Tuesday, 23 September 2014

At the Sign of The Crowned Radish (Part 2)

Here is the second half of my first foray into the new adventures of Malartic and Lampourde, thieves and assassins in 17th century Paris, from the pages of the otherwise unremarkable Captain Fracasse by Theophile Gautier.  This is the closest thing to fanfiction I’ve written since several extremely poor Warhammer stories I wrote in my teens.  However, it seems to have worked for The Flashman Papers, which are effectively 12 volumes of Tom Brown’s School Days fanfiction, albeit considerably better than the material they’re based on.  I’ll try and take those as my model.

Astute readers will have noted that for this story I’ve abandoned my usual preference for writing in the first person, largely because this is how the characters are written in the original novel, but also because I think it makes it easier to write the dialogue between the two protagonists.  I’ve realised that one of the things that I love writing is bickering.  Quick back and forth repartee between two characters is something I thoroughly enjoy writing, and it’s one of the reasons I like having multiple primary protagonists, be they men on a pilgrimage, Bow Street Runners (one of my favourite NaNo projects) or a pair of swashbuckling French criminals.

The very close relationship between Malartic and Lampourde as described in the novel merely adds to this enjoyment, and having two villainous swordsmen bickering like an old married couple is great fun to write.

Be all that as it may, I present to you the conclusion of At the Sign of the Crowned Radish:

At the Sign of The Crowned Radish  (Part 2)

