Monday, November 12, 2012

Excerpt - Duchess of the Shallows by Neil McGarry

Minette sat at a small table, a pattern of white and black tiles shimmering in the lamplight before her. Although Duchess was no expert at tiles, she played well enough to see why Minette was in a good mood: from the pile of coins before her she'd handily beaten her last opponent. Minette's office was decorated in more soothing shades than the front parlor: there was a lavender settee, its pillows upholstered in cream, and thick rugs of purple and light blue. Duchess knew from long experience to slip off her shoes before setting foot on those rugs. The walls were whitewashed, and the lintel, baseboards and rafters were cedar, giving the room a comfortable feel and an aromatic scent. The desk that dominated the opposite wall, currently unoccupied, was real walnut.

                Minette was running one red-gloved finger over her winnings when she lifted her eyes, and without smiling gestured imperiously for Duchess to approach. Duchess slipped across the room to Minette's side to kiss a powdered cheek. ”Don't smear my makeup, dear,” Minette murmured. “Can't have the riff-raff think I'm dabbling with dirty-faced urchins.” She tweaked Duchess on the cheek and began clearing the tiles.

                Duchess took the chair on the other side of the table. “And who, pray tell, did you fuck for that?” she asked gesturing to the small pile of money.

                Minette smirked. “Our good friend Lord Tiles,” she replied, without missing a beat. Duchess put her hand to her heart in mock horror and Minette laughed.

                “Well, I'm sure you were worth every penny.”

                “That's what they say.” Minette helped herself to a drink from the side table and gestured for Duchess to finish clearing the board. Duchess did so, placing the tiles to the side, upside down. She shuffled them carefully.

                “My luck has been pretty good of late,” Duchess said nonchalantly as Minette turned back to the table, drink in hand. “Care to try it?”

                Minette looked at her for a moment, her dark eyes seeming to stare right into the back of her head. Minette had a voracious appetite for secrets that she required her employees to satiate. Between her girls (and boys) and the volume and variety of men who gave them custom, it was said that every rumor in the city eventually made its way to the Vermillion's crimson walls. Did she already know what had transpired between her and Hector?

                 Minette only smiled. “Oh my,” she purred. “Now there's an offer I can't turn down.” Duchess took out a handful of half-pennies, a few coppers and a sou from her pouch and placed them at her end of the table, and Minette, drawing from her winnings, followed suit. Duchess placed the tiles and the game began.

                “I told Noam you were well when last I'd seen you.” Minette glanced over her tiles, her dark eyes looking searchingly into Duchess' own. “I trust that was the truth?”

                “True enough,” said Duchess. Minette hated carelessness, and had taught Duchess that careless words were more dangerous than knives. She laid out her first tiles and Minette did the same. "I'm staying with Lysander at the moment, but I don't really want to do that for too long.” Minette handed her two more tiles, her white powdered face impassive. Duchess gestured for a third.

                “Very wise. A woman should never depend overmuch on a man…even when that man is as sweet and lovely as Lysander. So what will you do now?”

                “As it happens, that's one of the reasons I'm here,” she said, still looking at the board. Duchess tried to seem earnest, but she felt as though Minette were looking directly into her skull and reading the thoughts there. “I was wondering if you knew of anyone who might be looking for a girl to work in their kitchens, or the like.” She made herself meet Minette's gaze. “I'm a decent baker, and…well, I could stand at Beggar's Gate, but I thought you might know someone who needs help.” She paused. “With parties. In Temple District.”

                If Minette knew more, she made no sign. “I suppose. Would you be looking for something soon?”

                Duchess held her voice steady. “Very.”

                Minette nodded and played her next tiles, placing one sou on each. Duchess covered a wince. The stakes had just gone up considerably. “You're doing very well,” said Minette, without irony. Duchess glanced up at her, wary. “I've faced some truly bad tile players in my day, and I would not count you amongst them. Hector, for example, is an absolutely abysmal bluffer.”

                With Minette there was no such thing as a non sequitur; clearly she knew Duchess had been dealing with Hector. She felt threatened from all directions, so she chose the safest route and said nothing at all.

                Minette nodded, pleased, and sipped at her wine. “He's rather sad, I think. The kind to strike out of simple jealousy or petty meanness.” Before Duchess could respond, Minette went on, “Someone could manipulate that quite easily, you know. Turn him into a cat's-paw.”

                Duchess caught herself frowning; she was being led somewhere. What was Minette saying? That this whole thing with Eusbius wasn't Hector's idea? “Would that be so bad? To be a cat's-paw, I mean.”

                Minette clicked a tile into place. “It depends on the cat, my dear. Of course, Hector is not the sort of man to take his own risks, no matter what the grudge. He'd find a cat's-paw of his own.”

                “And on and on it goes,” Duchess replied, laying two pennies on one of her own tiles. She thought on it, and placed another beside one of Minette's. Clearly, there was an even larger feline than Hector at work here.

