Kaspar Dietrich

Kaspar Dietrich

by Fred Wan

Kaspar practiced.

Every morning, without exception, Kaspar made the time to train. The exercise helped to wake him up for the day to come, before the morning sun became uncomfortably hot. So, in the quarters he and his wife Daniella shared on the top floor of the Trinken House, Kaspar practiced his swordsmanship. Today he focused on fencing.

It had thankfully been months since he’d needed to rely on his bladework, but this was a reprieve, not a release. There would come a time when he needed to rely on steel once again, and when that moment came, he would not have the luxury of time to prepare in advance.

So he followed a daily routine to keep his skills sharp, and let his mind wander as repetition honed reflexes, starting once again with a response to an initial attack.

Riposte. Parry. Thrust.

Edeline Trinken kept a fine inn and was supportive of both his public efforts on behalf of Eisen, and his private, personal side projects as well. She was straightforward, brooked no nonsense, and spoke her mind. Of like minds, the two had built, if not a friendship, an understanding built upon honesty.

That honesty had prompted her, months ago, to conclude that he had no business furnishing his quarters. She’d simply declared that, for both the House’s reputation and his, she would take charge of the matter. The only concession he winnowed from her was to leave a large corner clear, so he could go about his morning routine without needing to go out. He didn’t want an audience while he practiced.

She considered the empty corner an eyesore, but conceded when Daniella firmly asserted that Kaspar needed the exercise in order to keep encroaching age from reducing his muscles to flabby uselessness. The two women had come to an agreement, and that was that. Kaspar once again gave thanks that his wife’s persuasive skills and wordplay rivaled his own puissant skill at the bladed arts.

Counter, elbow, feint.

Having colleagues, friends, and companions with good judgment mattered. So much hinged on being united in purpose, yet free to act. Like in the finally ended Theus-accursed War.

Kaspar snorted. His countrymen called him brilliant, lauded him, claimed he’d won engagements that should have been unwinnable. Even his foes—those who survived—honored him for leading his forces to victory. It seemed almost perverse.

The proclamations and medals meant nothing. The praise was hollow. His troops had relied on him to find a way to win, to bring them home. Every single one that was hurt, maimed, or killed became and would always remain his failure. That saving them all was impossible wasn’t the point. They’d fought, they’d won, for themselves and their families, and the glory and honor of Eisen. But even in hard-won victory, too many now had sorrows to carry. And, to his grief, the battles weren’t over.

Even now, as Eisen sought to heal, new and darker threats emerged. Ones that required a commander’s eye to fight against, because precious few among the living had the insight that came from experience.

He’d been a soldier, a leader, a hero. Neither he nor Eisen needed him to be that anymore, so he stopped. Both man and country needed him to take on new duties.

Close, engage, clash.

So much of Kaspar’s life was built on trust. It had to be. He therefore made a point of ensuring that people and things were worthy of that trust. Trust in his skills. Trust in himself. Trust in his comrades. And most of all, trust in his causes. Earning the trust of others was not easy, but it was attainable. It just required commitment and effort. It didn’t require a noble bloodline and its attendant high station.

Kaspar paused in his drill, left hand raised. He glanced at the ancient but still gleaming work of the fighting arts encasing his hand up to the elbow. His people, his nation, were right to be proud of their craft. His panzerhand had protected him and previous wearers for decades in countless duels and battles, but was still as functional and beautiful as the day it was forged.

His gaze wandered down to a box, sitting on his writing desk. He wasn’t a superstitious man, but the box seemed almost… accusatory. For a moment, his shoulders slumped. He could—he would have to—attend to it later.

Stab.

Kaspar preferred a shorter blade than usually wielded by a swordsman trained in the eisenfaust style. He found something smaller to be easier to handle, to carry, and if necessary, to conceal. Short blades better reinforced the appearance of a successful merchant and dignitary, hoping to use his skills to return prosperity to his homeland. They complemented his training nicely.

Kaspar finished his routine. He glanced down, resentfully, at the gift box on his desk. He sighed. Time to clean himself up, get dressed, and deliver it.

****

Kaspar descended the stairs from his quarters towards the exit. He had obligations to meet.

