Cerberus regarded his traitorous maid without remorse. The girl had made herself red with crying and pleas for leniency, but her now former master would not be moved by her cares.
“I will not suffer your presence ‘ere any longer Mary!” he shouted, livid with anger. “Get out or I’ll ‘ave the boys throw you out!”
Distraught she ran from his study out through the main corridor, a carpet bag of belongings clutched to her chest.
“An’ you can stop that snivellin’ Jackal!” he raged, turning his attention to his errant son, who shrank from him behind Artemis’ form. “Its your fault she got the ‘eave ‘o so don’ try t’ wring guilt from me!”
Artemis spoke up for the boy. “He’s fatigued Cerberus, it would benefit him more to let him rest rather than berate him. I think it would benefit you both.”
“I don’ need you t’ tell me ‘ow t’ deal wiv me own son Artemis!” It was clear he would not be calmed. He paced before his desk, brimming with undirected fury and fear for what he had learned about Jackal’s latest escapade.
Artemis gently nudged Jackal in the direction of the living quarters, and grateful the boy made his exit.
“Get to your room an’ clean yourself up!” Cerberus roared, somewhat needlessly as his son had already disappeared behind the doorway curtain.
“He’s safe now Cerberus, and none the worse for wear. I think that in fact, the experience has enlightened him to the station’s dangers,” Artemis reasoned in an effort to calm him.
Cerberus stopped, and regarded her as if she were senile.
“The Pit Artemis! You let ‘im run ‘imself down into the goddamned Pit!”
She bristled, his words lighting her temper‘s fuse. “ If you will recall Cerberus, I did not let him out. It was the maid you vouched for that turned him loose onto the station’s byways, the one I insisted should not have care of him on her own, yet you waved aside my advice and in fact, left him with her when I had specified to wait for my return before gallivanting off on your ‘business transaction’. Was it guns or girls this time eh Cerberus?”
She failed in her original objective with definite flare. The man’s hackles were raised, and Cerberus needed a metaphorical taste of blood.
“Don’ look down your fuckin’ nose at me Artemis Gallow,” he sneered, making her name an insult with a twist of his lips. “Wiv what you’ve been up to since the war ended, I’d say there ain’ much difference between you an’ the likes ov me now.”
“I’m nothing like you, or your Doggs, Cerberus.” She spat the word with contempt. “You were nothing but a criminal consigned to die in regimentals before my mother made you better!”
“An’ as one criminal to anovver, let me remind you of the language we both share eh?!” From his waistcoat pocket he flung a wad of white notes in her general direction. It flew by Saber’s nose as he lay on the rug.
Artemis did not look to see where it landed. Instead she locked her eyes with Cerberus’ in a fight to the submission.
“Don’t believe that because I take your money that gives you claim on any part of me Cerberus.”
He had stepped too far with her, but backing off was not within his grasp.
“You want t’ know what I believe Artemis? Well, I believe that if your movver could see you as you are now, she wouldn’t be able t’ bring ‘herself t’ recognise you as ‘er daughter, for you ain’ fit t’ claim that ‘onour or carry ‘er gun!”
The fuse burned down to its goal and Artemis felt her rage ignited. She pulled her mother’s pistol from its holster and aimed between his green eyes.
Cerberus looked unmoved by the imminent threat of a bullet and the bloody new orifice it would carve in his face. But there was an insanity here that Cerberus had not foreseen, a fury that put her mother’s temper in the pale.
He could not continue to fight her, he was cornered, and knew he had to fly the white flag.
“Per’aps I should apologise for my words, spoken in ‘aste an’ a farver’s fear.”
“Perhaps you should Cerberus.” She did not lower her pistol.
His mouth felt dry. “I apologise Artemis, me words were ‘arsh.”
“Thank you.” Artemis withdrew her weapon, though her fury was not eased.
Cerberus found that he had been holding his breath, and now let go relieved.
“That’s the first time in a good few years I’ve been afeared for me own life. You’re truly unreadable Artemis, just like your movver.”
Artemis had begun to walk away from him. That last made her stop and correct him.
“I’m nothing like my mother Cerberus, nothing like her at all.”
