If he had been conventionally sane, he’d never have taken the job. On the other hand it paid well and the chance to thumb his nose at the grand Prince Lucrecio, was too good to pass up, even if the Prince had no idea he was doing it. That was, after all, the safest way to go about it really.
From his tiny dressing room, he heard the passengers embarking, walking into the starboard gondola of the airship. It had been christened something patriotic, The Pride of Miniginti most likely, but all the staff were calling it The Airship, complete with capital letters. There weren’t many outside of Lucrecio, and Tebryn wondered whether he’d have ended up on one of these things in a more permanent capacity if things had been different. If he’d been different.
Humming tunelessly to himself, he carefully touched up his makeup in the mirror, lit by the steady light of electric bulbs that were still the envy of the world. The shuffling and muffled bangs and the buzz of conversation went on for a while and Tebryn cherished the small moment of respite. For now, he was safe, comfortable and there were no demands upon his time or person. They would come later, of course, but after several months on the run, sitting on a plain, but well made chair in a tiny dressing room with no concerns was a luxury. Of course, his mind started to race towards all the what-ifs and contingencies upon contingencies, but that was just reflex. Idly, he shuffled his cards and ran coins over his knuckles so quickly they were little more than flashes of silver.
When the knock finally came, he set his top hat onto his head, adjusted his goggles around the base of the hat crown and jammed the old battered Ace of Clubs that he kept there for costume purposes. Then he took a deep breath, and stepped out into the reception rooms. They were panelled in dark wood and leather and had a very modern and very luxurious style, complemented with plush red carpet and leather couches that were so new they squeaked when guests sat in them, and tall round standing bar tables where small groups of travellers gathered in their finery for drinks and nibbles, although Tebryn was certain that the little menus in their smart, brown leather cases would say something like ‘champagne, caviar and canapes’. It was that sort of gathering.
He walked out amidst some gasps, some hushed and slightly startled conversation, and not a bit of laughter. His costume was, well, it was a mix between a leotard and a bodysuit really, there was no other way to describe it. Made of elastic fabric it covered his chest and ran down to his knees, and a heavily decorated belt and harness snapped over the top, providing a decorative overlay that looked appealing to the eye, but was also easy enough to remove. More to the point, it was also highly functional, containing no less than eight pockets for hiding small items in, not to mention it was also a very easy place to stash a card while he distracted the audience with a bit of razzle-dazzle. All in all he was a vision in crimson, maroon, burgundy and leather just on the reddish side of brown. At least one of his flings had described his costume as being akin to that of a walking lizard with a top hat, although not using such fancy words. Besides, that was probably the boots. Knee high, and detailed with etching and inlay, they were works of art in their own right. He’d had them custom made by a cobbler at one of the rodeos out east, and had never regretted the purchase. It was also easy to cover the boots with a pair of oversized breeches, which helped if he needed to sneak away. Not that there weren’t other ways to hide his boots if need be. He’d spent months living as a pale skinned northerner now. Changing the colour and decoration on a pair of boots was nothing compared to making sure all of his freckles stayed in the same place.
With his second best smile plastered across his almost perfect teeth,[Tebryn had learnt early on that using his best smile was akin to inviting advances on his person, which was very useful when he wanted it, less useful when he didn’t want to start a fight. Or get attacked by men suddenly having to question their sexuality.] he stepped forward and arced his deck of cards from one hand to the other, the pieces of card making an audible snap as he did.
“Who the hell are you?” One pudgy, middle aged man asked. His fingers were bedecked in rings and his blue and aqua doublet cost enough to feed a peasant family for a year if Tebryn was any judge. His boots were worn and slightly dusty though, and his face touched by the sun. Merchant then.
Tebryn caught his cards, bowed low and reached forward to clasp the man warmly by the hand. “Tebryn the Magnificent, or so it says on my flyers if you aren’t inclined to believe myself.”
“And you’ll do what, pull a coin from behind my ear?”
“If you want,” Tebryn said, reaching behind the man’s ear and pulling out a silver crown from the Merchant’s left ear. “But I thought you’d like me to go one better.”
“And how would you do that?”
Tebryn balanced the silver coin on the first two fingers of his left hand, the other two fingers pressed up against his palm. “Coin, palm,” he said pressing it into his right hand. “Aye?”
“Yes…” the Merchant drawled.
Tebryn turned his hand over and made a fist and held out his right hand. “Now I want to clasp your hands around my fist tightly, to make sure that coin doesn’t slip out.
The merchant looked at him askance, but covered Tebryn’s hand with his own.
