By Carmel Rechnitzer

Fighting your own battles was a great way to die, so Odette Dubois D’Arrent made sure to never lay a direct hand on her foes. Safety first, and all. She was armored in the finest black dress Le’Empereur’s money could buy, with her usual frills and ruffles replaced with silk lace and mesh. Underneath her widow’s veil was gold-glitter blush and lipstick, to make sure she caught the light and the whole Forum would look at her – notice her strife and mourning.

Instead of laying a hand on her foe, her hand gently nestled on her weapon: The Sarmatian District Captain, Szymon Lanka. The decorated war veteran was dressed in the same ostentatious dress uniform he’d worn during the signing of the Peace of Five Sails. She appreciated that her escort could match her in lack of subtlety. Today, Mayor Claude de la Roche’s harebrained scheme for peace would be put to the vote. Lanka’s crisp white regalia signaled his intent to vote for Clemency. The rest of his contrasting color, though, was mostly a matter of circumstance. His eggshell skin was preserved by years of avoiding the summer sun. Slicked hair and oiled mustaches were bone-white with age. His eyes were snow-white with cataracts that rendered him completely blind.

Lanka always invited the city’s most in-demand debutantes to act as his guides for public events. Many women had been introduced to polite society at “Father Winter’s” elbow, from Solomonia Saboruvya to Sibella Scarpa. It hadn’t taken much conniving to receive his invitation… The trickier part had been getting his invitation for today of all days.

Like a mismatched set of King and Queen, the two of them swept to the center of the Forum. Clear weather and a full moon further emphasized their opposite shades. The crowd, or rather the five separate crowds all crammed in together, ooo’d and aaaah’d as they strutted to center stage. Lanka gave them all a moment to gawk before speaking.

“The harshest lesson of my youth?” he chimed, his voice loud but soft. “You cannot war your way to peace! I’ll not have my streets run red, my fellow citizens. Sarmatia has not been harmed in the mad tit-and-tat of the last few weeks. However, it is too risky for us to recuse ourselves from the vote.”

The crowd gave a mixed reply of thankful relief and bitter grumbles.

“But peace never comes cheaply,” he continued. It took all of Odette’s composure not to laugh as de la Roche’s eyes bugged out in panic. The Mayor signaled for Lanka to stop speaking. Odette did not inform her blind companion. “Avoiding war requires clemency for all of those lured into hatred and violence… except the thief and murderer who did the luring. Sarmatia votes for clemency, so long as El Gato is found out and hanged.”

The forum exploded into a zoo’s worth of braying, hooting, and roaring. De la Roche desperately tried to shout “No, no! You can’t do that! You can’t do that!”

Odette smiled behind her veil, knowing she’d succeeded. After Leontine had nearly died fighting the Cat’s Paw Gang and their allies at the Bazaar, she knew her Musketeers had to change course. Find another means to avenge their slain brother, Francois Dufort. This was her new stratagem – unite the City against her foe.

The idea spread through the crowd like fire. Each camp would now have to reconsider their vote. That was the trick to politics and public speaking – speak first, speak loud, and speak with confidence.

“Le’empereur will reward you handsomely,” she promised under her breath.

“Let him drown my squabbling children in gold, Mademoiselle,” Lanka mused. “The shining luster of gold is lost on the blind. To be honest, so is your beauty. But the viciousness of ambitious young women is my favorite sport.”

Solomonia Saboruvya was not an easy woman to upstage, and she had her own announcement to the world. Tonight’s vote was secondary. The consolidation of her power came first. She calmly signaled to her new husband, though perhaps “pet behemoth” was the better term. Yevgeni hoisted her up, much more gently than she expected, and placed her on his right shoulder. He’d refused to dress up formally, but had kindly slipped cushioning under his shirt so she could effectively ride him side-saddle.

He wrapped his massive left arm around his stomach, giving her a platform to rest her feet on. His right arm curled up, lifting her yet another three inches to the sky as his bicep bulged. He laid his heavy palm over her thigh, both to steady her as he walked forward and to show the world the massive gold ring on his finger.

He strode out from behind the marble pillars and into the moonlight. Solomonia felt like a circus performer riding an elephant, though the shocked crowd reacted to the two of them with no applause or laughter. Yevgeni came to a lumbering stop next to District Captain Lanka, and the blind man flinched from the weighted thuds of the Ussaran’s approaching footfalls.

