Barsoom Tales I - COMPLETE

xrpsuzi

First Post
Barsoomcore-that was cruel....

But a great quote for posterity sake. I can see a coin minted for Elena, striding along with her sword with the immortal words "I'm spanking that bitch" engraved along the curve.

-suzi
*waiting for her fix....
 
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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
It's Good To Be Home

Rain drilled into the soggy plain. The clouds hung low and grey and still.

Elena stepped in front of her friends, brandishing a huge greatsword that towered far above her head. Her feet sought steady footing in the ankle-deep mud. Behind her, a steady fire of muskets and pistols kept a giant four-armed monstrosity at bay.

What looked like a six-year-old Kishak girl stomped towards her, dull hunger in her eyes. Elena tightened her grip and thought about a whole lot of dead people. She could see bodies strewn all over the meadow. At least a hundred people had died here, just in the last few seconds. Under the steady thunder of the rain she could hear voices calling out in agony, wounded, lying in muck and blood.

Something about this scene gave Elena inspiration. She watched the little girl plod steadily up the hill. Behind her Elena's friends gathered close, all silent as they watched this monster, this creature that had just devoured hundred before their eyes, approach.

Arrafin had recovered and clung to Aubrey, unable to keep her footing in the slick mud. The Pavairellean bravo kept an arm around her thin waist as his eyes flicked back and forth between the little girl and the huge monster off to the right, still staggering about in a blind rage, unable to approach their hilltop.

Nevid held the staff he'd retrieved from the caverns, its three feathers now soggy and draggling down. He saw Elena, her faith in the sword evident, and held the staff inexpertly in front of him, like a sailor pushing off from a wharf.

Philip helped Michel loading guns for Boyce and Nervaine, keeping one eye on the approaching girl and Elena standing before her, that ridiculously huge sword wavering in the rain.

Elena stood very still. There was no doubt in her mind that Mara would come to her. Their eyes met and the Saijadani woman shuddered at the emptiness there. She found herself trying to gauge distances and forced herself to stop. Instinct. Elena was no duelist. She'd had no more than a lesson or two with a sword. She wasn't Aubrey or Philip, she had no skill or talent for this. She had to go on instinct.

Instinct let her down. The little red-skinned child charged, moving in a blur, inside the arc of Elena's over-sized blade before it could fall. Elena felt teeth dig into her stomach and a small hand push her thigh up. Bone snapped and Elena screamed as she crashed to the ground, the horrid squealing of the vampire child as it swarmed up her body all around. Her arms flailed and she struggled desperately to keep the little girl at bay, both of them covered in mud.

The black sword spiralled up into the air and plunged down pointfirst to stab into the muck. Elena saw it hit and reached out for it, but the little girl on top of her sank her teeth into Elena's throat and the Saijadani woman felt hot blood spray across her reaching arm.

Aubrey saw the sword hit the ground and left Arrafin's side, sprinting forward to wrap both hands around the yard-long hilt. With a great heave he hauled the blade free and whirled it over his head. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Philip charging in to help, and with a quick memory of the cherry trees along Duelists' Street in his mind he chopped downwards with all his strength, hoping he wouldn't cut Elena in half at the same time.

He didn't.

Instead, Aubrey recoiled in shock as a snarling, blood-covered six-year-old lunged at his face. The sword flew from his hand as she grabbed his wrist and bit savagely. Aubrey yelled and staggered backward, flailing, trying desperately to rip her from his arm. Her strength was terrifying and Aubrey felt her powerful jaws close on his wrist. All he could think of was losing his hand and the horror of that bloody stump.

Philip turned to see Aubrey falling backwards, the little Kishak girl clamped to his arm. Arrafin had fallen to her knees and crawled towards Elena, rummaging frantically for something to stop the bleeding, crying so hard she could barely move. Nevid was nowhere to be seen. Elena kicked in the mud, cursing in pain, and smacked Arrafin when the Naridic girl came close. The hungry grunting of the little girl filled Philip with horror.

The sword lay in the mud nearby. Philip grabbed it up just as Aubrey managed to tear the little vampire thing loose from his wrist. With a guttural roar he hurled her up into the air. Philip flashed on games of stickball with the other caravan youths as he cranked that massive black blade around.

The girl's shriek as the blade caught her in mid-section was that of a frustrated child denied some trinket. A sickening gout of blood exploded as Philip cut her right in half. The momentum of the huge weapon made him stumble backwards, panting, eyes wide, looking everywhere for the wee monster.

She was gone. Philip let the tip of the sword drop to the ground and leaned on it.

"Hey, come back!"

Boyce yelled curses after the retreating monster. He and his two companions put down their guns and surveyed the battlefield.

"What a mess."

Philip growled. He was too tired to find words. He watched dully as Arrafin bandaged a calmer Elena and as Aubrey got to his feet, clutching his wrist and staring about himself. The great big white monster seemed to have lost interest as soon as the little girl disappeared.

The rain kept drilling down. The clouds still hung, low and dark and grey. They were alone, surrounded by bodies.

*****

Gupta got the stories in pieces, in confused cries and broken Imperial Kishak.

There'd been a disaster of some kind in Chimney, that much was clear. If what these Yshakans were saying was true, they were the only survivors of the mountain village. Monsters and little Kishak girls and whatnot. Gupta made sure the shutters were locked tight, and he and his son, Arup, loaded their Saijadani muskets and sat up in the great hall where the refugees slept, wet and frightened and hungry. His daughter kept the stove going, brewing soup for the new arrivals. Children cried, worn out and many of them missing their parents.