Slowly, Tebryn reached down to his belt and pulled out his closed fan. “Now some people use wands,” he said conversationally, “but that stinks of the supernatural if you ask me.” Snapping the fan over he waved the fan slowly over, and then under their joined hands. “This I think you’ll find…” he frowned. “I think I need my hand back now,” he said, allowing uncertainty to creep into his tone.
The merchant let go, not quite managing to hide a grin.
“Um, I think the coin’s still there actually,” Tebryn said, turning his hand over, but keeping it closed. “That’s not supposed to happen. I mean, you all know the coin’s meant to be gone but…”
A crowd was gathering. Blood in the water was always something that drew people in.
“Er…” Tebryn opened his hand to reveal a fat gold ring set with emeralds. “Oh no wait. I believe this is one of yours,” he said with a grin, and tipped the ring into the merchant’s unprotesting hand. “Thank you ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be here for the next few hours,” he said with a bow. Ignoring the merchant’s rangy bodyguard, who was scowling at him, Tebryn pulled out his cards again and stepped forward to greet a blond woman in what she probably thought was a fetching purple ballgown. “Madam, would you care to pick a card?” he asked, fanning out the cards in his right hand.
Tebryn worked the crowd for a while, doing simple card tricks, hanky illusions and other simple slights of hand that flattered and impressed to greater or lesser extent. When the staff took out their glockenspiels to signal the guests to come in to dinner,[In another century or so, the chimes would be electronic and piped through wires and into cones of paper and cardboard that turned electrical impulses into sound. For now however, their function was performed by waiters with small glockenspiels, felted sticks and in this case white gloves. If you’d told Tebryn about the electrical impulses and paper cones, he’d probably have believed you. If you told him that the poshest people in a hundred years would still have waiters with small xylophones he probably wouldn’t have. But that doesn’t stop both from being true.] he retired to his dressing room to get ready for his next set of tricks.
The dining room was a long galley with polished parquet flooring. It’s tables were covered in crisp white linen and polished silverware. Glittering chandeliers hung from the ceilings and it was a gleam that Tebryn knew well – the glitter of glass that wanted to prove it shone brighter than any diamond. He’d made use of that glitter in the past. Actually he had some of those sewn into the lining of his coat, which was currently hanging on the back of his dressing room door.
There were six tables, each sitting ten people, and he went from table to table performing more complex tricks, balancing glasses on the edge of a plate, some illusory spoon bending, and just for fun, some two card monte, mixing it in with a fanciful tale of misspent youth fleecing people at village fairs.
When he reached the Captain’s table, he noticed the merchant was there, with his wife and leanly muscled bodyguard, as well as a sturdy warrior in what he probably thought of as a suit of dress chainmail, complete with a breastplate, surcoat and a plain longsword at his hip. Ah well, time to pull out the big guns. Or as it were, the metal spike. Wheeling his impromptu magic ‘stage’ – a simple trolley covered in black fabric – Tebryn brought out five paper bags, and a wooden block with a long metal nail hammered through the middle of it, so that the sharp end pointed up to the ceiling. Placing the spike inside one of the bags, he put unspiked wooden blocks into the other bags and closed the bags, folding the tops over to keep them sealed. Then he started moving the bags around on the table while talking to the guests about the trip and the food and then he paused.
“Captain, do you know which bag the spike’s in, because I’ve quite forgotten.”
The captain’s eyebrows rose “Sorry, no I can’t say I do.”
“Do you believe me when I say that I don’t know where it is?” Tebryn asked with a grin.
The captain laughed and shook his head. “Not really, no.”
“All right,” Tebryn said. “I’m going to turn my back and you need to very carefully rearrange the bags. I need you to be careful though and pick the bags up by the very top so you don’t work out where the spike is, all right? If you know where it is the entire trick won’t work.”
The captain looked around the table, shrugged and pushed his seat away, walking around to Tebryn’s cart.
“Now, you’ll tell me if he cheats, right?” Tebryn said, using his second most engaging smile, and grinned at the table’s friendly laughter.
After some more small talk, the Captain piped up. “All right Tebryn, I hope you’re as Magnificent as your name suggests.”
“But of course,” Tebryn said with a grin as the captain returned to his seat at the table. “Now I’m just going to have to work out where the spike is…” he said, eyeing the line of brown paper bags critically.
He ummed and ahhed about the decision for a while and then slapped his hand down on the paper bag on the far left. “Oh good pick Tebryn,” he said, blowing out the rest of his breath gratefully. “Captain, you say you don’t know where the spike is, correct?” he piped up as the table applauded.
“None at all,” the Captain agreed.
“All right. Which bag should I hit next then? This one?” he asked, hovering his right hand over the bag on the the centre right. “Or maybe this one?” he asked, moving it over to the far right. “My very livelihood may hang on your intuition.”
