The Last Free City

You hear a Whisper on the Wind

In the wide world of the Wilde Blue, sometimes stories are left untold. However, they are not lost. Listen closely, and you will hear them. This one comes from the edges of the Blue, in the city untamed by law.
  Nokte is a wonderful city. Damaen always feels this weight lift off his shoulders every time he sets foot on the docks, and today is no different. Sure, there are pickpockets and muggers and drunks and addicts and a whole assortment of people more than willing to take what is his and make it theirs. To force him to submit at the end of their blades. But that is the right of any free man. Just as it is his right to deter them, with the cunning of his mind or the might of his own blade. Just as the only thing preventing him from doing whatever he wants is whether or not he can. That feeling, of the only limit being himself, is worth every risk the city brings with it.   The docks creak under Damaen’s boots. This mooring probably is not the most stable, but it is familiar, and it has not collapsed yet. He would not need to leave more than a few of his crew behind to watch his skyship, Folly of Greed, unlike most of the docks closer to the center of the city. He often hears stories of pitched battles between crews over a warship left in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not that anyone would desperately want his skyship. It has little space for cargo, or armor, or armaments. The only thing going for it is a quite extensive amount of Depths-sealant and a mechanism that lets him recycle the air inside the cabin. Well, any talented Skyblood could do that, but they would need to understand what they were doing first. Still, the Folly of Greed is no prize, but that does not mean that Damaen is willing to risk it.   Damaen watches as his crew offloads some of the smuggled goods onto the docks. A handful of barrels of wine and some crates of salted meats are carried by hand and stacked carefully. Both are worth a fair amount, and even in the small quantities Damaen and his crew smuggled out of the warehouses of Salva they would be enough to pay his expenses and then some. However, those crates were just a cover. A profitable disguise to mask his trip to Nokte, to make it more convincing for the veritable army of spies that watched every ship. The real prize was safely hidden inside a false pocket in his jacket. He pats his coat, taking the risk that there were no prying eyes on him at the moment to check that he still carries it with him. Of course, it was still there.   The device he is carrying is barely larger than the timepiece that hangs at his waist, and yet it is more valuable than thrice its weight in pure silver. Far more valuable, in fact. Tucked inside Damaen’s coat is a Shadowblood Gem, one of only about a dozen that exist. Commonly used Gems, like the tiny Stormblood gems used in the sparklocks his crew carries, are not terribly expensive anymore, thanks to modern improvements. Shadowblood magic, however, is apparently hard to condense. Hence, only a few of these devices exist. Hence, every pirate on this island would be willing to kill to get their hands on it. That does not say much, as half of them are willing to kill over a drunken insult, but still. It has taken Damaen the better part of a year to get his hands on one, a year full of fruitless rumors and wild stories. Finally, his effort paid off.   The Gem he now carries was designed by a rather unfortunate Academic. An Academic who did not realize that his usual courier had been intercepted. It was honestly a simple matter to keep the original bastard occupied and take his place for the pickup. Damaen just walked away with the Gem, no one the wiser. Those poor saps were almost certainly getting fired, if not ‘disciplined’ in a more severe way, once the Academy discovers that their Shadowblood Gem prototype has been stolen. That is, if it has not been discovered already. The Academy tended to be pretty quick on the uptake, Damaen has found. He makes a mental note to avoid cities with large Academic presence for the time being, lest their Mindbloods fish out the memory of his theft and start to hunt him down.   