by Dana DeVries
The bar held only a few dozen tables and a stage where a tired woman wearing a low cut dress moved in a languid parody of the zarabanda. Her musician strummed slowly on a guitar while his eyes stared sightlessly into the room's gloom. The only waitress in the room didn't bother to ward off the lazy groping of one of the sailors as she circled the room looking for something to do. The candles on the tables burned low and barely flickered as the door to the bar opened.
Until a booming voice called out. "I spent five days on a leaky barge for this?" A tall Castillian stood in the doorway wearing black leather pants, a white silk shirt and an infectious grin. "I think not."
He stepped inside the room and onto a chair. Another step put him onto a table before he leapt onto the stage. He took the dancer in his arms and smothered her mouth with his own. Her body went rigid for a single instant and then she sank into his embrace. His fingers lightly tapped a rapid rhythm on her shoulders as their kissed. When he drew back and tossed a few coins to the musician, she reached for him and drew him back towards her.
The Castillian broke away and said, "Now we are ready for the zarabanda!" The patrons awoke from their shock at his actions and cheered tentatively as he stomped his foot three times to set the tempo. The patrons began to clap in time with the beat and panic filled the guitarist's eyes.
The Castillian stood mast straight in the center of the stage with a cocky expression on his face as the dancer took small, strong steps around him and trailed her fingers across his chest and back. He finally turned his head to look at her as he reached up and seized her hand. As she caressed the back of his neck with one hand, he softly licked her fingertips of the other hand. The beat of the customer's clapping drove the guitar's notes faster and faster until the guitarist's fingers were a barely visible blur. The Castillian spun to face the dancer but she had already turned her back to him and slumped back. Her bare shoulders rubbed down his chest and torso as she sank to the floor only to be stopped by his strong hand lifting her back to her feet.He spun her around to face him again and the two circled each other staring hungrily into each others eyes. Without a word, their hands grasped each other and they began to slide through a series of quick steps, spins and dips.
The two continued to move closer and closer as the music rose to a fever high pitch. They were both covered in sweat, but a litheness had filled their motions so they seemed to move more smoothly than when they had started. When the notes slammed to a sudden halt, the dancer's body was leaning almost horizontally away from her partner while he held her tightly around the waist. Her legs were twined around his own and slowly caressed the backs of his calves.
The patrons exploded into thunderous applause and Vodacce coins began to shower the stage. The dancer whispered an invitation for later to her partner and graced the audience with a sultry smile before slipping off the stage and into a back room. The musician picked up the coins from the stage with bloody fingers and followed her.The patrons returned to their own conversations as the Castillian sat down at a table. The innkeep brought a glass of wine and pressed it into the Castillian's hands and whispered "On the house" to him. The other man at the table chuckled. "I've never seen Julius give anything away before. And you! You couldn't be even a trifle subtle could you, Joaquin?"
He was a tall Vodacce man with the finely chiseled features and devious grin so loved by classical painters. For their villains.
Joaquin Orduno smiled at his companion. "Do you really imagine anyone telling their friends of what just happened will bother to mention who I spoke with afterwards?"
"In Vodacce? Of course. Every man in this room will be telling someone of what happened and how the Castillian then spoke to a certain Angelo Orsini afterwards. That's the way things are done here."
"One of the reasons that while I enjoy visiting, I am glad you're the one who must live here. I prefer a little privacy when I'm making a fool of myself in public. But usually you'd have been up their long before I, my friend. Been waiting long?"
"Since the morning. I didn't dare miss you."
"Really? Now what is so urgent that you had to insist on this meeting? So urgent that you would sit here worrying, rather than raising a little hell?"
Angelo replied, "You heard about my uncle's problems?"
"The last time we talked, he had lost some property and was searching for a way to breathe underwater long enough to reclaim it. Now what?"
"Villanova struck. Mondavi and the others weren't far behind. Seems they have a new informal agreement. While they still enjoy plotting and conspiring against each other, they will all kill anyone with Caligari blood on sight."
Joaquin silently whistled. "If they've agreed to that much, you may be in for some rough times."
"Well, uncle's not completely out of resources yet."
"How bad is it?"
"He told me to find a bolt-hole and disappear for a while." This time Joaquin was too shocked to whistle. If Vincenzio Caligari was advising his relatives to hide, it was indeed worse than he had imagined. Angelo's normally cheerful face was serious, almost grim and the lines that stress were beginning to wear into his flesh were clearly visible. "Joaquin, how long have you known me?"
"Ever since that unfortunate incident with the Bernouli wine."
A slight smile touched the Vodacce's face. "You mean the flavored vinegar?"
"Whatever you want to call it. At least you were a good sport."
"Certainly. And I felt much better after I made a profit selling it back to you."
The two men smiled fondly at the memory before Angelo continued. "But in all those years of helping you and your...friends, have I ever not come through?"
With a strong nod of his head, the Castillian stated, "Yes."
"Do you remember the time you said Fascili was shipping firearms to the Inquisition? You neglected to mention that they were shipping it with a Cardinal. Do you know how close we came to killing a man of the cloth? Or what about the time you told me that Mondavi had a monopoly on salt for the island of Contessa? I smuggled in a whole shipload to find out everyone knew about the monopoly. I was the fourth captain to get past the customs agent and couldn't even cover expenses that trip. Or what about...."
Angelo's face fell so sharply that Joaquin shook his head. "Never mind. By and large, you've done well by us. Your information has saved many lives, including my own. If you need a place to hide or money or any help, you have only to ask."
