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Archibald Drake and the Ausonian Stalker
Archibald Drake and the Ausonian Stalker
There was an unusual crowd in the bar-room of the Red Gashant. On the one hand, Ausonia's town guards were out in force looking for the murderer that had been preying upon the unwary of late. Fearing either the murderer or the attention of the guards, no small number of the regular custom had chosen to lay low for the evening. Pwill Hastang, the innkeep, hoped that the guard laid hands on the bastard soon or he'd be light on the pockets without even the excuse of Dreel One Eye's light fingers to blame it on.
On the other hand, tonight at least, he had another draw on the attention of Ausonia. Not strictly entertainment, but the little city was remote enough that the sight of a red man was still a call for attention.
Pwill had been careful to seat the red man at a table near the bar rather than a booth, so that he would be in clear sight from the rest of the room. Beneath the broad brim of his hat, the red man's strange blue eyes had narrowed and he glanced up at the rather taller Hwill. "Drawing in a crowd?" His voice was quiet and guttural. "Don't suppose I'll be paying for my supper then."
Pwill chuckled. The red man had a nerve or two, he reckoned. Then again, he'd heard that they were all half-crazed so it shouldn't come as a surprise. "Pay for your room and the supper's included," he offered.
They haggled a moment and the man paid a touch more than Hwill would normally be able to charge for a room. Brave but not the shrewdest of traders then. Well and good.
With his battered and travel-stained coat draped over the back of his chair and his hat and pack sat on the table's other chair, the red man was more fully revealed. He wasn't the first that Pwill had seen - Ausonia was isolated, but not that isolated - but he hadn't seen one with that particular shade of golden hair before, drawn back behind the nape of the red man's neck. Other than that, the man seemed a fairly typical example - half a head shorter than Pwill with those strangely small ears and pink skin.
"So where are you from?" he asked as he brought across the plate of food, noting that the other customers' ears were pricking up at the question. "An American perhaps? I had a visitor from America last year, said he was from the city of Vuginea."
"Virginia," the red man corrected him, "Is a state, not a city. And no. I'm not American. I am, by the grace of god, an Englishman."
"Ah, like the famous Burnaby of the Penelope," Pwill nodded. "You know him perhaps?"
The red man smiled. Smirked perhaps, it was hard to tell beneath his beard. "Of him, of course. But we've never met." He stabbed his fork into a cut of meat and lifted it to his mouth.
The door of the inn slammed open to reveal one of the town guards, wearing a cuirass and his sword half-drawn. "Hastang! Word is that you have a red man here, do you not?"
All eyes went to the red man, who paused and then started chewing on the meat, reaching for his cup with his other hand. He swallowed. "Always when I'm eating," he growled and gulped down some of the wine.
"Ah, well, it is as you can see," Pwill admitted, gesturing to the man, who was obviously trying to ignore them as he munched on a vegetable.
The guard pushed past Pwill towards the man. "What is your name?" he demanded brusquely.
The red man raised one finger commandingly and sipped from his cup again, rolling the mouthful of wine around his mouth for a moment as the guard's face grew ever more annoyed. "So, son," he said after he'd swallowed. "How can I help Ausonia's finest today?"
"You can begin," the guard hissed, "By telling me your name."
"Why certainly," he said, seemingly sincerely pleased. "I shall be only too pleased to do so. Take a seat, why don't you. There's no need to stand on ceremony, we're all friends here."
"What is your name!?" the guard half-shouted.
The red man paused and stared at him coldly. "Do not raise your voice at me, fellow," he ordered, such a hard edge entering his voice that the guard stepped back abruptly, reaching towards the hilt of his sword. The sense that he had lost control of the situation began to penetrate his head however and he slowly relaxed his arm, turning the movement into grasping the back of another chair and drawing it over to sit opposite the red man.
"There now," the red man declared, his attitude once again entirely companionable. "Isn't this so much more civilised? Now, you were asking about my name I believe." He smiled. "It is, of course, Archibald Drake. Is that the extent of the service that I may offer?"
The guard gathered his wits. "No," he assured Drake. "Prince Jharmook has summoned all red men in the city to the palace tomorrow morning."
Drake nodded amiably. "Nice of him to be so welcoming. But really, he needn't make such a fuss over me. I'm just a private citizen, you know."