As his crew finishes unloading goods, Damaen turns his mind towards navigating into the city. Their goal is the illicit market at the center, dubbed ‘The White Market’ by most denizens of Nokte. The way there is not straightforward, however. Firstly, all manner of pickpockets roam the streets, which makes it risky to carry anything valuable on your person, even in a concealed pocket. Damaen thankfully does have help, in the form of his Mindblooded quartermaster, Turie. He rarely leaves the Folly of Greed without her, and her magic lets her spot a pickpocket from a mile away. Furthermore, she is more than skilled enough with her sparklock pistol to deter anyone that tries to mess with Damaen or anyone else in his crew.   The second problem is the roads of Nokte. They are not maintained, or even created, by any one individual or group. Not even the elusive Midnight Pirates that supposedly have dominion over the whole of Nokte. It adds to the charm, Damaen feels, but it does hinder getting around. He keeps a small cart, to make it slightly easier to bring smuggled goods to the market, but it is somewhat unreliable. Not that the cart is shoddy, or anything. No, the problem is that he cannot be certain that the roads will be wider than the width of one person, or that they even will still be in the same places as the last visit. Calling them roads, too, is very generous. They are more like paths that wander through the mishmash of buildings and hovels erected by anyone who has the resources and desire.   On this trip, there is a fairly wide path towards the center of the island. By the looks of it, it was cleared out only a day or two ago, as large patches of rubble still remain. Damaen hops from upturned stone to splintered beam, carefully avoiding the ones slick with a mixture of blood and ash. Were he on his own, this would prove no obstacle to him. But there is his crew to think about, and the cart laden with heavy goods that are much harder to carry, not to mention far more costly should one slip from their grasp. So he pauses, perched atop the rubble where he can get a good look up and down the road at any potential threats, and directs his crew to move aside enough of the debris for the cart to pass through.   As Damaen and his crew approach the center of the city, the ramshackle hovels are slowly replaced by more fortified buildings. Damaen prefers his safehouses to be practically unnoticeable from the outside, but there are a large number of pirates who would rather build fortifications. If you have the wealth and influence, it does offer a little bit more security, but it also paints a target on your back. And then, if you are already going to be broadcasting that you have things to steal, why not live as close to the White Market as possible? Pure folly, in Damaen’s opinion, but it would likely be a similar folly to rob someone with a host of ships at their command.   Damaen passes under the first of the lofted docks above the city, and his crew bunches up to better push through the crowds of people loading and unloading the larger skyships that dock here. The rickety steel beams that hold the whole thing above the street never unnerved him, but most of his crew makes some sort of superstitious motion as those spindly shadows cross their eyes. It is a busy day today, and that bodes well for the rest of Damaen’s trip. Nokte is raided on occasion, with both Imperial and Free World forces trying to steal what the pirates had rightfully taken, and that tended to scare the bigger buyers underground for a few days. If these massive skyships felt safe to berth, however, there had not been a raid like that in a few weeks, and there was not any sign of one coming any time soon.   There is no hard border to the illicit market at the center of the city. Damaen can feel when they cross into it, however, as the mood in the air shifts from one of suspicion to one of exploitation. A few steps earlier, every person in the crowd Damaen and his crew were a part of glanced at each other with the worry that they would try and make some move, now they only had eyes for the silver the people around them were willing to part with. The permanent buildings fade away, and large open squares take their place, stuffed full of stalls and tents and carts, and above all, raucous bartering. Of course, on paper the risk here was the same as elsewhere in the city. Someone with a sparklock could demand Damaen’s coinpurse, and he could shoot them dead. But here, there was the might of the whole of the city arrayed against anyone who stirs up trouble. Every pirate worth their salt knows that you might be able to get away with some theft, or murder, or anything else that disturbs the relative peace, but that will not matter when your face starts to become one that is recognized. When your presence in the White Market is met with open hostility and possibly violence. Where then could you take your business? The other markets of the Blue are wrens in comparison to the hawk that nests at the center of Nokte. So people stay polite, at least by pirate comparison.   