Onto Part 4 of Pariah Company Le Reject version.
Ten minutes on a magic carpet made Alberic decide that he didn’t much care for flying. It was an odd feeling. The carpet didn’t particularly move while they were on it. It didn’t vibrate or cruise like a bird might to keep himself in the air. One felt a stream of air in one’s face of course, similar to being on a horse or on the deck of a ship. Yet there was no feeling of motion and this in particular was what Alberic’s brain couldn’t comprehend.
“Charles, are you still with us?” Cateline put a hand on his shoulder to bring him back from the edge. Literally, as he had been staring off into the distance below. The people, fields, animals, it all looked so different from this perspective that it had a weird hypnotic effect.
Now Alberic managed to free himself from the edge and returned to the middle of the carpet where everyone was seated except for Ahmed who was seated at the very front of the carpet, steering it by pulling on the edges like one might do with a horse. All in all the carpet looked much bigger than it had rolled up in Ahmed’s hands. But then if it could fly and so oddly at that the perception of relative space was not something worth noting. “Yeah, thanks for getting us out of there, Ahmed.”
“You are most welcome,” the young Muselmann said in an earnest tone but still couldn’t stop his voice from cracking, “I am glad to have been of service.”
“Why were those people after you?” Alberic didn’t want to seem ungrateful, but curiosity was necessary in cases like these.
“They want the carpet back. I took it when I fled my home,” Ahmed finally answered.
Alberic tried to look him in the eyes and face but the Arab subconsciously managed to avert his gaze at every opportunity without making it look unnatural, more like a series of circumstances. Arabs sure were odd, Alberic decided. “I see. Need a job?”
“Oh come now, Charles, you don’t need to drag him into this too,” Catelin protested. Had their ride not been carpeted, she might have stamped her foot on the ground.
“It’s good to know, that this means you agree to join.”
“I never said that. Just that I’d hear you out once we were done in Trier,” Cateline said innocently.
Alberic looked long and hard at this woman with which he had shared many adventures over the last twenty years. When she said things like this, looked at him with that peculiar smile, that air of confidence so rarely seen in the fairer sex, he couldn’t help himself but be infatuated all over again. But then maybe it was her fairy charms so he tried to clear his mind again. “Okay. I owe you that much.”
“Friend Greybeard,” Achilleos now made himself known again. The giant of a man had been sitting quietly on the carpet, seemingly asleep. How one as big as him could just disappear from your mindscape puzzled Alberic just as much as the mysteries of the carpet and the charms of his former paramour. “We have traveled these past eight days, yet I do not know our mission myself.”
Alberic nodded. “I wanted to wait until we had a complete unit. Now we have so I might as well tell you.”
Catelin raised a curious eyebrow, only adding to her other-worldly charms. “Wait, three people is your entire unit for this mission?”
“Four,” Alberic said eyeing Ahmed, “I assume the kid needs a job. Equal shares of four as per the usual arrangement will certainly help with whatever you are fleeing from.”
Ahmed looked up. “I’m not sure. I should go on.”
“Your countrymen found you in Trier, the ass-end of nowhere, they can find you anywhere,” Alberic quickly replied. He saw the opportunity to close the deal. “With the kind of money I’m offering for a couple of days work you can do whatever you want, get a new life.”
The young Arab looked unsure, eyeing Catelin, who gave him the most unremarkable nod. Almost like her charms didn’t work on him. Curious. “Very well,” he finally said, “but I’m not a good fighter.” Catelin gave him another look that was the closest Alberic had ever come to seeing a mental stab in the ribs. Ahmed quickly added: “Once I know the mission?”
“Son, you have a magic carpet at your command. That is all you will need,” Alberic said smiling and friendly but once again Ahmed averted his gaze just as quick as he had turned around in the first place. “Okay, here’s the mission.” He sighed and paused.
His compatriots looked at him, waiting. “And?”
He looked around, then down below. “Is there a tavern anywhere close? I really need a table for this.”
Ten miles later Alberic finally unfolded the message he had received from Voigt more than a week prior. He gave a content smile. The tavern they had found was dimly lit on the side of a road to nowhere with only a handful of traders around. It smelled vaguely like vomit and they had no privacy. Truly this was the right way to look at classified matters of state.
Catelin trembled her fingers on the table, visibly annoyed. Even wearing Alberic’s disgustingly unwashed cloak and therefore smelling like a cheap horse and sewerage, her radiant aura was drawing far too much attention. “Can we get on with things?”
“Anything to drink or to eat?” The barmaid, a plain farmer’s daughter, asked after they had wordlessly come in to occupy the best table. She probably had taken so long to work up the nerve to talk to the eclectic group with a giant of a Greek and an Arab in stereotypical robes and a scraggly beard, not even mentioning Catelin, who had thankfully morphed her ears human. “You need to buy something if you want to stay,” the barmaid spoke in a staggered staccato, always eying the backroom, likely where her master resided.
