- Atiin Brigantia, a brilliant but lazy lunatic
- Edward "the Wild" Bleestocles, a leper disowned by his wealthy family
- Jacobin "Jackass" Valentin, a soulless bastard
- Tadzio, an estranged son of a powerful mage
- Victory Alder, a young vampire
|Renaissance room by shutupandwhisper|
Atiin's apartment, early morning
Someone bangs on the apartment door, hard.
Victory, abruptly roused from her hruz-induced dreams, makes sure that she's properly dressed and groomed and goes to the door. While it doesn't have a proper peep-hole, there is a certain design flaw to this door where it doesn't exactly fit its frame. Looking through the draughty crack, Vic can see the source of the ruckus - it's Gorz, their landlord, frowning and sweating and anxious and generally just being his usual self.
He keeps pounding on the door: "Atiin, I know you're in there! Rent is overdue and I've waited long enough! Y'know I'm a reasonable man, people got their own problems, but still! A man's gotta make a living, so please, pay what you owe." And after a short pause, in a manner calculated to sound like an afterthought: "Oh, and you're not allowed to bring any more people in without telling me first! If more people are going to start using the quarters, then we'll have to renegotiate the price!"
Vic walks into Atiin's room and kicks his bed: "Wakey wakey, Gorz is here and really wants a chat with you."
Atiin sticks his head out for a second to give Victory a death glare, then hides back under the covers.
"Well, as there's nobody living in this apartment but you," Victory grabs his quilt, "if anyone is going to go talk to Gorz, it should be you."
After a moment, Atiin groans, gets out of the bed and puts on a robe. He cracks the door open just enough to squeeze outside of the flat, then shuts it behind him again.
"Ahhh, good day, Gorz," he says. "How are you? You are looking lovely and is that a new cologne? Smelling sharp, my man."
Gorz sniffs his armpits: "No, uhm... I mean, good morning... I mean, thank you. Yeah, new cologne, sure."
He attempts to flash a smile that telegraphs that he's a chill guy, but fails miserably. His whole face is covered in shiny beads of sweat. Same goes for his skull, which he is likely having a hard time covering beneath that atrocious comb-over of his.
"Ahem... So... Heh..." he says. "If it's just the Checkered Mage's son and yourself this month, it will be six gold, according to our previous agreement. But, uhm, if you're bringing in new tenants, it will be an extra three gold per extra person. A-and I will need their names, of course."
"Just the two of us. Here's this month's rent and last month's rent. I'm working on the rest."
Gorz takes the money from Atiin, not too happy about the fact that he's just letting the gang off the hook once more. He lives on the same floor and knows all too well that there are many more people living in the flat, but he can never really bring himself to force the issue. But hey, two months of rent squared off in one go, that's new.
He turns to go, but then realizes: "Oh, I almost forgot. There's a gentleman downstairs, he said he'd like to have a word with you."
"Thank you so much, master Gorz," Atiin says.
Gorz does this awkward half-bow and vanishes behind a corner towards his apartment as Atiin goes downstairs. Waiting there is one of Jarek's valets or butlers or who knows what they're called. They all look the same with those yellow tailcoats and bow ties and powdered wigs.
"Good morning," he says in a bored tone. "My employer has sent me here to check on you about a delivery - one that is due today, is his understanding."
At about the same time, Victory decides that the coast is clear enough for her to join Atiin and not be seen by the landlord. No need to give him too much incentive to press them for more money.
"Good morning!" she addresses the valet. "I don't believe I have seen you around? Who are you looking for?"
"Ma'am," the valet says as he bows, but he doesn't answer the question. Instead, his eyes dart around aimlessly, eventually meeting Atiin's.
"Don't look at me," Atiin mutters, "I don't even know who your employer is."
Taken aback, the valet stammers: "I- eh, apologize if I came across as rude, ma'am, sir, but I have business to discuss with Misters... hmm, Tadzio, Jack... ass... and Edward."
"Yeah, well, no idea," Atiin yawns and stomps back upstairs, returning to bed. He closes his door loudly enough to rouse Ed who has been snoring on the couch.
No matter how hard Edward tries to slip back to unconsciousness again, a few dozen flies keep tickling him awake as they repeatedly land on his festering abscesses. Jack and Tadz are still asleep, though, piled atop each other on the bed in the other room.
