CROWNDON AIN’T KIND: The Tales of Vertiline and Pigott Torp

The Princess and the Ring

“Crowndon hasn’t been kind, lately,” Vertiline Torp said as she turned from the opening of the literal hole in the wall she and her brother, Pigott, called home. She struck a match and lit a small tallow candle.

“Crowndon ain’t never been kind, Verti,” Pigott said, sitting against the back wall with his eyes closed, his body shivering with fever. “Not never to the likes of us.”

He coughed quietly into his arm. Vertiline smiled ruefully and pulled a tin of salve from within a cinderblock she used to stash things. She’d lifted the salve from a salesman some months back, she couldn’t remember how long. The salesman had been of the snake oil variety, selling dyed water and cheap whiskey to the desperate and stupid of the Klankenvroot Gutter, but the salve was real enough. Probably not something the salesman intended to sell. A private possession. None of these thoughts mattered much to Vertiline, just ghostly whispers in her memory as she dipped her fingers into the tin and pulled out a little dab of the salve. Had to be sparing with the stuff. That traveling salesman was nowhere to be seen, long time now. Either moved on or rolled by the Rats.

“Thanks, sissy,” Pigott said as she rubbed it on his chest. “But you know that’s not doing much good.”

She was all too aware. The salve wasn’t a cure. It was something called a ‘amnegezic’, or something. It could only bring relief. The only way to really help him would be to get out of the Gutter, and that wasn’t happening anytime soon, not with the Thickies running the streets.

“Verti.”

“Yup.”

“Tell me a story.”

“What sorta story do you want to hear?”

“I dunno. One where the good guys win.”

“I dunno any where the good guys win.”

“Make one up.”

Verti was silent for a moment. She thought of something. Wasn’t a story, not really. A memory. A memory she’d not told anyone. A dangerous kind of memory. She’d have to make it into a story.

“Alright,” she said, and turned to pull down the curtain that served as a door for their hole, dug into the wall of the Gutter. She listened, could still hear the hustle and bustle of the other Rats outside, and so she lifted a section of board that served as flooring. Didn’t leave much of a dry spot for her to sit, but it muffled the sound well enough. She checked the candle, made sure it wasn’t in danger of catching anything on fire. It wasn’t, but she moved it down to the ground between them anyway.

“Well?” Pigott pushed.

“There was once a girl, her name was…Birdie.”

“Birdie?”

“Yup.”

“Sounds a lot like Verti.”

“Yup. How about that?”

Pigott didn’t respond, so Vertiline continued.

“Verti was a princess, but she didn’t know that, not yet. But she had a golden ring.”

“Did the ring mean she was a princess?”

“Yes.”

“But she didn’t know that yet.”

“No.”

“When did she find out?”

“Not for a long time. This story isn’t about that, though.”

“But it’s about the ring?”

“Yes.”

“You have a ring.”

Vertline looked down at her left hand. On her thumb she wore a thin band of worn tin. She wore it on her thumb because her other fingers weren’t big enough yet.

“That’s right.

“Now. The ring was her favorite thing in all the world. A beautiful thing, and it was hers, her only thing, and she liked to sit in the sun and let the light shine on it. Nothing unusual about that, right? Nothing wrong with that? She didn’t do it to flaunt or tease or anything. She just like the way it looked.

“But one day, a big brute, a troll, or maybe just a troll of a man, Birdie couldn’t really tell the difference, saw the gleam of the golden ring from his hiding place in the trees. He comes lumbering out, walking all Ziggy, like a jammy on a bender, and he bellows at her: ‘What’s you got there, vittle? A pretty?’

“The voice took Birdie by surprise, and the smell even more so, like rice left in a barrel, and she pulled her hand behind her back. And she said, ‘I ain’t got nothing for you!’”

“Verti?” Pigott interrupted. “I thought you said Birdie was a princess.”

“She was.”

“Then why’d she say, ‘ain’t’. Princesses and them all don’t say ‘ain’t’.”

“She didn’t grow up like a princess. She grew up like us, so she didn’t learn all that stuff, like being proper and stuff, yeah?”

