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The Tides in Temphis
by Aaron Harris

Business as usual in Shadowport doesn't meet the standard connotations of 'Usual Business', but life goes on. Well, for most of the residents anyway.

In a half secluded alcove set middle way along an elegant hall sat two gentleman opposite each other across the top of a table. To their right, the carefully molded panes of glass allowed the window to let in a satisfying light while preserving the privacy of the occupants. Between them sat the all too common geometry of a common playing board; a grid of eight by eight with alternating squares of white and black. The pieces that were strewn across their battleground were as easily recognizable; masters, pawns, and officers in a pattern most likely born from a Draume array.

Like the board and pieces the men themselves seemed of a set. Not to say that they were twinned, just that they gave off a covey feeling; of a feather. Men due respect, but no excess observation.

“So, Bastion,” said the one to the other as his fingers took a dark Master and moved it two squares to the right, “Have you heard that there is to be a concert in the evening?”

The wrinkles upon his opponent's nose grew more pronounced as he scrutinized the change in layout. “I had not, Hadrian. Is it something that would give me pause to chastise my staff for neglecting their duties?”

“Oh dear no, my fellow. I think it scarcely qualifies as music myself. I am given to understand it to be more a matter of gyrations and undulations than those fine tones put forth by the muses to delight men's souls.”

A white officer was seen to shift a pace, moving towards the enemy line as light's turn to move had come. “Oh, that sort of thing. What moved you to bring it up?”

Hadrian's fingers tugged along his well kept beard, “Just an idle thought to fill the time I suppose.”

The two played on together in just this way, idle thoughts and studied moves filling up the space around them until the game adjourned with, as usual, no victor. In just the same way, however, was their board position recorded and taken to the back by the headman. As he turned to file the recording a young courier mumbled, “Just pitch it. They never resume a game even though they always record them.”

With a firm voice containing just a hint of judgment in it the head man declared, “That is not the standard to which we aspire at this club and you would do well to remember it. While you are at it remember that simply because you have never seen a resumption does not mean that one has never happened.”

*****

Across a few miles and a few hours in the same town the ambiance was different. A lower, rowdier class of customers filled a place of a character as seedy as their own. Dents, nicks, and splinters decorated the wood trim while the booze flowed and the seething mass of greater 'humanity' rubbed elbows. Behind the bar the tender, Ripper, went about his business with the lithe muscularity of a rapier. His handlebar mustache twisted out and up in his best Snidely Whiplash and his glossy teeth glinted sharply.

He was accompanied in his nightly calling by a staff as broadly complected as his clientele from the Minotaur doorman Sarpedon to the star of the wait staff, the sinfully curved Lilith. Both of whom were hard at work.

“I've got a brother who's a Pirate,” Sarpedon's gruff voice could be heard across the bar delivering his trademarked warning. “He's always looking for new crew and I'm always looking to earn a few coins from finding him some. So, you looking to be new crew?”

A woman spinning a sultry pirouette was heard to say, “Looking's free, boys, but there's a tithe for samples and my prices are set in something other than coin.”

“You tell 'em, Lilith,” called out the Ripper from behind the bar. “I run an honest place here. A man's got to pay what he owes, but he's got to have the chance to know he can't afford it.”

This exchange too was just part of the ambiance and sent a ripple of humor through the regulars. Though the regulars weren't of a dainty sort, they'd seen Lilith's morning leavings before and knew that steep didn't begin to describe her rates.

Shadowport was no place for the timid, and this bar paid all of its taxes (legitimate and non) and that left them open for business. So when the door pushed open and a broad-waisted, big coated fellow with a face like old gristle, came in there was little special note. A couple of chins lifted, a toast or two rose, a hand wagged, but no voice was raised. This was also that sort of place.

His drink and a second arrived at his already occupied table in perfect four-four time. It was thoughtfully delivered by a less eye-catching hostess than the bar's patron eye candy, earning her a few coins that scarcely caught a beam of light before disappearing down her blouse, and the Ripper the mirrored gesture of an index finger brush across the nose.

