The Black Countess Rosewater gazed out over the fore of her ship at the crowd assembled on the docks.
Well, not at the crowd, exactly. More at the flickering torches that exposed the clusters of people standing near
them, their indistinct faces cast in sulfur-yellow light. She lifted a hand, her fingers clutching at something
intangible, and she felt eyes rolling up to follow it. What she held, whether anyone could see it or not, was
power. Over them. A rare thing for anyone short of royalty or the clergy to have over crowds this size,
especially if anyone was a wide-shouldered farm girl who stood a full head taller than every woman she'd ever met.
A lock of hair fell out of the red-tinted, otherwise black nimbus piled up on her head, and she tucked it behind her
ear with her other hand. Then she grabbed the tall candelabra and held it close to her face, searching it for the
amplifying device perched somewhere at the top. It was hard to do in the dark, with all the light coming up from
below and the ever-present threat of catching herself on fire with lit candles. After a half-second, which felt like
an hour, she found it and tilted the candelabra close to her lips.
“This next song,” she said, her voice washing over the crowd from the ship's imposing figurehead(1), “is about
the Battle of Grommash, where Orcs fought someone other than Orcs, for once.” She smirked, and a ripple of
amusement passed through the crowd. “It's called The Fattest Butcher.”
She looked over at Mordecai, whose oversized gnomish guitar had done her the favor of not feeding back every
time she needed to speak, and nodded. He nodded back, then looked over at Ezekiel the cellist, who raised his
bow. That much having been silently agreed upon, they all looked back at the drummer, whose wide dwarven
forehead was barely visible behind his rack of toms. He replied with a series of quick, heavy taps on his cymbals,
whose sound rose elegantly to a shout of anticipatory applause from the crowd.
Mordecai struck a long, solemn chord that meshed well with Ezekiel's mournful bow-strokes, and as the cymbals
faded away into a thunderous drumbeat, the Countess sang. Only one note to start, at the middle of her
operatic soprano range and heavy with pessimistic knowledge of the subject matter, and her eyes shut as the
note rose and rose and shattered into a ragged cry.
The port town of Prosba was the third leg on the Dread Ship Bashemoth's arachnid tour(2), and their most
enthusiastic audience to date. Crewmen who'd paddled in on the longboats to put up posters and promote the
concert had been swarmed by fans with song requests, dedications, gifts for the Countess and Mordecai, and
rounds of strong drink. Some people had traveled for hundreds of miles in all sorts of weather and through all
manner of threats and penalties to see the band that night, or so they claimed(3). Even a few dwarves had
caught on, owing no doubt to Bashemoth's drummer, who supplied the beat with specialized mining hammers
and was known to occasionally employ a dwarven cannonette for additional percussive heft.
The crew had loved the attention, especially as it related to free alcohol, and the Countess let them bask in it
upon their return for a little while before putting them back to work. In addition to actually sailing the ship
through the often temperamental waters between ports, the giant church organ built into the cabin's face needed
to be cleaned and refilled with fake blood, instruments needed to be tuned, candles replaced as necessary, and
the gnome-designed amplifiers had to be cleaned and tested.
This last part was key; anything made by gnomes was highly volatile and required careful maintenance to prevent
random explosions. This meant removing the speaker cabinets from their notches at the fore of the ship once a
day, taking them apart as instructed, and thoroughly dusting each one. It was taxing work, and frustrating,
because the diagrams didn't really make sense to anyone who wasn't a gnome and many of the parts were either
easily dirtied or easily dropped between the floorboards (the wires connecting the microphones to the battery to
the speakers) or filled with acid (the chemical batteries). And then there were the magnets to deal with, which
everyone knew gave you brain cancer after prolonged exposure(4). So yes, a certain amount of unexpected
leisure time in the form of strangers being generous for no reason was more than welcome.
They probably got more of it than the Countess. At least, more of it was genuine. Generally, the only time she
left the ship on tour was to collect payment, which wasn't something she liked doing. As she sang, knowing that
the concert was reaching an end, her mouth sagged into a frown. Pier and dock owners weren't concert
promoters in the traditional sense, but they had the same tendencies. The crowd wasn't as big as they'd hoped,
and they hadn't been drinking or eating much, and they'd have to dig into their own pockets to cover
Bashemoth's guarantee, so maybe they could cut a poor businessman with a hungry family some slack and blah
Ezekiel's cello ended early and the Countess' voice dipped, but she sang through it. She gave Mordecai her “what
happened there?” face, but Mordecai shrugged.
Then something hit her feet. She looked down. Someone, evidently strong-armed, had thrown a bouquet of
roses to her(5), and they were lying perilously close to the lowest rung of candles on her candelabra. She picked
them up, held them aloft for a second, then bit into them, tearing the heads off some of them as their thorns
tore at her lips. She threw them behind her and spat, her mouth filling with the salty iron taste of her own blood.
The crowd roared. They hadn't expected anything less.
There was a knock on the Countess' door.
“Hold on,” she said through a mouthful of saltwater. No sense letting those cuts in her mouth get infected. She
gargled and rinsed, spitting what remained into her chamber pot. “Right then, who is it?”
“It's Mordecai,” said a baritone voice.
