Phantasmacore

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The Comeback

April 27th, 2012

by Nick Tramdack

Everything started the night it should have ended, that night in November when Ranstal lost to Gorki. An embarrassing duel. On the seventeeth move Gorki captured Ranstal’s sword and knocked it sailing out of the ring. No one wanted to believe Ranstal had lost to a foreigner, but it all had happened fairly. I always maintained that much — in public, at least I know you may not believe me, Jaquel. But look up my article in Blankrent’s and you’ll see how I came down on Gorki’s side. If that isn’t enough, just reconstruct the fight from the transcript I made. If you can read fight notation, that is. Can you read fight notation, Jaquel? Did Ranstal ever teach you how? He taught me how five years ago, when he was my lover.

Do you gasp, Jaquel? Do you blush at such shameless statements? Then read no further. Throw this letter in the stove. Have a glass of rum. Have two. Dandle your child and look out at the street through your meager window and try to forget everything you ever saw in Glavebrook.

I will say it again, Jaquel. Burn this letter now before you read another word.

Ah, I have a premonition you have burned the letter by now.

Good girl.

I may be mistaken. Possibly you have not burned it. Possibly I have burned it myself, or forgotten to put a stamp on it, or thrown it in the river, or just left it in the hidden drawer in my desk where I keep my secrets, my expanding-bullet pistol and raw laudanum and herbs a married woman need not purchase. In short, Jaquel, these words, which a certain reason forces me to address to you, must never actually reach you.

Because otherwise, I could not bear to write them.

After Ranstal’s duel with Gorki was over I sat in the observation box, recovering. You can get in a queer zone when you transcribe a fight: did anyone ever tell you that, Jaquel-who-will-not-read-this? At times your response-time gets shorter and shorter, until cause and effect seem to switch sides, and you’re not recording the moves on the keyboard, but rather conducting the fight like a duet, to the point where you almost feel responsible for the outcome. For me the day’s results had come hard.

When finally Ieft the box, I found Ranstal lurking in the corridor downstairs, pretending to study a dusty case of pennants. His facepaint and spiked hair looked odd in the dim gaslight; they clashed with the baby fat on his face. The costume gimmick that week was to dress like some foreign savage, but Ranstal just looked like what he was, namely, a dismal failure. His lips were red and when we shook hands I could smell the whisky on his breath.

“Wish I’d put on a better show for you.”

His smile was tight, like someone who doesn’t know a language. Someone began shooting off fireworks; there was a skylight in the hallway and as Ranstal glanced up at them his sweaty face was struck by colors, and it was like every color revealed something worse to me. I asked Ranstal what had happened back in the ring.

“I couldn’t move. Step fifteen. Gorki did something with his eyes…”

“You’re saying he did an illegal move?”

“I am. Magic. Or hypnosis. Something.”

I stared straight at Ranstal. To judge a fight you have to see ten facts emerging a second, avoid all bias, never let yourself be charmed. Turning all that off was a hard thing for me, as hard as falling in love, or maybe falling back in love… Ranstal took out an accelerator and twirled it in his fingers like a schoolboy and nipped it and lit up.

“I think about it sometimes,” he said. “What you and I had. Why not admit it. Wasn’t it rather nice?”

“It was,” I allowed. “But we had our own ways to go. I don’t want to insult your wife, Ranstal.”

“So what? So we shouldn’t even be talking? That’s cold, Vivian.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “You came over to me. Don’t tell me it was just to say hello.”

“In the first place, Ranstal, you came over to me. In the second place, you lost the fight on step six, not step fifteen. You lost a tempo and you never got it back.”

“That’s not—“

“And in the third place, what you are trying to do right now is completely unworthy of you.” That silenced him. “Take some time off. Go north, visit your parents.”