“Nothing too strong for you tonight, Scarlet, or so I hope.” The mellow voice of the man rumbled up from deep within his barrel chest; a resounding tenor.

The lean man whose teal and aquamarine garb belied the rather garish nickname shook his head once before letting out a good natured laugh. “More butter than rum, this one, Cavet. I like to be careful on school nights.” His pointed fingers gripping his mug in a light hold revealed a bit of the callouses across his palm.

“Good choice. Twilight's left this one for you. Straight from the GLB. Don't care if you play around with it, but by the end of the night it's done, gone, and ne'er the well for to see it again.”

Scarlet's handsome features seemed to shred for the flicker of an instant and his smile became a razor. “Oh, I have been living right. Thank you, Cavet, I've been feeling the itch and this is a perfect time to scratch it.”

A workman's mitt plopped with worn familiarity upon an Adonian shoulder. “Don't thank me, it's all just business. Enjoy your work and keep this tale to yourself.”

Two mugs were lifted, two drinks were drunk, and a meaningless conversation continued for a time until both men melted back into the merrymakers around leaving empty glasses and an empty table.

*****

Late that night three men bundled in heavy woolens walked down a dark street in the bowery. The lights along the way were sparse, and the alleys they passed gave off a variety of sounds. Some were carnal, some were combative, and some were a venal mixture of the two. This was not the type of neighborhood where people talked.

At a casual glance they fit the place. They were dark men in dark clothes on dark streets. In the lead the thinnest walked with an authoritative step, any hints of other hues in his garb muffled deeply by the twin coatings of night time and over garments. Behind him strode two uprooted trees who seemed as likely to plow the road as walk it. Burly men, leather and grizzle writing of indelible pasts only those equally experienced would have a taste for. After several turnings they came to a stop before a particular hovel and the leader's knuckles gave a light rat-a-tat-tat upon the door in a triple cadence.

The curtain on the window brushed back revealing an eye and a flash of light from inside. Then the door cracked and a voice said in urgency, “Come in, quickly.”

One of the men in the back growled in response. “Don't order me around, butt-kisser. Around here no one cares about your business anyway.”

Taken aback, the voice betrayed its fear. “I'm sorry, but please. This is dangerous for me.” A hand too effeminately cared for for this location came out through the crack to wave them in. But it was the single nod from the leader that put an end to the squabble.

As the three entered, they had cause to look around while their host busied himself with such security as the place could provide. In truth there wasn't much to see; a grey and rickety table, battered chairs, and walls just a couple years short of rotting. There was nothing of any value if you discounted the courier's uniform on the wall; white shirt, carefully tended, embroidered jacket and equally tasteful pants. The clothes themselves were worth more than a year's rent for the place they hung in.

“Gentlemen,” the host's voice came out dripping with pride and confidence, “Thank you for coming. I've brought not only the goods, but the possibility of a bonus which I know that refined patronss like you would appreciate.”

One hand from the leader cut off any excess chatter and the previously silent bit of muscle spoke up. “What crap are you spouting?”

Their host's pleasant features failed to avoid the stain of ugliness from his too obsequious smile as he pulled open a door to display a roughed up, but otherwise attractive young girl bound, unconscious, and shoved in the closet. “She found out what I was up to and did not wish to be a co-conspirator. Very pretty, I would have liked to play around with her, but I will settle for the cash equivalent if any of you are interested? If not I think I can find another buyer. There's always a market for flesh.”

“Shut the door.” The leader spoke up, boredom obvious in his posture. “Do you have the materials or are you wasting my time?” The query brought up the spectres of other types of waste such as patience and life.

“No!” The door slammed shut abruptly and the man scrambled to a chest. He quickly opened the top and brought out a file of velum documents. “I've got it all right here. See! I did it, just like I said. It's good stuff, too.” In a rush he dumped the papers on the table where the lamplight allowed them to be read.

Silence reigned as pointed fingers reached out to leaf through the items that had been brought forth.

The moments ticked as the knees of their host strained terribly not to knock, but the moment was brought to ease by the sound of a pouch pregnant with coins hitting the table. “That is enough for all of the merchandise. I will take the lot.”

