Tales of a nightwatchman

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Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Mon Feb 06, 2017 9:42 pm

Tales of a Nightwatchman: Prologue

It all began with a hanging. Mine, as it happens. Everyone enjoys a good hanging, especially if the villain was a real bastard, and I can't deny that I was one. But few people give much thought to how the whole thing works. You see, most hangings begin with a knock at the door. Some watchmen turn up and one of them reads a proclamation which you're too dazed to hear. He hands you the paper and says gently, "I'm terribly sorry, sir, but it's curtains for you," and off you go. And they do go. I did. And I've seen many others go too*.

Why not, asks every pub bore from here to Axum, rush the watchmen and make a break for it? At worst they'll shoot you and, he puts his beer down meaningfully and leans in close, don't you think that would be kinder, all told? You must have at least thought about it? And the truth is I have, and I had, and he's probably right, but that's not what you are thinking about. Oh, you're thinking of all the things you didn't do, and will never do, and most of all the things you should never have done, or at least done better. And you're thinking what if the wife and kids hear the shot and run out and see your body sprawled on the garden path and wouldn't that be just horrid. And maybe you're even thinking about your last words. Make 'em good and you're immortal - that's what I always tell them. Keeps their mind off things at least.

But the truth is you are thinking about one thing above all: if I keep breathing, keep putting one foot in front of the other, even just for a few more minutes, maybe I can weasel my way out of it yet. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise: they all think that. I sincerely believe even that awful fellow Fletcher thought he could get away with shooting the Protector. An army around him to see him hang, but who knows, maybe the Syndies had hidden bombs all around, could have blown up the whole lot, and saved their hero?

It almost never happens.

So I was led into the van, which was armoured but still equipped with large windows, not apparently to aid gawpers but to make sure you don't get switched at the last minute or something like that. The neighbours are usually out now, and everyone on the streets knows what that means and stops to stare. The worst rubberneckers race the van to the execution site. Get the right time of day and the children come out too and some of them always throw rocks at you. Children are heartless bastards. But then so am I, so I can't entirely blame them. I was taken to the square outside the court, and the arranged witnesses are already seated. A crowd begins to gather. Nowadays there's probably a video camera, but in my day the press photographers were lined up for their own pound of flesh.

You're led out onto the scaffold, and your crimes are read aloud, along with a concise summary of the evidence and the verdict. The courts like these things to be done properly, and so do the plaintiffs. It's no fun at all to be led out onto the scaffold for hanging the wrong man. I only did it once myself, but that was in Questers which doesn't count. Not long to go now, and you think perhaps you should have rushed the guards after all, except now the rope is around your neck, so there's really nothing for it but to go out like a man, or at least pretend you're one.

But my case was unusual in its own way, because I was to be hanged with two other fellows: stupid students who fell for syndicalism and were expelled from the jurists' academy. It seems they were rather serious fellows who didn't actually want to be full-time revolutionaries, but real jurists, and felt the whole thing had been blown rather out of proportion. So they tried to kidnap one of their instructors who was known to work late - after that the plan becomes hazy - by cornering him with a gun on his walk home. Unfortunately the silly old fool stood on principle, absolutely refused to move, and when they went to grab him he pulled out a revolver of his own. Brave fellow but eighty-six and with poor reflexes so they shot him. Their confederates were clearly taken with this romantic "propaganda of the deed" and came to get them.

The hood was over my head and my nostrils filled with acrid smoke. Christ, I thought, they haven't even pulled the leaver and this is what dying feels like. Two minutes later a handsome young man pulled the hood off my head and said, in a fay, faintly aristocratic Eastern accent, "Who the devil are you?". It almost never happens.

*This does not work with Malays.
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Re: Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Mon Feb 06, 2017 11:07 pm

Tales of a Nightwatchman: The Quiberonnais Gambit

*** 1 ***

After my liberation from the gallows by a romantic gang of young student revolutionaries, I'd like to be able to write that they recognised me as a fellow victim of the injustice inherent in the system, took me back to their lair, and together we planned various shocking acts of outrage against polite society. I've never been very political, and if I had to choose I prefer government by boring middle aged men in uniforms and powdered wigs to government by over-excited lovesick young men in brightly coloured shirts and trousers that are much too tight. But it would have been an exciting life and I would probably sell more books.

The boring truth is that my liberator was rather more honest than I was and, when he realised he had set loose a real criminal, he actually made to level his gun at me. So I gave him a quick right hook and disappeared into the crowd, happily still obscured by the smoke grenades they had let off. They caught him, dazed, lying where I hit him ten minutes later and hanged him with the same rope meant for me. That's what you get, I suppose. The rest of his gang was recaptured and hanged a few weeks later after trying to sneak aboard a freight ship to Questers. But I got away. I was a villain, you see, so I knew all the tricks: where to lie low and how to move.

It went without saying that I had better leave Eskmouth. No one really cares about Eskmouth, so it wasn't necessary to go as far as Questers or Axum, but I also resolved to go straight from then on. I could say that as I stood on the gallows with the rope around my neck, preparing to meet the final judge of all things, I reflected on my life and the harm that I had done, and decided to make amends. Mostly, though, it just brought home my limitations: I had failed in my career as a criminal, the price of failure in that game was too high, and while I had skipped out on paying true to form, it was by dumb luck alone.