Normally, Damaen would wander about the market, perusing the wares and buyers until he was satisfied with his trades. Today, Damaen has a specific buyer in mind. A very talented goblin who goes only by the moniker ‘0’. Most people call them ‘Nought’. They are quite tricky to find, as they rarely stay still for long and they never wear the same face twice. But Damaen is fairly certain he knows a trick, one he bought off of another goblin pirate who claimed to know how to find Nought. Apparently, they absolutely cannot resist a good scam. Hopefully, once Damaen had attracted them, Turie could pick them out of the crowd.   The key to getting a good scam rolling, Damaen has found, is picking the right person first. An individual who looks just a little down on their luck, a little lost in the world, who might be swayed with a few pretty words. Back them up with a plant of your own, and soon you could even draw a crowd. Today, that was a middle-aged woman with nothing on her but a single chipped blade and sad-looking cloak.
“Excuse me, miss. Have you heard the news from Ilysium?” Damaen asks, approaching the woman. She gives him a glance, and then turns away.
“I don’t want whatever you’re selling.” She responds, a gravelly timber to her voice.
“But that’s exactly the thing, miss. I’m not selling anything. I just came straight from Ilysium as soon as I heard what had happened.” Damaen does not directly follow her, but he does move so it is easier for her to turn back towards him. “One of those nobles, the old fart with too much land? Stasimus Aper, part of House… something or other. Well, he died.” He pauses, waiting to see if he’d hooked the woman. To his credit, she does pause.
“And?”
“And he had no heirs. No next of kin. Not even an uncle or second cousin, nothing. His House is scrambling to find someone related to him.” Damaen lets a bit of false excitement into his voice. “All it would take is the right forged papers, and a little bit of makeup and clothing, and anyone could take all that for themselves.”
“Wait, anyone?” Someone else interjects. Someone from his crew, who had been wandering about the courtyard for a few moments to separate him from Damaen.
“W-well, yes, anyone could I supp-” Damaen purposefully stumbles over his words, as if he had not been expecting the interruption.
“What do I need to do?” The mark responds, cutting him off. The threat of someone else taking what was available to only her a moment ago was stronger than the finest alcohol to pirates.
“I’ll need some time for the forgery. Oh, and some funds to melt down into a seal. Noble families’ seals are made from pure silver, and if you show up with a tin one they’ll arrest you for impersonation.”
“How much?” Asks his crewmember, shoving the woman aside. The trio has gained some attention, now, with more than a few interested parties listening in to this scheme.
“Is this enough?” The woman asks, just about emptying her coinpurse into her hand. It’s barely a few dozen silver coins, but Damaen makes a show of counting them.
“Yes, I think so.” He responds, before the plant shoves a handful of silver into Damaen’s palm.
“Make one for me first.” He demands, causing the woman to try to shove him to the side.
“No, I’ll pay double!” Someone new shouts, pushing into the mix. The scene very quickly devolves into a near riot, with Damaen making a show of trying to keep it in order. A few of his more light-fingered crew take the opportunity to relieve some valuables from the fools, but it only takes about a dozen minutes for Turie to tap his shoulder. That was the signal, which meant his plan had worked. She had found them.
  Damaen gives Turies a nod, and she starts brandishing her sparklock, pointing it up above everyone’s heads. A few shots crack out, small peals of thunder stealing the voice from everyone below. In most places, that would cause the chaos to stop. On Nokte, it kicks it into overdrive. Turie and Damaen slip out, just about unnoticed, from the brawl.
“Nought knows we want to meet.” Turie murmurs to Damaen, as they pair flit through a currently-unoccupied tent. “They said they’d introduce themselves.” Damaen nods, and focuses on keeping a low profile as they leave the brawl behind them. Soon, some Oathkeepers will probably show up to break it up, and they tend to be a little overzealous with their batons.
 
