This all happened a while back. I mean, way back, like before the whole shit with the Virtu and my brother and everything. But after I left Kolkhis.
Shit, I'm sorry, why don't I just say the fucking date?
So it was 20.2.2, in the middle of a particularly hot Messidor. I mean, steaming hot. Everything smelled like rotting garbage. I remember, even though like I said, this happened way back, because I was living in Simside at the time, and you know the saying, about wet hot garbage in Messidor, and what you can do with it (mainly shit nothing).
Anyway, it was seriously hot that day and I was seriously hating life because of the smell. It was one of those days when I thought, fuck, couldn't they've cut off my nose, too? Then I wouldn't've had to smell this awful shit. And then I thought, fuck's sake, Milly-fox, make a wish like that and Kethe'll grant it.
I was lucky because I had shit to do. In the first few days after I left Kholkis, I had to be grateful for small shit, which mostly I was because fuck, lots of small shit's better than being Kept. Most shit is, I'd reckon.
My friend Cardenio'd sent a runner to pick me up 'cause he needed my particular skill to identify some stiff. He'd even been nice enough to make the runner memorize the message and say it back to me, so I didn't have to ask the little fucker to read it.
Now, I say little fucker because she was one; I'd known her brother when I was with Kholkis, and let me fucking tell you, that horse didn't exactly end up far from the stable. She said her name was Ceres Cenobia, which was a fake name if I'm a day old, but I dunno what her real one was, only that it got her the nickname 'Honey' from her big fucker of a brother.
So, Honey gave me the hairy eyeball like her brother ain't Kept and she wasn't a sigh and an eyelash away from being the same and said, "particular skill?" Like she seen the world and ain't thought much of it.
I knew better than to say, "Well, I'm Mildmay the Fox, what the fuck do you think he needs me for?" Mostly because that was a lot more words than I liked saying back then, especially to little fuckers like Honey Cenobia, or whatever the fuck her name was. So instead I just shrugged and let my scar finish that conversation with her imagination.
We walked through the streets quiet as you please after that, because if Honey's anything like her asshole brother, she got enough imagination on her to finish that conversation all sorts of places. By the time we got to the part of Pennycup Cardenio said to meet him, she probably thought I was gonna necromance a stiff up just so I could kill him again just for the fuck of it. Whatever she thought, she was sure happy to see the back of me, and lemme tell you, the feeling was fucking mutual.
Cardenio had his hands in his pockets and his shoulders all hunched, like he was fighting a battle with smiling and losing bad. I just stuck out my hand for a shake, and Cardenio shook back, and then he burst into a smile like the circus was in town. We hadn't seen each other since I'd left Kolkhis, and I dunno what he was expecting me to be like, but probably it wasn't nothing good.
"Hey, Cardenio," I said.
"Hey, Gilroi." His ears turned bright red right then. I could've kissed him for remembering the right name, but he was always good for that kind of shit.
Anyway, we ducked into the Crimson Harpy, which is a hole in the wall, thank you for asking, but it ain't a hole in the wall you're gonna find no Dogs in, and it's got these tiny little booths carved into the brick-- like Zephyr used to say, literally holes in the wall-- so you know you ain't gonna be overheard unless somebody invisible's sitting right next to you. Which is why there's a Ver-Istenna scale above each of the booths warding against unfair magic. Harpies pull Ver-Istenna's chariot, so it even looks decorative and not like they're banking on folks wanting to be discreet, which they are. Personally, I think the place is a bit too well-known to be free of flats, but I ain't exactly scared of flats.
Anyway, Cardenio got us a booth and told me what business exactly he needed, cause he sure ain't told little Honey Cenobia.
"So, Gilroi," he said, cause switching between name was probably a pain in the ass for him as much as having to have 'em all was for me. "I got a stiff down there no one could figure out who she was." He didn't have to tell me how serious that was; Cade-Skiffs is supposed to know who drowns and how, if not, y'know, why. Though they probably know that, too. "Except she got a St Priam tattoo on her back, so I thought you might know something about that."
Now, I ain't no expert on St Priam or nothing. I mean, I know how he got martyred and all that, but I dunno why he got a cult in Ramecrow or what they get up to. All I know is that somebody wanted Hortense Malther dead bad enough to pay for it last year, and she was into that cult in a big way.
"Priams don't end up in the Sim so far's I know. Not in the normal way of things, at least." I said, about as useful as a deaf cat. But Cardenio hmmed and nodded like it was shit he needed to know, which makes enough sense since the Priams are a mystery cult, so he maybe thought drowning was a normal thing that they just kept hushed up. I only knew a little about their business because I had to pretend to be one for the half-hour it took to off old Hortense, and there I learned they like to kill folks by poison. Nice work if you can get it, I thought at the time, which showed how royally fucked in the head I was those last few decads with Kolkhis.