*** 2 ***

It was with a sense of irony that I placed the following advertisement in the Metropolitan Hourly Advertiser (which proudly boasted being the world's only hourly newspaper): INVESTIGATOR AND NIGHTWATCHMAN - INTELLIGENCE AND EXECUTION - EXPERIENCED, EFFECTIVE, DISCRETE. I had been funding myself by duping rich students into betting they could beat me at pool, but my face was getting known in the more popular student establishments by the time I dropped my last hundred on a single hour in the Advertiser. It was a long shot. My first client made me my career, and almost cost me my life.

Monsieur Bertrand Gachot of Evian was a short, pudgy man in a three piece suit that was all the fashion five or ten years before. Even he had to stoop as he stepped into my attic office and apartment. His body man, bent almost double, looked around in disgust at the peeling paint and mouldy windowsills. "Do not stare, Didier," Gachot said in his own tongue, which he presumed I wouldn't understand. "This is how the common people live here."

I indicated that they should sit. Gachot glanced at the hard wood stool, and decided to stand. "Je suis Garchot," he said.

And Didier translated, "This is Monsieur Garchot. He is an eminent laywer in Evian. He presents his credentials."

Garchot took a laminated card out of his pocket with a picture of himself on it, and slid it across the desk. I took it, examined it - it was very fine indeed, even if the photograph was not particularly flattering - pocketed it, and handed him a business card of my own. Garchot immediately gave a look of consternation and Didier made as if to reach into his jacket. I wasn't having that, and my revolver was levelled in flash.

"Non, Didier, non," Garchot began, indicating that Didier stop, and grinned broadly. He switched into a heavily accented Praetannic, "I see zhat you are just ze man I am looking for. You may keep ze card, it can be replaced. I am a wealthy man, Monsieur."

He sighed. "But I have lost something very dear to me. My wife."

And then he stopped, as if that explained everything.

"OK, so you don't like the business card," I said, keeping the revolver at the ready, "I don't like 'em either. So, tell me about this wife. Do you want me to find her? Is she in Haversham?"

"She is..." he stopped, "You may know zhat in Quiberon, a woman has many rights. I am a lawyer, Monsieur. I know better zhan anyone what a woman can do. I am also a rich and ugly man, Monsieur - non, non, c'est vrai - and so, as a lawyer, I have availed myself of ze services of ze law. Zhat is the word, Monsieur, precisely as in your tongue. I married my wife 'ere, Monsieur.

"But before today I have never visited zhis country. I come now to claim my rights under ze Common Law. Please, allow me to reach into my jacket, and I give you ze contract."

I replaced my revolver, and he laid the paper on the table. I skimmed it with mild interest at first, then doubled back, and then as I read more and more I knew that I had finally met a bigger bastard than myself. "You want me to kill your wife," I said matter-of-factly.

"Non, non! Non, Monsieur! Zhat is not necessary," he had a pleading expression on his face, "I just want 'er punished. You can give 'er, 'ow you say? a fright? But ze real thing is 'er lover. I want him dead."

I laughed. "I don't think you understand, Monsieur. I'm not a jurist," I laughed again, though Gachot had no idea why, "but our Law ain't all that hard really. We have a saying: what you see is what you get. Or another: does what it says on the tin. And on this tin," I tapped the contract, "it says if she leaves you you can kill her. Doesn't say anything about frights. Doesn't say anything about anything, actually, since you own all her property anyway, but that. And I can't touch any lover who didn't sign a contract of his own, which I'm guessing he never did and never would."

Gachot had looked deflated from the moment he walked in, but now he visibly crumpled before my eyes. I still hadn't had lunch, so I decided to bring things to a head. "So. What's it to be, Monsieur? Your card back, or Madame soufflé?"

The little Quiberonnais's eyes met mine. They were glowing. He stammered in disbelief. "You mean - you actually mean - you will actually do zhat?"

"Don't see why not. You said you were rich didn't you? Well, it'll cost you."

"Non, non, zhat is nothing," he ran around the desk and started shaking my arm half off, "Whatever you want! Whatever! I give you gold, you people like zhat, non? And much more if I get -" he grinned slightly too malovently even for my taste, "Madame soufflé.

"And another fifty pounds of gold if ze lover should 'ave an accident. I mean nothing more zhan zat - an accident."

I was in business.
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Re: Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Mon Apr 24, 2017 9:53 pm

*** 3 ***

"Well why else do you think I came to a man such as you?" Gachot looked askance at me. "You think zey were in 'aversham? They are not stupid. They know what I can do to them 'ere, with full colour of ze Law. Non, zey are in Questers, where there is no law."

I'm not exactly what you would call a patriot. At that precise moment I had probably done more damage to my country than most of its foreign enemies ever managed. But I really did feel I must object to this off-hand treatment of our Questerarian brothers. I just couldn't quite pinpoint the precise error in his statement before he went on.

"I 'ave been generous enough, and you will be rewarded further when you succeed. You thought there would be no effort? No danger? In zhat case pas d'argent aussi, n'est-ce pas?"