“Did you give them a place?” Damaen asks, ducking under the draped cloth of a stall.
“No.” Turie responds, sounding slightly distant. Damaen knows that that means she’s keeping a mental ear to the ground, so he doesn’t press further. Instead, he looks out at the crowd around them, trying to see if he can spot Nought first. Unlikely, but at least there are a lot of interesting characters among the pirates. There are those who are obsessed with flaunting their wealth, usually through fancy clothes and ridiculous hats. Then there are those more shrouded, in greys, blacks, and browns. Perhaps they are trying to keep a low profile, or perhaps just trying to look serious and dangerous. Regardless, neither of those aesthetics translates as well as they think. Damaen had the right idea, he reckoned. Looking like your average commoner made you less of a target, and even though it stood out slightly on Nokte, people tend to ignore the poor no matter which city you are in.
  Turie’s hand snaps down, breaking through Damaen’s musings.
“Quite the sticky fingers you’ve got.” She growls, down at the small, dirty, malnourished child who had been reaching for Damaen’s coat. He grins up at the pair, and his teeth file themselves into points.
“And here I thought you were reputable businessmen.” He purrs, steadily stretching to be Turie’s height, even while his child-like features remain. “And here you are, throwing accusations at me.” He blinks, his eyelids closing horizontally instead of vertically. All put together, it was incredibly unnerving, but Damaen manages to keep a straight face. Turie blanches, though she keeps her grip on the goblin’s wrist, which only brings him more and more joy.
“I would not respect any partner who did not try to rob me.” Damaen replies, extending a hand to shake. While that is true, he probably would be more retributive if Nought was not his line to living like royalty.
“Then you’re in good company.” Nought’s right hand is still trapped in Turie’s vice grip, so the goblin takes a moment to warp his left one backwards, the bones popping into place with audible cracks. His grip is fairly dainty, which is honestly a surprise to Damaen. He had expected Nought to grow teeth between his fingers and bite him, or something of that sort. “I was told you had something I would be interested in?”
  Damaen nods, and in lieu of speaking, simply takes the Gem out of the hidden pocket in his jacket. Nought looks from the device to Damaen.
“I am not a mindblood, my dear.” He says, with a chuckle. “I thought I had made that quite obvious. Would you mind telling me what it is you’re holding?”
“A Shadowblood Gem.” Damaen says, in a low voice. They are still out in the middle of the market, it would not do to broadcast this trade too loudly.
“Really?” Nought raises his eyebrows up his forehead, stretching out his face until it abruptly snaps back into place. “First a noble’s inheritance, and now a rare Gem. You really are one for the classics, aren’t you.”
“It’s real.” Turie growls, staring at the goblin with all the fierceness she can muster.
“Prove it.”
  Damaen presses his thumb down into the top of the device, and there’s a small vibration in his palm as it turns on. From his point of view, nothing’s changed. But Nought’s eyes flick about where he had been standing, unable to focus directly on him. Damaen lifts his thumb, and the Gem turns back off, revealing the pirate to the world again.
“Well well well well well well well.” Nought purrs, bringing his backwards left hand up to his chin to stroke it. “That changes things.” Turie pulls her sparklock from her belt as Nought starts to speak. Probably Nought had thought about stealing it. “I think I will take it, yes.” The goblin continues.
Turie levels the sparklock at the goblin’s head. “Don’t say another word to your cronies.” She warns, her finger on the trigger. “He’s got three.. no, four goblins in the crowd.”
“Mindbloods. Tch. Always so jumpy.” Nought says, slowly, as not to provoke the woman with the gun. “I will pay for it. Happy?”
Damaen, to his credit, does not react to the situation escalating. Keeping a calm head was usually for the best. “One million aeris.” He states, simply, a hand resting on the pommel of the blade at his hip.
Nought lets out a low whistle. “A hefty sum. Who’s to say I even have that much money to spend? What about a bit of barter?”
“I’m listening.” Damaen tucks the gem back into his jacket, having left it out in the open for long enough.
“Two hundred thousand.” Nought says, as he starts to shift again. This time, it is much faster. His face loses the childish features he’s worn in an instant, and a short beard sprouts from his face. Damaen’s beard. Damaen’s face stares back at him. “And I don’t rob every coin I can get my hands on while wearing your face.” Nought says, in Damaen’s voice.
  There were differences, to be sure, though Damaen did not make the habit of studying his face regularly. But those tiny errors would not matter when a dozen or more pirate crews came for his head.
“Four.” Damaen tries to keep his face steady, and tries not to worry too much about the goblin keeping his word.
“Ooh hoo hoo, it’s so rare that I get to play with someone who has the balls to try and haggle.” Nought taunts, in a tone that just sounds wrong coming from Damaen’s mouth. The goblin pulls the waistband of his pants — which do not fit on the full-grown form he’s now assumed — an inch off his skin and peeks inside. Damaen’s stomach turns as Nought looks back up and winks. “I’ll pay you four, if you let me try this thing out on you.”
Damaen frowns, despite himself, and a sour taste fills his mouth. Four thousand aeris is still less than he could probably sell the Gem for elsewhere. His options were either get paid a pittance for it, or take the loss and let Nought… take what he wants. Neither are good.
“I’ll take the two.” Damaen does not care to keep the anger from his voice.
“Really?” Nought gives him another glance, with a tilt of his head. “If you’re sure…” Nought makes a small gesture with that backwards left hand of his, and two people appear out of the crowd. “Last chance, darling.”
Damaen shakes his head. “I’m certain. The money, please.”
  The two newcomers to this discussion each pull a small, finely-crafted wooden box out of their baggy clothes. They look sealed, and are stamped on the top with the seal of House Ambergard. One of them is pried open, revealing shining rows of silver coins.
“Freshly minted.” Nought purrs. “Two hundred thousand, all in 50-aeris coins. Over 250 pounds of silver. What a pretty sight.” They are not looking at the crates with that last sentence, but Damaen tries to ignore their gaze.
Damaen hands over the Gem, and Turie finally releases Nought’s hand. The goblin gives Damaen a little waggle of his backwards fingers, and one last grin, and then presses the button on the top of the device. And just like that, they’re gone from sight. Damaen frowns, and bends down to pick up the boxes of silver coins.
“Let’s get this back to the ship, and get off this damned rock.” Damaen grumbles, to his quartermaster. At least he got enough to cover the costs of travel, and to pay a few of his bills in Ilysium for a few weeks. Still… Nokte. What a terrible city.