"He's not summoning you to welcome you," the guard exclaimed incredulously. "He's summoning you because it's an offworlder that's been murdering decent folk in their beds!"
There was a slight pause as everyone's eyes went to Drake, who shrugged. "Well I can't say that I know anything about that - only arrived this evening as it happens - but I'll be sure to be along promptly in the morning. It's not as if I meet a prince every day, you know."
The palace of the Prince of Ausonia had been a fortress in the past and probably would be again in the future if the history of the planet named for a God of War was anything to judge by. The massive stone architecture reared up above Drake as he strode through the quiet morning activities of the city, his boots clicking on the cobbles beneath his feet.
The morning chill had been enough to persuade him to wrap a scarf around his neck and lower face before setting out so with his hands buried in his coat pockets, the only visible part of his skin was that around his eyes, generally hidden from the substantially taller Martian populace by the brim of his hat. It is therefore understandable that the guards were paying rather more attention to him as he approached them than they might otherwise have done.
"Who goes there?" the younger of the two guards enquired.
"Archibald Drake," Drake introduced himself. "Jharmook invited me to drop by," he added casually and then came to a halt as the guards crossed their pikes in front of him. "Do you mind not blocking the way? It would be terribly rude for me to be late."
The guards looked at each other and then squinted at him. "You're an Earthman then?" the elder of them asked. "I rather expected you to be taller."
Drake tilted his hat back on his head and lowered his scarf far enough to make his decidedly un-Martian features clearly visible. "Size is relative. Now am I going to be allowed in, or shall I have to wait until Jharmook comes to pick me up off his doorstep? It's not that I mind, you understand, but I've already gone out of my way to come here and if he's going to leave me out here in the cold..." He trailed off ominously and then smiled, allowing the tension to dissipate. "Well, I shall not be best pleased, I can tell you."
The guards exchanged worried looks and then raised their pikes. It wasn't as if they'd not been told that all the red men in the city were to attend upon the Prince that morning. And it wasn't really any of their business if one of them turned up earlier.
"Thank you, gentlemen," Drake said as he walked between them and into the palace.
When Prince Jharmook left his apartments high in the palace, his loins well and truly girded for the delicate task of bullying the Earthmen into dealing with the Stalker that plagued his city, he was surprised to see a red man - one of those he had summoned presumably - sitting at a small table across from the captain of his guards, apparently demonstrating some sort of game.
"Is there some social event that I was not advised of?" he asked somewhat irritably.
Captain Harth stood and bowed. "Your highness, you summoned the Earthmen to your court this morning. This Earthman, Archibald Drake, happened to arrive before you woke and awaits you."
Jhamook's face tightened. "Did he now?" he asked acridly. "I suppose that I should be glad you didn't present yourself in my bedchamber."
"Oh now that just wouldn't be done, your highness," Drake assured him, apparently oblivious to the Prince's ire. "One doesn't just intrude on a private residence like that you know."
"No doubt," Jharmook conceded grudgingly as he stalked towards the stairs, Harth and Drake following behind him. "And was there any particular reason that you sought me out at this early hour."
"Ah well, I seem to have quite forgotten what time I was supposed to be here and - well, dash it, just couldn't see myself keeping you waiting. Call it an exagerated respect for royalty, if you can imagine such a thing."
Despite himself a slight smile creased Jharmook's face, fortunately while he was facing away from the Earthman. "I suppose that I could stretch my imagination to such an outre concept," he conceded.
"And since he was evidently early Mister Drake was kind enough to teach me the basics of a human game," Harth observed. "Chis, I think you said it was called?" he confirmed to the red man.
"Ah, Chess," he repeated the name, shaping the unfamiliar word carefully. "Interesting little game. I'll have to teach you some of ours, should the chance arise."
"Should," Jharmook observed sardonically. "The chance arise."
Drake hummed to himself. "Dare I suggest that you suspect that the chance might not?" he asked curiously. "Deuced odd thing to say. Might almost think you're anticipating that I might suffer a mishap of some nature."
"A mishap?" the prince observed, his black robes flapping around him as he descended the stairs towards the level of the throneroom. "No. But perhaps a misfortune, Mister Drake. Perhaps a misfortune."