Anyway, he said, "d'you wanna go and see her? Maybe you'll recognize her."
And I said yes, because I didn't think it'd work, but it was worth trying. So we walked back to where they were keeping her, and fuck me sideways til I cry, but that was Alva Benetti. We used to call her Alvy, which she fucking hated.
"Shit," I said. "I don't know her from the Priams, but she'd been with Keeper. I didn't know she'd left, and I seriously didn't know she'd joined up with the Priams."
Cardenio whistled, but it was nice, like he was saying how that was real terrible. I never like seeing kids I grew up with dead, which ain't exactly surprising, I know, but it's worth a mention. Anyway, Cardenio knew that, cause we'd done this song and dance before.
So anyway, that was sad and shit, but didn't exactly get us nowhere. Best I could figure, we might as well see Alva's mom, which I wasn't looking forward to for reasons I ain't proud of. But to start with, Alva's mother ran a bar over in Dassament that I'd liked pretty good. She hadn't always owned it, though, used to be that Gertrude Benetti was a whore. Benetti was the name of her pimp, which she took when she married him, and kept after she had him killed. Back when she was just Gerty, story goes, she sold her kids as she had 'em like most whores do. After she'd got the cathouse from Zebock Benetti, she turned it into a bar, called it the Smiling Lady, and had the girls work as bouncers. Zebock specialized in big girls, so it worked out pretty good.
After all that, she tried to find her kids, which worked out about as well as you'd think. Only one she could find who wasn't taking a dirt nap was Alva, who Kolkhis was gonna give back right before the end of the world. I always figured, if Alva was gonna run away, she was gonna run to the Smiler-- which is what folks called it most of the time, but not enough to change the name-- since she took after her mother enough to pull her own weight. Guess I'd been wrong.
And that's what I told Cardenio all the walk up to Dassament. Cardenio listened real good and nodded in the right places, so I could tell he was listening, which was always nice, even though I don't think Cardenio's the type not to tell you if he ain't got the concentration for something.
"Shit," Cardenio said after it all. "I can tell her, if you want." Because nobody wants to tell somebody their only kid's drowned in the Sim.
"Naw, if you do, it'll look like I did it and you're bringing me in." I said, because it would. Cardenio had nicer clothes than me, on account of the Cade-Skiff uniforms they give you and how they'll wash 'em for you every third night, and how Cade-Skiffs is a respectible job to have in the first place. Which is all a lot to go up against for a normal fucker in the Lower City, but then there's me with bags under my eyes the size of St Grandin's, and, oh yeah, half a fucking face.
"If you're sure," Cardenio said, because he's a real pal.
I said I was, and by then we were in spitting distance of the Smiler.
Here's the part I ain't proud of. I was hoping maybe Orpha wouldn't be hanging around, since I knew she worked tables at the Smiler. She didn't have enough muscle to bounce, but had necklines low enough to serve drinks. But, because Kethe does whatever the fuck he wants and he does it especially to me, she was standing right out front taking a smoke the one time I came anywhere near the Smiler in decads.
She saw me before I could dive into the nearest open grave and called out, "Dennis!" Because that was the name I'd been going by when I'd been fucking her. Which, you know, I regretted. The fucking her, not the fake names business, which was just reasonable if you ask me.
So I didn't say anything, just sort of stared as Orpha came running toward me like she was thinking about giving me a smack, which she didn't, thank Kethe. But it looked like a close thing.
She says, hands on her hips and angry as St Vertiline on the rag, "Where the fuck have you been?"
And I say, like I haven't been laying low from Kolkhis and her grunts for a decad and a half, and on top of that, her, "Around."
Then she really does try and smack me, but I duck out of the way so I don't hit back on reflex, and she makes this angry grunt and runs back to the Smiler's front door, where a bouncer I'd seen before- Jo, I think her name was-- had been watching the whole stupid thing.
Me and Cardenio of course followed because what the fuck else were we supposed to do? And we stand there in front of Orpha, still as angry as a wet cat, and Jo, who just looks curious.
"These boys giving you trouble?" Jo says like she don't care, which I can understand sort of. Probably she could snap Cardenio in half without trying, and as for me, well. I could handle it, but I seriously didn't wanna.
