It was the month of Advent, 282nd Year of the Triumvirate, when my past began to catch up to me. I had been running for so very long, and I suppose I may have been getting slightly tired of it. But that is neither here nor there, nor is it the point I am ultimately trying to make, if a point is to be made at all.
I had just returned to Nor Easter after a long and trying absence, following a series of events that led to me perpetuating my own demise. It wasn’t an act that I was unfamiliar with; I’d discovered that faking one’s death was a good way of getting out of certain obligations, but the façade always grew tiring. I am Sir Rigel Rinkenbach, after all, and the world needs me.
This was the night of an annual meeting of minds, started long ago by great Nor Eastern thinkers long dead. I figured it was the perfect way to announce that tales of my demise were greatly exaggerated.
The meeting of great minds took place, as all the best summits of such a sort do, in a red light establishment of Oeil de Fleur (though this particular establishment was no longer located in the red light district, having been forced to move several times for reasons I don’t have time to make sense of.)
Big Bessie’s is neither the most decadent of bordellos, nor is it the most highly regarded…certainly not in Oeil de Fleur. It is, however, often the most lively, and sees the patronage of the most interesting, and features the most profane acts in its burlesque of any bordello in the entirety of the known world (the known world being Nor Easter…never mind the rest of the Triumvirate, or the Newland colonies, The Man forbid. Troglodytes, all of them.)
I arrived fashionably late, which by my ken is precisely whenever I arrive (typically fifteen minutes subsequent to the event’s scheduled beginning). Anything earlier or later and you risk seeming desperate, or so I say.
Those desperate souls already gathered when I walked through the doors of Big Bessie’s Barroom, Billiards, and Burlesque consisted of Ivan Klankenvroot (a poor soul and rival of mine that I took great pity on, having been exiled from his home in Crowndon), and Alessia Cosgrove, who I am given to understand was the host for that year’s meeting. She was a Vintner from the outskirts of Oeil de Fleur. I have no opinion on her status as a Master of the art, as I have no taste for wine. Absinthe is my drink of choice.
Also at the table was the luminous fashion designer Bedform Rumtree and the playwright Delando, or at least a stand in for Delando. Delando never appears in public, for an unknown reason (at the time). The only thing I knew for sure is that the person at the table was not Delando, for an earlier encounter with the playwright had been with a different individual.
Upon entering the room, I was granted the only welcome one could ever expect under the circumstances; silent reverence fell over the establishment, all eyes on me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” I said, raising my arms and throwing off my coat. “I know my presence may come as a shock, but here I stand, alive and well. Sir Rigel Rinkenbach!”
They pretended not to be surprised. Most of the other patrons went about their business, but Klankenvroot, who I had taken on as something of a protégé out of pity after his business went under (a pitégé, if you will) stood up.
“Rigel Rinkenbach, you arrogant bastard!” Ivan said, in endearment, I’m sure. “Why should I not be surprised?”
“Because he’s Rigel Rinkenbach,” Miss Cosgrove said. “I’d have been more surprised had he stayed dead this time.”
I laughed and took a seat, shouting at the bartender. “Barkeep! A round of Romillion’s please!”
The barkeep muttered something under his breath to the effect of ‘bloody Alchemists’, then shouted back.
“I don’t carry Romillion’s anymore, for the express purpose of keeping you out of here. As it’s been nearly a year, I’d thought I’d succeeded, but what a fool I am, huh?”
“Excuse me?” I asked, perplexed. “But, sir. I’ve never been in this establishment before.”
“That’s because we moved, you imbecile. But trying to outrun you troublemakers is impossible, it seems.”
“Ha ha! You flatter my tenacity! Well, I’ll just have whatever house absinthe you have.”
“Haven’t got any ‘house absinthe’. Fool.”
“Anything in the absinthe family?”
“No. Please leave.”
“Never fear, Sir Rinkenbach!” A new voice said from the entrance. It was the puissant architect Davis Case, to whom I once lent money and never saw a return on, standing with the narcissistic Primarch, a philosopher. Ugh, philosophers. They make my skin crawl. They take everything so seriously.
Mister Case had a bottle of Romillion’s under his arm. That ALMOST made me forget his debt. I still wanted my fund back, with interest. But tonight, he was my best friend.
