I miss the opera.
The entertainment is better, and the spectators at least make a token attempt at maintaining personal hygiene.
The Ratcatchers’ Death Dance venue is a repurposed warehouse with a circle of sand in its midst overlooked by rickety ‘lodges’. I am in such a lodge now, with Urchin by my side. All of the remaining ones are occupied by the Ratcatcher leadership. On occasion, Jed the Paunch will ‘invite’ one of his subordinates for a private talk that will leave the poor bugger pale and sweaty.
I can track the small signs of concern on his rotund face. Even from here, I see the grease-stained shirt straining to hold his expanding gut. He does not even have a neck. Instead, his repulsive face is ringed by a circle of worm-like flesh covered with coarse hair. I bet I could run a lantern for weeks on the fat of his body. I would not, of course. The stench…
His concern is well-deserved. John has gone through the brackets like a stiletto through the skin, taking everyone by storm. None so far managed to stem the placid violence of the man they have come to call Jolly John.
My faithful servant is far from invincible. He lacks the adaptability and quick-thinking that defines true genius.
He does have his strong points.
I remember Ritter, the Mudmen boss, telling me that he was too soft. The gang leader took a look at my aide and dismissed him as powerful but otherwise harmless. Not a true warrior. He is somewhat correct: John will not fight as a first reaction. He is pure and innocent, unwilling to hurt those around him.
Unless, of course, I give him the order.
The beauty of perfect control is that John fights with no hesitation and no remorse. If I order a man killed, that man must die. It is right, because Ariane ordered it, and so it shall be.
And killed he has.
When I picked him up in Marquette, John was skeletal. It took me a full year to have him recover enough to work. Since then, he has been my bouncer, bodyguard and on occasion, knee-breaker. The truth is, John is both very well trained and experienced. His perfect memory extends to patterns and techniques, and though he does not always understand which one to use, he is quick to remember even the most complex of instructions. The result is an incomprehensible warrior with savagery but no ego, technique but no imagination, and caution without fear.
I considered using Urchin in his stead, unfortunately, it would not do. Urchin is still too raw to win without moving at an unnatural speed and he is also quite short. In the minds of people, pugilists must be big and brawny. If he wins too often and too strangely, it will not only attract undue attention. He will also be accused of cheating. Image is everything in entertainment.
As a result, I have relied on John. Tonight, we have gathered for the final match.
Around the arena, men and women sit on chairs, crates and anything else they could get their hands on. Alcohol and conversations flow free in a strident cacophony. Scantily-clad girls cling to the arm of the more well-off gang goons while others, the grifters and con artists, gather in mocking groups who tease passing men and sometimes even relieve them of their purses. Some attendants drink, some scream, and a few have even set up an improvised ring where the hot-blooded may get a sample of the spectacle to come. The smell of sweat both fresh and old mixes with that of old wood and spilt beer to form the classic mix I expect from frontier watering holes. The main difference is the energy.
The taint of despair permeating the city here turns into frenetic and deleterious energy. Hearts pump fresh blood to minds already intoxicated by the promise of violence and blood to be shed. I see it in their frantic eyes, the way they lick their lips and the manner in which they track movement at the periphery of their vision, hunting, searching, waiting for the coming of the gladiators. For those who will kill and die to enter the fray.
Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant. Hail Caesar, those who will die greet you, captives used to say. But alas, the coliseum here is a decrepit dump and the imperator was replaced by a bulging sphere of suet, a disgusting mass that not even the most corrupt of emperors would have devolved into.
Sometimes, life is a tragedy. Sometimes, a farce, and here the first act.
A man appears from the changing rooms as if by magic, wearing an impeccable black suit over a white shirt. He holds a top hat in his gloved hands, which he waves about to attract the crowd’s attention. Progressively, the humdrum of conversation dies down until his stentor’s voice prevails over the remaining din.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, fine people of Alexandria, good evening! The moment you have been waiting for has finally come! Tonight, two men will give it their all in a contest of brawn and will. Tonight, two men will enter the arena for your greatest pleasure and tonight, only one will come out!”
The audience screams with bloodlust. This is what they are here for.
“Please enjoy this show brought to you by your host, Jedediah Collins!”
The toad-like creature slightly bends forward while the crowd applauds, momentarily sobered. For one moment, I wonder if he will collapse under his own weight. Fortunately for him, gravity proves itself unequal to the task of felling him. It appears that I have to provide a helping hand.