Achilleos looked up, flexing his muscles by the mere mention of food. “Two barrels of beer, five rabbits, three chickens, roasted naturally, sausages, a piece of cheese – no, make that two – and,” he looked back and forth between the rest of the group and the scared barmaid, “I’m sorry. Where are my manners?! What do you want?”
Alberic smiled and shook his head. He handed the barmaid another one of his inexhaustible coin purses. The trick of traveling was to always carry at least twenty coin purses. Three obvious ones to get stolen by street rats that were going to lead you into an ambush, seven for bribes, two for whores, and eight for general expenses. “Bring my friends whatever they want. We shall also need the–,” he eyed Catelin who hadn’t noticed his slip-up just yet. His former paramour was curiously inspecting Ahmed, so he quickly changed inflexions and cut himself off, “four rooms. Hot water too if you can provide for it.”
The barmaid stared at the coin purse and hefted it about in her skinny hands. She curtsied awkwardly. “Yes, sir, at once.” Then she was gone.
“Ah yes, exactly what we need, more attention,” Catelin said rolling her eyes once the girl was gone. “Since when are you so frivolous with money? Or did you give the poor girl painted tin?”
Alberic shrugged. “Voigt is paying for all of our expenses.”
“Since when is that money pincher springing for anything?”
“Times change as do people,” Alberic added with a smile. They had not parted with Voigt on good terms all those years ago, yet the scheming bureaucrat seemed actually willing to treat them differently this time around. How much of that was to elevate himself was still unclear to Alberic. Not that it really mattered. That reminded him of the post scriptum of the hastily written orders he had received. Alberic shouted after the barmaid: “I will need a receipt for that!” The barmaid stared at him blankly. “A slip of paper with what I owe you?” Again blank stares. “Go ask your master!” She left. “Damned peasants. That printing press can’t come to these parts fast enough…”
Alberic leaned back in his chair. The others looked at him, or rather Catelin looked at him while Ahmed awkwardly stared into the distance and Achilleos looked at him but clearly saw roasted chickens. “Anyway. Shall we begin?”
“You know I can turn into an eagle just like that and go back home, right?” Catelin’s post-life-saving mood was wearing off.
“Very well,” Alberic said and pulled out the communique from Voigt once more. Unfolding the paper in front of the group, there were only random numbers and letters on it. Of course Alberic and Voigt always communicated in code. Super pigeons were fast, but ever since wyverns had become domesticated and more magical beasts roamed the forests and roads it had become inevitable to come up with some form of secret language. The days of writing in plain text had come and gone even before Alberic had been born. “It’s a simple mission, I assure you. Travel will likely take up most of our time.” He smiled and looked at Ahmed. “Or not.” The shy Arab averted his gaze even more, if that was even possible.
“Get on with it,” Catelin replied from between her teeth. Fairies. The euphoria, remembrance of the old magic between them, was now really wearing off, replaced by the rift of the recent past. He had to be cautious from now on.
Alberic waited for the barmaid to finish bringing the first part of the order. The beer was cheap but the food looked fresh enough. “We need to rescue Princess Helene-Sophia of Greater Brandenburg.”
“Brandenburg?” Catelin leaned forward, ready to just grab the piece of paper from his hands. He was quicker though and leaned back just enough to be out of reach. “We talking about Voigt here?”
Alberic smiled cautiously. “He is still their minister of the interior.”
The fairy’s eyes lit up with anger. “I told you before that I’m not working for Voigt again. Not after…” With that she just stood up and left.
“Wait, can you at least…” Alberic tried to get up but the tavern was too small, the tables too close to the benches to get up quickly. Catelin was already on the way to the backrooms.
Catelin stopped just short of morphing into a big bear or another predatory form. She was that close to simply leaping onto him. The tension was slightly undercut by Ahmed staring at his beer mug like a lost puppy, gesturing for it to be replaced with goat’s milk or something that wouldn’t offend his god.
Alberic closed his eyes, trying to control his breath. And, more importantly, his mouth. “It will be different this time. I’ve been assured of that. Things have changed. The world has moved on.”
Catelin’s eyes now resembled small daggers. “No. I told you ten years ago what I thought about that man and I’m not changing my mind now. I won’t do him a favor. Not after what he did to Guinevere.” She caught herself as the barmaid closed in again with more food. She threw a quick glance outside the open blinds. It was getting dark. “I’m staying until sunrise since you already paid for room and board. I’ll be taking my food in my room.”