“Oh good, come on in,” the Countess said, smiling. “I need someone to lace up my corset.” She'd changed out
of the one she'd performed in and into her other one, which was ringed all around with spikes. She could protect
her breasts easily, but getting one's bottom pinched often began with an innocent hand on the small of the
back. Something sharp there, she'd reasoned, would discourage potential gropers. So far, it had worked.
Mordecai opened the door, somewhat hesitantly. He'd never felt entirely comfortable in the Countess' chamber,
mainly because it didn't look like a woman's chamber in the slightest. The furnishings — a bed, dresser, and two
small bookcases — were plain, and she didn't have a vanity or anything else one expected a woman to have.
Mordecai knew she owned makeup and perfume, she was wearing both now, but where she kept them would be a
mystery for the ages.
And yet she, in her black wedding gown and ghoulish corpse paint, was the most alluring woman he'd ever met.
He had no idea how someone that stubbornly unfeminine managed it, but she always looked like something that
would enchant you and spirit you away into some decadent abyss.
“Well then, come lace me up,” the Countess said, half joking. “Don't just stand in the doorway, I'm decent.”
Mordecai shook his thoughts away and walked in. As he passed the bookshelves, he noticed a bouquet of half-
eaten roses sitting in a pail of water.
“Didn't think you liked flowers,” he said, smirking.
“Ezekiel did that,” the Countess snapped. “He probably thought it was funny. Damn things nearly landed in the
candles.” She looked away from the mirror, hoping her face paint concealed reddening cheeks.
Mordecai let the matter drop and tightened the laces on her corset. He'd done this enough times, and not just
for her, that he knew not to crush her ribs or leave it too loose.
“Good show tonight, yeah?” he asked. “Crowd was really into it.”
“It was all right,” the Countess said. “Some problems with the cello, though. Had he been tipping into the rum
before we set up?”
“Not that I noticed,” said Mordecai. Ezekiel probably had been drunk, but no one would have seen it. Their cellist
had the tendency to disappear for long stretches of time before and after concerts. Mordecai suspected that he
joined the crew on the longboats sometimes, but he probably just passed out somewhere in the ship's
“Well, try and keep an eye on him,” the Countess said. She pulled away from him and moved her arms around to
test the corset's constriction.
“Perfect,” she said. Turning around, she grinned and laughed a little. “Good lord, are your pants tighter? I
swear, you won't be able to walk if this keeps up.”
Mordecai looked down. His black leather pants had tightened, and his long black naval coat was a bit wide for
him, which made his legs look even thinner.
“I think it's the weather,” he said. “Sadly, I don't have Ezekiel around to lace up my pants for me.” He smiled
back at her and she pinched his cheek, then wiped the corpse paint off on his coat.
“Gotta go collect our money,” she said. “I'll be back.”
She walked out, lowering her black lace veil, and left him there. He stayed for a minute, trying once again to
make sense of how she and this room coexisted, but faint giggling from above deck distracted him. Ezekiel had
reappeared, it seemed. And brought company.
It took almost an hour for the Countess to get from the dock to a small, narrow building just off Prosba's main
street(6). The waterfront was jammed with people, most of whom were drinking and milling around once the
music had stopped. They weren't even gathered in clusters of friends; it was one enormous sprawling clot of
people, and any time someone saw her they'd rush up and shout in her ear with beery breath, and she rarely
understood what they were saying. Not that it mattered. She assumed, rightfully, that anything yelled in her ear
on a crowded dock was of the “woooo!” or “I love you!” variety.
About halfway to her destination, she felt a hand brush against her back and pull away abruptly. She smiled and
kept walking. That never got old.
She hoped this wouldn't be too difficult. Bashemoth had never stopped at Prosba before, and new ports often
brought complications; public performance taxes, “voluntary but suggested” ship registry, or unsavory city
officials who kept you in their offices long enough to undress you with their eyes and, they hoped, their hands as
well. This would be much easier if she was a bard playing in taverns and dance halls, normal places where the
rules had been written down on paper in advance. She and her band would travel by caravan over solid ground,
with lighter equipment, and play more often. And then maybe someone else — she shouldered past three older
men in uniform who took the opportunity to look down her corset — could worry about the particulars for once.
Someone caught her arm midstride and nearly pulled her off-balance. She'd been slogging through the crowd,
head down, and hadn't expected any sudden jolts backwards. By the time she'd regained enough equilibrium to
shake off the grip, it was so tight that she couldn't.
She turned to see two couples staring at her, bunching in around her. Her fists balled up tight enough to whiten
her knuckles. The vice grip belonged to one of the women, shorter than her but nearly twice as wide, and her
little black currant eyes searched the Countess' veiled face.
“'Ere, are ya sure this is her?” she asked her husband, a tall, thin man with soiled brown tunic and a beer blush
that made the Countess that much more uncomfortable.
“Oh yes, that's her,” he said, and nodded to the other couple, who could have been brother and sister by how
similar they looked. “You all” he continued, each word a struggle, “were amay-zing. Seriously.” The other couple
nodded, their narrow faces twitching into smiles.
“Thank you,” the Countess said, forcing a smile. She tried to pull out of the larger woman's grip, but it only
tightened under her elbow.
“Please,” the Countess said, “I need to go, I'm in a hurry. Thank you, though.” They didn't deserve etiquette,
but she'd always found it best to be polite around women. They were worse than men if you provoked them.
