels, and oxcarts.
“The poor baby,” tutted Rosine. “He’s more distressed than we are.”
“Speak for yourself, Frau Freisse. I am very distressed.”
Rosine cocked a perfectly threaded eyebrow over the rim of her glasses.
“You are one of the famed musketeers, no?”
“My name is Odette Dubois D’Arrent. I am an expert verbal duelist, and a newly minted diplomat. The Musketeers are my bodyguards and pet darlings. They are all fierce warriors, but I believe that pet elephant would leave them unnerved, too.”
The two of them continued watching in relative silence. The rest of the docks sustained a stunning cacophony of noise. If her ears could be trusted, there must also be a bear and a lion somewhere between the warehouses of grain, cloth and wine. The head of a giraffe poked out from beyond the red tile roofs. The self-satisfied creature was taking bites out of the national flags billowing above the weathervanes.
“Some magician is missing half his performing act,” said Odette.
“A simpler explanation exists: The City of Five Sails no longer has a zoo,” Rosine retorted.
Odette gave a startled look at her companion. The City had a zoo? Why had no one told her?
“We did not do that purpose,” came a voice from behind them. Or was that underneath them? The voice also spoke the Eisen tongue, albeit with the thickest Castillian accent imaginable. A lithe figure clad all in black wiggled their way out from underneath the curio stand. Their clothes were somewhat clawed, suggesting they’d been a part of the chaos only moments before.
The slim interloper stood up and gave a magnificent bow capped with an elaborate flourish. “El Gato, Prince of Thieves! At your Lady’s service,” they said. Odette was surprised to recognize the ebony cat-mask that the notorious thief sported. It had belonged to the Queen of Castille, who’d worn it to her masquerades. There was no chance it was a fake – the yellow lenses over the eyes were cut from citrines. Gems that big, cut that thin, were possibly the most expensive show of exuberant wealth in all of Théah. But here were the famous twin stones, and their famous mask, sitting on the smuggest face Odette had ever seen.
Odette’s hand leapt to her dagger, which El Gato had already pinched. Rosine had drawn a flintlock pistol. With pinpoint accuracy, El Gato spat on the pistol’s pan. The ignition powder that would spark and fire the charge was now damp and gummy with phlegm.
“Disgusting!” Rosine hissed.
“You were going to shoot me,” El Gato shrugged. “I’d rather be disgusting than dead.”
“The zoo?” Odette beckoned for the Prince of Thieves to continue.
“So, it’s kind of a funny story,” El Gato began. “See. we’ve been hunting through the Eisen warehouses looking for that damned warlock of yours, Lafayette, when we stumbled across Don Constanzo’s exotics smuggling service. Got in a tiff with Anselmo, his master assassin. Popped open some cages to keep her hands full. So not the zoo, zoo. That place closed down two months ago, after Gustavo sold the menagerie in exchange for – you know what, don’t worry about it. That’s not the important part. The long and short of it is I was fighting for my life and it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Both Rosine and Odette were baffled. There were several questions worth asking, but Odette recovered first. She was an expert verbal duelist, and she wouldn’t be disarmed by a simple flood of nonsense. She snapped her fan closed, and pointed it at the Prince in accusation.
“Tell me what you want with Lafayette, and I won’t have Henri shoot you.”
On the adjacent rooftop, not a foot away from the masticating giraffe, kneeled Henri Michelette. He’d popped out of hiding, and braced his fearsome three-barrel rifle for action. Odette signaled for El Gato not to move a muscle.
“Not very musketeer-like of him to go skulking and sniping,” they complained.
Rosine was busy wiping the snot out of the workings of her pistol. Odette motioned for her to stop as well. They were all civilized women. Or was El Gato a man? Their frame was narrow, but the cut of their cloth was deceptive. Padded shoulders, a huge belt across the waist, and oversized gloves made it hard to spot any definitive indications of gender. The stubble on their chin was clearly makeup, but that didn’t mean much. Either way, they were civilized persons, and by Theus, she would make sure they all talked this out.
“Lafayette’s locations, and his sins, seemed like a great bargaining chip to secure an audience with you,” said El Gato.
“General Dietrich is holding him for the crime of opening blessures, and we intend to burn him on a stake at warehouse 713,” Rosine admitted. Odette wasn’t sure if Rosine spoke out of a sense of honor, or an abundance of spite. Maybe both?
Odette balked at the accusation. That couldn’t be true, could it? Porte sorcerers had to bleed themselves to make their magic work. Well, so long as they intended to work sorcery in a moral manner. Vile villains would simply bleed the world, causing pain and ruin to all around them to cheat the price of weaving magics. Lafayette was so polite. Lafayette wrote sonnets. Lafayette had his name stitched into his silk underwear.
“There goes my bargain chip,” sighed El Gato.
“This masked rascal is an infamous thief and a known political subversive. Please have your musketeer shoot him,” Rosine requested. Calm as can be, simply wishing for capital punishment. It seemed this schoolmarm was a harsh headmistress.
