Ch. 1 The Keeper of The Queen's Knaves
As The Warden of Dreams stepped out of the lamp-lined Stone Street strip to descend the shadow-shrouded staircase buried deep in lower Manhattan, his skin began to crawl. With each step down the narrow passage, The Warden’s mind raced with the names of a hundred other places he would rather be, listing them alphabetically by the names of his favorite Mana-infused cocktails as he went.
The door was unmarked and unassuming, even by the standards of the mundane world Fredrico Monroe, Warden of Dreams to The Belvidere Court had passed through. He scanned the entryway for glyphs or runes of any kind that would tell him he was in the right place; once with his own eyes, then once with the enchanted glass lens he kept on a chain inside the front pocket of his jacket. Finding nothing, he steadied his resolve, adjusted his necktie, and proceeded through the door.
The warm scents of mulled spice and seasoned roasts that greeted him did little to steady his nerves. Though familiar to any magical hearth found on the island, Fredrico found the sights, sounds, and even smells of the basement Parlor unwelcoming to his royal rank. Darkness seemed ready to swallow up what remained of the waning light hanging from a pair of cast iron candelabras at any moment. Kept at bay only by the flickering flame of a makeshift spit where a brace of hares were being smoked over a fireplace. Where there wasn’t darkness, there was smoke; a thin haze that masked the tables laid out for seating, making it easy to converse with privacy. Across from the entryway, the barkeep looked up at him, nodded, and then returned to his conversation with a pair of cloaked patrons, neither of whom even bothered to look over toward the new arrival. It had been a very long time since Fredrico had been made to feel so small.
“You won’t find those candied brandies, in season at The Court right now, here, I’m afraid,” said a voice from behind him “but they pour a nice Mana draft that will keep you casting about for hour.”
“Is that how you Gutter Mages do it then?” Fredrico asked with disdain in his voice as he searched for the mysterious voice.
“Perhaps,” said the voice out of nowhere, giving Fredrico more pause as he puzzled out where it came from.
The existence of Rezens is largely disputed by the magical theologians of the Belvedere Court. Some believe them to be ghosts, seemingly wayward spirits haunting the waking world with unfinished business until they finally find the closure to their lives they so desperately seek. Others claim them to be little more than foolish wizards rendered forever invisible after a mistaken spell or hex gone awry. Regardless, to this very day there are a few facts universally acknowledged by those who believe in them.
“You’re a Rezen,” said Fredrico unsure of where to direct his observation.
“And you’re here to see Madam Spider are you not?” asked the voice with a deep bellow to its words.
“Yes,” Fredrico answered “Now enough of this non-sense please, where is she?”
The voice laughed a low velvety chuckle before issuing further instructions to The Warden of Dreams. “Turn around,” it said simply.
When did so, he noticed simple black curtain through the smoke of the room. As if on cue a light turned on from behind it, and Fredrico stepped forward.
“She has been expecting you,” said the voice.
“Oh spare we your cheap Parlor trick,” began The Warden only to find himself dumbfounded by the amount of space awaiting on the other side of the curtain.
It was a large room made cozy by the bookshelves that lined its walls gathering dust and cobwebs. Each one littered with old spell books and other magical knick-knacks impossible to put a date on.
A large wooden table took up the center of the room with seven seats spread out around it. In one of them an old gypsy woman sat shuffling a deck of Tarot cards, waiting for The Warden to take his seat.
Even by the standards of The Belvidere Court, where everything was an antique of some kind, Madam Spider looked old. The lines across her darkened skin marked her as that old breed of witch more likely to inhabit a gingerbread house than the swank downtown Parlor Fredrico found himself in now.
“Have a seat,” she said through thick broken English, and a harsh voice.
“This location of yours is rather… unique,” said Fredrico making sure to adapt an air of authority in his proceedings.
“Oh?” said her wry smile. “Were I to call upon your house at noon today, I wonder what I would have found. Hmm?”
“So long as the walls don’t have ears, it matters not where we hold our discussion.”
“Ah, so I suppose that rules out the entirety of the Belvedere Court,” said Madam Spider turning her attention away from Fredrcio for a moment. “Doc?” she said to no one in particular “Are the privacy wards in place?” she asked looking upward.
“They are as usual,” Replied the voice out of nowhere.
“Good,” said Fredrico. “Those wards your Pet just spoke of would have been dispelled in the blink of an eye at the castle—”
Madam Spider cut in. “Yet here, they shall stand as long as I need them to, and Doc isn’t my pet, he is my brother. He met with an unfortunately teleportation mishap some time ago and now he…”
“Keeps an eye on things,” interjected the Invisible voice.
“I bet that comes in handy,” remarked The Warden.
“Now, how can we be of service to the esteemed Warden of Dreams?” asked Madam Spider returning the man’s sarcasm.
The Warden let it pass; he was all too accustomed to the verbal jabs of others who had addressed him over the years. Others that were far more esteemed in rank and family name than the jovial old woman in patchwork clothes seated in front of him. “You can provide me with one of those able-bodied Gutter Mage guilds you’re so found of championing these days,” he said as he watched her fill two teacups with a dark brown whiskey.