Orpha just huffed a bit more and started jabbing her finger at me like I'd done way worse than dumping her without telling her first-- which, since we hadn't even been really together except in her head, was overly generous on my part, as Zephyr'd say. "If you wanted to get rid of me, you should'a just fucking told me, Dennis!"
Me, I'd had other shit to deal with at the time more important than Orpha's odd ideas about what made a steady couple, and besides that she was always a handful when she was upset, which she was proving now. But that still ain't no proper excuse, just a list of reasons, none of which are good enough to leave somebody hanging. If I'd really wanted to get back to her, I would've.
Which was all fucking great, cause it meant I didn't have nothing good to say but, "Sorry."
"Fuck you, Dennis." Orpha threw her hands up in the air. "Gimme one good reason, just one, for leaving me hanging like that."
"Uh," Cardenio said. "We really gotta be getting inside--" But Orpha cut him off, which didn't please me none.
"Shut the fuck up," she said to Cardenio, who quieted right the fuck up again like a scared turtle. To Jo, she said, "Don't let 'em in. Not until I get a real good fucking reason from you."
Now, Orpha don't know much about me, but she ain't dumb; she knows I don't like being put on the spot, and I like it even less when the spot has to do with me saying the right thing. And then, to let me know she knew, she smiled real mean and thin-mouthed.
I knew I gotta come up with something fast, because it was getting late and if we didn't talk to Gertrude before the rush came in, we weren't gonna. But I can't lie worth nothing, especially when I gotta do it all of the sudden.
Right then, Cardenio spoke up, because he got to've realized the same thing I did. He was blushing bright red, ear to ear as pink as sunrise. He pointed in my direction, and then to himself, and said, "We're dating, now."
This got my attention, but more important, it got Orpha's. She looked at me, and I was maybe blushing a little too, but it looked more like I was embarrassed than lying I guess, because she said, "really? You a moll?"
And I ain't no good at lying, but I can nod like a motherfucker.
"Shit." Orpha said. "I always thought something was funny with you." And I told myself, that was the scar and me fucking Kolkhis at the same time and also killing people for money, and not, you know, something else. And then I wanted to bash my head into a wall, because what the fuck was wrong with my head that killing people's better than fucking guys? But I didn't say none of that, cause I ain't fuck stupid, or at least not that fuck stupid, and Orpha took it like an agreement, and nodded to Jo to let us in.
I put my hand on Cardenio's shoulder for about half of a real awkward second before I gave up, because we certainly weren't gonna be holding hands.
Anyway, we asked a few questions and got to see Gertrude. I'd never met Gerty Benetti personally, but she looked exactly like Alva, wide face and strong jaw and eyes that look right through you. "You say you know Alva?" She said, real smooth. But the way she looked at Cardenio, all in his Cade-Skiff uniform, I was thinking she had an idea of how things were gonna turn out.
Cardenio did the talking, because I swear to Kethe that boy's gonna be a saint when he dies. "We found her in the Sim a few days ago, Mrs Benetti. We were wondering if'n you'd know anything about how she got there."
Gertrude was quiet for a long while, just staring at her hands. But she's a tough as nails woman, would have to be, so after a while she looked back up and said, "I dunno how she'd've got there. I told her to join the Priams to keep her outta trouble." She put her face in her hands and took a deep breath, but after another long minute of silence, she seemed almost back to normal. I didn't have no doubt she was gonna be sobbing the second we got the fuck outta her office, though.
"Would, uh," Cardenio coughed. He was still blushing bright tomato red about having to talk like we were fucking. I didn't think he was ever gonna stop; Cardenio's a real private kinda guy. "Would you know where we could find some Priams to ask?"
Gertrude nodded and told Cardenio about a place in Ruthven where they were collecting today, cause I guess ever since her only kids joined the cult she kept on the up and up about how to throw money at 'em. We thanked her and before we went, she said, "Take Orpha with you, she knows you-- right?" It was clear as daylight she wasn't thinking straight just then, but I sure as fuck wasn't gonna correct her. "She can talk to the Priams for you, she's thinking of joining, and you know they don't like outsiders."
Which was real helpful of her, honest, and I could tell she appreciated us coming to give her the news ourselves, but fuck I did not wanna spend the next hour pretending I was fucking Cardenio less some girl tries to brain me. I said as much while we waited for Orpha to get ready, and Cardenio started blushing again.
"I don't, uh, mind," Cardenio scratched at the back of his neck. "It's my stupid idea, after all."
"Yeah, well." I shrugged, because how do you say 'hey, thanks for pretending like you fuck me'? I figured, "Thanks," was enough, and then, "It was a good stupid idea. Saved my ass."