“Bargain for what?” Asked Odette.
“Allyship,” they said. “I have a district, de facto if not de jure. You need a home. I need the manpower to topple Don Constanzo.”
Odette did not like the sound of that one bit. Supposedly, the Prince was as benevolent a monarch as the Five Sails had ever seen. Their theft paved the way for charity that even the Vatacine church could not compete with. But becoming hired muscle for a gang of burglars? Her musketeers would never stoop so low.
Odette felt the walls closing in around her. There was simply too much to consider. Bargaining for allyship was completely tertiary to the following problems: firstly, her sorcerer might be a ruthless criminal of unfathomable cruelty. Secondly, the musketeers would never believe it, and attempt a rescue regardless. That led to the third problem… Rosine. If the woman was allowed to walk free, she would warn Old Iron Dietrich of the impending incursion. The musketeers would have to face the prepared and entrenched wrath of the entire Eisen army just to save a man who may not be worth saving.
Rosine was not helping things. The studious lady had ignored her instructions, and in fact, had redoubled her efforts to re-arm her pistol. In the distance, Henri Michelet gave a practiced whistle. He couldn’t hear them. He didn’t know who Rosine’s intended target was. He was asking her if he should shoot.
“Madam Rosine, stop! Before I have Henri stop you,” she warned.
“I’m an honest woman, and so are you, Fraulein D’Arrent. You won’t. He won’t.” Rosine confidently poured a new thimbleful of dry powder onto her pistol’s pan. She kept the pistol tilted away from El Gato’s line of sight, or rather line of spit. The thought of arcing phlegm clearly concerned her more than speeding bullets. She displayed a staggering amount of confidence for a woman currently in Henri’s sights.
“Are you sure you don’t want to just shoot her?” the Prince sounded genuinely worried. “She’ll warn Kaspar.” Rosine nodded to indicate that she would, indeed, prefer. What an infuriating, respectable woman.
Odette felt something bony nudge the thick tassels of her dress. The obnoxious Prince had swiveled to her side, aligning themselves like a lady preparing for an intimate dance. Odette did not miss their meaning. Two smoke bombs dangled on each side of the Prince’s belt. Odette pointed her fan. If asked, she’d confidently bet three hundred guilders Henri could make the shot.
As Rosine leveled her pistol, the sound of thunder barked out. Henri’s bullet pierced two of the smoke canisters, and the world exploded into black. With practiced grace – though she was more used to the woman’s dancing steps than a man’s – Odette dipped the Prince of Thieves. Rosine’s bullet whizzed two inches above the mask and missed its target.
Quite understandably, to be honest, the Prince attempted to spring out of the dip with Odette’s knife in hand. Odette knew she would regret doing the right thing, but did it anyway. She swept her foot underneath El Gato’s, and sent the prince crashing into the curio stand from which they’d come.
The smoke overtook them completely, reducing Odette to a series of frantic coughs.
By the time the smoke cleared, both the Prince and Rosine had fled. Theus take them both! She hoped they were in some back alley, clawing each other’s eyes out.
The rest of her musketeers had managed to make their worried way back to her. Leontine pulled the fan from Odette’s grip, and tried to flap fresh air in her direction. Jean Urbain and Basiten Girard set a perimeter around them. The sweet, affable Dufort fretted about her missing jewelry. Theus take that fool of a Prince to hell and back and hell again! In a fit of childish retribution for daring to stop the violence, the Prince had swiped her mother’s necklace.
“You missed the damndest thing,” Leontine told her.
“That boorish Yevgeni stopped the elephant!” Bastien said with an incredulous laugh.
“With his hands?” asked Henri, who’d climbed down to them by now.
“He’s not quite that strong,” Bastien said. “But he’s unflappable. Or unhinged. He stood in the Elephant’s path, held out his palm as if to say ‘stop,’ and didn’t flinch. The poor elephant was completely cowed.”
Her men exchanged a round of boasting, each claiming they would have done the same. Not a chance.
They were too smart and too sane to stand in an elephant’s way. None of them were smart or sane enough to let Lafayette burn to death, though. For a moment, Odette considered staying silent. El Gato was obviously a liar and charlatan. But it was Rosine who’d explained Lafayette’s crimes. She didn’t strike Odette as the lying type. There was a real chance Lafayette was not worth saving.
Her heart turned as cold as ice and as heavy as stone. She could not, under any circumstance, make that gamble. So long as there was a teensy, fleeting hope that Lafayette was innocent, she knew exactly what she had to do. Wearily, she muttered the words she’d heard her Musketeers repeat ad infinitum: “All for One…”
“And One for All,” came their automatic response.
“What’s the matter,” asked Dufort.“Grab your blades, my brave musketeers. We haven’t a moment to spare. We attack, now. This very instant, before Kaspar can mobilize a defense.”