“This is a nightmare.” Sebastian Schiller held the gray velvet frock coat against his slender body. No matter how he twirled before the glass, it just wasn’t working. “It brings out the silver thread in the shirt ruffles, but I think it makes me look washed out.” He tilted his head and turned his face to catch his angular profile in the mirror. That at least was faultless. Ah, but the coat! He was close to despair. “What do you think, Carfax?”
As usual, his varlet wasn’t paying the slightest attention to that which was important. He was instead twitching the lace curtains, his great golden eyes fixed on a group of men who were approaching the inn. “I think our assignment has been made aware of our presence and has decided to pre-empt our visit.”
“Yes, yes, I see them, but which coat?” He discarded the gray coat and held the black one against him. “Is the black too formal? Be honest.”
Carfax swiveled an appraising eye in his direction. “A touch, perhaps, sir, but it will hide bloodstains better than the gray. Trund Van Veel is almost here.”
“Urgh. Damn the man, I wanted to shave before our appointment. Oh, well, I suppose it will have to wait.” Schiller furled his wings and threw on the black coat. He took a moment to admire the cut, the fullness of the sleeves, the bright silver buttons, and the flattering pleated front. Loud voices accompanied by purposeful footsteps echoed in the hallway and were an irritating distraction. He straightened his collar, fluffed the ruffles at his throat and adjusted his lace shirt cuffs before perusing his weapon chest. There was a notable space where his beloved firelance should have been, reminding him painfully of that thieving lizard. You bastard, Blake. He would deal with the miscreant in due course, but now was not the time to dwell on the loss or the dire punishment he would mete out. He chose Slumber’s Kiss, a medium weight blade, quite plain, but serviceable; the perfect weapon for killing animals. “What time am I due at Madame Ver Hoolh’ru’s?” He flourished the blade and lunged to loosen his wrist and open his hips.
“Draw me a bath, would you, Carfax? There’s a good fellow.”
“Open up, Mosquito,” a gruff voice shouted as someone pounded on the door hard enough to rattle the hinges. “I know you’re in there, you black-eyed little gobshite.”
Schiller chuckled. “Flattery won’t get you anywhere, Trund. Didn’t your mother-sister teach you anything aside from how to suckle her vinegary tits?”
The door shook violently as someone threw themselves against it, but it held firm. “Open the fucking door, you sellsword prick!”
Schiller stood lightly, his weight balanced, his sword in the first position. He gave Carfax the nod. His servant turned the key and hopped out of the way as the door was flung open and Trund Van Veel barged in. He was a big human, head and shoulders taller than Schiller and broader than his servant. He wore his black hair in the ‘frightened owl’ style, which was a current, if somewhat pedestrian, fashion. He was wearing the dress jacket of an Imperial Guard officer, somewhat reduced by being faded, devoid of braid, and greatly patched in the years since his dishonorable discharge. He was artfully unshaven and brandishing a notched saber. Unforgivably, his mismatched cavalry boots desperately needed cleaning. Schiller lamented the good old days when rogues had style.
Van Veel was not alone. Shoring him up were two equally dubious-looking bravos. One pulled a cudgel from his ragged coat; the other wielded a rusty cutlass. Given that they seemed content to sneer from the corridor, Schiller deemed them to be of little threat and therefore focused most of his attention on Van Veel, who reeked of cheap brandy.
“You’ve come to collect the bounty on me?” The outlaw spat his incredulity.
Amused, Schiller watched as, ennobled by the golden touch of lamp light, the rogue’s spit arced through the air like glittering pearls. “That would depend if you’re the half-penny highwayman who’s been a’ robbing farmers on the Glostvin road.” Schiller laughed. “I must say, The Ballad of Trund Van Veel is rather amusing. You should give credit to the author…”
Van Veel grinned broadly and clicked his heels. “’Twas I.”
“…For making you sound like a proper prat.”
The grin faded, and Van Veel took a vicious swipe at Schiller’s head. Schiller saw it coming and took half a step back, let the slow swing pass before skewering his attacker between the ribs. He gave a little twist, felt heart muscle clench around the tip of Slumber’s Kiss before withdrawing the blade, sending a spray of blood rubies after the spit pearls. Van Veel gasped and dropped to his knees, choking on arterial blood. Schiller saw himself reflected in the dying brigand’s eyes before they closed for the last time.