I could happily argue with his logic, but I couldn't argue with his generosity. Two days later I was sitting in the first class lounge of the All Red Line in a tailored white linen suit, fighting the temptation to fiddle with my brand new Constitution Crescent revolver. You must understand that it still meant something to fly in those days, back before the no-frills airlines that let the riff-raff on board and banned fags and guns. And the All Red Line was the best there was, the best in the world. The Tie That Binds Our Commonwealth Together, their glossy brochures proclaimed, a half dozen Wentworth Amitys in Praetonian, Questerian, Tairendian, North Point and Axumite colours flying side by side each trailing the red and white. I'm not exactly what you'd call a patriot, but it almost brought a tear to my eye.

As for the other passengers, well, I could hardly complain, except that these rarified creatures all seemed to know one another and take no interest whatsoever in me. That was probably for the best, and I was happy to leave them to it. The odd colonel in his uniform, the minor celebrity or journalist, or suited millionaire drifting by probably had a story to tell, but any one of them would have seen through me in an instant, and it would be best not to draw attention to myself. So I contented myself with the company of the hostesses until I boarded the plane and was accosted by my neighbour.

"Boris Trevelyan, how d'ye do?" his plump, bright red face beamed into mine. I stared and him without replying. His grim didn't diminish, nor did his voice lose its candour, "Would ye mind at least letting me take my seat?"

I stood up and let him through. He sat down, and turned back to me right away, thrusting his hand toward me. "As I say, Trevelyan. Supplier of wholesale supplies and sundry goods to the Subcontinent."

I reluctantly took his hand. "How do you do."

"No name? That's quite all right. I deal with nameless men all the time. Not a lot of nameless men on his plane d'ye see but I'm sure it is quite all right."

We sat in companionable silence for several seconds.

"I say, you're not going to Jesselton, are you?"


"Ah... of course not, or you'd have taken the direct flight. But they all go to Jesselton their first time."

"What makes you think this is my first time?"

"Isn't it?"

I didn't reply. He was making me distinctly uncomfortable.

"Don't worry old boy," he laughed, handing me a cigar, "When you've been there a while you won't carry a fancy gun like that. Fancy gun like that'll get you killed, because your thief might well value his life less than he values a fancy gun like that."

I made a point of not drawing my jacket closed. "You'd best be worried for him, not me," I said, "but what would you carry?"

Trevelyan suddenly looked serious. "Pair of sunglasses most like!" And then his face assumed its previous form with a huge smile plastered across it. "Tell you what, if you're going to the resort, which I'd guess you are seeing as you're not afraid for your life and don't know what you're doing and so forth, I'll show you around. Professional man are you? Yes, good. Not many of those at the resort. You'll make a pretty penny most like in whatever it is that you call your business. I know I will. So let's go together. And you can show me your fancy gun. Ever been to the Merchant Venturers' Club? Not much of a club. I'll vouch for you and get you in and then you'll be someone. Well, sort of someone at least."

I stared hard into this funny little man's eyes for a little longer than he was comfortable with. He blinked. An honest fool. Possibly useful.

"Awfully good of you, Trevelyan. Let me buy you a drink."
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Re: Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Tue Jun 26, 2018 3:48 am

*** 4 ***

Questers isn't what it used to be, says every clever dick who's never let his toe caps stray past the chrysanthemums. Damn right, it's more than it ever was. You stroll past a ruined Syndicalist tank that no one ever bothered to clean up and the natives know that you did that. They stand up straight when they see an Oriental and don't look you in the eye. I'm not talking about the old Sikhs on the board of jurists of the Court of Maritime Settlement but they're too good to spit on you if you were on fire anyway. The common people of this country know who rules and they go in awe of us and our Law. I'm not much of a patriot, but it almost brings a tear to my eye when some young snipe runs up and, rather than going for a chap's wallet, salutes in the Eastern Association style with a hearty "Ganjang Syndikalis!". Quite right, my lad. Quite right.

As it turns out, Trevelyan was right about everything but one: a chap doesn't need a gun here because it's the most orderly place on earth. The car was driven from the airport by a Gurkha whose slightest glance could have put a whole rabble army to flight. Why did these people ever fight us? They were fools that's why and there is no other reason. Don't let anyone tell you it was a fair fight; we won because we were better and that is that. We drove through their shanty towns and the squatters stood up and stared forlornly, hopelessly, and just watched as we entered the resort. This area was shelled heavily by the Estates during the landings and much of the damage was still visible. They didn't want to go for a second round and I didn't blame them.

The resort itself was a heavenly place. Oh, you might think that there's no place like home and the High Street of the old town will always be special in your heart. But it really won't. There's something quite unlike anything when you feel like a whole town is your back garden, especially when you've never even been there before. Oh, sure, you wouldn't even dream of trampling on the chrysanthemums. Especially not with that Gurkha looking. But only because they're your chrysanthemums and he's your Gurkha and if he ever had to give someone a frightful shoeing for trampling on them you'd only be sad he had to scuff his shoes so badly. He worked hard to give them that shine and he didn't deserve to have it ruined like that.

Trevelayn led the way and I was content to follow him for the time being, amiable fool that he was.

"D'you know, I was here throughout the whole thing? Oh, no, not Eastern Association or anything like that. Supplier of wholesale supplies. An army needs supplies, you know. Whatever side it's on..."