“And now, for our first contestant! He has taken the tournament by storm, defeating one opponent after another. The Frontier Felon, the Simple Savage, the man from the West who goes after the best! He has shown that he’s not a man to be trifled with, and his fists could chip rock! Ladies and Gentlemen…I give to youuuuuu JOHN DOE!”
The audience yells and jeers, the support from outsiders and equal-opportunity enthusiasts barely enough to cover the booing fury of the most fervent Ratcatchers. John follows a pretty girl inside while from the changing room, I catch a glimpse of King giving me the “all-normal” sign.
So, Jed did not try to hedge his bets. Color me surprised. He must have complete faith in his champion.
John looks impressive in a thin white shirt that shows exactly how impossibly massive he is. His ugly face is calm, showing no emotion at all. He searches me and finds me above him in the lodges. Our eyes meet and I nod to him. John has his instructions and he will follow them to the best of his abilities, this I can count on.
I saw the Crusher fight. I give my servant an even chance to win.
Of course, the plan does not rely on his victory and should he be too much at risk, I would intervene. I will not lose John over some silly influence game. What matters is the diversion the fight provides.
The Ratcatchers are on their home ground and the Crusher is a kind of legend himself. They want to see him win. They like to see him win. The bloodier, the better. The sheer emotional investment will keep their attention below, while Urchin and I can do what we came to do.
“But in the challenger’s path lies a man we know and love. A man we fear! A man who eats steel and spits out nails for breakfast! A man who has ruled this arena undefeated for the past fiiiiive years! Can you bring him? Can you call his naaaaame?”
The crowd, only too eager to obey, summons their champion with that very peculiar mob voice born of a hundred throats.
And the man obliges.
Jumping out from behind the curtain leading to the changing room, the Ratcatcher champion, Jed’s bodyguard and lunatic extraordinaire, struts forward. He practically jumps on his feet. Now I realize why Jed did not take the chance to poison or incapacitate John.
He believes he has no need.
I have seen intoxicated men in my life, including those who become irrationally aggressive under the influence of alcohol, and the Crusher is at the deep end. Whatever Jed fed his attack dog is an order of magnitude more malicious. The Crusher’s scarred face shines with nervous perspiration. The dark orbs of his eyes shift, bloodshot and manic, then dart over the room before landing on John with monomaniacal intensity. He licks his flush lips with a bloated tongue. I can see veins pulsing under his shaved scalp.
This man is insane. If he was not before, he is now.
USELESS. BROKEN TOOL.
The madman steps into the sand ring to everyone’s great enjoyment. He grunts and hollers, and the crowd echoes him in great waves of screams. Like a broken chorus.
Oh, do I miss the opera.
Finally, the room settles enough for the announcer to order everyone out of the fighting grounds. Employees darken lanterns until only the ring itself is fully visible to mortal eyes. John stands placidly at one end, as calm and gathered as if he were at dinner. Facing him, the Crusher paces on his side like a caged beast. Spittle foams at the corner of his mouth as he growls and mutters imprecations.
“Let the fight… begiiiiiiin!”
I clutch the railing before me, feeling a change in the atmosphere. It tastes like inevitability.
The Crusher jumps forward, only to stop a few feet away from John who is already prepared to receive him. My servant stands low with a fist forward, offering as little a target as possible. Even then, he looms over his opponent. As for the Crusher, his guard is more fluid as he jumps from side to side. His muscles are lean and corded and he looks like one solid mass of spite.
“You dumb fuck! Dumb fuck!” he screams. Then, with great speed, he feints left and low, hits right and upwards.
“The Crusher likes to fake an attack from a side, then attack from the other side. Like this.”
“Yes, miz Ari.”
I have watched the Crusher’s previous matches. The man has predictable patterns for those who know how to look. It would not matter to most, as the man can win most matches through speed, strength and unbridled violence alone. It matters to John, and so I trained him for hours in preparation for the confrontation by imitating his foe’s most common moves until he could defend against them.
The feint does not work, though the strike was still too fast for my servant to dodge completely. The uppercut slides along ribs while the Crusher pulls back and manages to deflect the counter-attack from smashing his face to just impacting his shoulder.
The crowd roars. They have a match, and we have our distraction.
I signal Urchin who opens the door leading to the platform outside and the stairs leading below. A man in a stained waiter uniform turns his head when he notices us. Urchin bids him come closer with a gesture.