“They can’t even feed the servants,” was Ranstal’s reply, and then he shook his head and put his hands on both my shoulders so his awful cigarette was in my face. “I could not move, Vivian, Gorki did something, I’ve never seen it before, but I swear, if you think for a moment I…”

I told Ranstal his sweeps were six inches too wide, his feints were mistimed, and his footwork all wrong for wielding that nine-ring sword. I said he had no business fighting in this bracket.

“Vivian, I thought we were friends.”

“Have you noticed you’re twenty pounds overweight?” I asked. “Do your blame your mirror for it? Get your hands off me and let me pass or I will call for aid and you will get ten lashes for harassing a Blankrent’s agent. I will not reconsider my ruling.”

I never called for aid, Ranstal never received ten lashes, and after a muddy walk back through Halved-Eye Gate, I arrived back at the Blankrent’s office and… reconsidered my ruling. For about thirty seconds. At my desk I looked at the punchtape, those little pinpricks in two columns, R and G, like a poem almost. I reconstructed the fight in my head…

Could I have been mistaken?

Then I remembered how Ranstal had looked at me, how pathetic and lost, and the shameful things he’d said.

I went down to the basement and fed my punchtape transcripts into the Blankrent’s solvers. The clockwork clicked, evaluating Ranstal and Gorki’s performances and crunching out a spool of butcher-paper with the magic number, the career-breaking number, the number which sells so many copies of our magazine, a number even you must have heard of, Jaquel… rating.

Why had Ranstal insisted that he’d lost the fight due to an illegal paralysis on the fifteenth move? Here’s why, Jaquel: because if Gorki had somehow paralyzed Ranstal, Ranstal’s rating would’ve been penalized 7^1, or 7 points. Four for losing a tempo, three for losing an opening. He would’ve left the ring defeated, but with a rating of 125. That would still have been enough to keep going.

Instead I had encoded that fifteenth move as a blunder. Cowardice? Indecision? Mere human frailty, out of place in a martial world that had been accelerating toward technical perfection for a hundred years? Whatever it was, the penalty was not 7^1 points, but 7^2, or 49.

And so Ranstal’s rating fell to 83. Once again the Blankrent’s algorithms had spelled the end of a pro career. There was nothing for me to do but write the article, and that I did dispassionately, safe in the knowledge that Ranstal was on his way down, into an amateur hour where despite all the shabbiness and the cheap beer and the stinking limelight and the low-cap betting, the death of heroes was at least an uncommon occurrence.

I only wanted the best for Ranstal. Believe me, Jaquel, I never stopped wanting that.

You might know more about the next phase than I do, but maybe not. I don’t know how much Ranstal shared with you. You were already pregnant then; maybe he didn’t want to worry you.

So I will have to be content with imagining it, the predictable path. The pickup circuit at fieldhouses beyond the city limits – community venues squeezing bouts in between handball games and prep school track meets. The train commute, the snow on the rooflines, coalsmoke, sunset. Ranstal brooding in a locker room sauna, trying to read one of his little books of poems, while boys half his age snap towels and screech.

Then out to the ring to fight petty gangsters, members of the fire brigade, the odd ex-pro even more washed up than our man himself.

Finally the exhibition fighter job, thirty Guilders a week, out at the fair in the old train station at Hortence Court.

Meanwhile I kept busy. Blankrent’s was sending me to venues all over town. Rooftops, vacant lots, Spry Hill mansion courtyards where snow covered the statues. Late in the year I transcribed a marathon bout, eighteen fights in the maze off the Crow Street Undercity. Ranstal never fought magic-users, that wasn’t his style, but I lost myself down there in the tunnels where magic flew thick and fast… totems to dampen flame and clot blood and tweak friction coefficients… the air stank with cordite, the prestige of alchemical change, repetitive dialogue:

“C’mere and learn something about swords!”

“A touch! By the teeth of the Black Lion, a touch!”

“Good martial arts!”

I realize now that I was almost dead to it. Brain matter and intestines and magically fried guts bothered me no more than a pail spilled in an alley. I saw and accepted everything; something bounded all my horror. With Ranstal out of the pro bracket, was once again a consummate professional.

