Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Apr 10, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 23

They walked through the streets of Sigil, not bothering with trying to hail a cab during the busy part of the day. As they passed the Tenth Pit, an alehouse more disreputable than most, the door burst open and a massive red-skinned devil trundled out, dragging a smaller devil by the neck. It looked them over, then turned and stomped into an alley, muttering something that sounded like: “. . . mouthing off to a superior officer . . .”

“I’ll never get used to seeing things like that wandering around in the streets,” Sheen said after it had left.

Joris looked over at Haden. “Are you? Used to it, I mean.”

Haden thought for a long moment, then chuckled. “The fact that I don’t really know probably means that the answer is ‘yes’. I never realized there was anything to get ‘used to’. If you think about it, humans are more of an anomaly here than devils.”

“Oh, I think about that all the time,” Joris said.

“We probably look as strange to them as they do to us,” Talan offered.

“I don’t know about that,” Haden said. “What strikes me as odd is that the planar creatures have use for or need of a city at all.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Joris said. “Yet they have so many.”

“Their existence is secondary, really, borne from the nature of the planes themselves. And yet they adopt so many human ideas, mannerisms, and habits. It makes you wonder who’s really in charge of the Universe.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Joris said.

Sheen unlocked the back door to the Hands of Time, looking askance at the Harmonium guards lounging around the front of the shop. “Should put up a ‘no loitering’ sign,” she muttered. “The washroom is that way. I’ll go get some towels,” she added, and hurried up the stairs.

The men peered around the back room, which was full of interesting gears, springs, and other bits of clockwork. A half-finished mechanical nightingale sat on a workbench. Then raised voices suddenly rang out from inside the store proper. Haden and Talan peered around the corner, trying to see.

Dr. Rhasmanayet and Yolette were talking to a Harmonium guard, a dwarf, whose back was to them. He was holding a young male human by one arm, and two other hardheads stood in the shop aisle, guarding the front door. Haden straightened up and strode into the room, his hands nonchalantly in his pockets.

“Well, hello,” he said. The dwarf turned: it was Fritzan Ringhammer.

“Hello again, Mister Haden,” Dr. Rhas said politely. Haden adopted his mother’s favorite expression as he looked down at Fritzan, as though he’d just touched something disgusting but was far too polite to mention it.

“I hope we won’t trouble you stopping by like this, Doctor, we were just going to tidy up a bit.”

“Not at all,” the Doctor said smoothly. “My home is yours. We’ll have this cleared up shortly.”

“If I may enquire, what happened?” Haden asked.

Yolette looked at the dwarf, their heads were nearly at the same height. “This piker was trying to run off with a planar sextant,” she said. “He put it in his pocket, then he tried to walk out the door.”

“Language, Yolette!” Dr. Rhas corrected.

“The proper term for Fritzan is ‘hardhead’ or ‘berk’, anyway,” Haden added mildly. Fritzan glared black death at him, grinding his teeth.

“Why’d I have it in my hand when you shouted at me?” the human demanded. He looked more frightened and cornered than indignant, though. “I wasn’t tryin’ to hide nothin’!”

“He’s here, Officer Ringhammer,” one of the Harmonium by the door said suddenly.

“Good,” Fritzan growled. “Let him in.”

Haden looked the alleged perp over curiously. “What’s your name? I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”

“Tulio,” the human said sulkily. “I just arrived here from a Prime, they tell me.”

“Ah?” Haden asked. “Which one?”

“Place called Thazia. Things were gettin’ bad there.”

“Things aren’t much better here for amateurs,” Haden said. “If you want to do something in Sigil, then you have to do it *well*.” The guards ushered a man into the room, a tall human dressed in elaborate red and black robes. Most of his head was shaved, with the remainder of his straight, glossy black locks arranged in a queue on the top of his skull. Sheen came down the stairs carrying an armload of towels, and blinked to see Joris, Talan, and Mal all gathered around the door frame.

“What’s going on?” she asked. Then she saw what they were looking at. “Oh.”

“He looks like he’s from Kara-Tur,” Joris murmured. “That’s the Mercykillers faction symbol . . .”

The strange man bowed to Haden. “Kuroda Norinaga, at your service,” he said gravely.

“Ask this one if he tried to steal this sextant-thing,” Fritzan growled before Haden could respond. Norinaga glanced at Tulio for barely a second.

“It is not necessary. He is guilty.”