“Yes, yes,” the man's eyes didn't rise from the bounty before him. “Of course! A pleasure doing business with you.”

“Take the the things, Knick,” the instructions were given to one of the men and the sounds of papers and a body being retrieved were clear. Movement came in steady order, but was missed by the man who'd been hypnotized by the pile of coins before him. The sound of the door closing was many minutes removed before he tore his attention away and looked up.

Standing before the door were two of the men. The thin one, in front, looked back and stifled the question born in his thoughts with two sentences. “You are early. I will be with you in a moment.”

Undaunted, the second of the large men from before looked to the speaker. “What do we do with the girl, Scarlet?”

“Take her home, Knack, and be careful about it. It's a rough neighborhood.”

A hand the size of a ham hock gestured to their stone faced witness. “What about him?”

“Didn't you hear him, Knack? There's always a market for flesh in this town. Take him to the Gardener when I'm done. For now, though, step outside. I don't feel like having an audience this time.”

“Sc-Scarlet?” A dawning dread accompanied the stutter as the one called Knack exited physically, but left a clear sign of his imposition just outside the door.

Two arms spread out and cheap clothes were pushed back to reveal leathers stained in teals and aquamarines. Each hand now held three blades like scalpels captured in the gaps between their fingers. “It's my name. I love to work in shades of Red.”

“N-N-No... I did it. I got the intel from those dumb old men. I'd made the money to get out...”

“Yes, and I must thank you. I haven't had the chance to indulge this urge in so long. Now, thanks to you, I get to release that pent up side of myself...”

The screams that penetrated the walls of the shack were as quickly forgotten as the other sounds of the night. It was that kind of neighborhood.

*****

“Mister Staunton?” A quiet voice called out to the club's head man as he was going about his preparations for the afternoon's members.

“Yes, my dear? How can I help you?” The man addressed replied with avuncular consideration.

“Mister Staunton, that courier Chase did not show up this morning. What should we do?”

“We expect punctuality my dear, we are a very old and well-regarded establishment. If Chase is unable to manage his obligations then he will simply have to be replaced. I will have a notice crafted. In the meantime tell the other couriers that they will have to make arrangements to cover the extra work.”

“Yes, Mister Staunton,” the young woman answered and quickly left for the back.

Left alone there were no ears to hear the next words from Mister Staunton, “That, young fool, is why one always records the game. There is no telling what fate has been written upon the board. Such are the Tides in Temphis.”

*****

In a half secluded alcove set middle way along an elegant hall sat two gentleman opposite each other across the top of a table. To their right, the carefully molded panes of glass allowed the window to let in a satisfying light while preserving the privacy of the occupants. Between them sat the all too common geometry of a common playing board; a grid of eight by eight with alternating squares of white and black. The pieces that were strewn across their battleground were as easily recognizable; masters, pawns, and officers in a pattern most likely born from a Draume array.

Like the board and pieces the men themselves seemed of a set. Not to say that they were twinned, just that they gave off a covey feeling; of a feather. Men due respect, but no excess observation.

“So, Bastion,” said the one to the other as his fingers took a light pawn and moved it to capture an adjacent officer, “Have you heard that there is to be a botanical viewing next week?” He concluded his move by adding an additional pawn just beyond the flank of his own forces

The wrinkles upon his opponent's nose grew more pronounced as he scrutinized the change in layout. “I had not, Hadrian. Is it something for which I should endeavor to find the time?”

“It might be, my dear fellow, it might be. Apparently the showing will be quite literally overflowing with exotic and even esoteric species. The botanist in question is said to be quite the magician to raise them all in our climate.”

A remaining white officer was lifted and moved to capture the life of the seedling pawn before it could sprout. “That sounds quite interesting. Would you care to coordinate schedules to attend together? It might provide a nice diversion.”

Hadrian's fingers tugged along his well kept beard, “That sounds splendid, Bastion, let's do that.”



Copyright 2015 by Aaron Harris. Appears here by permission.

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