(Originally published May 7th 2007)
Oppenheim. A city by the sea. From above, it would no doubt appear as a gnarled mass at the mouth of the Oppe, but no one living within it would regard it as one whole.
To its residents, Oppenheim is two cities. The city of the poor, the Lowtown, is filled with decrepit slums, smoke-belching chimneys, the poisons of industry, and the noisy docks in the estuary. The city of the rich, Hightown, has green gardens, expensive restaurants and boutiques, large mansion houses, and the infamous Gubernatorial Building. On its own, atop the only hill in the city, stands the Academy, where those skilled in the arcane arts research their abilities and any other magical effect that the Empire comes across.
Between the two runs the river, keeping them separate in the heads of the citizens, though in reality they share a central park and a giant market square.
By day, the city is alive with activity, horse drawn and horseless carriages ferrying people and their wares throughout the various districts. By night, as now, the streets are cold and quiet. The curfew set a decade since by Imperial Edict keeps it this way.
Sometimes, however, things happen during the night. The night is when the Imperial Irregulars patrol, the Emperor's secret policeman, finding as they do a steady stream of unwanted elements. More often than not, no arrest is ever made by them, no trial given to the criminals they find.
But again, sometimes, things happen.
Slowly through the night, the old man walked.
The sound of his cane rapping and scraping on the grey stone paving slabs filled the alleys and byways of the Oppenheim Hightown district.
His hair was the same grey as the storm clouds of the morning, as they had dissipated above the city. The long burgundy coat and his regal bearing marked him as a nobleman of some kind or other, no doubt stumbling his way home from a drunken affair of one kind or another.
In the street beside him, a horse drawn cart trotted past, followed shortly by a new horseless carriage. He glanced up at the great metal thing through the tiny lenses of his glasses. The new machines confused the old man, his opulent life having seen nothing like them.
He reached into the pocket of his burgundy leather waistcoat, pulling out a shining and highly ornate silver pocket watch. Almost midnight. His walk home from the party was taking longer than he had thought it would. Still, he would be home soon. He stopped at the end of an alleyway to strike a tindertwig and light his cigar.
He walked onwards, his cane tapping by his feet.
He paused as he reached another alleyway, as if he'd heard something he had not expected.
Sure enough came, as if in answer, a further scream in the night. A young lady. She seemed in a lot of trouble. He ducked into the alleyway.
From out of the dark passage burst a different man. Over his face he wore a black hood, emblazoned with the Imperial Crest, and over his hands he wore tight black gloves. He carried a fine metal sword in his belt, and his long greatcoat flapped in his own personal gale as he ran towards the screaming voice. His pistols were strapped to the back of his belt, easily noticeable as his coat moved. The wiry frame of the man seemed to leave one with an insight of true hidden strength.
Flying sharply around a corner, he happened upon the screaming maid. She was now held against a wall by a short, plump man, one of his large hands covering her dainty mouth, whilst the other pawed at the green silk finery of her dress. Stood nearby was another man with a more muscular build, glancing back and forth for any night watchman who might come to the aid of the maiden. He had seen the hooded figure bound around the corner, grinned and hefted the sap he held in his hand. His grin quickly faded upon seeing the Imperial Crest of the hood, and soon turned into a look of immense fear when the Hooded Man drew his sword and a pistol upon the two men.
By now, the first man had let go of the maiden, turning and drawing a small blade of his own. Both of them remained looking worried however. They were petty thieves, and here they were faced with an Oppenheim Irregular. Behind them, the maiden looked aghast at the newcomer, but had the sense to turn and flee.
The protocol for these situations was set in stone by the Imperial Charter. The Hooded Man knew that he had to follow them to the letter.
"Stand and make ready for your arrest," the only blunt and terse statement the Charter authorised.
Both of the criminals began to back away. They knew that an Irregular was not someone that they wanted to try and fight, and that the local prison was not a place anyone wanted to visit. They turned and ran.
The echoes of a thunderclap rolled out across the city, winding and bouncing their way through the streets.
The Irregular held his pistol level as the criminal fell to the floor. The other man, the fat little man, paused for a moment, looking down at his comrade, and then ran as hard as he could.
"Stand and make ready for your arrest!" shouted the Irregular, suddenly moving, rapidly gaining upon the fat little man. As he got closer, he tried to trip the man with his sword, finally connecting and sending the little man flying forwards as his leg began to bleed from the sharp, deep cut it had received.
The Irregular knelt upon the little man, pushing his face into the muck and detritus of the darkened side street gutter in which he had landed.
"What is your name?"
The little man winced and yelped, gasping in his pain. The Irregular grabbed the man's neck, turning his head through the mess of the street to face his own hidden eyes.
