Chapter 1: Aluminium
"Sure, but the Vincus know they've got no right to ask for that much."
"Right or not it doesn't matter. They make the best firearms in the O.Z. and they know it. So I've likely got to pony up the gold and get what I can."
Grumming nodded with a grissled rumble and, a few seconds later, walked around the bar to serve another round of drinks to the card game who'd parked themselves noisily near the wall. Wyatt Cain turned to look over his shoulder briefly, watching but not really interested as the barkeep took a few seconds to straighten the colorful Meekoak plaques that lined that side of the Aluminium, a run-down but well-stocked pub that catered to Central City's Tin Men.
The pungent whiskey in his hand again caught his attention, and he took a burning swig, letting himself feel the fire as it washed down his throat. There had to be a way he could talk those yellow gunsmiths down….
As he tried the various options in his mind, unconsciously sorting through the collection of multi-colored bottles behind the bar, a raucous conversation from somewhere in the vicinity of the card table broke through his thoughts.
"Yeah, no, I'm tellin' the truth 'ere, ain't I? Kipper 'ere can tell you too, can't 'e? She walks up to the Constable, all regal like, with that brown hair curlin' down her back like a lover's do, and she puts 'er hands on 'is shoulders. An' I swear, by my honor as an off'cer an' a rogue, there was tears comin' down 'er pretty face…."
Without warning, the whiskey in his blood convulsed wildly in his heart; Cain knew the lady and wished he were anywhere but in hearing range of this tale.
"…An' she leaned forward, like she was gonna kiss 'im, like, and opened 'er mouth. If it weren' so disturbin' it would'a been erotic, yeah? An' this whisp, kinda like a cloud, thinner than smoke but def'nitely there, it floated from 'is mouth to 'ers. Watching it turned me blood cold, din'n't Kipper…cold as ice. And the Constable…."
He recognized what they were discussing immediately, and the familiar torment of disgust, hope, and shame violently assaulted his stomach. The Constable Yörik, former Lord of the Nurivians, and, more recently, Consort to the Queen of the O.Z., had been caught in a salacious affair. According to tradition, a sentence of death had been passed upon him, and it was no ordinary end. Had he merely been a traitor to the crown, he would have received a kindly bullet and been sent on his two-timing way to the afterlife. But he had not only betrayed the queen's trust, he had betrayed her most personal confidence and honor, and the law required a very intimate vindication for any consort who strayed. The events had come and gone an annual ago, but the story had the makings of legend.
Cain hadn't been there. His son had given him the details. And though the queen's actions were profoundly disturbing, he felt a sort of righteous vindication that bowed his face in shame. The Constable had been an idiot to cheat; he might not have known the exact consequences of his actions beforehand, but he must have realized that messing around on the queen would come with a heavy price.
What he couldn't wrap his wits around, beyond all else, was how a man could ever consider the queen to be anything less than the most precious treasure in the wide O.Z. He took another swig of the whiskey to obstruct his thoughts, frowning. Best not go down that road.
"Sure 'e did! 'E fell dead on the floor, gray as a week-old potato and stiffer than a you-know-what. The queen, she just turned an' glided 'erself away, leavin' all us Tinners ta…."
Cain was taken aback when he felt a pang of worry for the queen; the long-time effort of stifling his errant heart had left him, by and large, incapable of considering her own condition. He understood her well enough to know that she would have fought such an inhumane sentence with every ounce of fire in her heart, and that carrying out the decree meant that she would mourn not only for a lost lover, but for her own soul. He, well, he had been a Tin Man a long time; he had certainly come to a dubious sort of terms with what must be done in the name of justice. But the queen? No, to his knowledge, this was the first time she had been made to bear such a heavy weight, and he found it was a burden he wished he could carry for her.
A question was mumbled by another man at the card table.
"Did she put up a fight! Oh, she put up a fight, alrigh', din'n't she, Kipper? Well…Kipper, ya woul'n't know, I guess. I heard this from one o' the Tinners in the upper quarters, meself. That witch called 'er mummy, the Queen Mother Lav'nder 'erself, all the way from Finaqua and yelled loud 'nuff for the whole floor ta hear.