The pounding on the door startled him and he almost discharged his weapon into the ceiling. He and Arup exchanged glances and made their way to the oaken door.

"Yes?"

"Master Gupta, do you remember us? Caravan guards from the del Maraviez, we went up to Chimney a couple of weeks ago."

He did remember them. Not the usual caravan guards, this group. Not with that skinny girl and timid young man with them.

Gupta opened the door. It was still pouring outside, and water glittered on the broad-rimmed hat of the Saijadani standing there at the head of the group. Behind him, the rest of the group, battered, exhausted, bleeding, frightened, frustrated, and hungry. They stumbled into the welcome heat and dryness of the inn, crashed down at a table and stared at each other.

Boyce took out a gem-encrusted necklace and tossed it at Elena.

"Compliments of the King of Bayonne."

Blank looks replaced blank looks as everyone turned to the grinning scoundrel. He and his companions stood up and Boyce saluted, still grinning.

"We're off to deliver the rest of these goodies to our liege."

Philip's mouth dropped open.

"What did you think, I was just a thief?"

"Well, you are."

"True. But a thief with a cause. If you lot are ever in Bayonne, look me up. It's been fun."

The three Gap rogues strode out into the rain. Everyone stared.

Then jumped as a stick came out of nowhere and clouted Ilonka hard across the back of her head.

"Bad! Bad! Bad!"

Philip fended Atranztipac off as Aubrey checked to see Ilonka was not badly hurt. The Pavairellean woman glared at the Yshakan child for two seconds, then burst into tears. Uncertain, Atranztipac dropped the stick. Her belligerent expression softened and then she too began crying.

Elena looked over at the two dozen Yshakans huddled around the fireplace. She thought of the hundreds of people who had once lived in Chimney. Now bodies scattered across muddy fields. A hot bowl of soup appeared in front of her as Gupta's daughters served them. Her friends ate mechanically, unable to meet each other's eyes.

"There is a letter for you, my friends."

Gupta laid a sealed envelope on the table. The wax bore the crest of Isabella del Maraviez. Their boss. The woman who had sent them to Chimney to investigate the drop in silver production. Now she had some other task for them.

Nobody opened it.
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
That's the end of Dead In A Box, Part One of Barsoom Tales. Hope y'all enjoyed it -- leave a note if you did. Or if you didn't, but in that case, lie.

Next up is Bayonne Opera Blues. Wacky fun and more melodrama!
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Interlude: Current Events, Winter 1657

Amongst the massive sand dunes of the Eastern Naridic desert, the banths prowled. Titanic felines thirty feet high at the shoulder, their broad paws spread across the sand as they walked under the pink sky. On their backs perched wide platforms, each roofed in colourful silks and home to dozens of soldiers. No less than thirty of these colossal beasts travelled in a line, three abreast, keeping formation with unnatural precision. Behind them, thousands of soldiers marched, a massive army beyond anything the desert had seen before.

At the center of the platform atop the lead banth, protected by ring upon ring of fanatical bodyguards and swarming bureaucrats, sat the Khadisan. Sharina al-Sharina beni Howetait, grand-daughter of the legendary Sharina herself, liberator of the Narid and leader of the Banthriders. The Khadisan was blessed with foresight and the indomitable will to drive the hated Kishaks from their desert. Her army marched west, towards the great city of Al-Tizim, towards the final confrontation with the Tyrant's Shade and his mercenaries.

Eventually, even prophetic visions become old hat. The Khadisan swayed and her attendants, used to this by now, moved in practised synchronicity to steady her. Once her tremors had died away, Scribe sat ready, pen in hand, to record the holy words of his living saint.

"He's not very attractive."

Scribe frowned. He wrote it down, of course, but for a vision that seemed a little, well, pedestrian. Not full of the fire and fury he'd come to expect. He hurriedly bent to his task as she continued speaking.

"Dispatch two kithraks to the dar Than ruin. Harim and Aran. They should take an extra kithrak, for they will be meeting a man named Dominic. They are to take him to Mullaham dar Than and then to rejoin me here."

Scribe finished writing and passed the message through the curtain to one of the pages waiting just beyond. He waited for the Khadisan's next decree.

*****

A ruined castle perched high on a rocky precipice overlooking the Shaer Channel housed nameless, shrieking things. Things that lived in corners no mortals could perceive, but whose aura had sent all mortals fleeing from this place years ago. Only in whispers was Castle Dannockshire spoken of by those few who still remembered it was there. Black stone and dust filled the echoing hallways where storm winds howled. Strange lights danced in hollow windows and some nights, endless giggling danced from one empty chamber to the next. The castle was dark, cold, half-ruined and filled with spirits of a most disturbing nature.

"This is lovely! Kani, stand by that pillar for a second. Oh, yes, I think that red will do perfectly."

All haunting-like activity ceased when she appeared. Oh, sure, she came with a dozen or so others, some mortal, some not so much, but all the current inhabitants of Castle Dannockshire paid no attention to them. SHE was all they could see.

Madame Yuek Man Chong, formerly Countess of An Mei, formerly the Demon Goddess, emerged from faint wisps of shadowy darkness along with her varied attendants. She was fully six feet tall, not including the immense baroque architecture of black hair, gold bands and jade pins that towered above her alabaster face. A face that stopped every heart that beheld it. She was gorgeous and she was terrifying.

Madame Yuek had taken her beauty for granted for the past two and a half centuries. The residents of Castle Dannockshire had never seen anything like this towering image of bone-white skin, thick robes of embroidered silk and unearthly power. Sorcery practically oozed from her. Her massive, high-collared robes swayed and danced in a non-existant breeze like some sort of undersea creature, all tendrils and fronds. She smiled and inhuman hearts broke all over the castle.

