The Long Game
Posted on Tue Jan 1st, 2013 @ 2:01am by Sailor Azzo Weisse
Edited on on Tue Jan 1st, 2013 @ 11:21pm
Chapter 6: Desperate Times
Timeline: Day 2
Azzo slipped his hand into his pocket and ran his thumb along the folded square of paper tucked there. Faizel had written down the dock number and pressed the scrap into his palm before he left. Azzo would find him there by nightfall.
A hobnail in his boots pounded flat again, sword and knife honed and sharpened, and the lining of his thick, well-made soldier’s coat torn out and sewn in anew. Coins for everything from cigarettes to bootlaces clinked from Azzo’s hands into those of the shopkeeps of Seaports. It was a city made to outfit men. Azzo trailed along the shops offering sturdy boots, canvas bags, and coats treated to resist the mist and rain.
Some shops offered even more: small, watertight spice boxes; leather satchels with paper, inkwells, and pens; and even clockwork astrolabes. Azzo strolled by them bemusedly. The saltbox, perhaps, he would have liked to have at times, but the brass orb that promised to heat water hot enough for tea even in the foulest of weather made him pass by with a shake of his head.
His steps brought him to the heart of town and from there to the post office. Built during the colonization, when Britannia had heady hopes of creating a second island as decorous and stately as its first, it carried on like a grand dame of Seaport long after the Empire had turned its attention away to more profitable ventures. While other shops grew up and out haphazardly, the post office sat oversized and solid in front of the town square. Fine green lichen grew across the carved limestone facade and the brass on the doors and rails shined where it met hands and glowed dully where it didn’t. Still, despite the traces of fading glory, people streamed in and out of the cool, high ceilinged rooms from dawn to dusk. The post office was a hub for sailors. A letter sent here might wait months for its recipient to claim it, but sooner or later, every traveler found his way through Seaport.
Azzo bought paper and ink for a penny at the long wooden counter, paused in thought for a moment, forced himself to jot down a few deliberate sentences, then shook his head at himself before folding and sealing the missive. “If a man named John Weaver asks, this is for him,” he said, handing the folded paper to the pretty young woman behind the counter. She flipped it over to check that he’d correctly written the name, accepted Azzo’s coins, and stamped the letter smartly with the inked insignia of the Seaport post office.
“It’ll be in his hands,” she said brightly, settling the letter at the top of a stacked tray.
“That’s the hope,” Azzo said, clearly without much.
The clerk’s chest puffed against the fabric of her green vest. “It will be, Sir,” she said with obvious pride. “Seaport’s post office has the most modern indexing and filing machines in the world. They’re very Technical,” she explained, pronouncing the word with a clear capital letter. “If your friend comes here, the letter will be there waiting for him.”
Azzo raised his hands in a show of defeat. “I’ve good faith in your postal system,” he assured her. “It’s the traveler I doubt.”
“Oh.” She relaxed visibly and gave him another dazzling smile. “I wouldn’t worry about that, then. Sooner or later, everyone comes to Seaport.”
“I hope you’re right,” Azzo agreed, but her eyes were already focused on the customer behind him.
The air outside the post office hung thick and warm and damp over the busy streets. Azzo pushed through it without noticing. For all the people who filled the streets of Seaport, there were just as many who never set foot on the island. For all the fervent faith of the perky counter-girl, the only place everyone ended up with any certainty was in the ground.
It was just as he arrived at this conclusion that Azzo Weisse walked straight into a fist.
Later, Azzo would reflect that if he’d had his wits about him, things might have been different. He might have noticed the three men loitering at the corner. He might have seen them pause in their conversation as he passed by. He might have looked when one clapped his friend’s shoulder and peeled away while the others fell into step behind him. He might have, in a general sense, guessed what was coming.
Instead, a hand landed on his shoulder, spun him around, and brought his jaw in contact with a powerful swing. Caught off guard, Azzo flew backwards, colliding with a stack of crates and bringing them down with him as he crashed to the ground. His head rapped sharply against the corner of the box, sending light exploding across his vision. Citrus fruits cascaded over him as he fought to bring air back into emptied lungs.
He drew one painful sucking breath and then the shadow of his assailant was over him again.
Still dazed, Weisse put out his booted foot, felt it connect with the man, and shoved. It was a sloppy, uncontrolled motion, but his attacker stumbled back and Azzo used the moment to scramble to his feet. Blood was in his mouth and his back was on fire, but nothing was broken, yet. He spat, shook the hair out of his eyes, and glanced at what was coming for him.