"'I won' do it! I won'!'" The drunkard gave a terrible impression of a woman's petulant voice. "'I don' care what 'e done ta me, Mummy, but I won' take 'is life, an' not in that 'orrible way!' She fair had the guard ready to restrain 'er, 'case she needed it, she was ragin' so bad. But her mum, no, she looked at 'er calmly and told 'er like it was. She said there was never no need for the bloody law since it be made so many years before, but that there was no thing that could be done for it now. If she went and kept changin' laws when she din'n't like 'em, like she done when she first took the Em'rald Garland on 'er 'ead, the land'd stop trustin' 'er, she said, like she'd become some sort o' tyrant.
"'An' what would this make me, mummy?' she asked. 'I'd be worse than a tyrant, I be doin' murder!' Her mum said, no, dear, she be doin' justice. And then the two, they broke down in women's tears, an' they sobbed fer hours. I swear it do be true, me friends! From the lips o' truth to yer achin' ears."
"Ah, well, in me most humble opinion, no feller'd never cheat on a woman likes o' her, 'nless she was cold as a fish, an' even then, whew! Meself, I'd face a ghoulish death to get me 'ands on those…."
"Alright, bucko. You've said more than your piece. Change your subject or leave." Enough was enough. Cain turned in his seat to face the group, and recognized Hue Jacobs at the table, a dependable Tin Man if not a high ranking one, sitting next to that idiot Barry Bowstoin, his mouth open and blabbing rumors for all to hear. Kip Roerick and Turin Anderson rounded out the bunch.
"He's not sharing it to the world, Cain," Hue tried to placate. "We're all Tin Men, here. We wouldn't let Bowstoin spout off like this elsewhere, you know that."
Cain gave them a hard look and took another sip of the dwindling whiskey. "You should still show some respect. That woman's our queen."
Bowstoin gave an irritating guffaw. "I bet you'd like ta show that woman some 'spect, woul'n't ya, old man."
Cain could feel Bowstoin's drunken leer in his bones, and his muscles tensed from shoulders to toes as a flash of rage twisted through. He swiftly threw the tumbler back on the counter and stood to face the group, his eyes cold and steady as stone.
"Now, Cain, hold it a minute. Bowstoin's drippin' drunk. He doesn't know what he's saying."
Cain ignored Hue.
"You'd better watch what you let out of your mouth, boy." Cain loomed over to their table, leaning on his fists so that his face was directly in front of Bowstoin's foul breath, their eyes level. The man looked shocked at Cain's sudden anger, but quickly covered it with a cocky self-assuredness that, in Cain's opinion, reeked of the foolishness of the young and soon to suffer.
"I on'y speak what's reckoned ta be true, don' I?" He had the gall to lean in closer to Cain, as if he were calling his bluff.
The others had a better sense of Cain's ire, and leaned back in their chairs as far as they could.
Cain growled threateningly, not letting his eyes leave Bowstoin's. "It seems to me that you and the truth have a pretty rocky relationship, bucko." The throbbing vein in his neck contrasted ominously with his quiet voice.
Bowstoin laughed contemptuously. "Ya know I be right. I hear that ya get yerself some o' 'er…"—he made a lewd gesture—"ever summat oft'n. Youbeen in that witch's briefs fer years, ain't ya?"
The loud screech of chairs sliding heavily against the floorboards startled Bowstoin; he didn't have the wits to move before Cain whipped around the table, fisted his sweat-stained shirt in one hand, and threw him up against the wall with a loud roar. The two men struggled for a moment, sending the delicate wooden plaques banging and cracking to the ground, but the older officer quickly gained the upper hand, thrusting his right arm up to hold Bowstoin's shoulders pinned to the wall and using his left to rip the man's gun out of its holster, check the safety, and send it sliding across the floor. Both were breathing hard with the rush of the fight, but Bowstoin grimaced in fear, and Cain kept his face steady against the anger that threatened to overtake him and, consequently, his enemy.
Bowstoin's gambling buddies stood in a line behind Cain, Hue and Turin with their arms crossed and a hard resignation on their faces, and Kip with a twisted show of teeth—the feral grin of a man hoping for blood.