“Oh, don't go hidin' behind that thing,” the large woman said, reaching out and snagging the bottom corner of
the Countess' veil. “Me 'usband wants to see yer face.” Her husband grinned wider, clearly leering now.
The Countess pushed the woman's hand away. “Please don't touch my veil.” She stepped back and yanked,
sliding her arm painfully from the woman's grip.
“'Ere now, that's a bit rude,” the woman said, with more force. “We just want to see yer face.” She reached out
again, and her husband took a step forward. The other couple hung back.
As the woman leaned in, the Countess pushed her hand away and, without thinking, slapped the woman right
across her pudgy face.
“Don't touch my veil, damn you!” she yelled, her temper flaring as it caught up with her physical response to
uninvited touching. Then she took off running(7) as heads turned towards the scene she'd made. She heard
laughter and a few catcalls, but she ignored them; the important thing was getting as much space between her
and those people as possible. Anyone who tried stopping her now got shoved aside, or a belly full of corset
spikes if they were persistent.
She didn't stop running until she'd broken the outermost seam of the crowd and reached a cobbled sidewalk in
front of a row of squat buildings. None of them had lights on. That suited her just fine. The sign on the
building to her left was for a tailor, and the man who'd hired Bashemoth this evening said his office wasn't too far
from one, so she headed in that direction.
The girl sitting in Mordecai's lap draped her arm around his narrow shoulders and twirled some of his long black
hair around her finger.
“So how do you make your guitars so loud?” she asked.
Mordecai looked at her. Her auburn hair smelled like drying soap, and her eyes were bright green and eager,
much like the rest of her(8). Every time she drew breath her back arched, edging her bosom closer to his face.
There wasn't much covering it; despite the cool weather, it was summer and women's fashions shrank
accordingly. She'd been drinking wine, her breath was heavy with it, but she had to be at least ten years
younger than him. In other towns he could be arrested for acting as her furniture. Hell, he'd probably be fined
for looking at her from across the street. But all reservations aside, Mordecai was a man who would go to any
length, especially the one in his pants, to entertain the ladies.
“The guitar is connected to an amplifying cabinet at the front of the ship,” he said. “Gnomes made it.”
“Gnomes!” the girl exclaimed, her voice bubbling. “Did you meet them? What were they like?”
“Well, um,” Mordecai began, his brain scrambling for words to throw at this girl. Most of the women who boarded
the ship after concerts were of an older, lustier vintage, and there was an implicit understanding of what each
party wanted from the other. Said understanding was decidedly absent here; this poor thing wanted him to tell
her things beyond pleasantries and exaggerated compliments as they undressed. This wasn't a girl who
happened to like sex and musicians and took advantage of the convenience he provided, this girl liked him. That
wasn't supposed to happen. There were rules.
“Gnomes are, um... well, they —”
“They're short and they have long fingers and they smell funny,” said a gruff, low voice that nearly sent Mordecai
out of his chair and the girl out of his lap. “That's gnomes for ya.”
Hammersfall had walked into the main room of the cabin, packing the cannonette on his shoulders, which would
have been rather imposing if he'd stood over five feet tall. He walked past them without saying anything else and
pushed the door to the hold open with his foot, disappearing into the musty dark.
“That's our drummer,” Mordecai said, once he'd regained some of his composure. “He's great, best I've ever
heard. Dwarves are natural timekeepers. Mining, you know.” He winced, partly because he was babbling and
partly because he could just picture Hammersfall and Ezekiel down in the hold, swilling rum and giggling about the
latest notch on Mordecai's guitar neck. He'd developed a reputation onboard as something of a bounder, which
wasn't entirely without merit. Women liked him more than the others for some reason he'd never totally
understood(9). He certainly liked them, too. And there was a lot about this girl to like, particularly the round
bits that jiggled when she walked or laughed.
He looked at her again. She was looking — no, gazing — into his eyes, with the same expression women gave
their husbands going off to war: I'll miss you when you're gone, but I know you're coming back to me. This
was going to mean something to her, which meant it would crush her when he returned here in six months or a
year and had no idea who she was.
“Didn't you say you were here with friends?” he asked her, with forced playfulness. “Where did they scamper off
“Oh, they left,” she said. “They wanted to meet the Black Countess, but she was gone by the time we got here.
I wanted to meet her too, but not as badly as I wanted to meet you.” She smiled and her eyes blinked away, as
if she was embarrassed. She was sitting in his lap, for crying out loud, her intentions were clear.
The door to the cabin opened again, and this time Mordecai heard it. His eyes shot open in alarm. Oh, no. Who
was it? Ezekiel, back from the docks with a girl of his own? The Countess?
Someone cleared their throat behind him.
Mordecai cleared his throat in response.
“Back so soon?” he asked, pushing the girl off his lap.
“I beg your pardon?” The voice was male, but not anyone from the crew. Mordecai's head whipped around to
see an older man in a blue military uniform, a pipe curling out from his neatly-trimmed beard. Two other men
around his age were walking into the room, both in the same uniform as the first.
“Are you a crewman on this vessel?” the first man asked him.
“Yes, I am,” Mordecai said, standing up. He was taller than all three men and straightened his posture a bit to
accentuate it. He looked over at the girl, whose eyes were as wide as his had been, and stepped in front of her.
“What's this about?”