“Oh. So, proper folk, they start off like us, and then they got to learn to be proper?”

“Yup.”

“So, what’s keepin’ us from bein’ proper? Can’t we learn it, too? We’re smart, right?”

“Yeah. Smarter than most, I’d wager.”

“So, what’s keepin’ us?”

“A whole lotta stuff. Bein proper’s more than just speakin’ right, yeah? You have to be rich…”

“So we nick a few purses. Done and done.”

“Not just rich, though. You have to know people.”

“Oh. And we don’t know people.”

“No. And you gotta be related to the right people.”

“Oh. We’re just related to each other.”

“Yup.”

“Verti?”

“Yes?”

“I think that’s okay.”

Verti smiled. “Me too.”

“So, the troll, or the troll of a man. What he look like?”

“He was brutish, with a big nose, and a big wart on the tip, with hair growing out of it long enough to braid.”

“Eww, gross!”

“Damn right, gross. And he had a lazy eye, and a bum leg, and a bald head that he tried to hide under a bowler cap he found in a ditch that was two sizes too small and just made the bald spot look bigger.”

Pigott laughed, then coughed, then said, “That sounds like Old Turner.”

“Yup. And guess what the troll’s name was?”

“Old Turner?”

“No. Wart Face.”

Pigott giggled again. Vertiline lived for that laugh, and dreaded the inevitable cough that followed. She gave him a sip of water and when the fit ended, she continued.

“Wart Face plodded out into the field where Birdie sat, every ounce of fat bouncing every step of the way. Birdie had to hold her nose because the stink was so bad.

“’What’s that you got in your hand there, vittle?’ Wart Face croaked at her. Birdie stood up and held out one hand (the other still behind her back). She said, ‘Nothing. Just like I said before. Now get out of here, before you kill all the grass with your stink.”

“Verti?”

“Yup.”

“Can you kill grass with stink?”

“Apparently. Saw it in a funny once.”

“Oh.”

“Anyways, Wart Face didn’t like being told what to do, and he didn’t like being lied to. And despite being ugly and mean, and drunk out of his wits half the time, he had a certain kind of smarts.”

“Like us?”

“No. Like a snake.”

“Oh.”

“Them’s at the university call it ‘impstinks’, or something. It’s something all mean things have, makes it easier for them to kill nice things.”

“So, he knew Verti was lying?”

“Birdie. And yes. He knew Birdie was lying, but that was more because she made a mistake.”

“And what mistake was that?”

“She acted like she had something to hide.”

“But she did.”

“Yeah, but Wart Face didn’t know that. It was a lesson she learned that day. Years later, another troll saw the ring, but that time she was able to trick it.”

“How?”

“By acting like the ring was nothing special.”

“So that troll left her alone?”

“No. That troll tried to eat her. That was another lesson she learned.

“But, back to Wart Face. ‘Show me t’other hand, vittle.’ Birdie dropped her first hand and put it behind her back. She switched the ring from one hand to the other, and held out her second hand.

“’See? Nothing!’

“Wart Face narrowed his eyes at her.

“’Show me both hands at the same time,’ he growled. Birdie panicked, then. If she’d been wearing trousers, like I do now, she could’ve stashed the ring in the waist band, but no. She was wearing a stupid dress. She could have dropped the ring behind her, but she was afraid the troll would see.”

“So what did she do?”

“She turned and bolted, down from the hill toward the trees. Wart Face raced after her, calling her names and shouting all the horrible things he would do to her when he caught her.”

“What types of things?”

“Things you don’t need to know about right now. She ran into the trees, ran like the wind. Surely, she was running faster than Wart Face, but the troll’s stubby legs carried his bloated body quicker than should have been possible.

“Verti tried to dodge him…”

“Birdie.”

“What?”

“The girl’s name. It was Birdie. You said Verti.”

“Oh. Well, you know what I meant. Can I keep going?”

“Sure.”

“BIRDIE tried to dodge him, scrambling through branch and root, but that only slowed her down. Wart Face was like a train, and he just crashed through the brambles and bush. He was so close, now, she could feel his hot breath on her back. And all the while, the ring cut a tiny circle in the palm of her hand.