“Good enough for me!” Fritzan said, grinning, and started to haul Tulio across the floor. The human paled in horror. “Come on, berk, it’s the Courts for you . . .”

“EXCUSE me!” Sheen interrupted, storming across the floor to block Fritzan’s path. “This is Dr. Rhasmanayet’s shop, thank you, if anyone should be deciding what to do here, it’s him.” She glared at Fritzan over the top of her towels.

Dr. Rhas looked down at Yolette. “You saw him try to take it?”

“Aye,” Yolette said nervously. “That’s what I been sayin’.”

“Then, yes, please arrest him,” the Doctor said. Sheen shot the doctor a black look.

“Now are ya happy?” Fritzan growled at her.

“He has broken the law, Sheen, he must be punished. Surely you can see that?” Dr. Rhas asked Sheen gently.

“No. He attempted to break the law. There’s a difference.”

“Doesn’t he get a trial or a chance to defend himself?” Talan asked from across the room.

“Of course he does,” Fritzan snapped.

“Really, and here you’re already talking about punishment,” Talan insisted.

“I’ve heard all about what happens to people you arrest!” Sheen shot back hotly.

“I’m not surprised, what with the cross-tradin’ company you lot keep!” Fritzan bellowed. Dr. Rhas crossed the floor and took Sheen’s arm gently.

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” she said. “I wouldn’t interfere if I had any faith in these proceedings, but as it stands . . .”

“No, it’s all right,” Dr. Rhas said, squeezing her arm. He turned to look at Tulio. “If I let you go with a warning, do you promise never to show your face in my shop again?”

Tulio stared. “I . . . what?” Haden nudged him.

“Here’s your chance, kid, don’t blow it.”

“Yeah . . . yeah! I won’t come here no more. I promise.”

Talan glanced over at Joris. “You know, Sheen really is a big softy at heart.”

“She hides it well, but it’s still there,” Joris said, grinning. He watched Haden palm a few coins into Tulio’s jerkin.

“You may want to consider stopping at Chirper’s for a bite to eat,” the bard suggested quietly.

“Two of a kind, they are,” Talan said.

“So, let him go already,” Dr. Rhas said to Fritzan, “I have work to do.” Fritzan let go of the young man’s arm and Tulio immediately scurried out of the shop.

“I’m watchin’ ya, berk!” Fritzan bellowed after his retreating back. He turned to glare around the shop. “An’ that goes triple fer all o’ you! Gatekeepers my eye!” He stormed out, the other Harmonium troops following. Only Norinaga remained, admiring a pocket watch.

“Well, that was weird,” Yolette said, looking up at Haden. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Haden said. “I’m going to get cleaned up.”

“Okay,” Yolette said.

Talan looked down at Ari, who resembled a shrubbery more than a dog. “I guess we’ll go last, since I’m not sure you want to share the bath with Ari.”

“Not today,” Joris said.

Sheen hurried, but she was still some time getting the filth and webbing out of her hair. When she went to her room to get clean clothing, Yolette knocked on the door tentatively.

“Yes?” Sheen asked.

“I had a dream,” Yolette said nerviously. “I don’t remember having one before.”


“I saw my father, I think.”

Sheen nodded blandly. “That is good. The effects of Baltazo’s treatment are probably wearing off, then.”

“Yeah,” Yolette said distantly. “It’s weird, cos he sang me a song, told me he loved me, but I can’t think of his name. What kind of piker would take that away from someone?” the girl asked, tears welling in her eyes. Sheen realized abruptly that some sympathy might be appropriate, and also that she was the least likely person to give it properly.

“Um . . .” She offered Yolette the towel, not knowing what else to do.

“Thanks,” Yolette said, sniffling loudly. “You’re gonna get him, right? Put him in the dead-book, I mean?”

“Yes, of course,” Sheen said. “The more I find out about him, the more reasons I have. The fact that he’s still wandering around is an offense to decent people everywhere.”

“Good,” Yolette said finally. “Cos I’m still afraid he might come and do it again.”

“With any luck, we’ll keep him far too busy to try anything like that.”

Haden sauntered down the corridor, restored to his usual impeccable cleanliness, and smiled at them. “And how are my two favorite ladies?” he asked cheerfully. Yolette hurriedly divested herself of the towel and threw her arms around Haden.

“Hey, now, don’t muss me,” the bard joked.

“Oh, sorry!” Yolette squeaked, letting go quickly.

Haden laughed. “I was kidding, dear. Women should feel free to muss me as much as they like. Especially you two.” In unison, Sheen and Yolette blushed crimson.