Solomonia stared through Odette’s veil and nodded her head in respect. Everyone in the City of Five Sails was eager to take desperate gambles… but few dared play at such high stakes. An outside devochka with no District to call home? And that girl  pulled a stunt like this?

Her ‘steed’ rocked underneath her, clearly uneasy in the limelight and probably desperate to itch under his new eyepatch. Speaking of desperate gambles… She was glad Yevgeni was still alive. He’d shown up to their court-house wedding only six hours after plucking out his left eye and replacing it with some ensorcelled tchotchke. He nearly fainted at the ceremony, and for a moment, Solomonia feared she’d lost her third husband a mere two minutes into their marriage.

But now, she knew all of the nonsense was worth it. Even if they’d never manage to truly share a conversation, much less a life or a bed together… they shared power, and she could see the crowd was terrified of them. Five Sails’ toughest politico and hardiest warrior were now one heart, one soul, and one flesh.

She let the crowd stare at them in awe for a full two minutes before saying one single word:

“Clemency!” she called out, refusing to refute or support Odette’s demand. She wasn’t interested in urban warfare or melodramatic games of vengeance. Solomonia and her new husband would clobber this town into obedience firmly, politely, and completely within the bounds of settled law.

Daniella Dietrich shuffled forward, arm in arm with the man who had once been her husband. Kaspar Dietrich – noble, fierce and handsome – was still there. She still knew him, and still loved him. But he’d marched into the Forum, which he’d so recently occupied, seeming more a… ghost? Ghoul? Than a man. Like some undead King demanding to return to his throne. The crowd was not impressed with their ghastly procession, and boo’d the entire time they made their way to center stage.

He was dressed in the same armor he’d been shot in, chest plate dented right over his heart. His left sleeve had been torn away, swollen arm and bloated palm no longer fitting into his panzerhand. The newly empowered flesh glowed sickly opalescent in the moonlight. His new fingers, cold as steel and long as daggers, flexed with agitation. Thank Theus tradition demanded she hold the opposite arm, or she would have been crushed by his monstrous new strength.

She had no clue what he would say. Her Streghe magic was rendered useless by the broiling magic in his chest and spine. In a cruel twist of fate, the Crystal Eye she had stolen… the same Crystal Eye that had kicked off this entire warring mess… had been snatched from her in kind. She no longer had the means to see the future.

She trusted ‘Old Iron’ with her life. But who was Kaspar Dietrich now? ‘Wrathful Silver?’ It didn’t help that their own internal District vote had been an inconclusive draw. No resolution or decision bound him. As Captain, Kaspar now had the right to decide as he pleased.

“I know this City does not love me,” Kaspar began. Despair overtook her. This was not a good way to start.

“I know you thieving lot aren’t excited to see me back at the Forum,” he continued. Theus help her, please! “But I have to thank my colleague, Sir Lanka! An hour ago, backstage, he provided my solution!”

Daniella turned to face her husband, instead of facing the crowd. She didn’t know whether to feel hope or fear. Surprises from the enemy were bad enough. Surprises from her allies and her loved ones were quite another. She had a long road ahead of her to fix this – to win her husband back.

“I would have voted to wage war on each of you miserable dogs! Until I had my hand around the throat of whichever fool tried to assassinate me,” he said. “But that’s a sinful, unjust choice. Theus works in mysterious ways, but He always works towards forgiveness. Towards mercy. Thank you, Sir, for aiding in that work and extending His guiding light to me. Odette Dubois D’Arrent names El Gato as the foul creature that shot me. I believe her. Bring me their corpse, and Five Sails can have my Clemency.”

Claude de la Roche descended from the viewing gallery down to the worn cobbled floor of the Forum, clearly intent on salvaging a political victory from tonight’s bizarre displays of madness. Three votes sufficed, and thus time to go home. Unfettered by the mayor, the Don Constanzo Scarpa stepped out onto the stage. Despite his lame leg, he moved forward with power and grace. Still, he moved slowly, meaning the two men met front and center. The Don gently but firmly prodded de la Roche with his cane, indicating he should step back and remain silent. Cesca del Rosso watched from the stands, smiling at his bluntness.

