Love, Rain, and Punches
That night there was a rumor.
A man they knew as the bargaining chip snuck away in the night. Of course he was free to wander the foreign state. The Admiral himself had given the man leave to do so. But at night? And just after learning of the Admiral’s true intentions?
There was a suspicious earnestness to the rumor that leapt of the lips of giddy nobles and entertained the ears of informants. At least earnest enough for the Admiral’s men to care. The acting lieutenant that night sent guards to every sky dock on the whale city.
The barracks were stirred. Tired boots marched out into the midnight flicker of lamplights.
One guard, a man who had little sleep, yawned as he teetered on his rifle. The air seemed damp, the winds quieter since the morning. There where he stood overlooking much of the main street of the city, the lone guard cursed his luck for being chosen for the post.
It was unwarranted, uncalled for. Afterall, he’d still have active duty come the morn. Truly, it could not have gotten worse. The sky thundered as he thought that and he spat a curse with a languid step back. He found cover in the sparse docktower awnings where rain followed in panging thumps.
He crouched low and rubbed his eyes. Why him? He thought as he coddled his rifle for support. Apart from counting the seconds and playing with the valves on his steam rifle, there was little else do. Other than keeping watch. His post did offer that advantage at least. There before him stretched the sky whale city of Jing Mon Ceros now dressed in twilight.
Tips of darkened reds blurred in the rainy mists. The woodwork of pagados played phantoms around him. He knew they were there even when he could barely place them. The emperor’s palace, however, was very real and still visible in the dark and rain. He spied below. A massive street led to it that split off into countless others.
Some streets were wide and dark, others narrow and glittering, yet few among them had the moving blurs that hinted of turns.
That was to be expected. He yawned. Only idiots and soldiers took to the streets under the midnight shower. Idiots, he thought, much like the curious outline of a man now dancing not far from lion’s way. For a moment the wind gusted and the outline became defined. The soldier forgot his tiredness. The idiot’s likeness matched that of the bargaining chip’s companions.
He scrambled for his communicator which was postured beside him. It was a palm sized thing that sent voices through timelines, one of Mor’de newest ‘weapons’ as the Admiral called them. The man flung out the device’s antenna and wobbled a dial until he heard buzzing mix with the tapper of rain.
“Sir,” he grumbled. “I have something to report.”
The idiot on the street near Lion’s way could not be happier.
His pointed hair whirled as he did, his muscular build quick and nimble.
Franco smiled and twirled in the pouring rain. He laughed and grinned. Who would have thought he, Francisco Cantinio, would find love? And here of all places? He coddled his freshly swollen cheek. Who would have though love hit so hard?
He had met her shortly after he lost sight of Gemjo. When the sky crackled and the rain began its downward trek, Franco stole a glance of a woman who’s beauty defied all he knew. She was an up-lander with perfect features and form, hidden gracefully under a yellow silk gown. He knew then that spotting her in a place he thought he would never go so soon was more than chance, nay it was destiny.
And so he did as his heart commanded and he pranced to see her, to sway her with his charms. Her response? A devastating blow that left him stretched and unconscious on the cobblestone. He awoke to the drumming of rain to find her gone.
He was miserable, of course, having just found the love of his life only to lose her, but a Cantinio never stayed down for long. No, he would find her. Forget the Professor, this—this was important.
Every word of hers was melody in his mind. It played in perpetual repetition. She had spoken of how she had just wanted to see a performing troupe. Of how she had gotten tired of advances that night, especially of foreigners and especially ones that smelled of drink.
Unlucky for Franco he had just visited three bars on his way there.
Franco paused in the middle of his prance. Foreigners that smelled of drink? The image of his love was quickly replaced by that of a blue coat and spikey features. He shook his head. Well, that could have been anyone. Right now, he needed to know where she was and a performing troupe was his only lead.
As to where that particular troupe may have been he could only guess and with little people littering the streets he decided it best to ask in the nearest building he could. It was a wide building with a curled fist for a sign. The front was encased entirely in glass and lines of figures practicing stances could be seen from outside. Bright lights shimmered from within. He paused before entering as he caught something short and blue in his peripheral.
He had to look twice to be certain.
