A loud knock sounded.
“You in or out, Benny?” Linhander said with a voice that was sharper than the sound of his knuckles on the old, oak table.
Bentwhistle looked at the wooden cards in his hand, but his mind dwelled on another game entirely – one whose stakes were more than the pile of tabers in the center of the table. His eyes drifted up to the men who sat around him – loyalists all. Not long ago, they would have died for the man that they’d only recently sent floating away into oblivion.
Likely, some of them felt proud about what they’d done.
He put two of his cards down – Rook and Sparrow – two of the men let out huffs while Linhander slammed his own cards down. “I’d almost call you a damn cheat if I didn’t know any better,” he said – clearly annoyed.
“Glad you know better, then,” Ben said as he scraped the tabers towards himself. “And now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“Take the money and run, eh? That’s how it is?” Tenpick said. “Like a fuckin’ cutpurse, this one.”
Vimmer took a sip from his cup. “Gotta go console the sad mistress,” he said while he wiped the swill from his lips.
Ben put his hands on the table and stared at Vimmer.
The room was quiet as a morgue.
“Stars, Benny,” Vimmer said as he shrank back like a cat from water, “just fuckin’ with you is all.”
“Show some fucking respect, Vim,” Bentwhistle said.
No one moved as he put his winnings in his satchel and began to turn.
“Spilled fuckin’ milk if you asked me,” Vim said under his breath.
Ben looked back. Tenpick and Linhander slid away from the table. Vimmer looked back and forth like a man in his cups trying to figure out which way was left or right.
“That’s two,” Ben said, his fingers extended on the gauntlet that was his false hand. “Don’t make it three, Vim. You won’t get a fourth.”
They sat quietly as Ben strode away. The hallways flickered with the glow of Cinder Lamps that cast shadows that always seemed oddly circular. Out in the oceanic void, the darkness swam eternal while the myriad dots of light floated in the beyond like celestial fireflies in the devil’s abyss.
He hadn’t liked sending Tes to the Amber district. He knew what it was. Everyone knew what it was. Even royalty walked cautiously there. Too many people drunk, or stupid, or both. Too many people poor or greedy, or both. That it kept the darker appetites of a world grown too hungry was the only reason it was allowed to linger.
It was like a stitch wurm grown fat around a man’s heart. Too dangerous to cut it out, the medic says. So they feed it just enough poison to slow its growth. But it’s enough that it’s still poison. And it’s never enough to kill it.
He had to believe she’d be safe. She was strong. Grieving? Sure. Betrayed? Absolutely. But Tes would limp out of the Amber with a man’s balls in her pocket before they let her bury her there.
Ben put it from mind while he wound around the staircase that separated the decks of Silvervale. He took to the lower half and wound through the sprawl of shops and houses. The avenues dotted with homes he could never afford; lived in by people he would end up dying to protect.
At the southern ridge where the glass kissed the lips of eternity beyond, he took the spiral stairs lower still into a little cul de sac of stacked domiciles.
When he reached the door, it was already partially opened. A voice, raspy as if it were coming from a throat made of old parchment spoke:
“Men they do go swimming, just
I jest, oh just you wait there, grinning
Lest you now come crawling, sinning,
Cawing like some crow who’s calling
Now, for naught, are new beginnings…”
Ben entered the room that looked tiny compared to how much space it surely had. Cloaked in shadow like a man high on thistle-sap and paranoia. He was a worn and wrinkled creature of a man. Stooped back with a neck that seemed too long and perpetually rounded down. A nose both too short and too sharp, and eyes that seemed both too large and too far apart.
Ben walked over to him and stared at the balding head that was craned so hard that the man must only see wood grain. “You didn’t say it would come to this,” Ben said as he entered. “You never said he’d die.”
“Why, oh why? They do or die, or don’t they? Ben, oh little Ben, they won’t stay buried – no – for long – oh yes – you guess and guess by much distress and then again like Tes – oh, Tes, such travesty I must confess, I weep for thee – and you and she but Ben, oh little Ben, I must digress again…”
Ben slammed his hand on the table, the gauntlet sent cracks through the wood. “I need answers. Something real. Not these…these…these fucking riddles.”
He reached out faster than any old man should be able to and grabbed Bentwhistle’s false hand. “I gave you this and more, boy,” he said, his words no longer a song. He raised his head to meet Ben’s eyes – they had the look of milk and fire swirled together. “Now,” he said as he released Ben’s hand, “what do you need and why to you need it? What can you pay and why should I heed it? Offer you bounty or blood or a soul? The heavens or hell or a lump made of coal?”
Bentwhistle sighed as he sat at the table. “Whatever it takes,” he said, knowing he wouldn’t know until it was far too late what that would cost him.
This is a collaboration with Michael of Afterwards. We have no idea where we’re going with this. Only thing you can count on is that I’m doing even numbered posts, and he’s doing odd numbered posts.
Link for Part 6 will eventually be here