I think it was in February when I got that invitation to your housewarming party. I remember the words on the card quite well. Only Ranstal could have described your place as a “cozy garden apartment”. When I showed up he was very drunk, too drunk to spring a trap, I remember thinking. He still had the ghost of his old dreamboat look but much of his muscle had already gone to fat.

I remember the guests only vaguely. That gambling scout, the consulting alchemist, and Ranstal’s young second cousin. You were there too, Jaquel, the proud new mother: I remember you nursing the boy, your nipple cherry red, like Ranstal’s lips. You were so beautiful, Jaquel, so precisely Ranstal’s type. Do you remember me at all?

Tell me, was that ratty sofa really the bed where you and Ranstal slept?

Did it bother you to live in a room with a concrete floor, and drains in the center of it, and a mildew smell?

Did you know your husband had been in debt for five years before you married him?

I remember how you tried to ask me if Blankrent’s ever retracted a ruling. You were so gentle and indirect about how you said it. And I was gentle and indirect about my answer; even after a shot of that parsley vodka I remembered my manners. I doubt you saw how badly I wanted to tear apart your hope.

Then you kept asking if I wanted to see your little boy and I felt it would be rude to refuse, so I held him. That was when you discovered that your chicken in the oven was burned black. Remember how Ranstal grabbed the potholders without a word and took the roaster outside and dumped it in a snowbank?

And poor Jaquel, you were practically in tears. Especially so when Ranstal just said they’d send a boy to the restaurant down the street for food. You whispered to Ranstal: maybe we could save some of the chicken. And Ranstal told you you should have thought of that before you burned it.

But don’t hate the other guests, Jaquel. Remember that while you were peeking forlornly into your cupboards, and found only onions and salt and barley, Ranstal asked them what they wanted from the restaurant. Did you see how all three men formed a united front? Like everyone in that house, they loved Ranstal despite everything, and they pretended to hanker for the cheapest foods they could think of. A heartwarming scene.

And since you couldn’t scold Ranstal, you took it out on me. I was going on about how Ranstal had originally made the introduction to that Blankrent’s headhunter, then about the benefits of being a reporter for that paper. How I could call on heroes to protect me anytime, I got to jump the line when the city rationed coal, I got to vote even though I’m a woman, and how when I got married my husband would be legally forbidden from striking me. And you looked me over and said, “So, do a lot of you get married?”

After that I told Ranstal I had business in Halved-Eye Gate.

“But you haven’t eaten anything!” Ranstal looked at me with a steady eye, he’d rolled that blue thermal shirt up to his biceps, I could smell his sweat in that hot apartment. I remembered that smell and I was lost. It took a single word from your husband to make me wait for him outside in the snow.

“Look, Vivian,” he said, once he’d closed the door. “Do you remember who got you that job?”

I told Ranstal not to say something he would regret. He sighed and slapped his belly and put his thumb in his beltloops and noticed the black chicken, still steaming in the snow.

“She’s a wonderful woman,” he said, meaning you. “But good grief.”

And I told Ranstal I thought you loved him very much. I may have hated you, Jaquel, but that was not a thing I could deny.

“She does,” he said vaguely, and lit an accelerator and shook his head. “I can’t keep doing this. I need a real fight. I’m a duelist, not some punching bag. I need to get back in the world. And if I don’t I am probably going to do something drastic. Do you understand that, Vivian? I don’t want to hurt anyone but I need it. There’s nothing else for it. I’m going crazy. I didn’t come this far to end up a juggling bear, to live in a slum.”

“I hear what you’re saying.”

“I don’t know, Vivian,” said Ranstal. “I just don’t know about you.”

“I wish I could do something.”

“But you can,” Ranstal said, and turned me to face him. I was in my boots but still he towered over me.

“What?”

“You know what. I just need you to tell me the truth. Why did you give that fight to Gorki, Vivian?”