"You have undoubtedly heard," Jharmook declared from his throne, "of the series of murders that have been committed in the city. We have learned that the killer has taken shelter in the city's sewers and it is evident that it is from there that he has been striking all along. Unfortunately, the Ausonian Guard cannot follow him into the sewers, so I need operatives who can. I have selected you."
A mumble of disbelief came from the gathered offworlders. There were few of them, Ausonia being so remote - besides Drake were a stout American merchant by the name of Johnson and his wife; Jacobi, a threadbare-looking Italian missionary; and two sailors from a merchant sky kite that had docked the day before who'd introduced themselves as Smith and Jones despite the fact that their mediocre Koline was far more fluent than their English.
"As offworlders," continued the prince. "You can enter the sewers in relative safety. You can track the killer down and capture or kill him for me. He was badly wounded during his last attack, so he should cause you little worry. As long as you are careful, I expect that you will have little troble in completing the mission quickly and safely."
"Now see here," spluttered the merchant. "You can't just -"
Drake flicked his arm back to bat the man lightly on the upper chest, silencing him for a moment. "Now now, no need to speak so hastily man, hear his highness out."
"All very well for you, young sir, but I have a wife and a business to see to," the merchant declared hotly.
"Once you return with the villain or proof of his death, I will pay you one hundred pounds to compensate you for your time," Jharmook offered. "However, I will not take no for an answer. By entering Ausonia, you have placed yourselves under my law for the duration of your stay, and that law requires that you perform whatever service the prince might ask. Furthermore, the very fact that the villain can survive in the sewers indicates that he is from offworld as much as you are." He frowned. "And to my way of thinking you have a responsibility to police your own kind."
"But surely you cannot expect," protested the missionary, gesturing feebly towards Mrs. Johnson.
"As I have stated," snapped Jharmook, "when you return successfully from the mission, I will pay you well. Should you refuse, I will be forced to seize all your possessions in payment for the damages done by this madman, and then throw you in prison for vagrancy. What is your answer?"
"Easy, your highness," Drake said calmingly. "I'm sure that Father Jacobi was merely pointing out that Mr. Johnson may have quite reasonable concerns about including Mrs. Johnson on this expedition."
"Ah, yes of course," Johnson hastily, his red face having paled dramatically at Jharmook's threats. "I may not be as young as I used to be but I daresay I can manage this matter. You really cannot ask it of Madeline though."
"I see," Jharmook conceded suspiciously. "Very well, Mrs. Johnson need not accompany you. And what say the rest of you? Speak swiftly."
"Why can't your guards go down the sewers?" Jones piped up. "What's down there that you're sending us instead?"
It was Harth who answered the question. "The sewers are home to not only to scavenging creatures but to smaller creatures and plants whose mere presence is sufficient to cause great harm to Martian flesh. This was devised thousands of years since to reduce waste efficiently, but as a result to enter even the highest levels is certain death of any of my kind. Since the murderer survives down there, however, it must be that the sewers are less inimical to you and yours."
"How do you know that for sure?" Jacobi protested.
The expression that flickered across the face of the Prince was one of irritation. "We do not."
"I suppose that we shall have the opportunity to find out for ourselves then," Drake said heartily, clapping the missionary on the shoulder. "Would you mind terribly lending me a sword for this little expedition, your highness? I rather suspect that I'll need one down there if I'm to subdue this fellow, one way or another."
The sun was high in the sky as the little band gathered in front of the entrance to the sewers. Johnson had been able to provide three good lanterns from his trade goods and armed himself with a stout cudgel. Smith and Jones both displayed functional looking knives sheathed at their belts and Drake had strapped on a sword from the armoury of Jharmook's own guards, leaving his pack, coat and hat in the custody of Captain Harth.
Jacobi, for his part, was unarmed and accepted one of the lanterns to carry. The looks that went between Johnson and Smith as the sailor accepted the third lantern made it clear that they didn't expect the missionary to be be good for anything beyond carrying the lantern. Possibly, in extreme need, lighting it.
"Are there any other last minute errands to run?" asked the leader of the guards who'd been trailing after them as they made their preparations, more to ensure they did not try to flee the city than to provide assistance.
D for Drakensis

You're only young once, but immaturity is forever.

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Archibald Drake and the Ausonian Stalker - by drakensis - 12-09-2007, 01:59 AM

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