Sunday, November 6, 2011

Canes of Peach Brandy

Av did not recoil from the bundle of canes that clattered unceremoniously on his table. The lack of reaction did not surprise Shar. After all, Shar was certain he’d never once seen Av recoil from anything but the mention of a bath. The books Av had been reading, though, that was surprising.

Both men (if Av was a man, Shar was never quite certain) eyed the canes as if neither understood how they’d gotten there. “I’m not much of a thief,” Shar announced, “but when I am, I try for the good contraband.” He gestured to the canes, almost tensely. “You know these, of course?”
“Cains?” Av back-handedly brushed one off his book.

“No.” The cane briskly lifted, pulling Av’s attention with it. “Oriental canes.” Shar tugged on the handle, and it gave way with a wooden ‘pop.’ A small bottle of peach brandy slid into Shar’s palm, and the offering was set before Av. Shar grinned proudly.

Av, however, was not so impressed.

“It’s good.” Shar tried to wave away the obvious suspicion of as-of-yet unidentified liquids offered for consumption. “Have at it.” He pulled brandy from another cane and downed it as proof.

Av followed suit and returned to the papers. This evening could have been considered entirely normal for both Shar and Av, had their roles not been apparently reversed. Usually it was Shar pouring over papers, loudly reciting poetry in an ‘inauspicious’ attempt to educate his less poetic counterpart, whom, of course, was far more interested in reviewing his loot or debating if those vake-skin boots were real vake-skin or not (it had thus been determined that the boots were counterfeit, but very high quality despite.)

But no. Tonight, the picture had been turned upside-down. Now, it was Shar who attempted to gloat over capering, and it was Av left attempting to concentrate on parchment and old ink. A disconcerting affair, in Shar’s humble opinion.

Shar reached over and tapped the book his friend was reading. “I’ve heard tale you’re at the University now.”

“Aye. S’right.”


Av was never known for his conversational skills. Of course, Shar expected as much, and only bemusedly lifted an eyebrow. “And you’re actually doing some learning?”

Av’s expression remained characteristically unreadable. “Aye. Library’s naffin ‘uge.”

“It is.” Wooden chair scraped across the old deck of Av’s steamer-home. Waves lapped quietly at the docks, and Shar settled into the chair in time with the boat’s rocking. He pulled one of the offending books to him. “You’ve been upstairs then?”

Av grunted. Had Shar not known him well enough, he might have mistaken it for ‘of course.’

Shar returned the book to the stack without further investigation. He’d already read FF Gerbrants ‘On Intoxications and Hallucinations’ several times during his stint as an amateur chemist. “No mind. You’ll wind up there eventually. And the games- you’ve seen the games?”

Av snorted, finally pulled slightly from his concentration on words likely far too large for him. “Croquet and shite?”

“Great Games.”

The keywords caught immediately, and for the first time, Av’s eyes flickered curiously in Shar’s direction. The Gentleman continued conversationally. “They’re wonderful games. Truly Great Games. I love to watch the players and the coaches compete.” Shar leaned forward, selecting another cane and withdrawing another ounce of brandy from its stem. “It’s been quite a mess on the field lately, though, hasn’t it? Quite some bad strategy.”

Gazes held a moment, and Shar waited for the real meaning of his trivial dribble to sink in. Unfortunately, Shar’s involvement in any kind of ‘Great Game’ was far too inconceivable. Av dismissed it. “Oi, I hafta talk about it ‘nough at the uni. Les not bring tha pussyfightin’ inta da boat, aight?”

Shar felt a wrenching sensation at his chest. Looking down to find there were no hooks or daggers actually there, he returned to his attempt not to plead. “It’s not pussyfightin’ I’m talking about. These Games are the pinnacle of importance to a gentleman such as myself, Av, you must know! Cheese-rolling. Now that’s a ‘pussyfightin’ ’ game. What with all the cheese quality ratings and the coaching and the Cheesemongers involved. Not a pretty event.”

It was growing quickly apparent that Av did not give proper credit to the amount of trouble Shar was capable of winding up in. The prattle had fallen on deaf ears- all but the word ‘Cheesemonger.’ “Oh, you don’t know about cheese-rolling?” Shar took a deep breath and downed another drink. The empty bottle landed harshly on the table top, tinged with the slightest hint of frustration.

Av looked directly at Shar. “…don’t much keep up with the Cheesemonger.”
“SHH SHH SHH!” Shar lept from the chair, bumped the table with his hip and canes rattled loudly. The man just barely managed to restrain himself from clamping hands over Av’s mouth.

It took a short second more for Shar to regain some kind of composure. He slipped over to the dusty windows of the steamer and pulled at the edges of rotting curtains. Fingers alighted on the dial of Av’s gas lamp, and the air dimmed.