“What? Why?” he scoffed. To his side stood Remy Le Ricci, soldier’s jacket and all. Her hair was soaked with droplets running down her cheeks. “How long have you been besides me?”
She looked at him with her alien goggles and pointed down the misty street wordlessly.
“Since I awoke?” he gathered.
He scratched his head as he thought on that. The timing fit.
“You saw her!” he said, clutching her hands. “You must have! Over there, back down the road, did you happen to see an outrageously gorgeous woman? Remy? Rem…?”
He felt her hand jitter in his and realised her fear. She shivered away the moment he let go, timidly hiding behind the seawolf’s scarf.
She was different from in Kura. Back then confronted with Gemjo, the soldier had little trouble venting her troubles, but here alone with him she seemed as muted as a mouse.
Franco puffed and crossed his arms.
“Well. I suppose if you did see her you would’ve have pursued her. After all, she might have met the Professor.”
The scarf lowered to reveal her slight agape mouth.
“Aye, that’s the right of it,” continued Franco with eyes tracing the moving blurs beyond the window frame. “Find the woman, find the Professor. What do you say then servant of my enemy, care to assist in the search for my love?”
Silence again, save the drumming of rain. Franco leaned to one side. Should have expected that. Remy was a strange one, social anxiety aside. In fact his companions were all odd in their own way while he, the ever astute Franco, proved the only normal one amongst them. He prided himself on that fact. He was their beacon, their shining example. Their captain.
He remembered a certain conversation with a certain girl whenever he thought of that word.
He remembered her white blouse as it billowed in the wind where she sat next to him. They would play pirate and get scolded and play again.
When they ran out of breath they would talk by that spot overlooking the sea. Her favorite place in the world.
They had countless stupid talks there. Childish taunts mostly, but sometimes things that mattered.
Captains for instance.
“Aye, captains,” said the girl. “The best of them, that’s what I’ll be. Do you even know what a captain is Franky?”
She gave him a punch when he shook his hesitated to answer. Then a laugh as he sniffed a little to the pain.
Her laugh shifted to a question, “You really a Cantinio?”
“I am and I know what captain is. It’s the strongest in a crew is it not? I heard Raltio talking about it.”
“A captain,” she started daring her impossibly wide eyes to sky, “a captain is one who understands her crew. Every last member. She is on who will suffer when they do.”
“Mind if I join your crew then?”
He remembered how she stalled before she answered and how it hurt him when she said no and nothing else. But that pain was a part of the memory now. He savored it just as much of the rest. That and the truth of her words. He understood what Remy wanted even if she refused to voice it. That was a captain’s duty.
She wanted to be by the Professor’s side.
He stepped into the swish of the door and the jingle of bells.
A half dozen eyes snapped to him. The practice ended. What could have been interpreted as the razor focus of uplander warriors dressed in black shirts and pants was quickly replaced by a collection of irate expressions.
Why they were training at the dead of night was another matter.
“Who are you?!” asked one of many.
Franco raised a brow. He swore he detected the tiniest bit of aggression from this stranger, but he would forgive the man for asking his favorite question. He prodded his chest and the answer jumped off his lips, “Franco Cantinio and don’t you forget it.”
Franco’s naturally resounding voice bounced off the walls of the glass and wood structure until magnified itself a hundred fold. The man who had asked first swept his gaze to an older full turn that wobbled in, “He means to challenge us, master.”
“I am aware,” grumbled the full turn, stroking his beard.
The old man’s voice was followed by his offbeat walk. His left foot had a limp to it. He wore a long white robe that marred his underlings terribly with strange black letters written across it on the hems.
“I am aware,” he started again, “that a fool of a foreigner dare treads into Capicho’s School for Fistwork and challenges Capicho himself.”
“Fool? Challenge?” asked Franco pointing at himself dumbly. “No, I only wished to inquire about a troupe of performers, one closeby I think.”
“Silence!” the old turn tossed aside his robe, revealing a heavily muscled body of steel. “Do you speak with words or fists?”
Franco lowered his chin.
Not one there cared for his presence. In fact they wanted him gone in stares he thought were completely unwarranted. The static of rain played behind him as he took that first hollow step.