“Prosba militia,” the man said, taking a paper from his jacket and handing it to Mordecai. “We're holding this ship
in harbor until further notice.”
Mordecai glanced at the paper. It was a warrant empowering the militia to hold the ship “for violations of city
statutes to be determined at arraignment.” He sighed. This was a new one. He heard sniffling behind him and
turned around. The girl's eyes were misting and her hand covered her mouth.
Mordecai put a hand on her shoulder.
“My dear girl,” he said, “... how old did you say you were again?”
Meanwhile, the Countess' hands were on her hips and her downcast eyebrows crinkled the bridge of her nose.
This was not a good sign.
“What I'm saying,” said the short, round man at whom she was glaring, “is that someone thought you were too
loud and called the militia.” He was dressed in unflattering green velvet and had rings on all of his fingers,
although they were much flashier than anything the Countess would have worn. A family crest hung above his
desk — the etching was of a fox fighting a snake, and below it his name, Perfidyan.
“Who called them?” the Countess asked. “Everyone here was watching us play. You said so yourself.”
“Well, yes,” Perfidyan said, steepling his fingers. “But I meant that in a general sense. Some of our older
residents probably stayed home and one of them flagged down a county militiaman. There are houses scattered
among the commercial properties here.” He swallowed. “You can sit down, you know.”
“I know,” the Countess said, not moving. “Does this phantom geezer have a name?”
“Yes, but the complaint was made confidentially,” Perfidyan said.
“Of course. So how long will it take us to get our ship out of holding? We have a performance at Grottan's Barn
three weeks from now, we can't be delayed.”
“Ah,” said Perfidyan, nodding. “Well normally there's a hearing in front of the town council for minor offenses,
but given the circumstances we'll levy a fine and you can leave once you pay it.”
The Countess sighed. She'd seen this coming, but hoped she'd mistaken it for something else.
“Just take it out of our pay,” she said, reluctantly.
“It's not that simple,” Perfidyan said. He opened one of the drawers on his side of his vast mahogany desk and
pulled out a long sheet of paper.
“According to the event contract we drew up and signed, your band gets 200 gold pieces guaranteed plus a third
of the concessions.”
The Countess nodded.
“But unfortunately, the fine for a noise violation exceeds that amount. This is an area that enjoys its piece and
quiet,” he said in response to the look on the Countess' face, which he'd only seen on protective gargoyles
previous to this.
“We are not paying to play,” the Countess said, measuring her words. “Especially on account of a phantom noise
violation that didn't get called in until after we finished playing.”
“Look, we're trying to be reasonable about this.”
“You're trying to hamstring us!” the Countess shouted, slamming her hand down on the desk. “But you won't.
I will get what's owed me if I have to kill you and the two thugs watching the door for it.” Her eyes narrowed.
Perfidyan stood up and backed away from her.
“I could open this window,” he said, gesturing behind you, “and call out 'murder' and you would be arrested. And
hanged.” He lifted the bottom of his tunic and unbuckled his belt, letting the wide silver fasteners dangle. “But
we're both adults here. I'm sure there's some compromise we can reach.”
He smiled, and the Countess heard the door lock behind her.
A door locked behind Ezekiel Blackmoor too, but to keep him out instead of in. He crawled out of the puddle he'd
been thrown into and stood up, bracing himself against a hitching post. He looked down at his black clothes,
now soaked through to his skin with mud, and frowned, then looked up at an open window above him.
“I still say the sign says brothel!” he shouted, wiping mud from his face. “You haven't heard the end of this!
And you'll be paying for my clothes!”
A woman, her pale complexion flushed from exasperation, appeared at the window.
“This is a hotel, for the last time,” she said, keeping her voice level. “Now please leave or I will call Hrothgar down
again, and then I will send for the militia.” She turned sharply and left the window, her long chestnut hair
whipping around behind her.
Ezekiel took her at her word and walked off, trying vainly to shake the mud from his pant legs and boots. No
good. He settled for wiping some of it off on the side of a building across the street from the hotel and
continued forward. Perhaps a nearby tavern would allow a poor, muddy cellist to drink away his sorrows in peace.
As he walked past the town's dark, lifeless storefronts, he couldn't help thinking that he would have been better
off getting drunk in the hold with Hammersfall. But he'd taken that pretty young blonde thing bouncing past him
up the ship's rampway and, he presumed, straight into Mordecai's arms as a sign to stretch his legs on shore, so
he'd slipped out undetected.
How he'd managed that was anyone's guess. Ezekiel was well-known among his band and crew mates for his
random disappearances, but no one understood how he got anywhere unnoticed; he was at first glance a loose
collection of knees and elbows with precious little synchronizing them. Hammersfall frequently told him, several
pints into a talkative mood, that he was very lucky the cello didn't need to be played standing up. He was also
very lucky, Hammersfall was quick to point out, that the Countess took him off cleaning crew instead of killing him
for all the times he'd nearly dropped the amplifying chambers in the water.
“Better pray to whoever you worship for thanks every time ya draw breath,” he'd say, by this point randomly
punctuating each sentence with belches, “because if it were me ya'd be thrown o'erboard rolled up in an old
carpet, ya clumsy git!” Then he'd clap Ezekiel on the back and laugh uproariously.
Yes, Ezekiel thought, it was a good thing he'd left the ship.
