Thursday, September 13, 2012
A Clockwork Vengeance
A Clockwork Vengeance
In the corner of Cornelius Drudge's room, the massive clock counts away the hours of the night, its brass gears meshing smoothly, each chuck of the escapement another miracle.
The fixer has carefully folded up the frayed sleeves of his tweed jacket and tipped back his ancient bowler. His wrinkled hands bathe one another, a fly set to dine on a battlefield corpse.
By the half-empty green glass bottle on the table before him, he has been drinking. By the blown veins in his eyes and his nose and his hoary cheeks, he has been drinking for quite some time.
Across the narrow table, overflowing the apartment's other battered wooden chair, sits Maximilian, with his eye patch and his hangdog lower lip. In his impassivity Maximilian might have been painted by an Old Master, Still Life with Muscle and Scar.
"Do you hear that, boy? Listen well."
Maximilian does not need to listen. Even in his sleep he hears the Arena's roar.
"They're calling for you."
Drudge is lying. To the crowd, Maximilian no longer exists. This oblivion is a wonder to him, a grace he does not deserve.
Through the open window, faint through the smothering fog, comes the hollow clangor of brass against brass.
"Were Cornelius Drudge in your place, he would long ago have returned to the arena," Drudge says.
This is another lie. Who would willingly stand against the unliving?
Drudge takes another swig from the bottle and does not offer it over. Maximilian is unoffended. The stuff in the bottle is the worst that money can buy.
The one-room apartment is warm, the coal stove battling back the chill that gusts through the window and creeps through the walls. The clock ticks.
"But Cornelius Drudge is not in your place," Drudge says. "He sits before you an old man. An impecunerous wretch who despite his own penniless circumstances took you in from the cold streets for the sheer charity of the kindness."
This lie is as familiar as the others.
"Alone and far from home, Corneilius Drudge finds himself at last. His loving wife, the sons he last saw as babes all those years ago, all lost to the miles."
Maximilian has never had a family. He sometimes wonders what it would be like. A wife to be slaughtered, a child to be wrenched away.
"And the fault, my friend? The fault? Why, here is why the charity is so unexpected. The fault of his current impoverishment falls not upon the shoulders of Cornelius Drudge. No, boy. It falls on you."
This is a half-truth at best. But a half-truth more interesting than the lies.
"Your last bout," Drudge says, tipping the bottle again. "One mechanical man, half your size. The first fight ever between man and mechanical, and I was the one to arrange it. There you were, master of the morgenstern, scourge of the arena. A single swipe of your arm and no mechanical ever built would have risen again. Yet instead of fighting, you spoke. As if a single soul in that arena had the slightest interest in your words."
But they had let him live. They still let him live. His words had done that much.
"I admit it. The taunting played a part in my downfall." The fixer's rheumy eyes fix on Maximilian for the first time since he'd woken that afternoon. "The nobles named me nouveau riche as if I was too simple to understand the contempt in the words. But I had a villa in Dover, a vineyard in the south of France. Olive groves in Italy. I was rich, and they were land-poor counterfeits with titles and ugly wives and Godless mechanicals for servants. Still, their mockery offended my honor. And what is a man without his honor?"
In the corner, the clock chucks the seconds away, each tick another breath.
"When you refused to fight, when you abandoned your honor, you cost me everything, boy." The old man slams the bottle down. "Listen to me."
Maximilian listens. He listens every night.
"I raised you myself. I took you in. I gave you to my man, the soldier who taught you to fight."
Maximilian remembers every curse, every lash, every time he'd bent over his knees with the vomit burning his lips and his nose. He remembers more than that. He remembers the heat of the sun. He remembers his mother dying in the village dust with a sword through her throat, a plea in her mouth for the babe on her breast. The sister Maximilian never had. He remembers the fixer's face. Younger, not yet ruined by drink. But the same bowler hat. The same rucked sleeves.
He remembers the sweat and chains and the endless coffle. He remembers the endless slaughter of the arena. He remembers everything.
"I made you, boy. I lifted you from the dirt, gave you the fame of the arena. The finest wine, the most beautiful women. And every night, with every victory, the crowd roared your name. You owe me for it, boy. Your honor demands it."
A debt is owed. This much is true.
Drudge thrusts himself to his feet, lifts his walking stick from the table and brings it whistling down.
Maximilian catches the stick in one huge fist.
Drudge staggers as the cane is wrenched away. He reaches to brace against the table, misses, tumbles back into his seat. Tears glisten in the patchy white bristles on his cheeks.
"Why won't you kill me?" It is the first time tonight he has shouted the question. It will not be the last. "Where is your honor, boy?"
Maximilian lays the cane on the table. In the corner, the clock ticks.
Tomorrow, he will visit the wineseller on Newgate and the clockwork coalman of Charing Cross. And the apple-cheeked pasty vendor on Oxford, whom he will never marry while Drudge's heart beats. On his way back to the apartment, he will pass the arena, and he will avert his eyes.
He will mount the stairs, open the door, and set the bottle in the center of the table.
And then he will settle himself in the chair, and he will wait out the day, and he will listen to the ticking of the clock.
Another Chuck Wendig prompt. This one was to randomly choose an element from columns a, b, and c. Fun. If I have time I might try another combination or two.
Any and all feedback is welcome. This one doesn't feel like it works, quite, and I'm not sure why. Gold stars for anyone who can help me figure it out :)