“Well that’s not fair,” the merchant piped up. “How do we know the Captain’s not in on this little trick of yours?”
Tebryn nodded calmly. “That’s a good point, sir. Tell you what, how about you all vote on it. Ten people, four bags… should be easy, right?”
From the perspective of the guests at the table, the rest of Tebryn’s act went something like this:
The votes were counted, and, counting from left to right from the table’s perspective, the second bag was voted as being the safest. The illusionist glanced at the bag, licked his lips and slowly extended his right hand over the bag. Then he paused. “I’m right handed, I should probably use the left hand, aye?”
A nervous giggle rippled across the table, and a few people from other tables were craning their necks to look.
“Okay,” Tebryn said, taking a deep breath. “You’re all sure, right?”
He looked around the table. “You’re not sure, are you?” he asked a woman dressed in green velvet. “You voted for the bag on the far right.”
He smiled at her, an expression halfway between thanks and sadness, and slammed his hand down on the bag which crumpled down with a papery crunch.
“Thank you all, and well done,” Tebryn said. “Just three more, and that means I have a sixty six percent chance of making it through unharmed, yes?”
He stared critically at the middle bag. “I think it’s in this one,” he said, and raised his left hand to hover over the bag on the far left. “So this one’s safe. Captain, would you be so kind as to give me a count to three?”
The Captain nodded, “One. Two…”
The Illusionist slammed his hand down on the bag. At the table a few of the guests jumped, and a cocktail spilled onto the white tablecloth, where it spread out in a sticky sweet pool of pink. “Sorry,” he said. “Sometimes I find the pressure of waiting until three a wee bit difficult.”
There were now two bags, side by side. Tebryn stared at the bag on the left, which had been in the centre of the five original bags. “I picked this bag as having the spike in it, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” the woman in the green dress said.
“I’m pretty sure I’m wrong,” Tebryn said, stretching out his left hand over the bag. “I’m pretty sure this one’s the empty bag…” he turned his head away and closed his eyes. “I can’t look, but…”
The paper bag scrunched flat.
The illusionist turned back to the table with a cheery smile. “And now of course, you’re about to say that there’s nothing in the other bag either and that this was all a trick.”
Squatting down so that his face was level with the bag, he carefully opened the top of the bag and then stood up, his left hand sweeping off his top hat and placing it down on the table. Reaching into the bag with his right hand, he pulled out the block with it’s metal spike still intact and placed it on the trolley.
“Thank you ladies and gentlemen,” he said with a bow as the applause rose. “I hope you’ve enjoyed my humble talents. Enjoy your meal and have a good voyage.”
Tebryn had just finished packing down his cart when Captain Latimer approached him.
“That was Amazing, Tebryn. Magnificent indeed!”
“Thank you Captain. It was my pleasure.”
“It’s all anyone at the table could talk about for the rest of meal. Please join us in the lounge for a drink afterwards, I’m sure the people will want to talk to you more.”
Tebryn placed his left hand on his chest and bowed slightly. “Thank you Captain, you are most generous to a humble entertainer.”
“Don’t push it trickster, even I know that’s an act.”
Tebryn grinned and trailed after the passengers back into the lounge, the Captain himself leaving via another door to get back t his duties of steering the ship no doubt. Now, pre-drinks and canapes were over, and there was a tea trolley, petitfours and the atmosphere was one of relaxation of the type typically associate with cigars, brandy, or a large glass of sherry. He ended up with a flute of champagne, and mingled with the guests, signing the occasional ticket or posing for an official Miniginti commemorative photograph if the passenger in question cared to pay the rather exorbitant fee required to get one taken, printed and set in a commemorative frame for the occasion.
He was in the corner, sitting in a comfortable leather armchair as he discussed the view out of the porthole with the lady in green from the Captain’s table, who he discovered was named Sylvia.
“Oh, but you must come to perform at my estate in Archangel,” she was saying. “You’ll be the toast of the—”
“You are all condemned to death for treason against Minzantos!”
It was a name Tebryn was vaguely familiar with, being one of the small island kingdoms that cropped up everywhere in the eastern reaches of the interior sea. He had passed through and heard of their war with Miniginti, which seemed to consist of sending in suicide squads to butcher civilians while the Minigintians responded with the crushing power of their superior naval forces. Right now there were four men dressed in uniforms of the ships guards and a fifth with a corporal’s stripe had his sword drawn and was standing in what he probably thought was a dramatic pose just in front of the swinging doors that led to the kitchens.
The other three guards raised crossbows, and fired into the crowd.