It's a longer one than usual - both longer than previous chapters and longer than future ones - because I needed to introduce most of the remaining main cast in this chapter, and I didn't want to give any of them short shrift. There's also, as a consequence, a considerably larger voice cast than usual for this one, including a memorable if brief performance by Reginald's soft-headed trollop of a maid, Pansie, by izuma_yaki , who responded to a post here some time ago in which I cryptically asked for a female voice actor with a british accent.
Anyways, without further ado...
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Miss Elliot had gone to tidy herself up, promising to return shortly in order that she might attend the meeting at which my associates and I would construct a plan of action as pertained her family’s curse, when Pansie arrived in my study, a mop and bucket tucked untidily beneath her thick arms.
Pansie had been in the service of the family for some three decades, ever since we had purchased her as an indentured servant from her father, a friend of the family who did not wish it to be known that he had fathered her upon one of his own servants. Rumour had it that Pansie’s mother herself had been the illegitimate daughter of yet another lord and HIS maid. It was a proud lineage of bastards and shame that, legend had it, went back clear to the time of King Henry VIII. Were she not such an unsightly and obviously-simple woman, I would have almost regretted not playing my own part in this grand legacy, but I did have my standards. Perhaps some day I would hire a more appealing serving girl, father a bastard on her, have her sacked and then force Pansie to raise the child as though it were her own, just for form’s sake.
After a few brief words about the cleaning of my study and the removal of this “rhino” carcass, I turned to the matter of the larger task I had at hand. “Pansie, we're to mount an expedition. Once you’re done in here, I shall need you to fetch everyone for me.”
“Everyone, sir?” She replied, a look of mounting distress worn on her dull, cow-like face, “Everyone on earth?”
I considered it for a moment. It hadn't been what I meant, but certainly this arrangement would provide us a sound numerical advantage. But in such dangerous lands, did I dare trust everyone on earth to watch my back? And what of the logistics of the thing? Providing transportation alone would be a daunting challenge, and this journey promised to be difficult enough on its own. After a moment’s thought, I decided against it. "No", I ultimately replied. "Just... everyone that’s normally involved in this sort of thing.” I waved my hand around vaguely. “But I’m glad you’re thinking. Bully for you. Now, go and let them know that I’m mounting an expedition and that their involvement shall be required.”
- - -
Some hours later, I had cleaned and changed my clothes, and greeted Miss Elliot as she returned. I complimented her on the bouquet of flowers she had crudely pinned over her left shoulder, and feigned surprise when she made reference to the loss of her arm, pretending neither to remember nor to have noticed her monstrous disfigurement.
“Well! You flatter me, Mister Kingsley”, she smiled demurely at me, evidently having correctly determined the nature of my praise.
“Naturally I do, Miss Elliot. You women are by your nature prone to accepting nearly any flattery, no matter how idle or baseless as merely your due. What sort of man would I be should I not capitalize upon such a well-known weakness of your sex?”
“Why, you silver tongued-devil, you!” She blushed deeply, and then offered me her sole remaining arm. I took it, and led her down the hall towards my den. Along the way, I shared with her a number of photographs and momentos from past exploits which adorned my walls. Here, a photograph of myself at the lip of a crater overlooking the Earth during my all-too-brief voyage to the Moon last spring. Here, an artist’s rendition of my third and most perilous voyage into the Hollow Earth. Here, the skull of Queen Victoria, which she had left me in her will after I had complimented her on her bone structure at a dinner I attended in my youth, during a time in which I was quite enthused with the science of Phrenology. Miss Elliot listened to the stories with rapt attention, gasping with astonishment at all of the right places. Her attention to the form and protocol was most admirable.
As we approached the door to my drawing room, I could hear a number of voices inside already. It seemed that most or all of my associates had already gathered. I smiled at the thought of them. An assembly of heroes such as the world had seldom seen, added by ones and twos over the course of some twenty years of adventuring, and bound together not only by experience, but by a sense of common cause. There wasn't a one of them I wasn't confident would gladly take a bullet for me, and for my own part, I would gladly allow any one of them to do so. Such was the trust we shared.
Rounding the corner, however, I felt a nearly-physical shock at the sight of what awaited me. Amidst my usual retinue of retainers and companions sat a man I was all too familiar with, though I had never expected to encounter him in my own home. A slender figure, which might perhaps be called tall if not for his perpetually stooped posture, dressed head to toe in a suit whose every stitch and seam bespoke the malignancy of the being which they clothed, complimented by a black bow tie whose knot was as twisted and colour as dark as the vile heart which beat so close beneath it. A cape tossed almost carelessly about his shoulders, and a stovepipe hat atop his head. And oh, that head. What loathing its features inspired in me. Its shrewd, calculating eyes, its long, beak-like nose, its thin, greasy moustache and sharply angled chin and cheekbones, upon the right of which sat perched a monocle which seemed to gleam with near as much sinister intent as the eye behind it. I knew them all all too well, from the many occasions on which I had had cause to curse them from across a battlefield.