"Hurry up, dear, don't make such a face. Won't this be lovely? Perfect!"

The most powerful sorceress in the world clapped her hands in girlish delight as one of her entourage, a surly Lohanese woman, took up a pouty stance next to an unsteady pillar. Her pout faded as Madame Yuek rushed up to her and took her hands, giddy to the point of irrationality.

"This will be so nice! What a wonderful spot. Kani, dear, you're so clever. We'll have such fun here."

She gestured imperiously to the rest of her group and a young girl, not more than fifteen, came forward and knelt at Madame Yuek's side. The tall woman looked down curiously for a second, and terrible hunger came to life behind her dark dark eyes. She descending, growling.

Kani looked away as blood spattered on the pillar. The girl never moved.

*****

Shadows whirled in a frenzy behind the fortress door. Out of the sudden darkness stepped a tall, black-skinned man with a massive curved blade in his hands. He moved forward quickly, light and quiet for such a big man.

Five Hinsuan men sat around the guardroom at their ease, feet on the rickety table as they chatted. One managed to get to his feet after the door burst open but even he took no more than a step before his body, cut into three pieces, fell to the floor. He was the last to die.

Laughter of Stones, 34th of the Scar'ith Tushan, moved on. Death came wherever he went. An alarm was sounded and he faced more alert foes. It did them no good, though the occasional blow did no good to him, either. By the time he reached his goal, he'd left behind most of his left arm and had two knives still buried in his chest. None of the wounds appeared to incommode him very much, and he did not bleed.

"Scar'ith Tushan. I have been awaiting you."

"You will still die, Keyad'ar. We have taken the oath. We are three hundred. We will hunt you down, each one of you."

"Let us see."

*****

Isabella del Maraviez fretted. Outside her cabin she could hear the constant grinding of timbers driven together by the wind and waves as their little cutter made its way around the headlands of Alquesta.

She fretted over what might be happening while she was so out of touch. One message a day from Kalibar was not enough to keep her feeling in touch with her myriad schemes. Without her army of couriers and messengers and spies and reports coming in hourly, Isabella felt lost.

The ship reeled over a wave and she nearly vomited. Again.

Isabella hated travelling. She heaped all sorts of obscenties on the head of her uncle, Marques, who had insisted she come to Pavairelle to master this caravan herself. She was happy for the chance to meet her latest agents, young Nevid and Elena and Philip and Aubrey, and of course for the chance to meet this Arrafin person face-to-face, but as the ship continued on its unsteady way she wondered if it was really worth it.

*****

Countess del Istanzic looked up from the letter she was reading to count sails. Counting sails had been a pastime of hers since her childhood, when she sat in the parlour waiting for Mother and Father to finish meeting with some merchant or captain.

Seventeen.

The waters beyond the sheltered harbour of Pavairelle were choppy as storm clouds threatened an unseasonal blow. The white triangles out there, most making for the Jewel City's protective breaks, rocked back and forth as the waves rolled underneath their hulls.

The Countess dropped the letter on to the polished surface of her desk. She pondered the wisdom of getting caught up in mainland politics (Pavairelleans always referred to the rest of Barsoom as "The Mainland", even though Pavairelle had ceased to be an island more than two centuries ago) and decided that this time, the potential rewards outweighed the possible risk. The attack on the del Maraviez vessel had gone off without a hitch and the guns were now on their way to Pavairelle. Which, of course, they had been originally, only now they were in her vessel. Fernandez del Orofin would be pleased -- any chance to black the del Maraviez eye put a smile on Fernandez' face.

She opened a drawer in the side of her desk and took out a clean sheet of white paper. As she dipped her pen into the inkwell she stared out at the sea.

Seventeen.

The Countess knew she was risking her entire fortune, her reputation, even her life on this gamble. The del Maraviez family were not to be crossed, nor was King de Beliard of Bayonne to be trifled with, for all his foolishness. She suppressed a thrill of excitement and told herself this was just business. A smart business deal.

Somewhere out there a ship was making its way towards Pavairelle with a cargo of muskets that once belonged to the del Maraviez, now secured on board her vessel, now for her to sell to de Beliard's mutinous mercenaries. She grinned.

Eighteen.
 
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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Bayonne Opera Blues -- Part One -- A Book By Its Cover

Elena concealed her amusement at the sight of Arrafin's wide eyes turning into massive circles of surprise as the girls descended on her, giggling.

The Naridic scholar made a few, mild protests, but was entirely too shocked by the sudden attention to do anything but make querulous comments about was this really necessary and would anybody really notice and wasn't it awfully hot in here all of sudden? The wagon rocked its way along the unpaved road, setting curtains swaying, but Nitara's girls, eager to turn the shy Arrafin into a glamourous dancer like themselves, had no problem applying fine lines of kohl, rouge and other substances to their new friend's face. Elena couldn't even see Arrafin anymore; the girl had entirely disappeared behind the silks and long black hair of the Hinsuan women now attending her.

The Saijadani woman looked around, wishing she was outside, helping Isaac with the big parasaurs hauling the wagons down the riverside road to Bayonne, home of the King Percival de Beliard. King of the Gap.

My friends, Isabella's letter had read, I have learned of a secret agreement now being brokered between de Beliard and the del Orofin Familia. The del Orofins have promised to support de Beliard's efforts to subjugate the rest of the Barons if he will grant them rights to collect any and all tariffs and tolls throughout the Gap. We must oppose this not only because of the economic implications, but because we believe a strong Gap is one governed by independent Barons, not a single despot. A civil war now will fatally weaken the Gap, and that will expose Burnoll and all of Saijadan to Kishak expansion, which we fear will fall our way soon.