“Kaspar, a moment.” called out a familiar voice.

He paused on the stairs, and turned to look upwards at Daniella, standing at the top of the landing. She glanced at him, frowned slightly, and joined him on the stairway. He looked down at himself, second-guessing his choice of attire.

“Am I not dressed appropriately?”

Daniella shook her head. “Not your clothes. Your bearing,” she gently chided. “You look like you have been asked to carry the weight of the world, and are making no secret that you begrudge the burden.”

“I’m sure Camille,” he lifted the box, “would rather have Mathieu back.”

Daniella ran a finger along the rim of the box. “The way you are sulking, you will just make it worse for her. And this,” she put her hand under his, lifting the box to eye level, “mght help give purpose to the pain.”

She lowered her hand again. “But you won’t be able to provide clarity if you’re so miserable that she has to make you feel better.”

She put a finger to the side of his cheek, turning his face to directly meet her gaze.

“Are you going to comfort her, or are you going so she can comfort you?”

Kaspar looked down and grunted, conceding the point.

“Precisely. If you can be bothered to pay your respects, don’t add to her grief. Weep on your own time, not on hers.”

She walked around him, inspecting both attire and posture, occasionally pulling on a sleeve or fixing a collar. Eventually, she patted him on the shoulder, signifying he’d finally passed this inspection.

“Kaspar, we are no strangers to this. Why does it bother you so?”

“We’d spoken a few times. Mathieu was eager to talk about bladework, and he was beginning to listen to me. He would have had potential for us. If only…”

Kaspar sighed, and headed for the door.

“Mathieu would have learned caution eventually. Now, all we can do is give Camille something to help with her grief.”

****

Kaspar gave his friend a hug.

“I’m sorry, Camille.”

“Thank you, Kaspar. I miss him.”

Camille Keiner’s meeting room was furnished in a manner befitting a woman of high station. Even distracted by grief, her gaze remained clear and her expression focused. Although he never regretted time in her company, Kaspar deeply regretted the events that brought him to her.

“What happened? Your message lacked details.”

After her servants brought a tray of refreshments, she waved them away, and gestured for Kaspar to sit. “You know that group Mathieu spent time with?” She crooked a finger, inviting him to take what he pleased from the tray.

Kaspar thought for a moment. “Young, wealthy, bored?”

“And with a tendency to dare each other to do more and more foolish things.” She sat down opposite him.

The moments stretched to minutes.

Kaspar waited. He had made the time to visit, he could certainly make the time to wait until she was ready to speak further.

“I wish he had followed your advice.”

He smiled wistfully. “About what? He asked a lot of questions.”

“Knowing the difference between panache and extravagance. And… .” Camille looked out the window, gathering her thoughts. Her brow furrowed, and her mien hardened. “Knowing when to seize the initiative and when to hold back…and being daring purposefully, instead of whimsically.” She took a freshly sliced apple from the tray. “You know they picked fights with other youths?”

Kaspar nodded. “Mathieu was a very talented duellist. Sadly, he knew it.”

“They thought themselves swashbucklers. Going to places, starting duels over petty slights, making daring escapes. Dilettantes amusing themselves. He began making a name for himself. But he wanted more excitement. They recruited a sorcier, relying on magics that invoked evil spirits. With her help, they became even more adventurous, confident that they could always escape.”

Kaspar nodded. He’d clung to the hope that he was wrong about what happened. Sadly, his instincts had been right.

“While carousing at some noble’s estate, they got into a ‘friendly duel’ with some other youths that turned bloody. The other group had more friends than Mathieu’s. The sorcier opened a portal so they could escape. Someone fired a pistol at them while they were retreating.”

She grimaced. “The sorcier was killed while Mathieu was entering the portal. It’s been days since.”

Kaspar closed his eyes. What a waste. With the sorcier who opened the portal dead, Mathieu would be condemned to wander through the walkway with no way out. Even if Mathieu stumbled out, it was well known that there was something unnatural about those portals, and that there were… things, predators and tempters, living within them. Mathieu was at the mercy of that place, and its inhabitants. Doomed to search in vain for an exit until chance or fate took mercy on him, or finished him off.

Another victim of taking sorcery for granted. All because leaving through a door wasn’t stylish enough.