“We should head out,” Sheen said, coughing slightly and finishing tying her hair back. They climbed down the stairs, to find a restored Talan, Joris, and Mal waiting for them.

“That Mercykiller bought two watches,” Dr. Rhas said in wonder.

“Maybe you should have more shoplifters, then,” Haden said innocently. The doctor chuckled.

“I think he’ll be back. Norinaga, I mean, not the thief. And Yolette’s doing well, for a beginner. We’ll keep the forge working until we see you again.”

“I should be back soon,” Sheen said, and they slipped out into the street.

“Gods, I’m so happy to be clean,” Talan remarked.

“And you’re *used* to the wilderness,” Joris said. “Imagine how I feel.”

“Sometimes I think the entire universe is composed of nothing but dirt,” Haden mused. “There ought to be a faction organized around the Dirt philosophy.”

“Finally a philosophy I can believe in,” Joris said. Talan chuckled.

“The path of true cleanliness is to become so filthy that you reach equilibrium with your surroundings and new dirt falls off of its own accord,” Haden continued, warming to his subject. Joris peeked over at Sheen to gauge her reaction. She was obviously trying not to laugh. “It works the same with water. You can only get so wet, and after that there’s just no point any more.”

“Or you drown,” Joris pointed out.

“Drowning is superfluous to my theory,” Haden announced.

“I gotta say that Ari would rather belong to the Dirt faction,” Talan said, patting the gamboling dog fondly.

“Or, at least the Smelly faction,” Haden suggested. Sheen finally broke down and laughed.

“All this talk isn’t helping us walk any faster, you three!” She admonished, giggling. Ahead, at the edge of their vision, pedestrians were dropping out of sight. The effect worked its way slowly toward them like a wave in reverse, everyone in the crowd dropping to their knees or rough approximations thereof. In the square, three humanoids drifted silently over the cobblestones. Two were tall and thin, with dark skin and puffs of white hair that made them look like paintbrushes with delusions of grandeur. The third’s face was a corroded bronze mask ringed with blades—Her Serenity, the Lady of Pain.

“Should we be doing something?” Sheen whispered in alarm. Joris had already knelt in the street. Only Haden appeared unconcerned.

“Who can say?” he asked rhetorically. “If she’s decided she doesn’t like you, then groveling won’t save you. And if she’s decided to ignore you, it probably doesn’t matter. Come on, Joris, let’s cut down this side-street here and avoid the crush.”

“Right,” Joris said, standing again and looking sheepish.

“Probably?” Sheen asked carefully as they skirted the crowd.

“With the Lady, you don’t ever get any better than ‘probably’,” Haden said. “She’s kind of like Mal in that respect.” A few minutes later, they had navigated their way to Aasimon Walk and the gates of Honorgard. Haden hesitated outside the gates.

“What is it?” Joris asked.

“You know, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Why don’t we just leave a message and let Father know we’ll come by later, when he’s expecting us?”

“Having second thoughts about this?” Talan asked.

“Even if you leave a message,” Sheen said patiently, “he still won’t be expecting you.”

“He wasn’t expecting you last time, and it didn’t seem to bother him,” Joris added.

“It’s too late to back out,” Sheen said with finality.

“Oh all right,” Haden grumbled, and walked up to the gate. An unfamiliar githzerai stood at attention on the other side.

“Hail,” it intoned.

“Hello, it’s me, open the gate,” Haden said.

“You?” the gith asked, blinking.

“Me!” Haden said crossly. “You know, Lord Cerellis’ son?”

The gith leaned closer and frowned. “Do you have some identification?”

“Identification?” Haden squawked indignantly. “I live here, thank you! Well, technically.”

“Technically?” Joris asked.

“Legally, yes. Physically, not so much.”

“What is your name?” the gith asked slowly.

“Haden.” The gith pondered this latest development. It looked like it hurt.

“All right then,” he said finally, and opened the gate. Haden clapped a hand over his eyes and shook his head, then walked across the courtyard and unlocked the front doors. The gith watched them for several moments before remembering to close the gate again.

Inside, the building looked much the same, but they could hear voices and see light coming from the parlor, just off the main entrance hall. Haden pushed the door open, peering inside as though he was expecting an ambush. Lord Cerellis lounged on a deep velvet-covered couch, his head in Lady Margone’s lap.

Haden stared. “All right, who are you, and what have you done with my parents?”

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