“You want a gang?” asked Madam Spider sliding one of the cups over to Fredrio.
“I want you to act as liaison between myself and a group of your loyal urchin brethren while we conduct a most confidential task.”
“And you’ve come to me for this because?”
“Because… your web of filth and lies is littered with them, and it’s not just any old group of roughnecks I want; I need a crew capable of getting in and out of places unnoticed.“
“Is that so? The Chelsea Fellows, perhaps? Or maybe the Chambers Street Grimms?”
“Too well known, and both far too big. I need a group of unknowns, unaligned to any neighborhood or district, who won’t be missed and won’t have any blood ties to name them if they get caught.”
“A group of unknowns?” asked the old woman, suddenly the most inquisitive of the pair.
“And just what is it that you need this group to do?” Asked Doc reminding The Warden of his presence.
Fredrico took his time in answering; letting his annoyance at the interruption show through his words “I need them to retrieve an artifact,” he began, “…from the House of the Gilded Crane.”
Madam Spider said nothing, and for once it was Fredrico’s turn to smile as he sipped the whiskey in front of him.
“The House of the Gilded Crane?” said Doc at last. “You’re asking us to aid you in bringing war to the Belvedere Court.”
“I’m asking you to help me keep an important relic of the Dreaming out of the hands of someone who does not know what it is.” He caught himself from getting too worked up in his speech. “If even one of those up-jumped dragon sorcerers casts the wrong incantation while they have it nearby… War will be the last thing this city has to fear.”
“What’s the relic?” asked Madam Spider, her sly composure returned with the short question.
“A spell door,” The Warden simply said, keeping the answer as brief as possible.
“A spell door?” asked Doc. “You’ll have to forgive me…us Gutter Mages aren’t as schooled in terminology as you College kind.”
A sharp wisp of breath escaped from Fredrico’s throat as said his next words. “A fae-scribed map of the Dreaming’s outer-realm, drawn on a unicorn’s pelt with the blood of a salamander butchered under a waxing moon,” he explained matter-of-factly.
“Fae-scribed eh? Must be pretty rare then?” asked Madam Spider.
“Yes,” replied Fredrico, keeping his answer short.
“And old I take it?” asked Spider.
“Very,” answered the Warden.
“And what might one find on the other side of this spell door, exactly?” Doc asked annoying Fredrico once again.
“Nothing you need concern yourself with, so long as the door remains closed,” replied the Warden, doing his best to remain visibly unshaken.
Madam Spider let the words hang in the air a moment as she refilled her own cup before drinking deep once more.
“Favors from me have a cost you know,” she said length.
“I am aware,” said Fredrico.
“So what’s in it for us?” asked Doc, as Madam Spider took another long sip from her teacup.
Fredrico let out a small laugh, “Shouldn’t that have been your first question?” he asked more at ease.
“One doesn’t get the acclaim in the circles that I travel in by being hasty,” said Madam Spider.
“Cheers to that,” replied Fredrico. “And as to your compensation…how does the title of ‘Keeper of The Queen’s Knaves’ sound to you?”
“It has a nice ring to it, but I think I prefer the one The Court gave me last time.” Madam Spider cracked a long white smile as she waited for additional details.
“I figured as much, that’s why the title comes with a sizeable share of stock, and Art from the castle Gallery, I dare say there are several pieces that will look lovely here.”
“Is that so?” asked Doc.
“Yes,” said Fredrico, as he produced a scroll from the pocket of his blazer and handed it to the old woman across from him.
What followed was the procedural bartering Fredrico had expected. Doc’s first rounds of demands were of course, out of the question. Yet the three were soon able to come to a reasonable agreement for the soon-to-be minted Keeper of The Queen’s Knaves.
“So, let me get this straight,” said Doc, as the conversation concluded. “You need a group of expert burglars, with no history to tie them back to you or the Belvedere Court on the off chance they are caught robbing one of the most powerful wizarding houses in Chinatown.”
“Yes,” replied Fredrico.
“You do realize that if they are caught, they will most likely be executed…or worse.” Madam Spider pointed out.
“That’s why it’s advised that they not get caught. You’ve seen what I’m prepared to offer. It’s a fine price for the job that needs doing. Now, do you think you can find someone to do it?”
“Doc,” said Madam Spider, taking her eyes away from the man in front of her once again. “Summon the boy would you, let’s see if he’s been keeping up with his studies.”
At Doc’s repose Fredrico grew defensive and confused. Moments later footsteps trembled across the ceiling towards a stairwell behind Madam Spider. In an instant a young man emerged from the darkness above making his way towards them.
His pale face was framed by the drab grey hood of his sweatshirt. It allowed only a lone lock of his jet black hair to protrude outward from his forehead. He looked older than Fredrico would have taken an apprentice for, and his arrival unnerved the man.
“What is this?” asked The Warden as the young man came to the table.