"What is your name?" His voice had no hint of mercy. This fat little wastrel was making his life difficult, and the wastrel knew that difficulties like him were removable with ease.
"M-my name's Milles, guv. Sorry, guv."
"I'm not the one you attacked. You'll have plenty of chance to regret your actions later." The spite seemed to fly out of the mouth of the hooded figure, he couldn't contain it. "Who is that one?" he said, gesturing with a subtle nod as the other man, beyond help now.
"Th-th-that's Bonn. We din't mean nuthin', guv. I'm sorry."
The Irregular pulled a cosh from a hidden pocket, hitting Milles harder than he really needed to. Milles' head fell back into the mire, out cold.
With both men lying prone in the street, the hooded man stood and pulled a whistle from below his shirt, sending out its shrill blast three times, before replacing it under his shirt and pulling an oddly ornate watch from his waistcoat pocket. His clothes were slightly muddied by the chase. Bothersome, he thought. He could feel his fury subsiding. He felt horribly disappointed with himself.
The bar brawl erupted into the street. Thrown clear of the door, Jean-Pierre Binoche stood quickly and drew his sword. Falling afoul of these drunks had cost him two men already, and now he would have to face a horde of them alone. Fortune favoured him, as luckily none of them carried a firearm.
A group of three men charged him, with nothing more than a dagger between them. Binoche parried the blows of the blade-wielding lout and cut the belts of the others. Whilst they fell upon their faces, the dagger-holding man was joined by one holding a fallen guardsman's rapier. Worse still, though drunk, he clearly knew how to use it. From over the commotion, the screams of an unlucky woman could be heard. As Binoche attempted to defend himself against the drunken swordsman, whilst avoiding letting a dagger the chance to pierce him in the back, he knew that he would not be able to save the maiden.
Binoche bluffed a step to his left, jumped quickly to his right and landed a blow on the dagger-carrier's hand, making him drop his weapon upon the floor. Binoche's other opponent was distracted by a glance at his comrade long enough for Binoche to land a blow upon the man's upper arm. The crowd gathered around the fray was smart enough to disperse quickly.
"All of you," yelled Binoche, "are in breach of curfew. Go now, before I arrest you all." He pointed his sword at the necks of the two wounded men, watching the others furiously pulling their trousers back up to their waists. "You are now bound by law. You assaulted me, you will be held to account for the deaths of my men, and for the theft of a watchman's property." He hooked the toe of his boot under the blade of the sword on the floor, kicking it up into the air and catching it by the hilt with his free hand. Over the heads of the two men, he saw the new horseless paddy wagon come into view, heavy-set officers holding on for dear life as the driver learnt his way around the absurd vehicle. As it eventually slowed, three whistle blasts came rolling over the ears of the watchmen.
"You take these men and any stragglers that you find. That was an Irregular's whistle." Binoche knew that if an Irregular called, the most skilled officer came running. He ran off up the hill to the Noble Quarter in Hightown.
As he rounded the corner, he saw a hooded Irregular standing over the writhing body of a fat little man, his old clothes covered in the damp detritus of the street now. As he neared the Irregular, the man put away a decorative pocket watch. Odd that a Hooded Man would carry one, perhaps taken from an arrest, he thought. The Irregular hailed Binoche.
"Jean-Pierre, my good captain. Strange that I should see you out this night. You are well, I take it?"
Binoche was somewhat taken aback. He was ranked as a Captain, yes, but normally an Irregular would not pay him any heed. Binoche was a ranking officer in the Imperial Forces, but he was not used to being accorded such respect from anyone outside of the Regulars, never mind such familiarity. The way he talked bespoke of an educated upbringing. The man had that kind of bearing, as he stood with one foot upon a writhing fat man in a gutter.
"What do you have for me, Irregular?"
"Attack upon a young maiden not long before curfew, Captain. The tall one, a Messer Bonn," he gestured over his shoulder to the corpse lying in the street, "attempted to attack. This one, Messer Milles, he claims" he kicked the man on the floor, causing him to yelp in further pain, "began to flee. He is ready for you and your men to take away, sir."
A 'sir' now. Binoche felt uncomfortable. This must be one of the older Irregulars, one of the Emperor's Originals, as they were known. No Oppenheim Irregular recruited in the past twenty years would stoop to call another man sir, even when outranked.
"Very well," said Binoche, slowly and slightly disconcerted. He'd noticed that only one of the men was ready for collection. The other was beyond help now. "I will wait for the wagon to take him away."
"By your leave, sir," said the Irregular, and then ran away into the night.
Binoche stood motionless for a few moments, the surreality of finding a soul in Oppenheim uncorrupted, a soul that had no doubt seen the Imperial Atrocities of only a decade before was overwhelming. There was something odd about the man. Something he had been wearing, which now Binoche couldn't quite recall. An Irregular is like any other Irregular, his mother used to tell him.