Alberic said back down as Catelin left, putting his face into his hands. A stinging pain was coming up around his temples. “Stupid…”
Achilleos and Ahmed were shifting uncomfortably back and forth on their benches. The big Greek was eying the chickens anxiously. “Are you alright, friend Greybeard?”
Charles Alberic looked back up and sighed. “It’s fine, Achilleos. Please, dig in. You too, Ahmed.”
The anxious little Arab cautiously went for one of the chickens. Taking a bite out of it, all anxiety seemed to leave him within a heartbeat before he starting munching down on the food as much as Achilleos. Poor little guy must have been half starved.
Alberic leaned back, sipping on the mediocre beer and quickly reserving himself half the rabbit. “I’m sorry you had to witness that. I know you’re likely not used to womenfolk behaving like that.”
“Don’t worry, friend, I like my women spirited,” Achilleos answered laughing. Ahmed remained characteristically quiet. Maybe he was the only one here that was smart enough to stay diplomatic. “What is she anyway?”
“She’s of the fair folk,” Alberic said below his breath, still expecting spies behind any and every corner. He had to chastise himself. Those days were over, behind them. “A shapeshifter,” he answered to Achilleos’ confused face.
“I have never encountered one before,” Achilleos admitted, “my travels were long and far but I must admit I haven’t been in these parts of Europe for over a millennium.”
“Some would say you haven’t missed much,” Charles Alberic mused, a sad smile forming around his lips for the shortest of moments, “you missed the last war at least.”
“It’s why I decided to return. I was in China when word reached us from the Byzantines,” Achilleos said in between ripping large chunks of flesh from the chicken carcasses.
Alberic raised an eyebrow. “The war ended twelve years ago.”
The giant Greek belched. “I am not known for my sense of direction.”
“Have you considered hiring a boat or a cart?” Alberic welcomed the opportunity to find out more about the Hellenic hero. Considering that they had traveled for more than a week together already, little had the man spoken of himself or even broached the topic of the War.
“They have a habit to steer me off my course even more so,” Achilleos mused, belching once more. “I walk these days. I cannot bear the notion of absconding with innocent bystanders on an adventure.”
“Well, you didn’t miss much,” Alberic admitted, “I fought in many wars, but that one…”
“Did you fight in the Reality War?” It was Ahmed to Alberic’s surprise. The small man looked up from his chicken with even more of a confused face as he bore normally. The small man’s face immediately lit up with a fire he had never seen before in the shy nervous wreck.
Alberic raised an eyebrow. “I thought that was obvious from my vague stepping around the issue-ing?”
“No, it’s okay,” Alberic said apologetically. “Also we call it the Tunnel War in these parts or Dimension War III, or DW3. Mind you there were more of those over the millennia and why these three matter most is beyond me, but ask the eggheads at the universities.”
Ahmed nodded. “My people didn’t fight in it. I remember many knights coming and asking the local leaders to help. They never said yes and then it all ended so quickly once they had changed their minds.” It sounded apologetic.
“You were still reeling from the one before that,” Alberic said, waving the youth’s concerns off. “Anyway, it’s over.” The last word still felt sour after all those years.
“Is it true what they say?” Ahmed edged his bum forward across the bench. First it seemed like he was particularly antsy but it actually was the fact that his legs were too short to reach the ground anyway else.
Alberic braced himself. There it was. “Depends on what ‘they’ said.”
“That a mage sacrificed himself to close the portals for good?”
“She,” Alberic corrected the youth, taking a much deeper drink of beer than usual, “and saying that it was ‘for good’ is a bad omen based on what I’ve seen.”
Achilleos and Ahmed nodded. Alberic liked the somber mood. For once in over a week there was some sort of quiet around him. But now that the noise had died down, if only for a moment, emptiness filled the void once more. It whispered to him, telling him what he lost. And what was to be regained. His fist slammed down on the table and he laughed, acting. “Oh come now. Let me tell you about the great adventure before us. If you still want in.”
The two men looked at each other, giant to squirrel, and raised their own mugs. And Charles Alberic smiled.
Two hours and several rounds of beer and milk later, Alberic finally had drunk and eaten enough to bring up the courage to knock at Catelin’s door. There was no answer. He tried again. And again. And again.
“Come,” an exasperated voice finally replied.
Alberic smiled as he stepped inside, quickly closing the door behind him. It wasn’t necessary for the others to hear them. Although he felt like he could eventually trust them, that day had not come yet. For now it was a strict working relationship he needed to establish. Catelin was different. There she was before him, lying on one side, slowly and gracefully eating the plate the maid had brought her. Dignified, collected. Eternal. One look at her in this state and the baggage of the last ten or even fifteen years fell of his shoulders. Then he caught her gaze. While her eyes were still as brilliant as ever, age unwilling to catch up to the fair folk, what was behind those eyes and her posture subconsciously enforced the rift now standing between them.
