Our six week online salon (championship) also saw three other top contenders! Our Top 4 included “Ala Zilla,” “lonki,” and “Max Rebo” who were all asked to choose one character to appear in the next fiction. The characters chosen include Aldo Bussotti, Vodacce’s creative clerk, Edeline Trinken, Eisen’s Mistress of the House, and Penya, expert eavesdropper.

There are just two more chapters in the “With Good Intentions” pre-release storyline! Keep an eye out for more chanteys!

Child’s Play

By Carmel Rechnitzer

            Aldo Bussoti wasn’t exactly supposed to be at der Eigensinnig Verloren. The sweet little inn was deep inside the Eisen district and was a renown hive of heroes and gallantry besides. The place was infested by decent, upstanding folk. You couldn’t wheel or deal with any of them, and that meant they were dangerous to talk to.

            But the der Eigensinnig Verloren belonged to Edeline Trinken, and she was the single best Captains player in town. It had been a disastrously stressful week. In the aftermath of the Saint Terni’s Day Riot, Aldo had spent nearly seventy consecutive hours awake. He’d kept busy cutting deals on burnt real estate, securing cleaning contracts, and fencing looted goods. As far as he was concerned, every following year required a feast in his name. As Theus as his witness, he had earned the mantle of the patron saint of fraud.

            After a long but fitful sleep, he escaped the supervision of the Red Hand Gang and slunk his way here for a bit of fun. Madam Trinken tolerated him – or at least tolerated his skill at Captains – and had a deliciously dark Eisen stout already poured for him. She was the only woman in town who didn’t water her drinks or serve swill. Theus bless her! Oversized tankard in hand, he settled at their reserved table.

            The gameboard was a wooden pentagon, crisscrossed with the abstract lines of the City of Five Sails. It was old enough to be an incorrect, as well as simplified, map of the City. But that suited Aldo. Captains was an old game, long fallen out of favor for cleverer rulesets like the Crescent Empire’s chess or the impenetrable Go from Khitai. Captains was an old man’s game, and years of sitting hunched over ledgers had aged his knees and spine.

            He spun around the table until he was seated next to the board’s Voddacen district. He began to assemble his little game pieces out of habit. All of his Soldati and Marinai pieces were painted navy blue. A neat little reminder of the ruthless mafioso who’d ruled the district before being snuffed by Don Constanzo. Legend claimed that young “Constani ” had garroted his predecessor himself. Ever since, they’d been known as the Red Hand Gang.

            “We really ought to paint your pieces red,” said Patricia Moustakas as she sat down across from him. If his nose could be trusted,the dock-mistress still wore her work attire. She smelled as salty as she sounded.

             “Good evening to you, too.”

             She ignored him. Aldo couldn’t blame her. Patricia had spent her youth banishing smugglers from the docks. She ruled the gates of commerce with an iron fist and an incorruptible moral code. She had been a titan – a fellow un-canonized Saint.  She’d caused more harm to Don Constanzo’s ledgers through the law than El Gato had caused through larceny. Aldo was the right bastard who’d undone her life’s work by lifting the rules against contraband. It had taken him a staggering three million Guilders in various bribes.

            Madam Trinken gave a final round of hugs and “goodnights!” to her patrons and joined them. She gave Patricia a warm kiss on the cheek, a whole bottle of wine, and a heaping plate of food. She gave him a curt nod of the head. Also fair. Before Kaspar Dietrich had made it too dangerous to continue, the Red Hand Gang had forced her to pay protection monies. The Good Old Days!

            Now, soldiers marched the real streets and conquered the real spaces of commerce. Aldo hated it. The practice of conquest was so much more interesting in the hypothetical. Within the neat little rules of a Captains game. Losing at Captains meant he’d get to try again next week. In real life, Don Constanzo’s gambits had rather … permanent results. Even if they’d made a profit on the Riot, Theus forgive them for the damage done to the City. It would be months before things would settle down.

            To his complete shock, they were joined by two youths. The first was a lithe creature, a real nasty piece of work. Muscular, but extremely sleek – the perfect physique for burglary. They wore the mask of the notorious El Gato, which gave Aldo a giggle. There’s simply no way? Right? Madam Trinken wouldn’t invite a well-known thief.