He pulled out his whistle and began blowing. There was a green high-heeled shoe sat in the middle of a murky puddle next to a wall. He reached down to pick it up.
Out from an alleyway stumbled an old man. He'd remembered an old shortcut from his youth and was now very nearly home. Soon he would no doubt fall asleep in front of a roaring fire, only to be woken up by a butler and escorted to his bed. No doubt.
The maiden had run off into the night. Hopefully she would be safe. Had the gentleman but turned down a different side street, he would have found her, lost in the eddy of her adrenaline rush. She knew these streets, but could not find her way home. She was about to step out into the street, to get a greater sense of her bearings, when her arm was grasped by someone. She span to defend herself as best she could, about to be set upon by the men from the alleyway or the Hooded Man who had bested them. Her eyes came to rest on the deep brown of his eyes. She was suddenly unaware of her surroundings, only seeing the man in front of her. A fast-moving horseless carriage fled by in the street. It would have been her grave, but she paid it no heed. Instead she drank in the man before her.
Here was a man in the blue military uniform that marked him as a watchman. His lack hair was long, tied back in a braid that reached his upper back. He wore a small moustache, waxed at its tips. Upon his blue chest was a bold Imperial Shield, the emblem of the military. The gilt decorations of his sword hilt marked him as an officer, whilst the small lenses he wore upon his face made him seem remarkably studious.
His deep, warm brown eyes kept pulling her vision back toward them.
"Are you ok, Young Miss?"
"I-" She was bewildered by the man, his voice was soft, but his grip firm. "I'm fine, good sir. I'm on my way home from a party. Have I strayed passed the curfew?"
"You have, Young Miss, but I know why." He held in his hand her missing shoe, dripping and ruined though it was. She glanced at it, then back at him, not wanting to look away from this entrancing watchman for too long. Then he surprised her further.
"Would you do me the honour of accompanying you home?" There was something in his eyes - a friendly warmth that she knew she could trust.
The girl was beautiful. Binoche could think of no other word to describe her. She was perhaps short, but what did height matter? She was amazing. Her hair was a warm chestnut brown, complimented by the lucent glow of her skin. The green, almost turquoise silk hung delicately from her shoulders, torn slightly at the breast, but not torn through. The dress fell down to her feet, and had been buffeting about upon its metal frame when he had seen her moving only a few moments ago. But it was her eyes that he couldn't stop looking into. They were the same awkward gold of an Imperial shilling, its gold debased by years of re-smelting.
He reached out and offered his arm. She took it.
They walked off into the night.
Leland DuPont awoke with a start. His granddaughter Aradia walked through the door. Her green dress was torn near the shoulder.
"Aradia, dear? Is that you?"
"Grandfather?" She said, startled. She was flushed, breathing unsteadily. "I'm sorry grandfather, I didn't see you there."
"No doubt," said Leland, standing from his fireside chair. "What has happened to your dress? Your father paid a lot for that green silk, you know."
"Yes, grandfather," said Aradia, uncertain of how to explain. An idea presented itself though, as she heard the sound of a motor from outside. "I was walking home from the ball and was nearly run down by one of those awful horseless carriages." Aradia knew how her grandfather felt about the 'wretched things'. "I was so startled that I stepped into a puddle," she pulled her ruined shoes from behind her back, preparing for the biggest lie she had ever told her grandfather. How could she do this? She loved him so dearly. He would understand the truth. "But... But a nice watch-captain helped me home, so that I'd be safe from curfew." She couldn't look the old man in the eye.
"Very well dear," he said, in his calm, quiet little voice. "You get yourself off to bed now, before you wake your mother."
Aradia ran as fast she could to her room, not even calling upon her maid to come to her chamber. She wished to be alone with her thoughts.
In truth, she'd been attacked by a pair of vagabonds, was narrowly saved by one of the scary Hooded Men, but found it hard to run in the streets. She would have gotten herself lost, had not Captain Binoche run after her. He had the kindest eyes she had ever seen. He'd been so kind and understanding and he'd told her that the Hooded Man had even arrested the men. She couldn't believe that an Irregular hadn't killed a criminal, it was so unheard of, but coming from Jean-Pierre she could believe anything. She felt flushed as she readied herself for bed.
Back by the fire, Leland chuckled to himself. Such lies that girl comes up with. Still, better she run into a watch-captain than an Irregular. He pulled his watch from out of his pocket, and looked at the time. It was late. Just late enough that he could go to the kitchen and see what scraps the cook had left for him after his rounds.
No rounds tonight of course, he'd made his arrest tonight.