"Thank you." The words were quiet, barely audible, but the emotion behind them spoke volumes. "I was hoping to trade Amo Stallis for a Castillian ship. She's a bit too well known for my taste."
"That wallowing sow? She's far too big for any practical use. Besides what does Nunzio think about you bartering his ship away? That was his father Vito's ship, I can't imagine Nunzio selling it."
"I'm...sorry. How did it happen?"
"He grabbed a portion of uncle's Syrnath artifacts when the island sank and then tried to sell them to the highest bidder. Uncle may have lost some of his power, but not so much that he cannot reward disloyalty."
"I see. So your galleon for a Castillian one? Then what?"
"Actually, a Castillian frigate. Small and fast. I'm gong to need it to dodge trouble in Vodacce."
"Well if that's all you need, I'll just trade you. You take la Venganza and I'll take the Amo Stallis."
"You just called it a wallowing sow?"
"True. But she's a well built sow. More importantly I can trade her for another frigate at my leisure. No one is after me. But what happened to you needing a place to hide?"
"I do. And I'll come back to it when necessary. But let's face it. The only reason I was able to help your friends was because I had information. Without that, I'm not sure how long my winning smile and good looks will continue to support me. Besides when my uncle strikes back at his enemies, he'll need all the information I can get my hands on. I want to be ready."
"You're a brave man. Or a stupid one."
"You did teach me both traits."
"Did you have to be such a good student?"
The two men laughed as three men entered the bar. They were all Vodacce men of medium build, but their well tailored clothing placed them as successful merchants, too successful to be entering a dive such as this one. They strode straight up to the table where the two men still had their heads together. The trio stood their expectantly, but the two didn't look up. Finally the lead man cleared his throat. Joaquin and Angelo looked up quizzically. The leader spoke loudly enough that the entire bar could hear him. "You have insulted my sister, you foul breathed buffoons." The two looked at each other in confusion and then turned back to the speaker. Angelo politely asked, "Who would your sister be, sir?"
The man answered hotly. "Guadalupe Cortez. She was a fair virgin of impeccable character before you two vilely assaulted upon her. She hasn't stopped crying since that day!"
Angelo turned to Joaquin and announced, "Pay up. I told you they'd claim they were going to kill us over a woman's virtue rather than a soured business deal."
Joaquin passed over a pouch. "I am so insulted. I have never left a woman crying. Unlike you I might add. Practically every woman you're with is left crying. Probably because you just don't know how to satisfy their needs."
"Those are fighting words, Orduno."
"That's your problem, Angelo. You never take the time to finish one argument before going on to the next one. Let's take care of these gentleman first."
The leader of the trio shouted, "You will not simply ignore my challenge. Face me or I shall cut you down where you sit."
He drew his sword and his two companions followed suit. With a shrug, Angelo Orsini said "Alright." The two rogues stood up, grabbed the edge of the table and heaved it towards the trio of swordsmen. One of them did not move quickly enough and the table toppled over atop him. He gestured frantically from beneath the table as the leader and his companion advanced upon their foes. With a broad grin, Orduno turned to the side to allow his silent opponent's blade to pass by him. Joaquin put his foot out and the swordsman's thrust turned into a stumble as the Castillian reached out to the table behind him and grabbed a bottle half full of rum. He took a quick swig as the swordsman leapt forward and twirled around with his blade at the ready. Joaquin tossed the bottle of rum at his face and the swordsman raised his blade up and parried the bottle so strongly that it shattered. As several glass shards slashed into the swordsman's face, Joaquin stepped in close and slammed a fist into his jaw. The man dropped to the ground unconscious.
Nearby, Angelo Orsini had drawn a dagger and was parrying the blade of the trio's leader. Thrust after slash rained in from a variety of angles, but every attack was parried easily. And the entire time, Angelo continued a running commentary. "Nice, but a little slow. See now that time you rushed the attack and that put it off target. Overcompensating now, you need to focus. Come on, I'm barely getting a work out here."
Behind Angelo, the trapped man had almost lifted the table high enough to escape.Joaquin raised an eyebrow at him and Angelo stepped casually backwards onto the toppled table. The trapped man gave a shout until Joaquin stepped up next to him, drew his sword and looked down curiously. The trapped man quieted instantly. Turning back to the duel, Joaquin called out, "Come on, Angelo, I'm getting bored over here."
Angelo sighed dramatically as he parried a slash at his leg. "I'm sorry, sir. You know how it is with these youngsters. No patience."
The Castillian shouted back at him. "Youngster? You're no older than I am!"
"Yes, but Vodacce men mature faster and remain at their peak for longer. On the other hand, Castillians tend to remain childish and are simply flash in the pan types. Or so I've heard." The swordsman tried a flurry of blows which all rebounded from Orsini's expert defenses.
"From who?" demanded Joaquin.
"Women mostly. But you're right. We should be going. Again I apologize, sir. I must go." Angelo parried the next blow strongly and slashed across his opponent's exposed arm. The sword fell to the ground as Angelo stepped up to his opponent and cut towards his opponent. "I know you are a true professional and I applaud that. But if you ever come after me again, I will be forced to be more forceful. I'm certain you can appreciate that."
Clutching his wounded arm, the swordsman carefully nodded around the knife to his throat. Angelo smiled and stepped back. Orsini and Orduno smiled at each other. Orduno commented. "Wonderful spot you picked for a meeting. But let's go."
"Right. I'm sure we can find some more trouble to get into before we have to sail."