The Merchant Venturers' Club stood out as an island of scaffolding and mess in a sea of perfection. It was expanding, you see, as the Merchant Venturers' was everywhere in this country. The age of the nabob was back, and Questers was the place to be again for a young man in search of fortune. One in a hundred might make his billion. But there were more than a hundred. Far more.

"I say! I say, old timer coming through!" Trevelyan struggled to bawl as he batted his way past a crowd of applicants with his umbrella. "Dear Lord, what a nuisance."

A Gurkha swatted an overzealous youth in the mouth and he fell, convulsing, into the road. "Stand back!"

Trevelyan thanked him amiably and beckoned me into the club. No one bothered to check our identity. Trevelyan was known, I suppose, and that was good enough for me. Had he really been loyal to the Estates' throughout the occupation? If so, he was probably more than I'd bargained for and I'd best bail sooner rather than later.

"Drink? Least I could do really."

I had no idea why.

"Double Cock on the rocks," he ordered, indicating some continental single malt, "and make it two."

I had a taste for Senland whiskey, but I could take a Cock at a pinch and it seemed rude to decline.

"You're an awfully good man Trevelyan," I said, somewhat awkwardly, because it occurred to me that a successful merchant venturer intended to make a profit on every transaction.

"Ah now, that's where you're wrong. You see, I have some wholesale supplies that need to be, ah... supplied... to a certain prince of my acquaintance, and perhaps you could, ah, here come the Cocks," he handed one to me, gulping his own enthusiastically. "Yes, well, anyway, a certain prince who was loyal to the Estates' through the whole blasted thing and now still faces a hell of a time from his own dishonest and unworthy people and he really deserves better - but I needn't tell you that, a man like yourself wouldn't risk his life for such things, even for stupendous profit, I can tell that, you're a cautious man and if anything I respect it..."

He trailed off and I didn't bite. He looked disappointed.

"Well, never mind. You're some nobody from Haversham but you are not a fool, which means you intended to meet someone here, but you came for a drink with me which means you don't know where he is."

He smiled wickedly.

"You don't know where she is. Am I right?"
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Re: Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Wed Aug 01, 2018 2:12 am

*** 5 ***

Three days later I set out from the resort with joy in my heart and a head filled with dreams of profit, leading a convoy laden with a fair tonnage of Trevelyan's "wholesale supplies". I know what you're thinking, but it really wasn't as bad as all that. Granted, Trevelyan had taken me for more of a fool than I really was, but it's not like a merchant venturer makes a great profit by losing all of his client's goods. There might still be fighting in the Nampataland - if you could call it fighting - but this country was pacified. All the world knew that. Even Garchot had chided my timidity in his first cable from Quiberon, where a man, such as he was, could hardly tell the muzzle of a gun from its butt plate. But what really decided it was that I couldn't find hide nor hair of Madame Garchot in the resort, and I wasn't being paid on retainer. Trevelyan's money was my security, and that was what really reassured me. Perhaps I could give Garchot the bunk and set myself up in an altogether more lucrative and agreeable profession.

As we passed, the gatehouse guards saluted my four Wentworth Cougars headed by a captured Syndicalist armoured car, whose scorched turret I declined to make my command post. The squatters gathered and watched, expressionless. Or so I suppose, for I had retired to comfortable quarters in the second Cougar from last, observing the environment with indifference as we turned off the squatters' main street onto the jungle road.

"Very good, sir!" the gurkha had snapped when I entrusted the armoured car to his charge, positively gleaming with joy. No doubt at the thought of mowing down Syndies with its 20mm gun, the bloodthirsty bastard. Didn't have much to say about landmines, though. Damned ungentlemanly things.

The first day passed without event, and I was happy to be distracted from the mind numbing surroundings by communications from Haversham. My landlord was not best pleased at my arrears in rent, and he intended to seize all my property remaining in the premises. Good luck to him; he could have my old stools and desk and may he choke on them. For that matter, so could the lovely Miss Fletcher of 7 Cedarhurst Lane. But as we drove deeper into the jungle my nerves got the better of me and I spent more and more time sitting up front with the stout Sikh driver, my head dangerously vulnerable through the sunroof of a car meant for haulage rather than fighting.

In my declining years I admit that I was bit by the Questers bug and all the world seemed mine to command, the impossible wasn't and riches were within my closest grasp. When you walk past a dozen mediocre men throwing bills into the street because they didn't care to carry them or even just to watch the reaction of those passing by, a man loses his ordinary sense and enters a sort of delirium to which I, I must admit, am more than usually susceptible. For every hundred pub bores telling you about "that time in New Senland when I almost..." there was one nabob who really made his billion and that one man shines so much brighter than the other hundred put together. In my mind, a thousand times brighter. We are what we are, and I have never claimed to be perfect.

It was leaning against the sunroof of my aging Wentworth Jaguar that I watched my friendly gurkha meet his ungentlemanly end at the hands of a man without the strength and courage to clean his boots but more than enough to bury a piece of metal in the ground and run off into safety of the jungle. Maybe it was as bad as all that.

Some men fight, some men die, and some men hide. I'm not ashamed to say I'm the last, and it's served me well over the years. Certainly neither of the others would have served me well for years, for all they may have served me better for a time. For the hero is long forgotten before his classmates live to grow old, and the fighter wears his laurels thin and all old men look weak just the same. But some old men are rich, and that is all I've ever wanted.