Even then, there was a fire to the old man’s eyes. The old man, whose body had turned to polished steel and whose beard was an alloyed wool, desired a fight Franco could tell. He had seen it many a time during his studies at Kura. This turn ad the air of a beast wanting for the hunt.
Franco cracked his shoulders and undid his silk robe until it hung at the waist loosely. He would humor him.
“Hah. Challenge you?’ snorted Franco. “If I challenge you old turn, you’d be bested already. Aye, I speak with my fists. A question? Your answer. When? When I have you pinned to the floor and begging with your lackies watching.”
Those lackies jeered him as they funneled in around him him. Their bodies made the boundaries of the makeshift arena. Remy’s joined them.
His opponent smiled, crouched and took up a stance that Franco knew it instantly. That was Fron’s stance.
The downwards palms, one arm postured above and behind the other, shoulders relaxed. For a moment he thought of his thrice great grand uncle Fronesto Cantinio, or atleast the stories of him. He wondered if this strange man had met the legend of a relative and if he had trained under him. He could not wonder for long. The man’s steps echoed.
Franco took up his stance. They clashed to the roar of students and the trickle of rain.
“Fool,” spat the man with quick left hooks. “Prepare to buckle.”
Franco kept his footing as he baited the punches handily. They were quick but with no weight to them. Two more punches missed in quick succession. What’s more they all came from his left. His right hand remained limp at his side like a one handed swordsmen.
Strange and unsettling, thought Franco. It was Fron’s stance but certainly not his style. Fron’s punches were heavy and slow from the stories his grandfather told him.
Franco leaned to his side as the disturbed air of a punch grazed his cheek. Fron’s blows were cannonballs. These were pebbles and a slingshot.
The man recoiled and in the second he did, Franco found an opening.
He aimed low for the abdomen. The blow met but it was the response he was after.
He shook to the resounding pang. His opponent had stymied it with a raised shin not caught it. Franco hopped back, eyes wide on the man’s right. Still limp.
Why? Thought Franco. Why? Why? Why?
He had every opportunity to block it conventionally with his right and advantage even should he have chosen to grapple, but to block with his leg? There was no sense in it. Strange and unsettling indeed.
Franco sprang back with a series of light steps. He felt something coming. The razor focus one on one fighting so greedily demanded fell away as the snickers of his audience made him curious.
Just what did the old man of steel have planned?
He did not intend to find out.
“We’ve gone long enough, ancient one. I, Franco Cantinio, will end you with one blow.”
“Is that so?” said his opponent with a raised brow. “Come then, I shall do the same.”
Franco swung his arm ahead of him as the man slid his left foot back.
The man who would topple the navy had a twitch to his lip, “Second palm.”
Then came his charge, that of hard flurried steps and measured breaths. One, two, then…
Caught. Franco blinked with his body leaning awkwardly forwards, his outstretched hand had been caught by the man’s tucked in left. Then in the second he stood there, Franco noticed how the man’s left foot anchored low as if it bore the weight of something heavy and terrible.
The man tugged him suddenly and whispered in his ear as he fell forwards, “My turn.”
It was as if the force of a ship had collided with his gut.
Franco fell back. He coughed and wheezed and covered his gut like a wounded animal. He saw the right hand of the man recoil. That was his cannonball.
A burning sensation filled him as his hand ventured up. Atleast two ribs broken. Not good, especially not since he was still recovering from his earlier bout. He already felt his senses numb from it.
“Hah,” said Franco as he wiped the sweat off his cheek. “I know your trick now, old turn.”
The oncoming dizziness became debilitating. Franco staggered.
“Oh? You still intend to fight?”
Franco raised his fists and willed his legs to keep him up.
“You practice his stance so you should know,” started Franco. “A Cantinio doesn’t stay down for long.”
His opponent flashed a toothy grin and gestured him forwards.
Weak and stumbling, Franco complied.
“Come then,” taunted the old up lander. “Let me see how much you resemble him.”
The first cannonball was not the last. For as many times Franco stood up, the older man ruthlessly delivered.
Even as his vision blurred and his senses failed him he saw how the crowd had begun to pity him. Their wilful jeers had turned to winces, their arrogant stares into stifled looks.
When at last he fell for good, he saw Remy standing there, disapproving.