He stopped in front of what looked like a tailor's workshop and looked back at the ship. Some torches had
already faded and the crowd was thinning as people went home, found other things to do, or lined up at the door
to Mordecai's quarters — Ezekiel considered the last option with some bitterness. More importantly, as he
stumbled over a loose cobblestone, he hoped they would leave a few torches lit for the walk back. The candles
that lined the ship's foredeck were being snuffed out, probably by the Countess herself. She generally stayed
out of the crew's way after performances, but putting the candles out was where she pitched in. She often did it
alone, humming to herself as each tiny flame perished between her fingers.
She'd stayed on deck all night once. They'd played very well in Laulu one night, to a very responsive crowd. So
responsive, in fact, that they'd been mobbed for autographs and free drinks before they'd even left the ship.
Mordecai had left the party early, with two women, and Ezekiel was the last one to head below deck. He
remembered his date tugging at his arm as he watched the Countess lean over the railing and stare out into
Ezekiel had a theory about that.
But it would have to wait, because something crashed through a window a block or so ahead of him and didn't
move after it landed.
He scratched his head. That looked unnatural, moreso than things crashing through windows normally did. Had
someone thrown a piece of old furniture out? It could have been one of those dwarven pellet sack chairs. Good
for one's back, he'd heard(10). And he needed a new chair for his quarters; he'd broken his old one to prove a
point in an argument with Mordecai(11).
By the time he'd processed his decision to steal it, he was halfway there. There was a nice empty spot next to
his dresser that it could occupy, plus that way he could pile laundry on it. To Ezekiel, dressers were a place to
store liquor and bawdy etchings for nights when your man-trollop of a guitarist ran off with all the girls. Putting
clothes in them required way too much folding and took far too much time and hey, this wasn't a sack chair at all.
It was a man. A dead one. His green velvet tunic was soaked through with blood and his velvet breeches had
been pulled down somewhat. Ezekiel did not appreciate the man's choice to go Elven(12) and saw no disrespect
in thinking this about a dead man. He looked like he'd been holding something, which was crawling away from
him. The shapelessness at the bottom where legs should have been was probably a dress. Blood followed it in a
“Hey!” Ezekiel called after her.
“What happened here?” Ezekiel asked, and was on the verge of asking a follow-up question when she turned
around and he found himself staring into the Countess' panicked eyes. Her eyeliner ran down her face in streaks,
and her bottom lip was trembling. She bit it.
“Get me back to the ship,” she said. “Now.”
The captain of the guard stood at the ship's helm while a handful of underlings snuffed out the candles lining the
“Get those damned things out faster!” he barked. “And make sure those chains are tight.” He pointed to the
thick iron chains that tethered the ship to the dock.
With that said, he turned and walked back into the cabin, where another handful of militiamen were watching
Mordecai with weapons drawn. Mordecai, for his part, was looking over the warrant they'd issued him, keeping
one arm around his new ladyfriend in what he hoped was a comforting gesture.
“Finished reading that yet?” the captain asked.
“I've read it three times,” Mordecai said, “and I'm still not sure what exactly we did wrong.”
“Well, it's a noise ordinance,” the captain said, sparing none of his intended condescension. “That generally
means you were too loud.”
A couple of the guards snickered.
“I knew that,” Mordecai said, “but the conditions it's based on make no sense. Like this here,” he let the girl go
and held his finger under a line of text, “let it be known that all musicians, bards, performers, poets, chanters,
balladeers, minstrels, trouveurs, troubadours, warblers, yodelers —”
“Get to the point.”
“Right, sorry. That part goes on for a while. Anyway, no one performing within the city limits can do so above a
volume of sixteen,” Mordecai paused and squinted at the next word, “crud, crudules? What's a crudule? Is that
even a word?”
The captain sighed. “A crudule is —”
“A local unit of measure roughly equal to 3.75 decibels,” the girl said, cutting him off.
“Sorry,” she said, her eyes downcast in response to everyone in the room turning and staring at her. “I felt left
out. Besides, we just learned it in school.”
“Ah yes, one does learn these things in college,” Mordecai said, slapping her jovially on the back and hoping that
the hot water he was in wasn't reaching a boil. “But look, altogether that's only 60 decibels. Polite conversation
is over 60 decibels.”
The captain shrugged. “All our other performers managed.”
“But when we booked this gig, no one said anything about a volume tax,” Mordecai said, “which is basically what
this is. We even said we were really loud and were told that it wasn't a problem since we were playing outdoors.”
“Noise ordinances are a new policy,” said one of the other guards, cutting the captain off before he could say
something that wasn't incredibly stupid.
“Oh okay, so that's why everyone else managed before.”
The captain didn't see this ending well. If this debate went any longer, he'd have to go back to Perfidyan's office
to resolve it. He'd never hear the end of it. Besides, he had a warrant. And a uniform. And an authoritative
mustache. He was in charge here, and no pansy musician was going to stand around disrupting the social order.
“Look here,” he said, dropping some malicious bass into his voice, “we've had quite enough of your lip. Pay the
fine, or we'll impound the ship outright and hold you in jail until this is settled.”
“No,” Mordecai said. The Countess hadn't come back with the money yet, so he had nothing to pay them with,
and these idiots had worn a hole in his admittedly thin tolerance for harbor-town police swindles.