Av made no movement to interrupt his friend’s precautions. Instead, he took a small sip of brandy while his eyes followed Shar’s prowling. Av leaned back when his friend dared to returned to the table over which many, many private conversations had passed since their first meeting. Av’s elbow took his weight as the guest chair took Shar’s creaking form. As always, Av waited for Shar to speak first.

Another cane was withdrawn from the stack, and Shar’s twitching fingers began to fumble with the secret opening. “I’ve been spending time with a woman. As per usual.” Finally, the handle popped. Shar continued determinedly fiddling with the compartment. “But this particular woman is sad, Av, really sad.” Ah, the puff was attempting to keep with the small-talk facade. “She enjoys the cheese-rolling game. It takes her mind off of troubles.”

Peach brandy splashed when the cork finally relented. Shar melted with a deep exhale. This time, the alcohol was nursed. “Though,” Shar murmured, “lately, the game hasn’t suited her tastes. She’s…” Shar’s eyes flickered to the side in a very uncharacteristically shady manner, “She’s confided in me her desire to leave cheese-rolling behind. And the Gents and I have become very concerned, because, you see, Alice has great sway with such whims.”
Shar paused for some kind of response, but Av remained ever silent. As expected, Shar added more. “Actually, she doesn’t like sports at all. She wants to bring them all down.” A slow gulp of brandy. “The entire Great Game…s.”


“She trusts me, Av…” His bottle clicked gently on the tabletop. Shar’s fingertips left it there for his consideration. “And she’s requested my assistance with the task.”


The sounds of the Neath filtered through the cracks in the steamer’s construction. A far-off chorus of drunken party-goers, the chattering of a handsome pulled over cobblestone, a cat’s hiss. None of it was enough to drown out the truth:

“But what is a game without any players?”

It sank. Shar could feel Av’s gaze on him, knew the man was pulling information that not even Shar had of himself. Calculation, even in this dim light- perhaps even particularly in this dim light. The thief remained silent for more reason than profession.

Av turned his head to take a long swig of brandy. He grunted. “M’not mucha a fan o’ any games these days.”

The response meant something to Av, but Shar had difficulty accepting it. Shar shook his head, taking his turn to read into Av. Not much was left available to interpret. “And if you…had the power to disperse such activities, would you take the opportunity? Hypothetically speaking.”

“Th’ ‘hole deal?”

“As we know it.”

The giant shrugged. “If one game dies, ‘nother grows, ey? S’not much sense t’ tryin’ ta end it. Chilluns need act’vities.”

Shar sat up and his fingers pressed against each other to help craft words. “And so, say, being charged with the task of dispersing said activities…” Shar’s gaze turned upward in thought, “And say that you’re not expected to say ‘no’… And that, if, indeed, you said ‘no’- as would be the sane response…- it is, as a result, very likely that you would be permanently killed in the process- hypothetically, this entire speculation, of course- … what would you do then?”

Av snorted. “‘Avent yet found anyth’ng man ‘nough ta kill me.” He didn’t bother to hide the snide grin behind the brandy bottle, “I roight wouldn’t be lettin’ anythin’ push me ’round.”

Hackles rose and Shar leaned forward. He started loudly, “Okay, so say-!” Shar was cut off by Av’s sideways glance. He cleared his throat, and spoke softly to Av’s satisfaction. “Say, instead, that it was me. Me, who was the target of permanent death. What would you do then?”

The question had a sobering effect. Brandy slowly lowered from Av’s lips as he considered. “I wouldn’ risk a frien’s life.”

Shar drew back sharply, and both men caught the jerk of shock. Naturally, Av held his ground, retaining his mater-of-fact demeanor as he took another casual sip of brandy. It took Shar longer to come to terms with the statement.

Shar’s fist clenched and relaxed repeatedly. He studied the dirt splotches across the boat’s floor. “Y-yes… yes of course,” Shar said quietly. He straightened, nodding. “But Av… would you sacrifice the lives of countless players to save the life of one you cared about?”

The corner of Av’s lips briefly tugged in one direction. “Sacrifice er ‘risk’? An’ lives er perm’nant lives?”

Shar couldn’t look at Av when he dryly clarified, “Permanently sacrifice the lives of dozens, maybe more, thereby irrevocably altering the very existence of the Game as we know it.”

“A-a-” Av shuddered.

Shar watched his friend cutoff the knee-jerk reaction. Av’s lips pulled shut, and Shar could see the slightest tension seep into every muscle in the man’s body.

The thief shifted gears, drank, and muttered off-handedly, “d’pen’s on the people. D’pen’s on the person.”

Shar’s finger pressed into the table to emphasize his seriousness. “These people are highly trained professionals. They’re players; they have to be. Key players, Av. VIPs, even. And the person you save? Well,” hand flourished upward, “your closest companion. The only being on earth you can trust with your life and the only life on earth who trusts your being.”