There were two men. One, the one who had punched him, was brawnier and broader of shoulder than he. The other was closer to his own size. Both wore the plain, heavy breeches and cotton shirts of dock laborers and both kept their hair cut short, the better to show the glint of an earring. They were the Governor’s Men, almost certainly, and they were coming for him quickly.
Metal flashed in the man’s hand and Azzo’s attention snapped to it, all his focus contracted to a single point.
The man had a knife.
“Why didn’t you just stab me first?” he yelled at them in Prussian. His attackers paused, startled by the foreign outburst, and Azzo darted forward before either could lunge at him. Sweeping up the coat he’d dropped on the ground, he whipped it around his arm and brought it up just in time to take a slash from the man’s knife. The knife dragged through the wool ineffectively and when it snagged and stuck, Azzo flung his arm out, tossing the tangle of blade and fabric to the side.
Undeterred, the small man swung at him again with a fist instead, lashing out in a vicious haymaker while his partner crouched next to the coat, searching for the knife in its tangles. Azzo dropped to avoid the blow, then gathered himself off the ground and launched himself at the crouching man. They went over together, Azzo landing on the man’s back as he hit the packed dirt of the street with a dull thud. The man cursed and struggled against the knee Azzo dug into his spine, then went very still as Azzo seized his arm and twisted it behind his back, holding it on the edge of agony.
Out of the corner of his eye, Azzo saw the other man creep forward, a plank of wood from one of the crates held at the ready. “Any farther and I’ll break his arm!” he threatened, forcing out the words in Brittanic this time. The man hesitated, looked at his friend, and swung anyway. Azzo pitched forward.
Clods of earth and stone dug into his back. Azzo stared up at the sky and tried frantically to pull air into his lungs. Above him, the peaked cap of an Imperium soldier loomed into view and a voice barked questions in Slavic too fast and angry for Azzo to begin to understand. The truncheon across his neck eased. Azzo gasped, coughed, cursed, and then it was back again. He dug his heels into the dirt, scrabbling for a purchase, fighting for an edge, but the soldier’s knees pinned his arms at his sides and the truncheon across this throat brought grey to the edges of his vision. The soldier repeated the question and Azzo bucked, his starved lungs driving him to panic. He couldn’t answer the question, didn’t even know what the question was, and this man was going to kill him for it.
There was a dull thud, followed by a sharp retort, and the man above him pitched forward. Azzo wheezed as the pressure on his neck ceased abruptly. Then the coughing hit him. His eyes watered fiercely, reducing his vision to vague shapes, as he heaved a shoulder against the deadweight on top of him. The weight rolled and Azzo hitched himself over onto his side, sucking in air. The Imperium soldier next to him was still, a sniper’s bullet in him. Azzo closed his eyes and breathed.
The truncheon was still there.
The truncheon was still there!
THE TRUNCHEON WAS STILL THERE.
Azzo's eyes snapped open as his mind scrabbled its way through the fog caused by a blow to the head. This was Seaport, not Prussia, the clods under his back were the scattered oranges and the pressure on his throat was a rough length of wood, pressed there by an angry docksman. There would be no sniper's bullet to save him, no kip-mate leaning over him in a moment to see if he was all right.
He was alone.
He was alone, but for now he was alive. His body howled for survival and he felt the hot surge of instincts course through his chest. The man above him leaned forward to leer in his face and Azzo took his chance. Digging a heel into the dirt he hitched a hip up, driving it savagely into the place where his attacker's legs met. His heel slipped out from under him again but the man gasped a curse and shifted, easing the pressure on Azzo's neck, and Azzo responded by doing it again. On the third time, he found solid footing and pushed, tipping the man off him and rolling.
Azzo sucked air down his ragged throat and surged to his knees. The world tipped and spun into focus. The big man, the one he'd taken down before being struck, was laying curled in the dirt, his arm bent unnaturally behind him and his face gray and beaded with sweat. Azzo must have jerked it as he fell, neatly separating the pieces of his elbow. The small man was scrabbling to rise, the length of wood that had choked Azzo still in his hand. Azzo found his footing just as his attacker did.
The man swung out with the wood. Azzo leaned back to avoid the arc of the makeshift club, then snapped forward and caught it as it slowed. The two of them stared at each other for a moment, each with an end of the board in their hands, then Azzo grit his teeth and jerked it sharply. The board tore from the other man's grasp, leaving dozens of tiny barbs of wood stuck to the man's palms. He screamed in pain and surprise, but it was too late, Azzo had already whipped the board around and sent it back towards him. It caught him under the jaw, and he fell back, unconscious.