“Yes,” said the captain, and jabbed him in the chest with his baton for emphasis. The other guards moved in
Mordecai's hands balled into fists as he assessed the situation. One of the unofficial rules of fighting was never
hitting the guy right in front of you. Everyone expected that, making it harder to get away from them. The
guard to his immediate left looked a little green, probably hadn't seen much action beyond levying fines and
making coffee for his superiors.
Mordecai swung wildly at the guard, but missed and nearly lost his balance. He winced even before a fist plowed
into his ribs – another unofficial rule of fighting was that you had to brutalize your opponent right away so his
friends didn't get any ideas about stepping in. As the air rushed from his lungs, he accepted that this fight
wasn't heading in that direction.
The minute he hit the floor, they swarmed him like flies. Balling up did him no good – the fetal position left his
head exposed and covering up left his ribs and stomach open for swift kicks and clubbings. One such club, a
heavy oak thing, caught him just to the right of his solar plexus and he cried out as pain rang through his
There was a scream in response that rippled into sobs at the end.
He tried standing up to yell “run!” but she'd started without him, and he'd only gotten partway up before one of
the guards grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked him straight into a headlock. One of the smellier guards, as it
turned out. He braced his elbow against the man's paunch and pushed, trying to free himself, but two good
punches to his side left him sagging like a sack of broken wedding from the man's grip. He couldn't keep air in
his lungs and each desperate inhale was a painful reminder of how badly things had gone for him. His whole body
was one sharp, ringing ache, aside from a duller throbbing in his ribs, where something had obviously been
“Enough of this,” the captain said. “Throw him into the hold and we'll round up the others.”
“This is a waste of time,” said his smelly friend, dragging Mordecai's dead weight back towards the hold. “If
Perfidyan didn't wanna pay these idiots, ”
“Times have changed,” the captain said. “Gotta move through the system. It's what sep'rates us from the
Orcs.” He nodded, and sniffed proudly. “Well, that and the long pants.”
“Yeah, and there's another thing,” Smelly said, thrusting his leg back and kicking the hold's door open before
pushing Mordecai down the steps headfirst. Actually, pushing is a generous term – he simply let go and guided
Mordecai's inevitable tumbling with a touch on the back. “Whatever happened to those belled tunics that you
wore with a belt? With the tights? Those were way more comfortable. These long pants are awfully
constricting.” He lifted his leg to demonstrate. “See? Can't hardly move in these things.”
The captain shook his head. “You just weren't meant for the modern world, Smelly,” he said.(13)
Mordecai would have loved to sit in on this fascinating exchange, but he had a prior engagement, namely lying in
a broken heap at the bottom of the steps. It was pitch dark in the hold, since the portholes were set too low to
catch any moon or starlight, and Mordecai hadn't been down there enough times to develop much of an
awareness of the place. He knew they stored things here — extra guitar strings, cables, tuning spoons, food
and water rations, their drunken rhythm section — but he'd never been sent down to fetch anything, so it all
looked unfathomably black and alien.
Slowly, as the pain in his limbs and head faded to manageable, he began to crawl forward. His legs dragged
uselessly behind him at first, but he guilted his knees into bending eventually, and he felt around ahead of him,
taking note of where barrels and cabinets were and making sure not to bang into them.
He'd squeezed through a small assemblage of crates when a rumbling sound rose up from somewhere east of
him. He turned and looked that way before remembering that he couldn't see anything, but a louder version of
what he'd just heard distracted him from feeling stupid. The third one was even louder; it sounded like a wild sea
moose(14) trying to roar and clear an esophageal blockage at the same time. By the time it subsided, Mordecai's
ears were ringing. He decided to address the source before it started up again, and he had an idea of what it
“Hammersfall?” he asked. “Is that you?”
The response was a piggish snort of recognition, and seconds later a watery burp.
“Hammersfall!” Mordecai yelled in that special way people yell when they don't want to be loud. “There are
guards up on deck holding us hostage.”
Silence. Then a groan.
“So chase them away and let me sleep.”
“I tried that,” Mordecai said. “There are too many of them.”
“And not enough of you, ya skinny tit,” Hammersfall said, chuckling.
“Dammit, Hammersfall, they chained the ship down in harbor! They're probably going to throw us in jail!”
“Ugh,” the dwarf grunted, “I knew that girl in your lap was underage.”
“She wasn't!” Mordecai yelled, louder than he'd intended.(15) “And this isn't about her. They're shaking us
down for a noise violation. They're probably gonna take our instruments.”
The door at the top of the steps opened.
“Hey!” yelled Smelly. “What's going on down here? Who's talking?” He started down the steps, leaving the
door open behind him and holding his torch out in front of him like a weapon. “Everyone down here is under
The torchlight gave Mordecai a good enough glimpse of the hold to realize that he was trapped. He wasn't
strong enough to run, and certainly not strong enough to move anything. He looked up at Smelly, who was on
his last two steps and not looking terribly pleased by the inconvenience.
“Hammersfall,” Mordecai said, watching Smelly turn and glare right into his eyes as he spoke. This was it. One
last try. “They're confiscating the booze, too.”
As soon as he said that, he shut his eyes.