The slaughter was famous, or so I heard later, much later. Famous enough that the Army of Observation moved in with its tanks and its helicopters and its guns, and made a point of punishing those who fought us so ungentlemanly that day, and erected a monument to frighten and baffle all who may walk in the jungle and stumble upon that spot. And the men of the resort still celebrate it, every year, on the anniversary, the heroes who set out from there, and met that end, and whose end was punished so.

But for those of us who were there, those few who survived, there was nothing to commemorate, and nothing that we would sooner forget - forget forever. The Syndicalists knew their business as well as I knew mine, and they took out the front and the last vehicle and then made a shooting gallery of everything in between that could neither go forward nor go back. And I made it into the jungle long enough that I was taken prisoner. And there my story, in some sense, begins.
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Re: Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Sat Jan 26, 2019 7:07 am

*** 6 ***

"My name," he said, "is Comrade Pariti. But you may call me Prince Faizal."

And there she was. Madame Garchot. No, not him, her. The one lying on a divan in, truth be told, very little, grinning like the devil as she watched Comrade whatever or Prince whositthen at play.

"Look Sennish enough to me," I said, assessing my situation. In truth it was not good: I was bound to a post by my neck facing a firing squad of short brown devils, an apparently insane Praetannic man in a Public Protection army tunic, a whirling dervish skirt, and a fez, topped off by his grinning Quiberonnaise whore who had already cost me rather more than she was worth. We were in the middle of the jungle and it was raining. No one seemed at all perturbed. Including, I am proud to say, myself.

He turned away and laughed. "I am Questers," he puffed out his chest.

"The People are Questers, and I am The People. When Hood returns we will have vengeance at last."

"You'll be waiting a while," I chuckled, and immediately regretted it. He was that sort of person. Politics was his soul and his being and he would never let this go.

"Oh? I will, will I?" he moved close, too close, and then suddenly backed off. "Do you think we're barbarians? Do you?"

He gestured toward his firing squad. "That all proletarians are scum? You are a swine!"

I nodded.

"Oh yes," you see, the trick to dealing with this sort of person it to take him much more seriously than he takes himself. They rarely take themselves all that seriously, for all they might fight you to admit that they are Oswin or Providence or the second coming of Archibald Bumpington Smyth. When they meet a true believer they haven't put up to it or doesn't seem scared enough to be faking they don't know what to do. "You'll be waiting three months at least. That's how long they say it'll take Hood to reach New Senland anyway. They'll have their capital packed into ships by then so they ain't worried."

He blinked, turned around, and suddenly I was no longer a part of his universe.

"Do you hear that, my wonderful? My everything!" He rushed over to Madame Garchot and wrapped her near-naked body up in his dervish skirt and his army tunic and his fez. "Hood's on the move. I told you. Hood'll set it all right," he kissed her, and she kissed him, and as I stared at her, she almost avoided my gaze. She almost had me. "I told you so!"

She began to speak. She took a long time to begin. He waited for her like a desperate puppy. "I don't want to see a shooting today."

"But my lovely -" she cut off his frantic words with her lackadaisical continental drawl.

"Take him. Save him. I will see him shot - when we meet Hood."

"But we -"

"He will be our offering to Hood," she yawned, as if explaining to a child how to operate a door handle.

"Of course, my wonderful. My beautiful. My universe!"

I was back in business.
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Re: Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Thu Apr 25, 2019 3:41 am

*** 7 ***

I'd spent little time in the parochial school, and none in a grammar. I hadn't even enrolled with the guilds, and I had been no one's apprentice. Every Harvest Festival I would watch the little men line up to sign their names on the Paper Battalion rolls and the slightly less little to receive their pikes or their swords from the associations. And thus was our Commonwealth in arms. Fools, who fight for another's property and another's gain, when no one even makes 'em. Oh, they wouldn't be thought quite the thing if they refused. Not invited to the best parties. No more than that. So what was the bother all about? I had thought. But I could do with them now, locked in a small bedroom on the third floor of a ramshackle old wooden building overlooking a small jungle town, an increasingly filthy rag with which to clean myself and a rice bowl a day pushed through a hatch in the door. Where are you, fine fellows, with your well-tuned tanks and your polished guns? Don't ye know a bold countryman is in distress?

On the third day she came back. Mrs Faizal was a picture of continental beauty that I was not in quite the right state of mind to take in. She carried a hamper of food and drink that I would like to say I studiously ignored until she was long gone but which I must in all honesty admit I grabbed at once and devoured like it was my last meal on earth. Which, for all I knew, it may have been. She simply sat on the other side of the room and watched.

"Zhou will not be shot," she said at last. "Zhou may 'ave my word on zhat."

She seemed to want a response. "Kind of you."

"But," she went on, "I zhould like your 'elp.

"My 'usband," she turned away and sighed, somewhere between melancholy and longing, "is not a well man. 'e will destroy us both. If we let 'im. But I do not intend to let 'im."

I looked at the sharp profile of her alabaster face, a single tear rolling down the cheek as she stared wistfully into the distance, as if into the past, melancholy but resolute. My 'eart skipped a beat.