“I’m sorry, Camille. I should have forced the issue, made him understand.”

Her eyes narrowed in consideration. After a moment, she gave a dismissive wave, turning away both his protestation of guilt and his apology.

“You never could have stopped him. He was enjoying himself too much. If you tried, he’d simply have stopped listening to you.”

Kaspar found he couldn’t bear looking into Camille’s teal grey eyes. He turned away, staring out a window into the street. Even though she was burdened with loss and wasn’t angry at him, Camille had an intensity about her. A formidable woman, even at her worst.

The two grieved. They discussed the possibility that Mathieu might still be found, and that if he was, the hope that the scars on body and soul could be healed.

Eventually, Kaspar produced the box, pushing it across the table to Camille. She looked at it, then inquiringly at Kaspar.

“If Mathieu emerges, we’ll find him and bring him back. But this,” He sat back. “It’s for you. I know how much this hurts, but the suffering doesn’t have to be in vain.” He nodded at Camille before departing her estate.

****

Camille opened the box, and inspected the gift contained within. She ran her hands over the contents, apprising it. Inside was a simple but finely crafted object, forged of steel and varnished a deep black.

A Prophet’s cross.

****

Kaspar knelt and prayed before the chapel’s humble wood-end altar.

“Forgive me.”

Faces haunted Kaspar. Of people who served alongside and under him, along with those who fought, suffered, and perished at his command. He remembered dreams unfulfilled, kindred left mourning, and battles that were not done, not for him, and not for those he commanded.

Kaspar wept, silently and without shame. Someone had to remember the fallen, particularly those whose passing would go unheralded. Who better than the person who could have saved them?

“I’m sorry.”

Kaspar’s mind turned to reverie. To his country and his cause.

Eisen… the nation had seen better days, but its people remained unbroken. They just needed opportunity. And he would give them the opportunity. To be fed, to prosper, to be spared the whims of fate, and to be protected from the various things that were awakening.

So he fought. And sent others to fight and die. And mourned the repeated failures.

Kaspar continued to pray.

****

Kaspar’s meditations were interrupted by a knock at the chapel’s door. He rose, and exited to greet Otto and Rosine, two of his associates. The two briefed him as they headed back towards the Trinken House.

Otto adjusted his spectacles. “Makepeace said he’ll buy as many casks as we have to sell, and he’ll pay even more if the next shipment is stronger. He’s a strange one, but he pays well!”

Kaspar nodded. The Avalonian trader was eccentric, and his antics were even more unusual than his name, but he didn’t seem… dangerous. Just strange. Doing business with him would generate useful funds, and would make it easier for Kaspar’s operatives to keep tabs on him. He turned to Rosine, flanking his other side.

“I sent Phillip and Terrel to investigate the complaints the merchants had that their food stocks were raided by unusual looking animals. Those weren’t animals, but they won’t bother anyone anymore.” Her lips curled upwards, happy to be sharing the news.

“Any other rumors?”

She produced a note. “We’ve heard several reports of sailors and fishermen being attacked by some form of aquatic beasts. They claim the monsters appeared from nowhere.” She glanced at Kaspar. “When we’ve dealt with them, I’d like to study one of the corpses.”

Kaspar considered for a moment. “Send Uwe. We’re past the point of subtlety anyways.”

The three approached a corner of the street. For a moment, Kaspar paused, looking back at the church. He’d given his due to the dead and his failures. Time to turn his attention back to the needs of the living.

Kaspar planned.

And prepared.

Odette de Dubois d’Arrent

Odette de Dubois d’Arrent

by Nancy Sauer

Odette de Dubois d’Arrent surveyed the room with a quick sweep of her eyes. The parlor looked much the same as it did on her previous week’s visit: well-made but not ostentatious furniture, an embroidery frame with a newly-begun project in the corner, and books piled on nearly every table in the room. The exception was the table located near the window that looked out over the house’s inner courtyard, neatly laid with table service for two.

“I am so happy you could join me this afternoon,” her hostess said. “Our discussions are always so entertaining.”