When he opened them, he was propped up in a chair facing his chest of drawers. It took a minute for his eyes to
focus, and there were patches of numbness around his face and body that weren't there before. What wasn't
He groaned and looked around. His acoustic guitar lay on his bed, which someone had made for him, and the pile
of clothes he'd left at the foot of his bed that morning was gone. Moreover, Hammersfall was washing his hands
in a dented washbasin that he'd set on the large, oak chest where Mordecai kept his valuables.
“Hey,” he said, as sternly as he could. “What happened? Who moved my stuff?” He ran his hands through his
hair and felt something unfamiliar. “And who tied this rag around my head?”
“Oi, you're awake,” Hammersfall said, turning to him. He was smiling, but looked sober otherwise. An uneasy
feeling crept into Mordecai's stomach.
“Don't move around too much,” the dwarf said, plunging his hands back into the basin. “Ya took some pretty
nasty shots to the head, so hold still and let that grog soak in.”
Mordecai poked the rag. “Please tell me that's not why this rag is wet.”
Hammersfall chuckled. “Yer brave, that's no lie. Taking on those militiamen by yourself. I must say I'm
He reached for a towel and began drying his hands.
“A'course, they beat you half to death, but the important thing is ya tried. More than I expected from a man
who owns a carpet.”
Mordecai looked down at the opal-colored hooked rug under his feet. He'd won it playing guitar at a festival when
he was twelve and hadn't ever cleaned it – it looked like the lining of a griffin cage and was nearly paper-thin from
years of being walked on. He'd never thought of it as bourgeois(16), but he couldn't help feeling somewhat
ashamed of it now.
Shame quickly faded away to disgust and alarm, however, when he saw Hammersfall's meaty hands leaving red
streaks across the towel.
“Hammersfall,” he said, leading into a question he didn't want answered. “Where did those guards go?”
The dwarf chuckled.
“Relax,” he said, standing up and dropping the towel into the basin. “I'll be back with more grog.” As he walked
out, Mordecai could have sworn he heard him whistling. Something else Hammersfall never did unless he was
Someone knocked on the door.
“Hammersfall, if that's you, the grog fumes are making me dizzy,” Mordecai said.
“Good thing it's not Hammersfall, then,” said the Countess as she walked in. She had a black eye and cuts on
her face and arms, and was wearing a knee-length dress that, while black, was less formal and more playful than
the gown she performed in. Almost too cheerful for her pained expression and body language, Mordecai thought.
“Why is the hold locked?” the Countess asked, not looking at Mordecai yet.
Uh-oh, Mordecai thought.
“Not sure,” he said. “I've been up here being nursed by our drummer, apparently.”
The Countess laughed, but stopped short when her ribs told her to contain all jovialities until they'd healed. She
turned to look at him and frowned.
“You look awful,” she said. “What happened?”
“Had a scuffle with the Prosba militia over a noise ordinance,” Mordecai said, untying the rag and letting it drop on
his precious carpet. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Promoter pulled a knife on me when I came for our money and...” the Countess paused, “well, he didn't get what
he wanted. Neither did we, or at least not much of it.” She paused again. “Did you say noise ordinance?”
“Yeah. Total nonsense. They said —”
“Probably the same thing I heard,” the Countess said, interrupting him. “Just trying to rip us off.”
Mordecai sighed. “Did we get anything from this?”
“You mean besides beaten up?” the Countess asked, attempting a grin. “Yeah, I managed to coax some gold
out of him.” Her voice shook a little as she handed Mordecai a leather pouch full of, as she'd said, gold coins.
Mordecai's eyebrows shot up.
“There's blood under your fingernails,” he said, quietly.
The Countess' face fell into a worried pout.
“Not as much as in that wash basin,” she said. “We're probably in a lot of trouble.”
“Yeah,” Mordecai said. “Probably. Does the crew know?”
“Doubt it,” the Countess said. “They were all passed out by the time Ezekiel brought me back here.”
“Ezekiel brought you back?”
“Ugh, yes. It took him forever. I think the walk back to the ship sobered him up, but you wouldn't have known
it from how often that clumsy idiot dropped me.”
Mordecai was going to question the wisdom of allowing their cellist to carry anything, much less a wounded
woman, but he wisely didn't.
Someone knocked on the door again, and Hammersfall opened it before anyone could answer.
“Everyone okay in here?” he asked.
“Oh, y'know, bumps and bruises,” the Countess said. “But we're managing. Thank you for looking after us.”
“Yeah,” Mordecai said, having just then been prompted to remember his manners. “Thanks.”
Hammersfall smiled, his ruddy face taking on a proud luster.
“We dwarves are a bit more nurturing than ya'd give us credit for,” he said. “Ya need anything? I see Mordecai's
rag fell off.”
“I think we'll be okay,” the Countess said. “We just need rest.”
“Aye, true enough,” Hammersfall said. “I'm gonna dump this sack of garbage from the hold, then I'll get that
shiftless goon cellist of ours to make some tea.” As he slung a burlap sack over his shoulder and walked away,
Mordecai thought it looked lumpier than garbage usually did. And garbage had never dragged chains behind it,
“He's unusually calm,” the Countess said. Hammersfall was an excellent drummer and even-tempered for a
dwarf, but he still only had two moods: sober(17) and drunk(18). This hardly seemed the time to conjure up a
third, especially one this unsettlingly helpful.