His conscious failed, his body surrendered. Yet what he felt now was no different from a few days prior. He recalled it vividly as if he had been punched back into the past.
Waves thrashed. Silver grasses brushed against his knee and cold sands crunched underneath that.
Tib had valiantly sacrificed himself. The criminal witch doctor who had done it seemed all too pleased by that victory. One fool down, he probably thought, and now for another. Franco smiled. That was where the witch doctor’s erred. The boy had taken the blow Franco could not.
Franco stood. He had to make it count. The witch doctor’s lackeys had barely noticed him when he began his charge.
His voice traveled with his steps as its chorus, “Unhand Tij!”
A smile from his foe as the bone man held out his hand, “Tanga—”
“No you don’t!”
First palm, impact, crunched his foe’s gut. Then he pulled the man forwards with fifth palm and ran another blow.
“First palm,” huffed Franco connecting the punch, the first of many, “Frist palm. First palm. First palm.”
“Fools,” spat the witch doctor as he straggled back, “Don’t watch, hel--”
This time the witch doctor’s head bobbed as a crack stretched across his face. Oil drizzled from his mouth and he spat more out as attempted to talk, “First palm? Really? Must you say it everyt--”
Franco’s fist rung from that punch and grasses crumpled as his opponent lost his footing. Franco lowered his fist. His breathing had become erratic. The strange fires that burned him from the earlier spell would not take long now. The hesitant witch doctors around him bounced in his sights. He winced, a moment of weakness. He had to defeat them soon.
But there was three of them and only one of him. He calmed himself. For the first time in a long time, he decided to think.
“Fools,” gurgled the downed witch doctor interrupting his thoughts, “The curse has him. Get him now.”
Franco snapped to them. The three onlookers stepped forwards in unison. The hesitation they had prior had evaporated and their hands were held out. Not good, thought Franco. Any magic could turn the fight. He needed to close the distance, but with three of them, running to one would only result in a scorched back. Or worse, a back touched by the sea.
He remembered how Tij had taken that blow and all at once he turned and realised a plan. The tree. He leapt to its trunk and slid around it just as three low rumbles, one after the other, pounded the bark.
He peaked at the casters. Already they had begun shuffling around the tree to try and draw him out. Good. He started running around the trunk. The more one of them tried to find an opening the more Franco ran around the tree and the more they inevitably got closer to its base. Until at last, all three witch doctor’s arrived at Franco’s melee.
That was it. Franco drew in the closest one with fifth palm: pull. The others, not knowing of the capture, let off their spells and Franco’s makeshift shield caught each cast.
After a full rotation, he let go of the man who fell helplessly to a defeated groan.
“One down,” hissed Franco. The other two circled the tree, swinging spells that burnt the hard bark. Nothing had changed except now his two foes kept their distance. The same tick would not work twice, so he ran, praying for an idea. Hoping for one to fall from the tree like an un-plucked fruit and bless him with revelation. For as much as he ran, he was running out of time.
He sprinted around one way and came face to face with a witch doctor, ran the other way it came face to face with another.
In a moment he was cornered. He could already hear the first witch doctor jogging around the trunk towards him.
The man ahead of him slowed to a menacing approach. A spell, no doubt deadly, simmered in the boney fingers of that creature. Franco gulped. It would not be long now.
“An idiot once told me,” started Franco, counting the steps behind him, “That I had a knack for painting arses.”
“And why does dis matah?” said the spell wielding witch doctor. His voice was surprisingly high.
“Well,” continued Franco, “I suppose it means I ought to do a self-portrait.”
“Eh? You’ve made an arse of yaself?”
Franco clicked his fingers, “Exactly. Why, I said I’d be the man who would topple the navy and here I am fighting desperately against two low ranked, pathetic bone boys.”
The witch doctor narrowed his brows, “Watch ya tongue.”
“Therefore I’ve obviously made an arse of myself,” laughed Franco. “Since I should’ve beaten you sooner.”
The witch doctor let out a grunt as he swung a fiery ball from his bare boned hands. Franco ducked, a brilliant maneuver, for just overhead of him came another equally sized fireball that grazed the first and promptly singed his enemy.
This time, two thuds sounded instead of one.