"Aww, hells." Ed brushes away the bugs and prepares to go outside to find some more medicine, or at least something to eat. "Morning every- oh. Must be downstairs. Hope they're getting breakfast."
However, he stops on the stairs when he hears his name.
"No need to apologize, my good man," Victory said moments earlier. "If you are here to wait for somebody, would you care to join me for a morning tea in the meantime?"
"I... appreciate the offer, ma'am, but I'm, unfortunately, not allowed to deviate from the task at hand."
An awkward silence lingers long enough that Ed gets to the stairs in the meantime.
"By the way, that gentleman I was just talking with? That wouldn't happen to be Mr. Jackass or Mr. Edward?"
"No no, that was my neighbour, Mr. Atiin. And I'm sorry if I'm overstepping, but Mr. Jackass? Are you sure you have the right name? Or the real name?"
"Real name? No, not in the slightest. But those are the names the gentlemen I was sent to deal with go by," the valet says as he unfolds a piece of paper, reads contents and glances back at Vic. "Are you telling me that no one by that name lives here? What about Tadzio?"
"I don't think I can help you with that name either, sorry."
"But the landlord, he seemed so sure about the names when I asked him to go fetch the people living at this address! And now you're telling me that the person he sent downstairs is not even the right one," he sighs deeply. "You know what? I think I better see to this myself. Thank you very much for your help, ma'am."
"No problem at all," Victory smiles at him as he bows and starts climbing the stairs.
She steps out of the house, staying by the door in the shadow of the building. There she lights up a cigarette and pulls on it with a genuine smile. As she breathes out, she makes the smoke flit around her as grey butterflies.
The valet bumps into Edward, still standing on the narrow stairs, nearly immediately.
"Oh. And who would you be?"
At that, Ed starts coughing and runs back up. The valet follows, never raising his pace. As Edward rushes into the apartment and slams the door shut, there comes knocking.
"Hello? Mr. Tadzio? Mr. Edward? Mr... Jackass? I know you're here, at least one of you. I've seen you just now, running upstairs. Please let's talk. We have business to take care of."
Frantically looking around, Edward finds no inspiration for the next course of action at all, so he sheepishly opens the door again: "Ya, I'm Ed. Let's talk."
The valet steps in, but instantly reacts to the stench collected inside. He brings a handkerchief to his nose and coughs discreetly.
Jack and Tadzio are just coming out of the second bedroom, still sleepy-eyed and squinting.
"Uh, good morning! Is it time for breakfast or...?" Jack yawns.
"Oh, that's great," Tadz mutters as the sees the valet.
The valet says: "I presume that's all of you I see before me. Your little stunt at the Undercouncil Hall is the talk of the town. My employer is curious to know if that means you have the prize."
The three guys just look at each other awkwardly.
"Ah, yes," Jack starts. "You are here for the trophy? Of course! I mean, of course we have it! Eddie, show him to the goods please, over there..."
He points to the wardrobe in the corner.
"Over... there?" the valet asks, incredulous.
But he turns around and Jack smacks him over the head with a vase. The valet goes down, out like a light.
"Wait, why didn't you just give him the trophy?!" Tadz sputters.
"Just needed to buy us some time to think," Jackass retorts. "I don't know which trophy he wants! Do we even have the right trophy?"
"Yeah, no. We don't. I've found a second piece of paper that Jarek sent with the Undercouncil Hall map. Here's an illustration," Ed helpfully provides.
"Oh! So that's what we should've been looking for!" Jack says.
"What if we give him all the trophies we have?" Tadzio ponders, clearly uncomfortable while the three of them stand over the unconscious valet.
"Don't think Jarek will have any of that. Okay," Jack ruminates, "maybe someone can dress like our buddy here, and leave with a trophy. Then, we say we gave the valet what he asked for and figure he musta turned on ol' Jarek. Yeah, he tried to sell it for himself..."
"Oh, good idea," Ed nods.
Tadz raises an eyebrow: "Uhm... Or we could just dump all these trophies on Jarek's desk, as I said. Like 'Here, we don't have the trophy but we got you all these other trophies. And we caused a buncha trouble back there, so that's gotta count for something.' C'mon, guys?"
"Yeah, but, umm..." Ed ventures, "he's knocked out cold and prolly about to be quite pissed off? What if we put 'im up in an alley with a trophy and a bottle of booze..."
"That works," Jackass decides and goes rummaging though the cupboards, looking for a spare bottle of liquor.