“Mister Case,” I said, walking over and snatching the bottle from his hand. “I’d almost think you were expecting me.”
“Oh, but I was, Master Rinkenbach. I had faith that no Sarnwainian dogs could really kill you.”
“Careful, now, Mister Case. Remember, I am half Sarnwainian, myself.”
“Yes, of course, Sir. I didn’t mean to-”
“Think nothing of it.”
“And besides, you had Miss Sincla-”
“Hush, now. Barkeep! Glasses for my table!”
“Nuh uh. You have to order something first.”
“Snifters of whiskey then. And glasses of ice water. Oh, and a plate of sugar cubes, for, um, snacking!”
The barkeep, whose surliness I must say was starting to feel very familiar, went about preparing our order. A waitress brought the order over, but we were short one…mine. That didn’t deter me from snatching away the Primarch’s order and emptying the whiskey over my shoulder.
“Foul swill,” I said, opened the bottle of Romillion’s, and prepared. The tools I had at my disposal weren’t ideal, and it was almost a sin to do such a shoddy job with Romillion’s, but I was desperate. I took that first delicious sip and all was right. “Oh, how I have missed this. Anyone else?”
My company said nothing. Klankenvroot downed his whiskey, as did Case and Rumtree. Miss Cosgrove gave her whiskey to the Primarch and ordered a glass of wine. Her own wine, as it were. Make of that detail what you will.
We moved on to the purpose of our gathering, to discuss matters of great import, such matters being of import because we had declared them so, of course. Later, we would make merry with the lovely ladies of Big Bessie’s. And by make merry I mean to copulate with furiously and with great enthusiasm.
But I get ahead of myself.
While I enjoyed my drink, the others went around the table, telling of their latest accomplishments and plans. I barely paid attention. The most interesting point was Klankenvroot’s Klankencopter, but everyone had known about that for months. After rambling on for the better part of an hour, the conversation turned toward me. Normally, I would not have allowed the conversation to meander so without some sort of direction, but I was distracted by my old friend the green fairy, who I had not seen in such a long time.
“So…what exactly happened in Sarnwain, Sir Rinkenbach?”
“Hm?” I looked up from my glass to see them all staring at me. I must have been feeling lethargic, for I waved my hand lazily through the air and said, “Oh, not much. Just this and that.”
“This and that?” Miss Cosgrove said, irritation in her voice. “Your actions have very likely started a war, don’t you know?” she said.
“Really? Who knew I had such influence!”
“You know very well your influence,” a gruff voice said. It issued forth from a nearby table, where sat a trio of louts who’d seen better days.
“If you gentlemen and lady wouldn’t mind, I have traveled a long way to Oeil de Fleur to enjoy Madame Bessie’s retinue, not listen to you all prattle on about your little projects and wanton desires.”
I turned toward the source of the dissent and could tell immediately from their rough exteriors and dusty clothes that these men, if they could be called that, hailed from the infernal pits of the Newland colonies. I do not take kindly to colonials, much less the colonials of Crowndon, and even LESS the colonials of Crowndon who presume to instruct me in the matters of good manners in the heart of Nor Easter.
I also knew, through rumor and tales told by my dear Empress Marcelette, that the man before me was one Dr. Argyle Von Grimm. His bionic eye gave him away, and I must say it was the most civilized thing about him. I should know, because I am the one who invented such things.
“Ah, what have we here, lads? A talking ape, in a waist coat and top hat? Someone, please inform Madame Bessie that a member of her menagerie has escaped from the cages back stage!”
My compatriots shared an uneasy look. Von Grimm’s face reddened. The only appropriate reaction to such a barb, I am sure.
“You dare insult the Imminent Doctor Argyle Von Grimm?” He said it as if he were more than a common bandit. What mental contortionism was required from him to actually believe such a thing must have caused him a great many migraines.
“Oh…forgive me, your Imminence!”
I fell to the floor, where I had spotted a rat chewing on a piece of moldy bread. I spoke to the rat, pleased that such an opportunity had presented itself. “I failed to see you down there, distracted as I was by the company of anthropomorphic lizards standing before me.”
The rat squeaked and ran away a few feet, stopped, and ran back. It grabbed the bread and took off again. That rat had priorities. I could respect that. That respect did not extend to Von Grimm, however.
I stood, and looked around. Made a real show of it, too, just to get my point across.