“She thought to herself, this is it, Birdie. That’s all you get. And she thought about throwing the ring in his face to save herself. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. The ring was too important to her. It was a part of her.”

Verti realized that she was playing with the tin band around her left thumb. Pigott had noticed it too, so she stopped. She crossed her arms across her chest, wedging her arms under her armpits to keep them still.

“What happened next?” Pigott said. He was wide awake, now. That was the opposite effect she meant the story to have. Verti made a conscious effort to speak softly, afraid someone might overhear the end of her memory-story.

“Verti came to a riverbed, and in the wall of the riverbed was a pipe. She dove into it. And Wart Face, in his blind stupidity, dove in after her. But the pipe was just big enough for her, so it was much too small for Wart Face, and he got stuck at the waist…”

“Just like Old Turner!”

“Pigott, shhh. Not so loud. It’s late and we don’t want to wake no one. So, Wart Face…he didn’t seem to notice he was stuck as he scrabbled for her, clawing at the floor of the pipe with thick fingers and cracked, yellow nails. It wasn’t until Verti began to crawl away from him that he realized his situation. Anger gave way to desperation. She ignored him, and continued up the pipe. Up ahead, she saw light in the top of the pipe. And further up ahead, she heard the rush of water.

“Birdie had escaped the evil Wart Face, but now she faced a flood. With only one option, she kept forward, towards the light. Unfortunately for her, the hole in the top of the pipe was covered with a grate. It was old and rusty, but held firm when she tried to break through. The water ahead grew louder, and the cries of Wart Face behind her grew terrified, pleading.

“It was too late. The water was there. Verti grabbed onto the grate and held on, held her breath, as the water rushed past. Seconds stretched, on and on and into forever, as the light above her grew wavy and weird. She felt the slats in the grat give way, and her body slip, but she was able to grab on and hold.

“Eventually, the water lessened, and she could breath again. Then, it slowed to a trickle. She could still feel the water around her knees. She guessed that with Wart Face stuck in the front of the pipe, the water had nowhere to go. She was safe for now, but she knew that if more water came, she’d be drowned, same as Wart Face surely was now.

“Birdie looked up and saw that two of the rusty bars had indeed given away, and a third had broken. If she could just get that third bar gone, she might be able to escape. She grabbed hold and put all her weight on the bar, felt rusty flakes fall on her face. Up ahead, she heard it. More water, rushing toward her. She pulled harder than she ever thought she could. The final bar bent, but didn’t break. As the water barreled down through the pipe, she screamed through the grate, loud as she could, and stuck her arm through as the water swallowed her up.

“Did she break through?”

“No.”

“But, she had to, right? You said that later on, she met another troll. And that she would be a princess!”

Verti shrugged. “You told me to make up a story, so I did. It’s what they call a first draft. Things changed at the end.”

Pigott sulked. “That’s no good! I wanted a story where the good guys won. You gave me a story where no one won.”

“Didn’t I, though?”

“No!”

“Birdie didn’t throw the ring.”

“Verti.”

“What?”

“You kept saying ‘Verti’ at the end, not Birdie. Or did that change, too?”

Vertiline felt her face grow red. She wanted to lash out at him…not a new sensation, to be sure…but instead took a deep, calming breath.

“She didn’t let the monster have it. She kept it, until the end. She won.”

“Yeah, and apparently she died!”

Pigott started coughing.

“That’s usually how things go,” Vertiline said, sourly. “Go to sleep.”

She blew out the candle, now just a sliver in its dented tin pan, and turned over. Pigott cried silently. Sleep put an end to it. Vertiline hated herself a little bit. All he wanted was to take his mind off things for a while. But while he was escaping, she’d been reliving. Reliving that time Old Turner had chased her through the Gutter, and she’d escaped through a pipe. They found him a few days later, drowned and even more bloated than he had been, from the trapped water.

Vertiline had managed to escape with the help of a passing Thickie, who broke the last bar over a street grate and pulled her to safety. She resented that it was a guardsman who saved her, that she couldn’t save herself. Hated the guardsman for pulling her to safety and trying to take her away from the Gutter, away from Pigott.