He turned to the bravos lurking unsure in the doorway. “Gentlemen. I would suggest you take to your hooves and depart in all haste unless you fancy cuddling up with your mucker in hell’s dankest doss hole.” He raised his blade. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking Van Veel was drunk and this little scrap of a fellow somehow got lucky. I assure you, that is not the case. Drunk or sober, I would have slain him as I will slay you if you continue to fill my doorway with your uncouth presences.” The pair exchanged nervous glances. “Come, come, gentlemen. I am as patient as I am benevolent.” He gestured to Van Veel.
Carfax peeked from behind the travel chest where he’d taken cover. “And he isn’t in the slightest bit benevolent.”
Schiller frowned. “Yes, I’m sure they got that, thank you, Carfax. Well, gentle—” They were gone before he finished the sentence. He wiped the blood from his blade on the dead man’s coat before turning to his servant. “Be a dear and go find the Magister.”
The Magister peered at the bounty warrant while two of his officers sewed Van Veel’s corpse into a canvas sack. The room Schiller had rented was well appointed but small, so the innkeepers were loitering in the hallway, tutting and muttering as they pointed out the various fresh bloodstains. Carfax was keeping his head down and brewing a pot of chai on the small hearth stove. Schiller lounged in an armchair and pretended to read a book. As far as he was concerned, it was a done deal; he had an official warrant for the bounty issued by the Imperial Factor in Valen and distributed to accredited members of the Freelancers’ Guild. However, as he was in a shithole town somewhere between hell and nowhere rather than the capital, he wouldn’t count the coin until it was in his pocket.
The Magister grunted, pushed his glasses up his nose before turning to Schiller. “This all seems in order.” His sagging throat wobbled comically as he spoke, making him look like an old cockerel. “Naturally, there will be a charge put against the bounty for damages.”
Schiller indulged him with a wry smile. “Naturally. Cup of chai?”
The Magister appeared to give it some genuine thought before shaking his head. “Most kind, but I must attend to the paperwork for, er… this.” He waved the warrant at the bloodstained carpet, which was acting as a gory proxy for Van Veel who was being dragged down the stairs, his head thumping heavily off every step. The innkeepers followed, remonstrating with the officers about the mess and disruption. The Magister put on his tasseled cap of office and made to leave.
“A moment, Magister Phillian.” Schiller had been waiting for either duplicity or stupidity. This could be either. “The warrant?” He smiled sweetly. “If I’m to collect the bounty, you must sign and seal it and return it to me.”
“Ah, yes of course, how remiss of me.” The old cockerel blushed and tugged the seal from the pocket of his smock and then stood a moment looking lost. Schiller jumped to his feet and directed the official to the table where he had laid out his writing set in anticipation of the Magister’s approval and ineptitude. Even with everything ready and waiting for him, it took an interminable length of time for the codger to scribble his name and set his seal to the now considerably more valuable document.
Schiller drank his chai and pretended not to pay attention while at the same time watching the old goat like a hawk. It had been a long time since he’d lost on a contract due to a misspelled name, but it had happened, and the thought pained him still.
“There, done.” The Magister thumbed his spectacles back up his nose and tucked his seal into his pocket. “I’ve granted three crowns for cleaning and a new rug. Will you be leaving tonight or tomorrow, Mr. Schiller?”
“It’s such a nice town I thought I might stay a while.” He had no intention of staying; he just wanted to tease him.
The Magister’s smile faded. “Oh?”
“Tomorrow, Magister. We’re leaving tomorrow.”
Visibly relieved, the official smiled. “Ah, yes, splendid. Goodbye, Mr. Schiller, safe journey.”
When he’d left, Schiller locked the door and put a chair behind it in case the bravos were foolish enough not to take him at his word. Carfax hopped over to him, took hold of a handful of his long, curling locks, and sighed. “You need a trim, sir. Your ends are a crime.”
“Don’t hold back, Carfax, speak freely, I pray you.”