                “Well it always ends with someone,” said Minette, smiling. The board was in her favor.

                "And what happens to that someone? In Rodaas, someone eventually sets a dog on the cat. What becomes of the cat's-paw?"  The answer to that question seemed suddenly very pertinent to Duchess' immediate future.

                Minette took another sip of wine and thought a moment. "Have you ever heard the tale of how One-Penny Will got his name?" Everyone in Rodaas knew of the Shallows youth who eventually became one of the city's most notorious thieves; Will's exploits were the talk of many an ale house or wine cellar, and there seemed to be no end of tales. Duchess had heard many of those tales from her brother, but none involving Will's name. She shook her head, aware that this, too, was no mere non sequitur. Minette smiled and pushed back from the table, taking a break from the game. Minette enjoyed a good story, and Duchess wasn't about to pass up the chance to hear one. "There was a baron in Low District named Waverly, who was nearly as wealthy and influential as some of the highest aristocracy, but..."

                "How long ago was this?" Duchess interrupted. Minette raised an eyebrow and said nothing for a long moment. Minette hated being interrupted, she remembered too late. "Well, I just meant," Duchess said, abashed. "No one has called that Low District for years."

                "A noble of Scholars District, then." Duchess knew enough to keep quiet, and Minette went on. "Waverly's lineage was insufficiently old to permit him to move to Garden, so he resigned himself to indulging in a rather expensive habit to flaunt his power." She took another sip and smiled. "I'm sure some of the higher houses would say that's becoming something of an epidemic in Rodaas as of late." Duchess watched her warily, but Minette continued as if the comment had meant nothing. "Waverly began collecting birds of every size and breed. He bought birds from sellers of high birth and low, and when he had collected samples of all the local animals he paid foreigners to bring back birds they found on their travels. After a few years of this the aviary of House Waverly had become a local legend, containing birds of all sizes and colors." She turned her eyes toward some distant place, remembering. "Some of those birds hunted, others sang, and one or two even spoke. I don't need to tell you that Baron Waverly thrived on the attention and admiration brought by his collection, and deservedly so. It was a sight I won't soon forget.

                "His rise in status despite his low beginnings naturally brought enemies amongst the higher houses," said Minette, shifting closer to the table and running an eye over the board. "Namely one Lord Nevin, an old rival of Waverly's who'd done rather less well in business and in social circles." She placed a tile of her own and looked at Duchess levelly. "Your move."

                In more ways than one, thought Duchess. "And so, Lord Nevin decided to do something about the Baron's collection?"  This story was sounding more familiar by the moment. She wondered if the tale were even true, or just a cover for Minette to convey advice. Duchess looked over the pieces before her, thinking six things at once. "But of course Nevin couldn't do anything directly," she ventured, fingering a tile. "That's not how the nobles work, is it? He'd embarrass himself and his House by admitting that Waverly's success had gotten to him." Duchess placed her tile at the center of the board, not bothering to place a coin. "He'd need a proxy. Someone to do his dirty work for him. Say, someone from the Grey?"

                "Well done," said Minette, referring either to the tile or the insight, Duchess didn't know. Minette placed one of her own coins atop the tile. "They came out of the woodwork, so to speak, when Nevin snapped his fingers. So many, in fact, that he became suspicious. Whom to trust, amongst thieves?"

                "How did Will get the job, then?"

                "By living up to his name. Amongst the plans and the promises, the marks and the money that the others demanded, Will merely asked for a single penny."

                "Why?" asked Duchess.

                "Precisely Nevin's response," Minette replied. "The offer got his attention, but more importantly, it appealed to his notoriously penurious nature. Still, Nevin was not quite a fool. He investigated Will as best he could, tried to find some connection to Waverly, but came up with nothing. But what sealed the deal was Will's own excitement, as if he wished to see Waverly brought low more than Nevin himself. In the end, Nevin accepted the offer."

                "And what did Will do?" Duchess leaned across the board.

                "Most people aren't sure how Will penetrated the defenses of House Waverly," said Minette, all innocence. "He entered with nothing but a dagger, and left with nothing but the same. He took two bowls from the pile the birds were fed from, and filled one with the sap of one of the trees that the Baron had planted to house the pride of his collection. Into the other went the feathers he plucked from the head of every single bird, from the drab and lowliest to the magnificent and most exotic. By the time Will was done there wasn't a feathered head in that room." Minette took another sip of wine. "Two surprises awaited Baron Waverly when he entered the aviary the next morning. The first was a room full of caged, bald-headed birds. The second arrived a moment later. Will had always been clever with traps and rigging, you see, and he showed his cleverness that day. The bowl of sap Will had rigged above the door, triggered by the wire he'd set, doused the baron's own head, followed shortly by a swirl of feathers from the other bowl Will had positioned."