And now the Thickies gathered outside the ground of Klankenvroot factory, trying to root them out, trying to take their home. The band of tin burned around her thumb. She hated the damn thing. But she loved it too.

“They’ve got a word for that,” Vertiline whispered to herself as her eyes grew heavy. “Cinammon-tality. Stupid word for stupid people.”

And she fell asleep.

***

Related Reading:

Adella Chatelaine Reports #001

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CROWNDON AIN’T KIND: The Tales of Vertiline and Pigott Torp

Blackwood Gazette #288- Orphan Twins Give Testimony in Secret Triumvirate Authority Hearing on Klankenvroot Incident

By Jeanne Dupris, Nor Eastern EIC

17/12/282- Another single, bright ray in the darkness surrounding Crowndon broke through today, as the Triumvirate Authority told us today that they have taken the twins Vertiline and Pigott Torp into custody.

The Torps, interviewed by Adella Chatelaine earlier this year, have become the face of the horrifying action taken by the Crowndon Empire known as the Klankenvroot purge. After a rally last week that ended in a scuffle with the city watch, Chatelaine was able to escape into a nearby channel by the Hawk’s Blood River. It was there that she reunited with the twins, who had been hiding in a small cove since the night of the Purge.

Using her contacts, Chatelaine was able to get both the twins and herself out of the Crowndon Empire and into Triumvirate Authority hands. The Authority reports that all three are healthy, and in good spirits.

The twins were given lodgings at an undisclosed Authority outpost in the mountains, where they were interviewed about the ordeal. They survived the flooding of the dry docks thanks to a pipe that ran from their hovel at the base of the dock wall up to the factory grounds above. They spent nearly an hour submerged, taking turns breathing through the pipe, before the watch opened the flood gates and drained the dock. From there, it was merely a matter of hiding amongst the dead until the guardsmen’s ranks thinned out, and sneaking away.

Chatelaine, who arrived in Oeil de Fleur yesterday morning, told me that she is hopeful the twins’ testimony will lead to definitive action by the Authority against Crowndon. Until that happens, she is simply thankful someone lived to tell the tale.

Blackwood Gazette #288- Orphan Twins Give Testimony in Secret Triumvirate Authority Hearing on Klankenvroot Incident

Blackwood Gazette #284- Adella Chatelaine Gives Heartfelt Speech in Crowndon at Klankenvroot Memorial, Barely Escapes Arrest

By Jeanne Dupris, Nor Eastern EIC

11/12/282-For several days now, citizens of Crowndon had gathered at the site of the old Klankenvroot factory, holding a vigil for those who lost their lives. A company of Crowndon city watch stood by, watching them like a hawk.

Despite the high profile situation, former Gazette writer and person of interest in the Gazette sedition trial Adella Chatelaine made an appearance yesterday afternoon, where she gave an impassioned speech memorializing the workers and decrying the way the situation was resolved.

Earlier this year, Chatelaine visited the area of the factory known as the gutter, where she interviewed a pair of orphans, Vertiline and Pigott Torp. It is unknown whether the orphaned twins survived the Klankenvroot purge, and a large portion of Chatelaine’s speech lamented the state of their lives when she met them and the possibility of their death.

Chatelaine’s time on stage was brief; as soon as the watch identified her, they moved in to arrest her. Her speech had caused unrest within the crowd, however, and the throng lashed out. It is believed that Chatelaine was able to slip away, though we’ve received no word as to her fate at the time of publication.

The altercation between the watch and the people gathered was short lived, as the crowd dispersed with the discharge of a single firearm. Luckily, no one was seriously injured. Even still, our sources inside Crowndon tell us that a feeling of unease persists in the capital city of Crowndon. The city watch retains a presence on the factory ground, removing any objects of memorial and running off anyone who approaches to replace them.

Blackwood Gazette #284- Adella Chatelaine Gives Heartfelt Speech in Crowndon at Klankenvroot Memorial, Barely Escapes Arrest

Blackwood Gazette #274-Crowndon Floods Klankenvroot Dry Dock, Killing Nearly 200

By Jeanne Dupris, Nor Eastern EIC

15/11/282-Reports coming out of Crowndon seem to mark this as one of the darkest days in the Triumvirate’s history, as the Klankenvroot factory situation has been resolved in the most tragic way possible.