"Cyrus Blackhawk!" I bellowed at the sight of him. "By Buddha's balls, man! What in the world are you doing in my home?"
"I'm as surprised to find myself here as you are yourself, dear chap", he sneered at me from his place in my favourite leather armchair. He stroked the eagle's skull which adorned the top of his cane as he spoke; an odious affectation which I believe he thought made him look sophisticated. "But after your charming maid extended your invitation, there was nothing on earth which would have stopped me from joining this august body."
"Pansie!" I roared, the blood rushing to my face with rage. "What possessed you, you soft-headed trollop?"
"You..." she stammered, her eyes instantly near-filled with tears, "You... you said!"
"What did I say? Be plain, damn you!"
"You said! All of the people normally involved in... in this sort of thing!" She was wringing her hands in her apron with a plain distress which I was ill-disposed towards indulging her in. The rest of those in the room had by this point gone quiet, observing the altercation with a sort of morbid fascination. "And Mr. Blackhawk... he's always in your stories!"
"As an antagonist!" I shouted, "A ne'erdowell! A fiend and scoundrel, set forever at cross-purposes to me!"
"But he's involved! And you... you said!"
"Hoisted by your own petard, boy!" my father cackled from his own chair. Though well into his autumn years, he had yet to entirely give up the adventuring lifestyle, and continued to attend meetings at which we discussed our plans. Age, however, has had no impact upon his irascible wit and witticism. "That's what you get for taking on help that believes themselves entitled to speak the king's tongue. Sometimes they speak out of turn!" Behind him, his Portuguese nursemaid, Margarida, reached around with a handkerchief and wiped the spittle from his chin. It was a point he and I had argued many times over the years; the value of a servant which you could berate in a tongue they could understand, set against the value of one which could not disobey or misinterpret your instructions due to their inability to comprehend them. Papa's insistence was that no servant worthy of the name had the intellect necessary to understand orders given by a man of education anyways, and the evidence of the moment seemed to support him, loath though I was to admit it.
“You want I should do him in, Doc?” Barty asked, drawing his pistol from his pocket, his eyes alight with precious and innocent boyhood enthusiasm. I struck him crossly in the face with the back of my hand.
“No, you fool!” I informed him. “I dare not allow him to be harmed in my own home!” I scowled at Blackhawk as he leaned back in my chair, grinning contentedly as he continued to stroke his blasted bird's skull cane. “He’s a member of the Audubon society, and I have an already all-too-fragile truce with them at the moment. I dare not provoke them with such an act of aggression. It would be blood in the streets if I did so, and Inner Oxfordfordshirewhittington would surely burn.”
“The Audubon society?” Miss Elliot asked. “The bird-watchers? From the colonies? I was unaware that they were operating in England.”
“No surprise there, ma’am. They’re cagey devils, and if they had their way, we’d never have knowed they existed in the first place.” This was Jack Cartwright, the sole Yankee among my associates, who had joined us during a harrowing misadventures in the colonies some three years prior. A man of uniquely low moral character and breeding, he had nevertheless endeared himself to me through his naked contempt for the “lawmen” employed by the insurgent so-called government in Washington; the enemies of the enemies of the British Empire, I reasoned, must therefore be my friends. And so he had proved to be on countless occasions since I had rescued him from that jail cell in the dusty frontier town in New Jersey where he had been unjustly imprisoned for nothing more substantial than murdering a sheriff during the commission of a bank robbery. He spat a mouthful of chewing tobacco into the spittoon I had purchased with him in mind some years prior, and fixed Blackhawk with his steely glare. “Whatever it is they got in mind here, it can’t be no good. Fairly makes my skin crawl to think of it.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, indeed”, Blackhawk smirked, twirling his moustache in one white-gloved hand. “But have no fear. You’ll learn what that purpose is soon enough, all of you. And by the time you do, I think you’ll find it is far, far too late to do anything about it.” He leaned back in my chair and laughed long and hard, though I’d be dashed if I could discern the precise nature of the comedy. I presumed he had simply thought of some unrelated and amusing thought, and resolved not to give the matter any further consideration.
I took that moment to survey the room as I had not had opportunity to since my rude surprise upon arriving. I spied Professor Archibald Rutherford dozing peacefully in his own chair by the window, as had become increasingly common with the onset of his old age. I decided to leave him be; were he to be awakened, he would likely as not assault Blackhawk, which, though pleasing in its own right, would be disruptive and potentially embarrassing. His martial skills, which to be honest were never more than modest to begin with, had been rather greatly diminished in recent years, though he would have hotly this if it were put to him, and indeed did not appear cognizant of his own decrepitude, and indeed still fancied himself quite the deadly combatant. We were all quite fond of the aged linguist, and so were loath to disabuse dear old Uncle Baldy of his delusions of relevance. While leaving him asleep would technically mean he would be striking out into danger with us without any clear notion of where we were going or what we were doing, I resolved that this was acceptable; he would be greatly insulted at the suggestion that he had slept through my talk and claim to have heard every word of the meeting regardless. Besides which, his once-keen mind remained marginally sharp enough that I was mostly confident that he would be able to pick up the important bits as we went along.