Comments

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Corvo Branco
Corvo Branco
7 Jan, 2022 12:15

Charming places, those outlaw ports and gangster states! Not the sort of place I like to visit in real life, but great for storytelling.   I like your shapeshifter. He ends this story looking a bit too powerful and hard to touch, so I imagine next time we see him will be to find the fellow in some uncomfortable corner, being outsmarted and/or beaten by someone more dangerous than him.

9 Jan, 2022 00:39

I don't know if I'll include Nought again, but he is one of the major players among the pirates, and you don't get there by being a pushover. However, there's always a bigger beast.   And honestly, when it comes to the pirates as a whole, they're usually outclassed by the major powers of the world. Even Nought would fare poorly against the might of the Imperial Navy.   Glad you enjoyed!

Corvo Branco
Corvo Branco
9 Jan, 2022 18:49

I hope you decide to give us a little more of Nought.   Perhaps some bold "right hand" makes exquisitely planed move to take our friend's place and send him to retirement . Stealing the pretty MacGuffin in the process.   Or mayhappen that this MacGuffin gives Nought just the edge he needs to escape the retirement plans and vanish in the world beyond the reach of his former business partners and apprentices. Then he can find himself a nice home with a small garden behind his window and cultivate flowers for the rest of his days, looking the neighbour's children play in the peaceful street of some Imperial village.   Bloody vengeance works too, I suppose.

Master PrincessESH
Aster Blackwell
9 Jan, 2022 02:56

Wow! This was wonderful and incredibly entertaining. I really love the characterization of both the characters and the city itself! I was totally hooked for the entire time, and I gotta say that the ending threw me! I just want to know more! Why did Damaen back off so suddenly?? He seemed so confident, and then...! Amazing, I love his character, I love the goblin, I love Turie. I love it.

9 Jan, 2022 23:20

Glad you enjoyed! The reason Damaen backed off was because Nought's shapeshifting lets him impersonate Damaen. So Damaen could refuse Nought's "bargain", but then Nought might make good on his threat to rob a whole bunch of people while wearing Damaen's face. Then all the people Nought robs will come over to exact their revenge on Damaen, which Damaen very much wants to avoid. Damaen's kind of only survived by being small and avoiding too much notice, so Nought's threat would mean very bad things for him.   It's very much a situation of a confident *** meets someone who super outmatches them, and all that confidence evaporates in an instant.

Master PrincessESH
Aster Blackwell
10 Jan, 2022 03:33

Yeah I totally got the feeling of the confidence evaporating! It was really cool how he talks himself up for the entire story but then he meets this spooky shapeshifter and suddenly you realize that he's not nearly as cool as he wants to think he is ;D excellent work!!