Abruptly, the fight was done. A cough racked him, then another, until his eyes were streaming. Azzo let the board fall from his hand and leaned forward, setting his palms on his knees as he caught his breath. When the coughs subsided, he straightened and spat. "Tell the Governor I'm leaving," he told the man with the broken arm. "But I'm happy to break a few more of you on my way out, if you come for me again." At his feet, the man stirred. Azzo stepped over him and wove his way through the oranges and out of the alley, picking up his coat and leaving the two beaten, bloody men behind.
He was three streets away when the shakes caught up with him. He leaned against an awning post of a shop as the adrenaline left him in a rush, leaving him cold and drained. There was a tea shop several doors down, the sort that catered to merchant's wives and daughters. Fixing his sights on in, he pushed off the post and covered the last few yards on unsteady feet.
Scandalized eyes met him at the door to the teashop. Ladies at lunch paused to peer over their teacups and out from under their bonnets at the bedraggled stranger. Azzo slunk into a chair by a corner table, ignoring the glances. He leaned his elbows on the table and waited for the shakes to pass or a waiter to appear. If there was a god in heaven, perhaps he'd even get both.
"Mister Weisse." Azzo looked up at the serious young woman who had appeared at his table. Of middling to tall height and neatly clad in a sensible brown dress, she had the excellent posture and stern expression of a governess. As Azzo watched, she bobbed a precise curtsey.
"My mistress requests your company for tea."
Azzo stared at her. The machinations of this woman and her mistress, whoever they were, were more than his pulped mind could take. He shook his head. "No, thank you," he said simply.
As he suspected she might, the woman in the brown dress failed to disappear. "My mistress knows you have had a difficult morning," she supplied and Azzo felt his hackles raise at the suggestion that this mistress might be more than a mere eccentric. "She wishes you to know that she will be very understanding of your condition. She is, however, very eager to speak with you. Also," the woman paused delicately, "It will likely be the only way you can afford tea here."
Facing down this woman was like facing down the blind purpose of a locomotive. Azzo buckled. He was less likely to be killed in a tea shop than on the street, and a second look around at the gilt and bone china told him she was probably right about his finances as well. He put a hand to his throbbing head and nodded. "All right,"
The maid nodded curtly. "If you'll follow me," she said and turned on her heel, leaving Azzo to shrug himself out of his chair and follow behind her, winding through tables of highly interested gossipers. The maid led him to the back of the room and from there, down a paneled hallway until at last they reached a small private tearoom. She opened the door, bobbed a curtsy, and stepped aside, leaving Azzo face to face with his new companion.
A small, soberly dressed young woman in her late teens looked up at him from amid a mess of papers, brushed a strand of dark hair from her eyes, and smiled. "Mister Weisse," she set aside her papers gestured at the chair across from her. "I'm glad you came to join me. Please, sit, and Rose, if you will." She waved her hand at the tea cart pushed to the side of the room. The woman in the brown dress bobbed another curtsy and went to attend to it. In the space of a few seconds, Azzo found himself holding a cup of sweet, steaming orange-scented tea, staring at a teenager with schoolgirl braids.
"Do you like cake?" The girl asked. She picked up two plates and held them out to him. "It's my habit to allow guests to serve us both; a good faith show that nothing’s been tampered with. I'm partial to the Battenburg myself. It's the one with the pink," she added helpfully when Azzo hesitated. He spotted it, set a slice of crumbling pink cake in front of each of them, and went back to staring.
"You probably want to know what's going on," said the girl, apologetically. Azzo nodded. "Please, drink your tea and let me explain." She took a neat bite of cake, and fixed him with a level gaze. "My name is Kytreth Monelli, Mister Weisse. You have been in Seaport for several months now, so you must have heard of my father"
"The Monelli?" Monelli's was a gambling club off the docks of Seaport that managed to cater to everyone from dock laborers to merchants and off duty officers. Monelli himself had a reputation as a shrewd businessman of questionable morals. Most of the well-to-do families in Seaport had a least one family member in Monelli's pocket, and the rest were just a prodigal son away from it.
"Unfortunately," Miss Monelli sipped her tea, "My father has built an empire on knowing things he shouldn't," She waved her hand over the accumulation of papers. "As you can see, it's a trait that runs in the family."