The man blinks and his eyes turn glazed. He closes the distance while I put on my mask, in case I get spotted. Urchin seizes the waiter by the throat and kills him, gesturing with his left hand to take the man’s falling platter before it can hit the ground with a clang. Then, we are off. I turn left while he turns right. As the crowd roars, I open the door to the next lodge to the surprise of one of Jed’s lieutenants and his bodyguard, slicing their throat under the cover of bloodthirsty screams. In the ring, John and the Crusher probe each other’s defenses with quick jabs and the occasional low kick. I look at the dead man at my feet. Harry the Minge, according to Urchin’s intelligence gathering. He was responsible for the Ratcatchers’ staff from task distribution to recruitment.
Next lodge, Velvet, the gang’s resident Madam. On the opposite side of the circle, Urchin steals a gun before it can be fired and practically decapitates Elbow Jim, the ‘head’ of their protection racket. Our eyes meet briefly. He is doing well.
Below, the exchange between combatants is getting fierce.
“He will try to grab you. When he does, he will look like this. And move like this. Grab his neck if you can, keep your arms free and turn around. Urchin, give me a hand.”
“Yes, miz Ari.”
The Crusher throws a right hook then dives, taking one of John’s legs. John immediately encircles the other man’s neck and leans forward, using his free leg to maintain his balance. He moves backwards and to the side when his foe presses on and otherwise punches him in the ribs. After a few seconds the Crusher gives up. He pushes John back with a parting left jab that hits my servant in the temple. John retaliates by digging his left foot in the sand and throwing a devastating right kick that catches the madman in the thigh and sends him reeling. John shakes his head and starts moving again.
“I’m going to kill you, dumb fuck! I’ll kill you slow and everyone will love it!”
The crowd is on fire.
In the lodges, Fast Jack and Crude Kurt die a silent death.
In the ring, the fight gains in intensity as both opponents get used to each other and start taking risks. Most blows are dodged, deflected or blocked but still they fight with bare knuckles and the sounds of impact is loud enough for even mortals to perceive over the whispers and jeers. John is still fine, but he is just one simple man while Jed’s drug-fed hound looks too excited to feel anything. He even laughs after some of the strikes.
“Fight defensively. You don’t have to win, alright? You just need not to lose. Be safe.”
“Yes, miz Ari. I will be careful”
“You stupid, dumb fuck! You can’t do shit! You’re just a fucking dumbass!”
Both combatants are bloody. John is slowed, and I see some anguish on his normally unflappable face. He is in PAIN. MY SERVANT.
No, I must trust him. Mortals should never be underestimated and this applies to the ones I picked myself. Pride is ever our greatest weakness, and to think only I can be depended upon is a clear sign of it.
Let them make mistakes and suffer. It is also how I grew.
Instead of acting. I move to the last lodge.
Below, the fight is taking a turn for the worse. The Crusher is still not feeling pain. His attacks are relentless and drive John into a corner. My servant buckles. His breath is panicked, pained, and too fast.
I need to hurry.
I enter the last lodge on my side, just as Urchin disappears to complete his last objective. Jed is bent forward, staring at the show before him while munching on a chicken leg. Half-cleaned poultry bones litter the ground at his plump feet.
Two bodyguards turn when I come in. I kill them with a dagger through the brain and hold their bodies as they fall.
“Yea, kill him!” Jed blurts. A piece of chicken skin glides through the air, leaving behind a trail of spittle.
Need to act fast. I step forward, then stop.
Beneath us, the Crusher had been increasingly red tonight, now though, I notice that he is a strange shade of purple. Could it be…
The Ratcacher champion stops.
He raises a hand to his heart, frowns.
John stops hyperventilating. He takes one last seismic breath and lowers his turtle stance.
“Do you want me to win?”
“If possible, yes John. I very much want you to win.”
“Alright, miz Ari.”
The yell pierces through the screams, the laughs and the encouragements. It pierces through the smacked furniture and applauses. It pierces through the very night as John moves. His fists blur as he abandons any pretense at defense or even at breathing.
Then, John goes to town.
The Crusher attempts to protect himself, in vain. John is a hurricane of knuckles and imbecilic rage, as relentless and unimaginative as an avalanche. Punch punch punch punch kick punch. He does not relent, not even to breathe, and the flurry of blows eventually pierces through his foe’s guard, first with glancing blows, and then more consistently. The champion stumbles to the side, offering his back to John who smashes the exposed neck with a two-handed hammer blow. The Crusher is not even screaming anymore.