What the del Orofins are doing is in direct contravention of the Customs Act, and if we can acquire evidence it could not only preserve the strength of the Gap, it would be a great blow against the del Orofins themselves.

Go to Bayonne, acquire the agreement, and find your way down the Bayonne River to the sea. Our agents will meet you there.

My thanks, as always.

Isabella del Maraviez


Elena sighed. She didn't have any great loyalty to the del Maraviez. She'd never even met Isabella. Nevid and Isaac jumped to this woman's every request, sure enough, but infighting between Las Familias held no interest for her.

The idea of a Kishak invasion, however, gave her pause. She'd been born years after the Battle of Fort Burnoll, of course, but her parents had both fought Kishak armies, and their stories of the ferocity of the red-skinned devils of Kish had kept her awake many late nights as a child, either terrified that in the shadows lurked some agent of the insidious Nevakada, the Kishak secret service, or daydreaming that a Kishak army would come over the ridge and she would have to organize the defence of the villa, heroine of the day.

Arrafin squawked as evidently Bel or Jesara pinched a little too hard while curling eyelashes. Elena chuckled, but her laughter died off as the dancers stepped back to show off their handiwork.

"Arrafin?"

The transformation in the young girl was remarkable. She'd gone from unkempt, unpolished and frantic to coiffed, pristine and gleaming. Her usual grubby robes replaced with a fine silk gown and her hair drawn back, she fit right in with Nitara's troupe. Elena grinned, then scowled as the dancers turned to her, makeup at the ready.

"No, I don't need anything..."

Bel, the sauciest of the troupe, smirked.

"You don't want anyone recognizing you, now do you?"

This time, it was Arrafin who watched in bemusement as four slender Hinsuan girls transformed a scowling Elena from Saijadani ranch hand into beautiful Hinsuan dancer.

Isaac and Nevid looked at each as laughter exploded yet again from within the wagon they were driving. Up ahead they could see the lights of the border fort shining in the dusk shadows. Their parasaurs bellowed, calling out to the beasts already tethered outside the fort's hostel, and soon the twilight air reverberated with the drawn-out croaks and roars of the animals as they greeted one another.

The presence of other draft animals reassured Isaac. At least they wouldn't be the only travellers on the road, rumours of war notwithstanding. This would be the first test of their anonymity -- if the Bayonne soldiers were looking for them, here was where the journey would end.

Unless the disguises that Nitara had promised were as effective as Isaac was sure they wouldn't be. Until the wagon door opened and six beautiful Hinsuan girls stepped into the flagstone courtyard, stopping dead in his tracks the young ostler come to lead the parasaurs to the cavernous stables. Isaac, expecting to see such a gaggle appear at their day's journey's end, didn't look twice.

Something in the voices made him look back, however, and that's when Isaac's eyes fell out of his head and landed on the mucky flagstones at his feet.

At least, that's how it felt.

"Elena?" His voice was little more than a squeak. He stood rigid for just a second, then realised that Arrafin as well was among that group. Both of his companions suddenly radiant in flowing, if not especially modest, gowns, hair piled high and gleaming, faces perfectly polished and eyes unbearably bright beneath lines of kohl and dark lashes.

Isaac fled. The parasaurs needed looking after, and the wagons ought to be checked and...

Nevid stood by the other wagon. He helped the elderly Kalibar down from his seat, the thin Hinsuan man smiling his thanks. Nevid swallowed as Kalibar's companion, Nitara descended, offering her his hand. She smiled graciously, her dark eyes sparkling with amusement at the giggling of her troupe. The dance mistress stood taller than Nevid, dark-skinned and lovely enough to stand out even amongst the beauties that formed her dance company. She allowed the Saijadani youth to accompany her to the rest of the group and they entered the hostel together.

*****

Isaac had not before considered the advantages of attractive women when attempting to travel under assumed identities. The fort commander barely even remembered to ask their names before planting himself next to the newly-made-up Arrafin and paying her more compliments than she'd received in all her years at the University.

Arrafin, for her own part, although she certainly was aware of the make-up (her face felt all stiff and she kept wanting to rub at her lips), was entirely ignorant of the effect she was having and proceeded to ply the commander with all sorts of questions about the history of the fort, the Barony of Bayonne, the rise of King Percival and every other detail that caught her attention. Which, predictably enough, had the effect of only increasing her charm in the eyes of the dashing commander, who came to the conclusion that he was succeeding very well indeed with his exotic lovely.

Elena ignored the other garrison members, and one particularly insistent Bayonne merchant who claimed to possess the perfect fragrance for one of her complexion, and found herself next to the elderly Kalibar. He smiled paternally, his eyes studying her with an intent quite different than that of the merchant.

She noticed the fine tracery of what looked like tattoos all around his throat, descending down beneath his collar. The lines were impossibly thin and perfectly formed, as if somebody had draped his skin with black thread, woven together in a loose arabesque. Kalibar saw her studying him and smiled again. Elena blinked.

"How long have you known Nitara?"

"There are two paths. The path of the child and the path of the mother. I have walked the path of the child, but you, Elena, you walk the path of the mother."

Elena blinked again.

"Is one of us confused?"

Kalibar only smiled.

*****

To Elena's disappointment, Kalibar refused to become any more communicative. To her further disappointment, the evening remained civilized and quiet. She half-expected to find herself and her friends arrested in the morning, their disguises seen through and their mission a failure.