"I do not intend to let 'im. And with zhour help, I feel sure zhat 'e will not succeed. You are more than you seem? N'est-ce pas?"

I tore the foil from a packet of pate de fois gras and swallowed it whole.

"I am a businessman. But I know how to survive."

"Zhat is clear," she said, turning at last fully to me, fixing me with her gaze, her grey eyes boring into me, "Do zhou know 'ow many of zhour men survived? Ha! I can tell that zhou do not care. Not many. But zhou survived. I can imagine," her voice crackled slightly, a hint of vulnerability? "Zhat zhou usually survive."

I slowly finished chewing.

"Quite right, madam. I have a way of muddling through."

"Zhou are too modest. I can tell. I 'ave met many men, such as zhou."

I believed her. And it send a shiver down my spine.

"I will escape zhis Faisal, who is mad. 'e 'as gone over entirely to ze Syndicalist. And we all know zhat ze Syndicalist is ruined, and cannot come back, and that there is no army of Hood coming to ze rescue. It is all lost."

She turned away again, and fluttered her eyelids.

"Zhour convoy delivered a large cargo of guns and ammunition from our contact in ze resort. 'e always did come through for us. But 'e is no fool and must know zhat we are ruined.

"It would not surprise me if ze ammunition were rusty and useless and ze guns worse."

I smiled. Tevelyan, you old bastard. As if I hadn't already guessed.

"Nonezeless, my 'usband intends to launch an attack on ze Army of the Free'olders - as 'e believes - to link up with 'ood, 'oo will make 'im a general or an adjutant or a governor or whatever his mad fancy takes."

"We will stop him," I suggested.

"Non," she tutted, as if to a child, "we will let 'im. But we will not go with 'im. We will escape."
<leis2> Otoh i am also an antiquarian so im legitimately interested in how purple dye was made in sidon
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Re: Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Mon May 27, 2019 4:53 am

*** 8 ***

She came back the following night. No longer dressed like a whore or a queen, she had hidden her beauty and her sex in an outfit of heavy brown cloth that was little different to that of the common people of our jungle settlement. She had the key to my cell, though, and that was all that mattered.

We exchanged no words as I gathered up the few of my possessions I had retained. She opened her bag and handed me an outfit similar to hers, and with it she handed me a gun. What had Trevelyan said? Trevelyan was a bastard and a liar. To hell with Trevelyan. I took the gun.

The two of us creeped out into the open with remarkably little effort. The sentries had left, it seemed, and the whole town looked empty. She led and I followed. In the dark, I could just make out the profile of a vehicle against the night sky: an aging Wentworth of dubious provenance. She opened its passenger side door and produced a key. She did not need to indicate that I should get in. She got into the driver's seat and turned the key. The engine stuttered, hung on the edge for a painful second, and then purred into life. Quickly, quietly, without exchanging a word, we were on the move.

She had no doubts where she was going, apparently, and I was happy to sit back and relax as she drove us past the two sentries remaining on the gate of the compound and down the jungle road. We bounced along its bumpy path for several minutes before she abruptly turned off and into the jungle itself, down a dirt track cut by unknown men for an unknown purpose. It wasn't surprising, I supposed, that such a woman would know of such a thing. Who knew. She looked determined and unperturbed, and I had no choice now but to follow her. The old Wentworth jumped to and fro, deeper and deeper until there was no light at all except the headlamps which flickered now and then as the jolts and jumps frayed their ancient circuitry.

I didn't know if minutes or hours had passed when it happened: the jolt that ended all the jolts. The Wentworth clearly hit something bigger than usual, bigger than Garchot expected, and bigger than it could handle. My head hit the roof, not for the first time, and then the engine stuttered and died. For the first time, Madame Garchot flung down her hood and I could see her perfect profile silhouetted by the moon against the utter darkness of the Wentworth.

"Non!" She slammed her fists on the steering wheel, "Non! C'est trop tôt!"

She turned the key desperately. The old Wentworth struggled for life, but gave up. She looked at me. "Zhou. Fix it."

I'd never cared much for cars, and clearly they'd never cared much for me. I shrugged.

"Non!" She slammed her fists on the wheel again, and began to sob. We sat there in silence for several minutes until it appeared - a flicker. Probably nothing, I thought. Hopefully nothing. And there it was again, a little brighter. And again, a little brighter still. And all the while, Madame Garchot simply bawled her eyes out with her face pressed against the wheel.

"If there's one thing zhou should know," I thought without saying, "It's that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

"Nothing works the way you think, so don't lose your head when it all goes to hell."

I waited until her sobbing was particularly intense, her head thrashing to-and-fro, her eyes closed - I felt for my gun, opened the door, and high-tailed it into the jungle, black as hell, noisy as a bag of crickets on steroids. They'd never find me here.
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Re: Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Tue Aug 20, 2019 2:42 am

*** 9 ***

We were both recaptured. I won't bother to recount the details, which are tedious enough, and I'm sure you can fill 'em in yourself. For my own part, there's not much I'd rather forget. No, not even the ambush, which at least was over quickly. Scattered in terror in the jungle at night, with every thought you might escape, living hours in which a second was like a month, and then at the last failing completely in everything you'd desperately prayed for - no, there's not much worse than that.