John circles the man’s neck with his massive arm and turns around, lifting the bruiser as if he were a bag of grain, then he places the man’s neck on his own shoulder, his own two hands under the jaw and pulls.
The snapping sound resonates like thunder.
The Crusher’s corpse falls to the ground, the head at an impossible angle.
I do not know what to say!
Silence, sudden, deadly silence spreads over the room.
It is… over? I was not expecting this at all.
You did it, you magnificent bastard. You won.
John, bloody and hurt, covered in shades of expanding red and blue, John the underdog, but John victorious, turns to the crowd and lifts his humongous hands up.
“Who’s the dumbass now, huh? Huh?”
Cries of outrage now sound across the room. Jed somehow manages to jump to his feet, thus violating several rules of physics and inertia. He points a wavering finger at the man below him, who robbed him of his prizefighter. His shrill voice cuts through the chaos
“Seize him! He… AAAAAA!”
Many heads turn to us at the interrupted speech, their eyes going wide as saucers as they register that the gang boss is bent forward over the railing by a woman in a mask holding a pistol. Screams of fear and surprise now overcome those of anger. The mob shifts and roils, looking around at the noticeably empty lodges.
I like that moment.
The moment they realize their castle of cards is folding after almost ten years of stability. All it took for us was to open the door and the winds of change sent the whole edifice crumbling. They realize their strength was merely an unchallenged weakness.
And the thing the survivors of the purge to come will remember is that one white mask, basked in the light of dimmed lanterns above the bleeding corpse of their deposed tyrant.
I pull the trigger.
The detonation is deafening. A woman faints as pieces of brain splatter in and around her cleavage.
That will not wash off.
Some rush to the exit, some try to climb up, some go for the stairs. John is long gone, using the confusion to slip away with the help of King and Crews. I shoot my other pistol at a man grabbing a rifle for good measure and throw a lantern into the small bar on the side, then calmly leave the lodge.
Watcher, It feels amazing to let go a little after all those days spent skulking around.
I take a deep breath, regret it instantly, and join Urchin near the stairs. He holds under his claws a dazed accountant desperately trying to keep his monocle from hitting the ground.
“Is that him?”
“Good. Let us be off.”
We find a window and jump down next to utter chaos. Outside of the warehouse, a large group of Mudmen carrying truncheons were waiting for the signal to engage the fleeing Ratcatchers who are, quite ironically, caught like rats in the ensuing ambush. The combatants are now engaged in a desperate melee, with my allies acting like you would expect from someone with a blunt weapon, a target, and five years of pent up frustration. I quickly close the distance where my men are standing, next to a miserable John.
“How are you, dear?”
“It hurts, miz Ari.”
“Let’s have a look,” I announce as I grab a first aid kit from a nearby barrel. We are at the back of the Mudmen lines and already a few concussed idiots are dragging themselves away.
“Miss? Could we go?”
I turn my attention to Crews who unexpectedly talked first. I arch a brow in wonder.
He silently points at the ongoing brawl.
“Fair enough, be sure to return before dawn yes? And don’t kill any allies.”
And off he goes. Next is King who raises a surprisingly delicate hand.
“Do you have any ideas how many times those assholes called me a n—”
“Oh, very well, off you go then. Same instructions.”
King sprints away, gaining speed before jumping feet first into a Ratcatcher’s face.
“Milady,” Urchin asks in turn.
“I’m a bit thirsty as well.”
“Just go, I’ll keep an eye on our… guest,” I add, as I look at Urchin’s captive currently hugging the floor and whimpering.
My minion goes off to join his comrades in arms while I tend to John’s many cuts and bruises. Nothing broken, apparently, but he should still rest for at least a week.
“I won,” the large man observes.
“That you did, John, it was an impressive fight.”
“It was hard,” he continues in a soft voice, then after a while, “he was smaller but it was still so hard.”
I continue cleaning and bandaging.
“I thought I was the strongest besides you. Now there are other strong people, like Urchin. Or that man with the grey hair. And that very tall man at the castle. There are many people and they are all very strong. Stronger than me.”
I had not realized he was suffering from his circumstances until now.
“What can I do? I am not special anymore. I am just dumb now.”
“You do not need to be the smartest or strongest to be by my side. Besides, the Crusher cheated,” I interrupt him, trying to assuage his fears.