“I simply couldn’t hold my head up in body servant circles if I let my gentleman walk the streets looking so disheveled.”
Schiller examined his profile in the blood-splattered mirror. “I’d hardly say ‘disheveled’. Roguish, perhaps, but never disheveled.”
“Did you say morguish?” Carfax cupped his non-existent ear with his webbed hand. “Akin to a three-day old corpse that was found in a hedge?”
“Careful, sirrah. I have a long sword and a short temper.”
“If you kill me, who will prepare your unflesnur just the way you like it?”
“I can live without fermented snail eggs… probably.” Schiller caught a glimpse of something he’d suspected for some time but had been trying to ignore. “Do you see that, Carfax?”
Carfax peered over Schiller’s shoulder, breathed mud wine breath against his neck. “What am I looking at, sir?”
“Is that the hint of a double chin?” Schiller turned his head. Sure enough, beneath the narrow point of his otherwise blemishless chin, there was a tiny pouch of flesh. He drew a hank of hair over his shoulder, tried to use his curls to hide his profile. Unhappy with the result, he twitched them back again to see if by some miracle the excess flesh had vanished. To his horror and dismay, it had not. “When did I get so fat?”
“Sir isn’t fat. Sir is barely ‘thin’. Sir is verging on skeletal. Some might say bird-boned.”
“As I recall, someone once did. I buried him in twelve— no, thirteen different places.”
“How jolly.” Carfax hopped over to the open clothes chest. “I can’t do anything about your imagined ‘double chin,’ and as you have once again decided against a much-needed haircut, all that is left for me to do is prepare your outfit. The time is fast approaching for your assignation with Madame Leev-whatever-her-name-is.”
“You have to whistle when you say Leev Ver Hoolh’ru.” He demonstrated the whistle. “And it’s a meeting not an assignation.”
“If you say so.” Carfax fanned his fingers across his rouged lips. “Krespish is a stupid language, and this mouth does not whistle.”
“Krespah. It’s an ancient language, unchanged for centuries.”
“Then it’s high time it did.” Carfax sniffed. “No one bothers to learn amphibani. Rather, it is we who are obliged to learn the more common tongues.”
Schiller took off his coat and flexed his shoulders. Blood flowed, and his gossamer wings sprang through the slits expertly cut into his silk shirt. “That’s better. And who wants to speak a language where drooling is a key component of correct pronunciation?” He picked up his cup from the age-scarred dresser and took a sip of chai. “This is quite a bitter brew. I shall name the blend ‘Carfax’ in your honor.”
“You’re too kind. Gray or white?” Carfax held up two pairs of silk stockings.
“With the black suit?”
“Sometimes I don’t think you’re even trying. White, sirrah, white! I’m not a monster.” He slipped out of his shoes and took off his blood-splattered stockings.
Carfax picked up his coat and brushed it before laying it on the bed with the white stockings. He then set about polishing the silver buckle shoes with the pearl-inlaid heels. “Which blade will sir be taking?”
It was always such a difficult choice, matching the weapon to the outfit. Schiller fluttered over to his weapon trunk. As he perused the contents of the case, he saw the scrip where he kept illegal contracts. One in particular sprang to mind, that of Mother Blake for the mongrel who had stolen his firelance. It was written in cant and upon casual inspection appeared to be nothing more than a laundry list. However, to a citizen of the Midnight Court, skilled in reading the secret codes of the nightling order, it was a license to kill. Official warrants were a source of income, but it was documents such as this that kept Schiller’s tailors happy.
“I’ll take the Tickler.” He pointed lazily at the silver gilt small sword set with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds as he fluttered up to the rafters to stretch his wings. The Magister had no need to worry that he might stay in his town. The room was adequate for a few days, but from up here he could see where rainwater had blemished the plaster walls that had been painted to look like wallpaper. He also noted the missing glass drops on the modest chandelier, not to mention the bloodstains that would take more than a little elbow grease to erase. Through the window, neatly framed by graying lace curtains, he spied the undertaker, a brawny fellow with a dangerously red face dragging the body of Trund Van Veel to his wagon.