The City Watch, under the command of Crowndon Imperial military commanders, have reportedly flooded the dry docks where a large majority of the former factory workers lived. Nearly two hundred people, composed of workers and their families, are said to have lived in those dry docks. We are told that nearly all of them are dead.

There is no word on why the Crown abruptly decided to take such a drastic and tragic course of action, as the workers living in the factory had heretofore not displayed any sort of aggression to the battalion of City Watch and imperial soldiers camped outside the factory grounds.

The Crowndon military recently performed a test of a new aerial automaton equipped with a pictograph, and some have suggested that the images captured by the devices spurred this decision. However, the military has made no statements thus far about what the automatons saw inside the factory.

We have nothing but speculation at the moment as to why this event has occurred. There is this fact, though; Crowndon just murdered 200 of its own citizens, many of them children or infirm. Empress Marcelette Bastian has already condemned the decision, and the words ‘Imperial Duumvirate’ have reportedly been uttered more than once in her court. The Monteddorian High King Mario Adallantes issued a most diplomatic and ultimately toothless statement. The Crowndon Oligarchs have yet to say anything at all, though we believe the Imperial High Command will issue a no doubt polished report on the success of their ‘operation’ in the coming days.

The Triumvirate Authority, likewise, has said nothing, though we are told they are not pleased. Hopefully, they will push for a formal inquisition into the matter. In the meantime, the hopes and prayers of Nor Easter go out to those whose lives have been lost, and those few who survived. It is their tale that I would most like to tell as we proceed to make sense of what has occurred.

***

A bit of perspective from someone who lived in the shadow of the Klankenvroot factory:

Adella Chatelaine Reports #001-In the Shadow of Klankenvroot: A Tale from the Gutters of Crowndon
Blackwood Gazette #274-Crowndon Floods Klankenvroot Dry Dock, Killing Nearly 200

Adella Chatelaine Reports #001-In the Shadow of Klankenvroot: A Tale from the Gutters of Crowndon

They’d all pull us up, then spend the rest of their days knockin’ us back down, reminding us every step of the way that we got by on their pity and conveniently forgetting the fact we were down here because of them in the first place. I figure you might understand a little of that, Miss Chatelaine.

Earlier this month, the city counsel of Crowndon’s capital, Old Crowndon, held a low key memorial for the victims of the Heisenberg catastrophe. One might be surprised to hear that this memorial ever occurred, seeing as how it had not been reported on until now. But I, for one, am not surprised that the Oligarchs kept the event under wraps.

As a matter of fact, it surprises me that such a memorial even took place at all; the disaster, after all, is still a sore wound for Crowndon’s national pride that rivals, or perhaps even exceeds, the military loss against Nor Easter five years ago. Indeed, the effects of the disaster can still be seen throughout the city.

None of these effects is more visible, yet overlooked, than the shanty town that has sprung up around the base of the old Klankenvroot factory (rebranded as the now defunct Crowndonian Ministry for Planar Wing Research and Development after it was taken over by the government). Thousands of former Klankenvroot factory workers found themselves without a place to turn after the disaster, and so huddled beneath the shadow of their former place of employment, constructing shacks of old wood and sheet metal.

While the entirety of the town is one of sorrow and misfortune, the harshest depths of this place lay within the area known as the Gutter, an area that extends down into the dry docks on the western end of the factory grounds. It is here where those unwanted even by the denizens of the shanty town eventually end up: the elderly, the sick, those crippled by the factory’s machines, and perhaps most tragically of all, the abandoned child laborers and orphans of workers who died on the factory floor.

I had a run in with one of these wayward children not long after entering the Gutter, despite protestations from my escort. She was an adolescent girl by the name of Vertiline Torp who tried to steal my photographer’s camera. The attempt was shamefully humorous, as the camera is a bulky thing and when the girl tried to snatch it, the camera stayed in place and her feet flew out from under her.