"I'm going to say this once, you foul, embarrassing excuse for a Tin Man, and then I'm never going to say it again. You say what you want about me. I've got no need for a reputation or for respect from the likes of you. You're a fool of a gunslinger who'll end up shot dead decades before Hue, here, and I lay down our badges; you're a fool and you don't matter. But you will show the queen respect. If you have thoughts about her, thoughts about her and someone else—hell, thoughts about thinking about her—you're going to keep them between yourself and that blessed bullet that brings your death. And if I hear even a whisper of these types of stories running through the ranks—and I don't care how they start—I'm going to hunt you down and I won't give you a second chance. Do you understand me?"
Bowstoin heaved and gulped, trying to gain enough control over his lungs to answer. He was a man who, until this moment, had believed blindly in his own cocky invincibility and who had been explosively and brutally proven the fool. He wasn't able to ground out an answer fast enough for Cain.
He shoved him against the wall again impatiently. "Do you understand me, Tin Man?"
"Ye…ye, yes! I do. I…I do understand ye!" Bowstoin was still heaving for breath, caught between Cain's iron arm and the unforgiving wall, but with a final grunt, Cain dropped him. He fell to the floor in a scrambling heap.
Cain stood tensely, and the rest of the bar followed suit, unwilling to break the silence until the man's wrath had uncoiled. When Cain did move, he calmly stepped toward the bar and pulled out his wallet to pay for the whiskey. Bit by bit, the room pulled itself back to habit; the card players, setting up their chairs and resuming their game, ignored Bowstoin completely.
"Sorry about that, Bob." Cain's voice was gruff; though he looked wholly unmoved, he was obviously still battling his anger.
"Well, I'd agree that you should be sorry, Wyatt, but even I can admit that the fool asked for it." Grumming saw the amount of money Cain was pulling out of the leather pouch and waved his hands. "No, no. Those plaques are worthless, you know it well as I. You did me a favor getting rid of that monstrous green one. Can't just throw 'em out, the Mystic Man sending 'em my way and all, years ago, but they're ugly enough to make a grown man sob in shame every time he opens shop."
Cain knew Grumming treasured those gifts, but understood the sentiment. He grinned stonily and opened his mouth to answer, but was silenced by a call from the door.
"Cain! Mr. Wyatt Cain!"
Both Cain and Grumming looked towards the stairs that led up to the street level. A young kid in the garb of a Tin Man, still pock-faced and gangly, peered eagerly into the pub. Cain gave Grumming a look and moved towards the boy.
"I'm your man."
"Yessir. The Judician has requested your presence up at midtown, sir."
Cain's eyes narrowed. "Did he say why?"
"No…no, sir." The young Tin Man looked as eager and nervous as a retriever pup. "But he wanted you right away."
"All right, then. Thank you for the message…." He gestured for the boy's name.
"Roger, sir. Roger Duchamps." Roger glowed under the older and, frankly, famous Tin Man's recognition. Cain could see that he needed to have his star-struck, Tin-Man-the-hero fantasies snuffed out as quickly and efficiently as possible. Gumming's pub would suit to start.
"Well, thank you, Roger. Hey, go grab an ale. First one's free." He caught Grumming's attention one last time, miming that he should put the young officer's drink on his tab, and the barkeep nodded back. Looking at Roger again, he added, "Any of these guys will let you in their next deal, I'm sure. Just stay away from that idiot Bowstoin peeling himself off the floor, there. He's no good."
With a serious nod to the new Tin Man, Cain leapt up the stairs to reclaim his mount, consciously ignoring Bowstoin as the bastard slunk his way, alone, out the front door of the Aluminium. In a painful moment of resigned self-awareness, Cain knew that the next time he had a quiet hour with himself and his thoughts, he'd have to tend to the old wound that Bowstoin had so carelessly torn open.
Until that hour, he had work to do.
Author's note: Hi, all! I truly hope you've enjoyed this. I promise that this is an SGA crossover; the story just happens to commence in the Outer Zone. Because I'm an unfortunately busy graduate student, I can only promise to update once a week. However, if things come together quickly, I might be able to move faster than that.
Please do send me your thoughts, ideas and criticisms. Reviews are so very much appreciated!