Azzo took another mouthful of the sweet tea. "So you mean to blackmail me."The shakes had subsided somewhere about halfway through the first cup, leaving him feeling grimy and battered, but steady in mind and body. He shrugged. "I've nothing to hide."
Miss Monelli's eyebrows raised. "That would make you a rare individual indeed," she commented. "And I can think of at least three things in your life right now you wouldn't want made public. However," she set down her teacup. "That isn't what I want to do. I--" She paused, looking alarmed. "Are you all right?"
Azzo had put his hand to the back of his neck and brought it away to find it bloody. "Just a scratch," he assured her, crumpling his napkin around his hand, but Miss Monelli ignored him.
"Would you see if you can find something for Mr. Weisse's wounds?" she asked, but Rose was already nodding. She filled both teacups again on her way out, leaving the faintly steaming teapot sitting between them. Miss Monelli smiled at him sympathetically. "You've had a trying day. More cake?"
The slice of cake was in front of him before he could say whether he wanted it or not. Miss Monelli drained her teacup, filled it again, and settled back in her chair, teacup cradled in her palms. "I don't blackmail..." she paused. "Much. I'm an information broker. Information comes to me, and I send it where it needs to go for a price."
"The family business."
Miss Monelli hitched her shoulders in a small shrug. "You could say that. My father's club provides a wellspring of information, none of it good, and he does with it what's best for him. " Her lips quirked ruefully. "He's a terrible man." There was really nothing Azzo could say to that, so she continued. "I gather information, and from time to time there's something I can do with it, but mostly I wait for my father to drink or talk himself into an early grave." She leaned forward. "Which is where we come to you."
Azzo frowned. "I'm a mercenary, not an assassin," he warned darkly.
Miss Monelli shook her head. "I don't want to kill him," she said and Azzo eased back down in his chair. "As terrible as he is, he's still my father. If I could help it, I wouldn't let him die. No, he'll do it to himself, as will my oldest brother, given a few years, and then the club and the family business will fall to my brother Irlin and I and maybe," she paused, looking through Azzo, off into the middle distance. "Maybe we can find a way to keep a piece of this island without giving up who we are," she said quietly.
Two soft taps sounded at the door and Rose eased her way in, carrying a small bundle wrapped in a brilliantly clean handkerchief. She set it down on the side table and unwrapped to reveal several small bandages, a sharp looking pair of scissors, tweezers, a brown glass bottle, needle and silk thread, and a small silver flask. She unscrewed the top of the last item and poured a generous measure of its contents into Azzo's empty teacup before turning to him. "If I may?" she asked, picking up the brown bottle and a slip of bandage.
Azzo sniffed at the contents of his cup. "Brandy?" he asked in surprise and amusement.
"If you need something stronger, Rose can get that too," Miss Monelli offered. "I didn't think laudanum would be necessary though given your injuries."
"No," Azzo agreed. He tipped back the brandy, earning a small tsk from Rose, who had been gently examining the back of his head. "Sorry."
"You'll need stitches," she said by way of reply. "I shouldn't need to cut the hair though. Please hold still."
"If you would rather wait until Rose has finished," Miss Monelli offered, but Azzo put up his hand.
"I'll be fine," he assured her. "Just--" Rose uncorked the bottle and a pungent smell filled the room. "--explain what's going on."
Miss Monelli nodded and drew a deep breath. "My father and the Governor are close," she explained. "So when the Sons began to be more than just a family for the Governor to pound flat, I started watching. You've done a lot for that group, Mr. Weisse. More than I think you realize."
"I pay for my keep." Azzo started to shrug, then thought better of it as Rose picked up the needle from the side table.
Miss Monelli shook her head. "Others don't see it like that. You're not in this fight because you've got interests of your own. You've made a name for yourself dealing out thrashings to people who would hurt them, and if you pick up any money doing it, you don't drink or gamble or whore it away. They think you're here because you believe something is wrong. Like it or not, people are turning you into a hero."
Azzo winced as Rose looped knot in the silk thread, tying off a suture. "I don't feel like one."
"I never said you were." Miss Monelli frowned at him. "When I first started following you, I thought perhaps what people were saying was true, so when I heard of it, your willingness to leave Seaport surprised me." Her hands went to the accumulation of papers on her desk and she spoke as she sifted through them. "You've been to a great many places in the last two years, Mr. Weisse. Prussia to all around Britannia to Lekly quite briefly and then to the Old West. You almost made it to Elladia as well, though that fell through at the last moment. Wherever you go you find work, and whether you mean to or not, it seems to be the kind of work that sets off the proverbial powder keg." She looked up at him. "But mostly wherever you go, you're making inquiries."