At the click of her fingers Saber rose to follow.
“If you need us, send one of your boys to the Empress and Dragon.” And she left him to contemplate what kind of woman he had hired.
Out in the corridor she stormed past the guards lounging in boredom, playing with their knives.
As they approached the central portals the one to the right was opened, and out into the corridor stepped Wolf in a cloud of opium smoke. Saber began to growl.
A psychopathic smile appeared upon Wolf’s face at the sight of her. Leaning against the portal’s frame he crossed his bare arms to better display the brand new ink adorning his left upper bicep.
The perfect face of a hard woman with half a skull of gold, and half a head of long and glorious red hair.
Saber snarled at the sight of his partner’s face printed there on that filthy male’s skin.
“Your pusscat don’ understand flattery Artemis.” A knife sprang into being from his right hand, bisecting his new tattoo with ominous intent.
Artemis whirled on him, and Wolf found her metal fingers tight at his throat. But the madman’s grin did not waver.
“Chasin’ my farver’s bastard ‘as made you a might tetchy luv,” he managed to say with a chuckle. Artemis closed her grip ever so slightly, and the laughter became strangled.
“Tetchy does not begin to describe my attitude towards you Wolf.” Saber snarled in agreement.
The guards were perked by the developing confrontation and the prospect of entertainment.
Risking the wicked blade she could see and the ones she could not, Artemis closed the arm’s length of distance between them to spit quiet words at his hateful countenance.
“I beg the Goddess daily for you to give me cause Wolf. So save me an impatient wait and draw your damnable knives!”
“Why destroy all that’s left ov such a gorgeous face though eh?” The look in his coal black eyes made the bile in her churn.
Sensing her discomfort Saber bared his fangs with a chilling roar. “Artemis want tear with my teeth!”
“Heh heh heh, I’d luv to see ‘ow that pretty Morengellan pusscat could do that wiv ‘is lovely ivory fangs removed. Make a nice necklace ‘is pearly whites would.”
Out into the corridor stepped Greyhound on cue. Artemis took in the guns aimed at the heads of herself and Saber.
“Ever your brother’s right hand man eh Greyhound. But do you even know which end to load the bullets into?”
He wavered, confused without clear instruction. Artemis felt a spark of minute pity for his lack of intelligence.
“Now Artemis, be a good girl an’ take yer fake ‘and off me eh? Or Grey’ound will spring t’ me defence.”
Artemis regarded him, and tightened her grip just enough to be sure that her hand would leave a handsome bruise. Wolf’s face darkened to strangulatory purple before she released him to breathe the stale air once more, with his perversion of a smile still mocking her.
“Come, Saber.” The tiger paused to growl at Wolf before following his partner to the exit of the unsavoury den.
As Artemis passed Greyhound, his guns holstered and at a loss, she stopped and tried to impart a wisdom.
“Draw metal on me again Greyhound, and you shall know why I pair myself with a man-eater.”
With that tidbit to digest, she took her leave of him, and though his mental deficiency was severe, he understood when Saber snapped his huge and heavy jaws at his person. He hoped never to gain intimate knowledge of that lethal maw.
On that day Promenade Five was like any other market street of the planet-bound cities, bustling and loud with the din of trade. A shawled mother, basket and child in hand, side-stepped to safety as Artemis came fuming through the crowd, her eyes cautious and glued to the mercenary’s left arm and skull plate.
All down the promenade her appearance caused a silent stir. Knowing her employer the masses already kept their distance, but her differences marked her out to far more effect. Artemis could feel their eyes drill into her skull plate, hear the gossip accompany her passage. And in her present mood she wished them all disease and ill luck.
Saber they considered less a threat, more an interesting exotic, as tales of his wide family’s creation had spread. Why, the Empress herself kept company with a noble silvered haired polar bear that could recite any work of Shurestaffe to perfection. Children darted forward to stroke the tiger’s fur and ran away in laughter, chattering of their bravery to mothers who flapped to let them be.
They rounded a corner of the squared promenade into an area the locals had christened ‘Whore’s Avenue’, the majority of the station’s brothels being situated there. Now they moved past women and men who had seen the most of life, and would not bat a lash at Artemis’ unusual disfigurement.