Shar’s harsh tone had the intended affect. Av’s discomfort resurfaced and the man began to shift in his chair. Eyes looked around, instinctively taking in routs of egress, cataloging items he already knew were there, scrutinizing stains on the walls he’d never determined the cause of- but he couldn’t escape. Shar held him there, and Av could only slip his hand under his large, worn-down top hat and scratch at greasy hair.

The thief’s body echoed his mind. Slowly the fidgeting settled, his brows creased, and his jaw set resolutely. Hand returned into view, settled on the table, and he looked directly at Shar. “‘F they got in th’ game,” he murmured pointedly, “they knew wh’ they be riskin… an’ I’d break any numbah ah the naffers ‘f necessary.”

Seeing Av’s resolution dwarfed Shar’s anger, twisted at his gut and brought forward the uncertainties that had lead him there. The heated emotion he’d had one moment ago was replaced by something equally as potent: fear.
Color lifted from Shar’s face, and for once, lips parted without the dribbling of words. The air was growing thicker, harder to breathe. “You wouldn’t…” Shar retreated slightly, “run and hide or-” he coughed, “off the individual who gave you the mission or, ah, tell… someone… about it… and hope to lord you don’t get killed in the crossfire?”

The questions stirred Av’s determined continence. Brows lowered, and he leaned forward to close the distance Shar had placed between them. “‘F ‘m bein’ given a mission I don’ wanna do. I don’ do it.”

Shar’s fists slammed onto the table and contents exploded. Canes rolled and clattered hectically over the floor where pages of books were bent at odd angles by gravity. Shar shuffled in frustration through the mess and withdrew another brandy, yanked at the cork but couldn’t get it free. The outright defiance of his irritation’s direction caused it to falter and die.

Av watched Shar wither before him as the weight of his situation crashed downward. The lanky man slipped back into his chair, unopened brandy bottle clinked on the floor amongst the debris, and his face pooled in agonized hands. “She knows where I live.” His voice strained. “She knows about May, she knows about you-” The admittance caused righteous anger to flare, and it released in the splintered cane Shar kicked to the far wall.


Av watched Shar, though his friend did not return the service. Av’s head tilted forward. “Sen’ May over ‘ere,” he urged, “An’ don’t worry ’bout Av.”

Shar’s jaw set and his glare remained pinpointed on the shattered cane. “I don’t want to disappear…” He swallowed, and fingers curled. “I could. I could abandon my lodgings, drop out of my social rings, hide in the tomb colonies or the forgotten quarter or in the highest reaches of the Flit- whatever it took.”

Shar turned his head to Av, and the anger slowly faded into desperation. “But she’ll come after you. After anyone to draw me out. She’ll bring down Society, my political circles, the University. Everything.” Voice dropped, and finally, a tremble escaped in his words. “I don’t want to live in fear, Av.”

Av waited.

“She has a daughter,” Shar whispered. He began to gesture uselessly, fumbling to grasp onto every line slipping away from him. “Christine will secede Alice if something were to happen. I can’t take on the Cheesemonger alone, but she’ll kill me if I try anything otherwise-”

“Ey,” Av interrupted squarely, “Shar. Tell me.”

Shar looked up helplessly.

“You a man, er not?”

A pointed question. A simple one.

One far more difficult to answer than Shar had imagined.

Av nodded, firmly keeping Shar’s wavering gaze. “Whot yer gut tellin’ ya?” he pointed. “Listen ta it.”

Shar blinked.

“Stop pussyin’ around with risks ‘n calculations.” And Av drank to his own words.

The shift was subtle. Shar’s breath caught in his throat, held there as if in preparation for the coming change. Shar’s gaze turned away from Av, not from his shame, but because to him, Av was no longer there. Or, perhaps, Shar was no longer there, caught up in the winding movement of puzzle pieces sliding into place within him.

Av nodded.

Finally, slowly, Shar nodded too.

The gentleman rose, drew up his pristine hat into his hands and fitted it properly upon his head. Shar expelled a heavy breath, again nodding, but this time decisively, if not a bit shaken. Shar flashed the most grand smile he could muster, and after it settled there, Shar felt it was real. “I’m sending May to you for a time,” he announced in a business-like manner. “Please, do keep her out of too much trouble.”

Shar did not address the growing grin on Av’s lips. He drew up a cane and tapped it against the ground once. “And have fun at the University for a while. I hear there’ll be war on the streets.”

Av’s grin transformed into full satisfaction. He raised his peach brandy glass. “Aight. I come ‘elp ya if ye need. Till then, I watch yer girl, aight?”
The friends shared a sly smile, and Shar tipped his hat. “I owe you more than peach brandy, Av.”

Av grunted, and of course, Shar understood.

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