Her power was twisting, nudging, pulling, whispering. When the Don wanted something, he pointed his cane, and the world listened. How often she wished they could switch roles for a day. The Don was a master schemer, and she was a very impatient woman. Each of them wanted to enjoy the game the other played.  Thankfully, this mutual envy made them the best of partners. Lovers often took too much and too selfishly of each other, desperately seeking comfort and validation. She and the Don traded equally, each greedy but mature enough to share what they had.

De la Roche, for once, would not be defeated by the cane. He was babbling desperately about Clemency being for ‘one and all.’ What a handsome, stupid dud of a man. Restlessly, she dragged the sharpened nail of her right thumb across her left palm. A touch of pain, a splash of red, and – Cesca, you old crone, you really shouldn’t! she scolded herself. Not so publicly.

But the thought of subtlety and silence displeased her. Odette had come onstage with charm, Solomonia with power. Daniella came with an actual, bonafide monster. Why shouldn’t Cesca enjoy herself? She shrugged, smiled, and grabbed ahold of de la Roche’s string of Fate. Like a spider wrapping a fly in silk, she emotionally pulled him away from the stage. She sapped his fear and hope and indignation until the man’s heart was as empty as his pretty little head. Next, she pulled harder, summoning him back, back, back from the stage. Numb and barely able to control himself, de la Roche retreated.Any sorcerer worth a damn would see exactly what she’d done.

In de la Roche’s absence, The Don stepped forward to scheme on the spot. He hadn’t expected Odette’s little display, but adapted beautifully.

“Not a week ago, I shook hands with El Gato in this same space,” he said. “I thought peace had been achieved. I am ashamed – I am tarnished in the eyes of Theus himself! to have done so. To believe that our jolly, mischievous little cat burglar wasn’t strictly interested in charity, but also in murder? Unthinkable. But Odette’s honor is beyond reproach, and I trust her words as I would trust the words of my own children.”

The Don gave Odette a little bow, and then  gave the crowd the sincerest sigh of remorse. He even doffed his little brimless cap and wrung it in remorse.

“If the hanging of El Gato is the price of Clemency and Peace… allow me to be the first gentleman in this crowd to donate a length of rope.”

Last and certainly least, Makepeace Botwighte made his way to the center of the stage. He doubted anyone would let him speak, but it was worth the effort. He was angry, and he’d make himself heard. He’d made far too much coin, and laughed far too many laughs, to give up his partnership with El Gato to the whims and schemes of the well-to-do. Everyone else on stage stared at him with open confusion or hostility, and the crowd itself was half a minute away from turning into a mob. He spoke up regardless.

“Ladies and Gentlemen of Five Sails, hear me now!” he bellowed. He couldn’t match Yevgeni for height, but he had more than enough girth to support the biggest set of lungs in all the Seven Seas. The crowd didn’t actually go quiet at his shout. A handful of each District crowd shouted slurs or expletives at him, and a gaggle of foreign Montaignese demanded he answer for El Gato’s crimes. He ignored them.

“Our District meant to vote for Clemency, but clearly, none is forthcoming,” he said. “This vote has been reduced to a sham of false accusations. The men and women who have wronged the common man will stand up here, forgive each other, and attempt to skin my District Captain alive to appease you.”

Several goons from the City Guard began descending on the stage, and Makepeace resigned himself to spending the night in City Jail. No matter. He moonlighted as a bondsman and could bail himself out. He began removing his jewelry, casually tossing his rings offstage to Maya and Lorenzo. He waggled a finger at them, so they would flee instead of intervening.

“With a name like Makepeace, it should be obvious what I want,” he continued. “And why El Gato sent me here in their stead. I’m glad they did. You’ll never catch them, you morons. Theus damn the lot of you, so that your souls may never see the light of heaven.”

Behind him, Yevgeni laughed and Odette gasped in indignation. A pair of guardswomen grabbed his arms to shackle his wrists behind his back. He did not resist, and simply kept on talking.

“May your wine rot to piss and vinegar! May your shoes overflow with scorpions! May your coin purses cough up nothing but wet lint and foul wind!”

Someone placed a bag over his head, and he pitied them. That wouldn’t be enough to render him quiet. He managed one final rallying cry before he was forced to his knees and clubbed into silence.

“Castille and her cats will not submit! We will not pray for the mercy of hounds!”