Franco took a breath. While he had not been hit, the earlier spell still had its effect. Minutes. They were not wrong. He glanced at the still down head witch doctor and trudged towards him.
“Still awake?” he said to the felled opponent, nudging the black coat with his foot.
He heard a grumble and kicked the witch doctor for good measure.
“I won,” he announced to the downed man. “I beat you just as I will the admirals.”
Moments passed to restless waves. Franco felt the spell simmer at his very core, demanding every second of conscious thought directed to the ceaseless pain. Then, impossibly the man he thought downed laughed in low wheezing rumbles, “Heh? Is dat so? Den I regret ta…. Inform ya but ya still be lacking… Mor’de,” he coughed. “he’s one of us ya know. I fought him… long time ago. And lost. Always lost. If ya tink ya strong, if ya tink ya know strong, tink again. He be a monstah and you, you’ve neva seen a monstah.”
Franco had attempted to respond, several times in fact, but between the spell pleading him to collapse and not knowing what to say, he relented.
Then came the others, the innumerable steps of a dozen or more witch doctors. Then came their angered beatings, the kicks, the punches.
Then came the darkness where he dreamed of monsters.
He heard rain when he awoke.
“You were right. You really don’t stay down for long.”
Franco winced as Telipei, a student of Caphicho’s and the one who had just spoken, applied the gauze over his twice swollen cheek.
“If anything you’re resilient,” spoke the half turn attendant. They were in a different room now, located, as Telipei briefly told him in the back of the training hall. After Franco’s final fall he had attempted to get up one more time before promptly collapsing. A few of these flashes of consciousness had him meet the half turn who now attended him.
Though then he had only managed hear the man’s name and note the black grating that made his mouth.
“Aye to get up once against Master Capicho is one thing to do so three times? That was impressive,” spoke a different voice.
Franco swerved his head. There was another turn there. He was pudgy with air of arrogance to him. Small eyes, kempt hair, a nigh permanent frown. He was a half turn too with the only marks of mechanization the two black columns that cut through his eye sockets. Remy stood a little ways behind the stranger. She had been quietly hogging a corner to herself.
“So you say we matched the appearance of rather suspect individuals?” said Franco.
Telipei half nodded with a shrug, “Well as a foreign man accompanied by a small half turn yes. Apologies for our lack of manners.”
“We knew you were not our man the moment you said Cantinio,” added the stranger.
Telipei nodded again, “But still…”
“We wanted to see you fight.”
“You lasted longer than we thought you would.”
Franco shot up till he was sitting straight, “How long was I asleep?” he asked abruptly.
That seemed Remy’s que as she stepped from her corner, “Not long. Not if we leave now.”
Her voice was expectantly quiet but he heard the urgency in it. She sought a drunk and senseless man, while he recalled the fleeting image of his one true love.
“Lansha, fetch me the towel! His face just heated!” cried Telipei.
The pudgy man sighed to the request, “It isn’t a fever, Teli, what you see a sickness that cannot be cured. Lust,” he voiced the word with disgust. “No wonder you lost to Master. Your heart isn’t dedicated to your fists as it should be.”
Franco pointed to his still swollen cheek, “It is!” he boomed. “Her punch was the worst I’ve ever faired from a woman!” he trailed to that thought. He was sure Inyande could do better.
Before Lansha could retort, as his outstretched hand suggested he would, he glanced down to find Remy there, her silver hand clutching the sleeve of his black robe.
“Right,” said Franco, catching her que, “Have you two heard anything about a local troupe performing tonight?”
Telipei and Lansha stared at each other. It happened instantly so Franco knew that they knew.
“I know you’re a foreigner,” began Telipei, “But do you by chance know of the former head student of Capicho’s school for fighting?”
“No, not at all,” said Franco.
A limping step sounded from the doorway.
“She was my best student,” grumbled Capicho. “Damn shame she left for what she did. Music. Bah!”
Franco sat straight to the sight of the old turn and fashioned a smile from his still swollen cheek, “You fight well for aged metal.”
“And you’ve still a lot to learn,” snapped the man, finishing the last of his steps. “Hmpf. But I see his likeness in you. Stubbornness to. You really are a Cantinio.”