“Poor, old Trund.” He mused aloud. “There’s no one left to write the final verse of his ballad.”
“Indeed, sir, ’tis a tragedy. Pomade?”
The House of Falling Leaves, known locally as The House of Falling Trousers, was a bordello on the outskirts of town and one of the reasons Schiller had taken the contract on Van Veel. The rambling pile was hidden from curious eyes behind iron gates and a dense, thorny hedge. He rapped the brass doorknocker that was shaped like a stylized conjoining of sword and sheath and waited. A short while later, the door opened, and he was greeted by warm air, the sweet smell of pel smoke, and the delightful odors of quim and cock.
“Mr. Schiller.” The girl who answered bobbed a curtsey. “Good to see you again, sir.” Nelly was an unfortunate mopsie with a thin, spotty face framed by lank brown hair. Nevertheless, she did the best with what the gods had given her and was well turned out in her black smock, pristine white apron and cap, and gleaming patent boots.
“Good evening to you, dear Nell.” He flourished a bow. “How’s my favorite doxy?”
She giggled. “You are such a tease, sir. Such a terrible tease.”
“What can I say? You bring out the worst in me, Nell.”
She laughed again and shook her head. “Madame is expecting you.”
The reception hall, if not exactly sumptuous, was grand for a provincial whorehouse. It was decorated in the ‘Sheshey’ style, which was the Imperial artisans’ take on what they thought was Shennish. All it lacked was any understanding of culture or context. The resultant and hideous clash of colorful flora and fauna splattered across walls, floors, and soft furnishings made Schiller’s sensitive eyes water and his artistic soul bleed. Still, they were trying, and it was a clean, discrete establishment favored by country lords and travelling gentry, which was probably why the kresp had chosen to take a suite of rooms here.
Schiller followed Nelly upstairs to the first floor, past a couple of half-naked whores who were lounging on a sofa and sharing a twin-bowled pel pipe in preparation for the night’s work.
“Cooee, Mr. Schiller!” a frail voice warbled from a curtained doorway.
“Mrs. Culdun?” He peered into the shadows. “As I live and breathe. How the devil are you? I thought you’d retired.”
The venerable Mrs. Culdun stepped from behind a silk drape, her gray hair barely contained in a silver net studded with paste rubies. Her lips were stained berry dark and her eyelids were painted duck egg blue to match her gown. She waved a fistful of dried goat gut sheathes at him.
“I’m as well as can be expected for an old mort, thank you, Mr. Schiller. Might I say you look the very picture of an elegant gentlemen and do this house a credit by attending.”
“It has oft been said that I am the very model of a gentleman. Perfect in every aspect and only three quarters the size.” He clicked his heels and offered a crisp bow.
“What? Oh, Oh I see.” She chuckled like a sack of gravel. “As I’ve always said to my girls and boys, t’aint the size, it’s what you do with it that counts.” She gave him a salacious wink. “Speaking of which, are you fitted for the joust, Sir Knight?” She waved the sheathes. “Only, I’ve a reputation to maintain and a town to keep fit for battle, which they will not if these cunning chandlers dip their wick in dirty oil, if you catch my meaning.”
“I fear you lost me in your metaphorical mazing, but have no fear, sweet dame.” He patted his breast pocket. “I have my armor with me, ready to don when it comes time to slay the beast.”
“Madame Leev is a talented charmer, she’ll raise the monster, have no fear.”
Nell gave a little cough and flicked her gaze to madame’s door. He bowed again to the old mort who’d made a fortune selling her skins. Beloved of the rutting populace, it had been rumored that a cabal of local quacksalvers had looked to take out a contract on her for spoiling their pox potion and abortion business but that no one would take it up. Schiller had often wondered what price would outweigh his affection for the old molly and concluded it would have to be more coin than a bunch of provincial apothecaries could muster.
Nelly unlocked her mistress’s chamber door. “Madame, Mr. Schiller’s here.”
“Show him in, Nell,” a lazily seductive voice intoned.