“Kai here has a gift for Cartomancey,” said Madam Spider bidding the young man to take a seat “He came to me this past summer with a broken heart, and perchance to learn.”
“He’ll help us find the sorry bastards you need,” said Doc signaling his return to the room.
“What is it I can help with?” asked the boy lowering his hood.
Fredrico noted the young man’s Asian features then. It was still hard to guess his age, but The Warden would have placed him at the later end of his twenties. Not that much older than a typical apprentice or intern at The Court.
“This man here needs some dirty deeds done,” Said Doc unabashedly harsh.
“Focus on the number seven,” said Madam Spider sliding Kai the deck of Tarot cards she had been mulling over when Fredrico had arrived “The number of the thief, good luck for dirty deeds that need doing fast.”
The Warden watched as the young man went to work in front on him. Kai shuffled the deck with the skill of one well practiced in the art of cartomancy, dealing the cards as though they were a meditation before revealing the faces of each one.
Once the cards were arranged accordingly Kai started with the one farthest to his left. He was careful in flipping it over for each of them to see.
“The Alchemist,” said Madam Spider looking down at the illustration of an old man pouring over a number of potions “Yes, I suppose one of those will come in handy.”
“The Alchemist of Shadows perhaps?” Suggested Doc.
“Hush you,” snapped the old woman at her invisible comrade for the first time that night. “Keep them coming Kai.”
The Cartomancer selected the next card and turned it over to reveal a menacing looking horned demon among flames and condemned faces.
“A devil?” asked Fredrico confused.
“A master of disguise,” corrected Madam Spider “One who is not what he seems, and capable of tricking those around him.”
“I think I see where this is going,” Observed Doc.
The next card Kai revealed showed a flamboyant illustration of a man in a cape holding a wand in one hand and a large potion bottle in the other as stars shot outward all around him. Below the figure the name read The Magician.
“Another obvious choice?” asked Fredrico based off of Madam Spider’s reaction.
“Yes,” was all the old woman said before motioning for Kai to continue.
A Gemini symbol with two identical youths looking out at them was on the card that followed. Fredrico watched Kai closely in the candlelight as even he tried to puzzle out its meaning.
“A Mesmer,” said Madam Spider “One well versed in mind games and trickery.”
“Or two…” noted Doc.
After the final cards were revealed Madam Spider gave notes to the young man on his technique and feedback on his own observations about the results.
“So these are the people you need to ensure success?” asked Kai.
“Correct,” said Madam Spider “You did well Kai,”
“I know just the poor Bastards for the job,” interjected Doc “This should be interesting,”
“Good,” said Fredrico, rising from the table and turning toward the door. “I will be in touch at the end of the week, and with any luck at all, this business will be far behind us before long.”
“What? Not fond of the bar are we Warden?” asked Madman Spider, offering up one final jab as Fredrico made for the door.
“The bar’s fine. I’m simply not in the habit of making deals with noted tricksters and mean to keep it that way.”
“You wound me,” said Madam Spider bidding Fredrico farewell. “Never the less, those are indeed wise words to live by, if ever I’ve heard any,” she added with one final smile “Doc, see to it our new friend here gets to where he needs to go safety,”
“But of course,” answered the invisible voice as The Warden of Dreams made his way toward the door.
With Kai still seated next to her Madam Spider slowly rose from her seat at the table. “Give me a hand would you dear?” she asked of the young man as she struggled to maintain her balance “One these days this chair will be the death of me.”
Kai offered what assistance he could to the old woman, and before long she was on her feet leading him over to one of the many shelves that lined the walls of her parlor. She took an old black bowler hat from where it sat gathering dust between an array of half-filled potion bottles and a musty glass case displaying a trio of wands behind its grimy surface. She smiled widely as she placed it on her head before making her way out the same door The Warden had with Kai still in tow.
They walked until they came to a small alcove surrounded by mirrored windows on all sides. Facing her own hunched reflection Madam Spider removed the bowler from her head and smiled at the large rat resting on her dark withered scalp.
“Hello there, lovely,” she said to the rodent as she gently removed it from its perch and replaced the hat upon her head.
Its coat was the color of night and shined with a thick oily sheen in the refection of the windows as Madam Spider placed a hand smoothly down its spine. “Let’s go round up the boys, shall we?” she said to the creature as she placed the lump of fur on the pavement before them. “There’s work to be had, of the most unusual sort.”
For a brief moment, the rat stood at the old woman’s feet looking up at her as though it were about to speak. Yet there was only silence that passed between them before the rat scurried off across the pavement to do its master’s bidding once more.
“I don’t follow,” said Kai as they turned to go back inside. “The cards showed four, maybe five tops?…I thought proper dirty deeds need seven for good luck and all that?”
“Doc will look after you all,” reassured Madam Spider “He always has before.”
“That still only makes six,” said Kai, and then suddenly “Wait a second…”
Madam Spider let out another of her hearty laughs as the realization dawned on the young man beside her “Oh relax,” she said to him then “I think you’ll make an excellent addition to The Brotherhood of The Black Rats.”