Odette smiled at her. “Your emotions exactly mirror mine,” she said. “I was gratified to receive your invitation.” It was a complicated truth. Urraca de la Murrieta was a young woman of many interests and a charming way of speaking about them; Odette enjoyed the time she spent with her. Urraca was also the daughter of one of Five Sails’ wealthiest merchants, Guillen de la Murrieta, a man who Odette very much wanted to ingratiate herself with. He controlled a number of shipping contacts that would be very useful to her patron back in Montaigne.

“I have been reading the book you lent me!” Urraca said, moving towards the table. “Will Marie ever escape the castle? No, don’t tell me, I want to read it myself. And you say that there are more?”

“Several more,” Odette said. She seated herself at the table. “I think I will be getting another one when my mail from home next arrives here.” She casually waved at the goblets and plates set out before them. “I take it that your father will not be able to join us?”

Urraca wilted a little. “He will not. He says he has no desire to meet you.”
Odette didn’t know how to react to this. She accepted rebuffs as part and parcel of a courtier’s life, but rarely had she received such a blunt refusal. “I am sorry to learn that I have offended him so,” she finally said.

“Oh, it isn’t you personally,” Urraca said. “It’s because of the bandits.”

“Bandits?”

“Well, really a street gang. They are led by a man from Montaigne, it is said, and they are causing trouble at some of Father’s warehouses. He’s taken it into his head that all the Montaigne in the city are in league against him, and he won’t hear a word otherwise.”

“I am so sorry to hear about your father’s problems,” Odette said. “But let us speak of happier things. Tell me about your embroidery.”

* * *

 

When Odette finally left the house of de la Murrieta she found one of her musketeers, Jean Urbain, waiting for her at the gate. The other three musketeers had predictably wandered, across the street, joining the locals in drinking and gambling with dice.

“So how did your meeting with the rich merchant go?” Jean asked. “And did you hear any word about our elusive lady?

“Not a single word, though I am even more convinced that Urraca’s social connections will be of great help in the search. And I didn’t meet her father at all.” She quickly summarized the problem of the street gang.

“Most unfortunate,” Jean said.

“Indeed. I will need to find out more about this man, if he has any patrons or family that I could use to influence him.” Odette flinched a little. She would have to go to her patron’s other agents in Five Sails and ask for another round of favors. So far none of her plans had come to fruition, and she was running thin on goodwill.

Jean touched her arm slightly and smiled. “Powder your face,” he said. “I have seen you in darker times than this.”

Odette returned the smile. “I usually try to forget such things,” Odette said.. “But sometimes it is good to be reminded of them. Let us collect the others and go visit the merchants of knowledge.”

* * *

 

Odette had taken a suite for herself and her musketeers at the Hotel Precieux. It was located on the edge of one of the seedier districts of Five Sails, which made it both fairly cheap to rent and convenient for dealing with the city’s more unsavory inhabitants. It was thus perfect for her needs. Her office was furnished, like the rest of the suite, with furniture that had once been of high quality but had begun the gradual slide into shabbiness. The large, ornately carved desk contrasted with the rest of the furnishings. A map of the city and random piles of documents obscured much of the desk’s rosewood surface. While her musketeers amused themselves, Odette read through her many reports.


 

“He isn’t even from Montaigne!” Odette suddenly burst out. All around the room the others stopped what they were doing and stared at her. Henri Michelet had been practicing a new song on his lute, Jean was reading a philosophy tract, Leontine Giroux and Bastian Girard were playing cards. Leontine was in the process of raising a cup of wine to her mouth.


“His loss,” Henri said.

“He’s not?” Jean said.

“Wasn’t the merchant supposed to be Castilian?” Bastian said.

“Who are we talking about?” Leontine said, and finished drinking her wine.



“The criminal troubling de la Murrieta,” Odette said, laying the report down on the desk and spreading her hands flat on it. She knew she shouldn’t let her frustration get the better of her, but it remained an ongoing struggle. “He isn’t from Montaigne, he is a member of the Red Hand gang from the Vodacce district. He’s been nicknamed The Montaigne because of his hat!”

“Unfortunate for us,” Henri said, “but a sign of good taste for him.”

Odette ignored the observation. “He seems to be trying to raise his stature in the Red Hand by making raids in the Castilian district. If he can succeed in gaining a foothold there, the gang will become even more influential in the city and he will become more powerful within the gang.”