“I am unhappy, Malartic,” Lampourde said as he stared moodily into the cup of wine that stood before him at their table in The Crowned Radish.  It was his second bottle, yet he had taken no enjoyment from the first, and this one promised nothing better.
            Malartic tilted back his head, blowing a stream of smoke up towards the stained rafters of The Crowned Radish.  He watched the grey tendril drift upwards until it mingled with the thick cloud that obscured the ceiling of the entire taproom.
            “I thought you might be, “he said after a while.  “You’ve barely drunk a thing.  Normally you’d be on your sixth bottle by now.”
            “That’s not why I’m unhappy.”
            “You’re wealthy.  You’re always miserable when you’re wealthy.  Go and play a few games of lansquenet.  That’ll help.”
            “That’s not it either.”
            Malartic took another long draw of his pipe, holding the smoke in his cheeks before exhaling slowly.  “This is about that Marquis isn’t it.”
            “I was assured that he was a fine swordsman!”
            “Was he not?”
            “He was a beardless boy who barely knew which end of his sword to hold!  He nigh filled his breeches when I attacked him, and then whined about that little scratch I gave him as though I’d run him through!”
            “My two weren’t half bad, considering they were both so young.”
            “Hah!  Lucky you.”  There was silence for a time.  Lampourde stared gloomily into his cup, while Malartic lounged in his chair gazing up at the smoke-shrouded ceiling.  A minute passed, then two.  At exactly the same moment, they both spoke, Lampourde decisively, while Malartic spoke with a resigned sigh.
            “I’m going to give the money back.”
            “You’re going to give the money back.”
            Lampourde glowered at his companion.  “I have not earned my fee.  A partial refund is required if nothing else.”
            “You really don’t have to.  You were paid to wound him, he is wounded.  Leave it there and drink up.”
            “Impossible.  I was paid to take on a swordsman.  I charged accordingly, and expected to enjoy it.  Instead I have money I don’t deserve and didn’t even gain any satisfaction from the job.”
            “Do you deserve the money you steal?”
            “Of course!  I have to steal it.  It’s completely different.” 
Malartic just grunted.  It was not the first time he had had this conversation with Lampourde, and it would almost certainly not be the last.  “Then I suppose we will have to hunt down this de Forchers and give him his money back.”
            “Well, not all of it, obviously.”
            “Obviously.  Now cheer up and drink up.”  He did.
Late the next morning, the two swordsmen went out in search of their quarry.  Lampourde, having made up his mind to return the money had drunk his fill and gambled recklessly.  Aside from three livres that he had put aside as the Comte de Forcher’s, he was now penniless, and was suffering the inevitable consequences of a night of excess.  Malartic had also drunk heavily and stayed awake into the early hours, but unlike his colleague he showed no ill-effects whatsoever, a gift he had been born with, and which he showed no sign of relinquishing.
            They made a few enquiries, and a little while after noon, they found themselves outside the city residence of the Comte de Forchers.  The house seemed quiet and still, with shutters closed even at that late hour.  Nonetheless, Lampourde boldly stepped up to the door and banged on it.  There was silence for a while, and they were on the verge of withdrawing when there was a noise from within and the door was opened by an elderly servant.
            He took in the two men on the doorstep with a glance, perceiving their faded, tattered clothing, well-used weapons and worn boots with a considerable distaste that he did not bother to conceal.  “Yes?”
            Lampourde smiled at him.  “We require an audience with his lordship the Comte de Forchers.”
            The old domestic gave him a sickly smile.  “I think not.”  He started to close the door, but Lampourde put out a hand, holding it open.
            “I’m afraid I must insist.”
            The old man began to look nervous.  “What is it that you want with him?”
“Oh, nothing violent if that’s what you’re thinking.  We just need to speak to him.
“The Comte is not receiving visitors today.  Come back tomorrow.”
            “We will not detain him long.  Please inform him that it is with regards to the commission he gave us involving the Marquis D’Allembret.”
            The old man’s eyes bulged.  “Wh-what?”
            “Just be so good as to tell him that.”
            “I… Yes, please wait here.”  With that, and leaving the door wide open, the old man turned and hurried deeper into the house.
            The two waited patiently on the doorstep, and after a few minutes the old man returned.  “Please follow me messieurs,” he said with a sudden courtesy and respect.  He led them through to a well-furnished sitting-room, where they found a young man waiting for them.  He was barely into his twenties, well-dressed and noble in appearance, although this was spoilt somewhat by the dark circles around his eyes, and the look of misery upon his face.
            The old man shuffled out, and the two swordsmen bowed.  There was silence for a while, the young nobleman staring at them, while they waited politely.  Eventually Lampourde cleared his throat and spoke.
            “Monsieur, to come straight to the point and limit our trespass upon your precious time, I am here because I cannot in good conscience keep all of the money that you were so generous as to bestow upon me as recompense for the small service that you requested.  You assured me that Monsieur d’Allembret was a swordsman, and I priced myself accordingly.  It seems you were mistaken, no doubt having heard an exaggerated account from some friend of his.  As it is, I have kept some of the money on the grounds that the task was completed to your specifications, but for my own peace of mind, I return three of the four livres to you.”  He held out a small purse containing the money.
            De Forchers made no move to take it, instead staring white-faced at the swordsman.  After a moment, he swallowed, closing his eyes.  He opened them, again, mastering himself with a visible effort.   “Am I to understand that you two are the ones who assaulted the Marquis d’Allembret last night?”
            Lampourde frowned.  “Your excellency knows we are, surely?  You hired us yourself.  Ah, unless the man we spoke to was an agent of yours?”
            “It was certainly not me, nor was it anyone in my employ!”