“El Gato’s” fingers flew across the board with the casual grace of a master pickpocket, and suddenly all of the Castilian pieces were placed. Patricia thanked them. A second flurry, and all of the Sarmatian pieces were placed. The district itself was leaderless and powerless these days, but Captains was Captains, and rules were rules. The young pretender seemed intent to keep with the times, though. “El Gato” stuck little folded paper hats on their Cevaliere pieces. Five little faux musketeers – to represent the newly arrived Odette Dubois D’Arrent.

The fifth player was a literal child, which seemed more absurd than El Gato themself sitting at the table. The grubby little orphan – because who else but orphans could be so disarmingly cute despite their grubbiness? – made a slow but very precise show of setting up the Ussuruan side of the board.

All five districts at play. That was a rare occurrence. You’d be lucky to find five Captains players in the same district these days, much less at the same table.

            “Can the boy actually  play?” Aldo asked.

            “I dunno, Mister. Did you launder three hundred and twenty seven Guilders through Makepeace this morning?” came the smug child’s answer.

           Aldo’s jaw dropped. “El Gato” gave the boy a Castillian turon. The nougaty sweet was made of sugar, almonds and honey. Aldo found himself jealous of, as well as astounded by, the nosy little grub.

            “Don’t be rude, Penya,” Patricia chastised. “Mr. Busotti hasn’t met you yet. Ease him into your nonsense.”

            Aldo searched his pockets in desperation. No sweets, but he had an abundance of Guilders. He offered them to the child, and demanded to know how he’d learned what he’d learned. Without skipping a beat, “El Gato’s” lightning fingers snatched the coins away.

            “Your mouth moves when you do complex sums in your head,” Penya explained.

            “But how and when did you see me? From what angle?”

            The pretender extended their hand again, requesting more coins. Aldo thought better of handing the money over. Clearly, he was being played. He had to figure out what game this was. Well, they were playing Captains. But clearly something else was afoot. Or in palm.

            Each player took their turn, and Aldo quickly caught on. Tonight, they were negotiating. As each piece advanced, Madam Trinken or Patricia asked a question and the youths gave an answer. It was all gossip, of course. But the kind of gossip that had implications.

            “I hear that Yevgeni has no patience for Old Iron’s games,” Patricia said.

            “No. The Boar has refused money, refused allyship, refused peace. No Eisen man is welcome in the Ussuran district until the Forum is unoccupied,” explained Madam Trinken. In return, Patricia gave a not-so-innocent comment about rotten grain shipments. The price of bread was set to spike before full hostilities came into account, apparently. Good to know. Very good to know.

            It quickly became evident that the four other players were pressuring his territory in unison. Aldo broke his silence: “Both Sibella and Servo are seeking a marriage. They’ve lost their patience for the passions of youth and are looking for a stable partner. Uncertain times call for smarter choices.” Lo and behold, the game resumed a more equitable level of enmity.

            “I don’t think so,” said Penya. “Servo is still sending bad poetry to Ren every week.”

            “He does what? And how do you know it’s bad poetry?”

            “Be careful about Servo, buddy. His heart isn’t in this mess. Daddy Don’s gonna need a better loo-ten-tant” Penya warned. His diction was charming, but the news turned Aldo’s stomach cold.

            “El Gato” gave the young Penya a silent warning. Give nothing for free! The young boy apologized, and held his hand out for money. Patricia gave him a handful of cheese, and Madam Trinken called out to her servers for a tall glass of milk.

            Gameplay resumed, but the conversation remained silent. Everyone else was looking at him. Uh oh. What secrets was he allowed to give away? How much did these women know? What in Theus’ name did the boy know?

            “Has the vine withered, or is there still gossip about the missing artifacts? If we can get Old Iron’s toys back, we might dodge out on all this unpleasantry,” offered Patricia.

            Aldo was far out of his element, and didn’t know the subtle way to say what he meant.

            “Wasn’t my red-fingered numbskulls. Wish it were. I’d return it in a heartbeat and be done with this all,” he said.

            “First person to give me a sword finds out who has it,” said Penya.

            The table froze. They all turned to look at him. With the complete lack of shame and guilt that only children or the Don himself could muster, the boy shrugged his shoulders.

            “We’re not giving you a sword, kiddo,” said the masked man. Or was it a woman? The voice strode a fine line between a tenor and an alto.

            “Speak for yourself, Signore Kitty,” said Aldo. “What kind of sword do you want?” Arming children wouldn’t crack his top ten sins, and Penya was barely three feet tall. How much nonsense could the pipsqueak get that sword into?