Although he was here for information, the kresp’s sultry, borrowed voice caused a swelling in the old unmentionables. The air in Madame Leev’s chambers was milky and sweet as a summer meadow, thick with the vapors the kresp exhaled. The lady herself was floating above the miasma just below the apex of the roof. Her proxy reclined beneath her on a silk divan connected to the exotic puppeteer by slender, pulsing veins.
The kresp looked like a leathery jellyfish. A rainbow of color shimmered beneath her domed mantle. A fleshy frill of ruffled skin concealed her undercarriage. Her eyes were set on the end of long stalks that drifted in the miasma beside her rippling feeding spikes. Gills in her body lazily opened and closed.
In contrast, the proxy body resembled a voluptuous, human woman garbed in a few artfully draped strips of silk that left little to the imagination. The faux woman was as pale as milk and regarded him with large, pearlescent eyes.
Schiller clicked his heels, swept his sword behind him, and bowed deeply. “Madame,” he addressed the floating mushroom.
Her eye tentacles snaked toward him and hovered a few inches from his face. This close he could see the tiny buds of silver that fringed her eyelids creating the illusion of gem-encrusted lashes. The tentacles withdrew, and the simulacrum rose gracefully to her feet and approached Schiller. She looked like she’d been carved from wax or a soft, luminous stone, but he knew from experience she felt like flesh.
“Madame, you look amazing. Have you done something?” he again addressed his comments to the half dozen eyes that danced before him. The mushroom dome shuddered.
“Why thank you for noticing. I’m in my late summer molt. Drink?”
“Don’t mind if I do. Wine please, Nell. The Briggellin if it please you. That other stuff upsets my digestion.”
Nell glanced over her shoulder and shot him a coy smile. “I’d never give you the cheap stuff, Mr. S.”
A huge bed and a dresser laden with food were the only furniture in the room. Schiller wasn’t sure if kresps ate, drank, or slept and had never attempted to find out. Lectures and book learning bored him, and he always had more interesting things to discuss with Madame than biology. Nell handed him the glass and took her leave. The wine was spicy and rich, not on a par with a nip of fresh blood, but not bad for mere alcohol. “Splendid as ever, Madame.”
“Who do you seek, Sebastian?”
“You know I hate to talk business, but I am seeking a terrible miscreant.”
“Will you pay five percent now, or seven percent later?”
“I’ll pay now, Madame.”
The simulacrum tilted its head as the eye stalks closed around him. “You’re unsure? This is a first.”
“Aye, for both of us. I just…” He paced. “There’s something about this cove that gives me cause for concern, not least because I am sure I have slain the varlet once already. There is something I cannot fathom.”
“Finish your wine, my dear. We’ll twine and see what we can see, eh?”
He downed the wine and loosened his cravat. The simulacrum reached out and drew him toward her. His skin thrilled at her cold touch. Nothing more than an extension of the kresp, formed of solidified secretions and the lascivious fantasies of those who frequented the brothel, the proxy nonetheless reacted like a living, breathing woman. Her nipples stood as erect as hat pins as she pressed herself against him. When they were cheek to chest, he felt one of Madame’s questing feeding spikes slither across his shoulders before hovering above the throbbing vein in his neck.
“Now?” the simulacrum breathed.
“Oh, yes, I think so.” The tip of the spike broke his skin as he bared his fangs and bit down on the yielding flesh of the proxy’s neck. The world tunneled into a swirling mosaic of color and light as his mind entwined with that of the kresp and floated free of the prison of his flesh.
Laughter bubbled in his mind as he and the simulacrum fell onto the divan. “Valen,” the stand-in moaned as the kresp quivered above them. Schiller drank deeply of whatever flowed through her veins. It wasn’t blood, but it was delicious and rich; brandy as compared to beer. “Valen,” she moaned. “You will find your quarry in Valen. The priest will aid you.”
He withdrew his fangs, leaned into the moment and the urgent sway of the simulacrum’s hips. “Show… me,” he stammered. A vision of a fat, sweating fellow in homespun brown robes swam into his mind. He saw a fountain and a statue greened by fungus. More of the kresp’s quivering tentacles uncoiled above him and touched him in ways mere hands could not match and then a light as bright as the noonday suns burst within him. Life and death had no meaning as thought and reason were momentarily, blissfully annihilated.