At dawn the next day, we were brought before Comrade-Prince Faizal, of Senland, and his troops who were arrayed in a small clearing. They were mucky enough, and nasty-looking fellows - decidedly not from Senland - but their rifles were clean and oiled and I knew they meant business. There was nothing to do about it. We were completely in his power and he would simply decide to have us shot or whatever else he had in store. God knows I wouldn't've let us go in his shoes, but what did I know. All sorts of things happen, especially in Questers. Quietly, I said my last goodbyes to those few I would care to. Not many, I grant.

As soon as we were brought into his presence, forced to our knees with our hands tied behind our backs, he started ranting and raving, marching up and down in front of us in what he probably thought was a goosestep but which flailed wildly to either side, occasionally slapping me or his wife or some private or other who happened to stand too close to him. He was an image of madness as he screamed to the heavens about his disloyal wife and her "landlord lover". Unfortunately, I was not a landlord. And even more unfortunately, I could see where this was going: her eventual forgiveness followed by my execution, possibly terribly painful and bloody, as the instigator of her disloyalty and all his misfortunes. True to the script, after about ten minutes she began professing her love to him and blaming it all on me. I did not respond. Nothing to say, really. Anything would only make it worse. Maybe he would burn himself out with rage, or maybe he wouldn't.

After about half an hour of this he stomped off a few meters, turned back to us and, with a look of sudden calm and clarity, drew his revolver. I silently thanked Providence. Every day since the hanging in Eskmouth was a day I'd stolen from Her, and I had to admit I'd had plenty of fun in every one of them. I am what I am, and I couldn't complain. As he walked towards me, pistol in hand, I simply met his gaze without a hint of anger or recrimination. Here was a madman, just like me in his own way, perhaps a little on the madder side, but nonetheless a man of action, a man of himself, and a man at odds with the world. I almost smiled. He looked down on me, calm as a badger, lowered his revolver, right between Mde Garchot's eyes, and pulled the trigger.

I sat, stunned, for several seconds, trying hard not to think what was that wet substance dripping down the side of my head. Even his men seemed shocked, as if his earlier display had just been another day at the office. I suppose it was. He looked at me, and I still had not a thought of surviving. So he would kill us both. The guiltier last. But he just looked down, briefly, for the slightest second, and I saw the glimmer of a smile. I was hauled to my feet, dragged into a tent, and pushed to the floor. It was just me and him now. He opened a drawer and pulled out some silk cloths.

"You know who that was?" He wiped down his blood-spattered gun.

I nodded. True enough, I suppose, but what exactly did he mean? Did he know who she was?

"That was a Quiberois agent sent to destabilise the Providentialist Subcontinent," he looked away, his shoulders heaved, and I'm sure he squelched a tear. Not a hint of madness.

"There. I've said it. She never loved me. This was all I ever was to her," he held up his gun, perilously close to his own forehead. "A gun to the head of my own countrymen. A utensil. An object."

The revolver was right in his forehead now. He clicked the trigger. Empty.

"I'm sure it wasn't all as bad as all that old -," wrong answer, I surmised, as the revolver was now pointed right at my face. So close, and now it really is the end. The hammer clicked again.

"Damn," he opened the chamber, and two bullets dropped out.

"One for her. One for you. One for me," he dropped the empty gun in the mud, and opened another drawer. Whisky. A delicious old Cock, in fact. "Figured we each deserved one. Hoped only she did. Oh well, Providence Upholds and all that. How about a drink?"

I wriggled a little in the mud, my hands still bound.

"Ah, of course," he cut the rope with a knife, and handed me a glass, "Hope it's alright. Haven't opened it since I left Jesselton. Oh, don't you boys go with the pretty foreign girls. No end of trouble."

Absentmindedly, I downed the entire glass in one.

"Steady on old boy. Plenty of time for that. Or maybe not. We're attacking the resort tomorrow. We're all done for!" He giggled and banged the bottle on the table. No, still mad.

"How about, old boy," I struggled to compose myself, leaning in close and earnestly, doing my best to come across like an old Haversham schoolmaster. "We simply don't do that? Wouldn't it be jolly good if we just didn't?"

"Oh no," he said, smiling, the madness dropping frighteningly away, "It's far too late for all that. I am a wanted man. A notorious outlaw. There is a bounty on my head and the Extraordinary Department has made posters and everything. I'm doomed either way. The die is cast. I cannot go back. Therefore, I must go onward. Proof in two steps.

"And you're coming with me."
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Re: Tales of a nightwatchman

Postby Praetonia » Tue Aug 27, 2019 2:56 am

*** 10 ***

Why did I go? Well, it would be easy to say that they would shoot me if I didn't. And it wouldn't be a lie. But at some point they lost interest in me, and started doing things like writing their final letters to their mothers, praying to whatever it was they believed in, and drinking as much as they thought they could get away with to steel their nerves without ruining their shots. Every one of them knew he was a dead man walking. The story in the camp, as Comrade Pariti had proclaimed, was that Hood was racing for the Oryontic once again and that we would link up with him and squash out Orthodoxy in the Subcontinent forever. Privately, every man knew this was a lie, knew that the Estates-General, the Straits Confederation, and the Malays had total power here, that there was no Hood, and no Syndicalist army, that they were a mouse about to walk under the tiger's paw. But men do things first because it's decided and only second because it's wise, and I'm afraid I'm no exception. I'd tried to run twice now and failed. Third time unlucky. And so I went.