“I knew it!” beamed Telipei.
Franco glanced at Remy before re addressing the three men, “Will you tell us more of this Troupe? We need urgently find them.”
Capicho snorted, “Hah! Like I know. Nonsensical bastards. Sing and dance all they like, no changing what the people truly want to see,” he patted his metallic bicep. “A good fight.”
“We have a flier!” announced a much more useful Telipei. “I left it among my things in the changing rooms. If you’d like…”
Caphicho sighed, “Go.”
“By your leave master,” said Telipei before departing.
“So, what’s the story?” began Lansha. “You came to Jing Mon Ceros to fall in love?”
Franco scratched the back of his head and laughed, “heh, not quite. You see it all started when we came at the behest of admi-mffulfuffer.”
Remy had silver hand over Franco’s mouth She gave the two a nervous smile.
“H-he m-meant to find a friend. Yes! A f-friend.”
She released her hand to the gasp of Franco. Lansha and Capicho shared a glance with skeptical brows raised in unison.
“If y-you’d excuse us,” muttered the girl before pulling Franco into a huddle.
“Anxious one, why do you hide the truth?” asked Franco.
“Military protocol,” she whispered back. “It’s information that can harm the empire and by extension us. We keep quiet. Do not mention the man who brought us here. Especially after what he told us.”
Franco pressed his brows low for a moment and raised them the next, “oh,” he said.
“Yes,” said Remy.
“Fine, but let us atleast mix some manner of truth into our embellishment.”
“What do you—hey!”
Franco had spun back to the duo, “Apologies for our quiet recess, but yes we’ve come to find a friend.”
“So you can’t tell us?” gathered Lansha.
Franco smiled, “No, not really.”
Lansha shrugged, “Fine by us. Our fists are the only truth we adhere to.”
“As it should be,” nodded Lansha.
“We’ve also come here for another reason,” decided Franco. “For when we do find our friend.”
Remy stumbled to his side as he said that. As expected. His eyes trailed to the black window where muted rain pummeled. Had it been the day and he a clear view of the sky he would saw it move extraordinarily fast. They were moving.
Even there, on the makeshift bed in a foreign school of fistwork, the building, the foundation, the city it stood on, all of it moved through the sky by way of a massive floating whale. And if it moved, then those who lived upon its back would have some idea as to where it moved.
Franco recalled his second role.
“Maps,” he declared. “In between our search I would pay a visit to the place in this city where you keep your maps. Particularly those pertaining to the outskirts of the Twelve Seas.”
Lansha laughed at the suggestion, “While I commend you for realising how much more we know of the world than you below landers, I doubt a turn born below the clouds could get royal permission to access our maps.”
“But perhaps he could.”
“Master?” said Lansha.
Capicho had been scratching his steel chin for some time now, “You are related to Fron, the very Fron who protects the sky whale’s greatest asset: the Arbiter. That and a well written letter from should be enough. Very well. As thanks for entertaining an old man’s wish for battle, I will get you your maps.”
The door slid open as Telipei returned, scroll in hand.
He unfurled it to reveal a gaudy depiction of musical notes and dancers.
“Found it,” he said flipping the scroll back so he could read it. “Lets see. The show tonight should be ending near the Heavy… oh.”
“What is it, Telipei?” asked Capicho.
“Master, it’s the place Brother Ban warned us about before these two arrived… and, I suspect, where the two wanted figures that we falsely accused Franco and Remy of being are .”
“The wanted ones,” puffed Capischo knowingly. “Knowing the cowardice of that troupe they’ll most likely cancel. You two will have better luck come the morrow.”
“If that is how it is, we’ll wait,” said Franco.
“H-here!?” coughed Remy.
The Cantinio nodded, “We’ll keep up the search of course, but until we find them I suggest we stay in the company of these fighters.”
Capicho grumbled pleasantly, “Oh? You wish for a rematch boy?”
Franco leapt of the bed and landed flat on the wooden floorboards. He rose to his full height and noted how all four craned their heads up to see him. Up-landers, despite their name sake, were very short, so Franco, who was man considered tall even in the lands below, was a giant here. He punched his silver palm in anticipation. His smile followed his moving lips, “As many as it takes.”