                Duchess burst into delighted laughter, but Minette only smiled enigmatically and waited until she had finished. "That tale raced through the city like wildfire. Waverly had a thick head of lovely red hair, you see, so you can just imagine the mess. After much pulling, combing and cursing, in the end Waverly was forced to command his barber to shave his head entirely. It took a whole season for the nobles to tire of that story, and even longer for Waverly's hair to grow back, so Nevin got his wish." She swirled her wine, gazing thoughtfully into the cup. "Unfortunately, he also got a knife in the eye two weeks later as he returned home late from the theater."

                Duchess gasped. The nobles often played dangerous games with one another, but it was unheard of for them to resort to out-and-out assassination; they were far too vulnerable to similar retaliation. A noble might order the death of a commoner, but another lord? "That must have caused trouble," she said, hoping to draw Minette out.

                Minette humored her. "It did. But then all of this happened during the Color War, when things were of course already unsettled both up and down the hill. In the end, it was simply another pebble in the landslide." Minette shrugged, her face unreadable. "All that's known is that Will's reputation on the Grey was afterward much improved, and he certainly never turned up plus a knife and minus an eye. Why do you think that was?"

                Duchess paused, considering. "I think," she said at last, "that Will wasn't important enough to make revenge worth it. Nobody would have cared if Will turned up dead, but everyone noticed when Nevin did." Minette smiled again and turned her attention back to the board. Was this a hint that, should Eusbius be angered, he might not go after the hand that stole the dagger but the head that directed it? Encouraged, Duchess added, "So although it can be dangerous to be a cat's-paw, sometimes it's safer than actually being the cat."

                Minette made no reply, but the twinkle in her eye was all the answer Duchess needed. Flushed with victory, she watched as the older woman shuffled the remaining tiles and drew the next set. “Will was quite the tile player," Minette murmured, "and in life as in tiles, some pieces are so small they aren't worth the notice.” Duchess said nothing and Minette went on, “Of course one might ask why one would bother with so small a piece in the first place.” She sat back with her hands folded before her, her gloves a slash of red across the board.

                Clearly, Minette knew what Hector wanted to her to do, but did she know about P as well? She searched Minette's face for an answer, but of course that powdered visage revealed nothing. Duchess shuffled her tiles, looking for a way to lay them out. “I've been playing tiles with you as long as I could reach the board, but so far I win only through luck, not skill. From what I can see, the secret to winning lies in how you play the pieces over time, rather than in just winning the pot.” She glanced up. Minette was motionless, her dark eyes unblinking, hands still folded. “It's not the coin in the pot, but the bet on the tiles that matters. You can win the hand and the pot, but if you lose the pieces you've invested in…well, either way you walk away with a lighter purse.”

                “Correct so far. Some of my customers would leave the Vermillion with more of their coin if they knew that.”

                Duchess lifted one of her own tiles and placed it at her end of the board, revealing it as the lowliest piece in the game. “Take this piece, as far from winning as possible. It's not likely to make it to the end of the game, right?” She took the single sou from her pile, almost all she had left, and placed it on the piece. “But so early in the game, it's cheap to invest. If it manages to survive long enough, it becomes much more expensive, and if it reaches the other side it could become the most powerful piece on the board.” She took a deep breath and pushed through. “So it's all about knowing which pieces will survive the game. Even if your opponent later invests the same piece, you have an advantage because you invested early, when it was cheaper. In the end, you might win more than the pot.”

                Minette smiled. “I quite believe you have it.” She sipped at her wine. "Of course, the smaller pieces are often sacrificed so that larger pieces can go on, particularly if they don't have the strength to go the distance." She looked levelly at Duchess for a long moment. "As to the work you're seeking, it so happens there's a party tomorrow night in Temple, given by one Baron Eusbius. He's a recent noble, and his household is too understaffed to handle this kind of event, so he'll be looking for pot-girls and scullery maids at Beggar's Gate tomorrow morning. I'll make certain you're picked from the crowd. I'm assuming you'll be there." She went back to the game, but just as Duchess was silently celebrating her victory, Minette murmured, “And just how far across the board, my dear, do you intend to go?”

                Duchess smiled. “As far as I can, Minette. As far as I can.”

A game is played in the fog-shrouded city of Rodaas, and every citizen, from the nameless of the Shallows to the noblest of the Garden, is a player or a pawn. And no one is as he appears.

Not Minette, brothel-keeper and obsessive collector of secrets. Not Uncle Cornelius, fearsome chief of the gang of brutes and murderers known as the Red. Not the cults of Death, Wisdom, and Illumination, eternally scheming and plotting along the Godswalk.

And certainly not the orphaned bread girl known as Duchess.

Yet armed with nothing more than her wits, her good friend Lysander and a brass mark of dubious origin Duchess will dare to play that game for the most coveted of prizes: initiation into a secret society of
thieves, spies and rumormongers who stand supreme in a city where corruption and lies are common coin.

The Grey.

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