“As for Doctors, I see no Doctors here.”
I spied a mirror and pointed at my reflection.
“Oh, look; there’s one now. Hello!”
It was at this point that the Great Doctor Von Grimm folded under the barrage of my acerbic wit and lived up to his true nature by going completely ape shit.
“Bud! Quixote! I have suffered the barbs of this charlatan long enough. Teach him a lesson.”
The first one to come at me was the one known as Quixote. I recognized him immediately as an automaton, a Taro series four. And while, regretfully, I had NOT invented this particular manner of automaton, I was familiar with its systems, having been contracted once to design repair parts and upgrades for the machines. As such, I knew a simple way to deal with it.
Quixote ran at me, but I stood my ground. I like to think that I had a knowing smirk on my face, but honestly can’t remember. It’s highly likely.
“The Loon Sings to the Moon, seeking its Benevolent Boon.”
On my words, the automaton deactivated mid stride and crumpled at my feet. I shook my head.
“Tsk. Tsk. Such a remarkable machine…and remarkably flawed.”
At first glance, one might assume that the second henchman, a gigantic simpleton that looked as though he consumed grizzly bears for dessert, would be trouble for someone as small in stature as yours truly. As he stepped up I looked him straight in the eye and asked…
“What is your name, Oaf?”
“They call me Big Bad Bud.”
“Bug Bid Bag?”
“What? No, that ain’t right. Bag Bud Bid…no…wait…”
“Bog Bad Bill?”
Confusion now completely overtook him. That was probably enough, but I pushed further. Sometimes I underestimate even myself.
“Oh, I’ve got it now! Big Dumb Bum!”
Tears formed in the lout’s eyes. I felt a trifle sorry for him, but he had been about to pummel me.
“I ain’t a bum. I’m a hard worker, ask anyone! Don’t call me a bum!”
“But that’s your name, isn’t it? That’s what people call you, right?”
“More often than they call you Bud, though, isn’t that right?”
“Well, if that’s what people call you, then that’s your name, now, isn’t it?
Highlighting this fact only broke the poor boy down completely.
Bud ran bawling into a corner to sulk. The good doctor Von Grimm was dumbfounded.
“Good god, Rigel,” Mister Rumtree said. “That was cold, even for you.”
“Well, ‘Doctor’? You appear most vexed. Have you any more goons to throw my way, or are you prepared to fight your own battle?”
“I am not above dirtying my own hands, sir. En garde!”
Von Grimm pulled a black baton the length of his forearm from the inside of his coat. He flicked it downward and a di-sectioned, rapier like blade telescoped from within.
“Ah, so it is to be a contest of blades, then? Wonderful! I’ve not had such sport in ages!”
I lifted my cane, twisted the handle, and drew my own rapier.
“Have at you! Cretin.”
We dueled, causing quite the mess and chasing out most of Bessie’s other patrons in the process. We made ribbons from curtains and took the fight to the tops of tables, scattering glasses. I kited the doctor up a winding stair case.
He was not much an opponent, easily led. I could have ended the fight quickly, but I was having too much fun. I decided to end the diversion with a bit of flair and pushed him through a banister to the stage below, sending the dancers scattering. I landed on top of Von Grimm as intended, knocking the wind out of him and breaking my own fall. I recovered quickly and placed the tip of my blade at Von Grimm’s throat.
“I yield!” he pleaded, in vain.
“Do you, now?” I plunged the tip of my rapier into Von Grimm’s bionic eye, shorting it out. It was a bit of a low move, I admit, but my blood was up and I wanted to give my fellow patrons a story to tell.
Von Grimm screamed in agony and rolled around on the floor, clutching at the shorted eye, the occasional spark arcing between his fingers. I sheathed my blade and jumped from the stage to the applause of Mister Case, taking a bow.
“Thank you, my friends! That was most invigorating!”
One of the establishment’s women sidled up to me and hung on my shoulder. I arched an intrigued eye brow at her and turned toward my colleagues.
“Excuse me, my kind fellows. I feel the sudden urge to retire for the evening. Good bye, until next we meet!”
The dancer and I exited the bar, with the barkeep shouting something about damages. I wasn’t hurt, so I assumed he was talking to someone else. While we waited, the dancer and I chatted. She told me her name, but I immediately forgot it.