In their disinterested company at least, she felt she could breathe.
Around the middle there nestled an unassuming public house, its sign a depiction of the Empress, mounted on a stallion and in full medieval armour, plunging a spear into the mouth of a serpentine Qinese dragon. Its doors were carved wood and glass to emulate its Britannican fellows, breathing warmth onto an otherwise cold metal exterior.
Before the doors Artemis asked of her friend: “You staying out here again Saber?”
The tiger made something like a nod. “Air too bad. Stay out.”
“I’d take your advice but I like the atmosphere,” she said with a smile, and looked up at the teenage girl who had been edging closer to Saber in adoration for the beautiful blue-grey cat.
“Your friend’s back Saber.” And to the girl she made a warning. “He doesn’t have any money, and he’s likely to fall asleep on you.” And with that she disappeared into the pub.
All about her was a fire lit fog of fragrant tobacco smoke, drifting round and cradling its makers in a timeless mist which cares outside those wooden doors could not enter through.
What could be seen were dark wooden panels on the walls, wooden booths with coloured glass, and a bar counter where a long mirror reflected smoke and shadow, polished off with a buxom barmaid to serve behind it.
Artemis ignored the door to the ladies’ salon in a corner beside the bar, and hooking a bar stool with her foot, propped herself upon it. Taking her mother’s pistol from its holster she laid it on the polished top near to hand.
The buxom barmaid meandered over, the cut of her bodice showing an amount of cleavage pleasing to most of her customer’s eyes, the face above motherly though her blue eyes sparkled with salacious experience.
“Allo luvvy, it’s a bit early for you ain’ it?”
“I’m not sure actually Hepzibah, do you have the time?”
The lady pulled a handsome silver pocket watch from an opening in her skirt.
“Four of the clock exactly me dear, an’ that’s Greenwich Mean Time.” She replaced the piece in its pocket. “You still wan’ a sup ov your usual ‘air o’ the dog?”
“Please.” She took a note from her waistcoat pocket as Hepzibah pumped strong dark cider into a tankard, passing it over when the lady placed the drink before her.
“That’s to pay up my tab as well,” she explained.
“Oh bless you luv, you weren’ due for anovver week.” Taking the pound note she went to put it in the till.
Artemis drank deeply at first, eyes closed, one might assume to savour the cider more thoroughly. But none looked close enough to observe that she screwed them shut as she drained the tankard of half its contents, and put it back upon the counter.
Steadied, she opened her eyes and stared at her image in the mirror behind the bar, a device to enlighten and expand the space within its view.
Day after day it was the masochism in her that dragged Artemis back to this same public house, to keep company with those who did not care for her looks, yet to confront herself with that same thing that separated her from her kind, whether they cared or not.
Artemis studied her own face with hard angry eyes, making herself trace with a furious gaze every thread thin scar crawling out from beneath the plate of gold-covered steel, each a mark of death upon her forehead and cheek. She noted too the artificial ear, a perfect twin of the other feeding sound deep into where her natural mechanisms still worked.
She reached up to run a finger round the cold edge of that lobe, and turned her mind to remembering.
A flash of fire and pain, one so quick upon the other she had no time to act. A screaming all around, and she could not tell from where it came. The image of her parents beyond all the rest, devoured by exploding flame. And a child safe beneath her broken body, a baptism of her blood washing golden hair red…
There was a commotion outside the pub. Excited voices raised to carry broke Artemis’ self-hypnotism, and almost resentfully she left those dark contemplations to her reflected counter-part.
Hurriedly she drained her tankard empty and taking her pistol rose to investigate, wherein Saber chose that moment to force himself through the double doors on a mission to retrieve her. An elderly gent near the entrance took to a fit of coughing in surprise upon seeing a tiger in his local.
“Artemis come! High man here.”
Artemis cursed Mercuriel as she hurried over to save the tiger from the weight of the doors on his neck.
“Damn that man. He told us next week.” With Saber freed she rushed off with the tiger bounding beside her, whilst all through the promenade rang the glorious news.
The Prince and his entourage were coming to Asphodel Station.
Copyright © 2010 LKG Frendo, All Rights Reserved