But nobody troubled them as they organized the wagons and set out down the road to Bayonne, where the King and the del Orofin family were cooking up plans that Elena didn't much care about.
 


Avarice

First Post
Barsoomcore lives?! Ah, it's good to have the old story hour back, though I may have to do some serious re-reading to get back up to speed. Not that that's a bad thing, mind... :p
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Avarice said:
Barsoomcore lives?! Ah, it's good to have the old story hour back, though I may have to do some serious re-reading to get back up to speed. Not that that's a bad thing, mind... :p
The complete Dead In A Box tale is available... um... wherever Morrus keeps the Story Hour uploads...
 

Mathew_Freeman

First Post
Barsoomcore! I made it! After all this time, I finally read your story hour.

And verily, it doth rock muchly. :D

Keep up the good work, mate. I'm really enjoying this!
 

xrpsuzi

First Post
And the saga begins again.... True to your word-dancing girls!
To get the compete Dead in a Box, just go to the sticky post at the top of the story hour boards (the one called new method) and it has Barsoomcore listed as one of the favorites.

Incidentally, I know how the girls feel. When I was 16 my mom insisted that we go for mother/daughter glamour shots together..... I couldn't feel my real skin underneath the makeup and let's just say it was the only time I could have sported a Dallas Cheeleader uniform without my father's disapproval.

-suzi
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
suzi yee said:
And the saga begins again.... True to your word-dancing girls!
To get the compete Dead in a Box, just go to the sticky post at the top of the story hour boards (the one called new method) and it has Barsoomcore listed as one of the favorites.

Incidentally, I know how the girls feel. When I was 16 my mom insisted that we go for mother/daughter glamour shots together..... I couldn't feel my real skin underneath the makeup and let's just say it was the only time I could have sported a Dallas Cheeleader uniform without my father's disapproval.

-suzi
...

...

*absolutely refuses to comment on fathers approving of daughters dressing as Dallas cheerleaders*

...

:D
 
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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Bayonne Opera Blues -- Part Two -- Too Many Cooks

The deep basso moaning of the parasaurs had become a constant in Philip's life. He looked to his right, upstream, at the unruffled surface of the Bayonne river rushing towards him. Autumn sunlight dappled off ripples and played at blinding him as the water swept under the bridge and out the other side, swinging in a wide curve around the wall of the city.

Bayonne. Home of Percival de Beliard, mercenary captain and former Marshal now calling himself King. And apparently in cahoots with the del Orofin Familia of Saijadan. The family Philip had sworn to destroy.

He slapped the reins and clucked to the big dinosaurs as the wagons ahead moved forward. Guards were checking every wagon, and traffic had backed up on the bridge. With a quick look around, Philip raised a hand a slipped the eyepatch off his face, revealing two perfectly normal brown eyes. He grimaced and hoped none of his companions would come out. Awkward questions he preferred to avoid.

There was probably a del Orofin in the city right now. Maybe even somebody important. Philip knew next to nothing about the organization of the Familia, only that they had orchestrated the destruction of everything he had ever loved. Just thinking about them, laden with power and wealth, pulling at their strings and crushing innocent people, made him angry enough to scowl.

His scowl deepened as he thought of his last run-in with the del Orofins. That sneaky, deceitful cow Collette de Maynard back in Fort Burnoll, who'd manipulated him into a duel and then arranged for his arrest. She'd made fools of them all. He scowled still more blackly.

A young fruit seller going past caught the edge of Philip's scowl and decided not to approach the burly Saijadani. He hurried to the wagons behind, calling up to the drovers and displaying skewer of melon slices.

*****

Elena could make out the voice of a fruit seller calling from outside the wagon. Her throat tightened, dry and tired from the stuffiness inside the portable stage/dressing room they all sat in, crammed together, the dancers still giggling over Arrafin and Elena's transformations.

One of the girls had attached herself to Arrafin's side and plied the university student with questions about life at school and classes and books. Questions that came right back to her, as Arrafin seemed as fascinated with the rootless life of an itinerant performer as said performer seemed about the sheltered life of a university student.

"I can read."

The dancer's name was Bel. She raised her delicate chin slightly as she announced her skill, obviously proud but also intimidated by the great intellect sitting next to her.

The great intellect widened her eyes and shook her fluffy halo of unruly curls.

"Wow. I mean, that's great. I guess... Great. You can read. Me too."

Arrafin smiled.

Elena stifled a chuckle, then sighed as she shifted position yet again, bumping against Hinsuan legs to all sides of her. Costumes hung amongst them, swaying with every motion of the wagon. Outside, parasaur bellows sounded like slow-motion waves crashing against some distant shore.

"You walk the path of the mother."

Since last night, Elena had pondered these words of Kalibar's. She hadn't had a chance to talk to the old fellow yet, and curiousity consumed her. She thought back to her home, to that bizarre, horrible day when everything changed.

The road was just as she remembered. Elena strode easily along the elderly cobblestones, following the curve around the trike paddock. The big horned creatures called out to one another, croaking rumbling cries that echoed each other with oddly comforting repetition. She grinned, repressing both excitement and concern. Surely Daniel would know that she would return in time? He would understand that she'd just needed some time to herself, to think about things apart from their families.

He'd be waiting for her.

She grinned again. He'd better be.

Daniel's family had situated the villa near the same creek that wound through the de los Santos farm. Willows overhung the banks, trailing green fingers in the murky, slow-moving water. The villa, Elena could see as she came down the birch-lined road, had been festooned with banners. With a frown, Elena counted sigils of at least four of Las Familias, indicating their official blessing on today's event.

Elena quickened her pace. Normally such displays were reserved for important occasions, like funerals or weddings. But there wouldn't be a wedding here. Not today.