Tadzio kneels by the valet and checks his breathing: "At least he's not dead..." Then he checks the valet's pockets for a wallet or a coin pouch, but no such luck.
"Also strip him of his clothes," Edward says. "No benders finish with a full set."
"Of course, sir. Right away, sir," replies Tadz, already putting on the valet's lavishly embroidered coat. He proceeds to take his wig and unbutton the man's trousers. And these are some nice buttons on the trousers, too! Expensive.
"Heeh! Th... tickles, Anna," the valet slurs and giggles, eyes rolled back into his head.
"Make sure to pour some of that on him and some in his mouth," Edward advises as Jack returns with a bottle half full of something reeking of bad alcohol.
Then they lift the half-naked valet and carefully manoeuvre him out of the apartment and down the stairs. At one point, Jackass steps on a particularly creaky board. It moans and echoes throughout the building. A door opens and closes, but no one comes looking.
"Nah... Cat Lady's scary," the valet grunts, Tadz noticeably fidgeting at that.
Victory does a double take as they emerge from the house, but then moves to the end of the street, keeping an eye out for any watchmen or nosy neighbours as the three guys haul their load to a nearby smelly back alley.
"This has better work," Jack sighs as they put the valet down on a heap of trash.
"Nuh, I don't wanna, nuh..." the valet mumbles, coughs and then opens his eyes, staring up at Jack, Ed and Tadz, completely baffled.
Then he screams: "ARE YOU INSANE? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!"
"More booze! Keep pouring!" Jack pushes the valet back.
Tadz follows the order, forcing the liquid down the valet's throat. Things are getting tense, the victim is starting to fight back. He even manages to knock his wig down from Tadz's head.
The struggle becomes quite loud, enough that it starts to draw attention. Victory comes to check what went wrong, but there's also an ancient little grandma who peeks out of a third story window above the alley. She opens her mouth wide, as if to scream for help, but then her eyes roll in their sockets.
She stiffens her posture, her face turning from frightened to stern. From her mouth, a hoarse, authoritative male voice projects itself down into the alley, as if it had been uttered by someone standing right beside each of the listeners: "Tadzio, stop this nonsense at once!"
Tadz drops the bottle as if slapped: "D-dad?"
Speaking through the old lady's toothless mouth, František the Checkered Mage addresses everyone at once: "I know I'll regret asking, but what are you even doing to this poor man?"
Edward creeps a few steps away from the valet and then feigns surprise: "Oh no, I blacked out! Where am I? Who are you people?"
"Shenanigans," Jackass grumbles, but doesn't let go of the valet. "Sorry to have disturbed you, ah- sir? See, there was a misunderstanding about a dead tiger and now we're trying to patch things over..."
"Disturb... me?" responds František's voice. "I'm afraid you lot have accomplished considerably more than that. I have been contacted by Jarek the Nagsman a couple of days ago, so yes, I'm aware of the dead tiger. I thought we had an agreement, Tadzio. I though you had promised to leave the tigers alone."
Tadz's face and eyes are red with shame and anger and tears.
"Tadzio," says Jack under his breath, "is this really Dadzio?"
Tadz nods, furiously wiping tears off his face.
The Checkered Mage booms: "What will be the consequences of letting this peasant go? Will you put yourselves in an even more precarious situation than your current one?"
The valet has actually stopped struggling for now, too shocked and bewildered to fight.
"Something about wrong trophies and subsequently missing kneecaps..." Edward replies, "ehm, sir."
"Yes, sir," Vic steps in, "as my companion here mentions, the unfortunate consequence of releasing the valet in his current condition is likely to be the removal of your son's kneecaps, or his forced participation in the Great Race. Even if we managed to make the valet forget this... unfortunate incident, nothing changes, as we still didn't manage to obtain the Great Race trophy that Jarek requested to let your son and these other two be.
On that note, if I may be so bold to ask, sir, what is your attitude towards master Jarek? Perhaps we could remove the problem at its root and save your son all this trouble?"
An urchin appears behind Victory, also speaking in the Mage's voice: "So it is true. You are the ones responsible for the break in and depredation at the district's Undercouncil Hall. Jarek has put you up to this."
A long silence ensues as the child puppet puts on an utterly serious face, very much unsuitable for this body's age. It is not anger, no. It is... disappointment.