I said nothing. I was an elite Blankrent’s reporter, one of the sharpest women in the business – hell, one of the sharpest reporters in the business. Just by standing still and listening to this, I was breaking every rule that had allowed me to get to that point. But I kept silent, and I couldn’t understand why that didn’t mortify me.

“You’ve changed, Vivian,” Ranstal said, and looked away.

“Both of us have.” I looked away also. “But we can’t go back to five years ago. We can’t be like we were.”

Ranstal threw his accelerator in the snow, where it sizzled. He took me and kissed me. And I will admit I kissed him back.

“What if I told you we could?” he whispered, stubble scratching my cheek. “Do you want to kiss me again?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Let’s find out.”

And right there in the cold street, we kissed, and my heart raced, and I felt convinced everything had changed, until we heard the door opening, and then we leapt apart. Then you came out, Jaquel, and told me I had forgotten my scarf inside. You said it was a very pretty scarf, that Meernesse wool, so proof against the cold.

And I said the scarf was a present for you.

I walked east. Sun was setting. The snow on the streets was an aching, chemical blue and it gripped my boots like mud. An omnibus passed. The horses’ nostrils blew shapes that could have been cut from silver construction paper… I reached the riverside quay and looked across the Glave, yellow lights in the windows on the opposite bank, and snow began to fall, and I watched it spilling into that black half-frozen river, vanishing without the slightest trace.

By the next day I had decided to pay an unusual visit.

Like I said before, Gorki was a foreigner, but he didn’t live in the Argitravian ghetto. He rented a single room in a house near the Yeastmarket.

I knocked on the door (it was open) and found Gorki was seated in the lotus position, throwing some ordinary twelve-sided dice and looking up things in a giant folio book. He was a young man with a pointed nose and a single eyebrow, though his skin wasn’t as dark as I remembered. Oddly, I saw no sign of a sword in the flat.

When I tried to introduce myself, Gorki invited me to come shopping with him. He seemed spooked by a woman in his home: the first bad sign.

We went up the street into the Yeastmarket. It wasn’t very cold indoors, but it smelled; most of the bakers and brewers in the place had brought their pigs along. I remember Gorki being very interested in the beasts: their red yarn caps, the leashes, how choosily they nosed the samples of activated yeast in their little china dishes.

“Well look at you,” he’d tell some pig, his yellow raincoat and Argitravian accent unique in the crowd. “You’re a handsome one.”

“In November you fought a duel with Ranstal Gieur,” I said. “I judged that fight. Do you remember it?”

“Yes,” he said with his back turned to me.

“Do you know Mr. Gieur?”

“I didn’t then. Now I do.”

“Oh?”

“He paid me a visit,” Gorki said, and shook his head a little. “He asked me the same question as you. He could not forget that fifteenth move.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“All situations contain seeds of change. Like worms in apples, like beauty marks. Like grains of gist.”

“Pardon?”

“Gist,” said Gorki. “What they’re selling here. Like ‘get the gist’.”

“Yeast?”

“These are different words for you?”

“Forget it. I see your meaning: seeds of change in situations. I presume martial arts are no exception, and your dice allow you to ‘excavate’ those seeds?”

“Close enough. Your friend Ranstal thought he was improvising all through that battle. But in fact, he had lost from the very first move.”

“You knew the moves in advance? How?”

“Magic, what else?”

“Is it very hard?”

“It suppose that depends on how you feel about celibacy, a vegetarian diet, and meditating for six hours a day.”

“That’s interesting,” I said evenly. “Though I don’t think it’s quite my style.”

Gorki pulled a strange, sly face, and said he didn’t think so either. I ignored that and asked him if he would consider fighting Ranstal again.

“It was my impression he had fallen out of the rankings.”

“He has.”

“Then what’s in it for me?”

“There is some question about whether your moves were entirely legal in that fight. You don’t deny you used magic. Strictly speaking, that’s not allowed in a duel of that type.”

“I used magic beforehand, not in the ring.”

“And can you prove that?”