She was running as she came around the courtyard gate but stopped dead at the sight there.

Daniel looked tremendously handsome. The formal suit, black and red and silver, fit him perfectly and with his hair coiffed like that he was a far cry from the grubby boy Elena had known all her life. She smiled in spite of herself at the sight. Her wedding day.

It was what stood next to him that froze Elena's smile in place, that sent her reeling back from the scene before anyone noticed her.

It WAS her wedding day. There she was. Standing up next to Daniel.

Elena shook her head violently, trying to tell herself this was a dream.

It wasn't. Elena stared at the other woman. Herself. Certainly her. The faint scar across her left cheek. The stance, the hair. Even painted and done up and wearing the dress her mother had made, it was her. Standing there.

Elena's heaving cries did not disturb the willows at all as she ran. The dinosaurs in the paddock never stopped their braying as she passed, back out along the old road, into confusion and darkness.

She could never go home again. They'd replaced her.


Elena returned to her present situation as the wagon started forward with a jolt, startling her out her near-drowse. She scowled and rubbed moodily at the rouge on her lips, causing one of the girls to squawk in alarm and descend on her, brush at the ready.

*****

Nevid clutched at the reins and tried to look like he knew what he was doing as the big dinosaurs began plodding forward. Philip had assured him that the second wagon's beasts would just follow the first wagon's, and to his great relief, that seemed to be true. He held the reins limply, trying not to stare around him too much.

The Gap was vastly different from Saijadan. Nevid felt a very long way from home. The great cities of Saijadan -- Cadencia, Mataleo, Burnoll -- were home to well-dressed, swaggering bravos with keen wits and keener rapiers. Countless factions schemed and brewed plots in the baroque architecture or among sunny gardens. Bayonne seemed like a muddy border town by comparision, where the warriors carried massive battle blades and wore half-finished furs over great swathes of plate metal. It seemed like he had gone backward in time to some savage epoch of ancient tales.

The bridge was packed with wagons, dinosaurs, soldiers, merchants, beggars, a furious whirlwind of sound roiling all about the young man. He looked forward at the gate, a purely functional structure of rough granite, towering above all the traffic like some patient monster lying still as food poured willingly down its throat.

Nevid shook his head. This was still Family business, and Family business was what he was trained to handle. Somewhere in this city some scheming del Orofin minions were trying to pull off an international tax scam at the expense of the people of the Gap and Saijadan, and at the risk of destabilizing this whole area, making it vulnerable to Kishak armies. Contracts, negotiations and legal obfuscation. Nevid grinned.

This was his idea of adventure.
 
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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Bayonne Opera Blues -- Part Three -- Life, Lemons, Lemonade

The guard looked up at the brawny fellow sitting on the wagon board, floppy hat shading his features from the weak autumn sun.

"Where you from?"

Philip shifted in his seat and tried to look casual.

"Down from Highpass. Dancers, they're performing at the River Inn."

"You been in Bayonne before?"

"Sure."

"Stick the foreigners' section, Saijadani. Don't cause us any trouble. Move along."

Philip yanked at the reins and swore under his breath as the parasaurs heaved forward, hauling the big covered wagons in their wake.

Elena stuck her head up from within the wagon. Philip quickly tugged the eyepatch down over his right eye, turned to look, registered the heavily-made-up face of his friend, and tried not to grin.

He failed. Elena scowled. She crawled out from under the canvas cover, sat next to her companion and spent some time studying their new home.

The streets of Bayonne seethed with a disorderly blur of pedestrians, handcarts, dinosaurs and market stalls. Elena had her usual response to a Gap city -- at first she thought there must be an impending battle, then she recalled that people here always went around dressed in archaic armour and sporting massive swords. The glint of steel plate made the sea of people look like an ocean view, sparkling in the sunshine. Isaac tugged on the reins and guided the parasaurs to the left, past rows of empty pens and away from the high towers near the palace.

The palace. Elena didn't know much about this city but she could certainly distinguish the palace. Far and away the largest structure in the city, it hulked at the far end of the main street like a marble gladiator trying to intimidate all around it. She thought about trying to break into that place and decided she didn't want to.

"Del Maraviez aren't paying us enough for this."

Philip grunted.

"How are we supposed to find this document? And what's to stop them from just writing another? This is stupid."

Philip added a shrug to his grunt. Elena smacked his shoulder and grinned, the rare expression transforming her face.

"You know, you should let somebody else talk for a while. Blab, blab, blab."

They sat in silence, comfortably side-by-side, for the rest of the short ride to the River Home.

*****

As the wagons rolled to a stop, Arrafin was suddenly buffetted by a rush of Hinsuan dancers surging past her out into the fresh air. She spluttered and grabbed at her notes, papers billowing in the air. Nevid caught a few as they whirled out into the inn yard, and handed them back to Arrafin with a stiff smile.

"Thanks, Nevid. I am SO glad that's -- "

She broke off as the young Saijadani turned and walked away from her. The grin on her face held its position as if frozen for a few seconds then faded into confusion. She turned to find Bel, the dancer who'd been talking with her earlier, holding a few more sheets of paper. Putting Nevid's strange behaviour from her mind, Arrafin set about trying to organize her notes all over again, chatting with Bel as the two young women made their way toward the inn door.

*****

The arrival of Nitara's troupe always heralded a busy night in the River Inn, as travelling merchants up from Pavairelle or down from Burnoll, Saijadani mercenaries looking to sign up with the King, Yshakan tradesmen in their buckskins and a few Kishaks here and there, red faces hellish in the lamplight, crowded into the common room, jostling for seats near the front.