“What is his real name?” Leontine said.

“Here’s a list,” Odette said, “you can take your pick. He uses a different one in the gambling houses of each district, and he owes money to all of them.”

“If he owes many people money, then he could be bribed,” Jean said.

“That will work until he gambles it all away again,” Bastian said. “Then he will be back at work troubling honest merchants. Or somewhat honest merchants, as we are in Five Sails.”

“And I could not get enough money to pay off all—“ Odette paused, a distant look on her face. Her musketeers were silent: they knew what that look meant.

“It’s somewhat risky,” Odette finally said, “but manageable, and failure will harm us little.” She reached for her writing kit. “Bastian, I need you to find me a professional rumormonger and an actor who can present himself as a Castilian gentleman. Henri, I need you and Jean to go to our patron’s moneyholder to obtain some funds.”

“How much?” Henri said.

“As much as you can. Be persuasive. Leontine, I need you to take a note to Urraca. We need to know if there is a pattern to The Montaigne’s attacks on her father’s warehouses.”

“We are musketeers, not errand runners,” Jean said.

“Never fear, my friend,” Odette said. She wrote a note in a swift, decisive hand. “You will be showing your worth very soon now.”

* * *

The moon had risen just high enough to be seen over the roofline of the buildings around them. Jean could hear the murmur of the nearby sea and the soft tapping of shoe upon cobblestone as one of his fellow musketeers moved, shifting their weight from one foot to another. Two nights ago, rumor had it that The Montaigne had lost heavily at gambling. Tonight, Odette gambled on him keeping to his usual routine after a loss.

A crowd of about a dozen people came up the street, led by a man in a Montaigne hat.

“They are very reliable criminals,” Bastian said.

“The biggest one is mine,” Leontine said.

“That is a fine hat,” Henri said.

“It’s time,” Jean said, and he strode out of the shadows of the de la Murrieta warehouse. The others followed him. When he reached the center of the street he stopped and held up his hand. “No further, good folk,” Jean said in a loud, friendly voice. “You should turn around and go home.”

The gang’s leader stopped, giving a signal to his followers. “And why should we do that?”

“I have heard that there are criminals moving through this area, and I would hate for you to fall afoul of them.”

“Very amusing.” The man known as The Montaigne drew his rapier, a blade with an ornate basketweave hilt-guard but no other ornamentation. “I have business at that warehouse, but it doesn’t require me to kill you. Leave now and I’ll cause you no trouble.”

“If you have business at this warehouse then your business is with us.” Jean’s tone remained friendly, even as he drew his own rapier.

“The four of you against all of us? They say a dog’s bark is louder than his bite.”

“Well, that is true,” Jean admitted. He tilted his head slightly in Henri’s direction. “But our bark is very, very loud.” Henri smoothly raised his musket out of the shadows of his cloak and brought it into firing position.

The crowd was still and silent for a moment, and then a number of them started to edge back down the street. “Stand your ground!” their leader shouted. “They can try to shoot me if they like; I’m not afraid of them.” Henri adjusted his aim and pulled the trigger. A booming roar tore through the night, followed by a man on the edge of the crowd screaming as he collapsed.

“Ready your steel!” Leontine cried as she sprinted towards the tallest of their opponents. Jean and Bastian followed close behind. Henri took the time to carefully resling his musket and then he, too, charged into the fray.

The fight soon organized itself into several knots of activity. Several of the gang members were trying to help the man who had been shot. Leontine busied herself with a man half a foot taller than her and twice as wide. She locked his sword up with her blade catcher and then used her rapier to make several quick slashes to his arm and chest. Her opponent shouted something that was probably Vodacce, and likelier obscene, as he tried to free his blade. Leontine let it go before he could pull the blade catcher out of her hand, and then sprang in to continue her attack.

Jean duelled with The Montaigne, turning aside his opponent’s blows and making quick replies that threatened but never actually landed.

“Coward! Are you going to do anything else but dance with me?”

“I’m waiting for you to do something interesting,” Jean replied. His words had their intended effect, goading The Montaigne into a series of attacks that Jean easily parried. “Surely you can do better than that.”