We arrived at my hotel, a rather rundown place, I admit. I’m sure that played a part in my companion’s sudden cold turn.
“I was under the impression you were rich?” she said, running a finger across a banister and frowning at a layer of dust on her skin.
“I am rich,” I assured her, while fumbling with my keys. “And capable of a great many things.”
“So why’re you staying in a dump like this?”
“Haven’t you read the papers? I’ve been dead for nearly a year.”
“But you’re not dead now. Why not go home?”
“Spending any amount of time dead brings up certain bureaucratic entanglements. My home is currently in the custody of the government.”
“Custody of the government, huh? But not the custody of you?
“Not…technically speaking, no.”
“I’m guessing the same goes for your money?”
“All of my assets are withheld at the moment, yes.” The dancer had bested me. Interesting. “What was your name again?”
I remembered it that time.
I entered ahead of Estelle and walked to a small bar I had set up. While the majority of my resources were on hold, I had managed to scrounge up a few essentials. Absinthe was one such, the other was my prized piano. Not to mention Gossamer V, who perched sleeping in his cage. Or, at least, I hoped he was sleeping.
“Drink, my dear?”
“Yes, please. And thank you. Is that an owl?”
“I think it’s dead.”
I threw a covering over the cage. “Think nothing of that. Gossamer V is just a heavy sleeper.”
“Five? What happened to the other four?”
“Come, now, relax.”
Estelle sat on the bed and fell back, stretching her arms. She sat up and looked around, her eyes resting upon my prized piano on the far side of the room.
“That’s nice,” she said as I handed her a glass of absinthe.
“Thank you. It means a great deal to me. Which is unfortunate, because it weighs so very much. This apartment I rented out in perpetuity under a false name, just so I wouldn’t have to lug it around to keep it from being confiscated.”
Estelle sniffed at her glass, wrinkled her nose, and drank anyway. She must have liked the taste better because she nodded in satisfaction. Taking another sip, she gestured with the glass toward the piano.
“Do you play?”
“Yes, I play, and I compose. And I am exemplary at it.”
“Yeah? Go on, then. Play me something.”
“Oh, my dear. I fear I am not in the mood for playing. I am just in the mood for your company. And perhaps a tumble.”
“Oh, come on! Tell you what…you play me a song, and if I like it, you get half off. Deal?”
“Shrewd. I like that! Very well, then. Challenge accepted.”
We shook on it. I went to the piano, started to set my own drink upon it, but thought better of it and set it on the floor instead. I placed my fingers on the keys and considered what to play.
There is a song I play for all my women, though it was only ever intended for one. The song begins as a simple waltz, for a foundation.
The waltz is simple, elegant and playful, much like she was. She with the Red Locks and the Emerald Eyes, and more blades shoved between her clothes and skin than a Pyrossi butcher’s shop. Estelle settled in for the song, moving her head to the rhythm. A good sign, for my ego and coin purse alike.
A melody follows the waltz, a whirling mixture of major and minor notes. The melody is whimsical, much like my relationship with that blade wielding spy. Up and down, but mostly sideways…
I always think of her when I play the song. Little snippets of our times together, coming and going like swift sparrows. Our meeting in an alley, under false pretenses on her part. Me teaching her alchemy, us exploring a dig site, her saving me from bandits. I once stole a kiss, and she slapped me.
“I’m the thief here, remember?” she told me, and kissed me back.
Everything fell away from me then, lost in the music…or perhaps lost in these conjured memories. My playing became more focused even as it became more undisciplined, more intense, as the song and my memories of Pixie Sinclaire reached their climax.
The song ends on a bittersweet, discordant note, as I suppose all great things do. As I finished, Estelle asked the same thing everyone does.
“That was lovely. It had a certain on the spot truth to it. Like, it was improvised. Did you just come up with it?”
“Were you thinking of me while you played?”
Whenever they ask me this, the answer is always the same: I tell them what they want to hear. And it is always a lie. Even the one time I told the woman ‘no’, it was a lie.
Estelle lay back on the bed.
“I liked it. Come to bed.”
I stood and closed the keyboard of the piano. I walked away, passing my fingertips over a carving in the piano’s wood. It is quaint, but says all it needs to. A simple carving of a heart, within it inscribed the initials RR+PS. Two deep scratches run across it, a halfhearted attempt to strike it out.