“Yeah,” said Mordecai, nodding. “It creeps me out, too.” He stood up, tired of the chair, and stretched his legs,
then sat on his bed and leaned back.
“What should we tell the crew?” he asked.
“Nothing yet,” the Countess said. “We both need some rest before we tell them anything.”
“Good point,” said Mordecai, nearly supine. The Countess looked at him and smirked.
“I'll check in with you later,” she said, and walked out.
It hadn't been long, maybe a couple of hours, before Mordecai's bladder sent images of gushing waterfalls to his
brain and cut his nap short.
As he pulled up his pants, he glanced down and saw sturdy beams of sunlight shining through the window. They
looked solid enough to touch. Their tour had been short on sunny, cloudless days thus far, so he decided to
make the best of it and empty his chamber pot over the foredeck railing.
He almost emptied it on his shoes; the moment he opened the cabin door, sunlight flared his vision white and
nearly jostled the chamber pot from his sleepy grip. Holding it up to shield his eyes, he nodded at who he
assumed was the man at the wheel, then took cautious steps forward and left until his stomach pushed against
the rail, then he turned the pot over and hoped he hadn't disobeyed his grandmother's favorite adage by proxy.
He turned back towards the cabin, but hesitated. The corner of his poor sunblind eye caught the Countess, or at
least the back of her, as she leaned out over the railing near the figurehead. She was humming, and kicking her
bare feet up in turn, her hair set adrift by the breeze.
Mordecai kept hesitating, struck immobile by... something. The same something about the Countess that made
him linger when she entered a room and withdraw into himself when she left it. A lightness in his head and a
weight in his belly that he'd never learned to balance. Something that became “oh, nothing” when a sweaty,
smiling woman rested her head on his shoulder and asked what he was thinking about.
He was opening his mouth to say something when the breeze interrupted, gusting and blowing the skirty end of
the Countess' dress nearly up to her shoulders before she caught it and yanked it back down. Mordecai heard
several shouts of “whoo!” from up in the sails and took that as an exit cue.
Moving water always calmed the Countess down. All the frothing and churning and bubbling made her mind's
chatter seem insignificant. She watched the ship cleave its way through the water and away from what she
hoped would be the last of this tour's unpleasantness. It was a vain hope; men as unappealing as Perfidyan
usually had friends, and rumors of them fleeing a fine rather than paying it were likely to spread.
She looked back down at the water. It never stopped moving, even after it had settled, but there was always
someplace for it to go. Currents guided it along. And they'd swept someone away from a rock-strewn farm in
the middle of nowhere and out into the sun, so it stood to reason that they knew the rest of the way better than
The wind was another matter. She felt an intimate rush of cool air and her skirt billowed above her hips before
she could protest her chilly knees. As she pulled it back down, catcalls rained down from above.
“I already got paid this week!”
The Countess tucked her pistol back into her garter(20) and arched an eyebrow, looking up into the sails. They
were silent. Then she looked over at the door to the cabin, just as it closed. She smiled, and gave the crew a
sardonic curtsy before strolling back to the cabin, her thoughts rolling up into a wave.
Mordecai's guitar had better be in tune, she thought.
1. A scowling mermaid holding a guitar very similar to that of the Countess' guitarist, Mordecai Blackheart, and cradling the vocal microphone
speaker to her otherwise bare bosom.
2. Eight performances total, in case anyone's counting.
3. Humans lie the way they breathe, reflexively and often, so who knew whether or not those stories were true.
4. Ah, superstition.
5. Or at her, considering the distance
6. Were one to watch the Countess walk, one couldn't help but notice that she didn't weave in and out of available space. She walked straight
ahead, plowing through that dense thicket of humanity as if expecting them to part before her and not adjusting to the fact that they didn't.
7. As well as she could run in a full dress and corset, anyway.
8. Eager, that is. Not bright green.
9. Or, for that matter, questioned.
10. Quite literally a burlap sack of iron pellets left over from several days' worth of metalsmithing. Like all uncomfortable, ugly furnishings,
they're said to correct your posture.
11. An argument which, like all arguments that are practically matters of life or death at the time, he could no longer remember.
12. Elves were said to eschew underpants since, as elves, they had no genitals. Non-Elves think this is very funny, Hammersfall in particular.
13. How about that? Someone else calls that guy Smelly.
14. Picture a moose if it were a 2.5-ton pinniped whose mating call carried for over a mile. Now thank your lucky stars it's gone extinct.
15. Given the immediacy of the situation, he left out “...as far as I know.”
16. Partly because he didn't know what “bourgeois” meant.
17. Gruff, frowny, plainspoken.
18, Laughing, belching, bawdy limericking, and slapping people on the back hard enough to dislodge important vertebrae.
19. “Don't piss into the wind” being that adage. Mordecai's granny was an earthy woman.
20. Well, she had to put it somewhere.
Dave Kiefaber is a professional blogger and soon-to-be graduate student who lives in Baltimore. His previous
publishing credits include Lead Pipe, Front Porch Journal, The Southernmost Review,The Gettysburg Mercury, The
Bullet, and Raven Poetry 'Zine. He has recently taken over Corn Car—an alternative fuels blog—and is a contributing
writer for AdFreak, where total strangers call him names every now and again because he makes fun of things on the
Internet. He has trouble finding hats that fit. www.corncar.com www.adfreak.com