            “No one is giving the child a sword,” insisted Patricia.

            “Free drinks – for life – to the first man to pass me a sword,” Madam Trinken shouted to her guests. The first time he was holding his own at Captains, and there went the game.

            Half the inn’s patrons began to shift and get up. As they approached, Madam Trinken shrugged her shoulders, too. Aldo understood. This was critical data. The location of the stolen Syrneth goods was a league above the nuts and bolts politics they’d been passing around each other.

            Before all Hell broke loose, he caught the older woman by the hand, and locked eyes with her.

            “Even when war, when a proper all out war, starts,” he said, “I’d like to come by for games of Captains. Backdoor channels make for fruitful negotiations. I’d rather sue for peace at this table than get that maniac, Gustavo, involved. He’s a charming host, but a complete piece of shit. Theus help us if he becomes Mayor.”

            After all Hell broke loose, he calmly did as an accountant was required to do. He made a quick crawl behind the bar and tucked himself away out of sight. Out there, in the volatile wilderness, Eisen mercenaries tried to swiftly but gently apprehend the child. Patricia shouted at them to put their swords away. “El Gato” popped a smoke bomb.

            The horde started coughing and wheezing. Aldo calmly squeezed his eyes shut and tipped over sideways. This wasn’t his first corrida. Trickster’s Smoke floated upwards to make a grand and obfuscating display. If one kept their head low, they wouldn’t breathe it in. He was unashamed of lying in the fetal position and avoiding all the madness. It’s how he survived Don Constanzo’s ascension, too.

            Somewhere, a window broke. Shouts bellowed to give chase. The bar emptied in a frenzy of stomping and pushing. Madam Trinken reiterated her promise of free drinks to anyone who could find the boy. He doubted anyone heard her over the din.

            “Excuse me, Maestro,” came a whisper.

            Aldo opened his eyes, but did not uncurl himself. He wasn’t sure if it was safe yet. Much to his shock, he found that “El Gato” hadn’t fled either. The peculiar fellow was tucked underneath the bar right beside him.

            “How can I help?” he asked out of habit.

            “The missing Montaigne – the Musketeer’s friend – was that the Red Hand Gang?”

            “Ask that little gremlin, not me,” Aldo insisted.

            “Penya is already gone, but I have to know,” said “El Gato.”

            Aldo sighed and considered his options. It was easy to do arithmetic with numbers. It was a touch more complicated to weigh and measure secrets.  What’s the biggest, juiciest information he could request in return?

            “Not us,” he promised. “Old Iron’s troops purchased all the necessaries for witch burning just this morning. If someone high profile is missing, I suspect they’re… the uggh… guest of honor to whatever show of power Dietrich intends to make next.”

            That caught “El Gato” off guard. The body language seemed to tense in disgust. The boy – or girl – was too young. They had not lived through the horror of the Wars of the Cross. Had not seen the City of Five Sails transition from Navy Blue to Red. Aldo felt for their innocence. The memories of it all – the nightmares they conjured – had prevented him from enjoying the last decade of delicate peace.

            “Who’s side is “El Gato” on? You’ve stolen from Kaspar in broad daylight, but I can’t tell if that was a display of skill or a political statement.”

            “Not yours,” promised the infamous burglar. That much, Aldo knew. He waved his hand in circles, indicating the fellow continue. Fair is fair.

            “No one’s, sadly. Yevgeni won’t have a thief for a friend. Odette’s too new in town to understand the value of giving me an audience. Lafayette’s location might change her mind…”

            Aldo gave a deep sigh. That was no good. No alliances in sight. Every district on their own. Without a clear alliance dominating the rest… true war, the kind Aldo had been praying to avoid, was inescapable. Time for a last, desperate gambit.

            “I don’t suppose you’re single? Sibella really is a charming prospect.”

            But “El Gato” was already gone. Aldo gave a quick check through his own pockets. Damn it. His coin purse was gone, too. No matter. He was a money-man. It was the one thing he could certainly get his hands back on.Theus help me, he sighed. War really, truly, inescapably, was coming. Maybe he ought to stay curled up beneath the bar for the next six months. Maybe Madam Trinken wouldn’t notice. Maybe he could negotiate with her, win just one more week of peace? Aldo was a member of the Red Hand Gang. Peace was the one thing he would never get his hands on.