"Now, listen to me carefully, you morons," František reverberates. "The city does not know the identities of the ones responsible for the attack. They do not know their whereabouts. Not yet. Given your recklessness and general stupidity, a moderately competent constable should be able to find you in no time." He makes a dramatic pause. "Fortunately, there's no such thing as a competent law enforcement in Marlinko. I will not make things worse for you, Tadzio. But I will offer you no aid. This is your mess. It is yours to clean."
Regardless of these words, the child approaches the valet, offers him a hand, helps him get on his feet, and whispers something to his ear. All of a sudden, the valet walks out of the alley half-naked and blank-faced.
"There. Now you're on your own, son," child speaks once more and the grandma overhead loudly closes her window.
The kid blinks and spits on the ground: "Whatcha lookin' at, you twats?"
He runs when Tadz throws a tantrum. He shatters the bottle against a wall, screams at the top of his lungs. His hand is bleeding. He, too, flees the scene.
Victory starts after him, but he is quick in his agitation. Tracking him is not terribly hard, though. He has left a sparse trail of blood drips behind him as he stormed his way through the streets. Vic finds him at a random alley with a rake in his hands, grunting, cursing, crying, raking the dirt as if he intends to dig a hole to the Cold Hell itself by this method.
"Hey... Hi," she says. "I want to say that I know how you feel right now, but that would be a lie. I..."
She sits on a crate.
"When I was turned, my sire expected me to do everything he asked, immediately and flawlessly. I was supposed to help him pick up women at the tavern. How do you even do that? When he was done, I was supposed to somehow make the bodies disappear - snap - no trace, no questions, no witnesses. I fucked up. All the time. Again and again, he looked at me, not really angry, just... disappointed. I could imagine him thinking: 'Why do I even bother?'
But you know what? I didn't ask to be dropped into the world like this and he never even offered to teach me, to help. He never even deigned to consider that I might have no idea what I'm doing, that I'm in over my head, that I'm completely lost and drowning...
It never occurred to me, not until he was gone, that I didn't need his approval. He made me into what I am, but he has no say in what I will become. I can fuck up my life as much as I want, because it's my life.
So maybe just... You do you?
And if it would help, we can go and set your dad's house on fire," she smiles at Tadz.
They stay there for what seems to be the longest time. Tadz has smashed most of the rake before Vic even got to him - most of its teeth lie splintered all over the ground. Hyperventilation has waned, the sheer rage-infused shuddering appears to be dying out as well. He wipes his nose, drops the wrecked tool. More placated now, he is about to say something, as his prefatory deep sigh suggests.
The shopkeeper from the place Tadzio has snatched the rake from beats him to it though: "You know you gotta pay for that, right?"
That's also when Edward, Jack and even Atiin find them.
"Maybe if you offered all the other trophies to Jarek, he would be more willing to listen to a reason? Or we could all get out of the city for a while," Atiin is just saying as they round the corner.
"Unless we can get Jarek a replacement tiger," Jack sighs, "I doubt he'll accept any substitutions for the trophy. But we can try. Shall we gather up the lesser trophies and bring them with?"
"I think you need to take all of the trophies we have and give him those," Atiin shakes his head. "They are worth something after all. Meanwhile, I can try to track down some sort of map of the areas around that frog cult. If we need to get out of Marlinko and Fraža is willing to pay, we might as well."
"So how about we pin the robbery on that heretic guy we have to disparage, Tadz?" Ed pats Tadzio on the back.
"Oh, heh, that's a plan," Tadz flashes a weak smile. "But we don't know much about that guy yet, do we?"
"I figure we take one of the less valuable trophies, break in to him, hide it under his bed, then pass around a rumour or tip off someone that the guy was involved," Edward continues, not really listening. "But we gotta do more recon first. Also might wanna start with... changing our names or something... I dunno. Jarek's a weird one and he might wanna bust our kneecaps anyway even if he does think the valet turned on him and disappeared with the big trophy."
"I think this trophy business will wear off eventually. The Great Race opening ceremony is tonight, and tomorrow morning all Jarek will care about is how well his district is faring, same as every year," Tadz glances at the shopkeeper, then back at the gang. "Yeah, wait a sec. Imma pay what I owe, then you can... uhm... elaborate on this whole name-changing thing. Not really sure I follow there, but I'm listening, sure."
And as he goes to pay the shopkeeper, he gives Victory a quick nod and a smile.