            “The man who hired us told us very clearly that he was acting on your behalf.”
            “Then he was lying.  This whole mess is a plot to ruin me!”
            “I’m sorry monsieur, but I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
            “The coward d’Allembret and I were due to fight a duel this morning, over certain very offensive remarks he made to me.  This morning, as I prepared to go to the meeting, I was informed that the Marquis and his friends have been spreading word that I hired a couple of ruffians to injure him sufficiently that he would be unable to take part in the duel.  Apparently I did this because I was afraid of the meeting.”  This last was said with cold disgust.  “I am disgraced.  His friends clearly heard the attackers say that I had sent them.”
            “That is indeed what you… What the person told us to say.”
            The young Comte sneered.  “If I really was such a coward as to hire ruffians to assault a man, would I really be so stupid as to attach my name to it?”
            Lampourde and Malartic exchanged a look.  “Monsieur,” Lampourde began, “we have obviously been made use of in some plan to inconvenience you-“
            “Inconvenience?  I am disgraced!  I am ruined!”  He bowed his head, and his shoulders slumped in defeat.
            “I can only apologise, and say that my colleague and I were acting in good faith.  Since you insist that it was not yourself that hired us, I must look elsewhere for the person to whom I owe this money.”
            The Marquis looked up.  “When you find them, please do me the kindness of telling me who it is, so that I can be revenged on them.”
            Lampourde winced.  “Monsieur, you put me in a very awkward position.  It is a matter of professional ethics that we never reveal the name of a client.”
            He nodded slowly.  “I see,” he said sarcastically.  “Even footpads and assassins have a code of honour!  You cannot at least tell me what this employer of yours looked like?”
            “I cannot.  He was muffled and his hat was pulled down.  Even if I was not constrained by the customs of my profession, I could tell you nothing about him.
            “I see.  In that case, please do me the courtesy of removing yourselves from my house.”
            Lampourde merely bowed.  “I apologise for the underhanded manner in which we were used against you Monsieur.  As we can be of no further service, we will take our leave.”
            Outside, Malartic sighed.  “Well, that’s that then.  I suppose we will have to keep the money after all.  Shall we retire to some convenient hostelry?”
            “Nonsense!  I have determined to return this money to its rightful owner, and that is what I shall do!”
            Malartic raised a sceptical eyebrow.  “Oh?  How, pray?”
            Lampourde glowered sullenly.  “I don’t know.”
            “Then shall we at least retire for something to drink while we plan our next move?”  Lampourde assented, and they started back to Malartic’s lodgings, where he claimed he had a very fine bottle of claret that might help them think.
            They were perhaps halfway there when a carriage came careering down the street towards them.  The two barely had time to leap aside.  As it was, their boots and breeches were spattered with mud, and the liveried driver hurled a torrent of the foulest invective at them as he hurtled past.
            Lampourde stared after the carriage open-mouthed.  Then, without a word he turned and started running after it.  Malartic cursed and followed.  “Stop Lampourde!  Stop you idiot!  You can’t kill every driver who happens to swear at you!”
            The swordsman paid him no heed, continuing his chase.  After several minutes of running, he stopped, puffing and blowing, and watched as the carriage pulled into the yard of a large and luxurious-looking townhouse.
            Malartic caught up, likewise out of breath, and with a very slight pinkish tinge to his pallid face, which in other men would be almost purple with exertion.
            “What on earth’s the matter with you, dolt!”
            Lampourde looked at him.  “The crest of the carriage door…” he panted.
            “It’s the same as the crest on the purse of the man who hired us.”
            Malartic’s eyes widened.  “Are you sure?”
            “Quite.  I’d completely forgotten it until that buffoon almost ran us down.”
            “Then let us find out to whom it belongs.”  They advanced to the door of the house, and Malartic knocked.  Presently it was opened by a liveried servant, who looked at them with undisguised contempt.
           Malartic smiled, bowing slightly.  “Pardon monsieur.  I was hoping you could settle a slight disagreement.  My friend insists that this is the habitation of Madame Le Carresciue.  I disagreed.  Is this in fact the case.”
            “Certainly not.  This is the city residence of his Grace the Marquis D’Allembret.”
            Malartic stared at him for a second, then blinked.  “I beg your pardon?”
            “The Marquis D’Allembret resides here.  Now, if you have no further business, I suggest you leave.”  With that, he shut the door.
            After a moment, Malartic turned to his companion.  “It rather seems that the Marquis hired us to attack himself.”
            Lampourde considered this.  “It makes sense I suppose.  If he’s as errant a coward and as poor a swordsman as he seemed, it would be a fine way of both getting out of the duel and ruining his rival.”
            “The cunning devil!”  Malartic sounded genuinely admiring.  A wily schemer himself, he had a lively appreciation for the plots and stratagems of others.
            “That’s as may be, but I still need to give him his money back.”
            “He may not appreciate it, since it’s based on the fact that he’s a coward and no good with a blade, as you say.”
            “It makes no difference at all.  I have decided that I would repay some of the money, and that is what I will do.”
“Shall I knock again then?”
            “I doubt that we would be given admittance, even if we explained.”
            “Especially if we explained, I imagine.”
            “Quite.  Let us wait.”
            Taking a position opposite the house, they waited patiently.         After some time, the carriage was once more brought to the front of the house, at which point they swiftly advanced.  They reached it just as the front door opened, and the Marquis d’Allembret himself emerged.  He was very well dressed, his costume spoiled not a whit by the sling of pure white silk that bound his right arm, giving him a dignified, almost swashbuckling air.  He stopped short at the sight of the two criminals, his face turning as white as his sling.