Rose tied off another knot. Azzo didn't move a muscle, too focused on watching Miss Monelli through narrowed eyes instead. Miss Monelli selected two envelopes from the desk. "You have interesting friends." She held up the first envelope. "John Weaver: political dissident in his own country, deserter in yours, and now pirate in a third. Disappeared from your regiment four months before your term of service was up and resurfaced three months ago. He has not been inconspicuous, but he's unimportant enough not to be obvious without some creative inquiry."
She laid the envelope delicately down in front of Azzo. "Everything I know is there."
She continued, still holding the second envelope. "And Hanne Gabé, formerly Hanne Gerhold, and before that Hanne Weisse. Prussia to Britannia soon after you left for the military and then she vanishes. Mostly. You sister has been much more thorough in covering he tracks." She watched Azzo's face carefully as she laid the envelope down in front of him. "You should know that you haven't been the only one looking for her."
Azzo didn't touch the envelopes. "You know I can't pay you," he said, face a blank.
"I know," Miss Monelli answered with equal solemnity.
"Mr. Weisse, I--"
"Azzo." She turned her palms up to him and her eyes met his with a genuineness he hadn't been expecting. "The world is just the gambling table made more complicated. I'm playing the long game now, and a few points to you now may put the odds in my favor later. Where you go, things happen, and I'm wagering on that."
In the silence that followed, Rose snipped the last thread and set the scissors down. "Keep it clean and don't pick at it," she instructed, then added. "You moved very little. Thank you."
Azzo waved a vague thank you at her with one hand. With the other, he slid the envelopes toward him. "No debt?" he questioned.
"No debt. " Miss Monelli shook her head. "I doubt you'll need to speak with me again, but I can be reached." She picked up one final piece of paper from her desk and held it out to him, a calling card. He turned it over to find it blank on both sides. "It would be better if no one found my name on your person," she explained. "But if you take that card to the teashop's proprietor, he'll know how to contact me." Azzo nodded and stood, tucking the card and envelopes both into the inner pocket of his coat. Miss Monelli stood and held her hand out to him. "I enjoyed meeting you, Azzo Weisse. Thank you for joining me."
Bemused, Azzo took her hand and shook it. "Thank you for the tea, Miss Monelli."
"Kytreth," Azzo repeated. "Thank you for the tea, and for," he paused, searching for a word that my encompass everything, then gave up. "The rest." She nodded in understanding.
"And Azzo?" He turned in the doorway. "I know you don't think of yourself as a hero, but," she wavered. For a moment she looked her age.
She couldn't have been more than seventeen. "For what it's worth, I think you might try it."
Her words touched a smile to Azzo's lips. "Why do I feel as though you know everything about me?" he asked tiredly.
Kytreth smiled back at him. "Because I do."
The informality of the moment was too much for Rose, who bustled forward as much as her spare frame would allow, putting herself firmly between her mistress and this strange solider. "Let me show you out, Mr. Weisse," she offered in a tone that brooked no refusal and Azzo, swept up in a swirl of brown skirts and determined woman, found himself standing in the street. He blinked, still reeling from the events of the meeting, and as the bright southern sun and the salt tinged air of Seaport began to bring him back to himself, a new realization occurred to him, one that Kytreth and her maid had been too polite to bring to his attention.
He wrinkled his nose at the fug of sweat and alley and rotten citrus that hung around him and mixed with the astringent sweetness of Rose's antiseptic. Even for a pirate he was disreputable and his soldier's --or Prussian, take your pick-- sensibilities clamored to be shipshape before he appeared before his new captain. Rosita would spare him a tub of hot water, though, and probably some dark muttering about his new bruises as well. "Thought you were rid of me for good, didn't you Rosie?" he chuckled to himself and set off down the street.
Later that night, cleansed of alley muck and still smelling faintly of soap, Azzo lay cradled in the canvas of his hammock, staring up at the dark wood of the Steamhawke's lower decks. The air was still here, and strongly scented of tar and seawater. Around him, the sighs and rustles of sleeping crew members rose and fell in the darkness. He heaved his own sigh and stretched, letting his body become accustomed to the feeling of sleeping suspended. The letters from Kytreth, wrapped carefully in oilskin, were tucked safely in his shirt. He curled his arm around them and closed his eyes, feeling their weight as he drifted into sleep.