On the far side of the room, Captain Guinee was no more concerned by Blackhawk’s presence for her own reasons; she was – rather obscenely, I thought – seated atop Ivan’s lap, as she so often was, teasing his great, hideous beard with one hand while holding one of her grotesque French “cigarettes” in the other, and quite occupied with her vile, ape-like paramour. The current captain of the Regal Swine, she was a woman whose name I at first had a great deal of difficulty pronouncing. It wasn't until I came to realize that Gwenhwyvac Guinee, like so many Welsh names, was meant to be pronounced as one would a deep-throated moan of otherwise-unutterable anguish that I was so much as able to address her by name. That realization not only made communication with her a great deal easier, but so too did it make understanding of her character.
She had entered into my service some five years prior, when The Swine had come under attack by pirates and the previous captain killed. Though the pirates were soon enough subdued and in large part dispatched, there remained the sticky matter of providing my vessel a new captain. I decided that the best course of action, given the circumstances, was to replace the captain with one of the surviving pirates. The crew were initially quite unhappy with this decision, pointing out that I was in essence not only giving her what she had wanted, I was indeed rewarding her for her part in having murdered so many of their crewmates. This was true, naturally, and indeed it was a part of my plan. It seemed to me that the crew could come together around that shared sense of anger and tension, and that this would make them a more efficient group. Likewise did I feel that playing upon the old nautical superstitious dread regarding women at sea and indeed their moral outrage at needing to obey the orders of a woman might serve as sufficient incentive for them to work harder. The various mutinies which I had to put down in the coming months put paid to that idea, but I would be hanged from a length of piano wire before I would admit it publicly, and as such, I remained, to all appearances, her most vocal supporter, even if privately I prayed each and every night that she be devoured by a mighty kraken, even if it meant the sinking of the Swine itself in order to erase the stain of my tragic miscalculation from this Earth.
As to the woman herself, she was only middlingly-effective as a captain, and her various efforts to make off with my ship over the years were in and of themselves frustrating to me on a professional level. This having been said, I had to admit a certain grudging admiration for her ruthlessness with her underlings and the degree to which she had managed not to be murdered in her sleep by them in spite of - or perhaps because of - the grip of inhuman terror she held the crew in. Though one might, in the ordinary course of events, expect desertions to run rather on the high side aboard the Swine, this was not, after a brief, initial spate of disloyalty on the part of the crew, the case. The cause for this was doubtless a complex one, but of the various elements which contributed to it, the abrupt disappearance of any man who did desert, and Captain Guinee's tendency to ostentatiously wear a bloodied article of their clothing as one might a trophy of war in the weeks and months afterwards had to place highly.
Content that everyone, was, at the very minimum, physically present for the meeting, I resolved to at least make some effort to call it to a semblance of order. “Yes, yes, very good. The point is,” I asserted, now addressing the entire room, “that like it or not....” I scowled at Blackhawk furiously, “... which I do NOT... he has been invited here by my proxy, and we are therefore stuck with him. We have no choice but to include him in this expedition.”
There followed a certain amount of muttering around the chamber, much of it disbelieving. It was cut off a moment later as Blackhawk, smirking from ear to ear, tapped one index finger against his cane and proclaimed “That’s right, my dear nemesis. You DO have no choice but to bring me along. And do so knowing full-well that I shall thwart your ambitions at the earliest opportunity.”
“You may attempt it, Blackhawk”, I proclaimed, “But I shall thwart your attempts to do so, as I so often have before.”
“Pah! Every time you have thwarted me has been naught buy a fluke!” he spat.
“As indeed has every time you have thwarted ME been a fluke,” I replied coolly.
We stared at each other silently for a long moment, radiating hatred and malice at one another, our battle of wits having momentarily ended in stalemate.
“Get on with it, damn you” my father interjected with characteristically measured tones. “I haven’t the time to spend wasting my life away watching you two young bucks lock antlers over a fleeting nothing! Or perhaps you’re unconcerned with the fact that death is bearing down upon me...”
“Like a raging bull. Yes, yes. Well aware, papa”, I interrupted. But he was right. “Very well, then. Let us call this meeting to order. Pansie, fetch us some tea, if you would be so kind, and do try not to urinate into the teapot this time. I won’t warn you a ninth time this year, you understand?” This sent the still-weeping woman from the room, where I hoped to god she would heed my words for once. If I believed for a moment that she had the wits to produce the thought to do so, I might almost have believed she was doing it on purpose. Heaven knew it was difficult enough to deduce how she could be making the same mistake over and over again otherwise.
“Now, then, ladies and gentlemen. How many of you have heard of a place called ‘Africa?’”
(To be continued!).