Gorki looked irritated. “But there was no such question before. I was declared the winner without any doubt. Five thousand people saw me knock Ranstal’s sword out of the ring.”

“I have the option of rescinding my ruling within ninety days if I see good reason. The win will still be yours, but Blankrent’s will back-adjust your rating.”

“I don’t understand what you want from me, Madam. I wonder if you know yourself…” Gorki sighed. “I really should not have come out here. The dice told me this would happen…”

“Told you what would happen?”

“That you’re just like Ranstal, madam. You think you’re improvising, but you’ve already lost. What do you want me to say? I hexed Ranstal? I stole his future and the auction is next week?” He smirked. “Are you in the market for it? I thought he had a wife.”

Of course I felt my face go hot. I told the impertinent wretch I did believe he’d cheated in the November fight.

“And now you take his side,” said Gorki smugly. “That is, of course, just what the dice said you would do. And now I will save you the trouble of asking me to choose between admitting that I cheated, and fighting a rematch. I will take the rematch, madam, granted that you will not observe it from the booth. We will agree on an impartial judge, though of course that won’t matter, as the victory will be mine without a doubt…”

“Did your little dice tell you that too?”

“Perhaps you might make a decent magician after all, madam. You are clearly observant.”

I said to spare me the sarcasm and that Ranstal would see him in the ring.

“In my opinion,” Gorki lisped, “the martial world has no need for washed-up swordsmen or partial judges. I hope I will not overly enjoy teaching you both a lesson.” Those were his exact words: ew-verly enjoy.

I stomped out of the Yeastmarket and went to the telegraph station by the eastern end of the Span and sent a few telegrams that settled everything.

What I had done was unprofessional in the extreme, but by the rules, it wasn’t precisely illegal. Heroes at Gorki’s rating – it was 144 that day I met him – aren’t forbidden from dueling those with lower ratings, it’s just that they consider them pipsqueaks who are better ignored. The Blankrent’s handicapping algorithms are a good reason why.

Despite my threats, I had no serious intention of back-adjusting the scores on the November fight. If Ranstal won, the victory against Gorki would put him on the map again. There would be no need to embarrass myself by rescinding my old call…

In short, I thought I’d done a decent job of baiting the young mystic into a rematch. It would be simple.

All Ranstal had to do was win that duel.

Of course, Ranstal loved it. “You’re a wonder worker!” he crowed. He insisted on taking me out to the cafe Quine, where he got far too drunk to make it home, and I had to wrestle him back to my apartment, where, I will own it, I had hoped something would happen. But Ranstal just collapsed on my bed and vomited in his sleep. I rolled him onto the floor, changed the sheets, curled up alone. In the morning he rubbed my rosewater perfume on his cheeks and half-stumbled-half-fell out the front door to get to the train for the fair.

The problem was, Ranstal never learned how to drink. Or more precisely: he wanted to be a hard drinker, but he didn’t realize it was possible to do it briefly, like a poem, rather than the long-form essays he had started making of his weekends.  To take a single sip of gin and welcome it so strongly the chatty smog of the cafe is wiped away like grease from a plate, welcome it to the point where every fibre of you vibrates in sympathy with the action of that potent liquor, until you have almost fallen asleep in your own peace… that is what I mean by hard drinking, Jaquel, and it can be done on the first sip. I should know, because I did my share of hard drinking as I pretended not to count down the days to the rematch.

You would think the rest is simple, Jaquel, but it isn’t.

There was the day you visited that private gym down from the Winemarket, and I was there standing in a corner with my arms crossed while Ranstal loudly insisted to his trainer that he already knew all 36 Synergy Doctrine Defense Patterns perfectly fine, no need to run through ’em again, and you asked me so lightly whether Ranstal was worrying me. I said I was only feeling ill. But how could you have known what I couldn’t say, Jaquel? Was there any way I could have told you your husband was simply too fat and slow to use the same style he’d used at twenty-two?