Henri had intercepted a woman with a heavy saber moving in to come to her leader’s aid. They circled around each other warily, blades flashing in the moonlight, and the musketeer quickly realized that at some point in the past she had been given formal lessons in swordplay. That made her potentially dangerous, as someone half-trained with a sword could be wildly unpredictable. He grinned and brought his blade up for an attack. Tonight would be more entertaining than he thought it would be.

Bastian was engaged with two opponents who threatened him from opposite sides. The one on the left slashed boldly, but ineptly, at the musketeer, who parried the swing and then continued in to deliver a deep cut to the man’s arm. The one on the right tried to move in for a blow, but Bastian snarled her blade with a flourish of his cloak, quickly pivoting around her to kick her in the back of the knee. She crashed forward, entangling her comrade and pulling him down as well. Without a pause Bastian drew a pistol out and shot at a man who was sneaking up behind Henri. He missed, but the noise had an immediate effect.

“He has a pistol,” yelled one of those lurking in the back of the crowd.

“I have more than one,” Bastian said, and flung back his cape to reveal the other resting in its holster. There was a burst of shouting from different people, and then the men tending the fallen bandit picked him up and started running away. Then the remainder of the gang turned and fled, with their leader following and cursing at them.

Stillness and silence reigned for a few moments, and then Odette emerged from the shadows. “Well done, musketeers.” She spoke loudly, to make sure she could be overheard. “Let us go to the Gilded Darkness to celebrate our victory.”

 


* * *

 

The Gilded Darkness was one of the more popular coffeehouses in Five Sails. Odette had chosen it after careful calculation: elegant enough to discourage open violence, but with a slight underlying disrepute that should make The Montaigne comfortable enough to show up in person. She sipped her coffee and waited. Leontine was at the next table, drinking a much larger cup of coffee and making her way through a plate of pastries. Bastian, Jean, and Henri had taken seats in different parts of the coffeehouse where they could keep an eye on Odette and in turn be not easily spotted by anyone entering the premises.

“He’s here,” Odette said in a voice just loud enough for Leontine to hear.

The musketeer glanced up for a moment and then returned to studying the pastries in front of her. “Powder and flint, he’s wearing some kind of armor under that tunic,” Leontine said quietly. “I owe Bastian a guilder.”

The Montaigne strode directly to Odette’s table and glared down at her. “You have made yourself an enemy tonight.”

Odette raised an eyebrow, looking slightly puzzled. “Shouldn’t you be busy arranging a way to get out of Five Sails? The city must be very dangerous for you now.”

He stopped in mid-word and looked at her intently. “What do you mean by that?”

The courtier shrugged slightly. “Tonight a Castilian was at Madame Grimaldi’s Fortuna Felix, paying off your debts to the house and setting you up with some extra funds. And tomorrow morning it will be all over the dock areas that you had been bribed to set up the Red Hand for an embarrassing defeat.”

“None of my brothers and sisters in the Red Hand will believe that,” he said.

“Oh?” Odette picked up her coffee cup. “Many were hurt in tonight’s fight, but you aren’t even scratched.” She drank her coffee, watching him over the rim of her cup. His face flushed red from anger and for a moment she feared that he would attack her. She wasn’t afraid for her safety, not with several of her musketeers within arm’s reach, but a fight in here would have consequences she didn’t want to deal with.

Slowly his color edged back to normal. “You think you are safe,” he finally said. “Because you have your hired swords here with you.” He glanced over at Leontine, who didn’t bother to look up from her food.

“I think I am safe,” Odette said mildly, “because you have much more dangerous enemies in this city tonight.”

“I’m not sure that is true,” he said. He swept off his hat and gave her a deep bow. “Until we meet again, poisonous lady.” Before Odette could think of a reply he turned on his heel and started walking towards the door.

“He’s smarter than most,” Leontine said. “He will be trouble for us.”

“Only if he lives,” Odette said, dismissing him from her mind. Tomorrow she would send a delicately worded note to Urraca, letting her know that the problem had been taken care of. Then she could arrange a meeting with Guillen de la Murrieta and advance her own plans. She smiled to herself as she savored the last of her coffee.