Pariti was really not bad at all, pacing up and down the camp as if he were a king, exchanging jokes with his men in half a dozen languages, comforting and encouraging the waverers, letting the really bad cases quietly slink off where they couldn't cause any serious harm. There weren't many of them. I guessed this wasn't their first adventure. And the whole time, he alone kept an eye on me. It was unnerving, not so much because he might have had me shot. I doubt he would have done, even, and risk disrupting the morale of his whole camp. It was unnerving because I actually wanted to follow him. I, the most informed of them all, the one man who wasn't remotely interested in Syndicalism, the one man who did not have a bounty on his head, the one man who had, very technically, succeeded in his mission here, who was not already an outlaw, even I actually wanted to follow him. And I did.

The attack was launched at dawn, dull enough, and I expected we would be cut to pieces at once. My hope was that the slaughter would be so sudden and complete, and I once again so lucky, that I could lie flat and pretend to be dead until the militia came out with their bayonets to comb the grass and I could leap up and explain that I, all along, had been a Vigilance Committee agent sent from the motherland to rescue the Great Cause and so on and so forth. But it wasn't. In fact, the resort had become so fat and complacent that there was almost no force at all defending it. The sentries at the gate put up a good show but after all there were only two of them and we made short work of the pair. Our vehicles battered their way in. And our troops, presumably veterans of the Mutiny to a man, were skillful and resolute and fanned out inside and killed most of the gurkhas with their riot control sticks and whistles without much bother at all.

At half past seven, the sun still low on the horizon, Comrade Pariti stood in the resort's central square, on the flat bed of a pickup truck, and made his Proclamation. The revolution had arrived. Syndicalism was here. The weak would be made mighty, and the mighty, weak. The humble would be made proud, and the proud, humbled. From the mud, plenty would spring. The seas would become lemonade. And so forth. Can you not see it, comrades - the new day dawns? He pointed to the sun on the horizon, while on his face was a grin of pure ecstasy. This was the moment for which his whole life had been preparation. Meanwhile, his men began rounding up suspected capitalists - here, essentially everyone - pushing them into the square, beating them lightly with rifle butts, spitting on them, and so forth. This, I suppose, is why one becomes a Syndicalist. It's a way to pass the time.

At a quarter to eight, the wheels started to fall off. An explosion boomed in the near distance, and even Pariti almost flinched. His men hit the ground at once, like good soldiers. It was the Merchant Venturers' club, abutting one corner of the square. There was now a substantial hole where a window had been, muffled gunfire could be heard, and someone was raising a tattered Red Ensign from the roof to the sound of a trumpet. The Syndicalists weren't the only ones who had True Believers. Pariti's troops had clearly entered the Club expecting to round up gin-swilling capitalists from the billiard hall and got more than they'd bargained for. Smoke was pouring from the entrance now and two squat Syndicalist volunteers were scampering out and away. One was hit in the back and fell. His comrade did not stop for him. I ducked behind the wheel of the pickup truck as a Syndicalist NCO wrestled Pariti to the ground and banged on the cab to move. As the truck began to pull away I jumped up and onto the flat bed. Pariti was screaming incoherently that he must be allowed to speak, that this was his moment, that the revolution was here.

"Get him off me," Pariti suddenly shouted in his best Senland pronunciation, fixing his gaze on me. "We've almost won. Don't you see? We've almost won! We can't give an inch! Or we're all lost. They must attack! Now, now, now - they must attack!"

I gaped in astonishment as bullets pinged off the aluminium. "Don't you see what you've done you crazy fool?

"There's no victory here. Now the Estates' will come. They'll mobilise all of Senland to kill you if they have to. Don't you see? Don't you see you've killed us all? Why couldn't you just burn a bloody village and run off into the woods you goddamn lunatic?"

Acknowledging my reasoned disagreement with good grace, the truck swerved a hard right and out of the square as another explosion sounded and the smell of cordite became overwhelming. Then there was was a crack like thunder, like nothing I've ever heard, followed by an explosion ten, a hundred, a thousand times that. Who knew what, though later it turned out it was our vehicle pool, had felt the Estates' Navy's anger. They only had two planes up, or so I'm told, it was quiet in this country, and two was more than you think. But they had been assigned to us the moment news hit Jesselton of our attack. The first fellow had seen nothing definite in the confusion, but the second had picked his target well. A pillar of smoke rose into the sky. Pariti simply gawped in amazement, with something close to lust. This was not Syndicalism. This was power.

I don't know how much time passed before our headquarters had regrouped, in the basement of a modest house, and runners began to pass messages to and fro between us and Pariti's detachments elsewhere in the resort. At some point, the word came through: the squatters have risen. More gunfire could be heard in the distance now. Much more. Not the disciplined, aimed cracks of the Merchant Venturers' Club or Pariti's men, but rapid, sporadic, unaimed, chaotic. At first, Pariti was elated. Then, a whisper at first, but growing ever louder, we heard it:

Ganjang Syndikalis!

<leis2> Otoh i am also an antiquarian so im legitimately interested in how purple dye was made in sidon
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