The gallery around the room was crowded also, as spectators leaned on the railings and watched the curtain across the stage sway.

Nitara's troupe was well-known for the beauty and grace of its members. Nitara herself had retired from dancing years ago, and sat at the side of the stage waiting for her girls to emerge. Next to her sat her constant companion, the elderly Hinsuan man Kalibar. He, too, watched the stage, oblivious to Elena's stare.

Elena, face scrubbed clean, sat with Arrafin and Philip and Nevid at a trestle table on the main floor, squashed next to a chubby woman who drank her beer with noisy satisfaction. The Saijadani woman kept only half an ear on her friends' conversation as she studied the old man by the stage.

"The path of the mother. The path of the child."

Nevid sat with his back to the stage, watching the crowd.

Philip nudged him.

"Any idea who this contact of ours is supposed to be?"

"No. But I sure hope it isn't Boyce."

"Boyce? That thief we met in Chimney? Nevid, he works for the King, he's not going to help us ruin the King's plans. We're trying to pull the rug out on the King's finances, Boyce is going to kill us if he finds out."

"Then you'd better shut up, because he's coming over to our table."

Elena turned at that, twisted to follow Nevid's gaze, and hurriedly smoothed back her dark hair, brushed at the beer stain on her jerkin and then completely failed to look nonchalant.

Arrafin looked up in delighted surprise as the handsome Gap rogue joined their table.

"Boyce! How are you?"

"Look at you lot! You finally decided to come to the greatest city in all Barsoom, did you?" Boyce grinned and winked down at Arrafin, who immediately blushed. He thumped Philip on the shoulder. "Good to see you, di Guzma. Shove over there and let me sit next to your lovely friend."

Elena smiled politely as Boyce squeezed in between her and Philip.

There was an uncomfortable couple of seconds as nobody spoke. Boyce smiled around at everyone, waiting for some response.

Nevid kept watching the crowd. Philip swirled the beer in his mug and stared at the bubbles. Elena pursed her lips and continued to watch Kalibar, who was doing nothing.

Arrafin smiled brightly.

"You're not here for some sort of secret meeting with enemies of the King, are you?"

Everyone else at the table suddenly seemed struck with respiratory problems as Boyce turned to the thin Naridic girl, a confused expression on his chiseled face.

"What?"

Arrafin's sudden laugh was tinged with hysteria.

"Joke. Ha. Ha. Ooh, look, dancing girls."

She slumped as the men all turned in unison to watch the curtain pull back and lithe young brown-skinned girls leapt onto the stage to roar of general approval.

They really were very good. Arrafin nodded, impressed, as the dancers went through their show. Bel had explained to her how the dances were really stories, like epic plays, and she'd written copious notes as the Hinsuan girl had recited one long, involved tale of familial betrayal and revenge after another. It was hard to pick them out under their elaborate costumes, but Arrafin recognized Bel's lanky stance in the gold-faced swordsman just then twirling about in frantic pirouettes.

Conversation halted as the performance went on, most of the men (and many of the women) in the audience struck silent as if intensely concentrating. When the clashing, herky-jerky music stopped and the girls bowed, there was a second of silence and then a sudden rush of applause.

Boyce leaned back and eyed his friends.

"Now what are you lot up to in the glorious metropolis of Bayonne? Surely you didn't come all this way just to see me?"

He grinned at Elena.

"Or did you?"

Elena rolled her eyes.

"No, Boyce, we're just working with Nitara for a while. A way to travel around a bit, is all."

Boyce studied the others, serious for just a moment. He grinned and leaned forward on the table.

"Well, here you are now, in my very own home town. Drinks are on me, and I won't take "No" for an answer."
 
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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Bayonne Opera Blues -- Part Four -- Raining and Pouring

Elena spoke first. Her face showed not a trace of humour or friendliness.

"If some no-good Gap pretty-boy thinks he can outdrink a good Saijadani girl, he's in for some serious learning."

Boyce's eyes opened wide and he started frantically signalling for the serving boy to veer past their table.

"Why don't you fill us in on what's going on here, Boyce?"

Isaac drained his own glass and thumped it down on the table with a grin. A jug appeared and refilling took place in a messy sort of way. Boyce looked the group over with his trademark smirk in place.

"Okay, so you know the King has been bringing in mercenaries. No secret. Those goodies we, uh, rescued from Chimney?"

"Stole," muttered Arrafin.

"Rescued, my dear. Anyway, those valuables went to the King -- so he could pay those sword-slingers. You know he's hired the Dark Talon Company, right? Crazy Shaer bastards, no question. Crazier than us, some of them. But they don't come cheap. Nope.

"So I've been in charge of whatyoucallit, fund-raising."

"Fund-raising."

Nevid frowned.

"Why you? No offence, Boyce, but why did the King choose you?"

Boyce's smirk grew and he actually blushed. Which caused Elena to actually smile. The chain reaction was not lost on Arrafin.

"Well that's a long story, my friend, and I'll tell you everything in great detail after I've retired."

"Retired."

"I know, I know, I look young and healthy and handsome and in the prime of my life and my hair's still beautiful and my face is unlined and I don't know how you can stand to be around me I'm so good-looking, but it is true that time eats away at us all and -- "

Elena cut him off just as he was building up a good rhythm.

"Whatever. You're stealing money so the King can pay his mercenaries so he can conquer the rest of the Gap."

Boyce grimaced.

"You make stealing sound so... illegal."

Nevid had not taken his eyes off Boyce since his original question, and he did not do so now as he spoke.

"So you know the King, then?"