Realizing her mistake, Vertiline ran. I managed to track her to where she lived with her brother, a younger child with a lame leg. It took some convincing but I managed to get her to talk to me.

“I’ll talk to you,” she said. “But only you. Your copper friend and the man with picto-box have to stay outside.”

The officer escorting us grumbled at the conditions, but agreed to stay outside as I followed Vertiline into her home. It was a crudely thrown together structure constructed of discarded wooden pallets against the side of the dry dock’s wall. Space is limited in the Gutter, but Vertiline and her brother had made due by digging into the wall.

“Tisn’t much, but it’s dry and it stays warm at night,” Vertiline told me. “And there was a pipe in the wall, runs clear up to the top, so we’ve some sort of ventilation. I’d like to say I knew it was there, but it wasn’t. Just a small bit of fortune I guess.”

“Crowndon is kind,” her brother interjected, to which Vertiline scoffed.

“Crowndon ain’t never been kind, not to the likes of us. I look at that damned pipe every night and wait for that small bit of fortune to bite us in the arse.”

She told me that her mother died giving birth to her brother, Pigott. An all too common story, she said.

“He wasn’t turned round the right way, and they couldn’t get mum help in time. Pigott never could wait. Always been impatient. That’s why his leg got mangled.”

Their father worked for Klankenvroot, and they rarely ever saw him.

“Guess you could say we was orphans long before he ever died. One day he went to work, never came back. But I know he’s dead. Saw Old Turner wearing his ring one night.”

She held up her hand to show me a ring, a simple gray band made of chipped tin. I asked her how she got the ring back.

“None of your business,” was Vertiline’s answer. So I asked how it is that she gets by.

“Thems up top all call us the Gutter Rats,” she told me, as if that was answer enough. I suppose I had enough confusion on my face that she expounded on her own. “You know anything about rats, Miss?”

I’ve had my share of experiences. I try to remain objective about their nature.

“Rats are survivors, yeah? When a ship goes down, they tells you to follow the rats. Men in mines? Follow the rats. Fire in the factory? Follow the rats. Rats always know where to run, how to escape. And it’s got nothing to do with planning or being cunning. It’s instinct. I get by because that’s what I do.”

I shifted my eyes to her brother. Her explanation was cold, almost pragmatic. It seemed to me almost opposite of what someone caring for a crippled younger sibling would say. I didn’t challenge her on it, though.

I asked her if she’s ever thought about leaving the Gutter instead.

“Nope,” she said, without hesitation. “This is my world. I know it, and it knows me. Everyone here, we’re all in the same situation, we’re all on the same page. Wouldn’t be the same up there, with that lot. They’d all pull us up, then spend the rest of their days knockin’ us back down, reminding us every step of the way that we got by on their pity and conveniently forgetting the fact we were down here because of them in the first place. I figure you might understand a little of that, Miss Chatelaine.”

She lifted up a copy of my book, detailing my captivity in the colonies. It’s only been out for a month but it’s already beaten and dog eared. It looked like she’s read it more than once.

“That’s right…I know you,” she said. “Only reason I agreed to talk to you. You never asked for help or pity. Why should I?”

I left Vertiline with her brother, taking with me something to think about. I continued my tour around the Gutter with her story in the back of my mind. I conducted a few more interviews, but none of them struck me in the same way as my conversation with the girl. During one such interview, I asked a man if he knew who Old Turner was.

“A bad apple, that one. We don’t like talking about him more than that. Bad as this place is, it was worse when he was around.”

When? I wondered. Meaning he wasn’t around anymore?

“The villain turned up dead, near a month before,” the man said. “Stuck in a drainage pipe and drowned, one half of him dry, the other half bloated up like a soggy loaf of bread, and about as soft, too. No one knows how he got stuck…maybe he was chasing a meal.”

The man laughed, and I excused myself. As I followed my escort out of the Gutter I thought back to Vertiline and her ring, and that pipe in the ceiling of her home, and how she said she stared at it every night, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I smiled, content with the knowledge that when that shoe did drop, Vertiline would probably be ready to deal with it.

Adella Chatelaine Reports #001-In the Shadow of Klankenvroot: A Tale from the Gutters of Crowndon