“I’ll be leaving at first light,” she said in a clipped voice.
“That’s fine. I’m certain we can drop you off in Trier before we go on. You sure it’s safe to return so soon?” Alberic carefully sat himself on the edge of the bed for lack of proper furniture in the room. Though he supposed the presence of a tub was the height of luxury in this backwater.
She shrugged. “Benefit of being a shapeshifter. I’ll stay in my brothel owner disguise for a bit until people forget the faces I used during the jailbreak. They’re mostly simpletons, they don’t know any better.”
“Seems like a rough spot,”Alberic said, carefully choosing his approach. “Some might say it’s beneath you. Operating a brothel.”
“Clever,” Catelin commented with a slight smile, which could either mean mild amusement or the enjoyment at seeing a baby wyvern biting you in the bum. “Trying to insinuate that I used to have it better. Appealing to our shared history. No wonder you’re best friends with Voigt now.”
“I’m not. Never will be,” Alberic snapped. He caught himself, immediately angry with himself. “I’m not,” he repeated gentler.
Catelin nodded wordlessly. “Don’t worry about me. I’m doing just fine. As are my girls. It’s a hard life true, but they are doing better with me than any male whoremonger. At least I don’t treat them like livestock. Besides, I couldn’t go back to my old life. I didn’t much like who I was becoming by the end.”
“You did it longer than me so I shouldn’t judge. Seventeen years to my… nine? They all left marks, marks that slowly but surely added up.”
“At least you’re somewhat honest today,” the fairy replied melancholically. She glanced at his hair, his beard, all the grey. “You look good for 82.”
Alberic shrugged. “Maybe all that magic finally rubbed off on me. I don’t feel much worse than the day I joined up P– the group.”
“You can say the name, oaf,” Catelin said, lightly stabbing him with her big toe. “We had some great times with Pariah Company, no matter how it ended. Once you read the big three digits you try to look at the positives in life.” Realizing her mistake and Alberic’s immediate facial response, she quickly added. “Most things. Not all.”
Alberic nodded. Silence slowly spread throughout the room, laying itself like a thick blanket across them. They remained so for several minutes as they contemplated where they had gone wrong. What pathways had led them here, where they could have ended up. Finally Alberic decided to break through the ice. “You wanted to know why I’m working with Voigt. I didn’t want to touch any work even if he offered, which seemed unlikely after everything. Then I got the letter.” He pulled the small pigeon post scroll from his pocket and rolled it over the bed to Catelin. “I couldn’t even give the beginning of a fuck about Princess Helene-Sophia. I couldn’t give less of a shit about Greater Brandenburg’s place in Imperial politics. I care about the fact that Philippa went after the Princess first and now she’s been kidnapped too.”
Catelin looked up from her plate where she had been boringly picking at the surviving crumbs. “Our Philippa as in Philippa Stahlhand?”
“Yes.” Alberic crossed his fingers behind his back for good luck.
“And you decided not to tell me first?” Catelin was furious now as her ears took on a bright red hue as blood rushed into the extremities.
Alberic raised an eyebrow in mild disbelief. “Last time I checked you parted on worst terms than we did. And you tried to kill me with a meat cleaver when we ran into each other five years ago.”
“You know I can be spirited,” Catelin said absent mindedly, thinking. Slowly but deliberately she got up and made her way to the still open blinds were moonlight illuminated the surrounding forest quite brilliantly. Alberic dared not look. Between the moon and Catelin he could never avert his gaze again.
Alberic tried to ignore the comment, unwilling to run straight into that knife’s edge. “Apparently Philippa was working as the Princess’s’ personal protector.”
“Sounds like her. She always had too close a relationship with Voigt,”
“So,” Alberic began, “does that mean you’ll join us?”
Catelin remained quiet for another minute, only to wordlessly nod her head.
“Alright. We leave at first light. There’s a lot of ground to cover. So better get some rest.”
Alberic turned to leave before Catelin stopped him dead in his tracks. “We’ve done this before so I’ll be clear for once. We get in and do the mission but we’re not going to get back together in the end. That’s not how this works.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“You need to hear it anyway.”
Alberic wanted to turn for just a second, then stopped himself. “Understood.”
He pulled the piece of string that served as the door handle, only to be stopped once again by Catelin. “Why didn’t you tell me about Philippa first? You could have lead with that and saved yourself a few hours of trouble.”
Alberic stepped outside and turned to face her as he closed the door. “Didn’t want you to feel obligated to come and save her.”
“Until I said I didn’t want to come and you emotionally blackmailed me instead?”
Alberic just smiled and gently closed the door.