            The two bowed low.  “Good afternoon monsieur.” Lampourde began.  The Marquis let out a strangled, incoherent gurgle, staring with bulging eyes.
            “I have come to return to you some of the money you were good enough to pay me for the service of which you know.”
            “I- I- I…  I don’t know what you’re talking about…” he stuttered.
            “I understand of course, but when I gave you a price, it was under a misapprehension.  As a result, I return three fourths of the amount.”  He held out the small purse.
            “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.  I didn’t hire you, I’ve never seen you before in my life, and now I really must be going.”  He made to step past them and into the carriage, but Lampourde stepped into his way.
            “Forgive me my lord, but I clearly saw your crest upon the purse that you carried that night.”
            “Don’t be ridiculous!  That’s impossible!  Why, it was pitch black and I…“  He stopped short, frozen by the import of what he’d just said.
            “Indeed it was, or very nearly,” Lampourde replied courteously, “but a life of nocturnal dealings has left me with excellent night vision.  Now, here is your money, less one livre which I take for the successful completion of your commission.  I trust your wound doesn’t trouble you too much?”
            “Ah, no, not too badly.”  The young nobleman ignored the proffered purse and appeared to be thinking hard.  “Um, perhaps you would be good enough to come with me?”
            Turning, he led them through into a sitting room and bid them take their ease.  “I shall go and ask for some refreshments to be brought for us while we discuss matters.”  He stepped out and closed the door behind him.
            The two criminals sat down, stretching out their legs.  “This Marquis seems a decent sort,” Malartic said cheerfully.  “I admire his deviousness, and it sounds like he may have more work for us.  I don’t care to be the employee of any one man for too long, but it’s good to have steady work for a while.”
            “He can’t keep paying me to wound him every time he’s challenged to duel though.”
            “True.  Perhaps we’ll be paid to wound others instead.”
            “Perhaps.  I’d prefer a good clean killing though.  It’s so easy to get a wounding wrong, even for someone of my accomplishments.  I find it quite stressful.”
            There was a sudden commotion in the hall outside, the sound of several sets of running feet, and the door burst open.  Men in the Marquis’ livery rushed in carrying cudgels and hurled themselves at the two villains.
            Malartic was the quickest to act, leaping upright and sweeping up his chair, he flung it at the first man, sending him reeling backwards, crashing into his friends.  The two took the brief moment this gave them to draw their swords, and a brief but ferocious battle commenced.
            One man swung his club two handed at Lampourde, who dodged back.  The tip of the cudgel missed his nose by an inch, and as it passed he lunged forwards driving his point through the man’s throat.  The servant fell to his knees, choking and gasping as he died.
            Malartic had taken the offensive, leaping forwards and slashing his rapier back and forth to force his opponents back.  One man got past his blade, bringing his cudgel down hard, forcing the pale swordsman to take it on the forte of his rapier and risk breaking the narrow blade.  Thankfully it held and his riposte took the man through the chest.
            Lampourde was now moving up to help, delivering a slashing cut to the forehead of one man with his point, causing blood to pour down into his eyes.  Temporarily blinded, the man staggered back out of the fight.  Lampourde followed this with a long, low lunge, carrying him beneath the sweep of a club and driving his point through the thigh of its owner, the blade sticking out through the back of the man’s leg by a clear four inches.  Lampourde recovered, dragging his rapier free as the man shrieked and collapsed.  The remaining servants fled the room, slamming the door behind them.
            Shouting could now be heard outside the house.  “Make way!  Make way for the watch!”
            “Quickly!”  They could hear the Marquis shouting.  “There are assassins in the house, no doubt that wretch De Forchers is trying to finish what he started last night!  They tried to kill me!”
            Lampourde turned to his comrade.  “I feel that it is time to withdraw.”
            “I concur.  It would be rude to stay any longer.” 
Lampourde reclaimed the chair that had done such sterling service already, this time flinging it at the sitting room window, which overlooked a small garden.  The window exploded in a shower of glass and lead, and in moments the two of them were out and climbing over the wall into the alleyway beyond.
They took a circuitous route home, wary of pursuit, and this gave them time to ponder.  They walked in silence for some time before Lampourde eventually spoke.
“It seems to me that this Marquis’ ingratitude removes from us a number of obligations.”
Malartic nodded.  “I would agree.”
“Not least that which requires that we keep his identity secret.”
“This is true.”
“And since we have been robbed of that future employment that we thought was ours, we must make shift to procure work.”
“Once again our minds work as one.”
“Shall we then?”
            “Yes.  Yes, I think we will.”

A couple of weeks later, the Marquis d’Allembret staggered out of the tavern.  He was rather drunk, but extremely happy.  His wound had been the source of much interest and sympathy from a number of exceedingly agreeable young ladies, who thrilled to the tale of how he had fought off his attacker, mortally wounding him at the cost of his own injury.  Even now that the bandage was off and he could use his arm again, he made a great show of wincing and rubbing it occasionally, just to remind them of his courage.
            He glanced blearily around, irritated that his servant was nowhere to be seen.  He was supposed to be waiting here to escort his master home.  The Marquis determined to have the fool beaten when they got back.
            He heard a movement from the alley behind him and turned, snarling irritably.
            “Imbecile, where have you…”  His words trailed into a gurgle.
            The taller of the two masked men gave a small bow, touching the brim of his hat respectfully.
            “Good evening monsieur.  The Comte de Forchers sends his regards.   Now, I must ask you to draw your sword.”


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