Which got Cardenio to lighten up, because I realized he was worried I'd've minded. He was smiling now, though, still a bit fidgety but mostly okay, which was good, cause I didn't want him to get all twisted up just for lying for my sake.
So eventually Orpha gets her shit together and we get going, which is well enough cause it's starting to get dark. I don't like just wandering the fuck around the Lower City after dark, just like every other motherfucker with a fistful of sense to their names.
The whole walk is uncomfortable as shit, or at least, it's shaping up to be, me with the girl I used to fuck and the boy I'm pretending I do. Now, I can manage awkward shit pretty okay, I just pretend I'm somewhere else and count grains in wood, but I didn't wanna put Cardenio through rough shit, especially since the tough shit was all my fault. So I told one of Cardenio's favorite stories on the walk down, since listening to me try to spit out words is better than thinking about what Orpha was probably thinking about.
The Tragedy of Fidelia and Mordecai's an old story, I dunno how old, but I heard at least thirty versions of it, which is a good way of telling it's been around since way before the Protectorate. It's about Mordecai, who's all noble but troubled, you know the type, always showing up in stories but never in real life, who fought in a war or some shit and came back different. Fidelia's his best friend, who loves him like crazy but'll never let on, and just sits by the roadside her whole life trying to help Mordecai any old which way she can.
Cardenio's favorite version is the one where they end up together and pop out a few kids, the number of which I change up each time I tell it. My favorite version, which I think's more true to life, is where Fidelia never tells, and Mordecai turns out to be a moll and never knows he broke her damn heart. The most popular version has to do with a double-suicide and a real fancy knife which I figure probably couldn't really actually exist outside of stories.
Anyway, this time Mordecai and Fidelia have twins named Cuthbert and Theodosia, and they all ride horses and sip sherry day in and day out til the end of time.
Orpha is sort of smiling by the end of it, and Cardenio definitely is, which means I did my damn job. And anyay, we're at Ruthven now, and right where Gertrude said they'd be, there's a flock of Priams. You can tell by the grey robes with what I realize looking back was a big 'P' on the front of 'em.
Now, if you're wondering, yeah, I killed one of them a while back, but I did a good job and ain't nobody saw me do it, so I was safe to wander into a flock of Priams and ask a few harmless questions. Thanks for asking.
So Orpha goes off to one side and says some shit to a old lady Priam with a face like a donkey's ass, and they nod and the Priam comes over to us. "You knew Sister Alva?" She says, all worried. The fact that she said knew and not know said all that needed saying on her end.
"I did, yeah," I said, because it was about time I was worth more than a lame frog to this outfit.
She nodded. Nobody needed to explain what the fuck Cardenio was doing here.
"We was wondering if'n you got any idea why she died," I said. "I know for a fact she can swim, and they," I shrugged in Cardenio's direction, "found her drowned."
"Did she have a purse on her?" The Priam asked. I looked to Cardenio, who shook his head.
"I thought Priams took poverty vows, so we ruled out a mugging." Cardenio said it so casual like that it would've given me the chills if I hadn't... well, you know.
"Yeah, but we gotta eat. She was carrying a purse of donations to, uh..." The Priam stopped and bit her lip. I could tell she'd said more than she was supposed to-- it being a mystery cult and all, there's gotta be rules about that shit.
Cardenio squeaked in real smooth, and I could tell he was gonna be a proper Cade-Skiff one day, not just an apprentice forever, which I knew he was worried about. He could talk to people when they were worried and make 'em feel better, but still get information outta 'em, which I'll tell you, I sure as fuck can't do. Anyway, he said, "Thank you, Ma'am. I'm guessing you ain't seen the purse she was carrying?"
"No," the Priam shook her head, and whispered low, "I heard Sister Jessamyne thought she ran off with it." She looked guilty again right after, and I thought about what it'd be like to be a gossip stuck in a mystery cult.
"Thanks, Ma'am." Cardenio said, and gave her a half gorgon, and Orpha too, because, well, someone'd earned it, and, well, he couldn't pay himself.
Orpha said her goodbyes-- I could tell she was still mad, but not so mad she couldn't stand me no more, which was good because I'd like to go back to the Smiler once or twice before I kick it. Which, I'll tell you, I did, since it's been years since this all happened. I walked Cardenio home, since we had to go through some hairy neighborhoods and it was dark by then. On the way I told him the adventures of Theodosia and Cuthbert and how nothing bad never happened to 'em, and our shoulders brushed a few times, and it wasn't even really weird like it'd been at the Smiler. Most important, Cardenio smiled the whole way back.