"Sure! Course I know him. We're good friends, the King and I."

"Could you introduce us?"

"Love to, of course, ordinarily I would, but he's not in town right now. Dunno when he'll get back."

Boyce's eyes suddenly widened and he grinned manically.

"Hey, why don't I show around the palace? We could head out tomorrow, wander around, I'll introduce to some folks, maybe Collette'll be there."

There was a crash as Philip fell off his chair, and a confused couple of seconds while he sorted out the relative positions of his feet, his head and the floor, but then he turned to Boyce.

"Collette? Who's she?"

"Collette de Maynard. She's working with the del Orofin representative here. Nice girl, a little too serious, but nice."

"Nice."

Philip thought back to the night he'd spent in jail at Collette's whim. The duel he'd gotten involved in due to her scheming.

His expression blackened and Elena leaned forward to distract Boyce.

"Are you two involved? You sound pretty sweet on her."

Boyce paid no further attention to Philip as the Saijadani lowered himself back to his chair, still reeling from the news that his hated enemy was here. He turned to look at Nevid, who had likewise been shocked by Boyce's casual revelation.

Collette had danced circles around them in Fort Burnoll, swindling them out crucial information, getting Philip involved in a duel (the fact that Philip had broken the conditions of the duel and beheaded his opponent and was therefore a man with a price on his head never got mentioned), getting them thrown in jail and generally leading them around by the nose, making them look foolish and then scarpering off with the goods.

"We have to tell Isabella that she's here. This is serious."

Philip nodded.

"I knew I'd be saying this, I just didn't think it would be so soon. I wish Aubrey were here."

*****

"The Path of the Mother. The Path of the Child."

Elena lay on her cot, listening to Arrafin sleep and trying to keep the room from spinning too much. The Naridic girl was a restless sleeper, always muttering to herself as she tossed and turned. Outside, the streets of Bayonne were quiet, with only distant braying from the game pens disturbing the air.

At least she hadn't disgraced Saijadan in matching Boyce drink for drink.

Rising from bed, Elena stepped carefully across the room to the door, opened it and slipped out into the hallway just as Arrafin mumbled, "I learned to read at home."

She made her way down the hallway, past the other inn rooms, towards the rear of the building. Elena was a big woman, but she moved with surprising grace and her footsteps made no sound as she walked. She opened the back door of the inn and slipped into the yard.

"The Path of the Mother. The Path of the Child."

Nitara's wagon was the nearest to the inn wall. Elena, not bothering with stealth any longer, strolled around to the back of the wagon and looked up at the door. She debated inside herself for a while and then knocked softly.

Inside she heard a low chuckle and the door opened.

Nitara leaned against the door, a thick velvet robe wrapped around her. She smiled down at Elena and gestured for the woman to enter.

Elena nodded and smiled, and climbed up into the wagon. Nitara's dark eyes watched her go by. Kalibar sat on the floor of the wagon, staring at the Saijadani woman as she came in.

"Yes. Sit down, child."

Elena sat. She heard Nitara close the door behind her. Kalibar smiled.

"The path of the mother. I can see you upon it, Elena del los Santos. You walk this path."

"What are you talking about? I don't understand."

Kalibar's smile widened.

"You do. You understand me perfectly."

Elena shook her head.

"I have no idea what you're talking about. Why won't you explain?"

"You hear me."

"Yes, I hear you."

"But I am not speaking."

Elena frowned, confused for a second. Her mouth fell open as she realised not one word had been spoken aloud since she had entered the wagon.

*****

Philip also lay awake, also listening to his roommate sleep. Nevid snored heavily, which didn't surprise Philip so much. The young man had gone a little overboard on the beer and had been carried up to the room.

Collette. Philip's hands itched for the Gap woman's throat.

He could see her face clearly. Black hair, sleepy, half-open eyes, sly, mocking, hateful.

He lay awake a long time with that face before him. While Nevid snored.

*****

"What are you doing? How are you doing it?"

"We are both doing it, Elena. As I have said, I walk the path of the child. As a child I learned these skills -- only as a child can one learn them."

"I didn't learn them as a child."

"No. You walk the path of the mother. You are born to this, Elena. For you, it is not a question of learning, but discovering. I can set you on that journey, if you wish. But you cannot turn back, once you have begun."

Elena turned away from the intensity of Kalibar's stare. Suddenly the kindly old man seemed like a majestic figure, clothed in power and wisdom. She looked over where Nitara sat, watching, her robe gathered around her.

It took a few seconds for Elena to find her voice.

"Are you... what's the word... psychic, too?"

The wagon rocked a little from a sudden thump and there was a worried squeak from outside. Nitara and Kalibar exchanged a frown, and then the dancer went to the door, whipped it open and dragged in a sputtering, unkempt Arrafin.

"I wasn't listening! Promise! Well okay I was but nobody was saying anything! What's going on? Elena?"
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
And that's how Elena's player discovered that her character was a psion. This is the first hint that Barsoom's whole "no magic" position is perhaps not quite as complete as it might seem...
 

Carnifex

First Post
Hey, Barsoomcore, just to say, I'm thinking of using your swashbuckling card system for a sci-fi d20 game I plan to run :D

Have now started on reading the SH too ;)
 


xrpsuzi

First Post
barsoomcore said:
*absolutely refuses to comment on fathers approving of daughters dressing as Dallas cheerleaders*
:D

This from the man whose running the "all stewardess, all the time" game and is writing a story hour centered around dancing girls??? :p

Very cool intro of psionic in Elena... but what happened to Aubrey? Did I miss it? Or has it yet to be explained?

-Suzi
 

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