Stainless Steel – Chapter III
Quidam was actually an old abandoned Nouvellian city, once. That is, it hadn't been remotely Nouvellian for a long time; nothing was Nouvellian anymore. And history said it had been vibrant once, too. Not the enduring, battered, melancholy vibrancy its people knew now; there was an alleged time when the city had been young, and knew such a thing as untarnished hope, without jadedness or grief to rise above. Then Nouvelle, like many Solar realms did, fell to newer realms, and the city was stripped of things like colors and lights and hope, but its people were left behind until the Quidam came to breathe life back into the streets and condemned buildings.
The Quisque, as the urbanites were called, were very much like the lights that had been strung up like Terran ceremonial decorations or power lines throughout the city, a makeshift attempt at restoring light, that happened to be beautiful when it wasn't their purpose. Most of them were cracked or blemished, some barely glowed at all. They'd been found, gods know in how many corners and gutters, and determination had made them into something. And though to someone of a younger, brighter realm they seemed shoddy, they meant more to the city than anyone had probably ever guessed.
Gringoire was a more recent addition to the lineup of Quisque citizens, and he never managed to think of himself as all that broken or rescued. He'd just grown up in John's care, not aware of or all that concerned about where he'd come from, and filled the abandoned niche left by another of his trade, the first bard of Quidam who left the city for, rumor had it, a Varek tribe. The city, or any other city, had not and would never be home to him. And Gringoire couldn't bear to imagine himself anywhere else.
But three days, and John was still making himself elusive. And there remained no sign that the Quidam had returned. The uneasiness that had started to gather was now condensing.
Les Égarés were passing through a side of the city unusual for them. Under nearly all circumstances, they lingered around the square or the older, more dilapidated districts, only places that were either small ghost-streets or overcrowded fountains of fiasco. This was a quieter, more well-maintained area—it was a home to mostly the musicians and a few of the younger urbanites.
Gringoire caught the eye of one of their ladies—impish and vindictive as they were, they still warranted that name—and quickly mouthed a question: Have you seen John?
She tilted her chin downward and her expressionless face grew chilling upon eye contact. Were they violet? Red? No one ever thought about Les Égarés having colors of their own. It didn't seem right. Gringoire found himself staring.
The girl shook her head. Another came up behind her and cuffed her in the ear. The two glared at each other, dead silent, before the second shoved the first back into the clustered rest of the group and pointed Gringoire to a doorway. One of her male companions grabbed her outstretched arm and dragged her along with them like a doll, back where she was clearly supposed to be in all their opinions. As they drew farther away, Les Égarés didn't seem to leave so much as slowly blend into the walls around them before they lost visibility altogether.
As the last trace of them became indistinguishable from what was already there, Gringoire shifted his attention to the doorway the girl had indicated. He'd seen it before. Marelle had been spotted stumbling in and out of it a few times, Boum-Boum had left an article of clothing or shoebox of whatever on the doorstep before. The first Quisque troupe of musicians had once lived out of one room on the second story.
None of the new musicians had ever seen the interior of that suite.
Gringoire twisted the rusting door handle, first tentatively and then with more force. Frustrated, he battered his shoulder against it once, then twice, still twisting the handle, before it creaked laboriously open enough for him to squeeze through. He was met with a cloud of dust and the scratchy audio from an Alegrian anthem everyone in the western Sol had gotten sick of, and received a tiredly amused look from John himself.
"That door is easier to open when you kick it. The stop gets stuck on the floorboards." He moved past Gringoire to hook his foot on the edge of the door, pull it mostly closed, and step back quickly enough to let it shut on its own. The cloud of dust the motion stirred up reflected a small ray of sunlight coming through one of the boarded-up windows. Gringoire sneezed. John went back to the chaotic work station he had set up, stacks of rain-damaged old books pushed together to make a short desk, and a couple papers set up on cobwebbed music stands. He'd taken off his shoes and appeared to be using them as paperweights.
"John, I have a few questions…" Gringoire's tone didn't conclude the sentence; he'd entirely forgotten what those questions were.
The city's caretaker looked up, one eyebrow raised parentally. "Do you, or did you just seek me out to make sure I hadn't left?"
"No, I—John, where's the Quidam?" Gringoire blurted.
For a moment, John's face echoed the grave aura he'd adopted shortly after Zoe's leave.
"The Quidam had some business to settle in what remains of the kingdom of Alegria," he finally answered. The two exchanged glances. "You witnessed Isabelle's death, didn't you? I heard you sing for her."
Gringoire bit his lip, shutting memory of the song and the images with it out of his mind. "Yes. Fritz was there too."
"Did Zoe see it?"
"Maybe…a few seconds?" There was concern in John's eyes. "I don't know if she understood what was happening."
John sighed. "Maybe it was for the best that she did." He reached over and pressed a button on the radio. The silence was abrupt. "That song makes me gag," he said, humor suddenly back in his voice. Gringoire forced a small laugh, distracted.
A series of quick, small thuds resonated from behind a door until the door slammed open and a tired, sweaty Marelle emerged from it, her set of canes under her arm and her blue dress hung over her shoulders like a towel. She was clad in gray, midriff-baring handbalancing-wear. Gringoire's attention went to the tattoo on her thigh—was it card symbols? Interlinked stars? A tribal design?
Marelle snapped her fingers at him, her hand at the level of her face, and he met her gaze apologetically. She rolled her eyes.
"I feel better, John."
She looked better. The needle bruises on her arm were fading and some color had returned to ease the pallor in her complexion. The frailness Gringoire had seen in her the other night was nearly gone.
John gave her an encouraging grin and replied, "About time!"
Marelle smiled with quiet accomplishment. "This isn't over," she said, almost like a reminder to herself. She turned, shoulders squared, and offhandedly acknowledged Gringoire with "Singer" as she left the building. Both he and John watched the door for a second, expressions mixed.
"If we can get Marelle back on her feet…" John trailed off and began flipping through radio stations again.
Gringoire lingered, a question still in his head that he couldn't identify. John found an appropriate station—something Gringoire didn't recognize—and returned his attention to him.
"Many of us are starting to think of the Quidam as intangible," he said. "That isn't the least bit true." He let the music play uninterrupted for a moment, as if allowing it to have its say. Gringoire waited for him to continue.
"All I'm going to say is that I don't think Isabelle's suicide left a stronger impact on anyone than him."