“Is it the kind of cheat that makes him lose the match if people know?”
With the announcer in Jed’s pocket? On their home ground? Not a chance. John reads my silence with surprising accuracy.
“Then it does not matter that he cheats.”
“John, you can’t be the best at everything. I am not the best at everything. We can only improve ourselves and rely on each other, yes?”
“I want to be the best,” he replies softly, looking into the distance.
In a way, I understand him. It feels good to be respected for your expertise, even if others share it. I am not sure what to say. For the first time since I picked him up more than a decade ago, I have not managed to convince him.
John spends the rest of the night in silence.
The man Urchin scouted then captured was in charge of the Ratcatchers’ purse. With his… enthusiastic contribution, we manage to recruit, eliminate or exile all of the remaining gang members as well as seize their assets in less than a week. The violence and suddenness of the assault gives them no time to recover and regroup. Soon enough, the Mudmen are left in charge of Alexandria’s network of criminal activity. On a whim, I decide to allow Crews and King to handle the returning flesh traders coming here from the North to sell their kidnapped victims. They worked well and I find the reward appropriate.
The warehouse we purchased at the Western edge of town soon becomes loaded with war prizes, legal documents and other confiscated goods. I spend a large amount of time suppressing reactions to our little takeover by convincing officials and journalists that they should focus on something else, for their health. This leaves me little opportunity to handle the rest and I end up accepting more than fifteen new recruits who prefer to join me instead of the Mudmen. I end up using them for patrols and intelligence.
As for our allies, Ritter is fully occupied with glutting himself on the spoils of his erstwhile rival. The few times we meet, I obtain a new reaction I had expected.
The tales of the masked woman fly around town from gossips to taverns. Most cannot attach a face to those rumors. He can, and he does not seem to be enjoying the experience. I understand him easily. I have already replaced one boss, why not another?
As a result, he was more than eager to meet my ‘employer’, if only to avoid being next in line in the reshaping of Alexandria’s underground power structure.
That does not stop me from planting a few suggestions through Charm and bite among his most valuable subordinates, of course. I would be an idiot to trust him and his willingness to cooperate. Soon, we have a perfect map of the Mudmen and their assets, just in case we end up requiring a more… aggressive approach to their management.
Once I decide that the situation is well-enough in hand, I approach Urchin as he polishes his shoes near our de facto armory. He has taken my remarks to heart and gives more attention to his appearance now. The result is, well, better. I need to work on his poise more in the future. He does not walk, he lurks.
“It has been a month since you became my follower, and you have now completed your first full operation in a satisfactory manner. I am pleased with your service.”
For some reason, the poor Vanheim Courtier looks on in alarm. I can only presume that no one ever paid him any compliment without following it with a particularly horrifying betrayal.
“As such, I want to bestow upon you this gift I made,” I add, and offer him a small box. It contains a curved dagger made of a steel and silver alloy I made myself at the manor, with inlays enchanted at great cost by one of Wilhelm’s retainers. The result is both elegant and deadly, allowing the wielder to stab and slice to his heart’s content.
The poor lad opens the box with reverent eyes, even waits for my approval to pick the weapon. He caresses its surface with his marginally less grubby hands and wonders at its exquisite make. I am quite proud of the result myself.
“No one has ever offered me anything. It’s… beautiful.”
“I am delighted to hear it. This blade will serve you well in the struggles to come.”
“We are doing well so far, are we not?” he mentions while looking at the plunder we gathered.
“Indeed. Sadly, this was the easiest target by far. We had good intelligence, the element of surprise and two vampires while they had no forewarning, no faith, and no magic. There was no real way for us to fail at this stage barring glaring incompetence. Those mages we must convince will certainly oppose us at first. You will have to be ready.”
Against all expectations, Urchin jumps to his feet and stands tall and proud. In his case, it means he reaches just slightly below my nose.
“It is an honor to fight by your side, Milady. You can count on me! I shall be a tremendous watermelon!”
He then proceeds to bow with great energy, his beret falling from his scalp on the muddy ground.
We are not quite there yet.
Our next target designates itself when one of our newest recruits comes rushing the very same night.
“Boss lady, you said to tell you if there’s anything weird going on, right?”
“What have you found?”
“Well you know that bookshop you asked me to look at, there are at least twenty people that went in, right?”
“It’s been three days and not a single one has come out.”