I even scouted Gorki the night before the rematch. I put on gloves and climbed onto a roof where I could hunker above the grimy skylight of the hall where he trained. Looking down through the tea-colored windows I watched him stand in the ring a few yards away from a little pneumatic cannon that fired hard-boiled eggs. Gorki danced all around, slicing the eggs apart in flight. I remember the sour arclight that lit the space, the boy’s long ponytail tracing out his previous step, white spheres flying against his nine-ring sword and exploding. The sight was unbearable, wrong, like a cheap illusionist’s copy of a household object…

I left the rooftop and tottered down the hill into Beaker Park. I didn’t know the hour. I pushed through some hedges and came to the frozen lagoon and walked a hundred feet around it and fell to my hands and knees and threw up quietly onto the ice.

I walked all night, staying in public places. When the shops opened I was drinking tea from a paper cup on New First Street Bridge and watching the dark river flow out toward the dockcity.

I remembered five years ago. I remembered the jangle of Ranstal’s keys and belt as he climbed naked into his dark tight trousers, triangles of sunlight on the comforter, the hoarse sound of the kettle. He’d tug on a hemp shirt, flip up the bottom fringe and pin it under his chin like a little boy and aim at the chamberpot with both hands. He’d stomp around the cold flat we had near the university and frown at the holes in his socks as if to say what’s the use. And he would hop back into bed, where I’d nestle close and feel consoled, raised above a sadness I couldn’t explain.

But there on the bridge above the river, I could.

I think I knew all along, Jaquel, what would Ranstal would suffer because of me.

And now just a little remains that you don’t know.

You were in the arena that day, but you weren’t allowed in the warmup room before Ranstal went on. With my Blankrent’s pass, I was. Ranstal was surrounded: an alchemist to buff his circulatory system, a scared-looking boy to comb and oil his hair, a makeup artist dabbing on warpaint. He kicked them all out of the room.

“I have to know, Vivian,” he said in a quiet voice, a voice that wasn’t weak at all, but completely flat and absent, obligated, as if he thought he were doing me a favor.

“Have to know what?”

“The November fight. Gorki was cheating. He was cheating all the time, wasn’t he? You were wrong when you told me how I lost. Tell me you were wrong.”

I swallowed and looked at Ranstal. In ten minutes the fight would begin.

I thought he needed the confidence, Jaquel.

“You were right and I was wrong,” were my words.

All I can say to excuse myself was that I honestly believed them; I made myself believe them. The same way that I had spent five years telling myself that Ranstal would come back to me. The same way I had told myself Ranstal would beat Gorki and get in the ratings again. The same way I have made myself believe that you will burn this letter, that I will fail to post it, that I will keep it locked in my drawer of secrets…

It is enough to come to the truth at the end.

I watched the duel, Jaquel, just like you. I watched every step, from Ranstal’s first mistimed thrust to Gorki’s final cut. I said before that merely transcribing their first duel had made me feel almost responsible for the outcome. Now I knew the real thing, guilt; I felt it burning in my gut like a brand, and I knew that no comparison was possible.

When they brought Ranstal inside again he was only conscious for a minute. The alchemist wanted to rebuild the spinal damage and he had Ranstal’s stretcher dragged into a sunbeam to operate. I got close to Ranstal. A few words were all he had.

“Tell Jaquel the truth,” he said. His lungs were filling with blood. “Promise me.”

And I promised I would.

I lied to Ranstal just once. Now that I have come to the end of this letter at least I can say that. Once, not twice. Because I have kept my promise now, Jaquel, and told you all that happened. I’ve held nothing back, that part has been the hardest of all, and I don’t care if you forgive me, I don’t even care if I forgive myself. Because what would that prove, when I don’t understand just what went wrong and why and how?

I wish you well, Jaquel. If you need money you can talk to me. Look me up if you like, but not at Blankrent’s; I have done with the martial world.

I will lead a quiet life. I will grow strong. I will tell myself the truth about everything.

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